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Qatar: Isolation Causing Rights Abuses

The isolation of Qatar by Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is precipitating serious human rights violations, Human Rights Watch said today. It is infringing on the right to free expression, separating families, interrupting medical care – in one case forcing a child to miss a scheduled brain surgery, interrupting education, and stranding migrant workers without food or water. Travel to and from Qatar is restricted, and the land border with Saudi Arabia is closed.

On June 5, 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE cut off diplomatic relations with Qatar and ordered the expulsion of Qatari citizens and the return of their citizens from Qatar within 14 days. The three countries applied the travel restrictions suddenly, collectively, and without taking individual situations into account. On June 23, the three countries and Egypt issued a list of 13 demands to Qatar for ending the crisis that included shutting down Al Jazeera and other media they claim are funded by Qatar; downgrading diplomatic ties with Iran; severing ties with “terrorist organizations,” including the Muslim Brotherhood; and paying reparations to other Gulf countries for “loss of life” and “other financial losses” resulting from Qatar’s policies.

“Gulf autocrats’ political disputes are violating the rights of peaceful Gulf residents who were living their lives and caring for their families,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Hundreds of Saudis, Bahrainis, and Emiratis have been forced into the impossible situation of either disregarding their countries’ orders or leaving behind their families and jobs.”

Human Rights Watch researchers interviewed and documented the cases of 50 citizens of Qatar, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, as well as 70 foreign migrant workers living in Qatar, many of whose rights have been violated by restrictive policies imposed since June 5. More than 11,327 Gulf nationals were living in Qatar and nearly 1,927 Qataris in other Gulf countries, Qatar’s national human rights body reported on July 1.

Gulf nationals told Human Rights Watch that parents had been forcibly separated from their young children and husbands from their wives, and that family members were prevented from visiting sick or elderly parents. Qatari media reported that family members of a Saudi man who died in Qatar on June 8 could not enter to retrieve his body, and authorities eventually buried him in Qatar. Article 26 of the Arab Charter on Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE have ratified, prohibits arbitrary expulsion of foreigners and any collective expulsion.

One Qatari man said he is cut off from his pregnant Saudi wife, who was visiting family members in Saudi Arabia when the restrictions were imposed. A Qatari woman said that she left her ailing 70-year-old Bahraini husband in Bahrain because her embassy advised her to return to Qatar. A Bahraini woman virtually went into hiding to keep her government from discovering she had remained with her Qatari husband and 2-month-old daughter, who is a Qatari citizen.

Some Gulf states have threatened citizens who remain in Qatar with specific punishments. Saudi Arabia’s General Directorate of Passports placed Qatar on its list of countries to which Saudi citizens are not allowed to travel under penalty of a three-year travel ban and a fine of 10,000 Saudi Riyals (US$2,600). On June 13, Bahrain’s Interior Ministry issued an order stating that “anyone who violates the ban … shall have his personal passport withdrawn and his request to renew it shall be denied.”

On June 12, in response to reports of family separations, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE announced that they would grant exceptions for “humanitarian cases of mixed families” for travel back and forth from Qatar and each country established hotlines. Yet, of the 12 Gulf nationals who said they tried to contact these hotlines, only two managed to get permission to go back and forth. Others said that they did not call because they worried that the three countries would use the hotlines to discover the identities of citizens who remained in Qatar.

Other Gulf nationals said that the travel restrictions had interrupted ongoing medical treatment or studies. Two Qatari parents said that their children missed scheduled surgeries in Saudi hospitals, including one girl whose mother said if she does not receive specialist treatment she could end up paralyzed, and a 67-year-old Saudi man who had to end ongoing heart and kidney treatment in Qatar. The exceptions Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain announced made no reference to medical treatment.

A Qatari woman who had been in her third year at a UAE university showed Human Rights Watch a screenshot of an email from a university administrator on June 7, informing her that the university had withdrawn her from her summer and fall courses, wishing her “success in your educational journey.” Another Qatari woman in the final year of her medical degree in the UAE also was abruptly withdrawn from her studies. All Qatari students interviewed said that the travel restrictions forced them to return to Qatar.

Four Qataris said that migrant workers they sponsor are stranded in Saudi Arabia without adequate food or water. Human Rights Watch also interviewed 70 migrant workers at various locations in Doha, nearly all of whom complained about the rise in food prices in Qatar because of increasing import costs due to the land border closure. The border closure also exacerbates existing abuses that workers said they faced, including non-payment of salaries.

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE have sought to use their political measures against Qatar to shutter critical media outlets in their countries, especially Al Jazeera, which Gulf leaders have accused of fomenting terrorism and unrest across the region. Bahrain and the UAE have threatened to punish their own citizens for “expressing sympathy” for Qatar online.

"Gulf countries need to take a step back and see the harm they are doing to their own citizens,” Whitson said. "Gulf countries should put people’s well-being before their harmful power games.”

Family Separation

Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and the UAE ordered the expulsion of all Qatari citizens from their countries and mandated the return of their citizens from Qatar within 14 days – by June 19. The three countries ended all commercial direct flights to and from Doha, forcing returning Gulf nationals to lay over in a third country, usually Oman or Kuwait, and redirected flights to Qatar outside of their airspace. Some Gulf states have threatened citizens who remain in Qatar with specific punishments.

A July 1 report by the state-funded Qatari National Human Rights Committee says that approximately 8,254 Saudis, 2,349 Bahrainis, and 784 Emiratis lived in Qatar prior to the crisis and that 1,927 Qataris lived in the three neighboring countries. The report said that the committee had received 480 family separation cases since June 5.

No Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) country allows dual nationality, and all discriminate against women by not allowing women to pass nationality to their children on the same basis as men. Qatar, like other Gulf states, allows men to pass citizenship to their children, whereas children of Qatari women and non-citizen fathers can only apply for citizenship under strict conditions. The 2005 acquisition of Qatari nationality law provides that individuals resident for more than 25 years can apply for nationality, with priority for those with Qatari mothers, under specific conditions.

“Sami,” a 36-year-old Bahraini man born in Qatar to a Qatari mother and Bahraini father, said, “I was born here, studied here, and work here.” He applied for Qatari nationality six years ago, but had not been notified of a decision: “There is a committee. I did a medical test, CID [a check with Criminal Investigation Department], and paid 3000 riyals (US$823). They said all fine, but said that I have to wait for government approval. But they didn’t call me.”

Of the 50 Gulf nationals Human Rights Watch interviewed, 22 reported that the travel restrictions cut them off from immediate family members. Human Rights Watch interviewed 15 people who said they were married to someone holding another one of these nationalities or were divorced but had children with them.

“Maher,” a 37-year old Qatari, said the travel restrictions cut him off from his Saudi wife, who had been visiting her mother in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province. He said his wife, who is from his own extended family, is not allowed to fly because she is in her last trimester of pregnancy, and that Saudi authorities will not allow her to cross the land border into Qatar: “On Thursday [June 15], I went to the border at noon and spoke to them, and they said I have to speak with the Interior Ministry. I talked to them on the number they gave me and they said they would call me back. I waited there 2 hours, from 12 to 2 p.m. ... I went back [home] eventually because my car had no petrol [left].”

Maher said the situation is complicated by the fact that he never registered his marriage in either country: “I just want my wife and to be with the baby. We didn’t finish our marriage papers, so there is no confirmation of marriage for us. Now I can’t complete the papers. I am afraid they will take my child away and make his nationality Saudi.” He said he also fears potential criminal sanction against his wife because of her pregnancy. Sexual relations outside of marriage are criminalized in Gulf states, and flogging penalties can be imposed on Muslims.

“Leila,” a 26-year old Bahraini woman, said that she frequently traveled back and forth between Qatar and Bahrain with her Qatari husband. She said she delivered a baby girl in Qatar several weeks before the travel restrictions were imposed, and was forced to decide between complying with the order to return to Bahrain or remain with her daughter and husband. She said she was deeply worried over Bahrain’s order to cancel passports of citizens who remain in Qatar, and hoped she could keep Bahraini authorities from learning that she is in Qatar. She said she would not travel until the crisis is resolved: “I’m scared to travel anywhere. What if they get information about me and are able to cancel my passport? I don’t want any information in the system anywhere.” She said she had tried to call the Bahraini hotline but was told she had to return to Bahrain and asked for her passport number.

Human Rights Watch interviewed two Qataris who were forced to return but were staying in hotels in Doha because they did not have homes in Qatar. “Reem” said that she had lived in Bahrain with her Bahraini husband and children for 36 years. She called the Qatari embassy in Manama, which she says informed her that she had to return to Qatar. She said that she left behind her 70-year-old Bahraini husband and two sons: “There is nobody in Bahrain to take care of [my husband]. He is 70, he can barely take care of himself, and my other sons have their own families. They were very upset I was leaving.”

She said that she brought to Qatar her 25-year old son, a Bahraini national, who suffers from an intellectual disability and epilepsy and requires regular medical treatment. She said she worries what will happen if Bahraini authorities discover that he is in Qatar. In Qatar, she has limited foreign currency in cash that she had difficulty exchanging, and is now dependent on the Qatari authorities and charities to provide her with accommodation and financial assistance.

Another Qatari man, “Ahmed,” who is married to an Emirati woman and lives in the UAE, said that the UAE had denied his entry around the time it imposed the travel restrictions and forced him back to Qatar, where he was staying in a hotel. “Does anyone want this?” he said. “Does this comply with international laws and customs? In Holy Ramadan [the Muslim holy month], there is a complete lack of mercy and families are broken apart, children from their father and a husband from his wife.”

“Nora,” a 36-year old Saudi woman living in Qatar said she has a 3-year-old Qatari son from a previous marriage to a Qatari. She said that she has legal custody over her son and is entitled to monthly financial and child support, but that her former husband was encouraging her to return to Saudi Arabia so that he could regain custody and stop his support payments.

Of the 50 Gulf nationals interviewed, only 12 said that they had attempted to contact the family separation hotlines. The rest said that they did not think they would receive permission to travel back and forth, or that they were worried that the hotlines were intended to collect information on which citizens had failed to return to or from Qatar.

Only 2 of the 12 people who had contacted the hotlines, one Saudi and one Bahraini, said they had obtained permission to live in Qatar and travel back and forth.

Read the full report here : https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/07/13/qatar-isolation-causing-rights-abuses

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