Greater Middle East

Saudi activist sentenced to 10 years in prison

A Saudi activist was sentenced to 10 years in prison and banned from traveling abroad for an additional 10 years, a human rights lawyer said Oct. 20. Abdel-Karim al-Khadar, a professor of Islamic studies from Qassim arrested in April 2013, was a leading activist against religious extremism and militancy. He was extremely vocal, posting videos online giving lectures on religion, women's rights and coexistence. He was sentenced by the Saudi Specialized Criminal Court, created to try terrorist suspects. He was convicted of disobeying the ruler, founding [an unofficial] human rights organization, supporting protests, violating Internet laws through his posts and accusing Saudi authorities of human rights abuses. Al-Khadar, a founding member of the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights, is the third activist to be sentenced to prison time this week. Seven of the group's founders are currently in prison.

New Syrian rebel coalition unites Kurds, Arabs

A new coalition of 13 armed organizations announced the formation Oct. 17 of the Democratic Forces of Syria (DFS), which is now planning a major offensive against ISIS. The DFS, which has established a military council and joint field commands, includes the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units (YPG), the Christian-led Syriac Military Council, and various Arab-led formations. Prominent among these is the Burkan al-Fırat Command Center, an alliance of secular militias aligned with the overall Free Syrian Army coalition, but which formed a bloc of their own this July in rejection of the growing Islamist role in the FSA. Another is the Jaysh al-Thuwwar, which merges two secular-led factions, the Syria Revolutionaries Front and Hazm Movement. It also includes Arab tribal militias such as the al-Sanadid Forces, of northern Syria's Shammar tribe. The statement announcing formation of the DFS asserts that current political realities in Syria "require that there be a united national military force for all Syrians, joining Kurds, Arabs, Syriacs and other groups." The statement says that the DFS calls on "all young men and women to join its ranks for their country Syria."

AKP-ISIS collaboration in Ankara massacre?

The aftermath of the Oct. 10 Anakara massacre—in which some 100 were killed in a double suicide attack on a peace rally—has been a study in the Orwellian. Authorities have arrested at least 12 sympathizers of the Kurdish PKK rebels, who are accused of tweeting messages indicating foreknowledge of the attack. But the actual tweets indicate they were warning of a potential ISIS attack on the rally. "What if ISIL blows up?!," one tweeted. Another voiced fear of an ISIS "intervention" at the event. This was an all too legitimate speculation, given the similar terror attack on a gathering of leftist youth in the southern town of Suruc just three months earlier. In fact, Turkish police have named one of the Ankara bombers as Yunus Emre Alagöz, the brother of  Sheikh Abdurrahman Alagöz, the ISIS operative who blew himself up in the Suruc attack. (The Guardian, Oct. 15; Anadolu Agency, Oct. 14)

Egypt: court acquits al-Qaeda leader's brother

The Cairo Criminal Court found the brother of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri innocent of terrorism charges on Oct. 15. Mohamed al-Zawahri was the leader of a Salafist group and was an ally of ex-president Mohammed Morsi, who is associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Mohamed al-Zawahiri was tried with 67 other defendants in the case referred to as the "al-Zawahri cell." Ten co-defendants were sentenced to death, and 32 others were given life imprisonment. Mohamed al-Zawahri was arrested in August 2013, two days after security forces forcibly dispersed the Rabea Mosque protest camp, killing perhaps 600.

Lines drawn in imperial scramble for Syria

US Air Force C-17 cargo planes air-dropped arms and other supplies to Syrian rebels on Oct. 13—as Russia continued to carry out air-strikes on Syrian rebels. Media reports are vague on whether the US is dropping aid to the same factions that Russia is bombing. But the Kurdish-led People's Protection Units (YPG) have announced a new alliance with militias affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) to fight ISIS in the country's northeast. The Pentagon has now officially dropped its failed $500 million plan to train a Syrian rebel proxy force, and will instead use those funds for air-drops to already existing rebel forces.

Amnesty charges Syrian Kurds with ethnic cleansing

In an Oct. 13 statement, Amnesty International announces a report reviving claims of ethnic cleansing against Arabs and Turkmen by Kurdish-led forces of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its People's Protection Units (YPG) in northern Syria. The report, "'We had nowhere else to go': Forced displacement and demolitions in northern Syria," accuses the PYD and its autonomous administration in the region of grave abuses. "By deliberately demolishing civilian homes, in some cases razing and burning entire villages, displacing their inhabitants with no justifiable military grounds, the Autonomous Administration is abusing its authority and brazenly flouting international humanitarian law, in attacks that amount to war crimes," said Lama Fakih, senior crisis advisor at Amnesty. "In its fight against IS, the Autonomous Administration appears to be trampling all over the rights of civilians who are caught in the middle. We saw extensive displacement and destruction that did not occur as a result of fighting. This report uncovers clear evidence of a deliberate, co-ordinated campaign of collective punishment of civilians in villages previously captured by IS, or where a small minority were suspected of supporting the group."

Peace demands unbowed by Ankara massacre

In what is being called the worst terrorist attack in Turkey's history, two suicide blasts went off amid a peace rally in Ankara Oct. 10, killing some 100 and injuring more than tiwce as many. The rally was called by leftist groups that support the pro-Kurdish Peoples' Democratic Party (HDP) to demand an end to fighting between government forces and Kurdish rebels in the country's east. The rally brought together both Kurds and ethnic Turks. Witnesses told the BBC that police fired tear-gas on the shocked survivors "as soon as the bomb went off," and "would not let ambulances through." President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called the blast a "loathsome" act of terrorism. But HDP leader Selahettin Demirtas blamed the Turkish state for the attack and condemned the government as "murderers" with blood on their hands.

Yemen: Amnesty demands halt to arms transfers

Damning evidence of war crimes by the Saudi-led coalition highlights the urgent need for independent, effective investigation of violations in Yemen and for the suspension of transfers of certain arms, said Amnesty International in a new report published Oct. 7. "'Bombs fall from the sky day and night': Civilians Under Fire in Northern Yemen" examines 13 deadly airstrikes by the coalition in Sa'da, northeastern Yemen, which killed some 100 civilians, including 59 children. The report documents the use of internationally banned cluster bombs. "This report uncovers yet more evidence of unlawful air-strikes carried out by the Saudi Arabia-led coalition, some of which amount to war crimes. It demonstrates in harrowing detail how crucial it is to stop arms being used to commit serious violations of this kind," said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty's senior crisis response adviser who headed the organization's fact-finding mission to Yemen. "The USA and other states exporting weapons to any of the parties to the Yemen conflict have a responsibility to ensure that the arms transfers they authorize are not facilitating serious violations of international humanitarian law."

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