Amnesty International Report 2015/16 - Middle East and North Africa regional overview

For millions of people across the Middle East and North Africa region, 2015 brought calamity and unremitting misery. Armed conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya continued to cause countless civilian deaths and injuries and forced displacement that in the case of Syria was on a truly epic scale. Elsewhere, government authorities clamped down on dissent and tightened controls citing the threat to public safety posed by armed groups that carried out a rash of bomb and other attacks in countries across the region and beyond.

ARMED CONFLICT

In Syria, Yemen and large areas of Iraq and Libya continuing armed conflicts saw government and non-state forces repeatedly commit war crimes and serious human rights abuses with impunity, killing and injuring thousands of civilians and driving millions from their homes and into despair and destitution. Fighting forces showed little or no regard for the lives of civilians and ignored the legal obligation of all parties – both state and non-state – to spare civilians.

The most severe of these armed conflicts continued to rage in Syria, causing widespread devastation and loss of life, while also severely impacting on Syria's neighbours and other countries in the region and beyond. By the end of the year, according to the UN, more than 250,000 people had been killed in Syria since the government's brutal repression of popular protests and demands for reform that began in 2011. Civilians continued to bear the brunt of the conflict. Millions continued to be forcibly displaced; by the end of 2015, an additional 1 million people had fled Syria, swelling the number of refugees – mostly in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan – to 4.6 million. Thousands sought to gain entry to Europe via perilous sea crossings from Turkey, and more than 7.6 million people were internally displaced within Syria. Some had been forcibly displaced several times.

Throughout 2015, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continued to bomb and shell opposition-held civilian areas without restraint, killing and injuring thousands. They also reportedly used chemical agents in some attacks. They continued to target medical facilities and to besiege civilian areas controlled by armed opposition groups, trapping their remaining civilian inhabitants and condemning them to starvation and utter deprivation while exposing them to repeated shelling and bombing. At the same time, non-state armed groups also carried out unlawful killings and indiscriminately shelled government-held areas. Large areas of Syria, like much of northern Iraq, were controlled by the armed group calling itself Islamic State (IS), whose forces also continued to commit war crimes and crimes against humanity, while brazenly advertising their abuses over the internet as a propaganda and recruitment tool. In areas it controlled, such as al-Raqqa in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, IS ruthlessly enforced its own narrow interpretation of Islam and deterred opposition with summary killings and other cruel punishments. In Iraq, in particular, IS continued to target Shi'a Muslims and members of the Yazidi and other minorities; more than a dozen mass graves were found in areas of Iraq formerly held by IS that contained the mortal remains of Yazidis whom IS forces had summarily killed. Many Yazidi women and girls remained missing after being captured by IS fighters and forced into sexual slavery. In Iraq, IS forces captured Ramadi, capital of the predominantly Sunni Anbar province, in May, driving out government forces and causing thousands of people to flee south towards the capital Baghdad. After capturing the city, IS forces conducted a wave of killings of civilians and members of the security forces, disposing of bodies by dumping them into the Euphrates River. They imposed strict dress and behaviour codes and punished alleged infractions with execution-style public killings; IS forces reportedly killed dozens of men they alleged were gay by throwing them from the roofs of buildings. IS forces also destroyed religious and cultural artefacts, including at the UNESCO World Heritage site at Palmyra in Syria.

The Iraqi government sought to recapture Ramadi and other IS-controlled areas of the north and east, initially augmenting its security forces with mainly Shi'a militias previously responsible for sectarian killings and other serious human rights abuses, and by calling in air strikes by a US-led international coalition and assistance from Iran. As they advanced, government forces indiscriminately shelled areas held or contested by IS, killing and injuring civilians. In December, the Iraqi army, supported by US-led international coalition air strikes and Sunni tribal fighters, but not Shi'a militias, recaptured Ramadi. The Iraqi authorities continued to detain thousands of mostly Sunni Muslims without trial as alleged terrorism suspects and subjected them to torture and other ill-treatment with impunity; many others were sentenced to death or long prison sentences after grossly unfair trials before courts that commonly convicted defendants on the basis of torture-tainted "confessions".

In Yemen, an array of contending forces spread misery and mayhem throughout the country. Early in the year, Huthi forces belonging to the northern Zaidi Shi'a minority, who took control of the capital Sana'a in September 2014, swept southward, supported by forces loyal to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, threatening Yemen's second and third largest cities, Taiz and the Red Sea port city of Aden. Huthi forces fired explosive weapons indiscriminately into civilian areas of Yemen and across the border into Saudi Arabia; attacked hospitals and medical workers; recklessly exposed civilians to risk by launching attacks from the vicinity of homes, hospitals and schools; deployed anti-personnel landmines that pose an ongoing risk to civilians; used lethal force against protesters; closed down NGOs, and abducted and detained journalists and other critics.

On 25 March, a military coalition of nine Arab states led by Saudi Arabia intervened in the conflict at the request of Yemeni President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who had taken refuge in the Saudi Arabian capital Riyadh as Huthi forces advanced, and with the aim of restoring President Hadi and his government to power. The coalition launched a campaign of air strikes against the Huthis and areas that they controlled or contested, imposed a partial air and sea blockade and deployed ground troops in support of Yemeni anti-Huthi forces. While some coalition attacks targeted military objectives, many others were indiscriminate, disproportionate or appeared to be deliberately directed against civilians and civilian objects, including schools, hospitals and roads, particularly in Yemen's northern Sa'da governorate, the Huthis' main base. In some areas, coalition aircraft also dropped US-made cluster munitions, despite the international prohibition on the use of these inherently indiscriminate weapons, endangering civilians' lives.

Armed groups opposed to the Huthis, including IS, summarily killed captured Huthi fighters and carried out suicide and other attacks targeting civilians. IS bomb attacks on two Shi'a mosques on 20 March killed more than 140 people, all or mostly civilians, and wounded hundreds of others.

By the end of the year, Yemen's armed conflict had killed more than 2,700 civilians, according to the UN, and forcibly displaced more than 2.5 million people, creating a humanitarian crisis.

The Yemeni conflict was not the only one in which international forces became direct participants. In both Iraq and Syria a US-led international military coalition of Western and Arab states used aircraft and drones to target IS forces and some other armed groups, sometimes causing civilian casualties. In Syria, Russia's armed forces intervened to support the al-Assad government, despite its mounting record of human rights violations, launching air strikes and cruise missile attacks against areas held by opposition forces as well as against IS targets; by the end of the year, these attacks were reported to have killed hundreds of civilians.

Libya, too, remained mired in armed conflict four years after the fall of Mu'ammar al-Gaddafi's regime. Two rival governments and parliaments vied for supremacy, one based in the east that was internationally recognized and backed by the Operation Dignity military coalition, and the other, supported by the Libya Dawn coalition of Western-based armed militias and other forces, in the capital Tripoli. Elsewhere, armed groups pursuing their own ideological, regional, tribal, economic and ethnic agendas fought for control, including local affiliates of IS and al-Qa'ida.

The various forces ranged against each other committed serious violations of the laws of war, including direct attacks on civilians, including medical workers, and indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks, as well as unlawful killings, abductions, arbitrary detention, torture and other serious abuses. IS-affiliated forces in the Libyan cities of Sirte and Derna carried out public killings, floggings and amputations, and targeted foreign nationals of other faiths. In February, an IS-affiliated armed group published graphic video footage on the internet showing its mass killing of 21 mostly Egyptian Coptic Christian migrants abducted several weeks earlier, sparking a retaliatory air strike by Egyptian war planes.

In December, representatives of Libya's two rival governments signed a peace deal brokered by the UN, committing to end the violence and form a national unity government. It offered at least some hope to Libya's beleaguered population at the end of a year that saw some 600 civilians killed in the armed conflict and almost 2.5 million people in need of humanitarian assistance and protection, although the agreement excluded various armed groups and militias and did not bring an end to hostilities.

Elsewhere in the region, major, deep-rooted problems remained. The year saw no progress towards resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even if it did not again flare into open warfare. Israel maintained its relentless land, sea and air blockade of Gaza, suffocating reconstruction there after the devastation caused by the 2014 armed conflict. In the occupied West Bank, Israel continued to promote illegal settlements and severely restricted the movement of Palestinians using an array of military checkpoints, barriers and a fence/wall stretching hundreds of kilometres. Thousands of Palestinians who opposed Israel's military occupation or engaged in protests against it were arrested and detained, with hundreds held under renewable administrative orders that empowered the authorities to detain them indefinitely without charge or trial; others were shot by Israeli troops who regularly used excessive force against Palestinian protesters. Tension rose sharply in the last quarter of the year amid a spate of stabbing and other attacks on Israelis by lone Palestinians. Israeli soldiers and police responded with lethal force including, at times, in circumstances when individuals posed no imminent threat to life. Israeli forces killed at least 156 Palestinians from the Occupied Palestinian Territories, including children, mostly in the last quarter of the year, some in apparent extrajudicial executions.

In January, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared Palestine's accession to the Rome Statute and accepted the ICC's jurisdiction over crimes within its mandate committed within the Occupied Palestinian Territories since June 2014. However, neither the Palestinian national unity government under President Abbas nor the Hamas de facto administration in Gaza took any steps to investigate war crimes, including indiscriminate rocket and mortar attacks, summary killings, and other serious abuses by Palestinian armed groups during the 2014 armed conflict with Israel, or to hold to account Palestinian security officials responsible for unlawful detentions and torture. Israel, likewise, failed to conduct independent investigations into the extensive war crimes and other violations of international law that its forces committed in Gaza during the 2014 armed conflict, or to hold to account those responsible for unlawful killings in the West Bank and torture and other ill-treatment of detainees.

REFUGEES, INTERNALLY DISPLACED PEOPLE AND MIGRANTS

The human cost of the armed conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya in 2015 was immeasurable, although the continuing surge in refugees fleeing these countries and the even greater number of people who were internally displaced within them gave some indication. By the end of the year, the four conflicts had together created more than 5 million refugees and asylum-seekers and more than 13.5 million internally displaced persons (IDPs), according to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency. Elsewhere, such as in Iran, state repression also fuelled a continuing flow of refugees seeking protection abroad.

The impact of the refugee crisis fell most heavily on states within the Middle East and North Africa region. At the end of the year, Lebanon hosted well over 1 million refugees from Syria – they comprised between a quarter and a third of Lebanon's total population – and Jordan hosted in excess of 641,800 refugees from Syria. The presence of so many refugees placed an enormous strain on the host countries' resources, a strain that was only partly alleviated by faltering international humanitarian assistance and support, and presented huge social and security challenges. In both Lebanon and Jordan the authorities took measures to staunch the flow of new arrivals, tightening controls at official and informal border crossing points, blocking the entry of certain categories of people, notably members of Syria's long-standing Palestinian refugee community, and toughening residency requirements for those already admitted. More than 12,000 refugees from Syria, denied entry to Jordan, remained in a remote desert area on the Jordanian side of the border with Syria in desperate conditions. Meanwhile, in December, Jordanian authorities deported more than 500 Sudanese refugees and asylum-seekers to Sudan, where they were at risk of human rights violations, in contravention of the international principle of non-refoulement.

Life remained very tough and uncertain even for those who escaped Syria and the other countries enmeshed in armed conflict, due to the hardships and insecurity they encountered as refugees. These difficulties propelled hundreds of thousands of refugees to expose themselves to new risks as they sought to find greater security further afield, particularly in EU countries. Huge numbers departed, particularly from Libya and Turkey, which alone hosted around 2.3 million refugees from Syria, to attempt dangerous sea crossings to Italy and Greece, often in overcrowded, unseaworthy vessels provided by extortionate people traffickers. Many made it and gained entry to the relative safety of Europe, where they faced a decidedly mixed reception as EU states bickered about who should bear responsibility for them and what should be each state's "fair share" of refugees. Countless others, however, lost their lives at sea attempting that stage of their journey, including many infants and other children.

In addition to the more than 1 million refugees from Syria who swelled its population, Lebanon also continued to host several hundred thousand Palestinian refugees, decades after the conflicts with Israel that led them to flee their homes. They were afforded protection by the Lebanese authorities but remained subject to discriminatory laws and policies that denied them property inheritance rights, access to free public education and certain categories of paid employment.

Migrants, as well as refugees and those internally displaced, remained particularly vulnerable to abuse in a number of countries. In Algeria and Morocco, migrants from countries in sub-Saharan Africa were liable to arrest and summary expulsion. In Libya, Tripoli-based authorities held up to 4,000 migrants and other undocumented foreign nationals in indefinite detention in facilities where they faced torture or other ill-treatment, and other refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants faced serious abuses, including discrimination and labour exploitation. In Israel, the authorities denied asylum-seekers from Eritrea and Sudan access to a fair refugee determination process, detained more than 4,200 at desert detention facilities by the end of the year, and pressured others to leave Israel "voluntarily" or face indefinite detention.

Migrant workers, many from South and Southeast Asia, also continued to face severe levels of exploitation and abuse in the oil and gas-rich countries of the Gulf, where the kafala sponsorship system tied them to their employers and they were inadequately protected under labour law. In Qatar, where 90% of the workforce were migrant workers, the government largely failed to implement reforms it had promised in 2014; many construction workers remained exposed to unsafe living and working conditions and thousands of domestic workers, mostly women, faced numerous abuses ranging from low pay and excessive working hours to physical assault, forced labour and human trafficking. In Kuwait, however, a new law for the first time gave migrant domestic workers a right to one rest day each week and 30 days' annual paid leave.

REPRESSION OF DISSENT

Governments across the Middle East and North Africa region remained intolerant of criticism and dissent and curtailed rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly. In Algeria and Morocco, state authorities used widely drawn criminal insult and/or defamation laws to prosecute and imprison online and other critics, as did the Egyptian authorities and the governments of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In these Gulf states, those targeted included individuals accused of harming their countries' relations with Saudi Arabia by posting comments considered disrespectful to Saudi Arabia's late King or criticizing its military intervention in Yemen. In Qatar, a poet continued to serve a 15-year prison term for writing and reciting lines that the authorities deemed offensive to the country's Emir. In Jordan, dozens of journalists and activists faced prosecution under Penal Code provisions that prohibit criticism of the King and government institutions and under an anti-terrorism law amended in 2014 that criminalized criticism of foreign leaders or states.

In Iran, the international agreement relating to the country's nuclear programme and the easing of financial and economic sanctions did not yield any let-up in state repression. The authorities continued to curtail freedom of speech and rights to association and assembly, blocking access to Facebook, Twitter and other social media websites, jamming foreign broadcasts, and arresting, detaining and imprisoning journalists, human rights defenders, trade unionists, artists and others who voiced dissent, including three opposition political leaders held without charge or trial since 2009.

Authorities in Saudi Arabia also brooked no criticism or dissent and harshly punished those who dared advocate reform or speak out in support of human rights. Blogger Raif Badawi remained in prison serving the 10-year sentence he received in 2014 after a court convicted him of "insulting Islam" and violating the Cyber-crime law by setting up the Free Saudi Liberals Network website, which the authorities closed. The court also sentenced him to a flogging of 1,000 lashes. Dr Zuhair Kutbi, arrested in July, was detained for months, then tried and imprisoned after he advocated constitutional monarchy as a form of government in a television interview.

In Egypt, the government continued the relentless crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood that began when the army ousted Mohamed Morsi from the presidency in July 2013, widening it to encompass their other critics and opponents, as well as advocates of human rights and political reform. The authorities held thousands of detainees on political grounds; by the end of the year, at least 700 had been held without sentence by courts for longer than the two-year legal maximum. Thousands of others faced unfair mass trials before criminal or military courts, which handed down mass prison sentences and death sentences. Some detainees were subjected to enforced disappearance. The authorities rejected any criticism of the crackdown on dissent, noting the threat posed by armed groups that launched increasingly deadly attacks on security forces, state officials and civilians.

All across the region, national judicial systems were weak, lacked independence and failed to ensure due process and uphold the right to a fair trial, especially in cases against those perceived to be government critics or opponents. Throughout 2015, courts in countries including Bahrain, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and UAE, as well as those in Egypt, continued to hand down sentences of imprisonment and death after convicting defendants in unfair trials; rather than being fearless upholders of justice, such courts operated as mere instruments of state repression.

DEATH PENALTY

The death sentence was widely used across the region, including in states such as Algeria, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia that have not carried out any executions for years. By contrast, the governments of Iran, Iraq and Saudi Arabia remained among the world's foremost executioners, with Iran being at the forefront of a disturbing spike in executions. Between them, they carried out hundreds of executions despite clear evidence that many of those executed had been sentenced to death after unfair trials or for offences, such as drugs-related crimes, that did not cause loss of life or fell below the threshold of "most serious crimes". Juvenile offenders were among those executed in Iran and facing execution in Saudi Arabia.

TORTURE AND OTHER ILL-TREATMENT

Torture and other ill-treatment of detainees remained common and widespread throughout the Middle East and North Africa region. It was used to extract information and "confessions" and to punish and terrorize victims and to intimidate others. Those who perpetrated torture almost always did so with impunity; courts rarely took serious notice of defendants' allegations of torture in pre-trial detention and governments rarely conducted independent investigations into torture or took measures to safeguard detainees, although most countries have ratified the UN Convention against Torture. In Syria, government forces continued to use torture systematically, causing countless further deaths of detainees. In Egypt, security forces frequently assaulted detainees at time of arrest and thereafter subjected them to beatings, electric shocks and painful stress positions. Iranian courts continued to impose punishments that violate the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, included flogging, blinding, stoning and amputations.

IMPUNITY AND ACCOUNTABILITY

Government forces and non-state armed groups committed war crimes, other violations of international humanitarian law and serious human rights abuses with impunity in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, and there was no accountability for similar crimes and abuses committed by Israeli forces and Palestinian armed groups during their 2014 conflict and in previous conflicts. In Algeria, it remained a crime to campaign for justice for victims of serious abuses by state forces during the internal armed conflict of the 1990s. In Lebanon, no progress was made in ascertaining the fate of thousands who were forcibly disappeared or went missing during and in the aftermath of the civil war that ended two decades ago. In Egypt, the authorities failed to investigate and ensure accountability for the killings of hundreds of protesters by the security forces since June 2013.

In May, Tunisia's Truth and Dignity Commission, appointed following the "Jasmine Revolution" of 2011, began hearing testimonies as part of its investigations into past human rights violations. However, the Commission remained weakened by corruption allegations and resignations while a new draft law threatened to scupper any prospect that it could ensure accountability for economic crimes committed during the regime that held power until 2011. In Libya, Tripoli authorities sentenced former Gaddafi-era officials to long prison terms or death for alleged war crimes and other offences committed during the 2011 uprising and ensuing armed conflict. Their trial was marred by irregularities; the authorities failed to comply with an ICC demand that they hand over Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi, son of Mu'ammar al-Gaddafi; instead, they put him on trial and sentenced him to death.

DISCRIMINATION – MINORITIES

Religious and ethnic minorities continued to face discrimination in several countries. In Iran, Baha'is, Sufis, Yaresan (Ahl-e Haq), Sunni Muslims, Christian converts from Islam, and Shi'a Muslims who became Sunni were imprisoned or prevented from freely practising their faith. Minority rights activists belonging to Iran's disadvantaged ethnic groups including Ahwazi Arabs, Azerbaijani Turks, Baluchis and Kurds, were given harsh prison sentences, and remained disproportionately subject to the death penalty. In Saudi Arabia, discrimination against the Shi'a minority remained entrenched and Shi'a leaders and activists were detained and, in some cases, sentenced to death in unfair trials. In Kuwait, the government continued to withhold citizenship from over 100,000 Bidun, claiming that they were illegal residents although many were born and had lived all their lives in Kuwait, and Bidun rights activists faced arrest and prosecution. In Israel, Palestinian citizens faced discrimination in many areas, especially housing and land rights.

FORCED EVICTIONS

Israeli authorities continued to demolish Palestinian homes in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, that they said were built without virtually unobtainable Israeli permits, forcibly evicting their occupants, and punished the families of Palestinians who attacked Israelis by destroying their homes. They also demolished the homes of Palestinian citizens of Israel mostly in Bedouin villages in the Negev/Naqab region. In Egypt, the military carried out forced evictions to create a security "buffer" zone along the country's border with the Gaza Strip.

WOMEN AND GIRLS

Women and girls continued to face discrimination under the law and in practice in all countries in the Middle East and North Africa region; in many, they also faced high levels of sexual and other violence. Personal status laws commonly accorded women fewer rights than men in relation to divorce, custody of children and inheritance, while several countries' nationality laws barred women married to foreign spouses, unlike men with foreign spouses, from passing on their nationality to their children.

In Jordan, women continued to receive inadequate protection against violence including so-called "honour" crimes. The government revised legislation that allowed rapists to escape prosecution if they married their victim, except in cases where the victim is aged between 15 and 18. In Bahrain, a new law afforded greater protection to victims of domestic violence but only after the country's parliament voted down an article that would have criminalized marital rape. In Saudi Arabia, women were allowed for the first time to vote and stand in municipal elections but they continued to be prohibited from driving. Iran's Parliament approved the general principles of a draft law that undermines women's right to decide freely whether and when to marry, divorce and have children, and debated other draft laws that threaten to further entrench discrimination against women, including one that would block access to information about contraception and outlaw voluntary sterilization. Women in Iran also remained subject to compulsory "veiling" (hijab) laws and to harassment, violence and imprisonment by the police and paramilitary forces that enforced such laws.

Women and girls comprised half the population of the region and made an enormous contribution to every society within it, yet they were denied equality with men in virtually all facets of life. No country had a woman head of state, very few women held high political office or senior diplomatic posts, and women were totally or largely absent from the judiciary, particularly its highest levels. This was unsurprising given the continuing prevalence of stereotypical and discriminatory attitudes towards women and their human rights. The most public and extreme manifestation of such prejudice and misogyny were the crimes, including rape, forced marriage, sexual slavery and summary killing, committed against women and girls by IS forces, particularly in Iraq. But throughout the region, the prevalence of gender-based violence and lack of redress for survivors was anything but exceptional.

By the end of 2015, the heady hopes of political and human rights reform that the mass popular uprisings of the Arab Spring had aroused across the region four years earlier had been all but totally dashed. Instead of political and social reform, economic advance and greater protection of human rights, the region was gripped by armed conflict, tightening state repression, abuse of rights, and the threat of attack by armed groups. Yet, amid the gloom and despair, thousands of valiant individuals – human rights defenders, medical workers and volunteers, lawyers, journalists, community activists and others – showed through their actions that the hopes expressed in 2011 remain alive, deep-seated and anything but an empty dream.

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