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9517Middle East and North Africa (MENA): News from Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Tunisia, Iraq, Jordan, Iran

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  • Zafar Khan
    Feb 23, 2014
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      SYRIA

      The battle for Homs: No relief in sight for Syrian city where neither side wants to hand the other a victory
      PATRICK COCKBURN Author Biography HOMS Tuesday 04 February 2014

      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/the-battle-for-homs-no-relief-in-sight-for-syrian-city-where-neither-side-wants-to-hand-the-other-a-victory-9107670.html

      The sound of shellfire boomed every few seconds from the besieged Old City. The rebels, surrounded in the densely packed quarter, replied with mortars of their own. Each of them detonated with a sharp crack, shaking the walls of the building I was in, a kilometre from the front line. In between shell bursts the regular chatter of machine guns rang out, lasting for at least six hours before subsiding in the early hours of this morning.

      The intensity of the fighting in the battered city of Homs, which began unexpectedly on Monday evening, was greater than anything the people here had experienced in months.

      The city is one of the centres of the original uprising and has seen some of the most destructive fighting. Even when there is no fighting the city is tense. The streets clear as soon as darkness falls, unlike Damascus where the shops say open late and heavy traffic in the government-held centre does not subside until after 8pm.

      A few hours before the shooting intensified, I spoke to Captain Mohammed, who said his frontline position in the Bab al-Sebaa district was 30 metres from where the rebels were dug in. “We are completely surrounding them. There is fighting every day but they can’t get out.” He guessed that the rebels – whom the government side invariably refers to as “terrorists” – numbered over 1,000 fighters.
      ...
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      The destruction of the idols: Syria’s patrimony at risk from extremists
      PATRICK COCKBURN Author Biography DAMASCUS Tuesday 11 February 2014

      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/science/archaeology/news/the-destruction-of-the-idols-syrias-patrimony-at-risk-from-extremists-9122275.html

      Islamic fundamentalists in Syria have started to destroy archaeological treasures such as Byzantine mosaics and Greek and Roman statues because their portrayal of human beings is contrary to their religious beliefs. The systematic destruction of antiquities may be the worst disaster to ancient monuments since the Taliban in Afghanistan dynamited the giant statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001 for similar ideological reasons.

      In mid-January the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), an al-Qa’ida-type movement controlling much of north-east Syria, blew up and destroyed a sixth-century Byzantine mosaic near the city of Raqqa on the Euphrates. The official head of antiquities for Raqqa province, who has fled to Damascus and does not want his name published, told The Independent: “It happened between 12 and 15 days ago. A Turkish businessman had come to Raqqa to try to buy the mosaic. This alerted them [Isis] to its existence and they came and blew it up. It is completely lost.”

      Other sites destroyed by Islamic fundamentalists include the reliefs carved at the Shash Hamdan, a Roman cemetery in Aleppo province. Also in the Aleppo countryside, statues carved out of the sides of a valley at al-Qatora have been deliberately targeted by gunfire and smashed into fragments.
      ...
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      Syria conflict: An ordinary family, a terrible war
      World View: With jihadis at their door, terrified Maysoun, Nizar, Karim and Bishr reached for grenades rather than face torture and inevitable death at the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra
      PATRICK COCKBURN
      Sunday 9 February 2014

      http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/syria-conflict-an-ordinary-family-a-terrible-war-9117079.html

      It is a terrible story but it throws a grim light on the terrors of the Syrian war. It is told at first in a calm, precise voice by Nusair Mahla, a middle-aged government employee, until he finally has to choke back tears as he speaks of the last moments of his sister Maysoun Hala and her husband Nizar along with their two children, Karim and Bishr. He says that many other Syrians have suffered similar tragedies, but in few cases is it known so precisely what the victims themselves thought about their fate.
      Nusair, a neatly dressed man in a brown suit, says the first he knew about his sister's family being in danger was an early morning phone call. He recalls it came after 6.30am and was from neighbours who said that insurgents, whom he invariably calls "terrorists", had entered the industrial town of Adra 12 miles north of Damascus and were taking hostages. This happened on 11 December when fighters from the al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front, another jihadi group, had captured the main employees' residential complex at Adra using an old sewer to outflank government forces.
      ...
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      Syria air raids kill scores in Aleppo: report
      Third day of barrel bomb attacks on city takes death toll to nearly 150 as regime continues air campaign.
      Last updated: 03 Feb 2014 16:05

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/02/dead-air-raids-syria-aleppo-20142332439419506.html

      [VIDEO]
      Syrian government forces have attacked a number of Aleppo's districts with barrel bombs for a third day, with scores of people killed over the 72-hour period, according to monitor groups and sources.

      The latest attack across the country's second city on Monday killed at least 30, sources told Al Jazeera. Unverified activist footage show children were among those wounded in the attack.

      The attacks took place on Hanano, Sakour, Sha'ar and al-Hedariya districts in Aleppo.

      The bombing adds to a toll of at least 150 people killed in similar attacks over the previous two days, as reported by the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

      Barrel bombs have killed more than 700 people in Syria in the past six weeks. Their use has been denounced as indiscriminate, not least by Western powers at last week's peace talks in Switzerland.

      Sunday's attacks included a wave of barrel bombs in the residential district of Tareq al-Bab. A reported 21 people were killed, including 13 children, according to the observatory. Another 15 died in air raids and barrel-bomb attacks in other areas. The observatory reported 85 deaths to similar attacks on the city on Saturday.

      Western powers proposed a UN Security Council resolution in December to condemn the use of barrel bombs, which they say indiscriminately target civilians.

      But Russia, a staunch ally of President Bashar al-Assad, has repeatedly blocked such plans in the Security Council.

      Once Syria's economic hub, large parts of Aleppo have been devastated by the fighting that began there in mid-2012. The city is split into areas held by regime and rebel forces.
      ...
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      Syrian government accused of 'starve or surrender' policy against civilians
      • US condemns Assad regime tactics in rebel-held cities
      • Geneva eace talks fail to reach any discernible agreement
      Paul Lewis in Washington
      theguardian.com, Friday 31 January 2014 20.49 GMT

      http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/31/syrian-government-starve-or-surrender-civilians
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      Syria wiping neighbourhoods off the map to punish residents – rights group
      Report contains satellite imagery showing seven areas that have been largely or completely destroyed
      Martin Chulov in Beirut
      The Guardian, Thursday 30 January 2014 09.01 GMT

      http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/30/syria-neighbourhoods-residents

      The Syrian government has demolished thousands of buildings, in some cases entire neighbourhoods, in parts of Damascus and Hama, as part of a collective punishment against residents of rebel-held areas, Human Rights Watch has found.

      Satellite imagery taken over both cities has revealed seven areas where neighbourhoods have either been largely destroyed or totally demolished. None of the destruction was caused during combat. Rather, the buildings have been systemically destroyed using bulldozers and explosives placed by troops who first ordered residents to leave, then supervised the demolitions.

      A report released on Thursday morning says the Syrian regime claims that the demolitions were part of an urban planning programme that aimed to remove illegally constructed buildings.

      Human Rights Watch, however, claims the motivations were instead to punish areas that were deemed to be sympathetic to opposition groups. It says the destruction violated international law and the laws of war.

      Claims of widespread abuses have been routinely levelled by the government and the opposition during almost three years of war in Syria, which has killed more than 130,000, displaced close to 8 million, led tens of thousands to disappear and battered the country’s renowned heritage sites. However, the scale of the physical destruction has been difficult to document, with reporting limited by government visa restrictions and the intensity of the fighting.

      “Wiping entire neighbourhoods off the map is not a legitimate tactic of war,” said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These unlawful demolitions are the latest additions to a long list of crimes committed by the Syrian government.”

      Using satellite imagery, the organisation has compiled a dramatic series of before and after shots that it says show 145 hectares, the equivalent of 200 football fields, where the state policy has caused near-total destruction.

      Some demolitions took place near areas such as the Mezzeh airbase and the international airport that the opposition viewed as strategic. While acknowledging that a military response in these areas could be deemed as legitimate, the report claims that the response was disproportionate.

      The Mezzeh and Tadamoun areas of the capital, both opposition strongholds, have been particularly heavily hit, the images show. In Hama, where former president Hafez al-Assad killed tens of thousands of residents and wiped out neighbourhoods over several days in 1982, widespread destruction has again taken place. The satellite images show that the Masha al-Arb’een area has been wiped out. One image, apparently taken while the demolitions were under way, shows part of the area still standing – a grey blob of buildings juxtaposed against a white backdrop of ruins.

      Researchers compiled the report after viewing 15 satellite images and speaking to 16 witnesses to the demolitions, among them homeowners. Government statements, interviews with officials and videos posted to the web depicting the destruction were also used.

      “No one should be fooled by the government’s claim that it is undertaking urban planning in the middle of a bloody conflict, ” said Solvang. “This was collective punishment of communities suspected of supporting the rebellion. The UN security council should, with an ICC [international criminal court] referral, send a clear message that cover-ups and government impunity won’t stand in the way of justice for victims.”

      Nadim Houry, deputy director of Human Rights Watch for the Middle East and North Africa, said: "These are the areas that we were told about by witnesses. There are likely to be other areas, but there are many black holes in Syria where we don't have information. This is likely part of a systematic policy in rebel held areas elsewhere in the country as well.

      "It shows yet again that this is not a one-off act by a commander. This is part of a strategy targeting all opposition-held areas. It is a mirror image of the starvation of people in Yarmouk [refugee camp in Damascus] or in Old Homs. It shows yet again how ready the government is to collectively harm areas of people that are supporting the opposition."

      While the destruction of Syria’s towns and cities during fighting has been well-documented, the eradication of neighbourhoods as a form of punishment or deterrence against supporting the opposition has not been revealed.

      The regime has claimed that all those fighting against it are internationally backed terrorists who have imposed their will on communities, which they then use as bases to hide and stage attacks.

      Opposition-held parts of Aleppo have repeatedly been hit by large ballistic missiles, including scuds, as well as non-conventional high-explosive bombs dropped from helicopters, known as barrel bombs. Such attacks killed 13 people in Aleppo on Tuesday and have claimed more than 300 lives since the start of the year.

      Earlier satellite images have also revealed the scale of destruction in Aleppo, Syria’s second city. A series of shots taken over other towns and cities during the past year has shown a physical landscape changed dramatically by the war.

      Human Rights Watch called for its findings to be referred to the international criminal court and for compensation to be paid to homeowners. It also called for the international community to implement arms embargos that limit the supply of weapons and ammunition to the Syrian government.
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      Syria conflict: Hospitals fill up with wounded soldiers as civil war drags on
      PATRICK COCKBURN Author Biography DAMASCUS Tuesday 28 January 2014

      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/syria-conflict-hospitals-fill-up-with-wounded-soldiers-as-civil-war-drags-on-9091698.html
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      From Syrian prisons to diplomacy in Geneva
      Noura al-Ameer is one of the few opposition representatives in Geneva with front-line experience.
      Basma Atassi Last updated: 25 Jan 2014 22:36

      http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/01/from-syrian-prisons-opposition-spokeswoman-2014125172924280607.html
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      EXCLUSIVE: Gruesome Syria photos may prove torture by Assad regime
      By Mick Krever and Schams Elwazer, CNN
      January 22, 2014 -- Updated 1959 GMT (0359 HKT)

      http://edition.cnn.com/2014/01/20/world/syria-torture-photos-amanpour/

      (CNN) -- A team of internationally renowned war crimes prosecutors and forensic experts has found "direct evidence" of "systematic torture and killing" by the Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, the lawyers on the team say in a new report.
      Their report, based on thousands of photographs of dead bodies of alleged detainees killed in Syrian government custody, would stand up in an international criminal tribunal, the group says.
      CNN's "Amanpour" was given the report in a joint exclusive with The Guardian newspaper.
      "This is a smoking gun," said David Crane, one of the report's authors. "Any prosecutor would like this kind of evidence -- the photos and the process. This is direct evidence of the regime's killing machine."
      Crane, the first chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone, indicted former Liberian President Charles Taylor for war crimes and crimes against humanity. Taylor went on to become the first former head of state convicted of war crimes since World War II. He was sentenced to 50 years in prison.
      CNN cannot independently confirm the authenticity of the photographs, documents and testimony referenced in the report, and is relying on the conclusions of the team behind it, which includes international criminal prosecutors, a forensic pathologist, an anthropologist and an expert in digital imaging.

      The bodies in the photos showed signs of starvation, brutal beatings, strangulation, and other forms of torture and killing, according to the report.
      In a group of photos of 150 individuals examined in detail by the experts, 62% of the bodies showed emaciation -- severely low body weight with a hollow appearance indicating starvation. The majority of all of the victims were men most likely aged 20-40.
      A complex numbering system was also used to catalog the corpses, with only the relevant intelligence service knowing the identities of the corpses. It was an effort, the report says, to keep track of which security service was responsible for the death, and then later to provide false documentation that the person had died in a hospital.
      One of the three lawyers who authored the report -- Sir Desmond de Silva, the former chief prosecutor of the Special Court for Sierra Leone -- likened the images to those of Holocaust survivors.
      The emaciated bodies were the product of starvation as a method of torture, "reminiscent of the pictures of those [who] were found still alive in the Nazi death camps after World War II," he said in a CNN interview.
      "This evidence could underpin a charge of crimes against humanity -- without any shadow of a doubt," de Silva told CNN's Christiane Amanpour. "Of course, it's not for us to make a decision. All we can do is evaluate the evidence and say this evidence is capable of being accepted by a tribunal as genuine."
      Throughout the civil war in Syria, al-Assad's regime has denied accusations of human rights abuses and blamed "terrorists" for the deadly violence.
      The report draws its evidence from the testimony of a Syrian government defector codenamed "Caesar" and almost 27,000 photographs he provided; in all 55,000 such images were brought out of the country.
      According to the report, Caesar worked as photographer in the military police. Once the war broke out, his work consisted entirely of documenting "killed detainees."
      He claimed to have photographed as many as 50 bodies a day.
      At one point he took the unusual step of photographing a group of bodies to show that it "looked like a slaughterhouse," according to the report.
      The fact that all the bodies were photographed, the report's authors say, strongly suggests that "the killings were systematic, ordered, and directed from above."
      "It's a callous, industrial machine grinding its citizens," Crane said to CNN. "It is industrial age mass killing."
      The killings may have been so thoroughly documented as a way of proving each person's death without allowing the deceased's family to see the body, the report suggests. Also, it may have been aimed at proving that "orders to execute individuals had been carried out."
      It is also possible that, far from being a systematic plan to document human rights abuses, the photographing was simply the way it had always been done -- a little-thought-out continuation of a long-time practice.
      The report was authored by de Silva, Crane, and Professor Sir Geoffrey Nice, former lead prosecutor against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.
      Its release comes just days ahead of the Geneva II conference, the latest push for a diplomatic solution to Syria's bloody civil war.
      The lawyers were hired to write the report by the British law firm Carter-Ruck, which in turn was funded by the Government of Qatar, de Silva told Amanpour.
      "Ultimately, the validity of our conclusions turn on the integrity of the people involved," he said. "We, the team, were very conscious of the fact there are competing interests in the Syrian crisis -- both national and international. We were very conscious of that."
      "We approached our task with a certain amount of skepticism, bearing that in mind."
      CNN was referred to Carter-Ruck, and this report, by a Qatari government official, and a CNN producer met in the Qatari capital Doha with the report's authors.
      How Syria talks were derailed before they started
      ...
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      Syria regime's 'industrial-scale killing'
      As delegates meet for peace conference in Geneva, UN says responsible parties "must be held to account".
      Gavin O'Toole Last updated: 22 Jan 2014 14:54

      http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/01/syria-regime-industrial-scale-killing-2014122102439158738.html

      The strength of evidence indicating that Syria's regime has undertaken "industrial-scale killing" of its opponents has been likened to that uncovered by war crimes prosecutors at the Nuremberg trials of the Nazis.

      Former international prosecutors who examined photographs of about 11,000 people killed by Syrian security forces have suggested the last time such compelling evidence of atrocities on this scale was uncovered was at the end of the Second World War.

      United Nations human rights spokesmen have said a report by the three eminent lawyers who assessed the Syrian government images is "extremely alarming", and the US said those responsible for such serious violations in Syria "must be held to account".

      Photographs recording the deaths between March 2011 and August 2013 of people being held by Syrian security forces -mostly young men - formed part of a grim exercise in stock-taking by the government of President Bashar al-Assad to confirm that its opponents had been executed.

      Although the UN and human rights activists have proof of abuses by both Assad's forces and rebels, experts suggest the latest evidence - smuggled out of the country by a defector - is much more detailed and on a much larger scale.

      Professor Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, one of the lawyers who examined the photographs, said he believes the evidence would support findings of crimes against humanity against the Assad government and could support findings of war crimes.

      "If we are correct in judging that this evidence could be put before a tribunal, we start off with a cracking good piece of evidence unusual in its scale," Nice said.

      "It's unusual and surprising - you have got to go back to Nuremberg [to encounter similarly strong evidence] where the Allies had the keys to the archives and, although it may not have been presented in public in a dramatic way like this, had an enormous amount of material that could prove the bedrock of a case that they never needed to prove by live witnesses because the written documentation was enough."

      'Killing machine'

      Professor David Crane, another member of the trio of lawyers who examined the photographs, also drew parallels with the past.

      "We have not seen this kind of documentation since the Nazis and Nuremberg," he said.

      "We don't normally see this in modern international criminal law because we are dealing with atrocities that take place in what I call 'dirty little wars', where the parties are Third World rebels and armies who are not trained.

      "This is very compelling evidence that the Assad regime has an industrial-scale killing machine grinding their own civilians into dust.

      "Here in Syria, we have a systematic killing of civilians in a way that is governmentally sponsored, according to a procedure: We have bodies that show starvation and torture, they are numbered by the intelligence service, by the forensic teams, by the processing teams, they have produced reports compiling the numbers, which they then processed, signed off, stamped and forwarded up the chain in the Syrian government - and we have the individual who took the pictures.

      "You really, frankly, cannot get any better evidence."

      Credible witness

      The images were smuggled out of the country on memory sticks by a former photographer with the Syrian military police - later codenamed "Caesar" - who handed them to the opposition Syrian National Movement.

      The three senior lawyers who scrutinised them were Nice, of Gresham College in London, who prosecuted former Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic; Crane of Syracuse University, who indicted Liberian President Charles Taylor; and Sir Desmond de Silva QC, a former chief prosecutor in Sierra Leone.

      Forensic science experts also examined and authenticated the 55,000 digital images Caesar provided, which together record about 11,000 victims.

      The lawyers judged Caesar "a truthful and credible witness" and their 31-page report stated there was "clear evidence, capable of being believed by a tribunal of fact in a court of law, of systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government".

      The publication of the report coincides with this week's Geneva peace conference organised by the UN that is seeking to find a solution to the Syrian crisis.

      Prosecution?

      For Assad to face trial, the UN Security Council would have to refer the case to the International Criminal Court (ICC) - but this would almost certainly be blocked by Russia, Syria's close ally.

      Syria's government has also sought to cast doubt on the credibility of the photographic evidence because the lawyers' report was commissioned on behalf of Qatar, which has armed opponents of Assad and called for his prosecution.

      But Nice says the evidence of the crimes is so compelling it will be hard for the international community to ignore.

      "This particular piece of evidence is so strong it's going to be embarrassing for the United Nations and the International Criminal Court to do nothing," he said.

      "Even if the witness, or anybody else, fails to refer them to the ICC or to the UN Security Council, they are going to have to take account of it in some way or other.

      "The problem really is that those organisations have shown to be wanting in this type of endeavour, and they are putting political interests ahead of justice and so may very well do absolutely nothing."

      Crane said ultimately the decision to prosecute or not will be political.

      "We have the ability, the jurisprudence as well as procedures and evidence, to prosecute all parties in the tragedy that has taken place in Syria, but at the end of the day it will be a political and diplomatic decision as to what the international community chooses to do related to the rule of law and to properly prosecuting all the parties that have committed war crimes and crimes against humanity."

      But he added behind the politics it was important to remember what the victims had suffered.

      "It doesn't matter whether they suffered more or less - every person in these situations dies horribly, in pain and alone, and so we have to show them respect."
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      Al-Qaeda slaughters on Syria's killing fields
      More than 1,000 Syrians flee al-Qaeda-linked group as they mow down children and behead prisoners in cold blood.
      Isabel Hunter Last updated: 21 Jan 2014 15:31

      http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/01/al-qaeda-slaughters-syria-killing-fields-2014121112119453512.html
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      Syrian refugee girl to marry to pay the rent
      14-year-old promised to landlord in Lebanon after her family could no longer afford to pay the rent.
      Last updated: 15 Jan 2014 09:18

      http://www.aljazeera.com/video/middleeast/2014/01/syrian-refugee-girl-marries-pay-rent-201411563349202804.html
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      Syrian regime air raids kill scores in Aleppo
      Activists report 80 people dead, as northern city is hit by ninth day of regime airstrikes dropping "barrel bombs".
      Last updated: 24 Dec 2013 01:30

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/12/syrian-regime-air-raids-kill-dozens-aleppo-2013122305743259925.html
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      British prisoner Dr Abbas Khan found dead in Syrian jail days before he was due to be handed over to MP George Galloway
      ROBERT FISK Author Biography Tuesday 17 December 2013

      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/british-prisoner-dr-abbas-khan-found-dead-in-syrian-jail-days-before-he-was-due-to-be-handed-over-to-mp-george-galloway-9010003.html

      Despite the outrage of his grieving family and persistent questions from the UK Foreign Office, Syria has so far failed sufficiently to explain the “suicide” of a young British doctor in a Damascus prison - only four days before he was to be released on the personal orders of President Bashar al-Assad.

      The death of 32-year-old Abbas Khan while in the hands of the country's state security police was described by the Foreign Office minister Hugh Robertson as “very suspicious” and “in effect murder”, but it also raises questions about the degree to which Assad commands the loyalty of his own security services after almost three years of civil war.

      The Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad claimed that a government post-mortem examination proved that Dr Khan had hanged himself. But his death in the Kfar Soussa prison near the centre of Damascus, revealed by his family, is a scandal likely to embrace Assad, who had personally arranged that the MP George Galloway should travel to Damascus and take Dr Khan home to London before Christmas.

      Indeed, given the growing belief - in Damascus as well as in London - that Dr Khan was murdered, his “suicide” may well necessitate an explanation from the President himself.

      Dr Khan was arrested by Syrian government forces while working as an orthopaedic surgeon in the Aleppo region in 2012 and was held incommunicado for almost a year.

      His mother, Fatima, who was in Damascus and had seen her son four times in the last four months, was eagerly awaiting his release at the weekend when she received a telephone call from a Syrian official to say that he had hanged himself in prison. His family in London - where Dr Abbas was born - had received a bundle of letters from him in the last few weeks expressing his delight at his imminent release.

      “He was saying, 'I can't wait to be back with you guys',” his sister Sara told me. “He did not commit suicide.” Dr Khan leaves a young wife and two children.

      Even in Damascus, his death elicited expressions of shock and disbelief. Unable to bring herself to identify her son's body, his mother told her family she was leaving Damascus at once for Beirut.

      George Galloway was flabbergasted.

      When I telephoned him, he described Dr Khan's death as “inexplicable”. He had just booked his air ticket to Damascus when he heard the news from Dr Khan's family - and then from the Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister himself.

      “As yet, no satisfactory explanation has been given to me. The idea of a man committing suicide four days before he was to be released is impossible to believe. The Syrian government knows my stand on the war and on [American] intervention.

      ”A Syrian minister called me on behalf of the President to come to Damascus before Christmas and take Abbas Khan home. We need an explanation.“

      A spokesman for the Foreign Office said: ”We are extremely concerned by reports that a British national has died in detention in Syria. We are urgently seeking clarification of this from the Syrian authorities.“

      Quite apart from the grief and outrage of Dr Khan's own family, Syria is now certain to become embroiled in a political crisis that suggests President Assad may not be able to control his own security authorities.

      Dr Khan was a London born doctor and no longer had any political importance - he had been arrested after treating women and children in rebel-held areas of Aleppo well over a year ago - yet he was taken from the Azra prison where he was being held last week to the Kfar Soussa interrogation centre, a jail where inmates are held just after arrest and just before their release.

      A tragedy of this importance - a British citizen whose release has been ordered by President Assad found dead in state security police custody - will require a full explanation not only from the Syrian government but from Assad himself.

      Repeatedly, Assad has claimed that he is solely in charge of Syria, and - despite disquiet among Syrians at his decision to hand over his chemical weapons to the United Nations last summer - nothing has hitherto suggested that Assad's word might be crossed.

      Yet the death of Abbas Khan now raises the possibility that there are those in authority in Damascus who want to challenge the power and prestige of their own President.

      It is clear the Syrians intended to make a conciliatory gesture towards the West by releasing Dr Khan - yet his death suggests there are those who wish to destroy Assad's chances of a reconciliation with Western powers which only a few months ago were set on destroying his regime in a military attack.

      Mr Mekdad has reported that guards visited Dr Khan at 7am to take him his breakfast but that, when they returned to take him for exercise at 9am, he was hanging by his pyjamas. The wife of another prisoner at Azra had told Dr Khan's family last week that he was taken from his cell by national security police who ”wanted to ask him a few questions“ before his release.

      When originally arrested in 2012, Dr Khan was believed to have been severely tortured - or so he managed to inform his family - but later received better treatment.

      Yet his very detention was difficult to explain. He had apparently argued with rebel supporters in Aleppo about the medical equipment he had brought to Syria after crossing the border illegally from Turkey.

      Some thought he should sell the provisions but Dr Khan apparently insisted that they should be given away free.

      Dr Khan's brother, Afroze, was flying to Beirut to meet his mother at the Lebanese-Syrian border. Last week, Afroze did say that he feared for his brother's mental health - but the family explained on Monday that he was referring to Dr Abbas's feelings when held incommunicado, and that this did not refer to his current mental state.

      Afroze had been trying to put pressure on the Syrian authorities to bring forward the date of Dr Abbas's release - although the family realise that this original statement may now be used by others to ”prove“ that Dr Abbas may have taken his own life.

      In private, the family complained at the unwillingness of the UK authorities to make any serious gestures on Abbas Khan's behalf.

      Mrs Fatima Khan had spent weeks in Damascus pleading for her son’s release, even hiring a lawyer to represent him in court. Overwhelmed by a phone call to her hotel asking her to identify her son’s body, she refused to visit the hospital where his remains were held.

      Read more by Robert Fisk on this story here: http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/the-sad-and-curious-story-of-abbas-khan-9010993.html
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      Death toll doubles in 'barrel bombs' attack
      At least 76 people, including 28 children, have been killed by army air raids on rebel districts in Aleppo city.
      Last updated: 16 Dec 2013 08:59

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/12/syrian-army-air-raids-kill-14-children-20131215131325730660.html
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      Amnesty: EU failing Syrian refugees
      EU leaders should "hang their heads with shame" over refusal to provide safe haven for refugees, rights group says.
      Last updated: 13 Dec 2013 12:08

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2013/12/amnesty-eu-failing-syrian-refugees-2013121343621761643.html
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      Snow storm causes misery for Syrian refugees
      Many families living in flimsy shelters are ineligible for help because they are not registered with the UN.
      Last updated: 11 Dec 2013 20:44

      http://www.aljazeera.com/video/middleeast/2013/12/snow-storm-causes-misery-syrian-refugees-20131211192053943925.html
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Syrian air strikes 'kill at least 12' in rebel-held city of Raqqa
      Five children and four women reportedly among the dead as seven air strikes hit city in north-east of country
      Associated Press
      theguardian.com, Saturday 7 December 2013 14.35 GMT

      http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/dec/07/syrian-air-strikes-city-raqqa
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Nearly a century after the Armenian genocide, these people are still being slaughtered in Syria
      And now, almost unmentioned in the media, their holy places are also being desecrated
      ROBERT FISK
      Sunday 1 December 2013

      http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/nearly-a-century-after-the-armenian-genocide-these-people-are-still-being-slaughtered-in-syria-8975976.html
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Syria: 'Unparalleled human suffering'
      UN refugee agency highlights a sobering perspective of the tragedy that has become a reality for millions of Syrians.
      Inside Syria Last updated: 01 Dec 2013 11:39

      http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/insidesyria/2013/11/syria-unparalleled-human-suffering-20131130145655595963.html

      The conflict in Syria that has gone on for more than two years, has caused the world's worst refugee crisis in 20 years - families have been torn apart, entire communities have been ruined, and schools and hospitals destroyed..

      It has killed at least a 100,000 people, and left another 6.5 million Syrians internally displaced.

      "The level of human sufferings that I am witnessing with the Syria crisis is indeed without a parallel with anything else I have witnessed in my own life," says Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

      The UNHCR estimates there are more than two million Syrians who have fled from their homeland. This number takes into account registered refugees as well as those awaiting registration.

      In Lebanon, almost 830,000 refugees have refugee status or are in the process of obtaining it, and over 559,000 Syrians have escaped to Jordan and are known to the authorities there.

      More than 522,000 Syrian refugees are known to have fled to Turkey, while another 207,000 refugees have registered in Iraq.

      Egypt hosts over 128,000 UN-registered Syrian refugees, and another 17,000 have been registered in the rest of North Africa

      The war is also robbing hundreds of thousands of children of a chance to learn and grow in the best possible way.

      "You go to schools where Syrian refugees are and you see that their drawings are mostly of houses being bombed, or people being killed or bodies on ground," says Guterres. "This trauma by violence is the biggest threat for the future of Syria."

      Even in the countries that have given them a new home, Syrian refugee children are not safe. Many are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse because they have to work to provide for their families.

      "Girls are driven to prostitution by their own families. It’s a tragedy," explains Guterres. "One can imagine what these girls would think [for] the rest of their lives even about their families. Sexual harassment is another danger."

      The UN says more than half of the 2.2 million registered Syrian refugees are children, Lebanon has almost 400,000 child refugees, and a staggering 80 percent of them are not at school. Jordan has taken in almost 300,000 children, of which 56 percent are not at school.

      So, what has been the human cost of the conflict that is now in its 30th month, and with no end in sight?

      On Inside Syria, David Foster discusses with Antonio Guterres, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Jordan's Zaatari refugee camp mushrooms as Syrians set up shop
      Markets and schools create vibrant atmosphere, but concerns are growing over the strain on public services in the region
      Mark Tran in Zaatari
      Follow @marktranFollow @GdnDevelopment
      theguardian.com, Monday 18 November 2013 07.00 GMT

      http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2013/nov/18/jordan-zaatari-refugee-camp-syria-shops
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      LEBANON

      Lebanese Sunnis fighting 'holy war' in Syria
      Lebanese man describes his cross-border incursion for "victory or martyrdom" against Assad forces.
      Basma Atassi Last updated: 14 Feb 2014 13:00

      http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/02/lebanese-sunnis-fighting-holy-war-syria-201421394828913798.html

      Tripoli, Lebanon - Abu Huraira is haunted by memories of shells falling from the sky, ripping to pieces people trying to bury their loved ones in a Syrian graveyard. He is unnerved by the mental images of mutilated bodies, and of bones laid bare in his rebel comrades' deep wounds.

      But the 24-year-old Lebanese man is nevertheless planning to return to Syria to fight in the civil war against its government, led by President Bashar al-Assad.

      The muscular man - who follows Salafism, a strict form of Sunni Islam - recalls the bloody battles he fought in the Syrian city of Qusair last summer. Abu Huraira had crossed the border with 16 of his friends to fight against Assad's forces - but more importantly against Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia armed group that sent fighters to boost Assad's troops in Qusair.

      "When Hezbollah openly declared they were supporting the criminal Assad regime in butchering Sunnis, I thought it was my duty to help my brothers in Syria," Abu Huraira told Al Jazeera, sitting at an outdoor coffee shop in his hometown, Tripoli.

      "I travelled to Qusair, then called my mother and told her: 'Either we come back victorious or as martyrs,'" said the man with a bushy red beard.

      Scores of Sunnis from Lebanon, and especially Sunni-majority Tripoli, sneaked into Syria to fight alongside overwhelmingly Sunni rebels in Qusair. Hezbollah, meanwhile, sent thousands of Shia fighters to support Assad's military. The Syrian president and many in his government come from the Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

      'Shia Crescent' fears

      "It was an ideological battle, a holy war. Hezbollah invaded Syria as part of the Iranian-backed plan to form the Shia Crescent," Abu Huraira said, referring to a swathe of the Middle East stretching from Iran to Lebanon, where Shia Muslims are most numerous.

      Many Sunnis worry that Iran, the most powerful Shia-majority country, wants to expand its influence across the so-called Crescent, in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

      Hezbollah, meanwhile, accuses people such as Abu Huraira of being "terrorists" and takfiris, or Muslims who are intolerant of others' religious views. The Shia group says it is fighting the rebels in Syria because they pose a threat to both Muslims and Christians in Lebanon.

      Following months of deadly battles, Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah eventually recaptured Qusair last June, cutting off major rebel supply routes from Lebanon.

      The surviving fighters fled to nearby villages. Of Abu Huraira's friends, only two managed to return to their homes in Lebanon. The rest either died or moved on to fight in other parts of Syria. Abu Huraira left Qusair with wounds to his arm and knee, but said it was psychological exhaustion that forced him and his fellow fighters to withdraw.

      "Hezbollah went into Syria under a heavy cover of shelling by the Syrian regime," he said. "We could not help the injured screaming in pain. Some were begging us to shoot them dead to stop their misery, but we asked them to be patient. People were dying as they dug the graves of their friends. The situation was unimaginable."

      'Religious duty'

      About 30 fighters from Tripoli died fighting in Qusair, according to Sheikh Salem al-Rafei, a prominent cleric in the city and staunch supporter of Syria's rebels. It is a relatively high number for a city such as Tripoli, with a population of more than 500,000.

      Initially, Lebanese who sympathised with the rebels went to Syria on their own accord. But during the Qusair battles, clerics led by Rafei called on people to cross the border to fight Assad's forces and Hezbollah, and coordinated the entry of three battalions into the war-torn country.

      "Before Qusair fell, we saw videos of civilians there asking for rescue. It was a religious duty to fight in Syria," Rafei told Al Jazeera from his home in Tripoli.

      But unlike the well-trained Iranian-backed Hezbollah fighters, the Sunni fighters were disorganised, lacking strong leadership and sustained funding.

      Abu Huraira, who had worked as a hospital security guard before going to Syria, had to buy his own gun. After he was wounded, he struggled to cover the cost of surgery.

      "Hezbollah, on the other hand, takes care of its members," he told Al Jazeera. "When one of their fighters travels to Syria, they take care of his family and if he is injured, they provide him with the best healthcare."

      Abu Huraira, who initially had little fighting experience, began manning a rebel checkpoint in Qusair and later developed skills to attack military positions and join the fighting on the frontlines. He has several photos and videos on his phone, showing him scrambling over a captured tank and posing with a gun.

      Seeking revenge

      Other than his declared ideological motivation for going to Syria, Abu Huraira was also seeking revenge. His hatred against the Syrian government goes back to the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s, when Syrian troops - sent by Bashar's father Hafez al-Assad and aided by local Alawites in Tripoli - crushed Sunnis seen as being close to Palestinian groups fighting in Lebanon.

      Abu Huraira's father, who was a member of an armed group called the al-Tawheed al-Islami Movement, was killed at a Syrian checkpoint in Tripoli in the early 1990s.

      "As Sunnis, we lived through the injustice and criminality of the Syrian regime ourselves, so we know what Syrians are facing now. This is why we cannot live unmoved by what is happening there," he said.

      Many Lebanese Sunnis in Tripoli say they feel alienated in their own country, and have developed stronger ties to Sunnis in Syria's border towns, rather than with more secular Sunnis living in Lebanon's capital, Beirut.

      After Lebanon's 15-year-long civil war ended in 1990, successive governments focused on rebuilding and investment in Beirut, leaving other cities struggling with poverty and unemployment.

      "When I go to Beirut I find people scared of my beard, even people in Sunni neighbourhoods. I struggle to find a bearded man or a niqabi [veiled] woman. But in Qusair, I felt I was in my own environment. I feel that they are Muslims," Abu Huraira said.

      He is preparing to go back to Syria next week. Despite his aching knee, he plans to cross Lebanon's Bekaa Valley into Qalamoun, a border area where clashes are raging between rebels and Syrian troops backed by Hezbollah.

      "I will go to any place in Syria where Hezbollah is fighting so I can fight them back," he told Al Jazeera. "I am a terrorist and an infidel to Hezbollah. There is no flattery and concessions. I will fight them till the very end."
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Al-Qaeda-linked groups expand into Lebanon
      Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIL say they have set up in Lebanon, with Jabhat vowing to confront the Shia group, Hezbollah.
      Last updated: 26 Jan 2014 10:46

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/01/al-qaeda-group-says-lebanese-shia-are-targets-201412643312606443.html

      Two Sunni group with links to al-Qaeda fighting in Syria have announced their presence in Lebanon, with one saying all strongholds of the Shia group Hezbollah are "legitimate targets" for attack.

      Jabhat al-Nusra in Lebanon - an affiliate of al-Qaeda's branch in Syria - said in a statement on Sunday that "Iran's party [Hezbollah] and all its bases and... bastions are legitimate targets for us, wherever they are."

      The group warned Sunnis against "approaching or residing in or near [Hezbollah's] bases, and avoid gathering around its meeting points."

      That declaration followed a recording on Saturday by a previously unknown figure who announced the creation of a Lebanese arm of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), which is fighting in Syria and Iraq.

      In the recording, Abu Sayyaf al-Ansari swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Iraqi leader of ISIL, which has its roots in the group that called itself al-Qaeda in Iraq.

      "We pledge allegiance to the prince of the believers, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi... and we ask him to guide us past the obstacles, and make us your spearhead in crushing your enemy, and not a single man among us will hold back in helping you," said Ansari, in a translated report provided by the AFP news agency.

      Previous attacks

      The statements come three days after Jabhat said it carried out a car bomb attack in Beirut's southern suburbs that killed four people. It also earlier said it carried out a deadly car bomb attack in the heart of Hermel town in eastern Lebanon, which killed three people.

      It was the sixth in a string if attacks targeting Lebanese areas dominated by Hezbollah since the Shia group sent fighters into neighbouring Syria to support the troops of President Bashar al-Assad against rebel forces.

      In response to the ISIL statement, the former prime minister of Lebanon, Saad Hariri, said that the country's Sunnis refused to be a part of any conflict between al-Qaeda and Hezbollah, and denounced sectarian attacks on civilians.

      "Every sane and patriotic Lebanese, of any sect, will refuse to be dragged behind these calls, as he refuses Hezbollah's war in Syria," Hariri said.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      EGYPT

      How did 37 prisoners come to die at Cairo prison Abu Zaabal?
      Last August, outside Abu Zaabal, 37 prisoners trapped in the back of a van were allegedly gassed to death having been held for six hours in temperatures close to 40C. Patrick Kingsley talks to the survivors and, for the first time, reveals their side of the story
      Patrick Kingsley
      The Guardian, Saturday 22 February 2014

      http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/feb/22/cairo-prison-abu-zabaal-deaths-37-prisoners

      Some time after midday on Sunday 18 August 2013, a young Egyptian film-maker called Mohamed el-Deeb made his last will and testament. It was an informal process. Deeb had no paper on which to sign his name and there was no lawyer present. He simply turned to the man handcuffed next to him and outlined which debts to settle if he should die, and what to say to his mother about the circumstances of his death.

      Deeb had good reason to fear for his life. He was among 45 prisoners squashed into the back of a tiny, sweltering police truck parked in the forecourt of Abu Zaabal prison, just north-east of Cairo. They had been in the truck for more than six hours. The temperature outside was over 31C, and inside would have been far hotter. There was no space to stand and the prisoners had had almost nothing to drink. Some had wrung out their sweat-drenched shirts and drunk the drops of moisture. Many were now unconscious.

      Most of the men inside that van were supporters of Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first elected president. Squashed against Deeb was Mohamed Abdelmahboud, a 43-year-old seed merchant and a member of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood.

      Following four days of mass protests against his year-long rule, the army had overthrown Morsi and the Brotherhood in early July. In response, tens of thousands of people camped outside the Rabaa al-Adawiya mosque in east Cairo to call for the president's reinstatement. Within a week, the space outside Rabaa turned from an empty crossroads to a sprawling tent city that housed both a market and a makeshift field hospital. At Rabaa's centre was a stage where preachers led prayers and firebrands spouted sectarian rhetoric. At its edges were a Dad's Army of badly equipped guards, dressed in crash helmets and tae kwon do vests, standing before a series of walls built of stones ripped from pavements. From behind these barricades, two or three times a day, protest marches would snake into nearby neighbourhoods, blocking major thoroughfares and paralysing much of the city. Clashes between armed police and protesters claimed more than 170 lives.

      For Islamists, Rabaa was one of the last remaining symbols of freedom. But for the millions who opposed Morsi, it was a hideout for violent extremists who were holding the country to ransom. Confrontation became inevitable. On Wednesday 14 August, some time after 6am, police and soldiers surrounded the camp, which still contained thousands of women and children. In the 12-hour operation that followed, more than 900 protesters were shot dead, many by sniper fire. A group of armed protesters fought back, killing nine policemen, according to Human Rights Watch. But they were vastly outnumbered. As police locked down the streets around the camp, they arrested thousands – not just Morsi supporters, but also dozens of residents and workers caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.

      On Sunday 18 August, Professor Gamal Siam, an economist at Cairo University, arrived at the office of Egypt's chief prosecutor, Hisham Barakat. His oldest son, Sherif, had been arrested the previous Wednesday, during the crackdown at Rabaa. But there had been a mistake, his father told the chief prosecutor, and he needed help.

      Sherif Siam was not a member of Morsi's Muslim Brotherhood, nor even a Morsi supporter. Sherif had said on Facebook that the president's overthrow had been not a coup, but a revolution. Certainly, he had visited the camp at Rabaa al-Adawiya two or three times, but he'd been to anti-Morsi marches, too. When the news broke of the Rabaa camp's dispersal, his father said Sherif went down to help the wounded.
      ...
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Egypt's Sisi 'to run for president'
      Field Marshal Abdel Fattah el-Sisi confirms his intention to run in upcoming presidential poll, Kuwaiti media reports.
      Last updated: 06 Feb 2014 00:06

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/02/egypt-army-chief-confirms-presidential-bid-201425225057233402.html
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Nile Delta disappearing beneath the sea
      The breadbasket of Egypt is at risk of ruin from salinisation and rising sea levels.
      Cam McGrath Last updated: 01 Feb 2014 13:54

      http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2014/01/nile-delta-disappearing-beneath-sea-201412913194844294.html
      El Rashid, Egypt - It only takes a light covering of seawater to render land infertile, so Mohamed Saeed keeps a close watch on the sea as it advances, year after year, towards his two-hectare plot of land. The young farmer, whose clover field lies just 400 metres from Egypt's northern coast, reckons he has less than a decade before his field - and livelihood - submerges beneath the sea.

      But even before that, his crops will wither and die as seawater infiltrates the local aquifer. The process has already begun, he says, clutching a handful of white-caked soil.

      "The land has become sick," says Saeed. "The soil is saline, the irrigation water is saline, and we have to use a lot of fertilisers to grow anything on it."

      Spread over 25,000 square kilometres, the densely populated Nile Delta is the breadbasket of Egypt, accounting for two-thirds of the country's agricultural production, and home to 40 million people. Its northern flank, running 240 kilometres from Alexandria to Port Said, is one of the most vulnerable coastlines in the world, facing the triple threat of coastal erosion, saltwater infiltration, and rising sea levels.
      According to Khaled Ouda, a geologist at Assiut University, a 30-centimetre rise in sea level would inundate 6,000 square kilometres of the Nile Delta. The flooding would create islands out of an additional 2,000 square kilometres of elevated land - isolating towns, roads, fields, and industrial facilities.

      "The total [area of the Delta] expected to be impacted by a rising of the sea level by one metre during this century will be 8,033 square kilometres, which is nearly 33 percent of the total area of the Nile Delta," says Ouda.
      ...
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Egypt charges 20 Al-Jazeera journalists with belonging to Muslim Brotherhood
      Journalists charged with fabricating news reports and tarnishing Egypt's reputation include ex-BBC correspondent Peter Greste and Mohamed Fahmy
      Patrick Kingsley in Cairo
      theguardian.com, Wednesday 29 January 2014 16.01 GMT

      http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/29/egypt-prosecutors-charge-20-aljazeera-journalists
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      Egypt: protesters killed on anniversary of anti-Mubarak revolt
      At least 54 reported dead in clashes across the country as thousands also rally in support of army-led authorities
      Patrick Kingsley in Cairo and agencies
      theguardian.com, Saturday 25 January 2014 15.58 GMT

      http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jan/25/egypt-protesters-killed-mubarak-cairo-tahrir-square
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      TUNISIA

      Tunisia signs new constitution into law
      Charter may be one of the last steps to full democracy after the 2011 uprising that sparked the Arab Spring.
      Last updated: 27 Jan 2014 20:55

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/africa/2014/01/tunisia-assembly-approves-new-constitution-201412622480531861.html

      [VIDEO]
      Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki and the head of the National Assembly have signed the country's new constitution, officially adopting a charter that is one of the last steps to full democracy after a 2011 uprising.

      "With the birth of this text, we confirm our victory over dictatorship," Marzouki said in a speech to the assembly on Monday, before signing the document which he embraced, waving the victory sign.

      "Much work remains to make the values of our constitution a part of our culture," he added.

      The country's national assembly had on Sunday approved the new constitution, three years after the overthrow of the North African country's long-time ruler Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.

      The vote by an overwhelming majority of assembly members marks another crucial step to getting the democratic transition back on track in the birthplace of the Arab Spring.

      It came close on the heels of an announcement by Mehdi Jomaa, the prime minister, of a new caretaker cabinet to govern the country until elections.

      The new constitution, seen as one of the most progressive in the region, guarantees equal rights for men and women.

      It also demands that the state protect the environment and tackle corruption.

      Executive power is divided between the prime minister, who will have the dominant role, and the president, who retains important prerogatives, notably in defence and foreign affairs.

      Islam is not mentioned as a source of legislation, although it is recognised as the nation's religion and the state is committed to "prohibiting any attacks on the sacred", while freedom of conscience is guaranteed.

      Earlier, members of parliament amended three articles in the draft text, before ratifying changes to the rules of the assembly's confidence vote, to facilitate the appointment of the caretaker cabinet which must win parliamentary backing.

      But there has been criticism that the constitution has not banned the death penalty. There are also restrictions on freedom of speech, and attacking religion and accusing people of being nonbelievers is illegal.

      Technocrats appointed

      In the new government, Hakim Ben Hammouda, an economist with experience at the African Development Bank, will be the finance minister while Mongi Hamdi, a former UN official, will be the foreign minister.

      Jomaa, a technocrat, was appointed in December after the ruling Islamist Ennahda party agreed to step down in a deal with secular opponents to end a political crisis.

      "The objective is to arrive at elections and create the security and economic climate to get out of this crisis," Jomaa said in Tunis.

      Tunisia's progress to approve a new constitution stands in contrast to turmoil in Libya, Egypt and Yemen which also toppled leaders in 2011 uprisings.

      Al Jazeera's Nazanine Moshiri, reporting from Tunis, said Tunisians see Jomaa as a unifier - someone who can hold the country together until new elections are held.

      "All these political wrangling seems to be over for now," she said.

      No date has been set for elections though they are due this year.

      One of the most secular countries in the Arab World, Tunisia struggled after its 2011 revolt with divisions over the role of Islam and the rise of ultra-conservative Salafists, who secularists feared would try to roll back liberal rights.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~


      IRAQ

      Iraq slammed for women prisoners abuse
      A report issued by Human Rights Watch documents torture, sexual assault and other forms of abuse against female inmates.
      Last updated: 06 Feb 2014 07:10

      http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/02/iraq-slammed-women-prisoners-abuse-2014266210160324.html

      Iraqi authorities are detaining thousands of women illegally and subjecting many to torture and ill-treatment, including the threat of sexual abuse, Human Rights Watch has said.

      Many women were detained for months or even years without charge before seeing a judge, HRW said in a report on Thursday, and security forces often questioned them about their male relatives' activities, rather than crimes they themselves were believed to have committed.

      In custody, women described being kicked, slapped, hung upside-down and beaten on the soles of their feet, given electric shocks, threatened with sexual assault by security forces during interrogation, and even raped in front of their relatives and children.

      "The abuses of women we documented are in many ways at the heart of the current crisis in Iraq," said HRW's deputy Middle East and North Africa director Joe Stork in a statement accompanying the report, 'No One Is Safe': Abuses of Women in Iraq's Criminal Justice System.

      "These abuses have caused a deep-seated anger and lack of trust between Iraq's diverse communities and security forces, and all Iraqis are paying the price."

      A spokesman for Iraq's Human Rights Ministry said the testimonies in the HRW report were "over-exaggerated", but acknowledged that "we have some limited illegal behaviours which were practised by security forces against women prisoners", which it said had been identified by the ministry's own teams.

      These teams had referred their reports to the relevant authorities, "asking them to bring those who are responsible for mistreating female detainees to justice", the spokesman said.

      "Iraq is still working to put an end to prison abuse and, with more time, understanding of law and patience, such illegal practices will become a history," he said.

      Coerced confessions

      The report is based on interviews with imprisoned Sunni and Shia women and girls, although Sunnis make up the vast majority of the more than 4,200 women detained in Interior and Defence Ministry facilities, HRW said.

      The release of women detainees was a main demand of Sunnis who began demonstrating late in 2012 against the Shia-led government, which they accuse of marginalising their community.

      One woman who entered her meeting with HRW at a death row facility in Baghdad on crutches said she had been permanently disabled by abuse, displaying injuries consistent with the mistreatment she alleged including nine days of beatings, electrical shocks and other forms of abuse that left her disabled.

      Seven months later, she was executed despite lower court rulings that dismissed charges against her following a medical report that supported her accusations of torture.

      HRW described Iraq's judiciary as weak and plagued by corruption, with convictions frequently based on coerced confessions, and trial proceedings that fall far short of international standards.

      If women are released unharmed, they are frequently stigmatised by their family or community, who perceive them to have been dishonoured, HRW said.

      "Both men and women suffer from the severe flaws of the criminal justice system. But women suffer a double burden due to their second-class status in Iraqi society," HRW said.
      ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

      ROBERT FISK
      Monday 27 January 2014
      Confessions beaten out of ‘suspects’, executions by the hundreds... How different is justice in today’s Iraq from the era of Saddam?
      The presumption of guilt is just one of Saddam's creation that has outlived the dictator

      http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/confessions-beaten-out-of-suspects-executions-by-the-hundreds-how-different-is-justice-in-todays-iraq-from-the-era-of-saddam-9086297.html

      Saddam is Dead! Long live Saddam! And glancing through the grisly list of executions which the new, free, democratic, American-constructed Iraq has carried out – about 500 all told, and rising – Saddamism is flourishing in the land of the two rivers. Last year alone, 1,200 men and women were on death row, most of them sentenced after the usual pre-trial confessions under torture. In fact their court appearances were preceded, in many cases, by television interviews in which they admitted to their “crimes”. And sure enough, another 26 “terrorists” were executed in Baghdad last week as the country’s Shia Muslim prime minister tried to smother the Sunni revolt against him.
      All too truly does the British lawyer Akhtar Raja speak when he tells journalists that “the tradition of relying on confessions in court is deeply rooted in the Iraqi psyche”. This is another of Saddam’s creations that has passed on seamlessly to his elected successors: the presumption of guilt. When a villainous rogue appeared on Iraqi television in the days of the Great Leader, did anyone dare to imagine that the man was innocent? So too today. “When you go to Iraq and talk to people there, even liberal, well-educated people who you’d think would say the opposite, they seem to think it’s perfectly all right to have these confessions,” Raja says. He is being too kind. Many Iraqis tell me that they insist on capital punishment, even if there is a chance the victim is innocen<br/><br/>(Message over 64 KB, truncated)