“Their Freedom is Their Right”: A Campaign for Prisoners of Conscience in the Arab World

Edited by Kevin Rothrock.

Edited by Kevin Rothrock.

A coalition of human rights organizations this week launched a campaign to raise awareness about prisoners of conscience in the Arab World and to promote the Internet as a space for open discussion.

The campaign, titled “Hurriyatahum haqahum” (“Their Freedom, Their Right”), is the collaboration of Egypt's Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), the Maharat Foundation in Lebanon, and International Freedom of Expression Exchange (IFEX) network. The campaign hopes to put pressure on governments and promote protection and acceptance for the exercise of public criticism.

Among political prisoners in focus for the campaign are individuals who have been jailed for criticizing authorities online. One is Bahraini human rights defender and President of Bahrain Center for Human Rights Nabeel Rajab, who was arrested for tweeting about Bahraini police authorities. Another is Raif Badawi, the founder of the Saudi Liberals online discussion forum who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for apostasy. And there is Mauritanian blogger Mohamed Sheikh Ould Mohamed Omkhtir, who was sentenced to death for “insulting Islam” on social media.

ANHRI describes the campaign as follows:

The Arab citizen’s right to expression is a right not a grant, and it is our duty to defend it, whether we agree or disagree with that opinion.

One of the project's chief aims is making sure people don't forget about the region's political prisoners, whose stories provide the material for public outreach:

So they don't fall into a margin of oblivion: A campaign to defend prisoners of conscience in the Arab world

How the campaign works

The project asks willing and able citizens and journalists to share stories about prisoners of conscience on Twitter and Facebook, using the hashtag حريتهم_حقهم# (#TheirFreedomTheirRight). These social media posts should mention a political prisoner's name and the demand that the authorities either release the individual or change the conditions of their incarceration. This can include calls for an end to torture, advocating proper medical care, or providing prisoners with a fair trial. The campaign also highlights a single prisoner of conscience every month, posting photos of that person online in various media.

May's “prisoner of the month” is Mahmoud Mohammed in Egypt, who was jailed for wearing a T-shirt that read “A Nation Without Torture.” In addition to the main hashtag, campaigners tweeted the personalized message الحرية_لمحمود_محمد# (#FreedomToMahmoudMohammed).

Mahmoud Mohamed has been detained for 463 days and until now his case has not been referred to court. His charge is wearing a T-shirt with A Nation without Torture written on it

A young student gets detained for more than 450 days because he wore a T-shirt that doesn't live up to the authorities’ tastes…. Tell me Sisi, how does his T-shirt threaten you?

Executive director of ANHRI ranked the Gulf Nations according to online free expression:

Freedom of expression on the Internet in the Gulf: the best is Emirates, then Oman, Qatar, Kuwait, Bahrain, and the worst is Saudi Arabia

Rights activist Nabeel Rajab from Bahrain, 6 months imprisonment because of a tweet

When they say their opinion through free speech and writing it remains their freedom their right, and shame on all regimes that jail people of opinion.

Stakes are High

Human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch say it's difficult to assess Middle Eastern and North African governments’ compliance with international human rights laws because most of these states refuse to allow independent monitoring committees to visit their prisons. Many of these countries withhold even the most basic information about their penitentiary systems. In March, Egypt rejected a UN protocol that would have permitted independent observers to inspect jails for inhuman treatment.

That same month, Reuters reported that security forces tear-gassed and beat prisoners in Bahrain's Jaw prison in an attempt to “quell clashes that erupted during family visits.” Human Rights Watch called for an independent investigation into allegations of severe prisoner abuse. An article on Middle East Monitor reported that the Syrian Network for Human Rights had documented at least 108 people tortured to death in Syria's prisons last month alone.

These practices fall in clear violation of international human rights doctrine. Article 7 of the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) mandates that “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment. In particular, no one shall be subjected without his free consent to medical or scientific experimentation.”

Article 10.1 states clearly that “All persons deprived of their liberty shall be treated with humanity and with respect for the inherent dignity of the human person.”

Nevertheless, despite UN recommendations and media coverage, torture and mistreatment in prisons are ongoing, possibly on a daily basis, all over the Arab World.

Support the campaign:

ANHRI has put together a set of suggested ways to support and participate in the campaign. Visit their website to learn more.

  • Write to the public prosecutor in your country, the minister of interior or the president, or the ruler of your country.
  • Encourage the press in your country to write about the case of the prisoner of the month.
  • Send a letter or a post card to the prisoner showing your support.

Read Global Voices stories about the cases mentioned here:

Bahraini Human Rights Defender Nabeel Rajab Arrested Again for Tweets April 2015

What Drives Blasphemy Charges in the Middle East? (It's Not Just Religion) Jan. 2015

Bahrain's Prominent Human Rights Activist Arrested for Criticizing Police Defectors Who Joined ISIS Oct. 2014

Saudi Blogger Sentenced to 10 Years in Prison, 1000 Lashes May 2014

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