The detrimental impact of administrative counter-terrorism measures on human rights in the MENA

May 08, 2024

This briefing paper analyses how MENA states impose counter-terrorism related administrative measures, including their legal framework and the entities responsible for imposing them, and examines the impact of these measures on human rights in MENA countries through case studies of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Algeria, Israel/Palestine, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. 

Anti terrorism squad with military equipment with special tactical force counter terrorism assault technology © MAD.vertise, licensed under Shutterstock.

1. Abstract

The use of administrative measures in counter-terrorism (CT) is a predominant concern across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and beyond. Administrative measures refer to “coercive measures that restrict the exercise of certain human rights, and are imposed by a judicial or executive authority, against a person or entity who is deemed to pose a risk to national security without laying criminal charges”. These practices, which include but are not limited to administrative detention, terrorism listing, citizenship stripping, and travel bans, have a widely detrimental impact on human rights and fundamental freedoms safeguarded by international law. In fact, these measures fall under a broader pattern of MENA states abusing CT frameworks and policies, typically through broad and vaguely worded legal definitions of terrorism, as well as state security or CT apparatuses and exceptional jurisdictions that often wield excessive powers and operate without oversight. In light of these observations, this briefing paper aims to analyse how MENA states impose CT-related administrative measures, including their legal framework and the entities responsible for imposing them, and examine the impact of these measures on human rights in MENA countries through case studies of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Algeria, Israel/Palestine, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. 

This briefing paper was submitted as a response to a call for input on the use of administrative measures in CT to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in the context of his upcoming report to the Human Rights Council’s 57th session.

2. The administrative detention of UAE activists and human rights defenders 

CT-related administrative detention, i.e. the detention of individuals without trial or charge, is a prevalent issue in many MENA countries. One particularly striking example is the UAE’s use of Munasaha centres, or “rehabilitation” centres to indefinitely detain individuals accused of terrorism.

Munasaha centres are defined by the UAE’s 2014 CT Law as “administrative units aiming at the enlightenment and reform of persons deemed to pose terrorist threat or those convicted of terrorist offences”. According to the UAE’s 2019 Munasaha Centre Law, their mandate includes “the counselling and rehabilitation of holders of terrorist, extremist or deviant thought”. Individuals can be detained in Munasaha centres on the basis that they appear to pose a “terrorism threat”, the definition of which establishes that “a person shall be deemed as posing a terrorist threat if said person adopts extremist or terrorist ideology to the extent that he/she seems likely to commit a terrorist offense”. Nevertheless, the law remains silent with regard to the threshold at which a person will be deemed “likely” to commit a terrorism offense, nor is it clear how “likelihood” of offending is to be assessed.

Due to this vague definition of a “terrorism threat”, the 2019 Law empowers the Emirati authorities to order the detention of individuals in Munasaha centres without abiding by due process guarantees, without legal basis, and indefinitely. In practice, Munasaha centres are used to detain critics and activists, in particular those who have completed prison sentences handed for exercising their right to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. MRG notably collected the testimonies of 11 individuals who were originally sentenced under CT-related legislation for exerting their rights to freedom of expression, opinion, and association, and who were all detained at the Munasaha centre of al-Razeen prison after the completion of their prison sentences, noting that there is no distinction between the al-Razeen Munasaha centre and the al-Razeen prison complex in which it is situated. In this regard, UN experts have expressed deep concern about the “practices of extended administrative detention” in Munasaha centres, and the serious risks posed of potential arbitrary detention, and “possible violations of the absolute right to freedom of opinion”.

3. The “terrorist” designation of civil society organisations

Another administrative measure imposed in the context of CT is terrorism listing, the practice of designating persons and/or organisations as “terrorist” individuals and/or entities. This measure has been described by UN human rights experts as an “ongoing concern” for some years.

3.1 The Algerian national terrorism list

For example, in 2021, Algerian authorities amended article 87 bis of the Penal Code, so as to broaden the definition of terrorism and establish a “national list of terrorist persons and entities”. In accordance with this amendment, persons or entities included in this list are prohibited from “engaging in any activity whatsoever”, their funds are seized and frozen, and they can be subjected to a travel ban. In addition, no judicial authorisation is required for the government/executive branch to impose these severe sanctions, and the public prosecutor is only informed of these measures after their imposition.  The 2021 amendment also established a “Commission for the Classification of Terrorist Persons and Entities” responsible for the listing. However, as highlighted by UN experts, the members of this Commission are all subject to the executive power and come, for the most part, from the security organs of the State. In this regard, the experts expressed their concern over the lack of judicial or legislative control over the activities of the aforementioned commission, and the absence of possibility of judicial appeal against the decisions of this body.

Moreover, the Algerian national terrorism list relies on a vague definition of terrorism provided in article 87 bis of the Penal Code: any act that targets “state security”, “national unity”, “territorial integrity”, and the “stability and normal functioning of institutions”. While prior to the amendment, the provision already contained 13 paragraphs outlining acts which could fall under these conditions, the 2021 amendment introduced two additional paragraphs, namely “any action designed to working or inciting, by whatever means, to gain access to power or to change the system of governance by non-constitutional means” and “undermine or incite, by any means whatsoever, the integrity of the national territory”. In this regard, UN experts underlined that “[a]ll international and national executive bodies responsible for listing groups or entities should be bound by a clear and precise definition of what constitutes terrorist acts and terrorist groups and entities” and expressed concern “that the content of the new article 87 bis of the Penal Code […] is not likely to meet this need for conceptual clarity.”

It is noteworthy that prior to the 2021 amendment, the UN Human Rights Committee had concluded in  2018  that the definition of terrorism contained in article 87 bis of the Penal Code was already “overly broad and vague” and could “allow for the prosecution of actions that might constitute exercise of the freedom of expression or peaceful assembly”, recommending for the article to be revised and brought into line with international standards. In this regard, UN experts expressed regret that the 2021 amendment went in the opposite direction to the Committee’s recommendations, notably highlighting that the provision’s newly introduced paragraphs could have a detrimental impact on freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly in Algeria. In practice, Algerian authorities labelled the Rachad movement and the Movement for the Self-Determination of the Kabylie region (MAK) as “terrorist organisations” pursuant to these 2021 amendments.

3.2 Israel’s listing of Palestinian CSOs as terrorist organisations

UN experts have criticised Israel’s CT legal framework for its adverse impact on human rights, particularly for Palestinian individuals and civil society organisations (CSOs). Their concerns notably related to the terrorism designation proceedings provided in the Israeli Counter-Terrorism Law 5776-2016 (hereinafter: 2016 CT Law), applied in occupied East Jerusalem and Israel. This law grants the Minister of Defence with the power to both make an initial request for a terrorist designation  and to make the final decision on a permanent designation. It also allows for “secret evidence” to be used as the basis for permanent terrorism designation. In this regard, the UN Human Rights Committee stated that this use of secret evidence renders CT proceedings “inaccessible to defendants and their lawyers, thereby violating their right to a fair trial”. In addition, the 2016 CT Law sets out prison terms of between five and 25 years for staff and members of  designated terrorist organisations, provides for confiscation of assets, and closure of the organisation. It also criminalises the provision of support – including financial aid as well as publishing words of “praise, support or sympathy” – with between three to five years in prison.

In 2021, Israel designated six Palestinian CSOs – Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, Al-Haq, Bisan Center for Research and Development, Defense for Children International – Palestine, the Union of Agricultural Work Committees and the Union of Palestinian Women Committees – as terrorist organisations on the basis of “secret information”. The designation enabled Israeli authorities to shut down the organisations, seize their assets and charge their leadership and staff with terrorist offences. UN experts condemned this decision by the Israeli Minister of Defence stating that “the misuse of CT measures in this way by the government of Israel undermines the security of all,” and that “the freedoms of association and expression must be fully respected in order to enable civil society to perform its indispensable work, and cannot be undermined by the manifestly egregious misuse of CT and security legislation.”

After six months without a response from Israel, UN experts called on the international community to take immediate and effective steps to protect and sustain the six Palestinian CSOs that were designated as “terrorist organisations” by the Government of Israel, noting that “Israel’s disturbing designation of these organisations as ‘terrorist organisations’ has not been accompanied by any public concrete and credible evidence,” and “the information presented by Israel has also failed to convince a number of governments and international organisations that have traditionally provided funding for the indispensable work of these six organisations.”

4. Citizenship stripping of Bahrainis in reprisal for human rights activism

Another crucial administrative measure imposed in the context of CT is the deprivation of nationality, or citizenship stripping. In this regard, it is important to recall that arbitrary deprivation of citizenship is a violation of international law, as it may impede an individual’s full enjoyment of all their associated human rights, notably in light of article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which establishes that everyone has the right to a nationality and no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of it nor denied the right to change his nationality, and UN General Assembly resolution 50/152, which recognised that the right to nationality enshrined in article 15(1) of the UDHR is a “fundamental principle of international law”.

In Bahrain, individuals facing terrorism charges can have their citizenship revoked. This practice was codified when the national CT legislative framework was extended after the Bahraini Citizenship Act was amended in 2014 and 2019, providing the revocation of citizenship based on terrorism charges. Following the amendments in 2014 and 2019, it was established that the Bahraini nationality may be revoked for causing “harm to the interests of the Kingdom or acts contrary to the duty of loyalty to it”. In 2023, UN experts cautioned that this formulation “could be used as a tool to silence dissidents criticizing the current Government”, as this provision does not provide a clear definition of “interest of the Kingdom” nor does it define what actions are deemed to be “contrary to the duty of loyalty to it”. In addition, the 2014 and 2019 amendments to the Bahraini Citizenship Act introduced that Bahraini citizenship could be revoked for being found guilty in a crime contained in the 2006 Law No. 58 on Protecting Society from Terrorist Acts (hereinafter: 2006 CT Law), which is the key CT legal instrument in Bahrain.

In this regard, UN experts warned that Bahraini authorities could arbitrarily exercise the revocation of citizenship, particularly against “peaceful protestors, humanitarians, lawyers, academics, human rights defenders or journalists”, in light of the 2006 CT Law’s overly vague provisions criminalising a wide range of activities and a broad range of persons that could be deemed as “terrorist” on the basis of an ambiguous definition of terrorism. The UN Human Rights Committee and other UN experts have highlighted that citizenship revocation has been allegedly used as an act of reprisal against peaceful political dissidents and human rights activists. According to Human Rights Watch, many Bahraini human rights defenders, political activists, journalists, and religious scholars’ citizenships have been stripped of their citizenship, many of whom are left effectively stateless, and some being deported. In 2019, Bahraini authorities reportedly exercised 990 citizenship revocations.

In 2023, the Special Rapporteur on CT and human rights’ Global Study on the impact of CT on civil society and civic space reported that the pattern of citizenship stripping in Bahrain is due to political motives, rather than genuine terrorism-related concerns. It was notably highlighted that in 2015, more than 72 Bahraini nationals were stripped of their citizenship, in absentia. The study stressed that the implementation of the 2014 and 2019 amendments to the Bahraini Citizenship Act led to the suppression of the legitimate and peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression and association. The practice has rendered many individuals stateless, in violation of the Bahraini Constitution, as well as the UDHR and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), both of which have been signed and ratified by Bahrain. It was reported in the context of the Global Study that the vast majority of those stripped of their citizenship are political and human rights activists, media personalities, and opposition figures living abroad who had emigrated from Bahrain due to the continuous threats from the government for participating in activities in support of democratic change.

5. Travel bans against human rights defenders in Saudi Arabia

Lastly, it is important to expose how CT-related travel bans violate fundamental human rights. Travel bans, defined as “official orders that prevent a particular citizen or group of citizens from entering or leaving the country”, are routinely imposed by Saudi authorities on individuals suspected of or prosecuted for terrorism offences. First, it is important to distinguish between “official” travel bans that are typically issued by a court or police order, and “unofficial” travel bans, which are not issued by a court or police order and are unknown to concerned individuals  they attempt to travel. According to Amnesty International, in 2022, 30 individuals were under travel bans imposed as part of court sentences, and 39 individuals were under unofficial travel bans simply for being relatives of prosecuted activists.

Regarding “official” travel bans in Saudi Arabia, their legal basis  can be found in the Saudi 2017 Law on Combatting Terrorism Crimes and its Financing (hereinafter: 2017 CT Law), particularly  article 53 (1) which states, “[a] Saudi national imprisoned for any of the crimes stipulated in this Law shall, after serving his sentence, be banned from travelling abroad for a period equal to his term of imprisonment.”

This provision was notably used in the prosecution of Salma al-Shehab, a Saudi PhD student in the United Kingdom and mother to two children, who was on a visit to Saudi Arabia when she was arrested by the State Security Presidency (SSP) in January 2021 for her peaceful Twitter activity supporting women’s rights. She was subsequently sentenced by the Specialised Criminal Court (SCC) to an initial six-year prison term, which was shockingly increased to 34 years followed by a 34-year travel ban. Although the Supreme Court referred her case back to the SCC for retrial in January 2023, she was re-sentenced in February 2023 to 27 years in prison and a travel ban of the same length.

In the case of Nourah al-Qahtani, the Saudi national was arrested in July 2021 by agents of the SSP for having advocated for human rights in Saudi Arabia, called for the release of political detainees and criticised human rights abuses committed by the Saudi authorities on Twitter through two anonymous accounts. In February 2022, she was sentenced to 13 years in prison and a 13-year travel ban, and in August 2022, the SCC of Appeal (SCCA) increased her sentence to 45 years in prison and to a 45-year travel ban, the latter measure having been imposed on the basis of the above-mentioned article 53 of the 2017 CT Law.

Similarly, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, an employee of the Saudi Red Crescent, was arrested in March 2018 by agents of the SSP for running two satirical Twitter accounts critical of the repression and human rights violations of the Saudi authorities. In April 2021, he was sentenced by the SCC to 20 years in prison, followed by a 20-year travel ban. In October 2021, the SCCA confirmed his sentence, and a court proceeding before the Saudi Supreme Court is still pending.

Regarding “unofficial” travel bans in Saudi Arabia, pursuant to article 10 of the 2017 CT Law, the SSP and the Public Prosecution Office (PPO) have the power to impose travel bans on any persons suspected or accused of committing CT-related offenses contained in the Law. In this regard, the definition of terrorism contained in the 2017 CT Law has been criticised by UN Special Procedures for being overly broad and for its use of ambiguous terms such as “disturbing public order”, “destabilising national security or state stability” and “endangering national unity”, which “could entail that a range of speech and association activities protected under international human rights law is characterized domestically as ‘terrorism’.” In addition, the SSP and the PPO may impose travel bans without any judicial oversight, the only requirement being for the SSP to inform the PPO of the decision to impose a travel ban on an individual within 72 hours.

Importantly, what characterises such travel bans as “unofficial” is that, according to article 10 of the 2017 CT Law, the SSP and the PPO may impose the measure without notifying the individual subjected to the travel ban, respectively “if security interests so require” or “if the investigation so requires”. As such, the law explicitly allows the SSP and the PPO to prohibit individuals from leaving Saudi Arabia, without notifying them, on the basis of their discretionary interpretation of the Law’s overly broad and vague terrorism definition, and of their interpretation of what is meant by “if security interests so require” or “if the investigation so requires”. This legal codification of “unofficial” travel bans in Saudi Arabia reflects “[t]he far-reaching scope of the authority and discretion bestowed upon the Executive branch” and the Saudi State Security Apparatus’ “broad and almost unconstrained power in the field of CT”, as highlighted by UN experts.

Regarding the institutional framework behind “unofficial” travel bans in Saudi Arabia, the issuance of these measures falls under the powers of the PPO and the SSP. These two institutions, which both report to the King, were created when Saudi Arabia underwent a complete overhaul of its state security apparatus in 2017, following the ascension of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) to power. The SSP, tasked with enforcing the Kingdom’s CT framework, works closely with the PPO, which is tasked mainly with investigating acts criminalised under the 2017 CT Law. After investigation, the PPO charges suspects and refers them to the SCC, an exceptional jurisdiction which has exclusive jurisdiction over all crimes defined under the 2017 CT Law. In practice, the Kingdom’s State Security Apparatus, in conjunction with the SCC, has perpetrated gross human rights violations, including enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention, torture and ill-treatment, particularly against individuals exercising their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association.

One example is of Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent Saudi women’s rights defender who campaigned against the driving ban and the male guardianship system. In December 2020, she was sentenced by the SCC to five years and eight months in prison, suspended by two years and 10 months, in addition to a five-year travel ban following a grossly unfair trial. She was conditionally released in February 2021, but the SCCA upheld her initial sentence in March 2021. As such, al-Hathloul is no longer in prison but continues to face a five-year travel ban. In addition, Loujain al-Hathloul’s mother and father have been subjected to an unofficial, unjustified, and open-ended travel ban since 2018. They only learned that they were banned from traveling when they were about to travel outside Saudi Arabia through the airport. There, the Passport Authority prevented them from boarding the aircraft under the pretext of the travel ban. After this incident, the al-Hathloul family contacted the Saudi authorities to inquire about the parents’ travel ban, but they denied everything and cut all contact with them. Al-Hathloul’s mother visited State Security officials, who did not provide her with any responses. She then proceeded to go to the Passport Authority, which confirmed the existence of the travel ban against her. However, she was not provided any legal document attesting to the travel ban, nor was she given the reasons behind its imposition. The family continued to send faxes and emails to the authorities, to no avail. As a result, the “official” travel bans imposed on al-Hathloul, as well as the “unofficial” ones imposed on her parents, have been the cause of the separation of their family for years. Indeed, al-Hathloul’s siblings live outside Saudi Arabia, while Loujain al-Hathloul, her mother and father live in Saudi Arabia and remain banned from travelling, with no knowledge of the basis and duration of the ban or . 

Loujain al-Hathloul’s sister Lina, jointly with the relatives of other Saudi nationals subjected to “unofficial” travel bans, including Maryam al-Otaibi, Salman al-Odah, Omar and Sarah al-Jabri and Aoud al-Qarni, have published a joint letter addressed to the Saudi Human Rights Commission deploring the adverse impact of the bans on their lives and requesting for the circumstances of these measures to be investigated and for the bans to be the lifted.

6. Conclusion

In light of the above-mentioned considerations, we conclude that administrative measures imposed in the context of CT, whether they be administrative detention, terrorism listing, citizenship stripping, travel bans, or others, have a detrimental impact on human rights and fundamental freedoms. From our perspective, these issues stem from two major underlying CT-related issues.

First, as highlighted by a number of UN experts, we observe that these administrative measures are issued and enforced on the basis of vague and broad domestic definitions of terrorism, relying on ambiguous terminology such as “public order”, “national unity” and “state security”. As such, the interpretation of these broad and ambiguous notions is left to the discretion of the authorities, who are enabled to extend their application to acts that may not necessarily be related to terrorism, and to target entities and individuals exercising their fundamental rights and freedoms.

Second, we observe that these CT-related administrative measures are often issued and enforced by state security or CT apparatuses and exceptional jurisdictions, which are often granted excessive powers and operate without oversight, and in violation of due process rights and fair trial guarantees. As such, these entities are enabled to arbitrarily impose administrative measures on entities and individuals in reprisal for their exercise of fundamental rights and freedoms, under the guise of CT.

Overall, while we concur that the use of administrative measures in CT is a matter which deserves significant focus and attention, we believe it is key to take into consideration the broader context of the abuse of CT and its impact on human rights and fundamental freedoms, and tackle the deep-rooted, underlying issues at hand so as to work towards ceasing the perpetration of CT-related violations of human rights and fundamental freedom altogether. 

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