Human rights defenders in the Middle East and North Africa continue to be targeted and persecuted for "daring to speak out" and there are still numerous dissidents being unjustly held in prisons across the region, an international human rights organization said on Tuesday.
The report by Amnesty International, Challenging Repression, highlighted the challenges that activists face and said those who stand up for human rights or expose state violations are branded "subversives" or "trouble-makers" and oppressive means are used to halt their activities.
"Many people are still languishing in jails in many countries, simply for expressing an opinion in a peaceful manner and many others are being sent to jail because of new laws introduced as a result of the war on terror," Nicole Choueiry, Middle East and North Africa Press Officer, told AlArabiya.net.
Choueiry cited several examples of dissidents still in jail in countries across the region such as Syria, Morocco and Iran and said that the report aims to highlight the cases of these people in an effort to bring about change.
Choueiry offered the example of Anwar al-Buni, who is currently serving a five-year sentence in Syria, after he was accused of spreading false information harmful to the state. She said that Buny was harassed, abused and then jailed simply because he was exercising the right to self-expression in a peaceful manner, which is protected under international laws.
"We believe that by exposing some of the abuses that are taking place this will put pressure on the Syrian authorities so that they may release him," Choueiry said. "This is not to say that we expect him to be released immediately, although we would call for them to do that."
The report said that national laws and decades-long states of emergency are routinely used to silence activists with severe punishments but said the situation for human rights defenders had generally worsened since the U.S.-led “war on terror” because it provided an additional pretext to silence dissent and to adopt harsh counterterrorism laws.
The report cited the UAE Decree Law against terrorism, which criminalizes even non-violent attempts to “disrupt public order, undermine security, expose people to danger or wreak destruction of the environment.”
Another problem arises when the definition of terrorism is very broad, the report said, citing the Anti-terrorism Law adopted in 2003 in Tunisia, which extends the definition to cover acts such as illegitimately “influencing state policy” and “disturbing public order,” which Amnesty says is a severe violation of human rights.
Choueriy said that in most of the Arab world it is not only activists who are targeted but anyone who dares to speak out, such as bloggers, will all be persecuted by state authorities. People such as those working in the media, legal professionals and women activists face particular risks because of their profession or the cause they are defending.
The report said, however, that despite the extreme repression of rights, the persistence of activists to combat violations has slowly led to a change in several countries.
In Iran campaigning by the women’s movement led to the removal of two controversial articles from a draft Family Protection Law and in Egypt bloggers have been fundamental in exposing torture and other abuse by police.
The report said that in a region rife with governments that fail to respect human rights the role of activists was extremely crucial.
"It is high time that governments across the region recognize the crucial contribution of human rights defenders and take steps to support their work," Malcolm Smart said. "They must immediately end the persecution of defenders and also remove the legal and other obstacles that are used to block or restrict their legitimate activities to promote and protect universal human rights."