Greater Middle East

Egypt: retrial for police in protester deaths

Egypt's Court of Cassation on Jan. 22 ordered a retrial for four police officers facing accusations of involuntary manslaughter relating to the deaths of 37 prisoners  in a van outside the Abu Zaabal prison in 2013. The prisoners, arrested days before during protests in support of former president Mohamed Morsi, were being transported from the Nasser City police station to the Abu Zaabal prison on Aug. 18, 2013, when the officers in question allegedly fired tear gas into an overcrowded police van. The gas caused 37 of the 45 prisoners within the van to die from suffocation. A series of conflicting early reports asserted that the detainees were attempting to escape, or being freed by an armed group. In March one of the officers, Lt. Col. Amr Farouk, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for involuntary manslaughter and extreme negligence. The other three officers, Ibrahim El-Morsi, Islam Abdel-Fattah and Mohamed Abdel-Aziz, were given suspended sentences. In June, those sentences were overturned by a lower appeals court. The coming retrial will be the final trial for the officers, as Egyptian law only permits two appeals.

Yemen's Houthi rebels: Iran's proxies?

Yemen's President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi (put in power in a US-brokered political deal in 2012) remains holed up in his palace besieged by Shi'ite Houthi rebels, who drove off the guards in a gun-battle yeserday. But through intermediaries, he has reportedly expressed readiness to accept rebel leader Abdel-Malik al-Houthi's demands for constitutional changes and a power-sharing agreement with the Houthis. (Reuters, Yemen Online, Jan. 21; Middle East Online, Jan. 20) The Jerusalem Post and, less predictably, Quartz play up the notion that the Houthis are Iran's proxies. The JP headlines that with the Houthi siege of the palace, "Yemen falls into Iran's orbit." As evidence, we are told that the Houthis' popular slogan is "Death to America, Death to Israel," also popular in Iran (and everywhere else in the Middle East). Quartz leads: "On the same day that US president Barack Obama warned Congress not to push for more sanctions against Iran, the regime in Tehran demonstrated why its threat to the world is not limited to nuclear weapons." Well, Iran doesn't actually have any nuclear weapons (hello?). And are the Houthis really Iran's proxies?

Lebanon's hashish valley arms against ISIS

Reporting from Lebanon's hashish heartland of the Bekaa Valley on Jan. 5 Public Radio International spoke to cannabis farmers who say they are ready to resist any ISIS incursion into their fastness. Ali Nasri Shamas, who runs a mechanized hashish factory in Bouday village, took up arms in 2007 to resist Lebanese government eradication forces. This paid off; the army hasn't been back since 2012. But now the Lebanese army and hash producers are confronting the same enemy. Although officially a wanted man for 35 years now, Shamas happily talks on-camera, alongside a three-ton yield of hash, flanked by masked employees, amid the clatter of processing machines.

Egypt: atheist gets prison for Facebook posts

An Egyptian court in Baheira governorate on Jan. 10 sentenced a student to three years in prison for announcing on Facebook that he is an atheist and for allegedly "insulting Islam." The sentence, the latest of several handed down on blasphemy charges in recent years, comes amid a coordinated government crackdown on perceived atheists. Authorities arrested the student, Karim Ashraf Mohamed al-Banna, with a group of others at a youth café in Beheira in November, Egypt's Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression reported. "Atheists are one of Egypt's least-protected minorities, although the constitution ostensibly guarantees freedom of belief and expression," said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "Egyptian authorities need to be guided by the constitution and stop persecuting people for atheism."

Saudi blogger to be flogged for blasphemy

Blogger Raif Badawi, convicted of "offenses to Islamic precepts" in Saudi Arabia, is to receieve 1,000 lashes starting Jan. 9. The lashing order says Badawi should "be lashed very severely." He is to receive 50 lashes once a week for the first 20 weeks of his 15-year prison term. The piunishment was imposed  for having co-founded a website, "Free Saudi Arabian Liberals" (now offline), and for posts to Facebook and Twitter. His posts criticized and poked fun at Saudi institutions such as the Commission for the Promotion of Goodness and the Prohibition of Vice (the "religious police"), the Saudi Grand Mufti, other Saudi ulema, or religious scholars. Among his offending comments: "My commitment is…to reject any repression in the name of religion…a goal that we will reach in a peaceful and law-abiding way." (Gatestone Institute, The Guardian, Jan. 8)

Egypt: secularism and dictatorship?

Opposition and human rights activists in Egypt are bracing for the impacts of a new law "anti-terrorism" decree signed by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi that allows life sentences for such ill-defined crimes as intending to "harm the national interest," "compromise national unity," or "breach security or public peace." Human rights attorney Ragia Omran told the New York Times, "Everyone in civil society is panicking." (Inquisitr, Dec. 27) At the end of 2014, el-Sisi boatsed of having detained nearly 10,000 for "rioting" and "terrorism" over the course of the year. (Daily News Egypt, Dec. 21)

Turkey: clashes between PKK, Islamists

Three were killed in southeastern Turkish town of Cizre Dec. 27 in armed clashes between Islamist militants of the Huda-Par and followers of the Patriotic Revolutionist Youth Movement (YDG-H), an arm of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The fighting began when Huda-Par adherants attacked homes and encampments of the YDG-H followers. Security forces mobilized tanks, but were barred from reaching the conflict zone by defensive ditches dug by YDG-H members beforehand. In the early 1990s, conflict between the PKK and Huda-Par (also known as Turkish Hezbollah) claimed hundreds of lives. Cizre lies on the Syrian border. (Al Arabiya NewsReuters, Zaman, Dec. 27)

Syria: new rebel alliance in besieged Aleppo

Reports from Syria say at least 45 were killed and up to 175 wounded in government air-raids on rebel-controlled areas of Bab and Qabaseen outisde Aleppo Dec. 26, with the regime again using deadly "barrel bombs"—steel drums full of shrapnel and explosives. Syrian state media said it repulsed "terror attacks," hitting jiihadists—but giving no details of civilian casualties. Government forces also intensified their attack on opposition-controlled areas of Damascus, carrying out more than 85 air-strikes on several points in the Ghouta suburb over the last four days. (ANA Press, Dec. 27; Euronews, Dec. 26)

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