An average 12,000 visitors per day makes the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) the leading human rights portal in the region. On its dynamic website, ANHRI features news about human rights issues in Arab countries, particularly freedom of expression. A look at today’s homepage reveals news about a Kuwaiti panel on migrant workers’ rights, a Bahraini report about the stifling of an anti-torture demonstration, and the launch of a professional press syndicate in Mauritania, to name a few.
ANHRI was conceived at a meeting of human rights activists in 2003, when Gamal Eid, ANHRI’s founder, was managing the Arabic website of the New York-based Human Rights Watch.
“I thought why don’t we work on an Arabic website that gathers the works of different human rights organizations, that connects us together, and that can also be useful to journalists and activists,” says Eid, the executive director of ANHRI. “Many organizations here still resort to traditional means of disseminating their information and campaigns such as fax messages and printed material. Even those organizations who have websites, their pages are usually dormant.”
In 2003, about 15 non-governmental organizations started sending updates to ANHRI. Six months later, that number grew to 60. Five years later, the were 300 human rights organizations keeping ANHRI in the loop.
According to Eid, the network evolved over time to work through a variety of methods, including dissemination, campaigning, training, and legal assistance. The first two years consisted of setting up the institution and providing human rights information from the Arab world to lawyers, activists and journalists, with a geographic and a rights-based classification.
“The following two years, we worked on expanding the list of organizations who have an online presence and on conducting trainings for journalists, bloggers and human rights activists,” Eid says.
The current phase includes the addition of legal representation in cases of assaults on freedom of expression, both online and off.
“The network has a special role in defending victims of stifled freedom of expression, such as bloggers,” says Muhammad Abul Dahab, journalist and blogger. “It was the first organization that connected with us as bloggers.”
Abul Dahab was arrested in October 2008 and again in November, for covering the news of the Mahallah textile factory’s workers strikes, which were particularly intensive in 2007 and 2008. Abul Dahab covered the strikes in both his newspaper, the independent Al-Dostour, and on his blog. He was charged with disturbing public order and being a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, a banned group.
When Abul Dahab was sentenced to two months in prison, ANHRI volunteered to provide legal assistance. “They were present throughout the case and visited me many times in prison. They also collaborated with the lawyers of the Brotherhood who were defending me. They stood next to my family and gave them news about me during my detention,” says Abul Dahab.
“When we started our legal assistance unit in August 2008, there was an intensive traffic of cases pertaining to freedom of expression,” says Hamdy el-Assiouty, the legal consultant for ANHRI, who works with a team of 12 lawyers. “In 2008, cases have increased because of the emergence of the new muhtassebun, both political and religious.” Muhtassebun are self-designated observers who raise cases against people whom they deem offensive to political figures or religious values.
El-Assiouty says there have been both victories and defeats in the legal assistance unit’s first 18 months of operation. “Mounir Hanna is a blogger from Minya who was accused of insulting President Hosni Mubarak and was sentenced to three years in prison and fined LE100,000. This is one of the most brutal rulings. But we managed to prove him innocent and drop all charges. I was very happy,” said al-Assiouty.
“But then, Karim Amer’s case was a very sad moment.” Amer, a blogger, was sentenced in 2007 to four years in prison for insulting Islam and the president. On Eid’s desk, lie tens of postcards and letters that ANHRI receive from activists around the world who wrote messages of solidarity to Amer. They will be delivered to him during the next prison visit.
The network is well aware of the national context in which it operates, and it acts accordingly. “Across the region, we deal with three types of governments. There are some governments to which we cannot even talk and in their cases, we disclose their scandals openly, such as Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Syria, and Saudi Arabia,” said Eid. “Others can sometimes respond to our appeals, like Lebanon, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. A third group of countries, like Morocco and Yemen, operate inconsistently. So it depends on the cases.”
Often, Eid gets anonymous phone calls threatening him with abuse. The network itself faced several court cases, mostly accusing it of libel. That won’t stop ANHRI from doing its job.
ANRHI’s decision to focus on defending freedom of expression was a strategic one. “We convinced a lot of human rights activists that without freedom of expression, we cannot work on many other rights, such as women rights and children’s rights,” says Eid.