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  5. Defending Human Rights in the Gulf Region*

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FOCUS September 2016 Volume 85

Defending Human Rights in the Gulf Region*

Gulf Centre for Human Rights

On 22 September 2016, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) made a plea 1  to the United Nations (UN) to immediately address the continuing acts of reprisal and harassment against human rights defenders in the Gulf region and neighboring countries. The situation for human rights defenders continued to deteriorate in the Gulf region and neighboring countries in recent years. Those working peacefully and legitimately for the promotion and protection of human rights were increasingly exposed to dangerous environments, particularly in war-torn countries such as Syria, Iraq and Yemen; while the impact of these conflicts had been felt in neighboring countries.

Plight of Human Rights Defenders

Based on documentation, missions and interviews undertaken by the GCHR, human rights defenders face increased harassment, intimidation, arrest, detention and torture as a result of their human rights work. Many prominent human right defenders remain in detention and are subjected to inhumane prison conditions as well as ill treatment at the hands of prison authorities. Freedom of expression continues to be seriously curtailed throughout the region and the exercise of this fundamental right has led to hundreds of arrests and cases of judicial harassment throughout 2015. Rather than protecting human rights defenders and promoting their work at a time when their role in peace building is so desperately needed, the authorities have passed new laws such as cybercrime laws, and clamped down on online expression, curtailing “digital rights.” Despite this challenging environment, human rights defenders continue their work tirelessly, refusing to be silenced through intimidation, harassment or detention.


2015 saw an escalation in the ill-treatment and abuse of human rights defenders in prison in Bahrain. The situation resulted in hunger strikes throughout the year, including by GCHR Founding Director Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and blogger and human rights defender Dr. Abduljalil Al-Singace, in an attempt to protest the ill-treatment to which they were subjected to and demand better conditions for prisoners. Freedom of expression continued to be targeted and women human rights defenders were subjected to judicial harassment.2 The climate continues to be one of hostility and danger for human rights defenders, including GCHR Founding Director Nabeel Rajab, President of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, who spent four months in prison for a tweet. Given the large number of cases directed against human rights defenders, including Ghada Jamsheer, Zainab Al-Khawaja, Naji Fateel and Mohammed Al-Maskati, GCHR issued twenty-eight appeals, three statements and one letter on Bahrain during 2015, as well as ran campaigns to free them or keep them free.  


Appeals issued in 2015 focused on women human rights defenders detained for promoting human rights through the exercise of their right to freedom of expression, especially with the rise of violence against women following acid attacks in October 2014. Human rights lawyer and women’s rights activist Narges Mohammadi, human rights defender Bahareh Hedayat and cartoonist Atena Farghadani, all detained in the notorious Evin prison in Tehran, are suffering from serious illness as a result of the prison conditions. Journalists, bloggers and social media activists promoting human rights continue to face threats and harassment by state authorities as freedom of expression and opinion is severely restricted. While independent journalist Jason Rezaian was convicted on charges of "espionage" in October, he was later freed in January 2016. But many human rights defenders remain in detention or at risk due to their human rights work, and the need to further support them is ever present. 


In 2015, human rights conditions in general deteriorated further leading to political instability; while the internal conflict was exacerbated by the fight against the extremist group Islamic State (IS or Da’esh). Human rights defenders work in extremely dangerous conditions for the promotion of human rights, risking death, imprisonment and torture by security forces and armed groups. Sadly many have lost their lives, like prominent human rights defender Ammar Shahbander, who was killed during a terrorist attack on a café in Baghdad in May 2015. Women human rights defenders in the de facto state of Iraqi Kurdistan continue to face serious difficulties relating to their work, which challenges the traditional notions of family and gender roles within families and is often focused on gender-based violence. Freedom of expression continues to be curtailed and in February a group of journalists was attacked and beaten by a state official’s bodyguards.

Saudi Arabia

2015 saw a continuation of the systematic targeting of human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, including those connected to non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), whose members have been jailed. The peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression and opinion was met with arrests and lengthy prison sentences. Detained human rights defenders face appalling conditions and treatment, including the high profile case of blogger Raif Badawi, who was flogged in January despite an international outcry. He won the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought in 2015. The jail sentence of prominent human rights lawyer Waleed Abu Al-Khair was increased by the Specialised Criminal Court to fifteen years. Following a legal challenge by GCHR, the United Kingdom government cancelled its controversial bid to supply prison services to Saudi Arabia given the dire human rights violations that take place in the prisons. Despite gaining the right to vote in and run for municipal elections, the situation of women in Saudi Arabia is still extremely repressive and those fighting for women’s rights, such as the right to drive cars, are subjected to threats and harassment, as well as arrest. In September 2015, Saudi Arabia was elected as head of the Consultative Group of the UN Human Rights Council - a decision that was met with much criticism. GCHR issued thirteen appeals and updates, five statements and one closed letter on the situation in Saudi Arabia. 


During 2015, the war in Syria continued, human rights violations were commonplace and the environment in which human rights defenders operate remained dangerous. Syrian bloggers and journalists were targeted for exercising their right to freedom of expression and opinion, including being murdered inside Syria or abroad (Turkey) by both state and non-state actors such as the Islamic State (IS or Da’esh). Hundreds were killed due to torture in government prisons. Human rights defenders continue to work under fear of arrest and harassment, many are victims of enforced disappearance and those in detention suffer ill treatment and poor conditions at the hands of the authorities. Members of the Syrian citizen journalist group Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently (RBSS) were murdered and threatened with death by IS. On a positive note, the three members of the Syrian Centre for Media and Freedom of Expression (SCM), detained since February 2012, were finally unconditionally released following much international pressure. SCM head Mazen Darwish won the prestigious UNESCO/Cano World Press Freedom Day Prize, after being nominated by GCHR. Other human rights defenders, who were subjected to enforced disappearance (including Razan Zaitouneh, Samira Khalil, Nazem Hamadi and Wa’el Hamada) remained missing. Calls continued for an investigation into their abduction. GCHR issued over twenty appeals, statements and letters in relation to Syria in 2015, including a number of joint actions with other non-governmental organizations (NGOs). 

United Arab Emirates 

The authorities continued to crackdown on bloggers and online activists in 2015 for exercising their right to freedom of expression and opinion. The space for dissent is shrinking as was feared following the introduction of the Cyber-Crime Law in 2012 and Anti-Terrorism legislation in 2014, both of which have been used to target human rights defenders. In January 2015 GCHR’s website was blocked. Arbitrary arrest and detention of human rights defenders and members of their families continued in 2015. Those in detention, including majority of defendants (known collectively as the UAE94) in a court case, faced harrowing conditions as outlined in GCHR’s report published in March 2015 “Torture and Abuse in Prisons in the United Arab Emirates.” Family members of the UAE94 were arrested and at the close of 2015, the whereabouts of activist Dr. Nasser Bin Ghaith remained unknown since his enforced disappearance in August 2015. 


GCHR urges state authorities in the Gulf region and neighboring countries to:

  Ensure that all human rights defenders, and all citizens, are free to avail of and engage with the UN human rights mechanisms and the international human rights community;

  Ensure that human rights defenders are able to carry out their legitimate and peaceful human rights work without fear of reprisals and free from all restrictions including judicial harassment;

・ Encourage engagement with UN human rights mechanisms which would benefit the promotion and protection of human rights; and

・ Ensure that a national system is in place for investigation of acts of reprisals which human rights defenders can engage with, and which carries out impartial and thorough investigations with a view to prosecuting those responsible.


The human rights situation continued to remain grave in 2015 as human rights defenders in the Gulf region and neighboring countries continued to be targeted on a daily basis. They bravely went about their peaceful and legitimate human rights work despite being faced with threats of arrest, intimidation, judicial harassment, and violence. Civil society organizations strived to ensure an open and safe environment where human rights could be promoted.

Many human rights defenders in detention suffered under appalling conditions. In Bahrain, in March 2015 the situation reached a crisis point as prisoners were subjected to beatings and ill treatment, sparking a series of hunger strikes. In Iran, fears mounted regarding the health of women human rights defenders detained in Evin prison. In Syria enforced disappearance and incommunicado detention continued to plague human rights defenders. At the close of 2015, many human rights defenders remained arbitrarily detained or missing, including some collective cases known as the Bahrain 13, Syria’s Douma Four and many of the UAE94. 

Conflict in many Gulf and neighboring countries continued throughout 2015, most notably in Iraq, Syria and Yemen, and the general human rights situation deteriorated as both state and non-state actors committed atrocities. 

Freedom of expression violations remained a serious human rights issue in 2015 as those who exercised their right to freedom of expression and opinion were targeted. In recent years there has been an increase in the targeting of those posting online, a trend which continued throughout 2015 particularly evidenced by cases of persecution of online activists in Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Syria and UAE, including through the use of cybercrime laws. 

Despite the overall critical situation, there were some positive human rights developments in 2015 including the albeit limited granting of women’s right to vote in municipal elections in Saudi Arabia and the release of the SCM members in Syria. On the international stage, Sweden’s refusal to renew military contracts with Saudi Arabia and the United Kingdom government’s cancellation of its bid to supply services to Saudi prisons were welcome moves. 

Human rights defenders are better enabled to document human rights violations as members of NGOs such as GCHR which provides training in human rights mechanisms, capacity building, documentation, security and protection, among other topics. When advocacy is aimed at allies and influential actors, human rights defenders receive international recognition, ultimately offering a measure of protection. 

2016 marks the 50th anniversary of the adoption of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights and there is an international UN campaign to ensure their ratification and promotion. Let it be an opportunity for the authorities in Gulf and neighboring countries to improve the human rights situation and ensure a safe environment for human rights defenders.

In a statement issued for the International Human Rights Defenders Day on 9 December 2015, the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights defenders, Michel Forst, honored human rights defenders stating:4

They are “Gandhis” and “Mandelas.”  They are “Rosa Parks” and “Malalas.” They are also ordinary individuals, lawyers, women activists, community leaders, journalists, unionists and environmentalists who strive to re-claim our rights and promote our freedoms.

They are called human rights defenders, countless individuals and groups advocating for human rights, educating and raising awareness of situations around the world, and holding governments to account for their action.


They face enormous risks and threats as a result of the work they do, or because of who they are.


I call on States to support and protect human rights defenders at the international, regional and national levels through building defenders friendly alliances and adopting concrete measures to protect rights activists.

In our [strive] for freedom, equality and justice, it is imperative that we empower and protect human rights defenders – our heroes, our sentinels who fight our human rights battles. They deserve our unequivocal support.

GCHR is committed to continue supporting and protecting human rights defenders and to work to ensure their safety as they carry out their peaceful and legitimate human rights work in the face of adversity.

For further information, please contact: Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), e-mail:;



This report is drawn from the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) - Annual Report 2015: Human Rights Defenders in Prison and in Peril throughout the Gulf and Neighboring Countries, February 2016.

1     The plea was made by Ms Maryam Al-Khawaja, Co-Director of the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR), during a side event to the Human Rights Council session entitled "Reprisals & harassment against human rights defenders in the Gulf region & neighbouring countries: UN HRC must act immediately" held on 22 September 2016 in Geneva.

2     This means filing of unwarranted criminal charges in court for legitimate acts such as expressing opinions to keep the human rights defenders in detention.

3     Text taken from Gulf Centre for Human Rights, Liberty at Risk: Reprisals Against Human Rights Defenders in the Gulf Region and Neighbouring Countries, August 2016.

4     See full text of the speech of Michel Forst in UN Office of the High Commissioner website: