Detained Without Charges – Journalist languishes in an American jail

Catherine Shakdam contributes this on the Melanie Franklin issue:

Another journalist bites the dust, and this time not by the hands of a serial human rights abuser but the very country that, for generations, has sat a standard for freedom of expression and free speech: the United States of America.

On January 14, US-born journalist Melanie Franklin – better known under her Muslim name: Marzieh Hashemi, was arrested in St Louis’ Lambert airport as she prepared to board a plane. Within hours of her arrest Ms Hashemi was transferred to Washington DC where she has been detained without charge ever since, under almost absolute secrecy, and very limited contact to the outside world.
If not for widespread condemnation and pressure by social media, it is likely Ms Hashemi would have slipped through the cracks of America’s justice system – her civil and constitutional rights trampled over without any hope of recourse.

It was federal judge Beryl Howell, chief judge of the US District Court in Washington DC, who, last Friday, first broke silence over Ms Hashemi’s case by confirming that her detention had to do with a request by the FBI that she’d be made to testify before a grand jury, behind closed doors. No other details were offered as to why an innocent woman, a 59 years old grandmother and prominent journalist would be robbed of her freedom, cut off from her family and friends, and made to suffer the humiliation of the prison system.

A long-standing TV anchor for Press TV, Ms Hashemi, who also holds an Iranian passport, travelled to the US in late December to visit her terminally ill brother and to complete a documentary on Black Lives Matter she was working on. She now languishes in prison, shackled, her fate quite literally in the hands of her captors as no time-frame was offered insofar as what would qualify as an acceptable testimony.

While it is perfectly reasonable to ask any individual to collaborate with the authorities, it is difficult to rationalise the violence and contempt Ms Hashemi has faced. Beyond the restrictions put on her freedom of movement, the journalist, who is a devout Muslim, was forcibly made to remove her headscarf and presented only with pork-based food products at meal times.
If she has now been provided with proper clothing and food, following public outrage, one cannot help but wonder how many ‘others’ have had to contend with such breach of their human rights, and one must say dignity.

With the memory of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder still fresh in our mind it is virtually impossible not to recognise behind such development the rise of a dangerous trend against journalists, notwithstanding contumacy for the rule of law.
And so I must ask, is free speech being criminalised to serve very political purpose?

Ms Hashemi’s detention needs to be viewed within its broader context, and that is to say the independence of media, and of course officials’ willingness to play authoritarian games. America has long been engaged on that treacherous road that is media correctness – it is under President Trump’s administration however that such trend has turned into an accepted modus operandi.

A report by US Press Freedom Tracker in December 2018 attests to that. It reads: “The journalistic landscape in the United States is volatile, and 2018 has been a harrowing year for press freedom. The Tracker has documented more than 100 press freedom incidents since January, from murders and physical attacks to stops at the border and legal orders.”

Article 19 – a British-based organisation dedicated to the defense of free speech, warned against the many and grave violation journalists have had to face as a result of governments’ strongman policies and heavy-handed tactics to promote media’s compliance.

Executive Director Thomas Hughes said on the matter: “Our data shows that freedom of expression has been in decline for ten years and that this demise has accelerated significantly in the last three years … This is a global phenomenon with many violations happening in countries where freedom of expression has traditionally been protected.”

Ms Hashemi’s detention is symptomatic of America’s political and legal radicalisation. The US Freedom Tracker has documented a total of 27 subpoena or legal order cases against journalists – with 21 of those occurring in 2018.

It writes: “It’s likely that many subpoenas are not reported, and many legal orders for journalists’ records are conducted with high levels of secrecy. Therefore, the number of legal order and subpoena cases counted by the Tracker are likely to be a severe undercount, making a straight comparison of the data between years sometimes difficult.”

And: “2018 also saw the first publicly known seizure by the Trump administration of a journalist’s communications records, when the Department of Justice seized years of New York Times reporter Ali Watkins’ phone and email records as part of an investigation into her confidential sources. She was notified of this seizure after the fact, so she had no way to challenge the seizure in court.”

While it would be easy to fall within the trap of our own taught prejudices, and thus dismiss the injustice done on account Ms Hashemi sits an appointed ‘undesirable’ by virtue of her faith and choice of residence: Iran, notwithstanding her political views, one would argue against such moral relativism.

To fall silent before the strong-arming of our press equates to the rationalisation of authoritarianism, and by extent the death of all our democracies.

Self-preservation dictates that we all speak out in defense of Ms Hashemi, if not for her sake, for our own.

photo above by Fars News Agency, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75888210

Is Ukraine’s spiritual independence from Russia really a political win?

In Istanbul as the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople handed a Tomos – a decree granting independence, or autocephaly – to the future head of the local Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the spiritual authority Russia once held over its former Soviet neighbour was severed once and for all. This was a political blow just as much as a spiritual setback for the Russian Federation.

On 6thJanuary 2019 the Ukrainian Orthodox Church declared independence from Muscovite Patriarchal authority after being under its jurisdiction for over 400 years. ‘We have cut the last chain that connected us to Moscow and its fantasies about Ukraine as the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church’ proudly declared the Ukrainian President, Petro Poroshenko. On the contrary, however, President Putin predicted ‘a heavy dispute, if not bloodshed’ over the schism.

Why was the Russian president so furious about the church split?

Since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, autocephaly has long been a tour de force for nationalism in Eastern Europe – and Ukraine is no exception. An independent Ukrainian Church undermines President Putin’s efforts to re-establish Russian influence over its former Soviet territories. Ukraine’s national identity has long been associated with, and influenced by Russia.

From 1917 until the Second World War, the Crimean Peninsula was an autonomous republic within the USSR. In 1944, Stalin forcibly deported all of Crimea’s indigenous population, the Tartars, to Central Asia – ostensibly as punishment for their collaboration with the Germans. In turn, many Russian and Ukrainian settlers moved to repopulate the Peninsula. As such, when in 1954 the new Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred control of Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, the proportion of ethnic Russians in Crimea increased significantly. Characteristic of the arbitrary style of Soviet leadership, there was no vote to transfer control of Crimea to Ukraine; the decision was made solely (and in the eyes of many, illegally) by Khrushchev.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, a majority of Ukrainians – over 90% –  voted in a referendum for independence from Russia. Initially it seemed as though Russia would respect the result – promising to respect Ukraine’s sovereignty in 1995 in return for their Soviet era nuclear arsenal. Again, in 2000 Russia signed an EU deal to formally acknowledge the sovereignty of all former Soviet territories. However, Ukraine’s national identity was still closely tied with Russia. Many ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea continued to feel an affinity with their former Soviet identity; the Russian language and church remained a core part of Ukraine’s cultural landscape.

In Ukraine’s Presidential elections in 2004, the election of Russia-friendly Viktor Yanukovich was widely alleged to be marred by corruption, voter fraud and intimidation. The protests that erupted in response to his incumbency, known as the ‘Orange Revolution’, were successful in triggering a re-vote and a decisive victory for the opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko. In contrast with Yanukovich, Yushchenko’s political agenda was more liberal and notably favourable toward European integration.

By 2010, however, Yushchenko’s popularity had decreased and the Presidential election was once again – although this time legitimately – won by the pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovich.

In 2013 Yanukovich rejected a political agreement to strengthen ties with the European Union in favour of forming a closer economic relationship with Russia. Small-scale protests in Kiev by pro-European Ukrainian citizens soon escalated into the ‘Euromaiden revolution’, which ultimately resulted in Yanukovich being ousted from power and a temporary government being installed in February 2014. This was the backdrop against which Putin sent Russian forces into Crimea – ostensibly to protect ethnic Russians and to ‘return Crimea to Russia’. Despite the ‘referendum at gunpoint’ in which Crimea voted to secede to Russian control, this outcome has not been recognised by the international community.

So what has been happening since Russia invaded Crimea in 2014?

Since the annexation of Crimea, Russia has asserted control of both sides of the Kerch strait, a highly strategic waterway connecting the Sea of Azov to the Black Sea. On May 16th2018, the construction of a bridge over the strait was completed, joining Crimea and Russia. The bridge is too low to allow large merchant ships through the strait. This greatly restricts access from Ukraine’s eastern ports of Mariupiol and Berdyansk to the Black Sea (and in turn, the Mediterranean). Indeed, between May and August 2018, Russia detained over 140 merchant ships attempting to pass the strait, many of them Ukrainian.

kerch strait

On November 24th, three Ukrainian merchant vessels and 24 crew members approaching the strait were seized and detained by the Russian coast guard for supposedly breaching Russian territorial waters. The Ukrainian Government claimed that the vessels were travelling in shared waters, established under a bilateral treaty in 2003. Ultimately, however, there is very little that the Ukraine government can do on its own to stand up to Russia, having lost up to 80% of its own navy in 2014 when Crimea was annexed. The current Ukrainian President, Poroshenko’s declaration of regional martial law on the 28thNovember did little to stabilise the situation although may well help his public standing ahead of the 2019 presidential election.

Therefore, with such little room for manoeuvre, Ukraine’s declaration of autocephaly was clearly, and rightly, an attempt to stand up to Russia in the absence of more effective political channels. We should, however, expect significant push back from Russia and the Russian Orthodox Church. Many parishes in Ukraine that belonged to the Russian patriarchate are technically owned by the Russian state and Putin has already warned that he is willing to fiercely defend ownership of church property.

It may well be decades until there is a resolution, but for now this is an important victory for Ukraine. It is also a moral victory for the idea of the Ukrainian nation taking its own course independently from Moscow that is likely to help Poroshenko in upcoming elections in March.

The International Response

As well as sending a Royal Navy Ship to the Black Sea, the UK’s Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson visited Odessa in December and made a point of meeting with families of the 24 Ukrainian sailors being held in Moscow. Symbolic actions such as these are incredibly important. Not only do they set an example to the international community but also show Russia that Ukraine will not be left to fend for themselves against Russian aggression.

On 19thDecember the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights presented the findings of its periodic report on the situation of human rights in Ukraine. It was disappointing, while unsurprising, to learn that Russia refused to allow the UN mission into Crimea where reports are emerging of rights violations such as arbitrary imprisonment and suppression of freedom of speech and assembly. In eastern Ukraine casualties are still being incurred from shelling activity and there are no means for civilians to receive compensation for injury or death resulting from the conflict.

In addition to its condemnation of the Russian Federation, the report was clear that many casualties were attributable to Ukrainian government forces. It also highlighted a reluctance in Ukrainian law enforcement institutions to investigate the human rights violations by state actors.

After such a comprehensive, balanced report it was disappointing that the international community had nothing to say on the role of Ukrainian state actors in committing human rights violations. While we cannot allow Russia’s actions to go unchecked, all UN members must be held to similar standards so as not to undermine the legitimacy of our peace-keeping institutions and the very concept of universal human rights.

Sudan violence continues tonight – demonstrators dead

Reports are coming in from desperately concerned NCF members in Khartoum tonight. Demonstrators are besieged in Buri neighborhood at this moment. Seven have been shot dead thus far this evening. Demonstrators sought refuge in the houses of residents but armed militia has been going in after them. Many are being arrested and being tortured, including the mothers of some of the demonstrators.

NCF members in Kahrtoum are appealing for the intervention of the British Foreign Office whom they regard as having a historic responsibility. They are also begging the world’s press to take an interest in the catastrophe in Sudan.

The current demonstrations in the Sudan call for the downfall of the government headed by president Omar Al-Bashir. They have been going on for days now and the government response has been characterised by increasing violence against the peaceful demonstrators.

President Al-Bashir has not responded to the demands of the demonstrators calling those that oppose him, “mice”.

What is astonishing is the low level of interest being shown in the mainstream international media in the events in the Sudan. We do not understand it.

Turkey seeks Hegemony in Syria – but will it risk further invasion?

Mohamad Tawam, Director of Arab London Center for Political Studies and Middle Eastern Affairs, has authored this article. The views he expresses are his own and not necessarily those of the NCF: 

Turkey has supported armed groups opposed to the Syrian government since the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011, The perception of many is that the prime Turkish purpose in so doing has been the establishment of a new Ottoman Empire, with the Muslim Brotherhood as its centrepiece.

But Turkey’s attempt to enhance the authority of the Muslim Brotherhood in Syria has failed. Turkey has rowed back on her ambitions. Turkey now claims its interventions in Syria are defensive, specifically to deal with Syria’s Kurdish separatists, the existence of which, Turkey claims, is threatening the territorial integrity of Turkey.

However, this Turkish claim is not in line with Turkish conduct in the field. Observe Turkish field movements and the Turkish positions in Syria and you cannot help but conclude that Turkey has its own project in Syria and is looking for opportunities to implement it regardless of any position it is publicly committed to it.

Turkey still has ambitions to redraw the borders separating it from Iraq and Syria. The Turks would like to redraw the maps of the three countries so as to allow Turkey to annex the area from southern Mosul to al-Raqqa to the south of Aleppo and to Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur. Turkey’s intention is to redistribute the population in this area and then establish a system of governance and control based on the concept of administrative decentralization and connect the region with the Turkish decision-makers in Ankara. Turkey is intensifying its intervention and is warning that it will not leave Syria until after the Syrian elections.

That is why we see the Turkish position fluctuating. Turkey’s real intention is merely to gain the time needed to implement its own project.

Which begs the question: Can Turkey implement its project and will it succeed in occupying the land to the North East of the Euphrates as it threatens?

There are three key players in the area Turkey now wishes to control: America and the Kurds and ISIS, whilst those affected by the Turkish project, other than of course the central Syrian state, are the Syrian people resident in that region, both Arabs and Kurds.

So what result can we expect of this Turkish project? And what are the ambitions of those affected?

We start with America, whose troops are currently still present on Syrian soil. Prior to President Trump’s recent hasty and perhaps rash announcement that he would withdraw those troops, they were implementing two goals for the eastern Euphrates region:

First they were supporting the Kurdish forces in their separatist project in Syria. Their stated strategy was that the presence of US troops and their support for the Kurds was largely to fight ISIS.

And the second strategic objective was to cut off the land link between the East, i.e. Iran, and the West, i.e. Syria and Lebanon.

However, this strategy undermined Turkish objectives, especially in the case of the Kurds, whose presence in Syria as a fighting force Turkey rejects, particularly on their borders and describes them as terrorists. This in part because Turkey views their  leadership as allied to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which is based in Turkey and Turkey sees as a threat to its security.

Had President Trump not decided to withdraw his troops, this conflict conflict of interest might have meant a confrontation between the US and Turkish forces if Turkey had invaded the remaining area of Syria under Kurdish control.

And yet Turkey has been and remains an ally of America before and after the Kurds. If America finds that the Turkish presence will secure its strategic interests in Syria, it will not need to protect the Kurds in the entire region, a problem of itself because the USA’s widespread deployment in the Middle East requires the use of military bases in Arab nations such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and US support for the Kurds will not help to reassure the Arab population in the Euphrates region who reject Kurdish rule.

Therefore, the most the United States can do in the face of the threat of Turkish invasion is to put pressure on the Turks to prevent it, and prevent its success, and then to protect the withdrawal of the Kurds to their densely populated heartlands, which do not exceed 10% of the area they now control with American support. This would stop America sliding into war with Turkey.

America could then humour both the Kurdish and Turkish parties and maintain its alliance relations with them.

As for the position of the Kurds in the face of the potential Turkish invasion, they do not the capacity to protect the areas they now control. To do so they would need a military force ten times the strength of the one they possess today. If the Kurds think that America will fight Turkey for them, they are labour under an illusion.

The call of some Kurds to the Syrian government to intervene in order to save them may be a mistake. The Kurds are committed to a separatist project in Syria and therefore it makes no sense for the Syrian government to intervene to protect their project.

As regards ISIS, Turkey will not risk entering the rest of the small areas controlled by ISIS in the east of Syria on the border with Iraq. So Turkey, which from the beginning worked in secret with ISIS in Syria, will ensure that ISIS will not be affected by any Turkish invasion.

Therefore, Turkey may see this moment as an opportunity to implement its threat to take control of much of Northern Syria based on its perception that the three parties that control East Euphrates do not have the will to confront Turkey.

If there is an obstacle that prevents or delays Turkey’s attack, it may be that the EU has asked Turkey not to carry out the threat. Or, as both Iran and Russia confirm, that the Turkish operation, if implemented, would be contrary to the understandings reached in Astana.

But the big surprise is the decision of the United States of America to withdraw all its military forces stationed in Syria in a decision announced by President Donald Trump in his twitter.

The withdrawal of US military from Syria is expected to end within a period of 60 to 100 days. This decision was taken by US President Donald Trump, after his telephone conversations with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which took place amid Turkey’s readiness to launch a third military operation In Syria targeting Kurdish insurgents in the east of the Euphrates.

Which means that Turkey may go on a “limited” invasion of the north-east of the Euphrates in a process that will not embarrass the American forces, which will be re-positioned to serve the Turkish targets, while the Kurds will find themselves alone in the field and will return to areas determined by the Americans.

But what is the position of the Syrian government in this regard?

The Syrian government sees every unsanctioned military presence on Syrian soil as an illegal presence, if that presence is not in response to a request from Syria or with its consent. Therefore, the four mentioned above are considered, for the Syrian government, to be an aggressor, an occupier, an outlaw, a terrorist or a separatist.

I believe that the Syrian government is sticking to its list of priorities to liberate Idlib from the armed terrorist groups with Al- Nusra Front first, and to monitor what is going on in the north-east. Turkey will find that its occupation of additional territory will not make it a partner or a friend of Syrian people in the future, and therefore the Turkish invasion would be a reckless leap without practical outcome.

Will Turkey do it? Let’s wait and see.

ISIS is far from finished in Syria

The USA is to pull out of Syria leaving its Syrian Kurdish allies vulnerable to both Turkish attack and attack from the remaining ISIS forces. Tough times ahead for the Syrian Kurds. According to Stafford Clarry, the NCF’s main interlocutor on the ground in the Kurdish region of Northern Iraq, on average 75 ISIS’ attacks are occurring per month in Iraq and Syria, and there are, still, 20,000 to 30,000 ISIS combatants.

However, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” Trump has tweeted.

Who to believe? Now that’s the question.

After Palermo – What Next for Libya?

On the 18thNovember, a conference to discuss the future of Libya was held in Palermo, Italy. The previous conference had been in May, held in Paris by the French President Emmanuel Macron. Elections this December in Libya – a vaunted outcome of the Paris summit – have officially been ruled out by the UN Special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame. This is hardly surprising since the country still lacks electoral law, not to mention violent militia infighting that would likely prevent safe elections. Instead, Salame has claimed that Libya will host a National Conference in early 2019, with elections projected for the spring. He blamed both sides of Libya’s political divide – the Government of National Accord (GNA) in the West and the House of Representatives (HoR) in the East – for trying to postpone a vote while over 80% of Libyans support elections.

Indeed, Libya is still a severely divided country. Rifts between the European powers played out on Libyan soil only postpone an already agonisingly slow UN-led peace process. Italy supports the internationally recognised GNA headed by Fayez al-Sarraj while France (along with Russia, Egypt and the UAE) supports General Haftar in the East, who presides over the HOR. Both are ineffectual rulers. While Prime Minister Sarraj of the GNA has very little influence outside of Tripoli, General Haftar is a law unto himself.

Despite feigned benevolence from the international community, the majority of the powers involved are driven primarily by self-interest. Libya needs fresh political parties its people can get behind, not incompetent governments imposed by the UN or undemocratic war lords. Unfortunately, however, no other Libyan representatives from alternative political parties were invited to Palermo. Many of Libya’s key political factions were excluded, and by key factions we do not just mean the Muslim Brotherhood or the warlord people smugglers. There are plenty of genuine Libyan factions that deserve to be included. If different political parties or blocs are not included in these mediated dialogues, then there is a very little chance that Libya will haul itself out from this political stalemate.

Financial motives of international powers are also hard to separate from the political situation. While the Libyan energy market has thus far been dominated by the Italian energy company ENI (the gas pipeline conveniently lies in the west of the country), the French energy company Total has recently began to expand its shares in the market. Libyan oil is cheap and can easily be exported to Europe, ensuring that vested interests are always attempting to influence Libya’s domestic agenda.

The headlines surrounding the Palmero conference indicated where international attention was truly focused. As the first political initiative of the new right wing populist government of Giuseppe Conti, all eyes were on the presence – or absence – of world leaders at the event. Already on its first day former Italian PM Matteo Renzi deemed the Conference a ‘resounding flop’ as it became evident that the likes of Macron, Trump and Putin were no-shows.

This kind of politicised rhetoric is unhelpful, and draws attention away from the real issues faced by Libya. The GNA has almost no control in the West and relies heavily on militia support. The south of Libya is caught up in fighting between Tuareg and Toubou militias. General Haftar is tightening his iron grip in the east, having seized oil ports from the National Oil Corporation in the summer. Civilians live in a climate of fear and lack basic commodities.

There is a fine line between the necessity for genuine international attention on problems faced by Libya and self-serving intervention by greater powers.  Perhaps next year’s National Conference in Libya will be more inclusive of Libyans themselves, rather than just providing an opportunity for others to show off their diplomatic stature. The international community – as a unified whole –  must support and empower the Libyan people. A solution for peace will not be possible without their total involvement.

Photo above: Fayez Mustafa al-Sarraj, Chairman of the Presidential Council of Libya and Prime Minister of the Government of National Accord.

Bahrain’s Elections

  • Note: The following article by Qasim Abdul-Aziz has been supplemented with additional comment from the NCF Secretary General, William Morris:

Bahrain voted last month in the kingdom’s parliamentary election. Bahrain’s justice minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ali Al-Khalifa, has since announced the first set of results for the country’s elections, with a 67 percent voter turnout in the parliamentary elections and 70 percent in the municipals.

Figures are putting this year’s elections at a higher voter turnout than the previous election in 2014 where voter participation reached only 53 percent. Bahrain also saw a record number of female candidates, with 39 standing election to the House of Representatives and 8 for municipal councils.

Despite this, the election has proven to be controversial. Many, both inside and outside of the country, have decried the election as a ‘sham’ and a ‘farce’ due to the lack of opposition groups. Bahrain’s two main opposition groups – the Shi’ite Al-Wefaq party and the secular Wa’ad party – were both prohibited from submitting their respective parliamentary candidates.

Contrast this with the position at the national elections four years back when, in discussions with the predominantly Sh’ite opposition associated with the “national dialogue” led by the Crown Prince, the opposition was offered a guarantee that it would garner at least 50% of the parliamentary seats. The opposition wanted 50% of the key ministries as well and, when this was denied them, refused to stand. They wanted to bank their gains and stand but the Sh’ite religious leadership of the nation refused to allow them to do so and the leadership of Al-Wefaq was brownbeaten into agreement and withdrew all their candidates.

This of course set the reformists amongst the Sunni leadership on the back foot. Now the neoconservatives had their moment and they took it and political intolerance became the order of the day.

Bahrain is a Shi’ite majority country with a Sunni ruling minority. There are no accurate figures as to the split but it is possibly of the order of 60/40 Shi’ite/Sunni. However, the ruling Al-Khalifa family has overseen a system that favours the Sunni minority in almost all areas of society. Bahrain’s political, social and economic system affords privilege to Sunni citizens – and Sunnis are inevitably prioritised for positions in the police force, the military, and the security service and in general, have higher prospects of employment and wealth.

Bahrain’s Shi’ites have long called for reform, citing grievances disenfranchisement and claiming systemic oppression.

There have none the less been some reforms, particularly of the criminal justice system. And problems such as torture, once sadly commonplace, are now far rarer following the appointment of an effective ombudsman. There is also less imprisonment of young offenders, following the introduction of a groundbreaking restorative justice system similar to that in the Netherlands and way in advance of anything in the UK or USA.

The decision to exclude opposition groups from these elections was however a sad error by the ruling Al-Khalifa family, thereby ostensibly limiting the political sphere and removing any threat to the monarchy. But the reality is that this decision helps reinforce the fractured state of Bahrain and lessens the stability of the nation. Whether the opposition would have stood if they could have stood is another entirely different question and one which we shall now never know the answer to. The leadership of the nation should have challenged the opposition rather than repressed it.

On the plus side, Bahrain should be commended for their relative inclusivity in regard to female participation in these elections, yet strides need to be made for the total inclusivity of all Bahrain’s citizens. In recent years, Bahrain’s government has largely contained dissent from the Shi’ite opposition who had previously staged an uprising and organised mass protests in 2011. The anti-government protests saw scores of people killed, with thousands tortured and arrested. The failure to offer the opposition the chance to stand at these latest elections will have fostered  further discontent. Though the people are less likely to engage in violent mass protest given the failure of that tactic before, low grade terrorism will no doubt continue. The killing of policemen is not a infrequent feature of life in Bahrain. Other actions such as the blocking of roads in the rush hour with burning tires are also commonplace.

The government of Bahrain desperately needs to constructively engage and rebuild their relationship with the Shi’ite populace. Whilst it is true that the country is divided along sectarian lines, it could be argued that this is not to a great extent due to theological differences. Instead the sectarian divide in Bahrain is displayed more through the political, social and economic disparity between Sunni and Shi’ites. Excluding large segments of Bahrain’s population from having a say in their own government is counterproductive and not in the best interests of Bahrain. Perhaps it is time for the old ones to step aside. Bahrain has both the longest serving prime minister and the longest serving opposition leader in the entire world. They are both charming and effective men. Too effective perhaps. They go head to head rather than cooperate for the good of the nation. If Bahrain is indeed concerned about Iranian influence in the region, and in particular amongst its own citizens, enacting social change and addressing the concerns of the people could go a long away to fostering stability.

A start could be made by encouraging an opposition newspaper. Bahrain once arguably had the freest press in the Gulf in so much as it had a respected opposition newspaper – which NOT ONE other Arab monarchy had. It was forced to close last year, an action that marked the low point in Bahrain’s recent history.

Reflections on the saga of Eastern Ghouta

 

At an International Communications Forum / Initiatives of Change meeting on Monday night one of the issues discussed was the credibility of Mid East media with a view (on the NCF’s Secretary General’s part) to reinstating the Media Credibility Index currently defunct other than an offshoot it spawned in Pakistan.  The NCF suggested that if we were to criticise Mid-East media we must take a mirror and look at the credibility of our own media and I cited the Eastern Ghouta issue as an example. Unwise perhaps. You will remember the West bombed Syria because of the alleged use of chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta by the Syrian Government. I was hauled over the coals, quite rightly, by one young journalist for suggesting that because the officers of the Syrian Army denied the use of chemical weapons and because The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons had failed to find any evidence of chemical weapons use in East Ghouta that might mean the story was false. After all the Russians kept everyone out of the place for a week. Or almost everyone. They allowed Robert Fisk of the Independent in but then they trust him because of his previous coverage and his acquaintance with first Hafiz and now Bashar al Assad.

I should not have made my assertion. But there were questions still to be answered and the case remained unproven. The NCF has been closely associated with East Ghouta in recent times and a little back story may help:

Prior to the last NCF delegation to Damascus back at the end of 2016 we were asked by the Kurdish community in London to raise the issue of a Kurdish Damascus University student arrested for putting up Facebook posts that were defamatory of the President. We raised the issue first with the office of the President’s wife (who were very helpful) and secondly directly with Ali Haider, the Minister for Reconciliation. The office of Asma al-Assad carried forward the issue diligently but regrettably could find no record of the boy’s name amongst the names of the inmates of Syria’s prisons. We informed the boy’s family that sadly they should come to terms with the fact that he was now dead. This story may not seem relevant but it will become so because of ramifications this case may have had as you will see if you read on.

Then the rebel held area of Aleppo fell in due course to President Bashar al Assad’s forces. Attention switched to East Ghouta. The siege tightened as the Syrian Army prepared to retake the area. We were concerned. We raised the East Ghouta issue at the United Nations in Geneva (with which the NCF is in consultative status). We promoted a deal whereby the fighters were allowed to evacuate as they had done in Aleppo. We urged that the 500 fighters from the former Gebat al Nusra group should be helped to leave the region and take refuge in the nations in the Arab World that had previously offered them support. This might be better than promoting a series of virtually useless ceasefires (which was what the UN had been doing). The full text of our statement to the UN can be found here. Our interns Jaskirat Mann, Be Sun Lee, and Memuna Hussain, personally lobbied the British, American and Syrian delegations and each and every Arab Ambassador present, one by one. We also conducted a side meeting in Geneva on 2nd March of this year in which we lobbied for the same outcome.

And in due course the policy switched and the evacuation was discussed, not because of our efforts but because there was nothing else left to do. But some of the fighters failed to cooperate. And then we had the alleged chemical weapons attack. Of course the ruthless and remorseless bombing of Eastern Ghouta combined with the collective punishment of the people there through Mediaeval style siege and consequent starvation was indefensible. But there were puzzling aspects to the chemical weapons attack. We set about investigating. We were particularly bothered by one claim that a chlorine gas canister had been dropped through a roof and fallen onto a bed (which was said to account for its remarkably undamaged state), the problem being that the bed did not align with the hole in the roof. The Bellingcat authenticated claim seemed such an obvious fraud that it troubled us. That said to be fair to Bellingcat, they just geolocated some of the open sourced videos from Ghouta and Douma, they did not verify the claims in other respects.

Still, on balance, even though some of the evidence could have been fabricated, some appeared damning and we felt that there had probably been a chemical weapons attack and concluded that if so there was a 75% probability that the Syrian Government were culpable (as opposed to this being a false flag incident).

Perhaps obviously, many friends from the opposition inside Syria were eager to see the Western bombing take place. In any event the West bombed, albeit very modestly. And the rebel fighters left Eastern Ghouta. And as the government advanced many of the male civilians of fighting age who had been unable to flee were carted off to internment camps.

We had been liaising with the civilians inside Eastern Ghouta throughout the fighting during previous months, trying to help if only by giving them another voice from outside to talk to so that they could know their appeals for help were being heard. One particular young man (name withheld) had been our key liaison. He now found himself interred with many others in a camp (name withheld) outside Damascus. It was a frightening situation. He tried to get released but could not but he still, remarkably, had his mobile phone and we could still liaise with him.

The real tragedy of Ghouta is not whether this was a genuine chemical attack but that many thousands have been needlessly traumatised and displaced from their homes.
We tried to get confirmation from friends in East Ghouta that chemical attacks had taken place. One responded, “If you are able bring me with my family to a safe country. I might be able to talk. Or provide statements. All mobile phone are monitored 24/7. Talking politics is prohibited.”

This time we intervened in a more circumspect manner, but intervene we did. And he was not only released from internment but he was allowed by the authorities to select 44 of his co-detainees for release with him. Which was remarkable. The authorities also found him a job. He was of course tremendously grateful and sent us a message to say “I sincerely want to express my gratefulness to you, the Russian officers, and (name withheld) and President Basher Al Assad for their efforts and I greatly appreciate their help to release me and 44 detainees and your help has ended my suffering and fear.”

We doubt whether it was our intervention that effected this release. It was probably the action of someone else. However, our chief interlocutor with the Syrian Military (name withheld) sent us a message at this point and said that he had been contacted directly by one of the commanders of the forces that took Ghouta and that the commander claimed in response to our enquiries that though they had indeed used chemical weapons in a prior instance they had not done so in Ghouta. Your observation might reasonably be “he would say that wouldn’t he”.

However, subsequently it became clear (as the Foreign Office and State Department will no doubt now be aware), that the video of children being doused with water much broadcast on the BBC at the time may have been falsified. There were questions with it from the beginning (the children’s eyes were not red until after they had been doused) but subsequently the little boy that featured prominently was forced to flee with his family and became a refugee and was then extensively interviewed and his story did not corroborate the video (he claimed he had been snatched off the street).

Does it matter any longer whether or not chemical weapons were used in Ghouta? The world has moved on. Possibly not. many of the people of Ghouta suffered death or displacement regardless. Were chemical weapons used? Maybe. But the perspective and judgement of our media may perhaps be clouded by their understandable sympathy for the poor miserable people of Ghouta and all they have endured. We must try hard to maintain our objectivity.

Patrick Cockburn wrote an interesting article in the Independent last week echoing a theme he has returned to again and again talking of the many lies that have changed history and stating that “fake news” has “heightened the perception that information, true or false, is always a weapon in somebody’s hands”.

We must at least be wary.

 

On the killing of Jamal Khashoggi

Writing the introduction to the Next Century Foundation’s Media Credibility Index shortly after the start of the Arab Spring, Jamal Khashoggi explained that he believed there were three clearly distinct eras in the growth of mass media in the Arab and Islamic Worlds. In the middle of the 20th century Cairo and Beirut were mass media and cultural hubs for the Arab and Islamic Worlds. Their dominance was brought to an end variously by factors such as the nationalization of Al Ahram and the Lebanese civil war. The era of the London based Saudi print media partially filled the vacuum that was thus created. But not until the launch of Aljazeera in Doha in 1996 did the Arab World’s mass media truly come of age.

“Wow” I thought. This man is on the button. Jamal was more of an acquaintance than a friend. Other members of my family knew him well, however, and he was close to us. Yes, I thought, the new Arab Media in all of its incarnations from bloggers to broadcasters has become a many headed hydra, almost uncontrollable because of its multi-faceted nature.

But there are those in the corridors of power in Cairo, Riyadh, Tel Aviv and Istanbul that want to restore the old order and re-establish control, those that dislike this new and subversive mass media. But there were also surprising gems of encouragement. For a brief moment in time Bahrain flirted with allowing an opposition newspaper. Kuwait post liberation from Saddam had an extraordinarily free press. And the mass media in Iraq was beyond belief, with more daily newspapers than there were days in the year.

Still the great powers, the giants of the Arab World, wanted to restore the status quo ante. And they set about doing this through creating a climate of fear. New repressive Media Laws were introduced in Cairo and Abu Dhabi that set a benchmark. Others followed these trend setters with enthusiasm. The incarceration of bloggers and tweeters became commonplace for the most minor of offences. And journalists most certainly had to watch their backs facing, at best, tremendous fines in the courts, and at worst, targeted assassination.

Jamal’s Response

Most of us grumbled about this. We did what we could at the NCF. My late father, Claud Morris, believed in the concept of “Peace Through Media” and in tribute to that we established The International Council for Press and Broadcasting (subsequently merged with the International Communications Forum associated with Initiatives of Change) and launched The International Media Awards. We even changed the ethos of the NCF to one of support for Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms in order to better justify our stand for Media Freedom.

Jamal wanted more. He felt the world should not just talk about it but should do something about it. He decided on a scheme whereby you could get round the new Western controls on alternative media. This needs a little explanation. The big media platforms in the Middle East are forums like Facebook and Twitter. We at the NCF launched an ideological Facebook page in Arabic called Al Khawatir (reflections) and found that with a budget of $20 a week and a few ideologically driven interns to write posts we could develop a following of a million a month in unhappy places in the Middle East like Algiers, Tripoli, Cairo, Riyadh, Sanaa or Baghdad.

Facebook was strong everywhere. Twitter was particularly strong in Saudi Arabia and is currently in the ascendancy everywhere, perhaps because it is a favoured method of imparting the thoughts of the great and the good. The under thirties may have started the trend. But Arab politicians like Sheikh Khalid, the current Foreign Minister of Bahrain and influential diplomats like the former Qatar Ambassador to London, Nasser al Khalifa, were quick to build huge twitter followings with their passionate tweets in both Arabic and English and their relationship with their fans.

The difficulty for would be opposition tweeters is the controls that Twitter currently has. They have become necessary of course, to prevent trolls and to stop forms of abuse like one person – or government – holding multiple accounts. So you may not open a twitter account without providing a phone number for verification. A huge problem if you want to say what you think in the Middle East because a phone number can be traced one way or another and you may be subject to arbitrary arrest if you are not a member of the establishment. Or at least you would be frightened of the possibility of arrest.

And along comes Jamal. He sets up a scheme whereby he and a friend in Canada would buy hundreds of sim cards. Then if you wanted to start a twitter account all you would need to do was to message Jamal or his friend by one of the more confidential platforms available, WhatsApp for example. And Jamal’s friend would set up a one-time simcard for you in Canada that you could use to enter for verification of the twitter account and he would send you back the verification code from Canada and the authorities in Saudi Arabia could never trace you.

The Consequence

Of course social media is powerful. Remember the overthrow of President Mubarak in Egypt was largely Facebook fanned and encouraged. The old adage, the pen is mightier than the sword might be rewritten, the pen encourages the sword of retribution. Or rather the finger on the smartphone in today’s world.

Had that been the all of it maybe it could have been overlooked. But that was not the half of it. Jamal was an activist with numerous projects. There was another project with the working title, “Democracy for the Arab World Now”. That too was dangerous.

However, most dangerous of all were his columns in the Post, the Washington Post. Had he been the usual ranting fanatic oppositionist he might just have been ignorable. But he was not. Jamal was considered and thoughtful. He was fair in his analysis and honest but modest in his criticism. He was the most dangerous kind of critic.

The rumour that Jamal had his fingers cut off before he was killed appears to have been apocryphal. But the fact that such a horrific story circulated underscores the savage symbolism surrounding this one man’s death. There were those in the corridors of power who believed Jamal had to be silenced. It had to be done. He was uniquely dangerous.

And it was done. Brutally, cruelly, with Mafia-like ruthlessness. The killing was effective and, arguably, has done what it was expected to do in regard to the repression of freedom of speech.

There has been a cost of course, a cost to the Saudi Arabian establishment, a storm indeed. But perhaps that remains a cost they can bear. The intention may certainly have been to send a more discreet and equivocal message. But the message is what has mattered. People will think twice in future before they kick against the establishment in such a dangerous way. Try to use matches and you may get burned.

Was this unique?

So, is Jamal’s killing worse than other politically motivated assassinations? We have seen it happen again and again. Sometimes the killings are not high profile. The NCF took a press delegation to visit Arafat days before his death and he was fit as flee demonstrating his push ups. I was always convinced he was assassinated and was always bothered by the refusal to allow an autopsy. So often the killings never make the headlines. The snatching of the NCF’s hostage negotiator, Abu Innas, off the sidewalk in Al Adhamiyah Baghdad by the police, never to be seen again. But assassinations are so commonplace are they not? Was Jamal’s killing worse than others. More brutal and brazen than most perhaps. But not of itself worse than others. All murder is evil. State sanctioned murder is worse than evil and those responsible and those complicit by their silence will no doubt face their God someday and have to give account for their behaviour.

But some would conclude that Jamal’s murder may be worse in its outcome because its ripples will mean that freedom of expression is set back. Will it not?

Well I don’t know. Possibly not. Possibly the calls for freedom of speech will be amplified by Jamal’s death. The killing of Jamal has done much to highlight the issue. Now it is up to us to do something to ensure that his death is neither forgotten nor in vain.

A prayer for America at the mid-terms

This came in tonight from Reverend Larry Wright, Convenor of the Religious Affairs Advisory Council:

God of justice, we pray for the people and nation of America at this crucial time.

May the land of the bold and the free give true expression to its highest historic ideals.

A nation divided is a nation brought low; so good Lord, may a state of unity prevail in America, may the prayers and aspirations of millions be answered with hope, and may all that is good and true and just be manifest in the destiny of America, under God; in who we trust.

Amen

Netanyahu’s Surprise Visit to Oman

In a surprising move, for the first time in over two decades, an Israeli leader visited an Arab Gulf state. On Friday of last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a historic visit to Oman, where he was hosted by the ruler, Sultan Sayyid Qaboos bin Said Al Said. The two leaders, accompanied by numerous government and security officials, held meetings in which they discussed pressing regional issues.

Diplomatic relations between the Sultanate of Oman and the State of Israel were initially established in 1994 but were frozen six years later following the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000. As of now, the two countries still have no formal diplomatic relations.

Israel currently has full diplomatic relations with only two Arab countries; Egypt and Jordan. However, it is understood and confirmed by Israeli diplomats, that the state maintains ties behind the scenes with many nations, including those from the Gulf but these have never been publicly or openly acknowledged.

A day after the visit, Oman’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, whilst speaking at the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ 2018 summit in Bahrain, publicly called on the Arab nations to accept Israel as part of the region and for Israel to, therefore, be treated as other regional states and bear the same obligations.

The Palestinian issue has long divided Israel and the rest of the Arab world. But recently, the Palestinian cause has been side-lined by the Gulf states as Israel has warmed relations with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, in a bid to come together in the face of a shared enemy, Iran. Israel has consistently decried Iran’s alleged support of groups such as Hamas in the Gaza Strip (Iran does not in fact support Hamas since Hamas betrayed Iran by opposing Bahar al Assad in Syria) and actual support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and has also vehemently challenged Iran’s nuclear program, viewing the idea of Iran possessing nuclear technology as an ‘existential threat’ to Israel and the greatest threat to the Middle East.

The gradual normalisation of relations between Israel and the Arab world is not something that is sought to benefit the Palestinians or to help resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Instead, it is an attempt to create a bloc with a shared interest that challenges the influence of the Islamic Republic of Iran in the region. Whilst Oman is a neutral party concerning Iran’s presence and role in the region; this marks the first and open step in recent years towards publicly recognising Israel’s growing relationship with the Gulf states, a relationship which no doubt will continue to grow.

Iraq’s New Prime Minister Struggles to complete formation of his Cabinet

The Prime Minister of Iraq, Adel Abdul Mahdi was sworn in on 24 October. This came after months of political indecision and the largest protests Iraq has seen in a decade. To restate the current position: Adel Abdul Mahdi fills the position of Prime Minister, whilst Barham Salih holds the presidency and Mohamed al-Halbousi, the role of speaker. Since 2003, these positions have been held by a Shia, a Kurd and a Sunni respectively. The Prime Minister’s first task was to select the heads of 22 ministries. On 24th October, 14 of these were given the vote of confidence by parliament. However, eight remain to be appointed.

Who is the New Prime Minister?

Like the President and Speaker, Abdul Mahdi is a well respected politician. At 76, he has a lot of experience in Iraqi politics; formerly holding the roles of Minister of Finance and Minister of Oil.  He is also a relatively independent candidate. Not having a particularly strong social base, may weaken Abdul Mahdi’s power in the role. Although, Iraq needs a capable and independent leader who can unite the country internally whilst juggling the opposing needs of the US and Iran.

Who has been appointed? Which positions are left to go?

The 14 ministers given the vote of confidence were:

  1. Minister of Agriculture: Saleh al-Hassani
  2. Minister of Communication: Naim al-Rubaye
  3. Minister of Electricity: Luay al-Khatteeb
  4. Minister of Finance: Fuad Hussein
  5. Minister of Foreign Affairs: Mohammed Ali al-Hakeem
  6. Minister of Health: Alaa al-Alwani
  7. Minister of Housing and Reconstruction: Bangin Rekani
  8. Minister of Industry: Salih Abdullah Jabouri
  9. Minister of Labour and Social Affairs: Bassem al-Rubaye
  10. Minister of Oil: Thamir Ghadhban
  11. Minister of Trade: Mohammed Hashim
  12. Minister of Transport: Abdullah Luaibi
  13. Minister of Water Resources: Jamal al-Adili
  14. Minister of Youth and Sports: Ahmed Riyadh

There were some major criticisms of the new cabinet from different groups. These include, for example, the absence of Turkman and female representation. Parliament will reconvene at a later date to vote for the eight unappointed positions. These include the key roles of Minister of Defence and Minister of the Interior, both of which will be filled by Abdul-Mahdi until they are decided. Those appointed thus far arguably indicate a weakening of Barzani’s influence and a shift towards Iran plus of course a strengthening of the influence of Muqtada Al-Sadr. It also is a reminder if one were needed that the Dawa Party is at a crossroads and must now reform or collapse. That said, the Ministers of Electricity and Oil are decent dependable people and this new government should be given a chance.

What Next for Iraq?

The recent developments have signalled a major step forward, in a country marred by political turmoil since it’s elections in May. However, there is still a lot to be done to solve Iraq’s corruption, unemployment and public utility problems.

The first step to solving these will be to finalise the remaining cabinet positions.