2018 in Review: Saudi Women Rights Defenders, J.S. Bach and Ahmed Mansoor

It is again the time of the year when people look back to the past year and think about the year to come. I began writing this blog in June 2015 and I started each year of my blog writing with a review of the previous year and some ideas for the new year. I want to continue this tradition and will share with you updates and also some statistics about my blog posts in 2018 and some ideas for 2019.

1. A blog post like this has to start with saying thank you to everyone who read my blog posts, who shared my blog posts and even more important who took action for the prisoners of conscience and human rights defenders during 2018. I want to thank in particular those who joined the Twitter Day for Ahmed Mansoor on 20 March 2018 to mark the anniversary of his arrest and those who continue to tweet photos for the #SkyForShawkan campaign.

It is wonderful, if blog posts translate into actions in real life and this happened last year. I wrote in November 2017 two blog posts about “Poetry behind bars” – poems written by five women who were prisoners in Evin Prison, Iran. I shared in one blog post poems written by Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, Golrokh Ebrahimi Iraee, Narges Mohammadi, Nasim Bagheri and Mahvash Sabet Shariari and in the second blog post I told the stories of these five women. A short time after I published my two blog posts Catherine Temma Davidson got in contact with me about these posts. A few months later, in February 2018, she organised an evening at the Poetry Café, London, for Exiled Writers Ink with the title “Words for the Silenced” which focused on writings from and about those imprisoned in Iran. One part of the evening was a reading of poems which I had included in my blog post (and some newer ones) and the stories of the women who wrote the poetry. It is great that a larger audience heard the poems and the stories of these women. There is hopefully more to come in 2019. We are discussing at the moment another event in March 2019 which will focus on Arabic poems written by poets who are currently in prison in different Arab countries.

2. I wrote in 2018 ten blog posts. As usual most of these posts (six blog posts) are about human rights topics. Two of the blog posts are about a prisoner of conscience in the United Arab Emirates (Ahmed Mansoor), two about a prisoner in Bahrain (Hassan Mushaima), one about prisoners in Saudi Arabia and one about a prisoner in Egypt (Shawkan).  There were sadly no blog posts last year about poetry and – actually quite surprisingly – no blog posts about human rights in Iran. I am sure both will be back in 2019.

Three blog posts from 2018 are about classical music and one of my posts is in the “General” category.

a) My most popular blog post in 2018 was my article about Saudi women rights defenders: “Where are the Saudi reforms? Saudi women rights defenders Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadah, Loujain al-Hathloul, Eman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef in prison“. Saudi Arabia saw in 2018 a crackdown for human rights defenders and there was obviously the murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoggi. Many human rights activists were arrested in 2018, in particular in May 2018. I wrote in my blog post about five of these human rights defenders:

Samar Badawi and Nassima al-Sadah (both arrested on 30 July 2018) and Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Loujain al-Hathloul (all three arrested in May 2018). You can see all of them in the picture on the left (from top left to bottom right). 

I am delighted that my blog post was shared and retweeted widely. It received 512 views last year which is quite a lot for my blog.

There are sadly worrying news from Saudi Arabia. Amnesty International has information that detainees in Saudi Arabia’s Dhahban Prison faced sexual harassment, torture and other forms of ill-treatment during interrogation. These prisoners include the five women about whom I wrote my blog post. The prison has warned the detainees not to disclose anything to their family members or the public. Torture is not unusual in Saudi Arabia.

“Many detainees have reported during trials that torture was used to extract “confessions” from them, to punish them for refusing to “repent” or to force them to promise not to criticize the government. Such “confessions” have furthermore routinely formed the basis for harsh sentences, including the death penalty, without the judiciary taking any steps to duly investigate these claims”

Amnesty International, 20 November 2018

As far as I know Samar Badawi, Nassima al-Sadah, Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Loujain al-Hathloul have not yet been charged. Amnesty reports that they have no legal representation and where held incommunicado and in solitary confinements for the first months after their arrest.

Amnesty had a special page to mark 100 days after the arrest of Aziza al-Yousef, Eman al-Nafjan and Loujain al-Hathloul. You can find on this page postal addresses as well as email addresses and Twitter handles of Saudi authorities. Please take action for these women.

b) The blog post which got the second most views is suprisingly from June 2016.

On 25 June 2016 one of my choirs Highgate Choral Society sung Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Mass in B Minor”. I wrote a blog post about the piece: Bach: Mass in B Minor – a “Great Catholic Mass”?. This blog post did quite well when I published in 2016 with 140 views (which made it my fifths most popular one in 2016). Last year it did even better and got 314 views.

Generally my blog posts about classical music and different choral works get frequent views over a longer period of time. Most people find the posts via Google and other search engines. I am very pleased by that and there will be more blog posts about choral works in 2019.

c) Everyone who follows me on Twitter knows that I campaign quite a lot for Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist from the United Arab Emirates. I wrote two blog posts about him in 2017 and two blog posts in 2018. My two blog posts from 2018 were my third and forth most popular posts in that year. My post “One year of solitary confinement – Join the Twitter Day for Ahmed Mansoor” from March 2018 had 195 views and my post “Ahmed Mansoor – 10 years in prison for defending human rights” from May 2018 had 205 views.

As explained in my post from May 2018 Ahmed Mansoor was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his human rights activism. There is sadly also no good news about Ahmed Mansoor.

It is generally really difficult to hear any news about him. Amnesty International published on 21 December 2018 an urgent action about him and mentions in this action that there is a court hearing in front of the court of appeal on 24 December 2018. The International Centre for Justice and Human Rights (ICJHR) tweeted on the 21 December that they learned that Ahmed Mansoor is still in solitary confinement at Al Wathba prison since his arrest. They said that there was a court hearing on the appeal of his judgement on 17 December 2018 and that there was one scheduled for 24 December 2018. A few days ago on 26 December they tweeted that he did not attend the court hearing on 24 December and that the hearing was postponed to the 31 December 2018. The court of appeal decided on 31 December to uphold the 10 year jail sentence against Ahmed Mansoor.

Bill Law wrote an article which is well worth reading: “Two court cases the UAE and Bahrain are hoping the West forgets”. I also want to repeat what I said before: Please tweet about Ahmed Mansoor and please take action via the urgent action and urge the authorities to release him. Please make sure that he is not forgotten.

d) There are a couple of other cases on which I would like to give you an update – luckily there is also at least some good news among all the bad news.

(1) Sadly no good news for the Egyptian photographer Shawkan. I wrote a blog post about him on the 1 October 2018 in which I reported about the judgement against him (five years in prison). I also mentioned that he had already spent more than five years in prison and everyone hoped for his immediate release. Sadly Shawkan is still in prison in Egypt. According to his lawyer he will spend six additional months in prison and is due to be released on 16 February 2019. The lawyer said that the court decided that all defendants in the Rabaa trial have to pay a fine for the damages occurred during the sit-in. The persecution decided to carry out the sentence of “physical coercion” instead of asking for payment of the amount and added six more months in prison to Shawkan’s sentence (and the sentence of other defendants). I hope that February will finally bring freedom for Shawkan.

(2) Ali Mushaima stopped his protest outside the Bahraini Embassy in London on 2 October. I wrote in 2018 two blog posts about him and his hunger strike to raise awareness for his father Hassan Mushaima and emphasise very basic demands for him. Ali received the support of 15 MPs who said that would follow his father’s case and try to help. This is all positive, but Ali also tweeted on 5 December that his father is still waiting for the results of his cancer scans which were made in August and that he did no receive his medication the other week. I hope 2019 will bring more positive news for Ali and his family.

(3) There was good news from Iran in 2019: I already mentioned at the beginning of this article my post about poetry and poems written in Evin prison. One of the women about whom I wrote is Nasim Bagheri. She was released on 29 March 2018 after having completed her four year prison sentence.

I wrote in December 2016 a blog post about three lawyers who were punished for being human rights lawyer. One of these lawyers was Abdolfattah Soltani from Iran. He had been arrested in 2011 and in 2012 sentenced to ten years in prison. On 20 November 2018 he has been conditionally released after more than seven years in prison.

3. I do not want to bore you with statistics, but I am always curious and intrigued to see how many people visit my blog during a year and from how many different countries they come. In 2018 4131 people visited my blog and my blog posts got 6211 views. That is more than in previous years which wonderful and also a little bit surprising given that I wrote in 2018 fewer blog posts than in 2017. The visitors came from 97 countries. The most views came from the United States with 1953 views, followed by the United Kingdom with 1198 views and Germany with 515 views.

4. I am a little bit reluctant to share my ideas for posts in 2019. Mainly because I often do not find the time to write posts about all my ideas and if I mention something in my January post it almost feels a bit like an obligation or promise to write a post. Nevertheless, here are my ideas for 2019:

a) I already mentioned that I did not write any posts about prisoners in Iran. That is certainly something I want to do again in 2019. There are a number of prisoners and human rights activist about whom I would like to write a blog post. Among them is certainly Atena Daemi, a human rights activist who spoke out against the death penalty and who featured in 2018 Write for Rights campaign. Others are Nasrin Sotoudeh, a prominent human rights lawyer, or also Kamran Ghaderi, an Iranian-Austrian dual national. We will see.

b)  I would also like to write one or two blog posts about poetry. I mentioned that I am currently planning an event together with Exiled Writers Ink for March 2019. There should be a chance to write about the event or the poems and poets who will feature in the event.

c) When I tweeted about my blog post about the Saudi women rights defenders, many mentioned that Hatoon al-Fassi, another well known Saudi women rights defender, was also arrested in summer last year and that I should have included her in my post as well. I would like to write about her in 2019.

d) Finally I will certainly also write again about classical music. Highgate Choral Society’s programme for 2019 includes Janáček’s Glagolitic Mass, Vivaldi’s Gloria and music by Zelenka. Therefore the programme notes of some of the works will certainly find their way into my blog.

5. I want to close this blog post with wishing everyone all the best for 2019. The United Arab Emirates declared on 15 December 2018 that 2019 will be a “Year of Tolerance”. I fear that this is mainly a publicy stunt and the decision of the court of appeal against Ahmed Mansoor is the opposite of tolerance. Nevertheless, it would be wonderful, if 2019 would really be a year of tolerance, freedom for prisoners of conscience and peace.

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