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United Nations warns Gulf states to respect rights in Qatar row

The UN's rights chief has warned that UAE and Bahrain are violating human rights by threatening jail for those expressing sympathy for Qatar
UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al Hussein (AFP).

The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain appear to be violating people's human rights by threatening to jail or fine them for expressing sympathy for Qatar, UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein said on Wednesday.

Those states, as well as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, have broken off diplomatic and economic relations with Qatar but must respect citizens' rights, he said.

"It is becoming clear that the measures being adopted are overly broad in scope and implementation, and have the potential to seriously disrupt the lives of thousands of women, children and men, simply because they belong to one of the nationalities involved in the dispute," Hussein said in a statement.

He added: “I am alarmed about the possible impact on many people’s human rights in the wake of the decision by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt and Bahrain to cut diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar."

He also said that the UN is receiving reports that "specific individuals have already been summarily instructed to leave the country they are residing in, or have been ordered to return home by their own government".

He said that couples in mixed marriages, and their children, are likely to be affected.

"I am also extremely troubled to hear that the UAE and Bahrain are threatening to jail and fine people who express sympathy for Qatar or opposition to their own governments’ actions, as this would appear to be a clear violation of the right to freedom of expression or opinion," he said.

The intervention came as Bahraini authorities detained a citizen for sympathising with Qatar on social media, the country's attorney general announced on Wednesday.

The arrest came after authorities warned that sympathising with Doha was tantamount to a criminal offence.

The department of cyber crime referred a case to the public prosecutor's office in which "a person of interest had posted comments to social networks that constitute a violation" of a ban against sympathising with boycott-hit Qatar, said attorney general Ahmed al-Hammadi, head of Bahrain's Terrorist Crimes Commission.

"The prosecution has begun investigating the matter, and the suspect has been interrogated and is being held in custody," Hammadi said. 

Bahrain's strict cyber crime law prohibits the expression of dissent online, including via social media.

Meanwhile, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan was sending his top diplomat to Qatar on Wednesday in a bid to broker an end to what he has called the inhumane behaviour of neighbouring Gulf states in severing ties with Doha and imposing sanctions.

Turkey has backed Qatar in a dispute that has ramifications across the Middle East, from Cairo to Baghdad, and raised concerns in Washington and Moscow. Doha denies accusations by Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain that it supports terrorism and courts regional rival Iran.

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu was scheduled to meet Qatar's emir, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, during a visit also expected to take him to Saudi Arabia.

Qatar said on Wednesday it had withdrawn troops from the border between the east African states of Djibouti and Eritrea where the Gulf state has been acting as mediator in a border dispute. It gave no reasons for the move, but Djibouti had earlier downgraded its diplomatic ties with Qatar after the Gulf move against Doha.

Erdogan, in Turkey's strongest comments since the rift began on 5 June, denounced the isolation of Qatar as a violation of Islamic values and akin to a "death penalty".

The measures against Qatar, which has a population of 2.7 million but vast gas wealth, have disrupted imports of food and other materials, and caused some foreign banks to scale back business.

Qatar, which imported 80 percent of its food from bigger Gulf Arab neighbours before the diplomatic shutdown, has been talking to Iran and Turkey to secure food and water.