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MENA Journalists & Cyber Activists: In the Line of Fire

by Dr Agnes Callamard, executive director at ARTICLE 19 April 27, 2011

From Morocco to Bahrain, everyday people have taken on the cast iron hold of dictatorships and absolute monarchies resulting in an extraordinary collective awakening that has paved the way for epochal change in the region. The youth movement, which lies at the core of the uprisings, continues to play a prominent role in the pro-democracy and pro-reform demonstrations, which have swept through the region, unabated by government clampdowns or concessions. To date, there have been revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, a civil war in Libya, major protests in Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Oman, Iran and Yemen and minor protests in Kuwait, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Western Sahara. The protests have also triggered similar unrest outside the region, including in Azerbaijan. Fuelled by unemployment, restrictions on freedom of expression and government corruption, the protests proved to be the ultimate litmus test for government’s tolerance of freedom of assembly and freedom of expression, across the Middle East and North Africa.

The response from a number of governments has included indiscriminately firing on protesters - resulting in at least a thousand deaths and thousands of wounded - shutting down the internet and phone lines, the jamming of Al-Jazeera’s satellite and other international broadcasters, and further clamping down on press freedom whilst also offering concessions in some cases. A clear example of this dichotomy is currently unravelling in Syria, where the entire Syrian cabinet resigned as a concession to protesters on March 29 2011 but where security forces killed at least 25 pro-democracy protesters in Homs on April 17 2011.

The determination of the protesters across the region to keep the movement “peaceful,” and their success at doing so despite significant state violence has been commended by the international community. These men, women and children who have taken to the streets are part of an unprecedented movement that has built sufficient momentum over the past months to influence the current scope of events. How we, the international community, respond to this movement and support the transition process in post-revolutionary countries such as Tunisia and Egypt, will come to define our work in the region for years to come.

ARTICLE 19 urges Arab states to grasp this opportunity to begin a process of real democratisation, with the respect of freedom of expression at its core. The transition and reform processes require, and should be based on, freedom of expression and freedom of the press, transparency, and the ability of all, men and women, religious and other minorities and vulnerable groups, to speak out and participate equally and without fear in the reform process and the democratic running of their country. The stability of the region relies on such stewardship.

ARTICLE 19 is also calling on Arab governments to hold an independent and transparent investigation into the violations that have taken place over the last months, determine all responsibilities, including the line of command, and bring to justice those responsible. The right to know is a fundamental human right which takes on particular importance in situations, such as those in the Arab world, where people are disappeared, imprisoned, beaten and tortured, or worse still, killed in mysterious circumstances and secrecy.

Social Media, Grass Root Activism and the Arab Uprisings

As one Egyptian activist succinctly tweeted during the protests there, “we use Facebook to schedule the protests, Twitter to coordinate, and YouTube to tell the world.“

Today, more than ever, access to electronic media, the ability to spread ideas online and the cyber activism that this enables have emerged as essential elements to popular movements for greater freedom and, perhaps more surprisingly, even essential to 21st Century revolutions. This is the human rights revelation of the extraordinary cascade of revolutions which are springing up across the region.

In Tunisia, grassroots and independent digital activists such as Nawaat and Tunileaks and bloggers including Fatma Riahi, all of whom the regime had tirelessly sought to repress, played a key role in disseminating information during the uprisings. While the protests that eventually led to the toppling of Ben Ali took root in the rural and marginalised heartlands of Tunisia - far from the national and international spotlight - coverage of the subsequent police brutality, sniper shootings, and wounded protesters in hospitals first came via posts on Facebook and Twitter, and in footage on Flickr and YouTube.

Journalists & Cyber Activists: In the Line of Fire

Although the ripple effects of the uprisings differ from country to country, the ongoing persecution of journalists and cyber activists remains a serious cause for concern for ARTICLE 19. Against this backdrop of continued unrest, a disturbing pattern of violence, harassment and intimidation against journalists, cyber activists and bloggers covering widespread civil unrest is emerging.

There have been widespread allegations of human rights violations and disappearances during the prodemocracy protests, and many journalists, human rights defenders, bloggers and cyber activists have been detained in a number of countries, including in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. Accusations of torture of protesters and journalists especially in Syria and Bahrain are beginning to emerge, as the scale of government clampdowns is emerging.

ARTICLE 19 calls for the immediate release of all imprisoned peaceful protesters and political prisoners, including journalists and bloggers that are being detained in the context of pro-democracy protests. In addition, the authorities should immediately investigate and disclose the fate and whereabouts all those who are missing, and immediately inform their families.

(..)

Bahrain

At least 30 people have been killed since anti-government protests by Bahrain's Shiite majority began in February. Hundreds have been detained in the crackdown on the rebellion. Last month, the Sunni-led state saw the worst sectarian clashes since the 1990s after mainly Shia protestors, emboldened by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, took to the streets. As part of a crackdown on pro-democracy protestors in the Gulf Arab Kingdom, a human rights lawyer and at least two doctors have been detained, and there have been at least 4 reported cases of deaths in custody.

In addition, Zakariya Rashid Hassan al-Ashiri, a blogger who moderated and wrote for a website that covers news and other developments in his village of al-Dair, died under mysterious circumstances while in government custody on April 16 2011. He was charged with disseminating false news and inciting hatred, the BBC reported. Karim Fakhrawi, founder and board member of Al-Wasat, the country's premier independent daily, also died in custody under mysterious circumstances. The government has accused AlWasat of “deliberate news fabrication and falsification.” Since then, the government has announced it will file criminal charges against three of the paper's senior editors and has deported two other senior staffers.

Fakhrawi died on April 12 2011, a week after he was apparently taken into custody.

ARTICLE 19 is calling on the Bahraini government to put an immediate stop to the heavy handed and violent crackdown on the protests, and the violation of the right to freedom of expression, including the right of the press to report on the events. ARTICLE 19 calls on Bahraini authorities to conduct an independent and transparent investigation into the death in state custody of both Al-Ashiri and Fakhrawi, and into the killings, use of torture and ill treatment, and other violations committed by the Bahraini security forces.

article19.org

Obama urges Bahrain king to respect 'universal rights'

1 May 2011

WASHINGTON — US President Barack Obama urged Bahrain's monarch to respect "universal rights of the people" on Saturday, two days after the tiny Gulf state sentenced several protesters to death.

US officials have criticized Bahrain over the speed of a trial in which Shiite pro-democracy protesters were sentenced to death and life in prison for killing two policemen. In his telephone conversation with King Hamad, Obama said the United States "believes that Bahrain's stability depends upon respect for the universal rights of the people of Bahrain, and a process of meaningful reform that is responsive to the aspirations of all Bahrainis," the White House said in a statement.

Bahrain, headquarters for the US Fifth Fleet responsible for US naval forces in the region, was hit by protests from mid-February to mid-March amid a broader revolt roiling across the Arab world.

A Bahraini military court on Thursday sentenced four Shiite protesters to death and three to life in prison for the killing of two policemen at a crackdown on a rally.

Bahraini authorities have come under strong criticism from international rights organizations over a heavy-handed crackdown on protesters from the Shiite-majority community in the kingdom that is ruled by a Sunni dynasty.

www.google.com

HRW: Human Rights Council Should Act on Bahrain and Yemen

April 30, 2011

(Geneva) -

While the Human Rights Council has addressed violence in Côte d'Ivoire, Libya, and Syria this year, it has not taken up the violent suppression of protests and subsequent arbitrary detentions and mistreatment in custody in Bahrain and Yemen. Several countries, including the United States, Brazil, and Mexico, mentioned Bahrain and Yemen in their statements at the Syria special session, but there is no immediate plan for the council to discuss those situations.

"Those facing heavy-handed government repression and violence in Bahrain and Yemen deserve the same attention from the Human Rights Council that it gave to Syria," said Julie de Rivero, Geneva director at Human Rights Watch. "The fact that those situations grab fewer headlines today is no excuse for inaction."

For several weeks, it appeared the Human Rights Council would take up suppression of protests throughout the Middle East in a broad, "thematic" special session on civil protests in the region. Such a session would have provided an opportunity for the council to address the violence in Bahrain and Yemen. When the government crackdown intensified in Syria, however, the council shifted to addressing that urgent situation. With the Syria session concluded, it is unclear when the council will take up Bahrain and Yemen, Human Rights Watch said.

Human Rights Watch has documented at least 28 deaths in Bahrain, most of them from government security forces' use of lethal force to disperse peaceful protests. The number is especially significant in a country of about 1.2 million people, more than half of them foreign workers. Bahrain stands out especially for the level of violence and repression by security forces since protests were quelled on March 16, Human Rights Watch said. A pattern of arbitrary arrests and detention, ill-treatment, and intimidation against opposition party leaders, human rights activists, and those associated with the protests is continuing. More than 400 people have been detained since the protests - including medical doctors and a prominent defense attorney - and there have been four suspicious deaths in custody in April alone, according to Human Rights Watch research.

"The Human Rights Council has shown that it can make a real difference in addressing urgent human rights situations, but its credibility depends on avoiding selectivity," de Rivero said. "The United States, which strongly supported action by the council on Syria, should show the same leadership on Bahrain and Yemen."

hrw.org

AFP: US raps Bahrain over speed of trial

30 April 2011

WASHINGTON — The United States on Friday criticized Bahrain over the speed of a trial in which Shiite pro-democracy protesters were sentenced to death and life in prison for killing two policemen.

State Department Policy Planning Director Jacob Sullivan also said Washington has urged Bahrain at the highest levels to move toward "a comprehensive political dialogue" to end the political unrest.

Sullivan criticized a Bahraini military court over the speed with which it sentenced four Shiite protesters to death and three to life in prison Thursday for the killing of two policemen at a crackdown on a pro-democracy rally.

The trial of the seven began on April 17, with BNA news agency reporting at the time that they were accused of committing voluntary homicide of public officials with "terrorist" intentions.

"We are troubled by the speed with which the trial was conducted and the swiftness of the verdict," Sullivan told reporters.

"And from our perspective, as we've said repeatedly, it's important that legal processes be carried out in a manner that is legitimate, credible and transparent," he said.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and senior State Department officials have argued that "security measures alone are not going to solve the challenges that are posed in Bahrain," he recalled.

"It's critical that all the parties move forward to a comprehensive political dialogue, and this is a message that we're continuing to send as late as within the last 24 hours at high levels in the Bahraini government," he said.

State Department officials said the message was sent by Jeffrey Feltman, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, to Bahraini Foreign Minister Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmad al-Khalifa.

www.google.com

UK concern over death sentence for Bahrain protestors

30 April 2011 Four Bahrainis protestors sentenced to death for killing of two policemen.

Commenting on the death sentence given to four Bahrainis for the killing of two policemen during the recent protests in Bahrain, a Foreign Office spokesperson said:

"The UK is concerned by the death sentences given to four Bahrainis. We support Bahrain’s right to bring to justice those responsible for the death of two policemen. But it is our longstanding policy to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. It undermines human dignity, there is no conclusive evidence of its deterrent value, and any miscarriage of justice leading to its imposition is irreversible and irreparable.

We are concerned that emergency laws allow civilians to be tried before military tribunals. We urge the Bahraini authorities to ensure that due process is carefully and transparently followed in all cases and that civil liberties are protected, particularly where severe penalties are proposed. It is essential that the accused have adequate time to prepare a defence, access to legal counsel and are tried before independent impartial tribunals.

All deaths in recent months, including those of protestors, should be fully investigated and the rule of law upheld. We call on the Government of Bahrain to guarantee its citizens universal human rights and freedoms to which they are entitled, and that it has committed to."

www.fco.gov.uk

France calls on the Bahraini authorities not to apply the death penalty

Death sentences in Bahrain (April 29, 2011)

Four people were sentenced to death April 28 for the murder of two police officers during the events of recent weeks, which have shocked and saddened Bahrain.

France, like its European partners, is resolutely opposed to the death penalty everywhere and under all circumstances.

We call on the Bahraini authorities not to apply the death penalty. With the return of calm, it is also time to seek ways of a sincere dialogue between the parties and reconciliation, the only lasting solution to the political crisis in Bahrain.

www.diplomatie.gouv.fr

Germany calls on Bahrain to rescind death sentences

BERLIN, April 29 (Reuters) - Germany urged Bahrain's ruling monarchy on Friday to rescind death sentences handed down to a group of men accused of killing policemen in recent protests.

A Bahraini military court on Thursday ordered the death penalty for four Shi'ite men over the killing of two policemen. The turmoil began with Shi'ite-led protests in February demanding greater political liberties.

"This draconian punishment impedes the process of rapprochement und reconciliation in Bahrain," German foreign ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke told a news conference.

"The federal government hopes that the death sentences are not carried out on the four demonstrators and the judgements are revised. There must be an end to the violence in Bahrain."

Berlin urged Bahrain's rulers to introduce reforms that would allow more political and economic participation of all parts of its society, Peschke said.

The court's ruling could increase sectarian tensions in the close U.S. ally. It came amid heightened antagonism between Bahrain's Shi'ite Muslim majority and its Sunni ruling family.

The island kingdom crushed anti-government protests last month with military help from fellow Sunni-led Gulf Arab neighbours.

(Reporting by Christiaan Hetzner and Brian Rohan; Editing by Maria Golovnina)

latimes.com

Amnesty International: Bahrain urged to halt execution of protesters

28 April 2011

Authorities in Bahrain must not allow the execution of four protesters sentenced to death by a military court over the killing of two police officers in anti-government demonstrations last month, Amnesty International said today.

“The Bahraini authorities have a responsibility to bring to justice those who commit violent crimes. But when doing so, they must uphold the right to fair trial and they must not use the death penalty under any circumstances,” said Malcolm Smart, Amnesty International’s Director for the Middle East and North Africa.

“In this case, the accused were tried before a special military court, although they are civilians. It also appears that the trial was conducted behind closed doors. As well, those sentenced have no right of appeal except to another special military court, raising great fears about the fairness of the entire process.”

The court sentenced Ali Abdullah Hassan al-Sankis, Qassim Hassan Matar, Saeed Abduljalil Saeed and Adbulaziz Abdulridha Ibrahim Hussain to death on 28 April.

Three other defendants tried with them, Issa Abdullah Kadhim Ali, Sadeq Ali Mahdi and Hussein Jaafar Abdulkarim, were sentenced to life in prison by the same court. All seven accused are reported to have denied the charges.

The death sentences can be appealed in Bahrain’s military court. However, should the appeal fail, the final verdict cannot be appealed in Bahrain’s ordinary courts. The four men could therefore face imminent execution.

The seven men were accused of the premeditated murder of two policemen by running them over with a vehicle on 16 March. On 15 March, Bahrain’s King had declared a state of emergency – termed the State of National Safety (SNS) – after Saudi Arabia sent in a thousand troops to help the government quell anti-government protests.

The seven accused are believed to have been held incommunicado following their arrests and the families are said to have been denied access to them, Amnesty International has learnt.

Government officials reportedly said that a total of four policemen have been killed during protests in March.

King Hamad bin ‘Issa Al Khalifa imposed the state of emergency for three months but it may be renewed with the approval of the National Council or parliament. It provided for the establishment of a special military court to try those accused of offences under the emergency and a special military appeal court.

Since the SNS was imposed, more than 500 people have been arrested with many of them detained incommunicado and at undisclosed locations. At least four have died in detention in suspicious circumstances since the end of March.

Local media reports say 312 detainees were released today. The government’s Information Affairs Authority has told the media that more than 400 other cases have been referred to the military courts.

Many of the detainees were taken from their homes, often at night, by groups of police and security forces who wore masks, failed to produce arrest warrants and sometimes assaulted those they wished to detain and members of their families.

“Bahrain is in the grip of a deepening human rights crisis and the severity of the sentences imposed today, following a military trial behind closed doors, will do nothing to reverse that,”said Malcolm Smart.

“King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa must urgently make it clear that he will not allow these death sentences to be carried out.”

In 2010, two Bangladeshi nationals were sentenced to death in Bahrain. Jassim Abdulmanan was executed in June and Russell Mezan was sentenced to death in March. His death sentence was upheld in October. Only foreign nationals have been sentenced to death and executed in Bahrain in recent years.

Executions carried out in Bahrain are normally by firing squad.

amnesty.org

BYSHR: A man died in custody confesed on television that he had killed a police men

Today ( 28 April , 2011 ) , Bahrain T.V showed the “confessions” of the accused who killed two police men and who were sentenced today ( 4 death penalties and 3 life sentences). One of the those, the first to be shown making a confession, is Mr. Ali Isa Saqer, who had died in custody on the 9th of April, 2011. (attached a video of the confessions as shown on Bahrain T.V. with his photo). The Ministry of Interior had alleged that Mr. Saqer had died after resisting security officials while in detention but the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights(BYSHR) had viewed photos that show clear marks on his back, stomach and other parts of his body that seem to be signs of mistreatment. (Attached) A representative of Human Rights watch had attended the funeral and seen the body and confirmed this information (link of report). Human Rights Watch had asked for an investigation into his death. Until date the BYSHR has not learn that any such investigation has taken place.

The Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights(BYSHR) is concerned after viewing the “confessions” on television that the other defendants may have been subjected to mistreatment, it finds it disturbing that such confessions were televised after these defendants were denied due process and basic rights such as the right to a fair trial. The defendants had denied all allegations during the trial and this makes the confessions questionable. Furthermore, the BYSHR also strongly condemns the use of the death penalty.

Video: ( see the 6:04 min.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=aPP6rhUz55g#at=368

Ref: Statement of the BYSHR on Ali Saqer

Ref: Statement of the HRW on Ali Saqer

byshr.org

The President of the European Parliament Buzek on the sentencing to death of Bahrainis

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Condemnation for the crackdown on protestors in Bahrain (Strasbourg ).

The President of the European Parliament Jerzy Buzek strongly condemns the death sentence passed against four Bahraini protestors.

EP President Buzek said: "I condemn the sentencing to death of the four protestors in Bahrain and I call for their sentences to be reviewed. The fact that the trial took place behind closed doors is deplorable. The EU is opposed to the death penalty in all cases and under all circumstances.

In line with the resolution of 7 April, the European Parliaments calls on the Government of Bahrain and other parties to engage in a meaningful and constructive dialogue without delay or preconditions, in order to bring about reforms."

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European Parliament resolution of 7 April 2011 on the situation in Syria, Bahrain and Yemen http://www.europarl.europa.eu/activities/plenary/ta.do?language=EN

www.europarl.europa.eu