Political Prisoners in the Middle East: The Quiet Crisis

When it comes to human rights as an element in its approach to the Middle East, the Trump Administration has done little to inspire confidence. To be sure, while not going all the way to fully address the plight of Christians which it decried, it only  occasionally complained about the Syria regime’s use of chemical weapons against its civilian population. Along the way the administration has agitated successfully for the release of several American citizens held overseas, including an American pastor, Andrew Brunson, who was imprisoned in Turkey on terrorism charges, and Aya Hijazi, an Egyptian-American activist jailed on false charges of child abuse for her work in running a nongovernmental organization in Cairo. Military aid to Egypt in the amount of $195 million was suspended for a year over human rights concerns, but restored last August.

These narrow parameters of the administration’s human rights approach to the region, such as it is, necessarily compel disregard of a host of depredations by friends and foes alike. As the Khashoggi affair (arguably an instance of state terrorism) has demonstrated, President Trump is only too happy to ignore various savageries in the interest of preserving relationships with friendly authoritarian leaders. But by doing so, the administration puts vital American interests in the region at risk.

As the Khashoggi affair (arguably an instance of state terrorism) has demonstrated, President Trump is only too happy to ignore various savageries in the interest of preserving relationships with friendly authoritarian leaders.

A case in point is the increase in the number of political incarcerations by resurgent authoritarian regimes in the Middle East. Since the collapse of many of the Arab Spring uprisings, repression has been on the upswing, as governments have moved to block most avenues of political expression, reasoning that small cracks may eventually open up wider fissures, fatally undermining the rickety structures of power and privilege now in place. Among other ill effects, one result has been an increase in the number of individuals jailed for dissent, peaceful political activism, or criticism, however mild, of the state and its authority. At risk in this atmosphere is a generation of young people, activists, civil society practitioners, human rights advocates, journalists, bloggers and others who have stood up for more open societies and accountable government, only to be arrested, imprisoned, and in many cases tortured and executed as regional autocrats tighten their grip. And as in Egypt, an entire cohort of activists throughout the region is now becoming ‘Generation Jail,’ posing a severe threat to the future stability of the Middle East.

The Nature of the Problem

The wide array of abuses most often seen in Middle Eastern states—sharp limitations on freedom of expression, association and assembly; arbitrary arrests and detentions; denial of due process, including fair trials; refusal of access to medical care while in prison; torture and execution—find expression in the form of political imprisonment. Subsequently, the size of the population of political prisoners and the severity of the conditions they face is a good bellwether of the overall state of political, personal, and civic freedoms—human rights in general—in a given country.  Holding political prisoners is not only a human rights abuse in and of itself, it is symptomatic of a much more pervasive and dangerous pattern.

As human rights abuses in the Middle East have intensified, the population of political prisoners has expanded, much as it has in other parts of the world experiencing authoritarian resurgence.

As human rights abuses in the region have intensified, the population of political prisoners has expanded, much as it has in other parts of the world experiencing authoritarian resurgence. As Freedom House has observed, “The global ranks of political prisoners dwindled substantially after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of tyrannical regimes almost everywhere. More recently, political prosecutions have ballooned again” in many countries as democratic experiments have faltered, political protest has been crushed, or autocrats stifled popular demands for change.


The Plight of Political Prisoners in the Middle East: A Snapshot

The region-wide gulag of political detainees has ensnared hundreds of thousands of individuals and their families in a pattern of abuse, with tragic results.

  • Since the start of the civil war in Syria in March 2011, approximately 118,000 individuals have been arrested or forcibly disappeared, according to the Syrian Network for Human Rights. Over 104,000 of those, or slightly more than 85 percent, were taken prisoner by the Syrian government. Most of these prisoners suffer under unspeakable conditions, including torture, starvation, and other forms of extreme abuse, likely intended to kill. According to Amnesty International, 13,000 people have been executed in one military prison in Saydnaya since 2011 as part of a systematic policy of extermination. The government has begun issuing death notices for political prisoners at an accelerated rate over the past six months, possibly indicating that the Assad government is closing the books on those it has killed. The humane treatment and eventual release of these prisoners has ranked very far down the list of priorities in any discussion of conditions necessary for a negotiated conclusion to the war.
  • In Egypt, Human Rights Watch has estimated that some 60,000 political prisoners remain in jail and many are subjected to an “assembly line of torture” that likely amounts to crimes against humanity. According to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, there are 504 places of detention in the country, with 13 new prisons built since the 2013 coup that toppled former President Mohammed Morsi and prepared for the presidency of Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, just to handle the increase in the number of political prisoners.
  • In Turkey, around 50,000 individuals were arrested on suspicion of involvement in the attempted coup of July Few, however, were charged with actually taking part in the coup. Journalists, activists, and other government critics have been arrested, often on dubious terrorism charges. Amnesty International reported that “Arbitrary, lengthy and punitive pre-trial detention and fair trial violations continued routinely.”
  • Saudi Arabia holds over 2,600 political prisoners, including Muslim scholars, lawyers, academics, and activists, many of whom are detained without charge or have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms without the benefit of either charges or judicial rulings. A 2017 report by a UN Special Rapporteur, Ben Emmerson, expressed concern over the “unacceptably broad definition of terrorism” used to sweep up critics and dissidents, including “human rights defenders, writers, bloggers, journalists and other peaceful critics.” Emmerson also noted continued reports of the use of torture in Saudi jails and expressed “serious concern” that prisoner complaints have not led to “rapid and thorough independent investigations.” The current campaign of arrests has accelerated over the last year as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman consolidates power. The crown prince is also accused today of ordering the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi because of the latter’s criticism of human rights conditions in the kingdom.
  • The government of Iran maintains its crackdown on dissidents and activists of all kinds. Amnesty International notes that in 2017 Tehran jailed “scores of peaceful critics on spurious national security charges” including “dissidents, journalists, online media workers, students, filmmakers, musicians and writers, [and] … women’s rights activists.” A report by the United Nations Secretary General in late 2017 stated concerns that “heavy prison sentences on individuals that peacefully exercise their right to freedom of expression continued to be imposed by the judiciary for the vaguely defined offences of ‘propaganda against the State’, ‘insulting’ political or religious figures, and harming ‘national security.’” The report also observes that prisoners are subjected to “cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments, such as amputation of limbs, blinding, and flogging, which are strictly prohibited by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.” The report states also that the death penalty is often imposed for a variety of lesser crimes, including vague offenses such as “enmity against God” (moharebeh in Farsi).
  • Bahrain jailed upwards of 3,000 Shia protesters following mass demonstrations in 2012 demanding reforms to grant the Shia majority greater rights and political powers in the kingdom. Many of those incarcerated were subjected to trials in so-called National Safety Courts, run by the military, whose proceedings “on politically motivated charges…were marred by extensive due process violations including torture, forced confessions, and a general lack of transparency.”
  • The Palestinian Authority has likewise cracked down on and jailed peaceful critics and opposition figures. Human Rights Watch has documented the practice by authorities both in the West Bank and Gaza Strip of “systematically arresting scores of critics for their nonviolent expression, and then mistreating and torturing them in custody.”
  • Israel has faced international criticism for abuses of its own. It holds approximately 5,500 Palestinian prisoners and security detainees, according to figures provided to B’Tselem (the Israeli human rights organization) by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and the Israeli Prison System (IPS) in August 2018. This number includes 465 administrative detainees, who are held without charge or trial on renewable terms of detention. Among the prisoners are “children, civil society leaders and NGO workers,” according to Amnesty International. Amnesty also notes that prisoners were subject to “torture and other ill-treatment with impunity.”

Many other countries in the region have similarly abject records, varying only in scope, as attested by leading regional and international human rights organizations.

Consequences for the Region

Such crackdown by various governments in the Middle East constitutes direct human rights violations and infringement of international law. Moreover, the loss of so many individuals to political imprisonment, torture, and in many cases, execution creates fallout far beyond the personal tragedies of the prisoners themselves and those of their families. The mass incarcerations cut off avenues of peaceful political expression, leaving violence as the only viable option to register opposition to governments. Prison itself is the perfect breeding ground for religious and political radicalization, serving as a source of new recruits for terrorist organizations. Radicalization can extend beyond prison walls as well, as family members of prisoners are sometimes motivated to seek revenge against those persecuting their loved ones. All this intensifies the cycle of violence, terrorism, and repression, multiplying threats to internal security and regional stability.

There can be other social costs as well: the loss of income stemming from the imprisonment of thousands of potential wage earners limits economic activity, harms families, and leads to higher demands on state resources. The societal disruption this engenders negatively impacts social and economic stability.

US Policy Options

Given the troubling ramifications of the growing problem of political prisoners in the region for the prospects of democracy and governance reform, as well as long-term regional stability and political reconciliation, the Trump Administration would do well to draw attention to the issue in its public statements and private interventions with governments of the region as part of a broader agenda to advance human rights. Instead, the issue is rarely mentioned, if at all, except when the administration is using human rights to attack governments such as that of Iran with which it disagrees. Even then, the issue has been de-emphasized. For example, in a statement issued last May by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin announcing sanctions on Iran for human rights abuses, the problem of political prisoners was mentioned only in passing. Trump himself has avoided all but the most general criticism of the Iranian and Syrian regimes for their abuses; and for countries perceived as allies, even mild criticism has been largely off the table.

The seating of a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives in January 2019 presents an opportunity for change. Democratic leaders have indicated their intention to call the administration to account over Saudi Arabia and the Khashoggi killing and take action to end US involvement in the Yemen war. A surprising number of prominent Republicans such as Senators Lindsay Graham (South Carolina) and Bob Corker (Tennessee) have joined them. They should shine the same spotlight on broader human rights abuses in the Middle East, with a particular focus on political prisoners. Standing up for political prisoners as a class necessarily means opposing the tangle of human rights violations that enable political imprisonment. Dismantling this particular aspect of state repression would go a long way to improving rights and freedoms for the vast majority of the region’s citizens.

Congress should not only call the region’s human rights abusers to account; it also should demand answers from an administration that has openly downgraded human rights and political freedoms as a pillar of American foreign policy in the Middle East and around the world.

Congress should not only call the region’s human rights abusers to account; it also should demand answers from an administration that has openly downgraded human rights and political freedoms as a pillar of American foreign policy in the Middle East and around the world. By focusing more attention on the plight of the hundreds of thousands of political prisoners held by governments of the region, the United States would be acting in a manner more consistent with the professed principles of the country and, more importantly, arguably begin to reestablish American credibility in the growing ideological struggle with Russia and China. Congress can, with or without the cooperation of the Trump Administration, help rebuild an American moral foreign policy that can champion the cause of those suffering the predations of unaccountable governments in the Middle East and elsewhere.