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Coronavirus lockdowns are further eroding civil rights in Middle East nations, even in quasi-democratic ones Open in fullscreen

The New Arab

Coronavirus lockdowns are further eroding civil rights in Middle East nations, even in quasi-democratic ones

Countries are clamping down on freedom of movement to halt the spread of coronavirus [Getty]

Date of publication: 2 April, 2020

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A new tracker has been launched to monitor the degradation of civil liberties across the world as countries grapple with a fast-spreading virus and social distancing directives.
Civil liberties in the Middle East are coming increasingly under threat as governments grapple to enforce social distancing directives in a bid to contain the outbreak of coronavirus.

Jordan's law enforcement has reportedly carried out random arrests of those caught outside without what it considers a valid reason. In Lebanon, people have been fined for breaking curfew and in Israel, experts have raised alarm at the use of coronavirus as a pretext to arrest yet more Palestinians.

In the Gulf on Wednesday, a man was arrested for inviting a barber to his home for a haircut as it violated social distancing rules.

Whilst countries with a strong democratic core are toeing the line between what is acceptable and what is a violation of civil liberties, authoritarian regimes are using the pandemic as an opportunity to tighten the leash on its civilians.

With such measures in place, experts worry that civil liberties are being eroded, and a new website has emerged to collect and monitor the various measures that are being implemented worldwide due to the coronavirus.

The "COVID-19 Civil Freedom Tracker monitors government responses to the pandemic that affect civil freedoms and human rights, focusing on emergency laws," the website says.

The tracker is part of a joint project with the International Center for Not-For-Profit-Law (ICNL), the European Center for Not-For-Profit-Law (ECNL) and Fionnuala Ni Aolain, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms.

"This tracker monitors government responses to the pandemic that affect civic freedoms and human rights, focusing on emergency laws," the website states.

An "ongoing project", there are still several countries that have not yet been added.

Algeria

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune issued an order on 17 March banning all protests, marches, demonstrations, and other mass gatherings, due to the coronavirus epidemic.

His order, given during an Assembly also closes all public spaces suspected of being a hub for the virus.

Egypt

Egypt has declared a two-week curfew from 7 PM to 6 AM to prevent the spread of coronavirus, and those who violate the measure will be punished under emergency laws.

"I call on all Egyptians to fully comply with these measures," President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi said on Twitter. "And I affirm that all elements of the Egyptian state will confront any attempts to breach them with the utmost firmness and resolution."

The emergency laws include the closure of public spaces as well as arrests and fines given to those who violate the laws.

Israel

Israel introduced new regulations on 21 March which allow police to track the telephones of coronavirus patients or those suspected of being infected without seeking a court order.

An increased police presence in the streets has worried experts after videos emerged on Wednesday of large numbers of police crowding around and beating a Palestinian man who did not have his identification documents.

Civilians took to the streets to defend themselves after allegations that Israeli police had violently and disproportionately targeted Palestinians for breaking quarantine rules.

Jordan

Jordan enacted a series of emergency laws in mid-March. An Assembly decree declared a "state of emergency" under Article 124 of Jordan's Constitution due to the coronavirus pandemic.

It activated emergency provisions of Defence Law 13 of 1992. According to these two decrees the prime minister has the authority to suspend certain individual rights, including freedom of movement and expression.

Read More: Trapped with domestic abusers: How Covid-19 lockdowns are endangering vulnerable women across the Middle East


Following the decree, the country has been in a state of lockdown and over 1,600 people have been arrested in just three days for violating the curfews.

Such arrests could prove to be disastrous in the containment of coronavirus, as increasingly crowded prisons could become hotspots for coronavirus transmission.

Lebanon

Lebanese activists are worried that the state of emergency announced on 15 March is being used by the Hezbollah-led cabinet to consolidate power.

The new directives closed public institutions, private businesses, ports and borders and ordered citizens to stay home unless there was an essential need to leave the house.

With the country still suffering from its worst financial crisis in years, many fear that such limits on civil liberties could be used to shut down dissent and criticism of the government.

Qatar

Qatar has amended a 1990 law regarding protection from infectious diseases to curb the spread of the virus.

Emir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani issued Amendments to Law No. 17.

The amendments require certain individuals, including heads of households and office managers, to report to authorities if they suspect that a person has an infectious disease.

The amendments also specify three years in prison and a 200,000 Qatari Riyal fine in the case of noncompliance.

Saudi Arabia

Security authorities in Saudi Arabia launched an aggressive campaign of arrests on Wednesday, according to a Twitter account which monitors the situation of political prisoners in the kingdom.

Unphased by the extraordinary circumstances brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic, those reportedly detained by police were prominent figures active on social media, which included an Islamic activist and a doctoral student.

Official channels have offered no comment on the latest crackdown.

Sudan

The government imposed a night-time curfew nationwide from 10 PM to 6 AM. This comes after a nationwide ban on mass gatherings, which had been put in place on 20 March.

Tunisia

Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh announced the establishment of a national body to combat the spread of the virus on Wednesday, but the country has as of yet shied away from changes in the law.

Tunisia's ministry of interior last week announced the deployment of unmanned guided robots by local robotics company Enova, and social media posts this week appear to confirm the presence of such robots.

Read more: Tunisia deploys police robots to enforce coronavirus lockdown


Police-operated robots patrolled Tunisia's streets on the lookout for civilians wandering outdoors despite the country's coronavirus lockdown, according to social media posts this week.

As of Wednesday, the country recorded 173 cases of infection with the virus, with five fatalities.

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