Arbitrary arrests, torture and other human rights violations are growing in the Arab Spring Middle East as despots more often than not ignore promises to end the worst abuses while new governments resort to their predecessors' methods to restore order, human rights experts say.
The latest indication of ballooning violations came in a report released by Amnesty International on Tuesday, which asserted that at least 88 people died in custody in Syria in the four and a half months leading to Aug. 15. Even as President Bashar Al-Assad ended the emergency law in April that had effectively made such abuses legal, the number of deaths was "many times higher than the yearly average," the London-based organization said.
"The method of torture and ways in which people are being arrested and detained fits into a broader pattern that goes way back, but the scale has grown," Philip Luther, Amnesty's deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa, told The Media Line. "There may well be more … We have been receiving new reports."
Across the Middle East, people have poured into the streets to demand reforms or bring down governments that count among the world's human rights violators. But even as three of the region's leaders have fallen and those still in power face closer scrutiny than ever, the Arab Spring has done little to end arbitrary arrests, torture and abuse, and censorship.
Al-Assad, who in his 11 years of rule has been cited as a serial human rights violator, has promised to end some of his regime's most onerous laws and practices as he struggles to put down a rebellion now marking its sixth month. But Amnesty and other human rights groups said there was little evidence anything has changed.
Amnesty couldn't conduct field research (it said the last time the government permitted it to visit the country was 14 months ago). But based on videos and photographic evidence examined by experts, it maintained that at least 52 of the 88 showed evidence they experienced torture. Some of the dead, including minors as young as 13, were also mutilated "in particularly grotesque ways" apparently to scare the families to whom the corpses were returned.
All told, more than 2,200 people have been killed since the Syrian government's crackdown on protesters began in March, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said last week. And the pace of killings may be rising, with 350 deaths reported since the beginning of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan Aug. 2.
Meanwhile in Bahrain, the OHCHR said the situation remains "tense and unpredictable" months after the island emirate put an end to anti-government protests and King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa has promised national dialogue. Opposition activities are still being repressed and hundreds of cases involving civilian demonstrators are being conducted in what amount to military courts, the OHCHR said.
After anti-government protests were put down in Bahrain with the help of Saudi security forces in March, King Hamad signaled he was ready to ease up the crackdown, marking the end of Ramadan this week by pardoning an unknown number of political prisoners and calling for the reinstatement of some workers fired for their political activity.
At least 500 people have been detained in Bahrain since the protests began in February, according to Amnesty International. Four have died in custody under "suspicious circumstances" and more than 2,500 people have been dismissed or suspended from work. Among them were teachers, who were arrested, tortured or otherwise ill-treated in detention for joining the protests.
"We are concerned that most of the defendants in these cases may be prisoners of conscience, detained only for exercising their rights to freedom of expression and association," Rupert Colville, spokesman for the OHCHR, said on Tuesday.
The region's new leaders, who have inherited control from dictators like Egypt's Husni Mubarak and Libya's Muamar Al-Qaddafi, have had a mixed record since they took power.
"It's too soon to say. We have to refrain from overall assessment in Libya where there's still a war going on. In a place like Egypt you have transitional situation where it's under military rule," said Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East and North Africa division. "These are not democrats, these are not revolutionaries. They run a military shop."
She told The Media Line she expected real change to come in Egypt, which has been under the rule of an interim military government since Mubarak was ousted last February, when an elected government comes to power early next year.
Meanwhile, human rights activists have gathered considerable evidence that the army continues to torture prisoners, a group of 36 Egyptian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) said in an Aug. 26 statement. Bloggers and others who criticize the army have been arrested and more civilians than ever are being tried in military courts.
"Torture continues to be carried out in detention facilities run by the military police and has even reached unprecedented levels, as female political activists face sexual assault by being subjected to forcible virginity tests," the 36 NGOs said. "Excessive force has also been used on several occasions to disperse sit-ins by political groups and the families of martyrs of the January 25 Revolution."
Cairo's Hisham Mubarak Law Centre estimates that more than 12,000 Egyptians have been sentenced in military courts in the last six months, compared with fewer than 2,000 civilians in the 30 years Mubarak ruled.
Whitson, however, said she saw a bright spot in two of the region's kingdoms - Jordan and Morocco. Both countries' rulers have shunned violence as much as possible and have taken serious measures to reform and democratize politics, even if they have stopped short of surrendering their ruling powers.
"They do care and they do know their international credibility and international legitimacy isn't very high and is getting more attention than ever before because of the Arab Spring," she told The Media Line. "These governments have made a strategic choice."
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