Greater Middle East

Saudi Arabia: death sentences in 2003 attacks

A Saudi Arabian court on April 21 sentenced three people to death for their roles in attacks on expatriate resident compounds in Riyadh in May 2003, bringing the total death sentences to eight. Another 77 people have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to 35 years by the court, which was created to handle terrorism cases. The 2003 attacks, in which blasts at three residential compounds in Riyadh left 35 people dead, were part of a three-year campaign by al-Qaeda aimed at destabilizing Saudi Arabia. The identities of the 85 defendants have not been disclosed, though the Sabq news website has reported that five men sentenced to death a day earlier had been found guilty of assembling the car bombs used to attack the compounds. They have 30 days to appeal their sentences, all of which were handed down for charges of taking part or abetting in the attacks.

Saudi Arabia detains human rights lawyer

Notable human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair was taken into custody in Saudi Arabia April 15 after a hearing at the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh. Abu al-Khair, founder and chief of the Saudi Arabia Monitor of Human Rights, faces charges that include inciting public opinion. Amnesty International (AI) condemned Abu al-Khair's imprisonment demanding his immediate release. In their press release AI criticized Saudi authorities stating that "Waleed Abu al-Khair's detention is a worrying example of how Saudi Arabian authorities are abusing the justice system to silence peaceful dissent. Nobody should be jailed for peacefully exercising the right to freedom of expression." According to AI, Abu al-Khair faces charges including breaking allegiance to and disobeying the ruler, disrespecting the authorities, offending the judiciary, inciting international organizations against the Kingdom and founding an unlicensed organization. In October Abu al-Khair was sentenced to three months in prison on similar accusations related to "ridiculing or offending" the Saudi Arabian judiciary.

Syria: new chemical claims under investigation

The United States and Turkey have said they are following up on renewed accusations that the Syrian regime continues to use chemical weapons against civilians. If true, the government's use of such weapons would be a violation of its agreement with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and the Chemical Weapons Convention, both of which it signed last September. Over the past few months, members of the Syrian opposition, including the main umbrella group the Syrian National Coalition, have accused the regime of using chemical weapons, mainly in the suburbs of Damascus, in areas such as Jobar and Harasta. "There have been at least four such attacks in recent months, involving high doses of chlorine and pesticides," said Sinan Hatehet, director of the Coalition's media office. He added that although the attacks only killed around 15 people, the chemicals were primarily being used as a psychological weapon.

Egypt: Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis a terrorist organization

An Egyptian court on April 14 ruled that the militant organization Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (BBC backgrounder) be officially considered a terrorist group. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which means "Warriors of Jerusalem," has claimed responsibility for the majority of attacks on Egyptian military and police that have occurred since former President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in July. The US Department of State on April 9 also designated Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis as a terrorist organization. Egypt's military said that this designation will not change its strategy toward fighting the group, but it will make punishments more harsh for members of the group who are captured.

AI: Egypt president should reject anti-terror law

Amnesty International (AI) expressed concern April 11 over the new Egyptian anti-terror law set to be approved by interim president Adly Mansour. The law, which was passed in response to an attack on Cairo University, is aimed at deterring the recent escalation of terrorist violence in Egypt during its transition following the ouster of president Mohammed Morsi. Included in the amendments to the law are provisions increasing the penalties for those acts deemed as "terrorist acts" as well as provisions broadening the scope of the law itself. The main problem with such changes, AI contends, is that they allow the government to levy terrorism charges on a broad range of offenses and could be used as a tool to root out dissent. The laws also make no mention of respecting human rights of the accused. AI called upon Mansour to reject the draft laws which were passed earlier this month.

Egypt: court upholds sentences of activists

An Egyptian court of appeals on April 7 upheld the jailing of three men who co-founded the April 6 opposition movement which played a large role in the country's 2011 revolution. The ruling has been described as part of a crackdown on those opposed to the military-backed government, and critics have called it an attempt to stifle the street activism that has become common since the ousting of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Sentences for the three activists, Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohamed Adel, for protesting without permission and assaulting the police were handed down by a court last December. The verdict was the first under a controversial anti-protest law requiring police permission for public demonstrations. Though the men have one more chance to appeal to a higher court, analysts do not foresee the verdict being overturned. One of the defense lawyers, Ahmed Seif al-Islam, has said that he plans to challenge the ruling, and that if it cannot be overturned he will take the case to the African Court on Human and People's rights.

Russia boosts military aid to Assad

Russian President Vladimir Putin reiterated Moscow's support for Syria's Bashar al-Assad in an April 2 message delivered by a visiting delegation of the Russia-based Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society, headed by the society's chairman Sergei Stepashin. In the message, Putin hailed Assad's war against "international terrorism" that he asserted is "backed" by Western nations. (Xinhua, April 2) The message comes amid reports from Jane’s Defense Weekly that Assad's military started using longer-range Russian Smerch and Uragan rockets for the first time in February. Ruslan Pukhov, an adviser to Russia's Defense Ministry and head of the Center of Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, confirmed that Moscow is supplying a "lifeline" of ammunition and parts for tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters to Damascus. Alexei Malashenko, Middle East analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center, said: "Russia is now doing everything to ensure that Assad wins convincingly. If Russia can show it's capable of carrying out its own foreign policy, regardless of America’s wishes, it will be a major achievement for Putin." (Bloomberg, April 2)

Rights group: more than 150,000 dead in Syria war

The death toll in the three-year Syrian conflict has exceeded 150,000, a British-based human rights group announced on April 2. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR), 150,344 persons have died since the uprising began in March 2011. The death toll includes 51,212 civilians, including 7,985 children and 5,266 women. The numbers do not include the 18,000 detainees in regime prisons or the "thousands who disappeared during regime raids and massacres." SOHR estimates that the non-Syrian casualties to be approximately 70,000 more than the documented number, "due to the extreme discretion by all sides of the human losses caused by the conflict and due to the difficulty of communication in Syria." Finally, SOHR called on both sides to peaceably end the conflict.

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