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World Report 2010: Harsher Climate for Human Rights

Missed Opportunities and Bigger Challenges in Middle East in 2009


Middle East governments repressed efforts to promote human rights
and backed away from bold reforms despite growing human rights
challenges and promises to take action, Human Rights Watch said today
in releasing the Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen
country studies from its World Report 2010.

The 612-page report,
the organization's 20th annual review of human rights practices around
the globe, summarizes major human rights issues in more than 90 nations
and territories worldwide, including 15 countries in the Middle East
and North Africa.

"The year 2009 was one of the missed opportunities for women and
migrants in the region," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director
at Human Rights Watch."For human rights defenders, their small space
for maneuvering shrank even further."

The studies detail missed opportunities on women's rights in Jordan,
Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Syria; ineffective measures to protect
migrant domestic workers in Jordan, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia; torture
of suspects in custody in Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and Syria; and
repression of human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen.

Saudi Arabia discriminated against its Shi'a population and Syria
against its Kurds; Lebanon disregarded the plight of its Palestinian
refugees; and Jordan stripped some Jordanians of Palestinian origin of
their Jordanian nationality. Yemen's government committed violations in
the civil war in the north and the social unrest in the south.

"Middle East governments should publicly set out their human rights
agenda for 2010," Whitson said, "and expect to be measured against
their achievements."

Middle Eastern governments responded weakly to calls to curb
violence against women. Perpetrators of so-called honor killings in
Jordan (where there were at least 20 such killings), and in Syria (at
least 12), benefit from legal provisions that mitigate their
punishments, even though Syria closed a legal loophole that allowed
such perpetrators to avoid criminal sanction altogether. Domestic abuse
went largely unpunished in Saudi Arabia and Yemen. In Lebanon and
Jordan, where domestic abuse can be tried as assault, protection
mechanisms for women are largely inadequate and ineffective.

Despite their increasing participation in public life, women faced
discrimination in personal status, nationality, and penal laws. In
Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, women cannot confer their
nationality either on foreign spouses or their children. Saudi women
require a male guardian's approval for travel, study or work, and to
receive health care in certain circumstances. Saudi Arabia promised to
abolish the male legal guardianship system over women, but failed to
take steps to do so.

Migrant domestic workers in the Middle East faced exploitation and
abuse by employers, including excessive work hours, non-payment of
wages, and restrictions on their liberty. Governments adopted some
measures to reduce the abuse but did not enforce them. Jordan issued
regulations providing certain rights to migrant domestic workers after
becoming the first Middle Eastern country in 2008 to include them under
the labor law. However, these regulations fell short of international
standards, and allow for an employer to confine a worker in the
employer's house.

In January in Lebanon, the Labor Ministry put in effect tighter
regulations for employment agencies and a standard employment contract
that clarifies certain terms and conditions of employment for domestic
workers, such as the maximum number of daily working hours. However,
the rules have no enforcement mechanisms. Suicides and botched escape
attempts killed many migrant domestic workers in Lebanon, with eight
deaths in October alone.

In Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen, human rights defenders paid a
heavy price for their activities. Syrian State Security detained
Muhannad al-Hasani, president of the Syrian Human Rights Organization
in July, and Haytham al-Maleh, a prominent human rights lawyer, 78, in
October, and later charged them with "weakening national sentiment."
They remain detained. In Saudi Arabia, the secret police (mabahith)
arrested Muhammad al-'Utaibi and Khalid al-'Umair in January for
attempting to hold a peaceful protest in solidarity with the people of
Gaza. One year later, the mabahith still hold them despite the six-month legal limit on pre-trial detention and the prosecution's decision not to press charges.

In Yemen, Central Security, National Security, and Political
Security officers arrested scores of activists, mostly from the
secessionist so-called Southern Movement, and began trials of some of
them for "contesting the unity of the state," including Professor
Husain al-'Aqil, an online journalist, Salah al-Saqladi, and a former
diplomat, Muhammad 'Askar Jubran.

Syria has not licensed any human rights groups, and Saudi Arabia
refused legal recognition to at least two new rights groups. Jordan
passed a new law extending the government's ability to control and
interfere in the work of charitable organizations.

Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Yemen failed to tackle frequent
incidents of torture. Jordan's prison reform program has not
strengthened accountability mechanisms for torture. Conditions in
prisons and detention facilities were poor in Lebanon, with
overcrowding and lack of proper medical care a perennial problem. While
Lebanon ratified the Optional Protocol to the Convention against
Torture (OPCAT) in December 2008, the country has not yet fulfilled its
obligation to set up a national preventive mechanism to visit and
monitor places of detention.

Saudi authorities punished those they believed responsible for
leaking footage of torture in Ha'ir prison, but did not announce steps
taken to hold accountable the prison guards who beat the inmates. In
Yemen, there were increased reports by detainees of torture in central
prisons around the country and in the detention facility of the
National Security and the Political Security Organizations in San'a.

The estimated 300,000 Palestinian refugees in Lebanon lived in
appalling social and economic conditions and were subject to
wide-ranging restrictions on housing and employment. Jordanian
authorities since 2004 have arbitrarily deprived over 2,700 Jordanians
of Palestinian origin of their nationality, usually on grounds that
they did not hold valid Israeli-issued residency permits for the West
Bank. No such condition for maintaining Jordanian nationality exists in
law. Hundreds of thousands more Jordanians may be at risk of losing
their nationality.

Following clashes in Saudi Arabia between minority Shi'a pilgrims
and Wahhabi religious policemen in Medina in February, the authorities
arrested scores of Shi'a in Medina and in the Eastern Province. The
Eastern Province governorate also arrested Shi'a who led prayers in
their private homes in Khobar and in Ahsa' and closed Khobar's only
mosque for Isma'ilis, a branch of Shi'ism.

Kurds, Syria's largest non-Arab ethnic minority, were subject to
systematic discrimination, including the arbitrary denial of
citizenship to an estimated 300,000 born in Syria. Authorities
suppressed expressions of Kurdish identity and prohibited teaching
Kurdish in schools. On February 28, security forces violently dispersed
Kurds who had gathered to protest a decree restricting real estate
transactions in border areas, and the authorities subsequently detained

demonstrators. The authorities also detained and tried at least nine
prominent Kurdish political leaders on vague charges of "weakening
national sentiment" and "broadcasting false information."

"Middle Eastern governments need to recognize that the rights of
minorities, refugees, and stateless persons need greater protections,"
Whitson said.

In 2010, Jordan should:

  • Strike clauses from the law that allow for punishment-reducing mitigating circumstances for "honor" killers.
  • Ease restrictions in the law governing the operation of
    nongovernmental organizations to bring it into compliance with
    international standards on freedom of association.
  • Revise regulations governing migrant domestic workers to comply
    with international labor and human rights standards, and set up a
    mechanism to investigate allegations of abuses against workers.
  • Strengthen accountability for torture by moving jurisdiction over
    acts of torture by police agents from the Police Court to the civilian
  • Stop withdrawing the nationality of Jordanian citizens of Palestinian origin.

In 2010, Lebanon should:

  • Amend its citizenship law to ensure that all Lebanese women,
    regardless of the nationality of their husbands, can pass on their
    citizenship to their children and husbands.
  • Publish the results of the Interior Ministry's 2008 investigations
    into torture, set up a national prevention mechanism for torture, and
    prosecute officials suspected of torture.
  • Amend the labor code to provide legal protection for domestic
    workers equal to that for other workers and create a labor inspection
    unit to monitor working conditions for migrant domestic workers.
  • Amend legislation that restricts the ability of Palestinian
    refugees to own property and remove restrictions on their employment.

In 2010, Saudi Arabia should:

  • Dismantle the system of male legal guardianship over women, and
    strengthen protection for women against violence and accountability for
    perpetrators of such violence.
  • Ensure equal citizenship rights for its Shi'a minorities, especially the freedom to practice their religion.
  • Release long-term detainees or try them in fair proceedings that meet international standards.

In 2010, Syria should

  • Free people being detained for peacefully exercising freedom of expression, association, or assembly.
  • Form a commission to address the human rights grievances of the Kurdish minority.
  • Investigate officials alleged to have tortured or mistreated detainees.
  • Reform all the articles in the criminal code that treat those who
    say they killed for "honor" more leniently than other murderers.

In 2010, Yemen should

  • End child marriage and strengthen protection for victims of
    violence against women and accountability for perpetrators of such
  • Take steps to combat torture, including facilitating visits by
    independent monitors to all places of detention and prosecuting
    officials alleged to have participated in torture.
  • Stop indiscriminate bombardments of civilians in the armed conflict
    with northern rebels, and create a mechanism to ensure that the armed
    forces, or allied tribal militias, do not employ child soldiers.
  • Train law enforcement officers on non-lethal methods of crowd
    control, and do not use deadly force against unarmed protesters, such
    as those who participated in large demonstrations in the southern
  • Respect the rights to freedom of expression and of assembly and
    release all persons detained for their peaceful expression or
    participation in peaceful protests.

Human Rights Watch is one of the world's leading independent organizations dedicated to defending and protecting human rights. By focusing international attention where human rights are violated, we give voice to the oppressed and hold oppressors accountable for their crimes. Our rigorous, objective investigations and strategic, targeted advocacy build intense pressure for action and raise the cost of human rights abuse. For 30 years, Human Rights Watch has worked tenaciously to lay the legal and moral groundwork for deep-rooted change and has fought to bring greater justice and security to people around the world.