Türkiye: targeting and online defamation of Syrian woman human rights defender Hiba Ezzideen Al-Hajji (joint communication)

The following is based on a communication written by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders and other UN experts to the Government of Türkiye on 12 September 2023 and to the company Telegram on 16 October 2023. The communication remained confidential for 60 days before being made public, giving the Government time to reply. Regrettably, the Government did not reply within this time frame. If a reply is received it will be posted on the UN Special Procedures communications database.

This is a shorter version of the original communication.

Read the full communication to Türkiye Read the full communication to Telegram

BACKGROUND

Topic: targeting and online defamation of a Syrian woman human rights defender residing in Türkiye.

Ms. Hiba Ezzideen Al-Hajji is a human rights defender and the chief executive officer of Equity and Empowerment, a Türkiye-based non-governmental organization that supports women’s rights and democracy in Syria, including in the north western Syrian governorate of Idlib. Together with Syria-based colleagues, Ms. Al-Hajji promotes gender equality, political empowerment and digital security.

ALLEGATIONS

On 4 July 2023 Ms. Al-Hajji was targeted and threatened with death by unknown accounts on Facebook and Telegram social media platforms, both of which showed many followers. The messages claimed that her work on promoting equality and democracy went against Islamic teachings.

Between 4 and 10 July 2023, the same message appeared on the Facebook page of Equity and Empowerment, the organisation of which she is the chief executive officer. These included threats of rape and sexual slurs, as well as incitements against her and her family.

The online attacks came a day after Ms. Al-Hajji was selected as one of the ten faces of democracy by the European Endowment for Democracy (Ten Faces of EED)[1].

On 12 July 2023, Ms. Al-Hajji received a similar message from an unknown number on her WhatsApp social media platform. Four days later, she received a message saying that she will be stopped. When she questioned the sender as to their identity, they replied that they were based in Idlib. The reply had a picture of knives attached.

Ms. Al-Hajji managed to get most of the threatening messages removed from Facebook. However, Telegram did not respond when she reported this activity in the app and did not remove the posts or shut down the channels. At the time of this communication, it is understood the messages have remained on the platform.

On 16 July 2023, a relative of Ms. Al-Hajji was confronted by a stranger in a public space in Idlib city. The unidentified individual threatened to kill Ms. Al-Hajji or one of her siblings if she did not put an end to her work.

It is believed that the online defamation campaign emanates from radical Islamist groups operating in Idlib, Syria, where Equity and Empowerment carry out most of their work.

On 21 July 2023, an influential Islamic preacher in the countryside around Idlib gave a sermon in which he mentioned Ms. Al-Hajji by name and called for her association to be closed down, by force if necessary. According to Ms. Al-Hajji, many people reportedly understood this to be an edict by an Islamic authority to kill her and members of her organisation.

On 8 August 2023, another influential Islamic preacher posted on Telegram that Equity and Empowerment, and other organisations operating in Idlib, its countryside and northern Aleppo, are aiming to “corrupt women and destroy families” by asking women not to obey their fathers, husbands, or brothers. The preacher called on the regional powers to put an end to this “great evil.” He added a list of ten regional feminist organisations, including Equity and Empowerment.

CONCERNS

In the communication, we wish to stress Türkiye’s obligation to protect the human rights of individuals under its jurisdiction, including from threats emanating from regions held by a de facto governing body in north-western Syria. The Turkish Government is one of the guarantors of a cease-fire agreement in Idlib reached with Russia on 5 March 2020[2]. In addition to its obligations under international humanitarian law, the de facto authority in Idlib is responsible for ensuring the human rights of individuals under its effective control, including, but not limited to, the right to life.

Against this backdrop, we wish to express our concern regarding the alleged acts of hate speech, sexual harassment and defamation using online platforms against women human rights defenders, and at the gendered nature of these attacks, and call for effective investigations into these allegations to ensure accountability. We are also deeply concerned at the potential physical danger resulting from the online defamation campaign and its death threats, particularly in regions where radical Islamist groups and preachers enjoy a following. We are particularly concerned about the broader significance and negative implications for the overall freedom of expression, in particular for women, inter alia through the chilling effect on individuals, including journalists, media workers and human rights defenders, who wish to express themselves, demonstrate peacefully, and participate in public and political life.

We would also like to note that the former Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief has firmly rejected the claim that religious beliefs can be used to justify violence or discrimination against women.[3]


[1] https://democracyendowment.eu/eed10/index.html#firstpanel

[2] https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/note-correspondents/2020-03-05/note-correspondents-response-questions-the-russian-turkish-agreement-for-ceasefire-idlib

[3] https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2020/03/states-should-not-use-religious-beliefs-justify-women-and-lgbt-rights

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