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Women of the Middle East: The region's bravest activists behind bars

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Women of the Middle East: The region's bravest activists behind bars

On 08 March 2016, International Women's Day, the Gulf Centre for Human Rights (GCHR) calls on governments and all those responsible for violations against women human rights defenders (WHRDs) to end the judicial harassment of WHRDs in the Gulf region and neighbouring countries. Women have been sentenced to jail in Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for their defense of human rights such as the right to drive and reproductive rights, as well as the right to freedom of expression. Brave women remain in captivity at the hands of armed groups in Syria for their human rights work.

"Across the region, women pay a heavy price for exercising their rights, especially when they dare to demand women's rights in some of the world's most repressive countries," says Maryam Al-Khawaja, GCHR Co-Director, who herself has been sentenced to one year in jail in Bahrain on trumped up charges. "My sister is just one of many courageous hard-working women facing jail sentences or already in jail," she added.

On 02 June 2015, WHRD Zainab Al-Khawaja was sentenced to nine months in prison after trying to visit her father Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja in Jaw prison in August 2014. That sentence was upheld on 2 February 2016 in absentia. She has now been sentenced to a total of three years and one month in prison, on a variety of charges including two sentences for ripping a picture of Bahrain's monarch and one year in prison for allegedly "insulting" a police officer. While she is not currently in prison, she is at risk of arrest at any time. Furthermore, her one-year-old son is being denied a birth certificate and documentation and her own passport has not been renewed.

Women's rights activist Ghada Jamsheer has twelve cases against her in connection with a defamation suit after she accused the management of King Hamad Hospital of corruption on twitter. Complaints were filed against Jamsheer by Salman Attiyat Allah Al-Khalifa, a member of the Bahrain ruling family who is the head of the hospital. She has been sentenced to a year in prison, suspended for three years in one charge; then another seven months in prison on three other charges. As well, on 31 January 2016 the High Criminal Appeal Court imposed fines of 10,000 dinars (approx. USD$26,500) which Jamsheer must pay by June2016 to Salman Al-Khalifa and his wife Dalal. Jamsheer's next court appearances are tomorrow and 31 March.

Women's rights activists remain in jail in Iran, some for long periods, including activist Bahareh Hedayat, imprisoned since 2009, who has been hospitalised repeatedly due to ill health and poor prison conditions. Many other WHRDs were jailed last year.

In May 2015, internationally renowned human rights lawyer and women's rights activist Narges Mohammadi was arrested and taken to Evin prison to serve a six-year sentence handed down in 2012 following a grossly unfair trial on trumped up charges. She is Deputy Director of the Defenders of Human Rights Center (DHRC) and President of the Executive Committee of the National Council of Peace in Iran, and known for her participation in protests against acid attacks on women. She has been separated from her two children, and her husband is exiled in France since 2011.

On 14 May 2015, children's rights defender Atena Daemi was sentenced to 14 years in prison during a 15-minute trial. She was accused of allegedly "gathering and colluding against national security" and "spreading propaganda against the system," among other charges. While GCHR welcomes the fact that she was released from prison on 15 February 2016, albeit after paying a heavy bail of approximately US$232,000, the 14-year sentence is still reportedly in effect.

In June 2015, cartoonist Atena Farghadani was sentenced to over 12 years in prison. She was arrested in August 2014 and charged with "insulting members of parliament" after she drew a cartoon criticising a draft law restricting access to birth control. She was found guilty of "colluding against national security" and "spreading propaganda against the system" through her artwork. Her health deteriorated rapidly after she undertook a hunger strike to protest against the inhumane prison conditions.

After Farghadani shook hands with her lawyer, Mohammad Moghimi, they were both charged with "illegitimate sexual relations." The lawyer was arrested on 13 June 2015 for the handshake, and released after he paid bail of around US$60,000. Farghadani reported that she was forced to undergo a humiliating "virginity and pregnancy test" in August, prior to her trial for the handshake, in what can only be described as an absurd violation of her rights. In January 2016, the two were acquitted for the handshake, but Farghadani remains in jail serving her 12-year sentence.

In June 2015, human rights defender Rana Al-Sadoun, co-founder of the National Committee to Monitor Violations (NCV), was sentenced in absentia to three years in prison with hard labour. She was convicted for repeating a speech delivered in 2002 by former MP Musallam Al-Barrak in which he criticised the electoral law and for which he is currently serving a two-year prison term.

On 12 January 2016, prominent Saudi human rights defender Samar Badawi was arrested overnight after she was summoned by the Criminal Investigation Authority in Jeddah. The arrest appeared to be related to the twitter account of her husband, human rights lawyer Waleed Abu Al-Khair, which published on 08 January a leaked picture from Al-Malaz prison where Abu Al-Khair is detained. Badawi is accused of allegedly running the twitter account. Badawi works very hard to defend the rights of women to vote, drive and to achieve social justice. She was released however is still under constant threat of judicial harassment and arrest.

On 12 February 2015, WHRDs Maysaa Al-Amodi and Loujain Al-Hathloul were released from detention after more than two months in jail for driving a car "without permission." They were detained on 01 December 2015 when they drove to meet each other at the border of the UAE. Both of them were charged with "breaching public order" and "overriding [her] guardian's authority." Saudi Arabia still remains the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive.

Next month, 28 April 2016 will mark the 39th birthday of missing human rights lawyer Razan Zaitouneh, head of the Violations Documentation Centre in Syria (VDC). She remains in captivity after more than two years, with her colleagues Samira Khalil, Nazem Hamadi and her husband Wa'el Hamada, known as the "Douma Four". They were abducted during a raid on their offices by a group of armed men on 9 December 2013.

In February 2015, three sisters of imprisoned UAE94 activist Dr. Issa Al-Suwaidi were subjected to enforced disappearance at the hands of the State Security Apparatus. The three sisters, Asma Khalifa Al-Suwaidi, Maryam Khalifa Al-Suwaidi and Alyaziyah Khalifa Al-Suwaidi, have campaigned peacefully on-line for the release of their brother, highlighting also his unfair trial and the human rights violations to which he was subjected. The three women were released after several months on 15 May.

On International Women's Day, GCHR reiterates its call to free all wrongfully detained WHRDs and to drop charges against them which were motivated by their human rights work, often in defense of women's human rights.

Specifically, GCHR makes the following recommendations:

1. Overturn prison sentences handed down in Bahrain against Zainab Al-Khawaja and Ghada Jamsheer in all these cases that contravene international law;

2. End the judicial harassment of Zainab Al-Khawaja; provide a birth certificate to her son and renew her passport;

3. Free Atena Farghadani, Narges Mohammedi and Bahareh Hedayat from prison in Iran; and drop all the charges against them and Atena Daemi, which are based on their peaceful exercise of the right to freedom of expression;

4. End the practise of carrying out "virginity and pregnancy tests" on detained WHRDs in violation of their rights;

5. Overturn the sentence against human rights defender Rana Al-Sadoun who was sentenced in absentia to three years in prison in Kuwait with hard labour;

6. End the judicial harassment of women who exercise their right to drive in Saudi Arabia;

7. Free Razan Zaitouneh, Samira Khalil and their colleagues who are arbitrarily detained in Syria at the hands of armed groups.

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