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BACKLASH ON ACTIVISTS WHO TAKE TO THE STREETS

Six to 25 years in jail. Those are the harsh sentences meted out last week to 11 Libyan activists who planned to gather in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city, to hold a peaceful demonstration against police brutality. In the Middle East, with so few opportunities to voice dissent, taking to the streets is often the only option. And now, report IFEX members, even that avenue is coming under increasing threat.

The men, part of a group of 14 who were initially arrested, were hoping to hold a rally in February 2007 to commemorate the first anniversary of a violent clash between protesters and police in Benghazi, reports Human Rights Watch. On that deadly day in 2006, demonstrators had stormed the Italian consulate after an Italian government minister defended the publication of the controversial cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Some protesters were beaten by police, some were arrested, and at least 11 were killed.

Of the 14 men arrested in February 2007 for planning the anniversary rally, two have been released. A third man, 'Abd al-Rahman al-Qotaiwi, has not been heard from since his arrest. And the remaining 11 men were convicted - in a new state security court established for the occasion - of planning to overthrow the government and meeting with a U.S. embassy official ahead of the rally.

Idris Boufayed, the "main organiser" who lived for 16 years in exile in Switzerland until he returned to Libya for a visit in 2006, was sentenced to 25 years. Boufayed is suffering from advanced lung cancer and officials are currently deciding if he should be released on medical grounds.

Another defendant, Jamal Ahmad al-Haji, is a recognised writer and government critic. In an article he wrote a few days before his arrest, he called for "freedom, democracy, a constitutional state, and law" in Libya. Al-Haji holds Danish citizenship, which the Libyan government has refused to recognise. Nor have the authorities granted Danish government requests to visit him.

"In Libya today, just planning to criticise the government can land you in jail for years," says Human Rights Watch, which has been at the forefront of a campaign to get the convictions thrown out.

The tune is the same elsewhere in the Middle East. In Bahrain, Special Security Forces (SSF) and military forces in civilian clothes attacked an audience attending a public seminar on 5 June moments before the meeting started, reports the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR). On the outskirts of the capital Manama in Bilad Al-Qadeen, people were gathering to discuss what to do with a petition they had put together - signed by 54,000 citizens - that demanded the resignation of the Prime Minister for his human rights violations during his 37-year rule. One participant is now in a coma after being hit in the head by a rubber bullet that was fired at close range.

Just last week in Egypt, the Arabic Network of Human Rights Information (ANHRI) reported that police threatened to use violence on poets and intellectuals who were trying to gather for a cultural event in Cairo. The participants planned to call for national unity and the rejection of extremism through an evening of song and poetry - reasonable requests, considering the sectarian strife Egypt has been experiencing in recent weeks.

But security forces prevented them for reaching the venue, threatening to hurt them if they tried to break through the police barriers. Among those denied access: the great poet Ahmad-Fouad Negm, and George Ishaq, the former leader of the coalition opposition group Kifaya.

It was "as if poetry and song represented a threat to Egyptian national security and had to be met with a military response," says ANHRI.

Meanwhile, in Syria, a group of 13 notable political activists, including former parliamentarian Riad Seif, remain in detention following their arrest in December 2007 for attending a meeting of opposition groups, reports Human Rights Watch. They are awaiting their trial on charges from weakening national sentiment and awakening sectarian strife, to spreading false news that would affect the morale of the country. Hundreds of other activists are prevented from leaving Syria to attend human rights meetings.

And still others are being prevented from holding gatherings. Mazen Darwish, president of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, had actually gotten a permit from the Ministry of Culture to organise a press freedom conference at the Arab Cultural Center in Damascus on 25 May. But 15 minutes prior to the event, an official from the same ministry ordered its cancellation. In an unrelated case Darwish is currently awaiting trial for defaming the state. He was arrested in January while covering violent clashes in Damascus.

These acts of assembly and the regimes' violent reactions to them are worth remembering at a time when Western governments are edging toward increasing engagement with some of the worst press freedom predators. French President Nicolas Sarkozy is planning to send two senior envoys to Syria as early as this month, as ties suspended last year over Lebanon's political crisis start to thaw.

"Any engagement with Syria must include an open discussion of human rights concerns," says Human Rights Watch. For without continued support for those people and movements that fight for human rights and democracy, Middle East - West relations aren't likely to get very far.

Visit these links:
- Human Rights Watch on Libya: http://tinyurl.com/3ts2qk
- BCHR: http://www.bahrainrights.org/en/node/2254
- ANHRI: http://www.ifex.org/en/content/view/full/94452/
- Human Rights Watch on Syria: http://tinyurl.com/3pomek
- RSF on Darwish: http://www.rsf.org/article.php3?id_article=27489
- IFEX Middle East and North Africa page: http://tinyurl.com/4ksop7
(17 June 2008)

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