3.05.2008

News Concerning Middle East Reform

This is the news section of the February issue (latest issue) of Arab Reform Bulletin Published by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:


Syria: Crackdown on Political Activists
Lebanon: Presidential Vote Delayed; Official Assassinated: Journalist Threatened
Iraq: Flag Change; Justice and Accountability Law; Kurdish Press Law Updates
Palestine: Gaza Crisis; Hamas and Fatah Meetings; Crackdown on Journalists
Saudi Arabia: Live Programming Banned; Blogger Arrested; Civil Society Law
Kuwait: Minister Survives Confidence Vote; Crackdown on Cross-Dressers
Bahrain: Crackdown on Protestors; Human Trafficking Law
UAE: New Social Assistance Package; Plans for Women Judges
Yemen: Websites Blocked
Egypt: Brotherhood Arrests; EU Resolution; Torturers Convicted
Sudan: Janjaweed Leader Promoted; Southern Ministers Rejoin Government
Libya: Human Rights Criticism
Tunisia: Journalist Sentenced to Prison
Morocco: Polisario Talks; Homosexuals Sentenced
Mauritania: Return of Refugees; Attack on Israeli Embassy
Upcoming Political Events



Syria: Crackdown on Political Activists

A Damascus court charged ten members of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic National Change opposition coalition on January 28 with “attacking the prestige of the state, publishing false information, membership in a secret organization aimed at destabilizing the state and fuelling ethnic and racial tension.” Under articles 285, 286, 306, and 307 of the criminal code, they face prison sentences of up to fifteen years. Those charged include Fidaa al-Horani, president of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration and Akram al-Bunni, its general secretary. Former MP Riad Seif was arrested on January 28, drawing condemnation from the White House. Prominent artist and political activist Talal Abu-Dan was also arrested on January 31. Twelve Damascus Declaration members in all have been detained since December 9. The Declaration held its first general conference in Syria on December 1. Click here for more details.


Lebanon: Presidential Vote Delayed; Official Assassinated: Journalist Threatened

On January 20, the Lebanese parliament postponed the election of a new president for the thirteenth time—the new session is now scheduled for February 11. The Western-backed ruling coalition and the pro-Syria opposition had agreed on Army Commander General Michel Suleiman as president, but are now divided on the composition of a new government. The Hizbollah-led opposition demands a one third plus one presence in the cabinet—the so-called blocking third. The Western-backed governing coalition has rejected the idea of giving the opposition the power to blocking power but appears ready to accept instead a three way division of cabinet appointment between government, opposition, and president. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri said the delay aims at giving the two sides more time to negotiate as part of a recent Arab initiative. The Arab plan, endorsed by Syria and Saudi Arabia, calls for the election of Suleiman as president, the formation of a national unity government, and the drafting of a new law for the 2009 parliamentary election.

On February 2, a Lebanese judge ordered the arrest of three army officers and eight soldiers allegedly involved in the death of seven protestors in Beirut’s southern suburbs on January 27. Hundreds of Shi’i protesters angry about electricity rationing clashed with Lebanese troops in what were described as Lebanon’s worst riots since clashes between Sunnis and Shi’a at a university in January 2007 left four people dead.

Internal Security Forces Captain Wissam Eid and five others were killed in a January 25 car bombing in Beirut. Eid had been investigating previous assassinations in Lebanon, including the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

Newspaper editor Aziz al-Mitni’s car was set on fire in Carnet Shehwan, near Beirut, on January 20. Al-Mitni is the editor of al-Anbaa, the official newspaper of Waleed Jamblatt’s Progressive Socialist Party, and a vocal critic of the opposition. In recent months, threats against journalists have become commonplace as the security situation in the country has deteriorated. Click here for more information.


Iraq: Flag Change; Justice and Accountability Law; Kurdish Press Law Updates

The Iraqi Council of Representatives passed a bill on January 22 to change the Saddam Hussein-era Iraqi flag in a symbolic break with the past. The new measure removed the old flag’s three green stars, which symbolized unity, freedom and socialism—the slogan of the Baath party. The words “Allahu Akbar” will remain, but the calligraphy, a copy of Saddam’s handwriting, will be changed. The measure expires in one year. Click here for the new flag.

The Iraqi Presidency Council signed a “Justice and Accountability Law” on February 3 to replace the de-Baathification law enacted by former U.S. Civil Administrator Paul Bremer. The new law will allow thousands of former Baathists to apply for reinstatement in the civil service and the military, while a smaller group of more senior members still banned from public positions will receive pensions. The Baath party will continue to be barred from political participation. The Iraqi Council of Representatives passed the law on January 12. The law remains controversial among Sunnis who fear the vetting process required for reinstatement may actually increase the number of Sunnis barred from government positions. Click here for the law in Arabic.

The Kurdistan Regional Government released Faisal Abbas Ghazala, a correspondent for the satellite station Kolsat, on December 21 after he was held for a month without charge in Mosul. The Kurdish national assembly passed on December 11 a new draft law introducing heavy fines and prison sentences for press offenses. The law is awaiting ratification by President Massoud Barzani, who told representatives of the Kurdish Union of Journalist that he would reject the law and ask for an amendment. Click here for more information.


Palestine: Gaza Crisis; Hamas and Fatah Meetings; Crackdown on Journalists

Fatah is planning to hold its sixth General Congress on March 5-6 in the West Bank. The last congress was held in 1989 in Tunisia, before the creation of the Palestinian Authority. Click here for more information.

In a January 23-25 Palestinian National Conference in Damascus, Hamas and Syria-based Palestinian groups called for unity of the Palestinian people and intensifying resistance against Israel. Fatah, along with the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, boycotted the Hamas-led conference.

One Palestinian civilian was killed in clashes between Palestinian gunmen and Egyptian forces at the Gaza-Egypt border on February 4. On February 2, Egyptian and Hamas security forces resealed the Egypt-Gaza border breached by Palestinian militants on January 22 after Israel tightened its blockade on Gaza. After talks with Egypt, Hamas declared that it would “restore control over this border, in co-operation with Egypt, gradually.” Egypt has kept its border with the territory closed almost continuously since the Hamas takeover in June 2007.

Israel’s Supreme Court ruled on January 30 that the state could continue with its Gaza fuel cuts, but ordered a delay on plans to reduce electricity supplies. International human rights organizations expressed deep concern over the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza. Click here for a January 26 statement by Human Rights Watch and here for a January 25 statement by Amnesty International.

Hamas released Omar al-Ghul, journalist and advisor to Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad on February 1, after detaining him for forty-nine days without charge. On February 4, Hamas released Munir Abu Rizq, Gaza bureau chief of the pro-Fatah newspaper al-Hayat al-Jadida, after a two-week detention, amid reports that a release of Fatah and Hamas prisoners was under negotiation. Click here for more information.


Saudi Arabia: Live Programming Banned; Blogger Arrested; Civil Society Law

Saudi Information Minister Iyad Madani announced on January 30 a ban on all live broadcasts on Saudi public television. The announcement came two days after some viewers phoned in with critical comments about senior Saudi government officials, including the King, to a live program on the state-owned al-Ikhbariya news channel. The station’s director, Muhammad al-Tunsi, was dismissed. Click here for more information.The Interior Ministry confirmed on December 31 that Saudi blogger Ahmad al-Farhan was detained for questioning. Al-Farhan, who used his blog to criticize corruption and call for political reform, was arrested on December 10 “for violating rules not related to state security,” according to the ministry spokesman. Saudi authorities also blocked access to the leading blog publishing service, Blogger.com. The Saudi government's official “internet blacklist” contains more than 400,000 websites, including political, religious, and pornographic sites. Click here for more information.

President of the National Society for Human Rights Bandar al-Hajjar announced on January 5 that Saudi Arabia is moving toward incorporating a human rights curriculum into its higher education system. During the past year, the organization has established a human rights library in Riyadh and a data center for human rights research.

The Saudi Shura Council approved on December 31 a draft civil society law that will regulate civil society organizations in Saudi Arabia. The law—the first of its kind in Saudi Arabia—calls for the establishment of a “National Authority for Civil Society Organizations” to supervise the activities of NGOs. The draft law is currently under discussion in cabinet. Click here an Arabic summary of the draft law.


Kuwait: Minister Survives Confidence Vote; Crackdown on Cross-Dressers

Kuwait’s only female cabinet minister survived a no-confidence vote in parliament on January 22. During the January 8 nine-hour parliament questioning, Islamist MPs accused Minister of Education Nuriya al-Sabeeh of mismanagement, failing to uphold religious values, and of being responsible for “serious deterioration” in education standards. Al-Sabeeh categorically denied all the allegations and won the confidence vote by twenty-seven to nineteen. Maasouma al-Mubarak, who made history by becoming Kuwait’s first female minister in 2005, resigned last year after Islamist MPs summoned her to appear before parliament. Click here for more information.

Kuwaiti authorities arrested at least fourteen transgender cross-dressers between December 18 and 21 for violating Kuwait’s new dress-code law. The law, approved by the National Assembly on December 10, 2007, criminalizes “imitating the appearance of the opposite sex” and stipulates a punishment of up to one year in prison or a fine not exceeding one thousand dinars (U.S. $3,500). A January 17 statement by Human Rights Watch called the law “a violation of freedom of expression and personal autonomy” and urged the Kuwaiti government to free the prisoners.
On January 17, a Kuwaiti court ordered al-Jazeera satellite channel to pay a fine of 20,000 Kuwaiti dinars (U.S. $73,665) for “damaging Kuwaiti national sentiment” and “distorting the history of the country.” Four Kuwaiti lawyers filed the case after al-Jazeera aired an episode of “al-Ittijah al-Mu’akis” (The Opposite Direction) in which an Egyptian commentator accused Kuwait of “stealing Iraq’s oil” and blamed it for the 1990 Iraqi invasion. The channel’s studios in Kuwait have been closed twice before, in 1999 and 2002-2005. Click here for more information.


Bahrain: Crackdown on Protestors; Human Trafficking Law

A Bahraini court charged political activist Hussain Mansoor on January 23 with the assault and attempted murder of a security officer during a protest. The trial was postponed to February 17. A February 3 trial for fifteen other protestors was also postponed to February 24 after lawyers boycotted the hearing, in protest of its late-afternoon timing. Bahrain is currently detaining at least fifty activists, arrested between December 21 and 28 following December 17demonstrations in which one protestor was killed. In a January 21 statement, Human Rights Watch expressed serious concerns over allegations of torture and mistreatment of detainees.
The Bahrain Center for Human Rights revealed on January 23 that the Ministry of Islamic Affairs refused to approve the distribution of the novel Omar, A Martyr by Bahraini novelist Abdullah Khalifa, alleging that it defames a religious figure. Click here for more information.

Bahrain issued a law to combat human trafficking on January 9. The law stipulates a prison penalty and fines ranging from 2,000 to 10,000 Bahraini dinars (U.S. $5,319 to 26,731). The law also calls for the formation of a committee to combat human trafficking, members of which have not been announced.UAE: New Social Assistance Package; Plans for Women Judges
UAE Prime Minister and Dubai ruler Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashid al-Maktoum issued a decree on January 31 appointing his son Hamdan as crown prince of Dubai. Al-Maktoum also issued directives on January 18 to launch a 15 billion dirham (U.S. $4 billion) plan to build 40,000 houses for needy nationals and to double the budget for social assistance to 2.2 billion dirhams (U.S. $600 million). Click here for more details.

Minister of Justice Muhammad al-Dhahiri announced on January 6 that the UAE is hoping to amend its law on the judiciary to allow women to become judges and prosecutors. He added that women were being trained for the job and two women in Abu Dhabi had been appointed as prosecutors and would begin work once the amendment to the judiciary law was passed. If approved, the move would make the UAE the second Gulf Arab country, after Bahrain, to allow women to become judges.


Yemen: Websites Blocked

Yemeni authorities have blocked access to the independent news website Yemen-Portal since January 19, accusing it of “jeopardizing national unity” and “inciting secession.” Other blocked news websites in Yemen include Yemen Hurr, Hour News Today , Hdrmut, al-Teef, al-Yemen, Aden Press, and Sout al-Gnoub. Click here for more information.


Egypt: Brotherhood Arrests; EU Resolution; Torturers Convicted

Egyptian police forces arrested twenty-nine senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood on January 21, including two candidates in the upcoming municipal elections. The Brotherhood said that the arrests aimed at preventing the Islamist movement from staging demonstrations in support of Palestinians under siege in the Gaza Strip. Approximately 400 Brotherhood members are now in detention, most of them without charge or trial, since a crackdown that began a year ago. Click here for more details.

Egyptian authorities released Howayda Taha, a documentary producer for al-Jazeera satellite channel, on January 29 after a brief detention and interrogation. Taha was accused of filming without official permission. In May 2007, a state security court convicted Taha of “harming the country’s interests” and sentenced her to six months in prison for producing a documentary on torture in Egypt. She appealed the verdict and a decision on her appeal is expected to be issued February 11.

Egyptian security forces abducted opposition leader Abdel-Wahab al-Mesiri on January 21, along with his wife and other activists, and abandoned them in the desert. Al-Mesiri, head of the opposition Kifaya movement, reported being harassed following his participation in a January 17 protest against price increases and the government’s plan to cut subsidies. He also announced that Kifaya would soon release “The Black Book,” a record of the regime’s abuses in various domains. Click here for more information.

The European Parliament issued a resolution on January 16 calling on the Egyptian Government to respect human rights, end all forms of torture and ill-treatment, refrain from harassing human rights defenders and activists, and respect freedom of belief and expression. The resolution also calls for the immediate release of al-Ghad Party leader Ayman Nour and the lifting of the state of emergency. In a January 18 statement, Egyptian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ahmed Aboul Ghait announced Egypt’s “complete rejection” of the resolution and of “attempts by any party to appoint himself as an inspector of human rights in the country or a guardian for the Egyptian people.”

An Egyptian court convicted three police officers of torture on January 5, sentencing one officer to five years and the two others to one year each in prison. The officers were accused of beating a prisoner in the port city of Alexandria and forcing him to wear women's clothing in public to humiliate him. The court ruling came two months after a Cairo court sentenced two policemen to three years in prison for beating and raping a prisoner. Under Egyptian law, the sentence for torturing a prisoner ranges from three to fifteen years in prison.

Five Egyptian and international human rights organizations issued a joint statement on December 29 calling on President Hosni Mubarak to authorize an independent judicial inquiry into the December 30, 2005 police assault on Sudanese protestors, which left twenty-seven persons dead. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, Hisham Mubarak Law Center, and the Nadim Center for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence said the investigation should identify those who ordered, led, and implemented the attacks, and hold them responsible.

Sinai writer and jurist activist Mosaad Soliman Hussein, known as Mosaad Abu Fagr, was arrested on December 26 and charged with instigating riots. He remains in detention in al-Arish prison. Abu Fagr has been campaigning actively for human rights in Sinai and the release of Sinai political prisoners. Click here for more information.


Sudan: Janjaweed Leader Promoted; Southern Ministers Rejoin Government

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir appointed Musa Hilal, a leader of the Arab Janjaweed militia that is accused of grave human rights violations in Darfur, to the position of senior presidential advisor on January 20. Human Rights Watch criticized the appointment in a January 20 statement, calling it a “stunning affront to victims of Janjaweed atrocities in Darfur.” The United States has declared the actions of the Janjaweed to constitute “genocide.”

The southern Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM) rejoined the national government coalition on December 26. The SPLM suspended its participation in the government in October 2007, accusing the north of hindering the implementation of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement. The SPLM’s return came after Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir reshuffled the cabinet, bringing in six SPLM ministers. Click here for the new cabinet line-up.

On January 7, Sudan’s National Press Council suspended the English-language daily The Citizen for two days over accusations of insulting the Sudanese president. The newspaper had published an editorial about armed clashes on the border between southern and northern Sudan, which the Council found “disrespectful” to the president. The National Press Council regulates Sudan’s press. Click here for details.


Libya: Human Rights Criticism

In a January 30 statement, Human Rights Watch called on the Libyan government to release political prisoner Fathi al-Jahmi, who is seriously ill and in urgent need of medical care. Al-Jahmi, aged 66, has been in detention for nearly four years without trial.

The human rights organization also criticized Libya’s January 16 decision to deport summarily all undocumented foreigners. The decision can potentially affect one million people, including asylum seekers and refugees from Eritrea, Somalia, and Sudan. Under customary international law, Libya is obliged not to return persons to a place where they may face persecution, or where their lives or freedom are at risk. Click here for more information.


Tunisia: Journalist Sentenced to Prison

A Tunisian court upheld journalist Salim Boukhdeir’s prison sentence in a January 18 hearing. Boukhdeir was convicted on December 4 of “insulting behavior towards an official in the exercise of his duty,” “violating decency” and “refusing to produce identity papers,” and sentenced to one year in prison. Boukhdeir, a correspondent of the London-based newspaper al-Quds al-Arabi and al-Arabiya satellite television, was arrested on the outskirts of Sfax on November 26 after an argument with a police officer. Click here for more information.


Morocco: Polisario Talks; Homosexuals Sentenced

Morocco and Western Sahara’s Polisario independence movement concluded a third round of UN-sponsored talks in New York on January 9 without reaching agreement on Africa’s longest-running territorial dispute. The Moroccan delegation argued in favor of Western Sahara autonomy within Morocco, while the Polisario proposed a referendum among ethnic Sahrawis that includes an option of independence. UN mediator Peter van Valsum said the two sides agreed to meet again March 11-13 for further talks. Click here for more information.

A Moroccan appeals court on January 16 upheld prison sentences for six men convicted of “practicing homosexuality.” The six men were sentenced to prison terms ranging from four to ten months on December 12. The men organized a homosexual wedding in the northern city of al-Qasr al-Kabir on November 26, prompting over 600 of the town’s inhabitants to protest demanding a government crackdown on homosexuals. Article 489 of the Moroccan Penal Code stipulates that homosexuality is illegal and is punishable with six months to three years in jail and a fine of 120 to 1,200 Moroccan dirhams (U.S.$15 to 155). Amnesty International issued a statement on January 18 criticizing the ruling and calling for the immediate release of the prisoners.

On January 5, a Moroccan court convicted fifty members of the Ansar al-Mahdi group of plotting terrorist attacks and sentenced them to between two and twenty-five years in prison. The group, which includes policemen and members of the military, was arrested in August 2006.


Mauritania: Return of Refugees; Attack on Israeli Embassy

Over one hundred Mauritanian refugees, part of a group of 24,000 who fled to neighboring Senegal after ethnic violence in 1989, returned on January 29 under a UN-sponsored program. Mauritanian President Sidi Muhammad Ould Sheikh Abdullahi in June 2007 invited all remaining refugees to return, and Mauritania, Senegal, and the UNHCR signed a tripartite agreement to facilitate their repatriation. Click here for more information.
Unidentified gunmen opened fire on the Israeli embassy in Nouakchott on February 1, causing several injuries. Mauritania is one of three Arab countries, along with Jordan and Egypt, that maintain full diplomatic relations with Israel. Click here for more details.


Upcoming Political Events

Palestine: Fatah’s Sixth General Congress: March 5-6, 2008
Egypt: Local elections, April 2008
Qatar: Parliamentary elections, June 2008



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