Thursday, 7th June 2018

Political clampdown continues unabated across the monarchies

The space for political debate in Gulf countries continues to be tightened, with political opponents targeted with arrests and long prison sentences. Among the most recent incidents, in the UAE, prominent human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor was sentenced in late May by the State Security Chamber of the Federal Supreme Court to ten years in jail for insulting the “status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols” via postings on social media (GSN 1,034/3). The Gulf Centre for Human Rights described this as “a grossly unfair trial” and said it had received credible information he was tortured. Prior to his arrest in March 2017, Mansoor had called for the release of human rights activist Osama Al-Najjar and prominent academic Nasser Bin Ghaith.

In Saudi Arabia, a number of activists recently arrested for campaigning for the right of women to drive and for reforms to the guardianship law have been temporarily released pending trial (GSN 1,060/4). However, some remain in detention and others have been picked up, including activist Mohammed Al-Bajadi. A statement by the Public Prosecutor’s Office on 2 June said a total of 17 people had been arrested; an unspecified number had admitted to co-operating with “individuals and organisations hostile to the kingdom” and providing “financial and moral support to hostile elements abroad”, among other allegations.

On 5 June, Bahrain’s High Court of Appeal upheld a five-year sentence against Nabeel Rajab for his tweets about the Yemen war and torture in Bahrain’s Jaw prison (GSN 1,041/12). A day earlier, the High Cassation Court in Manama upheld a death sentence against one person convicted of detonating an explosive device leading to the death of a policeman. The court also upheld long prison sentences and the revocation of the nationality of a further ten people – the latest in a lengthening list of citizens made stateless in trials often criticised for their lack of due process (GSN 1,060/6). Governments know that, in the face of criticism, they can usually rely on international allies for support or at least diplomatic silence. A recent report pointing to the UK’s alleged complicity in human rights abuses in the Bahraini judicial system was met by a statement on 1 June from junior Foreign and Commonwealth Office minister Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon saying the government does “not recognise the claim that UK assistance has contributed to human rights abuses”.

The region’s approach to civil and political rights was typified by Qatar on 21 May, when it formally acceded to the 1966 International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In doing so, it carved out a number of concessions for itself, including that it would interpret the world “punishment” in Article 7 – “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” – in line with Qatari and Sharia law. Similarly, article 22 – “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of association with others, including the right to form and join trade unions” – is to be interpreted in line with national legislation. The covenant is due to come into force in Qatar on 21 August.

The worsening situation has been reflected in the latest Global Peace Index, published by the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) on 6 June, in which Gulf states continue to perform poorly, not least in terms of state repression. Qatar’s ranking dropped further than any other country this year, with a fall of 26 places to leave it 56th overall. The IEP attributed the fall to increasing tensions with its neighbours, which it said had made the Qatari government become more ”sensitive to internal criticism in relation to the boycott.” Oman dropped 11 places to 73rd overall, in part because of an increase in imprisonment without trial and other state actions against citizens in the sultanate.

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