Governments in the Arab world have violently dispersed demonstrations apparently inspired by or in solidarity with Egypt's democracy protesters and have detained some of the organizers, Human Rights Watch said today.
The security forces' clampdown is part and parcel of regular prohibitions on public gatherings in Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, the West Bank, and Yemen. These governments curtail free expression and assembly despite the fact that almost all of the region's countries have signed international agreements protecting both rights, Human Rights Watch said.
"Images of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have mesmerized the Arab public but have terrified their rulers," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. "They have responded with their usual mix of repression and intimidation to nip the buds of any wider democratic blossoming."
The Palestinian Authority's police used violence against peaceful demonstrators during a rally in Ramallah on February 2, 2011, to support the protesters in Egypt. Witnesses told Human Rights Watch that regular police and "special forces," identifiable by their uniforms, punched, kicked, and detained participants, as well as at least two journalists and a Human Rights Watch research assistant.
On January 30, Palestinian Authority security had shut down a solidarity demonstration in front of the Egyptian embassy in Ramallah, after calling in one of the organizers for questioning multiple times on January 29 and ordering him to cancel the event notice that he had created on Facebook.
Hamas authorities in the Gaza Strip quashed a solidarity demonstration on January 31. The police arbitrarily arrested six women and threatened to arrest another 20 people, who had responded to a call on Facebook for a demonstration, as soon as they arrived at the Park of the Unknown Soldier in Gaza City.
In Syria, security services detained five young demonstrators for a few hours each during a series of protests in solidarity with Egyptian protesters and to protest corruption and high cell phone communication costs. One was arrested on January 29, the first day of the protests, another on February 2, and three on February 3.
On February 2, a group of 20 people in civilian clothing beat and dispersed 15 demonstrators who had assembled in Bab Touma in old Damascus to hold a candlelight vigil for Egyptian demonstrators. Police nearby failed to intervene, one of the gathering's organizers told Human Rights Watch. When demonstrators went to the local police station to file a complaint, a security official insulted and slapped Suheir Atassi, one of the main organizers, and accused her of being a "germ" and an agent of foreign powers. Syria's security services had summoned more than 10 activists to pressure them not to demonstrate.
On February 4, the police detained Ghassan al-Najjar, an elderly leader of a small group called the Islamic Democratic Current, after he issued public calls for Syrians in Aleppo to demonstrate for more freedom in their country.
The UAE's State Security arrested Hasan Muhammad al-Hammadi, an active board member of the Teachers Association in the UAE, on February 4 at his house in Khour Fakkan, a city in the emirate of Sharjah. Al-Hammadi had spoken out publicly in solidarity with the Egyptian demonstrators earlier in the day during a mosque sermon. He remains in detention.
Saudi security forces briefly arrested between 30 and 50 demonstrators in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, after noon prayers on January 28, Reuters news service and individual sources reported. A Saudi dissident in London, Dr. Sa'd al-Faqih, allegedly called for the demonstrations via his satellite TV program to protest the chaos caused by recent heavy rains, which caused flooding in the city that led to deaths and cuts to electricity. Police arrested demonstrators as soon as they gathered, with dozens of others scattering.
Saudi Arabia has no law regulating assembly and bans political demonstrations through executive orders. On December 21, Interior Ministry officials summoned Saudi citizens who had planned a peaceful sit-in for December 23 to demand better jobs, health care, education, and urge reform, including an end to corruption, ordering them to cancel the protest, which they did.
Sudanese authorities used excessive force during largely peaceful protests on January 30 and 31 in Khartoum and other northern cities to call for an end to the National Congress Party (NCP) rule and government-imposed price increases. One student, Mohammed Abderahman, reportedly died from injuries inflicted by security forces on January 30, activists said. Human Rights Watch could not independently confirm the death, but called on the Sudanese government to investigate the allegations immediately. The protesters, organized by youth and student movements using Facebook and other electronic media, rallied in public places and on university campuses in Khartoum, Omdurman, El Obeid, and other towns. Witnesses in Khartoum and Omdurman reported that armed riot police and national security personnel dispersed groups of protesters using pipes, sticks, and teargas, injuring several people and preventing some people from joining the protests. Some protesters threw rocks at riot police, but most were peaceful, witnesses said. The majority of those arrested were released within hours, but more than 20 are still missing and believed to be held by national security forces. Sudanese authorities also targeted journalists and censored newspapers covering the protests. On February 2, security officials arrested more than a dozen staff of al-Maidan, the communist newspaper, and they have arrested more student activists and opposition party members in an apparent crackdown on opponents of the ruling party.
In southern Yemen, where security forces have violently suppressed large protests against the central government and for secession for over three years, police and military forces used live and rubber bullets to disperse protesters on February 3. Six people were injured and 28 arrested, the Yemeni Observatory for Human Rights reported. The Observatory also reported that government supporters had attacked protesters. Among those arrested was a journalist, Abd al-Hafith Mu'jib. Six people remain detained at the Criminal Investigation Department. A Yemeni human rights activist identified them as: Abd al-Alim al-Quds, Fatah Mahdi, Muhammad Ali ‘Ubud, Mahmud Yasin al-Saqqaf, Mushir Abd al-Malik, and Nasir ‘Ashal.
In Bahrain, a new group on Facebook has issued a call for a "Day of Rage," the term used in Egypt, on February 14. The government shut down the Facebook page. Human Rights Watch called on Arab governments to guarantee their citizens the right to assemble peacefully to express their views, and to abolish laws that restrict speech and assembly.
"Rather than learn the lessons of Cairo and Tunis, Arab leaders are keeping their heads in the sand, insisting on stifling even the smallest public gatherings," Whitson said.