Egypt targets dissident families, and Iran’s tech-enabled suppression of women

IFEX
7 min readSep 7, 2023

August 2023 in MENA: A free expression round up produced by IFEX’s Regional Editor Naseem Tarawnah, based on IFEX member reports and news from the region.

A woman uses her phone as she walks past a mural of an Iranian flag, in a street in Tehran, 10 April 2023; two days earlier Iranian police had announced they planned to use “smart” technology in public places to identify and then penalise women who violate the country’s strict Islamic dress code. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images

Relatives of exiled dissidents held hostage by Egyptian authorities. Comic’s detention a worrying sign in Lebanon. New anti-LGBTQI+ laws in the region. Iran silences women human rights defenders. Saudi man sentenced to death over tweet, and Bahrain’s political prisoners launch hunger strike.

Egypt’s revolving prison door spins on

After nearly a decade in prison, prominent activist Ahmed Douma was freed last month following a presidential pardon. “After 10 years in prison, I wish I could say that I am happy after being released,” Douma told reporters upon his release. “I postpone any celebrations until everyone is free. I wish we can celebrate soon.”

His release comes amidst presidential pardons that have seen several other prominent prisoners of conscience recently freed, including rights researcher Patrick Zaki and human rights defender Mohamed el-Baqer.

Yet with tens of thousands of other prisoners still detained, including prominent British-Egyptian activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah, the rights community have pointed to the lack of transparency in the pardon process as indicative of the government’s unwillingness to end the crisis of political prisoners in the country.

The arbitrary practices and fierce crackdown on dissent in recent weeks provide no evidence of an intent by Egyptian authorities to improve the country’s human rights situation.

Security forces raided the Cairo home of Karim Asaad, a journalist for Egyptian fact-checking and independent media platform Matsadaash, assaulting him and his wife before confiscating their devices and forcibly disappearing him for a day. The incident followed heightened targeting of the organisation for their recent investigative work.

Family members of exiled journalists and political activists continued to be taken hostage. The father of journalist Ahmed Gamal Ziada was detained in retaliation for the writer’s work. Rights groups in the country called for his immediate release and for Egyptian authorities to stop persecuting the families of dissident journalists and activists who, like Ziada, live abroad. In the same month, the father of Germany-based political activist Fajr al-Adly was also detained upon arriving at Cairo’s Airport.

Prominent publisher and political activist Hisham Kassem was detained after being summoned by authorities. A founding member and leader of the Free Current movement, a recently established coalition of liberal groups and opposition figures, Kassem was initially detained on slander charges filed against him by a former labour minister over his Facebook posts, and then later charged with verbally assaulting officers at the police station he was brought to.

IFEX-member Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) called Kassem’s detention: “clearly motivated by his political activity and a sign of the government’s escalation against peaceful opposition, as well as a testament that the alleged political opening announced last year is a mere ruse.” CIHRS noted that for every political prisoner that has been released between April 2022 and July 2023, nearly three others have been imprisoned.

Days following his detention, Kassem launched a hunger strike in protest of his unjust detention.

Iran silences women rights defenders

One year after widespread protests triggered by the brutal killing of Mahsa Jhina Amini, women in Iran continue to face unabated state repression. In the months following the 22-year old Kurdish women’s death, many women human rights defenders, activists and journalists were among the thousands arrested in the ensuing clampdown.

A snapshot of Iran’s increasingly stifled civic space in recent weeks:

  • At least a dozen activists were arrested ahead of the protests’ anniversary. “The arbitrary arrests of a dozen activists are aimed at suppressing popular discontent with ongoing impunity and rights violations,” said Tara Sepehri Far, senior Iran researcher at HRW. Those detained in the latest round of detentions include prominent women’s rights activists, lawyers and journalists. New research revealed that Iranian authorities have also carried out harassment and intimidation campaigns against the families of victims of state violence during the 2022 protests, in an effort to silence them.
  • Director Saeed Roustayi and producer Javad Norouzbeigi were sentenced to six months in prison for showcasing their film, Leila’s Brothers, at the Cannes Film Festival last year without approval from the Iranian government. The filmmakers will reportedly serve about nine days, with the remainder of their sentence “suspended over five years”.
  • Documentary filmmaker Mojgan Ilanlou was transferred to and detained in Evin Prison after responding to a police summons in Tehran on 20 August. No reason for her detention was announced. Ilanlou’s latest film, One Thousand Women, chronicles the challenges faced by a group of female wrestlers in Iran who struggle for equal opportunities in the face of restrictions, including the country’s dress code.
  • Journalist Nazila Maroufian, who interviewed the father of Mahsa Jhina Amini last year, was arrested again for defying the headscarf law.
  • Iranian pop singer Mehdi Yarrahi was arbitrarily detained on 28 August after releasing an “illegal” song urging women to remove their mandatory head scarves. Women protesters posted videos dancing to the banned song in support of the prominent musician.
  • Imprisoned protester Javad Rouhi died under suspicious circumstances in Nowshahr prison on 31 August. Rouhi was reportedly tortured following his arrest during last year’s anti-government protests and sentenced to death on 3 January for “waging war against God, corruption on Earth, and apostasy” as well as inciting people to violence. HRW called for an international inquiry into his death while in custody.
  • ARTICLE 19 highlighted a draconian new ‘Hijab and Chastity Bill’ that is being brought forward behind closed doors, igniting new fears about the use of Artificial Intelligence and facial recognition technology to target and punish women for violating hijab protocols.

No laughing matters in Lebanon; new laws target region’s LGBTQI+ community

As Lebanon continues to grapple with worsening political and economic crises, free expression remains targeted in the country. Last month’s arrest of comedian Nour Hajjar over his jokes marked a new escalation in the crackdown on public criticism, said the Coalition to Defend Freedom of Expression in Lebanon. Hajjar was detained twice in the span of one week, and interrogated for hours about a 2018 video clip of jokes he made that offended the religious establishment, and more recent jokes about army members now working as delivery drivers in order to make ends meet.

Amnesty International launched a campaign calling for reform of the country’s insult and defamation laws that are being used to stifle free expression.

“Lebanon’s insult and defamation laws are designed to protect those in power from all forms of criticism,” said Aya Majzoub, Deputy Director for MENA at Amnesty. “High-ranking officials are targeting journalists, human rights defenders, activists and others who are peacefully expressing their opinions and working to expose allegations of corruption.”

Meanwhile, two draft laws targeting the media and the LGBTQI+ community threaten to criminalise the “promotion of sexual deviance”. According to lawyer and Legal Agenda co-founder Nizar Saghiey, the laws could be used to restrict the work of journalists reporting on sexuality and gender issues in the country.

The proposed legislation comes amidst an escalating campaign targeting the LGBTQI+ community in Lebanon and throughout the region. PEN America said attempts by political and religious leaders to muzzle critics and marginalised communities are indicative of “a regional trend of authorities combining hate speech with vague laws targeting amorphous crimes to go after LGBTQ+ communities — and eventually, journalists, satirists, and a wide range of writing and expression.”

A recently ratified cybercrimes law in Jordan stipulates prison time for anyone “promoting, instigating, aiding or inciting immorality”, while a new proposed law in Iraq would impose the death penalty for same-sex conduct and imprisonment for transgender expression.

“Iraq’s proposed anti-LGBTQI+ law would threaten the lives of Iraqis already facing a hostile environment for LGBTQI+ people. Iraqi lawmakers are sending an appalling message to LGBTQI+ people that their speech is criminal and their lives are expendable.” — Rasha Younes, senior LGBTQI+ rights researcher at Human Rights Watch

In Brief

In Bahrain: Hundreds of political prisoners launched a hunger strike on 7 August to protest harsh prison conditions and medical negligence. Prisoners, including prominent human rights defenders Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja and Dr. Abduljalil al-Singace, have reported prison authorities denying them access to essential medicines.

Saudi Arabia’s Specialized Criminal Court sentenced retired teacher Muhammad al-Ghamdi to death based solely on his peaceful expression online. His brother, Dr. Saeed Al-Ghamdi, is a prominent academic, Islamic researcher and dissident, who has lived in exile in the United Kingdom since 2018. GCHR underscored how the death penalty has been widely used as a political tool by Saudi authorities, “designed to spread fear in the country and terrorise citizens, in particular human rights activists, in an attempt by the ruling family to firmly control power, and to silence dissenting voices abroad.”

Index on Censorship published an article about how Saudi LGBTQI+ refugees in the UK and US live in fear of state reprisals. The piece was originally pitched to Vice World News, which reportedly attempted to block its publication as part of efforts to maintain business interests with the kingdom and protect staff working there.

Originally published at https://ifex.org on September 7, 2023.

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