Greater Middle East

UN rights experts urge Oman to release activist

UN rights experts on Jan. 30 urged the Omani government to release Said Ali Said Jadad, a human rights activist. Jadad, who promoted democratic reforms, was arrested last week with no warrant and charged with undermining the prestige of the state, inciting demonstrations, steering up sectarian strife and offending state officials. The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders Michel Forst and the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association Maina Kiai believe Jadad's detention may be retaliation for communicating with international organizations, noting that Jadad has been arrested several times after visits from representatives of the UN. The Gulf Center for Human Rights (GCHR) has also denounced the arrest. Jadad has reportedly been harassed by the government for several months; he was placed under travel ban last October, and also detained last December when police raided his home.

ISIS burns cannabis, snorts coke?

We recently noted that the ultra-puritanical ISIS has been burning the cannabis fields in the territory it controls in northern Syria—and that the cannabis farmers of Lebanon are arming to resist any ISIS incursion across the border. Now comes the hilariously predictable news that ISIS fighters may be snorting cocaine to keep their spirits up! On Jan. 6, the Kurdish Daily News posted a video from the town of Kobani in northern Syria, where local Kurdish fighters have been resisting an ISIS siege since September. The footage shows Kurdish fighters holding a stash of white powder in a big plastic bag just taken from the house of an ISIS commander. Kurdish fighters interviewed on camera said the house had been seized from an ISIS "emir" (as they call their commanders) who had earlier taken it over from local residents. The"emir" was killed in house-to-house fighting, and his home searched. In addittion to lots of weapons (of course), the coke stash was found. The Kurdish fighters said they believed the emir was distributing coke to his own followers to fuel their fighting spirit.

Egypt: 516 Muslim Brotherhood supporters arrested

Security forces in Egypt arrested 516 supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim announced Jan. 26. The previous day, which marked the fourth anniversary of the 2011 uprising and the fall of Hosni Mubarak, supporters of the Brotherhood and ousted president Mohamed Morsi battled with security forces while rallying against President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's government. Twenty people were killed during the demonstrations in addition to the 516 arrested. Ibrahim stated, "We confirmed, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that all those who took to the streets yesterday were Muslim Brotherhood elements alone. ... We arrested 516 elements from the Muslim Brotherhood group who were involved in firing ammunition, planting explosives and bombing some facilities." The arrests were the largest police sweep of Morsi supporters since Sisi took office in May.

Egypt: court upholds convictions of activists

Egypt's Court of Cassation upheld convictions and three-year prison sentences of three activists Jan. 26 for violating the country's protest laws. Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma and Mohammed Adel were arrested under a law that bans political gatherings of more than 10 people without prior government permission. As the Court of Cassation is Egypt's highest, the convicted men have no further legal redress. Human Rights Watch has criticized the law since its drafting, claiming that it goes "well beyond the limitations permitted under international law" for the right to peacefully assemble. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also condemned the law, its spokesperson stating that "no one should be criminalized or subjected to any threats or acts of violence, harassment or persecution for addressing human rights issues through peaceful protests." Thousands have been arrested under this law, including many supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Kurdish forces claim victory at Kobani

Kurdish forces at Kobani announced Jan. 26 that the town is now under their full control, with ISIS militants driven out of all neighborhoods. Joint forces of the People's Protection Units (YPG) and Peshmerga said ISIS remains in control only in a small village on the outskirts, which is expected to fall soon. Syria's Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) announced on Twitter that "the city of Kobane is fully liberated." YPG's posted to Twitter a photo of their fighters raising a flag on a liberated hilltop. The claim was also confirmed by the US military. "Anti-ISIL forces now control approximately 90 percent" of Kobani, Central Command said. The CentCom statement congratulated the town's "courageous fighters" for their "resilience and fortitude" and having denied ISIS "one of their strategic objectives."

Egypt: leftist protester killed at Tahrir Square

A demonstrator identified as Shaimaa El Sabbagh was killed in clashes with Egyptian police during a protest near Cairo's Tahrir Square on Jan. 24. She was reportedly hit with birdshot fired by police. The protest, on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the uprising against Hosni Mubarak, was called by the Socialist Popular Alliance, which has now opposed the regimes of Mubarak, Morsi and al-Sisi alike. The clash ironcially took place hours before state television aired a speech by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to mark the fourth anniversary of the uprising, pre-recorded as al-Sisi had  left for Saudi Arabia to offer his condolences over the death of King Abdullah (a patron of his regime). "I salute all our martyrs, from the beginning of January 25 [2011] until now," Sisi said in his speech, broadcast just before his own cops created yet another martyr. Islamist supporters of Mohamed Morsi, ousted in Sisi's July 2013 coup, are expected t dominate protests around the uprising commemoration. (Daily News Egypt, AFP, Jan. 24) ) It is often forgotten that Egypt also has a secular left opposition, which during the 2013 unrest launched a "Third Square" movement, rejecting both the Morsi and Sisi supporters then both occupying Cairo squares. 

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?

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