Unwilling to remain on the sidelines in the reform debate that the region has witnessed for the past two years, Arab governments have asserted themselves against civil society activists and reformists, creating a significant rise in the numbers of Arab prisoners of conscience. The return of security issues to the fore once again in the politics of the Middle East, as well as the softening of calls by the international community for freedom and reform, have encouraged Arab regimes in such actions.
Arab regimes use similar strategies to repress criticism. Among them is recourse to extremely vague and general laws whose interpretation and application are subject to the whim of the executive authority. Such legal texts are a shared feature of Arab nations whereby peaceful expression of opinion is criminalized by the use of language such as “threatening public order,” “undermining the Constitution,” “insulting the president” (or the royal family), “offending religion,” “spreading false information that could harm the reputation of the country,” “discrediting the country abroad,” and similar formulations. The lack of judicial independence, subordination of the prosecutor's office to the executive authorities, and expansion of national security and military trials controlled by the executive branch all conspire to facilitate prosecution of such cases, which are often classified as affecting the security of the state.
In addition to laws long on the books, the post-September 2001 security situation has eased the passage of new laws to fight terrorism, which adopt definitions of terrorism broad enough to criminalize peaceful political or civil action. Bahrain, Morocco, Qatar, and Tunisia have already enacted new laws. Other countries such as Egypt and Syria have used special laws for decades that grant near total authority to the security apparatus for administrative detention and the violation of constitutional rights. The Egyptian government has not been content with its emergency law, but has gone so far as to introduce articles to combat terrorism—and justify restricting human and civil rights—into the Constitution, a unique precedent in constitutional traditions world-wide.
Selective enforcement of old and new laws that criminalize criticizing the government has led to a rash of arrests, trials, and prison sentences for reasons of conscience. The situation is perhaps the most serious in Syria, where a series of prison sentences have been handed down in recent months to political and human rights activists. Among the most prominent is Kamal al-Labwani, sentenced to twelve years in prison for “involvement in foreign plots planning aggression against Syria” after he met with human rights activists, journalists, and government officials in Europe and the United States. Syria also took disciplinary action against those who signed the Beirut-Damascus Declaration that called for an end to Syrian interference in Lebanese affairs. The most notable of these cases include a five-year sentence meted out to lawyer Anwar al-Bunni, and a three-year sentence given to the activists Michel Kilo and Mahmoud Issa, for “weakening national feeling and inciting sectarian and ideological arrogance.”
But Syria is by no means alone in prosecuting those who express views that irritate the government. In Tunisia, journalist Muhammad Abbo was sentenced to three years in prison on charges including “publishing writings that disturb public order” and “defaming judicial authorities” because of his articles on torture in Tunisian prisons. Egypt has similarly prosecuted journalist Huweida Taha for “publishing false information violating the reputation of the country” due to her work on torture, as well as blogger Karim Amer and newspaper editor Ibrahim Eissa for “insulting the president.” In Bahrain a number of human rights activists have suffered security and judicial harassment, accused of defaming the royal person. In Sudan, journalist Osman Mirghani was imprisoned for criticizing the minister of justice under a penal code that allows the public prosecutor to undertake any actions and measures to protect public order, an article also used to justify suspending publication of an independent newspaper.
Prisoners of conscience and defenders of human and political rights in the Arab world are in dire need of the solidarity and support of global civil society. Governments bound by international cooperation agreements with the governments of the Arab region, especially the European Union and the United States, should place the issue of prisoners of conscience high on their list of priorities. These violations will continue to multiply so long as the governments of the region lack the political will to expand the space for freedom of opinion and expression, without which their will be no opportunity for true democratic development.
Moataz El Fegiery is program director at the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies and member of the Executive Committee of the Euro-Mediterranean Network for Human Rights. This article was translated from Arabic by Kevin Burnham.