MENA: President Biden’s visit has a negative impact on human rights movement

The White House

1st September 2022 - The human rights movement in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has paid a heavy price for the unlimited and unconditional support provided by the United Kingdom (UK) and United States of America (US) to repressive governments across the region. The recent visit of US President Joe Biden has reinforced the practice of international relations that prioritises political and economic interests when dealing with repressive governments while turning a blind eye to human rights abuses at the expense of human rights defenders and prisoners of conscience.

There is a prevailing mentality by many rulers in the MENA region who view human rights defenders as enemies who must be eliminated, and thus they have been targeted in recent years by fierce attacks in which governments have used many resources to prevent them from working. Human rights defenders have been killed with impunity, subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention and torture. They have been imprisoned with heavy sentences in courts - including anti-terrorist courts - that lack minimum international standards for fair trial and due process, on fabricated charges related to their peaceful and legitimate work in the field of human rights. In addition, they have been targeted for their peaceful activity on the Internet and subject to hacking and surveillance, including by the notorious Pegasus spyware, as unearthed by the Pegasus Project.

On 9 June 2022, over a dozen human rights organisations called on President Biden to set firm preconditions for his meeting with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, including the immediate release of political prisoners, lifting arbitrary travel bans on human rights defenders, and ending the practice of unlawful surveillance and state hostage-taking.

A number of human rights organisations also proposed that Biden meet with a group of prominent independent human rights defenders working in exile in order to document and help curtail the grave violations taking place in the MENA countries. The hope was that this meeting would be accompanied by a clear and strong statement from President Biden confirming his support for human rights and his demand for the release of all prisoners of conscience in the region, but all hopes quickly vanished. Human rights were not adequately addressed during his trip, neither publicly nor from behind the scenes, according to trusted local sources. President Biden went to the region and returned empty-handed in terms of securing the freedom of human rights defenders and other prisoners of conscience.

The reactions of repressive MENA governments came quickly after President Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia, which ended on 16 July 2022. A succession of violations clearly reveal a serious deterioration in these governments’ commitments in the field of human rights, and their hideous exploitation of the visit to cover up grave violations of the civil and human rights of citizens.

In the eyes of Saudi Arabia’s senior officials, led by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the visit was used as a green light to continue its grave violations of human rights.

The 34-year prison sentence handed down on 9 August to Saudi woman human rights defender Salma Al-Shehab was followed three weeks later by a 45-year sentence handed to Nourah bint Saeed Al-Qahtani. The two women were convicted for their online activities by the Specialised Criminal Court under the Counter-Terrorism Law and Anti-Cyber Crime Law. These are the longest sentences ever imposed on any peaceful activist in Saudi Arabia, and there is no doubt among human rights activists in the region that the lengthy sentences are linked to the visit.

We believe strongly that these rulings, which do not serve justice, in reality sends a message of threats and intimidation from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to all internet activists that expressing in a civilised and peaceful way one’s views that support human rights in the country, and defending the innocent prisoners of opinion who are crowded in prisons, will be heavily punished.

We are also deeply concerned about the fate of other women detainees, such as Dr. Lina Al-Sharif, after this ruling, which lacked minimum international standards for fair trial and legal procedures. There is strong reason to believe that other online activists may suffer decades-long sentences as well.

In Qatar, the response to the visit was never delayed. On 21 July 2022, contacts were completely cut off with a group of citizens who announced the “National Campaign for Travel-Banned Citizens”, including Abdullah bin Ahmed Abu Matar Al-Mohannadi, the general coordinator of the campaign, Saud bin Khalifa bin Ahmed Al-Thani, the international relations coordinator of the campaign, and Issa Mardi Juhaim Al-Shammari, its media coordinator. They are still being held by the State Security in solitary confinement, and they have not yet been allowed to contact their families or hire a lawyer. The three citizens were among members who attended its founding meeting, because they had been banned from traveling for many years even though they had not committed any violations.

In the United Arab Emirates (UAE), the authorities have failed to release 40 prisoners of conscience despite the completion of their sentences. Many of them are part of a group of prisoners collectively known as the UAE94, who were arrested in 2012 and sentenced from seven to fifteen years in prison during a grossly unfair trial in 2013 for their pro-democracy activities. Other subsequent reports received by the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) at the beginning of August confirmed the authorities’ continued policy of detaining prisoners of conscience after the end of their sentences, claiming that they pose a threat to the security of the state and that they need rehabilitation. Prisoners scheduled for release are often transferred from Al-Razeen Prison to the Munasaha (Counselling) Centre, which despite its name signifying tolerance, is simply another building in the same prison which is isolated from other wings.

According to reliable sources, prisoners of conscience who are scheduled to be released in the coming months have been informed that they will not be released, but will be subject to the so-called Munasaha programme, where they are held indefinitely.

In Egypt, despite the widespread international solidarity campaign calling for Alaa Abd El-Fattah’s release, he remains behind bars on hunger strike for over 150 days to protest poor conditions and his continued imprisonment in violation of his right to freedom of expression. Surely meeting President Biden, has given President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi further power to dismantle the human rights movement and keep Abd El-Fattah and others in prison. The United Kingdom has a responsibility to intervene for his protection and help free Abd El-Fattah, who is a dual British-Egyptian citizen. He has yet to receive a UK consular visit, is still denied the ability to communicate with his UK lawyers, and is still asking for a judge to investigate the complaints he and his family have filed over his unjust detention. In the meantime, time is running out while Abd El-Fattah’s health continues to significantly deteriorate.

During the visit to Saudi Arabia, President Biden also met Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi, amid a deep political crisis in the country. Likewise in Iraq, human rights defenders are constantly exposed to attacks and assassinations, without any deterrent to their assailants, who are mostly members of armed groups; in addition to the absence of the protection that the government must provide for them to carry out their peaceful and legitimate work in defense of the civil and human rights of all citizens. Woman human rights defender Riham Yaqoub and journalist and well-known security expert Dr. Hisham Al-Hashemi are among the hundreds of peaceful protesters and members of civil society who were killed while the government failed to bring the perpetrators to justice, which shows clearly the widespread culture of impunity in the country.

Elsewhere in the Middle East, on 18 August 2022, Israeli forces raided six Palestinian civil society rights groups in the West Bank, including Al-Haq, whose offices in Ramallah were stormed, items confiscated, and main entrance shut down with iron plates, leaving behind a military order declaring the organisation unlawful. Al-Haq is a member of OMCT as well as FIDH, which protested the raid and closure. The other groups raided are Addameer, the Bisan Center for Research & Development, Defence for Children International-Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, and the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees. The six human rights groups were outlawed by Israel in October 2021 under trumped-up "terrorism" accusations.

This threat to civil society comes a month after President Biden’s visit on 13-15 July 2022 to Israel, which has had an outsized role in shaping US policy in the region. Human rights organisations were also disappointed that the trip didn’t lead to justice for Palestinian journalists Shireen Abu Akleh and Ghufran Warasneh, killed by Israeli forces, as part of a pattern of murders of Palestinian journalists with total impunity.

It’s time to end the unconditional support given to oppressive governments in the MENA region. Human rights should be the first priority all the time. The US and the UK - in addition to all other democratic governments – should visibly show their full support to the work of human rights defenders in the MENA region.

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