Sunday, November 14, 2004


By William Fisher

Internet use in the Arab Middle East is growing rapidly, but there is evidence that many countries in the region are increasing their crackdowns on what they consider to be dissident content.

A study of 11 countries carried out by the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRINFO) – “The Internet In the Arab World: A New Space of Repression? “ – finds many of the area’s estimated 14 million Internet users facing shutdown of websites and Internet cafes, and prosecution for a variety of crimes.

The study charges that "Arab governments typically use the protection of Islamic values and public morals to justify banning websites of human rights or political opposition groups that censure these governments; even forums are banned in Arab countries." Gamal Eid, HRINFO's executive director and the writer of the study, adds: "Most of these governments oppose freedom of expression in particular, and other political and civil freedoms in general."

The study reveals that while some states arrest Internet users just for surfing websites of the oppositional parties or groups, other countries use the Internet to trap socially rejected segments in violation of regulatory and legal requirements.

The study charges that Arab governments use not only traditional methods of curtailing freedom of expression -- censorship and confiscation – but have also developed technologies such as electronic filtering programs to control access to ‘trouble’ sources.

According to Najla Al Rostamani, head of the Gulf News Research Centre, “The building of a networked society is policy-driven…The policy followed in the Arab world goes against the very concept on which the Internet is based. The Internet thrives on freedom to exchange and debate and not on censorship. So long as the barriers to information accessibility remain in place, the Arab world will never become part of the information revolution.”

The HRINFO study finds the most active censorship in Syria, Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. These countries use a variety of tools, including criminal prosecutions, to stop Internet use by opposition political groups, homosexuals, Islamic fundamentalists and religious minorities. In most of these countries, Internet Cafes have been shut down, websites blocked, and numerous users sentenced to prison for ‘improper’ Internet use.

More enlightened, according to the study, are Jordan, Qatar, the UAE, and post-Saddam Iraq.

In Egypt, improper Internet use is being used to justify prosecution of individuals from several opposition political groups, Islamists, journalists, homosexuals, and political activists. Moreover, Egypt has organized a new police unit, known as the "Internet Police".

Prosecutions have included twelve leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, a suspect charged with using the Internet to send false information to "foreign bodies" (meaning foreign human rights organizations) about human rights violations in Egypt, an Egyptian journalist who created a website containing articles critical of Egyptian syndicates, and another user convicted of "disseminating abroad false news that could harm the state's national interests."

In Tunisia, the government bans opposition websites as well as several international websites, including such well-known sites as "Hotmail", and many Palestinian, Egyptian, and human rights websites.

In 2002, a Tunisian court sentenced a journalist, founder and editor-in-chief of the news website, “TUNeZINE”, to two years and four months in prison for "disseminating false news" and "fraudulent use of a means of communication."

According to HRINFO, at least 40 other Tunisians have been “sentenced to long prison terms and tortured, just for logging on to some websites claimed by authorities to be terrorist websites."

The situation in Syria is equally discouraging. The government bans numerous websites and e-mail service providers, and has arrested and convicted many who have attempted to bypass these bans to criticize the government. Syria bans websites with pornographic content and those it considers "hostile” -- pro-Israel, Islamic, web pages with articles about Syrian news and issues, and Kurdish-language news websites based in Germany which provided news, pictures and video clips of demonstrations by the Syrian Kurdish minority. The HRINFO study estimates that, in addition to pornographic web pages, there are 137 blocked websites.

Dozens of Syrians are detained every month for "defamation", or for “disseminating false news abroad” -- criticizing the Syrian government. HRINFO reports they are referred to military courts or detained without trial for periods ranging from three months to three years, or arrested and detained in police stations, where they are more vulnerable to torture and ill-treatment.

In Saudi Arabia, the study finds, 400,000 web pages were banned and filtered to “protect Islamic values and culture” in 2004. The Saudi government has blocked several Shi'a and Islamic websites that offer interpretations differing from the official Wahhabi line, banned international websites like Yahoo, American Online, and the well-known Arab Tawy Forum, and has even banned medical websites that use words like "chest" or "breasts", even though these words are used in explicitly medical contexts.

In Bahrain, the government justifies Internet bans on grounds that the government is the defender of morality and by claiming that certain websites are responsible for creating “domestic turmoil”, the study reports. However, it also bans the websites of political opposition groups.

By mid-2003, the number of Internet users in Libya was estimated to be 850,000, and is rapidly reaching a million. The Libyan Government has invested heavily in the IT sector. But the growth of Internet service has also provided Libyan dissidents scattered around the world with the opportunity to contact Libyan citizens and to strengthen their networks in the country. Most opposition, human rights, forums, news, and even literary websites are based abroad, and the Libyan government attempts to block these sites.

In Yemen, there are some 150,000 Internet users. Both the Yemeni Ministry of Communications and the Yemeni Ministry of Culture have banned and monitored many websites, and these actions have led to a decline in Internet usage. The Yemeni government justifies the banning and blocking for the preservation of "morality." The ban extends to political and cultural websites.

Until the end of 2002, Internet use in Iraq was limited to those who could afford it. In 2002, the number of Internet users among Iraq's total population of 24 million people was only 45,000, and many of these were state officials. Former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein justified his prohibition of Internet use by claiming the Internet as an "American propaganda tool."

The study says “it is too early to state that the occupation has brought about the freedom of Internet use and the absence of censorship.” It adds: “Though Iraq's state of disorder has opened up a space of freedom, it has also produced serious fears. Living conditions continue to deteriorate. Owners of Internet centers close their stores at night out of fear-fear of both the occupying forces and those of the resistance.”

However, Iraq today has a thriving ‘blogging’ community, with hundreds of sites hosted by Iraqis and US and other Coalition soldiers.

The study finds Jordan, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates among the more promising states in the Arab cyber world.

Jordanians were quick to seize the medium’s new opportunities for expression. Users included leftists, Islamists, human rights groups deprived of freedom of expression for political reasons, Shiites and Christians deprived on religious grounds, and homosexuals, deprived for both social and religious reasons. There are many Cyber Cafes, and the admission age has recently been reduced from 16 to 13. In general, there is little censorship, though the country is considering a new law to regulate audio and visual broadcasting.

In the United Arab Emirates, the report estimates the number of Internet users to be 1.25 million, or 31% of the population. This places the UAE among the most advanced nations in Internet use not only among Arab states but internationally as well. In its assessment of national e-government programs, the United Nations ranked the Emirates number one among Arab states and 21st in the world.

But censorship is nonetheless the subject of considerable debate. Some say the “Proxy Filtering System” has contributed to the growth of the net because it allows people access from inside their homes upon condition that there be some sort of censorship to protect their families from ‘morally offensive’ websites. Others have called for absolute freedom and cancellation of the Proxy Filtering System.

Compared with most Arab states, the study finds, Qataris enjoy more Internet freedom of Internet use and less censorship. There has been no news of website bans other than those placed on some pornographic websites.


By William Fisher

With the death of Yasser Arafat, and renewed discussion by President Bush and British Prime Minister Blair of re-starting an Arab-Israeli peace process, Palestinians may be wondering who their allies will be. And they may find one in a most unlikely place: among American Jews.

The reason is that, contrary to widely held beliefs, many American Jews oppose the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Arial Sharon and favor a negotiated two-state solution to the Palestinian – Israeli dispute. And there is growing evidence that this moderate constituency is gaining in its ability to influence US policy in the Middle East.

Yet there is much evidence that groups representing alternative views are growing in both numbers and in influence. For example, ever since the 1993 Oslo Accord proved that negotiations were possible, surveys have consistently found that 50 to 60 percent of American Jews favor ending the occupation and dismantling settlements in return for peace.

While most of the world – and especially the Arab world – believes that Jews are Jews are Jews, that they are totally homogenous, and that all their views on all Israeli-related issues are the same, the facts do not support this conclusion. In Israel, Left-leaning and Right-leaning political parties and media have been locked in fierce debate for many years. The same deeply felt differences are mirrored in the United States.

What is true in the US is that dissenters from American ‘conventional wisdom’ on Israel do not get anything like the financial support, press coverage or attention from office-seeking politicians afforded to more powerful and well-connected groups such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

As Esther Kaplan wrote in the Nation magazine: “AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents (of Major Jewish Organizations), along with their powerful fellow travelers, Christian Zionists, have forged a bipartisan consensus in Washington that Middle East policy must privilege the ‘special relationship’ between the United States and Israel. In practice, this solid consensus means putting Israeli security before peace; supporting even such extreme Israeli measures as the separation wall and assassinations; and delegitimizing the Palestinian leadership.”

But this approach is being seriously challenged by a number of ‘alternative’ Jewish groups. Who are they and what are their views?

One of them is the Chicago-based Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, (the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace), co-founded in 2002 by Marcia Freedman, a former Knesset member. Brit Tzedek is a national grassroots membership organization representing 16,000 members with chapters in twenty-seven cities. It supports a negotiated settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based roughly on the 1967 borders, sharing Jerusalem, and evacuation of settlements. It asserts that security for Israel can only be achieved through the establishment of an economically and politically viable Palestinian state, an end to Israel's occupation of land acquired during the 1967 war, and to Palestinian terrorism.

Another group is the Berkeley-based Tikkun Community. It calls on the Palestinian people to acknowledge the right of Jews to maintain their own homeland in the pre-1967 borders of the state of Israel, with Jewish control over the Jewish section of Jerusalem and the Western Wall. It calls on the Palestinian people to stop acts of terror against Israel and opposes Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights.

The Oakland-based Jewish Voice for Peace, was founded in 1996, when, “despite three years of participating in a ‘peace process’ under the Oslo accords, Palestinians and Israelis seemed increasingly unlikely to achieve the peace they claimed to seek.” JVP members were especially concerned that the Israeli government was continuing to build settlements in the Occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. It organized more than 100 people to protest at the Israeli consulate in San Francisco, becoming one of the first US Jewish groups to criticize Israeli treatment of Palestinians.

Jews Against the Occupation, an organization in the New York City area, rejects the notion that it is "necessary" to subjugate Palestinians for the sake of keeping Jews safe; claims that that security can only come from mutual respect, and that the occupation of Palestine is only worsening the position of Jews in the Middle East and around the world; opposes the demolition of Palestinian houses and crops in the Occupied Territories; calls for an end to U.S. government aid to Israel; and opposes the Israeli Government’s “attack the Palestinian economy.”

Meretz USA, an affiliate of Israel's left-wing Meretz Party, calls itself “a progressive Zionist organization that educates Americans about issues of civil rights and peace in Israel.” It sees “no alternative to renewing the search for peace between Israel and the Palestinian people, establishing and sustaining a cease-fire, and taking basic measures conducive to the renewal of meaningful negotiations leading to the creation of a sovereign, demilitarized Palestinian state.” The organization has consistently opposed building Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.

These are but a few of America’s so-called ‘alternative’ organizations. Some of the newer groups are cooperating with older outfits like Americans for Peace Now (APN), which pushes for active White House and State Department engagement in the peace process, especially Administration efforts to broker a new interim understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, facilitate final status arrangements that reconcile Israeli security with Palestinian statehood, and encourage negotiations between Israel, Syria, and Lebanon.

What are these groups doing to make their views heard?

There is a long menu of initiatives. For example, in March, one of the older peace groups, Rabbis for Human Rights of North America, sent an open letter to Prime Minister Sharon protesting Israel's house-demolition policy. It was signed by 400 rabbis, including leaders of some of the largest congregations in the country. In April, Brit Tzedek organized 10,000 US Jews to sign another open letter calling on Israel and the US to fund the relocation of Jewish settlers from the occupied territories to Israel.

Though these groups lack support from most of the larger Jewish donors and Jewish foundations, their numbers are growing. APN has some 25,000 supporters; Brit Tzedek, 17,000. Members believe there is substantial room for growth, approaching AIPAC’s 65,000 membership.

While there is significant diversity of opinion even among ‘alternative’ groups, all of them support a negotiated settlement and a two-state solution, and could be potentially valuable Palestinian allies if a re-started peace process becomes a reality.


By Summer Said and William Fisher

One of the byproducts of the incessant discussion of ‘reform’ in the MENA region has been the phenomenon of government-organized human rights bodies. As of this writing, such bodies are have been established in more than a dozen countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

However, these groups have been viewed with skepticism precisely because they have been formed by governments – often by repressive governments that continue to show little regard for individual liberties. Criticism has come from local NGOs as well as from international advocacy groups such as Human Rights Watch.

Arguably the most highly publicized of these groups is the Egyptian Government’s Human Rights Council (NCHR), founded by President Hosni Mubarak under the leadership of former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali. The NCHR is about to celebrate its first birthday. As it prepares its first annual report, it may be timely to review its life to date.

Like many of the other government-organized human rights in the MENA region the Council was viewed with widespread skepticism by human rights and civil society NGOs –some of which have been the targets of an NGO law that places serious restrictions on their ability to operate freely. Today, the Council still finds most non-governmental organizations – and international human rights groups --unconvinced that the new body is anything more than “window dressing”.

Moreover, some of its most vocal critics are human rights activists who are members of the NCHR Board. The 25-member Board includes prominent representatives of human rights NGOs, universities, and women’s and legal affairs organizations.

Moataz El Fegiery, Program Officer for the Cairo Institute For Human Rights Studies, says: "NGOs consider the establishment of this Council an attempt to decorate the government externally, but no one really believes in the Council. The government can prove its will to reform by taking urgent steps to end the emergency law or combating the epidemic spread of torture or announcing a timetable for political reform, but none of this is happening."

At the heart of their criticism is the Council’s failure to deliver on its promise to recommend to President Mubarak the repeal of the country’s Emergency Law, which has been in force since the October 1981 assassination of President Anwar Al Sadat. The Emergency Law gives authorities extensive powers to restrict freedoms of assembly and expression and to arrest and detain Egyptians without due process.

A few months after President Mubarak announced formation of the NCHR, Chairman Boutros-Ghali told the press the Emergency Law would be repealed “in three weeks”. The NCHR prepared a memorandum to the General Prosecutor, who has jurisdiction over these laws, recommending that the Laws be repealed. The NCHR memorandum argued that the rationale for a state of emergency no longer exists because Egypt has experienced internal calm for several years. It also contended that continuing the state of emergency blocks political reform, discourages foreign investment, and damages Egypt's international standing.

But it then postponed presentation of the memorandum to Mubarak, citing the need for “further study”. Many critics believe the NCHR thus “failed in its first test to prove its commitment to human rights problem and its nothing more than window dressing.”

The General Secretary of the country’s oldest human rights organization, Hafez Abou Saeda of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR), an NCHR Board member, says: “The matter does not need further consideration. What is needed is not an amendment of the Emergency Law but the end of the state of emergency. Any decision short of this will damage the legitimacy of the NCHR since it would be accepting a law that is the source of all human rights violations. The commitment to political reform and the continuation of the state of emergency are contradictory and can in no way occur together."

The EOHR is among leading human rights organizations critical of the NCHR. For the EOHR to recognize the NCHR, it says, “the government has first to abolish the Emergency Law, free political prisoners and apologize officially to all those who were tortured in police stations and prisons.”

Egypt’s Information Ministry’s website claims the country “has a long history in the protection of human rights.” But human rights groups such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as the US Department of State, find Egypt’s human rights record among the worst in the Middle East. It is reportedly one of the countries to which the CIA ‘renders’ people in their custody to be subjected to torture in prison.

NCHR vice-chairman Kamal Aboul Magd, a noted legal scholar, believes “the Council’s most important achievement during its first year was the establishment of the Complaints Fund, which to date has received some 4,000 complaints from individual citizens and institutions. “ However, only 50 of the complaints received thus far were related to human rights violations. Aboul Magd says these complaints will be documented in the Council’s annual report expected to be released in January. The Council is currently visiting prisons and detention centers to ensure that prisoners are treated in accordance with local regulations and worldwide norms. Human rights violations are to be included in the annual report.

Critics complain that “almost a year after its formation last January, rights activists “still cannot identify the Council’s achievements” and that “its agenda remains shrouded in secrecy.” They charge the Council looks “more like an answer to international pressure than an answer to domestic political party pressure or public opinion.”

However, chairman Boutros Ghali has tried to reassure the Council’s critics that “everything will happen in time via diplomacy”, but has reminded the press that the government is not obliged to carry out the recommendations of the Council. “Our job is to present studies and resolutions to the government and they later decide what they will do,” he explains. The government-appointed Council is solely an advisory body and has no executive power to implement its decisions.

While some critics acknowledge that the Council’s board members enjoy good reputations and high credibility, some say that they are too busy with their other activities and “do not pay much attention to the Council.” Chairman Boutros-Ghali has seven or eight other engagements.

Amr Al Shoubki, political analyst at Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, declares that the NCHR’s board members have “failed to present a real reform from the human rights status in the country. This is due to the fact the Council has been affiliated to the government since its establishment,” said Al Shoubki. “Those highly regarded people were not given the freedom to do what they wanted or what was required.”

The scorecard of MENA’s government-sponsored human rights groups was perhaps best summed up by a member of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, who asked to remain anonymous. Referring to Egypt’s human rights council, he concludes: “We should not expect a government-sponsored organization to scandalize the government. They were just established to receive complaints and issue useless reports.”

While a few of the government sponsored human rights commissions in the MENA region may be able to report sporadic progress, his conclusion appears to apply to the MENA region as a whole.


By William Fisher

Policies of the Bush Administration have “facilitated” racial profiling, despite the President’s vow to eliminate the practice.

This is the view of the United States Commission on Civil Rights. The Commission’s report was posted on its website in September, but the four Bush-appointed Commission members delayed public discussion of its findings until after the election.

The report charges that after the September 11, 2001, attacks, “Arab Americans and Muslims increasingly became targets of law enforcement scrutiny. Law enforcement officials’ underlying prejudices and presumptions of guilt tainted routine security procedures. Profiling criteria came to include ethnicity, national origin, and religion…heightened scrutiny and harassment at airports (and) selective enforcement of visa regulations. Arab Americans and Muslims complained that airline personnel and airport security denied them access to aircraft and subjected them to unwarranted searches and harassment. In some instances, airport security removed individuals from planes because members of the crew or passengers did not ‘feel safe.’ On a larger scale, profiling resulted in detentions, forced registration, and extensive monitoring of persons of Middle Eastern descent.”

The Commission’s Report was critical of a number of Federal agencies, principally the Department of Justice (DOJ), which includes the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The DHS includes the Transportation Security Administration, which is responsible safety at airports and for other modes of transportation, and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), formerly known as the Immigration and Naturalization Service. The DOJ is headed by the Attorney General.

The Human Rights Commission is an independent agency of the Federal Government. Four of its eight Commissioners are appointed by the President and four by Congress. No more than four members can belong to the same political party. Currently, the Commission consists of three Democrats, three Republicans, and two Independents. Its principal mission is to collect information relating to discrimination or a denial of equal protection of the laws under the Constitution because of race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin, or in the administration of justice.
Defining racial profiling as “the act of assuming that individuals of one race or ethnicity are more likely than others to engage in misconduct”, the Commission declares that “The concept belies the fundamental tenets of equality in the Constitution, as the Fifth Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment prohibit selective enforcement of the law based on race.”

Its report states: “After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, securing the nation’s borders became the administration’s most urgent job. Among responses, President Bush authorized federal officials to round up hundreds of Arabs, Muslims, and Arab Americans as material witnesses in its investigation of the attacks and detain them on minor immigration violations. Arab and Muslim immigrants and visitors were identified as a ‘dangerous class’, signaling the government’s intention to deny them entry into the country whenever possible. America’s borders thus became more tightly controlled, and certain immigrants bore the burden of the administration’s policies.”

The Commission found that by November 2001, “the DOJ had detained more than 1,100 men of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent. DOJ did not reveal who it had detained, the reasons for detention, nor where detainees were held, not even to their families. Many detainees alleged mistreatment by prison guards, including being hosed down with cold water, strip searched, forced to sleep upright in freezing conditions, denied food or legal representation, and kept in their cells for long periods.

Since 9/11, the FBI and the USCIS have arrested and detained some 5,000 people on ‘terror-related’ charges. There have been no convictions. However, many detainees have been deported, most of them for minor visa violations.

The DOJ’s own Inspector General (IG) also issued a report (April 2003) highly critical of the treatment of detainees. "While our review recognized the enormous challenges and difficult circumstances confronting the Department in responding to the terrorist attacks”, the IG’s report said, “we found significant problems in the way the detainees were handled." It claimed that from December 2001 to June 2002, 34 complaints of civil rights violations, including accusations that employees at federal detention centers had beaten Muslim and Arab immigrants, were filed. In all, DOJ received 1,073 complaints during the six-month period following the implementation of the Patriot Act.”

In a press statement issued November 9, Anthony D. Romero, Executive Director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), lays much of the responsibility for racial profiling and other civil rights abuses at the feet of just-retired Attorney General John Ashcroft. Romero says “Ashcroft's legacy has been an open hostility to protecting civil liberties and an outright disdain for those who dare to question his policies. (He) has insisted that the U.S. government could unilaterally detain American citizens without charge and access to counsel.” The ACLU is a Washington-based human rights advocacy group.

President Bush has nominated White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to replace Ashcroft, who resigned last week. Gonzales is the author of a controversial memorandum to President Bush suggesting ways the United States could legally deprive detainees designated as ‘enemy combatants’ the protections of the Geneva Conventions. Gonzales described international conventions governing prisoners of war, including the Geneva Conventions, as ''obsolete.''

The administration’s policies also affected immigrants and visitors already in the United States, the report says. “When the USA Patriot Act was signed into law on October 27, 2001, the attorney general was given the authority to detain foreign citizens if believing that they pose a national security threat.”

The Commission’s Report claims that, while, “detentions were reserved for those believed to be a national security threat, other Arab and Muslim immigrants were also viewed with suspicion.” In November 2001, Attorney General Ashcroft ordered the “voluntary” interviews of approximately 5,000 men, ages 18 to 33, “who had entered the United States with nonimmigrant visas from countries suspected of giving refuge to terrorists These men were not suspects in the attacks, but interviewers were told to ask about their religious practices, feelings towards the U.S. government, and immigration status.”

Moreover, the Report adds, “Because the men interviewed were all of Middle Eastern and South Asian ancestry, critics of the policy accused the government of participating in racial and ethnic profiling. Interviewees were disturbed by the government’s unabashed willingness to use ancestry as a proxy for terrorism. Despite their feelings, many acquiesced to the request believing the government would monitor them if they did not.”

The detention and subsequent deportation of many Arab and Muslim visitors has created a firestorm in the civil rights community. Nonetheless, provisions for ‘expedited deportation” remain in the House of Representatives’ version of intelligence reform legislation. The House and Senate are currently attempting to reconcile their different versions of this proposed legislation.

The report concludes that “changes to the nation’s policies under the Bush administration have left immigrants unprotected and unfairly treated. New immigration policies have created a dual system of rights and protections based largely on national origin, race, and ethnicity.” It urges: “The circumstances the United States now faces must not close the once open doors of a nation founded by immigrants.”