Human Rights Review for Middle East Remains Mixed

Report criticizes security force abuses, welcomes elections and reforms

By Stephen Kaufman
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- The State Department's 2003 report on human rights remained critical of many Middle Eastern countries, charging them with allowing their security forces to commit various abuses against their citizens. However, the report also praised recent political reforms in Morocco and Egypt as well as free and fair elections in Qatar, Yemen and Oman.

The 2003 Country Reports On Human Rights Practices was released February 25, and individual country reports can be viewed in detail at

The report said that with the establishment of the U.S.-Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI), designed to assist political, economic and social reforms, Middle Easterners are able to receive substantial assistance and skills training for those "who wish to compete for office, administer elections, report on such events and influence them as members of civil society."

MEPI programming has been reinforced with "unprecedented (and unusually public) diplomacy" designed to address the human rights problems described in the 2003 report.

The report noted that the April overthrow of Saddam Hussein and the Ba'ath Party in Iraq ended "grave human rights violations" that were carried out by the regime, such as arbitrary arrests, killings, torture and persecutions, which the report said, "were facts of daily life."

"Since the fall of the regime, evidence has come to light of common and capricious brutality that terrorized individuals in every walk of life, as well as of mass graves in which as many as 300,000 bodies are buried. The record is still unfolding," said the report.

The report attributed Syria and Iran with poor human rights records. In Iran, it said human rights had worsened in 2003, with the hard-line clerical regime stifling democratic and social freedoms through intimidation, violence and imprisonment of opposition activists.

It said reformist members of the Iranian Parliament had been harassed, prosecuted, and threatened with jail for statements made under parliamentary immunity. Student protestors had also been beaten, and thousands, including several journalists, were arrested during the summer. The report also said that a Canadian-Iranian photographer had been beaten to death while in custody.

Syria, it said, "continued to prohibit any organized independent political activity, and security forces committed numerous abuses with impunity."

The report made note of Saudi Arabia's October announcement that it would hold municipal elections within one year, but said officials had not yet "provided specific information about the elections, including who would be able to vote or run, when the elections will take place, or what authority the municipal councils will have."

The human rights report also said that in 2003, Saudi authorities had met with organized groups of reform advocates, allowed Human Rights Watch to visit the kingdom for the first time, and had established a National Dialogue Center to address religious extremism and problems existing between the country's different Muslim traditions.

However, it added that there are "credible reports" that the country's security forces continue to practice torture, abuse, arbitrary arrests and incommunicado detentions.

"Violence and discrimination against women, discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities, and strict limitations on workers rights continued," said the report, and "freedom of religion still does not exist by any internationally recognized standard."

Israel was also criticized for having a poor human rights record in the occupied territories. The report cited the total closure of the West Bank for the entire year, targeted killings, and the excessive use of force by security forces. Specific examples of excessive use of force included operations in Palestinian civilian areas, such as bombings, raids, and the destruction of Palestinian homes and property.

The report said the United States had also raised concerns over Israel's discrimination against its Arab citizens, and the issue of trafficking in women for the purposes of forced prostitution.

The State Department report also criticized members of the Palestinian security services and the FATAH faction of the PLO for participating with individuals and terrorist organizations in violent attacks against Israeli civilians.

"Palestinian security forces also used excessive force against Palestinians during demonstrations; abused prisoners and arbitrarily arrested and detained persons; and provided poor prison conditions," said the report.

The report praised political developments in Qatar, where a popular referendum was held in April to approve a draft constitution. During the same month, Yemen held its second-ever parliamentary elections, which were judged to be free and fair by international observers. Elections were also held in Oman in October, and Jordan's King Abdullah increased the number of women members in his country's Senate in November, according to the report.

Morocco was praised for setting an example for Africa and the Arab World by enacting a new family code that "revolutionizes the rights of women."

The report said the new code raises the age of marriage for women, strengthens their rights with regard to divorce, child custody and inheritance, and places stringent restrictions on the practice of polygamy.

Neighboring Algeria was criticized for failing to "investigate, account for and bring justice in as many as 18,000 cases of missing persons" in the aftermath of violence in the 1990s.

Egypt received mixed reviews, earning praise for formally abolishing its State Security Courts in May, but receiving criticism for its continued use of Emergency Courts, "which observers argued was not an improvement."

The government also established a National Council for Human Rights and abolished hard labor as a punishment, but the report said there continued to be cases where Egyptian citizens were subjected to such punishment.

The report said Tunisia, while continuing to "provide for human rights in certain areas," also committed abuses such as torturing detainees, violating its citizens' privacy rights, placing significant restrictions on freedoms of speech and press, and harassing judges, human rights activists and members of civil society organizations.

Likewise, while welcoming Libya's recent cooperation to eliminate its weapons of mass destruction, the report said that state forces made widespread use of torture and incommunicado detention and maintained their authority to pass sentences without trial.

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