“Free Them All”: The Trampled Rights of Political Prisoners in the Arab World

In December 2021, Egyptian activist and blogger Alaa Abdel Fattah was sentenced to prison for five years after being convicted of “spreading false news.” Alaa had been detained since September 2019—mere months after being released from prison the previous March at the end of a five-year sentence, ostensibly due to his participation in unauthorized demonstrations. Aside from the nature of his charges and convictions, which human rights groups have derided as unjust responses to his critiques of Egypt’s authoritarian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and his government, Alaa’s treatment has been widely criticized, even deemed “horrific” by Human Rights Watch. He spent more than two years in pre-trial detention (in violation of Egyptian law), has been unable to have regular visits with lawyers and family members, abused, and tortured, is unable to access the radio or any reading materials, is not given warm clothes or a mattress, and is deprived of recreational time. Alaa has attempted suicide in the past, and is currently engaged in a nearly 2-month hunger strike to protest these cruel conditions and his imprisonment. His crime, according to his mother, “is that, like millions of young people in Egypt and far beyond, he believed another world was possible. And he dared to try to make it happen.”

As his mother observes, Alaa is not alone in his vision for a better future for his country. But he is also not alone in being punished for pursuing it. Of the approximately 120,000 people detained in Egypt, an estimated 65,000 are designated as political prisoners by human rights groups. Yet Egypt is only one of the many countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region with cruel and unjust politically-motivated imprisonment, including Turkey, Iran, Bahrain, Syria, Israel (primarily of Palestinians) and the Palestinian Authority, Saudi Arabia, and others. Not surprisingly, these are the same countries with poor human rights records across the board.

Evidence suggests that those considered to be political prisoners are often treated worse than those imprisoned for criminal, even violent, offenses.

There are many valid critiques of current legal systems and incarceration methods in all countries for those who have committed crimes that most people would consider worthy of detention. In almost all cases, conditions for incarcerated people are poor and often do more to foster violence and criminal activity than offer rehabilitation or, in the least, safety. However, evidence suggests that those considered to be political prisoners are often treated worse than those imprisoned for criminal, even violent, offenses. Because they are often imprisoned by the very regimes they criticize or are perceived to threaten, they may be even more deprived, abused, and otherwise mistreated than a prisoner whose offense is not government related. Indeed, many scholars and activists have posited that among the most telling signs of a country’s commitment to rights more broadly are the way a country treats its prisoners and the identity of those it imprisons.

Who are Political Prisoners?

The US Department of State estimates that there are approximately one million political prisoners in the world today. However, although a seemingly straightforward query, it is difficult to quantify exactly where and even who political prisoners are. “Political prisoner” is not even a universally defined term, and depending on the source, what one person might call a political prisoner might be referred to as a human rights defender or a prisoner of conscience. Countries that imprison people on political grounds deem them legitimate lawbreakers worthy of detainment—often, using vague laws about incitement that clearly exist for the purpose of punishing dissenters, while political allies who engage in actual incitement or even political violence are overlooked. In other cases, the imprisoned may have committed some minor offense or attended a rally or other gathering deemed illegal but received a disproportionate sentence as a clear punitive measure. Unfair trials are also standard in such environments, as are instances of overtly long pretrial or administrative detention. These caveats make measuring political imprisonment more problematic. Thus, estimates about political prisoners are often educated approximations from external actors.

Some proportion of political prisoners is, essentially, forcibly disappeared, held in secret facilities, or detained without informing families or lawyers.

Further, some proportion of political prisoners is, essentially, forcibly disappeared, held in secret facilities, or detained without informing families or lawyers. This has been the case in Syria, for example, where tens of thousands of nonviolent activists or family members of such activists, including children, have been detained and never heard from again. In some cases, families may receive a death certificate months or years after the fact. Lastly, these prisoners are often the most disconnected from lawyers, media, and family. Thus, much of what is known about their lives and conditions is either secondhand, through limited family or lawyer visits, or if their case grabs attention from media or human rights groups and may get highlighted. Otherwise, they have no recourse, especially when all forms of communication between them and the outside world are restricted.

Like all people, prisoners have rights, regardless of their offense. Due to the vulnerable status of incarcerated people, there are additional safeguards and standards codified in international law for their protection, including the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, the UN Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance, the UN Body of Principles for the Protection of All Persons under any Form of Detention or Imprisonment, the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, the UN Rules for the Treatment of Women Prisoners and Non-custodial Measures for Women Offenders (also known as the Bangkok Rules), and the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice (known as the Beijing Rules). Like all forms of law, however, their existence does not mean their protections are properly enforced. Even in wealthy, highly developed, and purportedly democratic countries, reports of unfair trials, discrimination, police or correctional officer violence against prisoners, and general maltreatment and poor conditions are not uncommon. Yet imprisoning political opponents or those who push for societal change takes undue incarceration a step further, serving as another tool in the toolbox for authoritarians to impose their will and threaten anyone who might dissent.

Undemocratic Practices for an Undemocratic Region

Human rights abuses of all kinds, including unjust incarceration and poor prison conditions, are generally broader indicators of unchecked power or impunity that result from authoritarian and undemocratic regimes. Considering the state of political imprisonment in the MENA region, it is no surprise that it is the least democratic in the world and has the largest proportion of authoritarian regimes. Aside from imprisonment, political activists in the region are at higher risk of other punitive practices, from restrictions on movement to threats, intimidation, or even violence and death, as was the case of Palestinian Nizar Banat, who was a vocal critic of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and died after being dragged out of his home and beaten by security forces. Newfound digital surveillance systems give regimes unprecedented power to track and monitor dissension, and activists have long been alarmed that these technological advancements, while offering them the opportunity to reach wider audiences and create greater networks, also make them easier targets for fascistic regimes.

There are many reasons political activists, scholars, or opponents may find themselves imprisoned: blog and social media posts, research articles and other papers, organizing acts of civil disobedience or rallies, speeches and media appearances, or just generally being seen as a threat to the regime in some way. Egypt in particular is well known as relying heavily on incarcerating political critics and keeping them out of the public eye: activist Ramy Shaath was detained after being arrested without a warrant for assisting a group (deemed a terrorist organization) in running for elections; Patrick Zaki stood trial for “spreading false news” while writing about his experience of discrimination as a Coptic Christian; Hoda Abdelmoniem was imprisoned for supporting a human rights organization regarded a “terrorist group” and sharing news about Egyptian security force violations on Facebook. In highly autocratic countries like Egypt, the risk of detention is also extended to family members; Egypt arrested Ola al-Qaradawi and her husband in 2019, holding them in near constant solitary confinement under horrific conditions, seemingly only because she is the daughter of a well-known Islamic scholar who was sentenced to death by the Egyptian regime but lives in Qatar and is thus out of reach.

Israel has detained hundreds of thousands of Palestinians over the last 50 years, many for their political affiliations or for acts like carrying a Palestinian flag or participating in a demonstration on Palestinian territory.

Other countries abuse their legal systems to justify detainment of prisoners for minor or unwarranted offenses; Israel, for example, has detained hundreds of thousands of Palestinians over the last 50 years, many for their political affiliations or for acts like carrying a Palestinian flag or participating in a demonstration on Palestinian territory. Israel has claimed that most Palestinian political parties are illegal organizations, then justifies the arrest and detention of thousands based on “supporting” these so-called terrorist organizations. In the summer of 2021, after deeming the Health Work Committees (one of the main health care providers in the occupied West Bank) a terrorist organization, Israel raided its headquarters and arrested its director, 60-year-old nurse Shatha Odeh, for holding “a position in an unlawful association.” She was held for months before being sentenced to 16 months in jail and will not be allowed to provide health services for 5 years upon being released.

Conditions of Imprisonment

It is difficult to get data on the types of political prisoners and their living conditions. However, letters from prisoners and accounts relayed to lawyers and family members paint a harrowing picture. Health care access is severely restricted, even for those with chronic conditions or who suffer a health emergency while incarcerated. Some regimes may even block needed medications or procedures. Overall conditions are poor, with significant overcrowding, inadequate access to healthy food and clean water, dirty environments with poor sanitation, and lack of ability to exercise, read, or partake in mentally or socially stimulating activity. Many political prisoners’ cases become well known because the prisoner die due to poor conditions or neglect of their medical needs, like Ahmed Shaheen in Egypt, who was tortured and deprived of health care despite his severe allergies, and Abbas Malallah in Bahrain, whose family had long pushed for better medical care for him and died after collapsing in his cell. While female political prisoners are less common, they are also mistreated, often becoming the victims of sexual violence. When Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul was imprisoned for campaigning to legalize driving for women, she reportedly experienced “unprecedented” sexual abuse, with prison officers openly mocking her status as a “liberated” woman.

While female political prisoners are less common, they are also mistreated, often becoming the victims of sexual violence.

The COVID-19 pandemic was immediately seen as a threat to prison populations, and some countries engaged in early release programs for those imprisoned on minor charges in order to prevent the kind of crowded conditions that allow the virus to proliferate. As soon as the risks of COVID became clear in early April 2020, the United Nations called on countries to release “every person detained without sufficient legal basis, including political prisoners, and those detained for critical, dissenting views.” This was in response to evidence that many countries, including those throughout MENA, were doing prisoner releases of those imprisoned for minor crimes or those whose sentences were almost finished, but explicitly ignoring political prisoners and keeping them incarcerated and at risk. Bahrain released more than a thousand detainees at the beginning of COVID, approximately 300 of whom were political prisoners, but none were well-known political figures or human rights advocates. Israel released hundreds of prisoners who were Israeli citizens with criminal offenses, but no Palestinians, even though hundreds in administrative detention have not even been charged with a crime. Even more stringently, Syria released several hundred people jailed for common crimes, but none of the tens of thousands of political prisoners held since the beginning of the war.

Free them all” has become a well-known slogan calling for the release of all kinds of detained people, from prisons to immigration centers, to juvenile detention facilities. In some circles, it even represents a broader push for abolition and an end to incarceration in all forms. However, it has particularly taken hold in advocacy for political prisoners. The fervor with which authoritarian-leaning regimes arrest and detain their political opponents seems unabated, even in the face of some temporary reprieves during the pandemic. This makes clear what the biggest threat is to these types of leaders; not necessarily the might and rhetoric of a foreign army, but the words and ideas of nationals who know that their country deserves better.


Featured image credit: Wikimedia Commons/Ori~