Human Rights in Syria, worrying release from HRW

Human Rights Watch press release, 11 March 2010

Syria: Repression Grows as Europe, US Avoid Discussing Rights

Envoy Should Use Visit to Condemn Harassment, Detention of Activists, Journalists

(New York, March 11, 2010) – Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign relations chief, should raise human rights concerns with Syrian officials during her visit next week and seek specific commitments to improve their record, Human Rights Watch said today. So far, the increased Western engagement with Syria has not resulted in any human rights gains because the US and Europe have failed to press the issue, Human Rights Watch said.

In the last three months, as Western officials reached out to Syria, its security services have detained numerous human rights activists, journalists, and students who tried to exercise their rights to free expression and assembly. In February alone, Prime Minister Francois Fillon of France and US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns have visited Damascus.

“As the last few months have demonstrated, talking to Syria without putting its rights record on the table emboldens the government to believe that it can do whatever it wants to its people, without consequence,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “A message to Syria that says ‘We only care about your external affairs’ is a green light for repression.”

On March 2, 2010, Military Intelligence in Aleppo stormed the apartment of Abdel Hafez Abdel Rahman, a board member of the unlicensed Kurdish human rights group MAF (“Right” in Kurdish), and detained him with another MAF board member, Nadera Abdo. Other members of the group said that the detention is tied to Abdel Rahman’s activities for the group MAF. While the security services released Abdo on March 6, Abdel Rahman remains in detention.

Security services have also detained bloggers, journalists, and writers. On December 27, 2009, State Security called in Tal al-Mallohi, 19, a secondary school student, for interrogation, reportedly for articles she wrote and distributed on her blog. A few days later, the security services confiscated her computer and detained her. A Syrian human rights activist told Human Rights Watch that she remains in detention. Human Rights Watch was unable to determine what article the security forces deemed objectionable.

On November 22, State Security detained without explanation Ma`en `Akel, a journalist at the newspaper Thawra. Syrian activists following the case said `Akel apparently was detained for investigating government corruption. Security forces finally released him on February 23 without charging him with a crime. On January 7, security forces detained another journalist, Ali Taha, and a photographer, Ali Ahmad, in the Sayyida Zaynab neighborhood of Damascus. They were released on February 7, without having been charged. Both work for the satellite TV station Rotana, which mainly focuses on social life topics.

On February 10, border police detained Ragheda Sa`id Hasan, who had been a political prisoner in the 1990s for her Communist Action Party membership, as she tried to cross into Lebanon. Three days later, unidentified individuals entered her apartment and confiscated a copy of “The New Prophets,” a manuscript in which she describes her experience as a political detainee, as well as publications issued by various Syrian opposition parties. She remains in detention.

“A government that fails to respect the rights of its citizens can’t be counted on to respect any other international obligation, to anyone,” Whitson said. “Ending the persecution of Syrian citizens should be part and parcel of any plan to rehabilitate this government from its isolation.”

Two detained human rights lawyers, Muhannad al-Hasani, president of the Syrian Human Rights Organization (Swasiah) and Haytham al-Maleh, a 79-year-old prominent human rights lawyer who has been jailed repeatedly, are on trial. On February 18, al-Hasani appeared before a Damascus criminal court for interrogation on charges of “weakening national sentiment” and “spreading false or exaggerated information” in connection with his monitoring of the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC), a special court with almost no procedural guarantees.

Al-Maleh appeared before a military judge on February 22 to face new charges of “insulting the president” and “slandering a governmental body.” According to his family, his health is failing since the `Adra prison authorities stopped allowing families to bring medication to inmates on February 11. Al-Maleh, who has diabetes and an overactive thyroid, has refused the prison pharmacy’s medicine because he believes the medicine is of poor quality.

“While Syrian officials are chatting up Western diplomats in their gilded front parlors, they’re jailing anyone who dares to utter a critical word in their basement prison cells,” Whitson said.

Security forces also have cracked down on political activists, particularly Kurdish leaders. On December 26, Political Security detained four prominent members of the Kurdish party Yekiti: Hassan Saleh, Muhammad Mustapha, Ma`ruf Mulla Ahmad, and Anwar Naso. All four remain in incommunicado detention. In a recent report, Human Rights Watch documented the increased repression of Syria’s Kurds following large-scale Kurdish demonstrations in March 2004. The Syrian authorities also are expanding their travel bans on activists. On February 24, security services prevented Radeef Mustapha, the head of the board of the Kurdish Human Rights Committee, and the coordinator of the Syrian Coalition to Combat the Death Penalty, from traveling to Geneva to attend the fourth annual conference to combat the death penalty. According to a February 2009 study published by the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, at least 417 political and human rights activists are banned from traveling.

“We are back to the bad old days where you have to watch every word you say,” a Syrian lawyer who wished to remain anonymous told Human Rights Watch over the phone.

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Clinton’s shameful stance on Lebanon

Ynet.com reported on Monday:

US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton sent a message to Beirut that Washington cannot prevent an Israeli strike in Lebanon as long as arms smuggling to Hezbollah continues.

It is always interesting when the US claims to be unable to prevent Israeli aggression. I’m not one of these conspiracy theorists who believes every action taken by Tel Aviv must first be approved by Washington (see the Ozirak Reactor bombing in 1981). However, Clinton’s statement above implies that the US has no influence over Israel’s military decisions. Given that it was US (and British) refusal to call for an immediate ceasefire at the UN which prolonged the fighting and destruction during the 2006 Lebanon War, it is a complete fallacy to say that Washington is powerless. Even if the US cannot stop a preliminary strike by the IDF on Lebanon (which itself is highly debatable, not least because they would mostly be using the expensive military hardware given or sold to them by Washington) it certainly has the power to prevent a single strike or raid from escalating into a repeat of 2006.

The subtext of Clinton’s message is that she believes Israel would be justified in her eyes to use military strikes against Hezbollah once more. That the build up of arms is a legitimate casus belli. What is uncertain is whether this is just more bluster to indirectly threaten Syria and Iran, or whether she really does believe that Israel has the right to decimate Lebanon once again. Moreover, given Clinton’s long-standing  pro-Israel views, can this stance be seen as official Obama administration policy, or just that of its Secretary of State?

The ElBaradei Effect

Khaled Diab of the Guardian makes some interesting points about the much publicised return of IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei to Cairo:

The decision to rally around ElBaradei is born of the realisation by activists and the opposition – with the notable exception of the Muslim Brotherhood – that they lacked a charismatic figure to represent people of all classes and political stripes. They are also gambling that ElBaradei’s international standing will protect him from the wrath of the regime and spare him the fate of the previous challenger to Mubarak’s hegemony, Ayman Nour.

So far, the regime has been doing its best to ignore the new pretender’s return and downplay the extent of Baradei Fever. As one blogger put it: “I’m going to enjoy sitting back and watching how the Mubaraks deal with this wildcard.”

But what are ElBaradei’s chances? Many experts are doubtful that ElBaradei will be able run as an independent candidate and time is running out for him to attach himself to a political party. Moreover, joining a party would rob him of his unifying appeal. Amr Hashim Rabie of the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies believes that the best ElBaradei can hope for is to embarrass the regime at home and abroad and to galvanise popular opposition in 2011.

But perhaps it’s too early to write off ElBaradei’s chances. Several months ago, few would’ve suspected the Nobel laureate would be in the situation he’s in today. Besides, we should never underestimate the power of the people, even in a semi-authoritarian regime.

And therein lies ElBaradei’s most powerful weapon. He is a popular figure in Egypt – with over 122,000 members of a Facebook group supporting him in a country where internet penetration is still fairly low. And he understands the power of the people and the need to win their support and backing. A reflection of this savvy is that he wasted no time in meeting the young advocates who first floated the idea of his candidacy and even recorded a Facebook message to them. In recognition of Egypt’s youth bulge and the power of the young to change and innovate, he has also invited young people to become active members of his coalition.

Of course, even if ElBaradei becomes the next president, Egypt will not be magically transformed into a prosperous democracy. That, as I pointed out in my vision for a democratic Egypt, will take generations of concerted effort. Encouragingly, many of his aspirations correspond with other reform-minded Egyptians’ views – and he has indicated that he would not seek re-election if he failed to deliver results. I would go one step further and urge him only to seek a single term in office during which he can democratise the country’s institutions and then hand over the baton to new generations of elected leaders.

I’m not quite sure why Egypt is only considered a ‘semi-authoritarian’ regime, but other than that a good analysis by Diab.

An interesting question will be what impact the run up to the 2011 election in Egypt will have on the other autocratic regimes in the region. Should ElBaradei somehow come to power in Cairo – though, it should be said, there are so many obstacles in the way right now that it seems highly unlikely – the prospects for reverberations around the region are quite high. With this in mind, don’t be surprised to see subtle endorsements of Mubarak from Amman, Riyadh and the Gulf in the coming year. Maybe even from Washington and Tel Aviv. After all, who stands to lose most from a genuine democratic government in the Arab world?

Following the above post, Newsy.com emailed me the following video which is a useful visual summary of some the key issues surrounding the ElBaradei issue in Egypt. Much thanks!

Video: ElBaradei Signals Run For Egypt Presidency