Human Rights Briefing: Updates on Egypt, Zimbabwe, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia

27 September 2019

Here’s a roundup of human rights news this Friday: UN’s Bachelet urges restraint over arrests of Egypt protestors; expert calls for ‘democratic shift’ in Zimbabwe; Human Rights Council agrees fact-finding mission to Venezuela; independent experts urge freedom for Saudi women's rights defender, after 500 days in prison.

Bachelet expresses ‘serious concerns’ over due process in Egypt, following mass-arrests

The UN human rights chief has expressed “serious concerns” over reports of a lack of due process, after authorities in Egypt made widespread arrests during protests last week.

In a statement issued on Friday, Human Rights Commissioner Michelle Bachelet, urged Egyptian authorities to respect the right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly, “in full compliance with international norms and standards.”

According to Egyptian civil society organizations, more than 2,000 people - including lawyers, human rights defenders, political activists, university professors and journalists - were detained before, during and after street protests that took place in a number of Egyptian cities on 20-21 September.

“The UN Human Rights Office has received information that a number of those detained were subsequently released”, said the statement from OHCHR.

 “Reports also suggest some of those detained were denied legal representation when appearing before the Public Prosecutor, and some have allegedly been charged with serious offences.”

“I remind the Egyptian government that under international law people have a right to protest peacefully,” said Ms. Bachelet. “They also have a right to express their opinions, including on social media. They should never be detained, let alone charged with serious offences, simply for exercising those rights.” 

“I urge the authorities to radically change their approach to any future protests, including those that may take place today,” she added.  

News reports said that some protesters had once again taken to the streets in several cities across Egypt on Friday afternoon, calling for Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to step down.

Zimbabwe must act quicker on democratic reform, urges UN-appointed independent expert

Zimbabwe should do more to embrace and safeguard democracy,  the UN-appointed independent expert on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association said on Friday, at the end of his first visit there.

In a statement, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule expressed his support for the Government’s stated commitment to democratisation.

But two years since Emmerson Mnangagwa became President, after the removal of long-term leader Robert Mugabe, Mr. Voule urged the authorities to go further in promoting people’s rights and engage in dialogue with all those affected by austerity measures.

Mr. Voule’s comments come as UN aid agencies continue to warn of widespread food insecurity in the country, which has been left reeling by a slow-burning economic collapse made worse by drought and the impact of Cyclone Idai in March.

According to a recent update by UN humanitarian coordination agency OCHA, some 5.5 million people in rural areas are now food insecure.

Of this number, more than 3.5 million – around 40 per cent of people in the countryside - are expected to be in need of urgent humanitarian assistance by October.

In addition, some 2.2 million people in urban areas are food insecure, the OCHA update noted.

In his appeal, the Special Rapporteur cited concern over the “excessive” use of force by police and military during protests.

Putting troops in the streets was becoming “commonplace”, he maintained, while also insisting that it was vital for police or military personnel who committed human rights violations to be held accountable.

“To foster impunity is to foster distrust among the population, alienating them from the Government, and quashing their hopes of meaningful change in the future,” he said, before encouraging the authorities to engage in “genuine dialogue with the political class and the population, “including protest movements”.

It was the “only way forward to resolve such a crisis”, he insisted, while highlighting the Government’s “unenviable challenge” of having to resolve a “profound and complex economic, political and social crisis”.

Human Rights Council agrees on fact-finding mission to Venezuela

The UN’s top human rights body agreed on Friday to dispatch a fact-finding mission to Venezuela, in response to grave concerns about killings and other abuses linked to the country’s ongoing political and economic crisis.

The development follows a vote at the Human Rights Council that was supported by less than half of the forum’s 47 Member States, including several South American countries, such as Colombia, Argentina and Peru.

The resolution condemned the “widespread targeted repression and persecution on political grounds” in Venezuela, the “excessive” use of force against peaceful protests and during security operations.

In addition, it highlighted arbitrary detention, torture, ill-treatment, extrajudicial executions and enforced disappearances carried out by the Special Action Forces and pro-government civilian armed groups.

At least 6,000 people have been killed in security operations since January 2018, the resolution maintained, while also urging the authorities to release all political prisoners immediately.

This includes the 27 individuals identified by High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, earlier this month.

Independent human rights experts urge Saudi Arabia to free Loujain Al-Hathloul

 A group of UN human rights experts on Friday urged Saudi Arabia to release Loujain Al-Hathloul whose arrest 500 days ago, marked the beginning of a crackdown against women human rights defenders across the country.

 In a statement, the group of 15 independent experts – Special Rapporteurs and members of the UN Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and practice – said that Ms. Al-Hathloul, “who was detained on spurious national security grounds, had been instrumental in the movement to allow women to drive, and the push to end male guardianship laws.”

 They noted that Saudi Arabia has since been commended widely by the international community, for its recent efforts to reform discriminatory legislation in these areas.

 “It is shockingly hypocritical that Ms. Al-Hathloul remains in prison for campaigning to change laws which have since been amended. Indeed, she should never have been imprisoned in the first place for exercising her fundamental rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.” the experts said.

 “In spite of recent improvements in Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship laws, it is imperative that the world does not lose sight of the human rights concerns which persist in the country, as human rights defenders have continued to express.”

 Ms Al-Hathloul, who was arrested in May of 2018, has said that she has been tortured while in prison, but no inquiry into her allegations has taken place.

 It is also alleged that she turned down a deal offering her freedom in exchange for recanting her statements, said OHCHR. Her last hearing, which was scheduled for April this year, was cancelled, and no new date has been set.

 UN human rights experts have raised their concerns with the Saudi Government over the crackdown on women rights defenders, on a number of occasions.

 

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