Criminalization of Dissent in the Gulf

By Carolyn Greco

Last week in Washington DC, Human Rights First hosted six leading NGOs to discuss the increased criminalization of peaceful dissent in the Arabian Gulf. Across the region, regimes are subjecting defenders to arbitrary arrest, detention, unfair trials, brutal prison sentences, and torture. A new reciprocal policy even authorizes the arrest, detention, and trial of any gulf activist in another Gulf state.

Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Saudi Arabia—all members of the coalition working with the United States to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—are jailing those who peacefully advocate for democratic reform. Activists courageous enough to document violations, express dissenting views, and align with opposition groups risk being punished and depicted as threats to state security.

“More human rights, not less human rights, is the powerful antidote to the rise of groups like ISIS,” said Human Rights First’s Brian Dooley. “The suffocation of civil society in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain only foments extremism and sectarianism.”

The event was organized by the Gulf Center for Human Rights in partnership with Human Rights First, Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain, Human Rights Watch, the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) and CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation.

Laws portrayed as anti-terrorism provisions, such as those in the UAE, are often used to crack down on human rights defenders in peaceful protests, commented British lawyer Melanie Gingell. In Saudi Arabia, working with U.N. mechanisms is considered a criminal offense, noted Co-Director of the Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR), Maryam Al Khawaja. In Bahrain, peaceful protests are banned in the capital of Manama, nationality revocation is used as a tool of punishment, and international activists and diplomats seeking to meet with opposition groups have been denied entry into the country, said Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

Rajab currently faces up to three years imprisonment in Bahrain for “insulting public institutions” on Twitter. He participated in the panel via Skype because of a court-imposed travel ban. Al Khawaja was also recently jailed in Bahrain on politically motivated charges.

A hazardous culture of impunity enables these regimes to continue human rights abuses. Although Saudi Arabia is a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council, it barely received a reaction when it targeted activists working with the U.N. Muted responses send the wrong message to both Gulf officials and persecuted defenders. Panelists called on the United States to take strong public action.

Khalid Ibrahim, Co-Director of GCHR, recommended that the United States “use its influence to ensure the release of all the detained human rights defenders in the region and [to ensure] they are able to carry out their legitimate human rights activities without fear of reprisals.”

The stakes are high and the choice is clear. The United States has strong military alliances with these countries and could leverage them to protect human rights and defenders.

The alternative approach—prioritizing national security over human rights—may render a sizable blow to both. “The question for the United States government isn’t ‘do you want security or do you want human rights?’ You want both, and they’re not incompatible,” said Dooley.

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Published on November 20, 2014

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