News Concerning Middle East Reform

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

Egypt: Bread Crisis; Editor Convicted; Ayman Nour to Remain in Prison
Arab States: Arab League Summit
Lebanon: Presidential Vote Delayed; Tenth Hariri Investigation Report
Palestine: Peace Process; Fatah-Hamas Dialogue; Journalist Arrested
Syria: Journalist Trial; Attack on Kurdish Celebration
Jordan: Journalists Sentenced to Prison; Restrictions on Internet Cafés
Iraq: Attacks on Journalists
Kuwait: Cabinet Resigns; Parliament Dissolved; Two Ex-MPs Detained
Saudi Arabia: King Calls for Dialogue; New Fatwa Condemns Writers
Bahrain: Minister Questioning Over Population Controversy
Qatar: First Church
UAE: First Female Judge; Labor Unrest
Yemen: Publications Banned
Tunisia: Constitutional Amendment; Comedian Released
Libya: Political Prisoner Released to Hospital
Algeria: Churches Shut Down; Journalist Interrogated
Morocco: Journalist Fined; “Online Prince” Pardoned
Mauritania: Journalists Arrested

Egypt: Bread Crisis; Editor Convicted; Ayman Nour to Remain in Prison

On March 16, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ordered the army to boost bread production and distribution to cope with a recent bread crisis that has sparked unrest leading to two reported deaths. Demand for subsidized bread has gone up steadily in recent months, fueled by increasing commodity prices that have made unsubsidized bread less affordable for the 50 percent of the population living below the poverty line. At the same time, the supply has declined as subsidized bakeries have allegedly sold some of their flour; out of the 20,000 tons of flour supplied to bakeries daily, an estimated 4,000 tons are sold on the black market. Click here for more information.

On March 12, state security forces raided the home of Abduljalil al-Sharnouby, editor in chief of the IkhwanOnline web site—the official site of the Muslim Brotherhood—over coverage of the upcoming municipal elections, and confiscated books, papers, and other belongings. Click here for more information.

A Cairo court sentenced Ibrahim Eissa, editor of al-Dustur newspaper, to six months in prison on March 26 for printing rumors about President Hosni Mubarak’s health deemed “likely to disturb public security and harm the country’s economy.” Eissa posted bail to avoid imprisonment until appeal. At least eight journalists have been sentenced to prison for press-related offenses since September 2007. The Committee to Protect Journalists designated Egypt as one of the worst backsliders on press freedom, citing an increase in the number of legal and physical attacks on the press. Click here for more information.

Thousands of Egyptian university lecturers held a nationwide strike on March 23 demanding salary increases and better pensions. Lecturers are demanding a doubling of their salaries, currently approximately 2,000 Egyptian pounds (U.S. $365) per month. The country has been hit by a wave of labor strikes and demonstrations in recent months in the face of inflation. Click here for more information.

On March 17, Cairo’s Supreme Administrative Court rejected a bid to free jailed opposition politician Ayman Nour on health grounds. Nour was sentenced to five years in prison on December 24, 2005, on charges of forging documents. Nour's lawyer issued a plea to President Mubarak to pardon the one-time presidential contender. Click here for more information.

On March 4, the Bush administration released $100 million in military aid to Egypt, waiving Congressionally-imposed restrictions on “national security grounds.” The 2008 appropriations bill passed by Congress in December 2008 withheld $100 million of a $1.3 billion military aid package to Egypt until the administration certified Egypt had done enough to protect the independence of the judiciary, curb police abuses and put a stop to arms smuggling to Gaza. Freedom House issued a statement on March 20 expressing disappointment at the administration’s decision.

Arab States: Arab League Summit

The Arab League held its twentieth annual leaders’ summit in Damascus on March 29-30. The summit’s final statement expressed concern about “rising Islamophobia around the world,” called on Lebanon to elect a consensus president, and re-endorsed an Arab initiative for peace with Israel. The Saudi-led initiative, which offers normalization of relations with Israel if it withdraws from occupied Arab territories, was first adopted in the 2002 summit in Beirut. Half the leaders of the 22-member Arab League, including those of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, did not attend the Damascus summit, blaming Syria for Lebanon's protracted crisis. The leaders agreed on Doha as the venue for their 2009 summit. Click here for the leaders’ speeches in Arabic.

Lebanon: Presidential Vote Delayed; Tenth Hariri Investigation Report

On March 25, the Lebanese parliament postponed for the fifteenth time the session to elect a new president. It is now scheduled for April 22. The Western-backed ruling coalition and the pro-Syria opposition led by Hizbollah remain unable to agree on the makeup of a new government. Lebanon has been without a head of state since November 2007, when Syrian-backed Emile Lahoud stepped down at the end of his term.

The UN International Independent Investigation Commission looking into the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri and other political killings in Lebanon submitted its tenth interim report to the UN Security Council on March 28. The Commission indicated it has evidence that a network of individuals acted in concert to carry out the assassination of al-Hariri and that this same network, or parts of it, is linked to other political killings in Lebanon. The report did not name any suspects. In addition to the Hariri case, the UN Commission is mandated to assist Lebanese authorities probe twenty attacks against anti-Syrian targets in Lebanon.

Palestine: Peace Process; Fatah-Hamas Dialogue; Journalist Arrested

Israelis and Palestinians agreed on March 30 to a series of steps including an Israeli pledge to remove fifty roadblocks, upgrade checkpoints to speed up the movement of Palestinians through the West Bank, and give Palestinians more security responsibility in the town of Jenin. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, visiting the region for the second time this month in the hopes of energizing the faltering talks, said the moves “constitute a very good start to improving” a Palestinian economy crippled by the Israeli restrictions. Meanwhile, Jerusalem authorities announced on March 31 plans to expand an Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem, adding 600 new housing units. The Israel-based activist group Peace Now reports that expansions in 101 Israeli settlements in the West Bank are currently underway.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Gaza on March 31 for unconditional talks. Fatah and Hamas reached a Yemeni-brokered deal on March 23 to open their first direct talks since the 2006 Hamas takeover of Gaza. The “Sanaa Declaration,” signed by Fatah and Hamas representatives, calls for talks between the two parties and a “return of the Palestinian situation to what it was before the events in Gaza.” Recent media reports cite criticisms by some Fatah leaders of the declaration and Fatah-Hamas disagreements over its interpretation.

Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank arrested Amer Nawaf of the Ramattan News Agency in Ramallah on March 12, accusing him of being a member of Hamas. Nawaf was freed the next day without being charged. Since the Hamas-Fatah split in June 2007, dozens of journalists have been subject to brief detention and interrogation in Gaza and the West Bank. Click here for more information.

Syria: Journalist Trial; Attack on Kurdish Celebration

On March 15, a military tribunal adjourned the trial of journalist Mazen Darwish, head of the Syrian Center for Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression, until April 15. Darwish is accused of “slandering and defaming state bodies” for publishing a report about January 2008 riots in Damascus and criticizing the failure of the security bodies to protect the citizens killed in the riots. Arrested on January 12 while covering the riots, Darwish was released three days later. Click here for more information.

A March 24 Human Rights Watch statement called on Syrian authorities to investigate the March 20 shooting of three Syrian Kurds by security forces in the northern town of Qamishli during a celebration of the Persian new year, Nowruz. Syrian authorities have not issued an official statement on the incident, but Syrian forces have used force in the past to break up Kurdish cultural celebrations. In March 2006, security officers arrested dozens of Kurds and used teargas and batons to stop a candle-lit procession on Nowruz.

Jordan: Journalists Sentenced to Prison; Restrictions on Internet Cafés

On March 16, an Amman court sentenced five journalists to three months in prison each in two separate cases. In the first case, two of Jordan's main daily newspapers, al-Dustur and al-Arab al-Yawm, were found in contempt of the judiciary for publishing a news item about a lawsuit filed by a Jordanian disputing a court decision to deprive him of his citizenship. The court handed prison sentences to Usama Sharif and Fayez al-Lawzi of al-Dustur, and Taher al-Adwan and Sahar al-Qasem of al-Arab al-Yawm. In the second case, a court convicted satirical writer Abdul Hadi Raji Majali of slander for an article about the Higher Media Council. Click here for more information.

The Jordanian Ministry of Interior issued new instructions for monitoring internet cafés on March 9. The new instructions oblige café owners to install cameras to monitor internet users, register their personal information, and record data on the websites visited. The instructions also mandate installing a censorship program to prevent access to websites containing pornographic material, insulting religious beliefs, or promoting the use of drugs or tobacco. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information denounced the decision, calling it a violation of rights to use the Internet and exchange information. Click here for more information.

A Jordanian court sentenced a Palestinian-born Frenchman to three months in jail on March 12 for slandering Jordan’s King Abdullah. The man pleaded guilty and was initially sentenced to a year in jail by the state security court, which later reduced the penalty because he was a foreigner. Punishment for defaming the King can be up to three years in prison. Click here for more information.

Iraq: Attacks on Journalists

Iraqi media executive Qassem Abdul Hussein al-Eqabi was shot by an unknown gunman on March 13 in Baghdad’s largely Shi’i Karradah neighborhood. Al-Eqabi was the head of public relations and distribution for the local political daily newspaper al-Muwatin. According to the Iraqi Union of Journalists, this death brings the total number of Iraqi journalists killed since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 to 272. Click here for more information.

Editor Mohammed Saleh Hajji Taha of the Kurdish daily Rahsen, was freed on bail three days after his March 16 arrest for writing articles criticizing the penal code of Iraq. No date has been set for his trial.

Kuwait: Cabinet Resigns; Parliament Dissolved; Two Ex-MPs Detained

Kuwait’s Amir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah announced on March 19 his decision to dissolve the parliament, citing its "irresponsible conduct." New elections will be held on May 17. The decision followed the resignation of the cabinet on March 17, less than a year after it was sworn in, complaining of a lack of cooperation by the national assembly. The cabinet resignation left Sheikh Sabah with two options under the constitution: to order the formation of a new cabinet or to dissolve the parliament and call for new elections within two months. A continuing government-parliament standoff has paralyzed political life in Kuwait and delayed key economic development projects. This is the fifth time the parliament has been dissolved since it was set up in 1963. Sheikh Sabah’s predecessors suspended parliamentary life from 1976-81 and 1986-92.

On March 26, Kuwaiti police used tear gas to disperse hundreds of tribesmen protesting the arrest of eight men for organizing an illegal form of primary elections. The eight men from Kuwait's major Bedouin tribes were remanded in police custody after interrogation about their role in organizing tribal elections banned by law. Kuwaiti tribes often resort to primary elections in a bid to field a small number of candidates to boost their chances of winning seats in parliament.

Former Shi’i MPs Abdulmohsen Jamal and Nasser Sorkhouh were released on a 10,000 dinar bail (U.S. $37,855) on March 25, after being arrested and interrogated by Kuwait’s public prosecutor. The MPs had been detained since March 9 on suspicion of membership in an alleged “Kuwaiti Hizbollah.” Police also arrested prominent Shi’i cleric Sheikh Hussein al-Maatuq and four other activists on the same charge. All activists denied the accusation. The public prosecutor indicated that he will press formal charges after the necessary inquiries are completed. The crackdown follows a rally last month to mourn Hizbollah military commander Imad Mughniyah, who was killed in a car bombing in Damascus.

On March 8, a Kuwait City criminal court withdrew the licenses of two weekly newspapers, al-Abraj and al-Shaab, in two separate cases. The court fined al-Abraj editor Mansour al-Hayni and al-Shaab editor Hamed Abu Yabes 9,000 Kuwaiti dinars (U.S. $33,785) each. Al-Hayni was convicted of "besmirching the prime minister's reputation" while Yabes was convicted of publishing political articles in a newspaper licensed only to cover arts and culture. Click here for more information.

Saudi Arabia: King Calls for Dialogue; New Fatwa Condemns Writers

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called March 25 for a dialogue among monotheistic religions, including Judaism. The King said that Saudi Arabia’s top clerics have given him approval to pursue his idea. He declared plans to get the opinion of Muslim leaders from other countries and asked “representatives of all the monotheistic religions to meet with their brothers in faith.” The King added that he had discussed the project, which he has been mulling over for two years, with Pope Benedict XVI during his landmark visit to the Vatican late last year.

On March 14, Saudi cleric Abdul Rahman al-Barrak issued a fatwa calling for the trial of writers Yousef Aba al-Khail and Abdullah Bin Bejad for their "heretical articles" and their death if they do not repent. The fatwa came in response to recent articles in the Saudi daily al-Riyadh by the two writers challenging the view that adherents of other faiths are to be condemned as infidels. Click here for more information.

Bahrain: Minister Questioning Over Population Controversy

Parliament members from al-Wefaq, Bahrain’s largest Shi’i opposition group, presented on March 25 a request to question Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs Sheikh Ahmed Bin Ateyatallah al-Khalifa. Al-Wefaq accuses the minister of concealing information about the country’s population. Opposition groups have accused the Sunni-controlled government of secretly naturalizing non-Bahraini Sunnis in a bid to alter the demographic balance of the country, which has a Shi’i majority. The Bahraini government denies the accusation. Sunni Islamists and pro-government MPs, who hold twenty-two out of forty seats in parliament, have thus far blocked al-Wefaq’s attempts to question the minister.

Qatar: First Church

On March 14, Qatar inaugurated its first Christian church, with five additional churches under construction. Qatar's emir, Sheikh Khalifa al-Thani, donated the land to build the $15 million dollar church in the outskirts of the capital Doha. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates host churches that cater to hundreds of thousands of expatriates and, in some cases, small local communities. Click here for more information.

UAE: First Female Judge; Labor Unrest

The United Arab Emirates named Kholoud Ahmed al-Dhaheri as its first woman judge on March 26. The move made the UAE the second Arab country in the Gulf (after Bahrain) to appoint a female judge. The UAE cabinet includes four women. Nine women also sit on the 40-member Federal National Council, an assembly that advises the government.

Some 1,500 foreign workers in Sharjah staged a violent protest for higher wages on March 19, setting dozens of vehicles on fire and damaging property. Asian workers have demonstrated several times in the past year to demand higher wages and better living conditions despite a ban on public protests in the UAE. Many construction workers earn less than $200 per month and are facing mounting inflation. Click here for more information.

Yemen: Publications Banned

On March 14, Yemeni authorities banned the distribution of the new current affairs monthly Abwab. The first issue of Abwab, which was printed in Dubai, was seized on arrival at Sanaa airport. The magazine's editor said the cover, which showed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, was deemed to be disrespectful to the president. On March 4, the Ministry of Information ordered a ban on the newspaper al-Sabah, known to be critical of the government. Authorities continued censoring news websites and blocked access to the website of the Yemeni Socialist Party without explanation. Yemen is on Reporters Without Border’s list of “Countries Under Surveillance” due to its internet censorship policies. Click here for more information.

Tunisia: Constitutional Amendment; Comedian Released

President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali announced on March 21 that Tunisia will amend its constitution to allow more candidates to contest next year's presidential election. Leaders of any legal party, including those with no parliament seats, will be able to stand provided they were elected to the post and have held it for two consecutive years. Until now, only leaders of parties with parliamentary seats could run. Ben Ali has yet to confirm he will stand for re-election next year. Click here for more information.

Comedian Hedi Ould Baballah was released from prison on March 20, after a special pardon was issued on the occasion of Tunisia’s Independence Day. Baballah was sentenced on February 4 to one year in prison and a fine of 1,000 dinars (U.S. $800) for possession of narcotics. At the hearing, the comedian denied any knowledge of the drugs and alleged that there was a police conspiracy against him in connection with his controversial political satire. Baballah had been performing a skit in which he imitated President Ben Ali.

Libya: Political Prisoner Released to Hospital

Libyan authorities transferred political dissident Fathi al-Jahmi to a hospital March 11 due to his deteriorating health. Al-Jahmi reportedly is free to see his family but not to leave the hospital. Al-Jahmi has been detained since March 2004, when he was rearrested after making comments critical of Libyan leader Qaddafi upon release from a previous term in prison. Click here for a Human Rights Watch statement on the case.

Algeria: Churches Shut Down; Journalist Interrogated

On March 9, Algerian authorities ordered the closure of two Protestant churches in the Algerian city of Tizi Ouzou for alleged missionary work. Religious Affairs Minister Bu Abdullah Ghoulamullah told reporters that the churches were "trying to establish a minority, which might give foreign powers a pretext to intervene in Algeria's domestic affairs." Algerian law forbids attempts to convert Muslims to other religions and bans the production of media intended to “shake the faith of a Muslim.” Algeria has ordered thirteen Protestant churches to shut down since November. Click here for more information.

Morocco: Journalist Fined; “Online Prince” Pardoned

On March 25, a Rabat court convicted Rachid Nini, editor of the daily newspaper al-Massae, of libel and public insults, and ordered him to pay 6 million Moroccan dirhams (U.S. $825,400) in damages and a fine of 120,000 dirhams (U.S. $16,500) in a case brought by four deputy public prosecutors. The four deputy prosecutors sued Nini in early February, claiming they had been defamed by a November 18 report published in his newspaper. The report claimed that four unnamed officials had attended a homosexual marriage ceremony in the northern town of al-Qasr al-Kabir. Click here for more information.

On March 18, Morocco’s King Mohammed issued a royal pardon releasing Fouad Mourtada, an IT engineer who had been serving a three-year jail sentence for creating a false profile on Facebook in the name of the King’s brother, Moulay Rachid. Mourtada was convicted on February 22 of “modifying and falsifying information technology data and usurping an official’s identity.” Click here for more information.

Mauritania: Journalists Arrested

On March 25, Mauritanian authorities arrested two journalists, Muhammad Salim Ould Muhammad and Sidi Ould Abdelkader, from the pro-Islamist Assiraj newspaper. Abdelkader was released the same day, while Muhammad remains in custody without charge. The two journalists have written articles criticizing the Mauritanian economic and political situation as well as government restrictions on the media. Click here for more information.


Nassim Yaziji's Neo-Internationalism

Nassim Yaziji's Articles




Syria's Lost Independence: The Totalitarian Occupation

After the Syria's independence became an occupation imposing a totalitarian tyranny on Syria and Syrian people, our civilization was destroyed; citizens became refugees in their homeland; the state became a ranch owned by an oligarchy, which is a bunch of rural thugs, thieves and hit men, all thanks to the revolution's accomplishments of al-Baath terrorist group.

Many brave Syrians, like Aref Dalila, Anwar al-Bunni, Kamal Labawani, Riad Seif and many others, are struggling for Syria's democratic independence and Syrians' rights and freedoms.This is a tribute to all those heroes on our lost independence's anniversary.

We, Syrians, totally appreciate their struggle and we are so proud of them, and we believe that we will regain our democratic independence.

Syria: Opposition Activists Tell of Beatings in Interrogation

Authorities Should Release All 12, and Investigate Allegations of Physical Abuse

Human Rights Watch

(New York, February 5, 2008) – The Syrian government has arbitrarily detained at least 12 activists who attended a meeting of opposition groups in December, Human Rights Watch said today. The authorities should immediately release the detained activists, dismiss all charges against them, and promptly investigate credible allegations that State Security officials beat at least eight of the activists during interrogation.

The 12, including former member of parliament Riad Seif, have been detained as part of a government crackdown against individuals who attended a December 1 meeting of the National Council of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change (NCDD), an umbrella group of opposition and pro-democracy groups.

On January 28, the third investigative judge in Damascus, Muhammad Subhi al-Sa`ur, referred 11 of the detainees to prosecutors on politically motivated charges of “weakening national sentiment,” “spreading false or exaggerated news which would affect the morale of the country,” “membership in an organization formed with the purpose of changing the structure of the state,” “inciting sectarian strife,” and “joining a secret association.”

“The Syrian authorities are treating these activists like criminals simply because they called for democratic and peaceful change,” said Joe Stork, acting Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Eight of the 11 told the investigative judge that State Security officials beat them during their interrogation and forced them to sign confessions that they planned to take money from foreign countries in order to divide the country by giving the Kurds a separate state. The detainees’ lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the activists told the investigative judge in their judicial questioning how they were punched in the face, kicked, and slapped by State Security officials.

One detainee, `Ali al-Abdullah, was transferred on January 28 to a medical examiner to check his complaint that interrogators had injured his ear. The doctor declined to issue a report, saying that he was not a specialist in ear injuries. No investigation was reportedly opened in the allegations of ill-treatment. The detainees’ lawyers told Human Rights Watch that the investigative judge did not respond to their request to receive a copy of the interrogation that he conducted with the detainees.

The authorities are currently holding 10 of the detainees, including Riad Seif, in `Adra prison with common criminals. Fida’ al-Hurani, the only woman in the group and the recently elected president of the NCDD, is in the women’s jail in Duma, near Damascus. The 12th and latest activist to be detained, Talal Abu Dan, an artist and sculptor from Aleppo, has remained in the custody of State Security since he was called in for interrogation on January 30.

Since the activists’ referral to jails in `Adra and Duma, their relatives have been able to visit the activists. Conditions of detention are harsh: prison authorities do not provide mattresses, and many of the activists are still wearing the same clothes since their arrest in December. According to relatives, they are allowed to pass money to the activists but no clothes. Lawyers that have seen the detainees told Human Rights Watch that some looked “weak and tired.” Riad Seif, who suffers from prostate cancer and has a heart condition, was forced to sleep with a single blanket in the general hall of the prison, exposed to cold weather.

“Syrian prison authorities are mistreating these activists,” said Stork. “These people should not be in prison in the first place.”


The government crackdown began on December 9 when State Security, one of Syria’s multiple security agencies, began arresting some of the 163 activists that attended the National Council of the Damascus Declaration for Democratic Change (NCDD). A total of 40 NCDD members have been arrested and 12 remain in detention. The 12 who remain in detention are:

1. Walid al-Bunni, 44, physician
2. Yasser al-`Eiti, 40, physician and poet
3. Feda’ al-Hurani, 51, physician
4. Akram al-Bunni, 51, writer
5. Ahmad To`meh, 51, dentist
6. Jabr al-Shufi, 60, Arabic-literature teacher
7. `Ali al-`Abdullah, 58, writer
8. Fayez Sarah, 58, writer and journalist
9. Muhammad Hajj Darwish, 48, businessman
10. Marwan al-`Ush, 52, engineer
11. Riad Seif, 61,former member of parliament
12. Talal Abu Dan, 55, artist and sculptor


The dangers of speaking out in Syria

Amnesty International

Being a Syrian political or human rights activist requires courage -- the government is intolerant of dissent. The 45-year-old state of emergency gives the security police wide powers of arrest and detention, which they use against those who dare to speak out for human rights or in opposition to the authorities.

Under the long-running state of emergency, a special court – the Supreme State Security Court (SSSC) – was established to try those who dissent or are accused of offences against state security. Created in 1968, the SSSC’s proceedings are grossly unfair and it has sentenced hundreds of people to prison terms.

Defendants before the SSSC tend to be members of unauthorized political parties, human rights organisations, civil society groups and others who may have peacefully expressed opinions that differ from those of the authorities. Yet they are often accused and convicted of vague, widely interpreted and unsubstantiated security offences, such as membership of a terrorist organisation, "exposing Syria to the threat of hostile acts", "weakening nationalist sentiments", "opposing the objectives of the revolution" and "inciting sectarian strife."

Fateh Jamus, for example, was convicted of terrorism, although no evidence was produced in court to indicate that he had ever used or advocated violence. Of up to 1,000 individuals arrested for their suspected involvement in the banned Communist Labour Party, he and more than 20 others were detained for over a decade before they were eventually brought to trial at various times in the 1990s. He was eventually freed in 2000, three years beyond the expiry of his 15-year sentence.

Likewise, Muhammad Zammar was detained for nearly five years without charge before he was convicted in 2007, without any substantiating evidence, of membership of the banned Muslim Brotherhood.

The SSSC is not independent. It is effectively under the control of the executive branch of government and operates outside the ordinary criminal justice system. Its judges are invariably members of the ruling Ba'ath Party and are appointed on the recommendation of the Minister of the Interior.

For detainees and defendants, communication with a lawyer is restricted and rarely confidential. Defendants are unable to meet with a lawyer during pre-trial detention and usually first meet their lawyer at the first trial session, often for just a few minutes. Trials are usually closed to the public. Defendants tried before the SSSC are not allowed to appeal their conviction and sentence to a higher tribunal, in breach of international standards of fair trial.

“The violations do not affect only the detainees [but also] their families and lawyers,” said Razan Zaytounah, a Syrian human rights lawyer banned since November 2005 from working in the court by the SSSC’s president, following an argument during which he is also reported to have insulted her.

The SSSC, she explains, “violates the right of defence and the right of a convicted person to appeal against or challenge their sentence, because its verdicts are final… It does not abide by the criminal procedures applicable to the ordinary legal system [and] this court violates the principle of separation of powers between the executive and the judiciary.”

Even after release, “some effects will in fact haunt you to the grave,” adds Fateh Jamus. "You are forbidden from going back to work, from receiving any compensation and you are subject to a travel ban."

The SSSC contributes to impunity in Syria – the court has systematically failed to investigate numerous allegations made by defendants that they were tortured during pre-trial detention and interrogation, and that "confessions" were extracted from them under duress.

As Fateh Jamus says, "The fact that an individual may have been tortured at interrogation centres for instance is totally ignored. [The court] does not pay attention to this matter at all. Statements taken or investigations carried out by the security agencies are paramount in handing down judgments on prisoners."

Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the Syrian authorities to end unfair trials before the SSSC. In the run up to the 45th anniversary of the declaration of Syria’s state of emergency on 8 March, Amnesty International is again calling on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to fundamentally reform or abolish the SSSC and to ensure that Syria’s courts comply with the country’s obligations under international law


Resurrecting the Wall of Fear: The Human Rights Situation in Syria

By Robert Grace

United States Institute of Peace
April 2008

Over the past several months, Syrian authorities have engaged in a harsh campaign of repression against leading dissidents and human rights activists. The crackdown, overshadowed by developments elsewhere in the region, has received scant media coverage in the U.S. and Europe. To shed light on recent developments in the Syrian political scene, USIP recently convened a public discussion on human rights in Syria, featuring the Institute’s Radwan Ziadeh, Mona Yacoubian, and Steven Heydemann, and Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch. This USIPeace Briefing summarizes their presentations and the subsequent discussion.

USIP Senior Fellow Radwan Ziadeh's account of the current situation in Syria underscored that the regime often uses national security concerns as a pretext to silence all forms of dissent. Placing recent repression in historical context, Ziadeh noted that government repression of political and human rights activists has come in several waves in the past decade. While political activism briefly flourished after the death of longtime Syrian president Hafez al-Assad in June 2000, the so-called Damascus Spring ended within months, after a severe government crackdown. Another wave of detentions followed the May 2006 "Beirut-Damascus Declaration," which called for improved relations between Syria and neighboring Lebanon. (Lebanon is a sensitive subject for Syria, which claims historic title to the Mediterranean nation and has long played an active role in Lebanon’s internecine political struggles. Complicating matters further is a U.N. tribunal convened to investigate Syria’s suspected involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.)

The latest regime crackdown followed a December 1, 2007, meeting of 163 activists who gathered in Damascus to declare their support for democratization in Syria. These activists formed a new coalition—the National Council of the Damascus Declaration—that issued a unified call for freedom of association and speech, and the establishment and protection of human rights. Rallying around the Damascus Declaration for Democratic and National Change, written in October 2005, the Council comprised a wide-ranging coalition that included Islamists, secularists, and Kurds.

The government crackdown began in earnest eight days later, when Syrian authorities undertook a wave of arrests targeting meeting participants. Former parliamentarian Riad Seif was among those detained on charges of "weakening the national sentiment," illegal association activities, and "sectarian incitement." Seif suffers from prostate cancer and has been denied medical treatment by Syrian authorities. His health continues to decline in Adra Prison, where he is detained alongside the prominent writer and fellow Council member Ali Abdullah. Numerous international human rights organizations assert that Syrian political prisoners suffer harsh abuses at the hands of their prison guards and that torture is widespread 1. Indeed, according to Abdullah’s lawyers, he was beaten so severely that he sustained a hole in his trachea.

In his presentation, Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch discussed what he called "capricious cruelty on the part of the regime." Activist Kamal al-Labwani, sentenced to twelve years of hard labor for meeting with U.S. government officials and NGO representatives, is a case in point. Another is Fida’ al-Hurani, one of the first Syrian women to be imprisoned for speaking out on the issue of human rights. Recent reports indicate that her husband was forcibly exiled to Jordan—according to Stork, the regime’s first forced expulsion in many years. Hurani’s case is all the more dramatic given that her father, Akram al-Hurani, was one of the early founders of the Syrian Baath Party.

Stork reiterated Ziadeh’s assessment that national security is used as a catch-all excuse to silence critics of the Syrian regime. In another high profile case, Aref Dalila, former dean of the economics department at Damascus University, was arrested and jailed in September 2001. His detention came after a meeting of democracy activists, held at the house of Riad Seif. As with Seif, Dalila suffers serious health problems that a prolonged imprisonment, including months of solitary confinement, have exacerbated. Noting that Dalila was held on charges that include "holding gatherings aimed at causing disorder" and "forming a secret society," Stork surmised that Dalila’s imprisonment had as much to do with an impassioned opinion piece that he wrote for the daily Al-Hayat in March of that year. Dalila wrote, "We live in a republic with a progressive constitution. ...What, then, are we missing?...You’ve shelved the constitution and the laws," and replaced them with "one law, composed of one line, unwritten, invisible."2

In this chilling environment, organizations such as Stork’s Human Rights Watch have difficulty performing their work. Although the official ban on their presence in Syria does not prevent them entirely from doing investigative work, their interlocutors are under constant watch by the secret police. Stork argued that the tenuous state of diplomatic relations between Syria and Western powers hampers progress on the human rights front as well. Visits between Syrian officials and their EU and U.S. counterparts are rare. When such visits have occurred—as with Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Damascus in April 2007, and EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana’s visit the preceding month—opportunities to discuss the human rights situation have been missed, Stork contended. He stated further that while White House press statements have responded to particular cases, such as Labwani’s, in a forceful manner, the Bush administration has been "extremely selective" and inconsistent in highlighting human rights abuses throughout the region. To raise the profile of individuals such as Labwani, Dalila, and Hurani, Stork concluded that more attention should be paid to regional repression in general and Syrian victims in particular.

Mona Yacoubian echoed Stork’s assessment that more attention should be paid to human rights in Syria. It is difficult to gauge the intentions or mindset of the Syrian regime, but it seems that the lack of attention paid to their repressive measures emboldens them. However, if Syria has confidence that it can act with impunity, it is a shallow confidence. Syria exhibits vulnerability on several fronts. The economy is beset by soaring inflation, driven by rising petroleum prices, in combination with the influx of over 1.5 million Iraqi refugees. The U.N. investigations and tribunal could result in the indictment of high-level Syrian officials. According to Yacoubian, some in the inner circles of Syrian power believe the tribunal to be a "Trojan horse" for regime change. The continued activity of the Syrian dissident community in Lebanon, from which Syria withdrew its military in May 2005, compounds this concern. Finally, the December 1 Council meeting, drawing together such a broad coalition, signaled to the regime the growing strength, scope, and boldness of the domestic opposition.

President Bush’s meeting with three exiled Syrian activists on December 4 may have further spooked the regime. Yacoubian underscored that such high-profile meetings with Syrian oppositionists may do more harm than good, having little impact on the ground in Syria, while giving the regime a pretext to crack down further. She characterized U.S. policy toward Syria as based largely on isolation, with some "episodic engagement," limited to specific issues such as Iraq.

Meanwhile, intensified sanctions, such as those placed in February on the assets of President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, have little real impact on the corrupt autocracy they are intended to weaken (Makhlouf has no known assets in the U.S.). Ultimately, the effect of U.S. sanctions has been largely symbolic, creating an atmosphere of uncertainty for U.S. business interests, but not having an appreciable impact on the ground. Currently, Yacoubian argued, the U.S. occupies a "muddled middle ground" on policy. The U.S. needs either to "supercharge" its isolation policy—strengthening it significantly by getting European allies and others (such as Russia, China, and Turkey) to agree to multilateral sanctions—or to engage the Syrian regime, laying the gamut of issues on the table for discussion, including human rights.

Moderator Steven Heydemann stated that the combination of verbal condemnation of Syrian behavior with the relative inefficacy of sanctions has led to growing Syrian disregard of external pressures. In 2003 the U.S. vocally pressed its case for a regional "freedom agenda"; by 2005, with the situation in Iraq spiraling out of control, U.S. rhetoric had become far more subdued. In this context, the Syrian regime seems to consider its anti-opposition activities to have a low opportunity cost. At the same time, said Heydemann, Syria sees little reward for steps taken to secure U.S. favor, as in the case of its increased surveillance of insurgent traffic across its border with Iraq.

In this low-risk, low-reward environment, tolerance for alternative perspectives within Syrian civil society has diminished—particularly regarding Syria’s role in Lebanon. The scope and severity of the crackdown on the National Council of the Damascus Declaration underscores the sensitivity of the Lebanon issue. In short, Heydemann concluded, Syria’s perception of the threat of internal opposition has become heightened at precisely the moment that the threat of external intervention has begun to appear empty.

With the human rights situation in Syria worsening, successfully confronting Syrian repression will require sustained attention and carefully crafted policy. Cautious engagement with Syria, the panelists agreed, seems to be the best of the admittedly problematic options that the U.S. and the international community have at their disposal. While more constructive relations with Syria must never come at the expense of Lebanon, the Syrian role in Middle Eastern affairs is too important to ignore. None of the essential issues must be left off the table—least of all the issue of human rights.


Some related materials:

- Baath's Crackdown on Syrian Dissent

- Save Syrian People from Brutal Totalitarianism

- Syria's Baath and Online Censorship: The Internet Black Hole

- The Beirut-Damascus Declaration

- Syria's Independence: Free Anwar al-Bunni

- Totalitarian Baath and Free Anwar al-Bunni

- Free Kamal Labawani

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Tenth Report of Hariri International Investigation Commission


New Head of Investigation Commission Says ‘Hariri Network’ Linked to Some Other Cases; Priority Now to Gather Evidence about Scope, Identity of All Participants

Security Council
5863rd Meeting

8 April 2008

The International Independent Investigation Commission could now confirm, on the basis of evidence, that a network of individuals had acted in concert to carry out the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri on 14 February 2005, Daniel Bellamare told the Security Council this afternoon.

Briefing the Council on the Commission’s progress, that body’s newly appointed Commissioner also confirmed that that network -– the “Hariri Network” -– or parts of it, were linked to some of the other cases the Commission was looking into. The Commission had also gathered evidence that: the Hariri Network had existed before the Hariri assassination; that it conducted surveillance of Mr. Hariri before the attack; that it operated on the day of Mr. Hariri’s assassination; and that, at least part of the Network, continued to exist and operate after the assassination.

He said the Commission’s priority was now to gather more evidence about the Hariri Network, its scope, the identity of all of its participants and their role in the attacks, and their links with others outside the Network. The Commission had also continued to assist the Lebanese authorities in providing “technical assistance” in a number of cases. Investigation of possible links between those cases and the Hariri case continued.

Unfortunately, the establishment of the Commission had not had an immediate deterrent effect on terrorists, as bombings had continued, he said. Two more deadly attacks -– on Major General François al Haij and Major Wissam Eid, both members of Lebanon’s security forces -– had been added to the Commission’s mandate. The magnitude of the attacks and the fact that investigations were conducted in an environment dominated by ongoing security concerns added to the Commission’s challenges.

“But rest assured,” he said. “The Commission will not be deterred by this prevailing violence.” The Commission’s overarching principle was to ensure that justice was done. The Commission would yield to no pressure, political or otherwise. In its search for truth and justice, applying basic principles of fairness, neutrality and impartiality, the Commission must be guided by facts and evidence. Everything else was irrelevant. The Commission was an independent body, created to help put an end to impunity in Lebanon by ensuring that the perpetrators would have no safe haven and that they were eventually brought to justice.

Addressing the matter of confidentiality, he said the Commission had to constantly find a delicate balance between its reporting obligations and the need to preserve the confidentiality of the investigation. There was every intention, however, of being transparent to the extent possible without jeopardizing the security of those who wanted to cooperate, and the security of the staff. Transparency was essential to maintain the confidence of the public in the Commission.

As for the transition to the Special Tribunal in Lebanon, Mr. Bellemare, as the Prosecutor Designate of that Tribunal, said that the filing of eventual indictments would not be immediate after the establishment of the Tribunal, because evidence would have to be carefully and objectively considered in light of the applicable prosecution threshold. Ideally, however, the time between the establishment of the operations of the Tribunal and the filing of indictments should be as short as possible. That was the reason why the progress of the investigation had become such a crucial element in determining when the Tribunal would commence its operation. As a result, he requested a mandate extension for the Commission beyond 15 June.

He said that any unnecessary delay in finding the truth and bringing the perpetrators to justice must be avoided. The search for justice, however, must be allowed to follow its course. Although the frustration of the surviving victims, the families of the deceased, and the people of Lebanon who expected quick results were legitimate and understandable, that frustration must not be allowed to undermine the trust and the confidence the members of the international community and the people of Lebanon had placed in the Commission and in its process. No effort would be spared to expedite the process as much as was humanly possible.


Tenth Report of Hariri International Investigation Commission: evidence indicating that a criminal network had conducted surveillance of Mr. Hariri and that at least part of it continued to exist and operate after the assassination

3 April 2008 – The priority of the inquiry probing the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri is to now gather more evidence about the criminal network responsible for the massive car bombing and determine its participants, the head of the investigation says in his latest report to the Security Council.

Daniel Bellemare writes that the International Independent Investigation Commission (IIIC) has accumulated evidence indicating that the criminal network had conducted surveillance of Mr. Hariri before he and 22 others were killed in the bombing in downtown Beirut on 14 February 2005, and that “at least part of the [so-called] Hariri network continued to exist and operate after the assassination.”

Mr. Bellemare says the IIIC is also trying to establish the links between members of the network and any others outside the group, and what role the network has played in other deadly attacks against prominent figures in Lebanon in recent years.

The commission is also continuing to pursue its investigation of the identity of the suicide bomber in the Hariri case, drawing on forensic information obtained and an analysis of the missing person files of various countries to generate possible leaders. DNA profiling is being carried out as well.

The report, published today, notes that progress has been made in several other investigations, including the attacks that targeted Major General François al-Hajj, killed in a car bombing last December, and Major Wissam Eid, murdered after a roadside explosion in late January this year.

“In the new cases, the Commission is working on a profile of the targeted victim and possible motives for the attack,” Mr. Bellemare writes.

He concludes in this report that the IIIC’s investigation “must continue to be guided solely by the facts and by the evidence. Its conclusions cannot rely on rumour or assumption; they must be supported by reliable evidence that will be admissible before a tribunal.”

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and the UN are taking steps to set up the Special Tribunal for Lebanon to try those responsible for the death of Mr. Hariri and last month Security Council members welcomed a report that showed Mr. Ban is making significant progress.

A headquarters agreement has been signed with the Netherlands, a prosecutor and a registrar has been appointed, and a management committee has been established. Financial contributions and pledges have also come from several UN Member States.

Once it is formally established, it will be up to the Special Tribunal to determine whether other political killings in Lebanon since October 2004 were connected to the assassination of Mr. Hariri and could therefore be dealt with by the tribunal.

Tenth Report of the International Independent Investigation Commission (IIIC)


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