The uprisings against authoritarian regimes across the Middle East and North Africa are a reason for hope, "sending a signal to repressive governments that their days are numbered," Amnesty International's secretary general Salil Shetty said upon the release today of the London-based human rights watchdog's annual report.
“But there is a serious fight-back from the forces of repression. The international community must seize the opportunity for change and ensure that 2011 is not a false dawn for human rights,” Shetty said. Pro-democracy uprisings unseated leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, but have been stymied by violence and repression in Libya, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere. Even in Egypt there are widespread fears that a counter-revolution is afoot, seeking to undue the uprising's gains.
But if the pro-democracy demonstrators who helped oust Hosni Mubarak on 11 February needed reminding why they had pursued their revolution in the first place, they could do worse than consult the Amnesty International annual report released today, which looks at the state of human rights over the past year.
Listed within its 432 pages, which detail the various abuses of power committed by despots and democrats around the globe, are all the grievances that brought millions of people onto the streets from 25 January onwards to demand change.
There is the case of Khaled Saeed, the Alexandrian youth whose violent death at the hands of police last year helped galvanize anti-government movement. The report notes the “public outcry” that followed his death, and also mentions the killing of Ahmed Shaaban, a 19-year-old man allegedly tortured to death by police who then dumped his body in a canal.
If the Egyptian revolution concludes as its authors intend, then next year’s Amnesty International report should be markedly different. Yet the 2011 publication still serves as a useful reminder to those who want to stop the rot from returning to the nation’s body politic.
One of the areas dealt with by Amnesty is the treatment of terror suspects under the Mubarak regime. The organization notes that under the nation’s archaic Emergency Law, many abuses of power were committed by the police and state security services investigating alleged terror suspects.
The report says: “Detainees were held incommunicado, often for several weeks. Many alleged that they were tortured or otherwise ill-treated.” It details the case of one suspect, a Syrian resident of Yemen, who was held for 38 days, beaten, whipped and tortured with electric shocks.
The report added that despite an amendment to the Emergency Law supposedly limiting its scope to “terror” and drug crimes, thousands of opposition activists remained in detention without trial or charge.
Torture and ill-treatment of suspects by police was “systematic”, the report alleged. It detailed the case of Taha Abdel Tawwab Mohamed, a medical doctor who said he was stripped and beaten by State Security Investigation Service officers because he supported presidential contender Mohamed ElBaradei.
The issue of freedom of expression in Egypt was also a big concern in the report. It said: “The authorities maintained curbs on freedom of expression and the media. Politically sensitive reports were suppressed. Candidates for parliamentary elections using slogans deemed to be religious were disqualified. Government critics faced prosecution on criminal defamation charges.”
There were also stringent measures controlling freedom of assembly, the report said, with police disrupting campaign rallies by the Muslim Brotherhood and arresting many of their members.
Women “continued to suffer discrimination” and were particularly vulnerable in the allocation of housing during evictions. Elsewhere, residents living in designated “unsafe” accommodation “continued to live in grossly inadequate” conditions, while up to 12,000 families in the slum city of Manshiyet Nasser in eastern Cairo were still living amid unstable rocks and cliffs.
Much of the rest of the report, which deals with human rights abuses from across the world, focusses on crimes committed by other regimes across the Middle East.
It said: “Those who dared to speak out in favour of greater freedoms, against their government or in defence of human rights, did so at their peril. In these and other states, the forces of repression – the shadowy, all-powerful and unaccountable secret police – were never far away.“
The national bar association of Syria was singled out, accused of targeting and striking off a leading human rights lawyer who had reported on trials before the notorious special security court.
Iran also came under fire for staging “show trials” of people accused of fomenting dissent after the 2009 presidential election, while in the Palestinian territories both Fatah and Hamas stand accused of “turning the screw” on opposition members. There were also criticisms of Tehran’s frequent use of the death penalty, which Amnesty said was second only to China and was being used with “evident intent to terrorize”.
The report also turned its spotlight on one of the biggest Middle East news events of last year, the Israeli raid on the Turkish aid flotilla carrying supplies to the besieged Gaza Strip. Amnesty noted that Israel’s own investigation into the incident “lacked independence”, and also criticized the Israeli government’s probe into Operation Cast Lead, the attack on Gaza in late 2009.
The report said: “Israel’s domestic investigations were flawed, lacking independence and even acknowledgement of the extent of civilian casualties that Israeli forces had caused.” Hamas, meanwhile, failed to conduct even a “semblance” of an inquiry into allegations that its rockets had targeted civilian areas.
Salil Shetty, Amnesty International's secretary general, said that in light of events in the Middle East and North Africa, “the human rights revolution now stands on the threshold of historic change.”
He added: “People are rejecting fear. Courageous people, led largely by youth, are standing up and speaking out in the face bullets, beatings, tear gas and tanks. This bravery – combined with new technology that is helping activists to outflank and expose government suppression of free speech and peaceful protest – is sending a signal to repressive governments that their days are numbered.”