Amnesty: Rise of state repression in the Gulf    

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The world is in danger of spinning out of its humanitarian axis warned Amnesty International in its annual report on “The State of the World’s Human Rights”.

Published today, the report which covers 159 countries and delivers “the most comprehensive analysis of the state of human rights in the world today”, concluded that governments are sliding towards oppression with diminishing number of countries willing to stand up for human rights.

US President Donald Trump’s arrival set the tone of the slide towards repression according to Amnesty. The rights group said that “the transparently hateful move by the US government in January to ban entry to people from several Muslim-majority countries set the scene for a year in which leaders took the politics of hate to its most dangerous conclusion.”

Many heads of state around the world interpreted American disregard for human rights to be an endorsement of their own repression which they justified under the guise of fighting terrorism. The Middle East, more than most, typified the regression of human rights abuse across the globe.

Of the Gulf countries Saudi Arabia, which is undergoing unprecedented domestic transformation, was singled out for its human rights violations. In the past year the Kingdom, with the support of UAE, Egypt and Bahrain imposed sanctions against Qatar, which the rights organisation said negatively affecting thousands of nationals and migrant workers. The same month, King Salman authorised policies that concentrated power to his son, Mohammed Bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the Kingdom. Authorities also introduced measures that severely restricted freedoms of expression, association and assembly.

No political rights

While the Saudi Kingdom is noted for some of the positive social changes it has introduced under Bin Salman, such as lifting the ban on women drivers, it raised serious concerns over of the lack of political rights in the country.  According to the report, many human rights defenders and critics were detained and some were sentenced to lengthy prison terms after unfair trials. Several Shia activists were executed and many more were sentenced to death following grossly unfair trials before the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC). Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remained common. Despite limited reforms, women faced systemic discrimination in law and practice and were inadequately protected against sexual and other violence. The authorities used the death penalty extensively, carrying out scores of executions.

Image of Saudi women [file photo]

But it’s in the Saudi war against terror – where it is a key ally of the US – that the country is committing its most serious violations. The Kingdom has justified foreign wars such as the one in Yemen, which Amnesty said has led to “serious violations of international law”. The report revealed that in May the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights and counter-terrorism concluded that Saudi Arabia’s anti-terrorism law did not comply with international standards, and urged the government “to end the prosecution of people including human rights defenders, writers and bloggers simply for expressing non-violent views”.

The report mentions US President Donald Trump visit to Saudi Arabia in May where he participated in the Riyadh summit, attended by representatives of more than 55 mostly Arab or Muslim-majority states. It also points to the $300 billion arms deal between the US and Saudi Arabia that was announced during the visit; presumably it seems to highlight the fact that the Kingdom has the full backing of the US.

As an example of the Kingdom’s lurch towards further political repression, the report lists incidences of harassment of writers, online commentators and others who exercised their right to freedom of expression. The repression accelerated, according to the report, after Saudi severed ties with Qatar. Saudi authorities, who had prohibited peaceful demonstrations since 2011 by the Ministry of the Interior, warned people against expressing sympathy towards its Gulf neighbour or criticising government actions, stating that this would be considered a punishable offence.

Worryingly for the state of human rights in the Kingdom, the rights group revealed that “two years after the law on association was passed, no new independent human rights organisations has been established under its provisions. Independent human rights organisations that were forcibly shut down, including the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), the Union for Human Rights, the Adala Centre for Human Rights, and the Monitor for Human Rights in Saudi Arabia, had remained inactive. Almost all their members were convicted and sentenced, fled the country, or were brought to trial before the SCC”.

Vague laws and broad definitions

US President Donald Trump (L) and Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) attend the Arabic Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on 21 May, 2017 [Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency]

US President Donald Trump (L) and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (R) attend the Arabic Islamic American Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on 21 May, 2017 [Bandar Algaloud/Anadolu Agency]

A new Counter-Terrorism Law also made matters worse as far as human rights was concerned. It introduced specific penalties for “terrorist” crimes, including the death penalty. Amnesty said that the new law “continued the use of a vague and overly broad definition of acts of terrorism, allowing it to be used as a tool to further suppress freedom of expression and human rights defenders”.

The rights group documented equally repressive measures in the UAE, which is part of the Saudi coalition in Yemen and which is backing the blockade on Qatar. Like its ally in Riyadh, Abu Dhabi introduced laws that arbitrarily restricted freedoms of expression and association in the name of fighting terrorism. It had prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned government critics and prominent human rights defenders. The report said that “scores of people, including prisoners of conscience, who were sentenced following unfair trials, remained in prison”. It also claimed that UAE “authorities held detainees in conditions that could amount to torture and failed to investigate allegations of torture made in previous years.”

The tyranny epitomised by the Gulf regimes, is described by the head of Amnesty, Salil Shetty, as a sign of the global epidemic that’s threatening to undermine human rights. According to Shetty governments have been emboldened to think they can declare open season on human rights activists. That they may shut down newspapers, undermine judges and jail activists without consideration.

Shetty, who believes that “governments are shamelessly turning the clock back on decades of hard-won protections”, warned that when human rights violations go unchecked it inevitably leads to worse crimes such as crimes against humanity and war crimes from Myanmar to Iraq, South Sudan, Syria and Yemen. These atrocities, he said “underscored the lack of leadership on human rights”.

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