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Amnesty Report Criticizes Some Middle Eastern, N. African Countries - 2004-05-26

In its annual report issued Wednesday, Amnesty International said countries in the Middle East and North Africa have used their fight against terrorism as an excuse to deprive citizens of their rights. That is not a new concept for many analysts and activists in the region.

Experts in the region have been expressing concern about the impact of the war on terror for some time. Political Science Professor at Lebanese American University in Beirut, Sami Baroudi, says Amnesty International's report only confirms those concerns. He says the war on terror has created an atmosphere in which it is easy for Arab governments to justify oppression.

"The mood after September 11 has moved toward more security and less individual rights," said Sami Baroudi. "And I think basically countries in this region are quite intelligent and they are sort of marketing the harsh way in which they treat their societies, which started long before September 11, as sort of this fight against terrorism, to make what they're doing acceptable to the U.S."

But Dr. Baroudi also points out that there has been a real increase in terrorist activity in the region recently, most notably in Saudi Arabia.

The Amnesty International report, released on Wednesday, mentions Algeria in particular, where a civil war between Islamists and the government has been raging for more than a decade. It also criticizes Morocco and Tunisia, which both passed anti-terrorism laws in 2003 that give their governments sweeping new powers. And the report expresses concern about long-standing states of emergency in Egypt and Syria, which it says have been legitimized by the war on terror.

Former Egyptian diplomat Abullah Al Ashaal says it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between legitimate security operations and human rights abuses.

"In some dilemmas, like the Algeria situation, it's very difficult to find out what are the violations of human rights, because the people there who are fighting the population to my mind, they are terrorists and you cannot excuse them for anything, but at the same time you have to respect their right to be fairly judged and to be tried according to criminal law procedures," he said.

According to the Amnesty report, torture is used in Algeria in nearly all cases involving suspects with alleged links to terrorist groups.

A researcher at the Arab Human Rights Organization in Cairo, Alaa Shalaby, says the threat of terrorism can not justify the methods being used.

"Our stance is that we are condemning terrorism of course because it is a violation of human rights, but we also don't see that you can face a crime with another crime," said Alaa Shalaby.

The Amnesty International report also documents the frequent harassment of human rights activists in North African countries, and the disappearance of hundreds of people from Morocco's troubled Western Sahara territory.