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Middle East and North Africa (MENA): News from Syria, Bahrain, Lebanon, UAE

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  • Zafar Khan
    SYRIA Syria: Violence in the dark Tales of imprisonment and torture by state security forces paint a picture of a regime in panic. Evan Hill Last Modified: 29
    Message 1 of 1 , Jul 31, 2011

      Syria: Violence in the dark
      Tales of imprisonment and torture by state security forces paint a picture of a regime in panic.
      Evan Hill Last Modified: 29 Jul 2011 14:29


      When widespread protests broke out in Syria in March, President Bashar al-Assad's regime turned to its feared security services to smother the anti-government movement.

      The bloody response has so far succeeded where other attempts to put down the "Arab awakening" have failed, and President Assad remains in power.

      Verifying the toll of the crackdown is difficult, since the government has banned most journalists and observers, but activists and researchers say more than 10,000 people have been detained and at least 1,500 killed since March. A response of proportional size in the United States, by way of comparison, would have meant more than 136,000 people detained and 20,450 killed.

      At least 66 people are believed to have died while in the custody of Syrian authorities, according to a list provided by activists to Human Rights Watch researcher Nadim Houry in June.

      Outside audiences have encountered the regime's brutal response primarily through grainy YouTube footage and second-hand accounts relayed by expatriate activists.

      These brushstrokes paint a useful yet broad picture: a dozen people killed in this city, a thousand people protesting in that city.

      But first-hand accounts from those who have been through the packed cells of Assad's jails or those who have come under gunfire from his troops offer a more personal understanding of the uprising.

      Recently, Al Jazeera spoke with six men, three of whom were in Syria, and three of whom had left the country. All had been arrested or seen relatives suffer at the hands of the security services.

      Their stories, which are available below, portray a violent state system in a spasm of panic, unsure of what it is confronting, yet nevertheless determined to crush it.

      Syrian tanks storm city of Hama
      At least 45 reportedly killed as army enters western city, day after activists reported six dead in city of Deir ez-Zor.
      Last Modified: 31 Jul 2011 10:03


      At least 45 civilians have reportedly been killed and dozens of others wounded after Syrian tanks stormed the city of Hama, shooting indiscriminately, residents said.

      The attack on Sunday morning came nearly a month after Syrian forces besieged the city, following some of the largest demonstrations against Bashar al-Assad's rule since protests began in March, the Reuters news agency reported.

      One of the residents, a doctor who did not want to be further identified for fear of arrest, told Reuters that the tanks were attacking from four different direction and "firing randomly".

      "They are firing their heavy machine guns randomly and overrunning makeshift road blocks erected by the inhabitants," he said by phone, the sound of machine gun fire crackling in the background.

      He said that there were 51 people wounded at Badr hospital alone, which was running short of blood for transfusions. He said tanks had surrounded another main hospital, al-Horani.

      Another resident said snipers had climbed onto the roofs of the state-owned electricity company and the main prison, and that electricity had been cut in eastern neighbourhoods.

      Assad is attempting to crush an uprising against his 11-year rule that broke out in March, inspired by "Arab Spring" revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, and has spread across the country.

      Syrian authorities have expelled most independent journalists, making it difficult to verify reports of fighting.

      Hama was the scene of a massacre in 1982 when Assad's father, the late president Hafez al-Assad, sent his troops to crush an Islamist-led uprising, razing whole neighbourhoods and killing up to 30,000 people in the bloodiest episode of Syria's modern history.

      Syrian protests and state violence expected to escalate during Ramadan
      Activists predict street demonstrations rather than quiet reflection will mark the Islamic holy month this year
      Nour Ali in Damascus
      guardian.co.uk, Friday 29 July 2011 19.15 BST


      It is usually the month of reflection and prayer, laying low in the heat of the day, before gathering to watch soap operas and feast as dusk falls.

      But this year Ramadan is anticipated in Syria for different reasons: as an opportunity to intensify protests against Bashar al-Assad, despite fears the regime may fight back even harder.

      Activists intend to exploit the increased daily attendance at mosques, which have over the past five months acted as gathering points for protests following Friday prayers. Many who do not regularly attend mosque do so during Ramadan, when prayers are believed to carry more weight that at other times of year.

      "It's become a cliche to say it will be like Friday every day as people gather for prayer, but it will be," said a former political prisoner who has strong links to the Sunni community, speaking in his house in Damascus. "Pressure on the regime will increase from more frequent protests and more people coming out."

      On Friday, the last before Ramadan, at least nine people were killed as thousands defied a heavy security presence to take to the streets, including in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor, where deaths were reported earlier in the week.

      Ramadan, the lunar month when people fast and show their devotion to Allah in one of the five pillars of Islam, is usually a quiet time. Business grinds to a halt, with people struggling to get through the heat of the day without water. But they do go to the mosque more often, especially for tarawih, the the special nightly prayers.

      In anticipation, protesters in the city of Hama have chanted: "Our God, help us to fast and pray … and topple the regime." They hope sheikhs, some of whom have taken a central role in backing protesters from the early days when an imam, Ahmed Sayasna, came out against Assad in the protest hub of Deraa, may help to rally people if violence, which has left 1,600 civilians dead, escalates during the holy month.

      Not only do tempers flare and people become more emotional, said one activist, sitting in front of a whirring fan in the midday heat, but the security forces will be annoyed.

      "Ramadan means shorter working hours when people can rest, while the security forces and army will be tired and morale will be low because they should be home with their families," he said.

      Protesters have already started to demonstrate under cover of darkness, when the security forces cannot target them so easily. "We know our streets better than them," said the activist.

      Anger may also rise for spiritual as well as material reasons. Ramadan is a time for spending, especially for the Eid festival when decorations go up and new clothes are bought, but it is also a time of rising price. The cost of basics have shot up in the past month.

      And it is a time to sit back and reflect.

      "You have so much time to sit and think," said a father of three, who has become more opposed to the regime since his wife was insulted at a security checkpoint. "I think we will all be thinking what we should do," he said, followed with a quick prayer to God.

      The country is becoming increasingly polarised. As one young professional in Damascus put it: "The friends I went out with last year are not the ones I will dine with this year."

      He adds that he can no longer discuss politics with his brother, an official. "Friendship circles have shifted."

      He added: "People are coming together but they are also being torn apart … Ramadan will test that. I can imagine families expecting their sons at home when all they want to do is go out on the street."

      Security forces have carried out more raids and arrests this week in a sign that the regime is becoming increasingly agitated, attempting to scare people into submission before Monday.

      Activists report some mosques being closed for renovation and people being stopped from attending dawn prayers in the Damascus neighbourhood of Midan on Friday. Sermons by the state-backed clergy are expected to be influenced far more than usual.

      Trying to prevent worshippers attending mosque will only provoke more anger, said the former political prisoner. The conflict could also take on increasingly religious dimensions. The regime is by no means solely Alawite but the majority of security forces are. Many Sunnis do not regard the Alawites as Muslims. Any killings during Ramadan could trigger a sense of injustice at the regime's ruling and religious heterodoxy, galvanising more people to the cause.

      Nour Ali is the pseudonym of a journalist in Damascus

      Deaths in Syria mass protests
      Rights group say security forces killed at least 20 people as it continued its crackdown on protests across the country.
      Last Modified: 30 Jul 2011 06:11


      Syrian protesters 'forcibly disappeared' at rate of one every hour, say activists
      Regime accused of holding 2,918 people in secret, while thousands of others are forced to flee
      Martin Chulov
      The Guardian, Thursday 28 July 2011


      Syria passes law to allow political parties
      The concession by Assad to quell anti-government protests is blasted by opposition as symbolic and far too late.
      Last Modified: 25 Jul 2011 18:44


      Mass Syrian protest against Assad regime adds to death toll
      Hundreds of thousands demonstrate as security forces kill at least 11 people with president rumoured to call elections
      Nour Ali in Damascus and Ian Black, Middle East editor
      guardian.co.uk, Friday 22 July 2011 21.28 BST


      Protesters killed amid huge Syria protests
      Security forces blamed for more killings of civilians as mass demonstrations are held to show support for Homs.
      Last Modified: 22 Jul 2011 20:27


      Qatar breaks Arab ranks over Syria
      Ian Black: While most Arab states sit on the fence, Qatar is standing up to Damascus over an attack on its embassy


      Reports: Syrian security forces shelling Homs
      Videos show troops attacking densely populated parts of country's third largest city with tank shells and machine guns.
      Last Modified: 21 Jul 2011 19:17


      'Death squads' on streets of Homs
      Residents describe armed groups firing indiscriminately and 13 killed overnight in Syrian city, activists say.
      Last Modified: 19 Jul 2011 11:52


      Syrian troops storm border town
      Troops enter Zabadani, near Lebanon border, rounding up protesters amid more deaths in clashes in Homs, activists say.
      Last Modified: 17 Jul 2011 15:34


      Protesters shot dead on Syrian day of defiance
      Activists say a million people protested and 19 people were killed in clashes in Damascus and other cities
      Martin Chulov in Beirut and Nour Ali in Damascus
      guardian.co.uk, Friday 15 July 2011 20.20 BST


      Syria's Christians fearful of future
      As protests rage on, many in the community are concerned about the possible future influence of Islamist groups.
      Last Modified: 13 Jul 2011 19:58


      Syrians find sanctuary in Jordan
      Jordan is sheltering many refugees who have fled the Syrian government's crackdown.
      Last Modified: 12 Jul 2011 18:33



      US, UN condemn Syria after embassies attacked
      By ELIZABETH A. KENNEDY, Associated Press – Jul 12, 2011



      Bahrain's king approves 'new reforms'
      Elected lower house to have more power but opposition unimpressed as appointed upper house retains political dominance.
      Last Modified: 29 Jul 2011 08:07


      Bahrain's king has approved parliamentary reforms after the suppression of pro-democracy protests in March, but they fall short of demands made by opposition groups.

      The process "reflects the determination [of the participants] to rise above the latest incidents," King Hamad bin Isa said in a televised speech on Thursday.

      "We have ordered the executive and legislative authorities to take the necessary measures to approve the agreements," he said after receiving a report by the state-appointed National Dialogue, set up to address grievances after the government crackdown.

      The changes grant more powers of scrutiny for the elected lower house, but preserve the dominance of an upper house appointed by the royal elite.

      The country's largest Shia opposition group, Wefaq, walked out of the dialogue last week, calling it "theatre".

      Khalil al-Marzouq, Wefaq spokesman, said the final proposals vindicated his group's decision to boycott.

      "The reason we pulled out is because of this. The upper house should only be there for consultation," he said.

      'Will of the people'

      The lower house of parliament currently holds limited authority since all the country's decisions, including the appointment of government ministers, ultimately rest with the king.

      Other proposed reforms are aimed at addressing "the need for fairer electoral constituencies", though the recommendations stopped short of specifically calling for the realigning of electoral districts that members of the opposition say are unfairly drawn.

      According to the new proposal, the prime minister, appointed by the king, would have to secure the approval of parliament for members of his government.

      "If MPs disapprove they can vote to reject the entire government. Parliament will also have the power to reject the government's four-year work plan," it said.

      "These reforms guarantee that the government's composition and work plan will reflect the will of the people."

      It also said cabinet ministers would have to attend some parliament sessions and face questioning in the open chamber rather than within the framework of committees.

      Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman, the prime minister of 40 years, is regarded as a leading figure within the ruling family who opposes concessions to the opposition.

      Bahrain, home to the US Fifth Fleet, is seen as a fault line for tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia, which sees itself as the leader of Sunni Islam.

      Bahrain's Sunni Muslim rulers called in troops from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states in March to help quell protests dominated by the majority Shia community.

      The government said the unrest was sectarian and backed by non-Arab Shia power Iran, which the Bahraini Shias have denied.

      Poet jailed in protests claims she was beaten by Bahraini royal
      Ayat al-Gormezi says she was tortured while in jail for reciting a poem at a pro-democracy protest. Patrick Cockburn reports
      Monday, 18 July 2011


      A female member of the al-Khalifa royal family in Bahrain has been accused of repeatedly beating the 20-year-old student poet Ayat al-Gormezi when she was in prison accused of reciting a poem at a pro-democracy protest rally criticising the monarchy.

      In an interview with The Independent, Ms Gormezi, who became a symbol of resistance to oppression in Bahrain, said that although her interrogators had tried to blindfold her, "I was able to see a woman of about 40 in civilian clothes who was beating me on the head with a baton". Ms Gormezi later described her interrogator to prison guards, who, she said, promptly named the woman as being one of the al-Khalifas with a senior position in the Bahraini security service.

      "I was taken many times to her office for fresh beatings," Ms Gormezi said. "She would say, 'You should be proud of the al-Khalifas. They are not going to leave this country. It is their country.' "

      The guards explained that it wasnot her regular job, but she had volunteered to take part in questioning political detainees.

      Ms Gormezi was detained on 30 March at her parents' house after spending two weeks in hiding when the government, backed by a Saudi-led force, started a brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protests in mid-March. She had been targeted by the authorities after she read out a poem at a rally in February which contained the lines: "We are the people who will kill humiliation and assassinate misery. We are the people who will destroy injustice."

      Addressing King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa directly, she said of the Bahraini people: "Don't you hear their cries? Don't you hear their screams?" As she finished speaking the crowd roared: "Down with Hamad!"

      Subjected to nine days of torture after her detention, Ms Gormezi described how she was beaten across the face with electric cables, kept in a tiny, freezing cell and forced to clean lavatories with her bare hands. All the while, she was beaten on the head and the body until she lost consciousness. "Many of the guards were Yemenis and Jordanians," she said. The recruitment of members of the Bahraini security forces from foreign Sunni states is one of the grievances of Bahrain's Shia majority, which says it is excluded from such jobs.

      In a phone interview after her release, Ms Gormezi said she does not regret reading her poem in Pearl Square, the centre of Bahrain's democratic protests in February and March. "What I said was not a personal attack on the King or the Prime Minister but I was just expressing what the people want. I have written poetry since I was a child, but not about politics. I did not think it was dangerous at the time. I was just expressing my opinion."

      After the crackdown on protesters in Bahrain started in mid-March, the tall monument in Pearl Square was demolished and even the Bahraini coin showing it was withdrawn. Anybody supporting the protests was in danger of detention and torture. Ms Gormezi's family sent her to stay with relatives, which she "did not want to do. But after two weeks the security forces threatened my family and I had to give myself up. As I was taken away in a car, my family were told to pick me up at a police station the following day, so they thought it was not serious".

      Her mistreatment started immediately. She said: "There were four men and one woman in the car, all wearing balaclavas. They beat me and shouted 'you are going to be sexually assaulted! This is the last day of your life!'" They also made anti-Shia remarks. "I was terrified of being sexually assaulted or raped, but not of being beaten."

      The vehicle she was in, escorted by the army and police, did not immediately go to the interrogation centre but drove around Bahrain. Another woman, whom Ms Gormezi said was a member of the teachers' organisation, was arrested and put in the boot of the car. Eventually, it reached the interrogation centre, which evidently doubled as a prison. Ms Gormezi said the beatings never stopped: "Once they told me to open my mouth and spat in it." The first night she was put in a tiny cell. "It smelled awful and I could not sleep because of the screams of a man being tortured in the next cell."

      The second night she was placed in another cell with the two vents for air conditioning producing freezing air. She was taken out for regular beatings. "I was very frightened," she said. "But I did not think they would kill me because every time I lost consciousness from the beatings, they called a doctor."

      Surprisingly, for the first four or five days, the interrogators did not ask Ms Gormezi about reading out her poem in Pearl Square. They abused the Shia in general, saying they were "bastards" and not properly married (the accusation stems from the Shia institution of temporary marriage and is often used as an insult by Sunnis).

      "When they did ask me about the poem, they kept saying: 'Who asked you to write it? Who paid you to write it?'" Ms Gormezi said. They insisted she must have been ordered to do so by Shia leaders in Bahrain or was a member of a political group, which she denies.

      The interrogators also kept saying she must owe allegiance to Iran. An obsessive belief that Shia demands for equal rights in Bahrain must be orchestrated by Tehran has long been a central feature of Sunni conspiracy theorists. "They kept asking me: 'Why are you loyal to Iran? Why are you not loyal to your own country?'" Ms Gormezi said. "I said it was nothing to do with Iran. I am a Bahraini and I was only trying to express what the people want."

      After nine days in the interrogation centre, Ms Gormezi was taken to a second prison in Isa town in Bahrain. For a week she was in solitary confinement and was given medication so the signs of her beatings were less visible. She was then taken to a more general prison where physical mistreatment stopped and there were four other women. "After 16 days they let me talk to my family," she said. "It was meant to be for three minutes but they let me talk for 10. Once they took me back to the first interrogation centre to record a video apologising to the King."

      International protests and ensuing bad publicity for the Bahraini monarchy led to her treatment improving, according to her family. Ms Gormezi was brought before a court on 12 June and sentenced to one year in prison, a shorter sentence than her family had feared. Last week she was called to an office in the prison and told she was to be released on the condition that she should not take part in other protests.

      Report: Doctors targeted in Bahrain
      Rights group alleges medics were beaten and arrested as government sought to stop protesters from receiving treatment.
      Last Modified: 18 Jul 2011 08:47


      Bahraini security forces attacked doctors and nurses, lay siege to hospitals and clinics, detained protesters who sought treatment, and arrested and prosecuted dozens of medical personnel after unrest hit the island kingdom in February, a prominent human rights organisation has alleged.

      Since mid-March, when the government stifled the uprising, the government has arrested more than 70 medical professionals, including several dozen doctors, and has put 48 on trial in a special military court, Human Rights Watch alleged in a 24-page report released on Monday.

      The organisation called on Bahrain to stop harrassing medical personnel, withdraw all security forces from health centres and release all those facing minor charges, while providing due process to those accused of more serious crimes.

      The report also called on the United Nations to conduct an independent investigation into the government crackdown.

      "The Bahraini government's violent campaign of intimidation against the medical community and its interference in the provision of vital medical assistance to injured protesters is one of the most egregious aspects of its brutal repression of the pro-democracy protest movement," the report stated.

      Doctors turn on each other as sectarianism tears Bahrain apart
      By Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent
      Saturday, 16 July 2011


      In another sign of the growing sectarianism in the crisis in Bahrain, friends of imprisoned Shia Muslim doctors in the country are circulating lists of Sunni Muslim medical staff whom they claim have been sent to spy on them and to give false evidence against them in courts.

      The new list includes doctors, interns, senior accident and emergency officials, ophthalmologists, paediatricians and staff nurses.

      The Bahraini government itself sectarianised Shia demands for representative democracy in the Gulf monarchy earlier this year when it stated that doctors at the Salmaniya Medical Complex deliberately discriminated against Sunni patients at the hospital during the February pro-democracy protests. The Shia doctors, who have strenuously denied these claims, are part of the majority in Bahrain; the minority Sunnis comprise the monarchy and occupy senior positions in almost all major state security institutions.

      But the latest file, which was shown to me this week by a Bahraini doctor, gives an even more poisonous edge to what is fast becoming a Shia-Sunni struggle for power. Already Shia doctors have been beaten in police custody, faced trumped-up charges of arms crimes and of allowing patients to die needlessly in hospital. Most of us who were witness to the fact that these charges are lies – for we were in the Salmaniya hospital at the time – are now, unsurprisingly, banned from the kingdom.

      Among the cases now being documented by Shia Muslims – and there is no way of knowing whether they are true or are as mendacious as the government's statements – include claims that one ophthalmologist betrayed a Shia colleague; a general surgeon who told Bahraini television that "only" seven patients had been in the Salmaniya hospital during the violence; and two dermatologists who announced that "heavy weapons" were hidden inside the health centre.

      There is no way of confirming these extraordinary allegations made by Shia Muslims but it is the first example of an openly sectarian medical dispute since the Rwandan genocide.

      Shia Muslims in Bahrain have often misused the word "genocide" to describe their own democratic struggle – as if the government is engaging in mass slaughter, which is not true – but the authorities, in whose custody at least four prisoners have died since February, all apparently after being tortured, make no pretence at being a democracy.

      The Bahraini authorities are aware of the already circulating list of Sunni doctors, which will only further factionalise the medical community in the country. When a named staff nurse is accused of "providing information" about several staff nurse colleagues "who are still under detention", it is difficult to see how these personnel can ever work together again.

      Two Sunni interns – again, named – are alleged to have led armed men into the sixth floor of the Salmaniya medical centre to arrest patients who were subsequently taken away and beaten. The interns were needed to read the patients' medical files since the security forces – many in the Bahraini military are in fact Pakistanis – could not read English.

      Let them eat doughnuts: the US response to Bahrain's oppression
      While the west averts its eyes, Bahrain's people are subjected to brutal suppression
      Mehdi Hasan
      guardian.co.uk, Monday 11 July 2011 20.25 BST


      Pity the poor people of Bahrain. They have been shot, beaten, tear-gassed – and patronised. On 7 March, at the height of the pro-democracy protests in the tiny Gulf island kingdom, a crowd gathered outside the US embassy in Manama, the capital, carrying signs that read "Stop supporting dictators" and "Give me liberty or give me death". A US embassy official emerged from the building with a box of doughnuts for the protesters, prompting a cleric in the crowd to remark: "These sweets are a good gesture, but we hope it is translated into practical actions."

      It hasn't been. Syria was subjected to sanctions and Libya to air strikes; Bahrain, however, was rewarded with visits from the Pentagon's two most senior officials – the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Mike Mullen, and the then defence secretary, Robert Gates. Disgracefully, at the same time as peaceful protesters were being rounded up and imprisoned, both men offered full-throated endorsements of King Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa's brutal regime.

      The Sunni Khalifas have ruled Shia-majority Bahrain – officially a constitutional monarchy – since 1783. Bahrain's prime minister since 1971, Prince Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa – the king's uncle – has the dubious distinction of being the longest-serving unelected prime minister in the world. Unemployment stands at 15% – the highest in the Gulf – and Shias have long complained of discrimination and disenfranchisement.

      The Arab spring reached Bahrain on Valentine's Day; protesters – both Sunni and Shia – arrived in Manama's Pearl Square on 14 February to demand political freedoms, democratic reforms and greater equality for the Shia majority. They were met with rubber bullets and teargas; three days later security forces switched to live ammunition. Within a few weeks some 2,000 Sunni soldiers from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had arrived in Bahrain, at the invitation of the Khalifas, to impose martial law – and, in doing so, poured oil on the fire of sectarian tensions.

      Since February at least 30 protesters have been killed and more than 500 people detained, four of whom died in suspicious circumstances. Meanwhile, up to 2,000 people across the country have been dismissed or suspended from work – almost all of them Shia. According to an investigation by al-Jazeera, 28 Shia mosques and religious institutions have been destroyed by the authorities.

      Few have been spared the wrath of the Khalifas. Last week friends and relatives of the Bahraini football stars A'ala Hubail and his brother Mohammed claim they were beaten and threatened in custody after being arrested in March for their participation in the protests. "You are British: imagine David Beckham gets arrested and tortured. It's unthinkable," a friend of Hubail told the Times.

      The Orwellian regime in Manama continues to round up people for the most minor of "offences". Last month, for example, the 20-year-old university student Ayat al-Qarmezi was arrested, assaulted and sentenced to a year in prison – by a military court – for reading out a poem criticising the king at a rally.

      Yet western leaders and journalists continue to callously avert their eyes. Those who itched to drop bombs on Libya have little to say about Bahrain – Misrata, yes; Manama, no. Bahrain is "complicated", say our leaders. It isn't. A king has turned his security forces on his own subjects. And the reason the US hasn't come out against him is as cynical as it is simple: Sunni-led Bahrain is a strategic ally of the US, a counterweight to Shia-led Iran, and home to the US navy's fifth fleet. Syria isn't. Neither is Libya.

      Since September 2001 Bahrain has been a key Middle East collaborator in America's so-called war on terror; in 2002 it was designated a major non-Nato ally by George Bush. And, on a visit to Manama last December – two months before the Khalifas began killing their people – Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, called Bahrain a "model partner" and said she was "very impressed by the progress that Bahrain is making on all fronts – economically, politically, socially".

      Since February, the failure of western governments to do anything more than go through the motions of "condemning" the violence by Bahrain's rulers has been a dismal vindication for those of us who have long maintained that in the clash between our interests and our values, the former almost always trump the latter. Nonetheless, the sheer brazenness with which our elected leaders have continued to cosy up to, and apologise for, Bahrain's tyrants, is startling. Referring to the Obama administration's decision to emphasise "stability over majority rule", a US official was quoted in March as saying: "Everybody realised that Bahrain was just too important to fail."

      Meanwhile, our queen invited King Hamad to the royal wedding in April, and our prime minister, David Cameron, welcomed Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa to London in May, greeting him on the doorstep of No 10 with a firm handshake and bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase "blood on our hands".

      The blood, however, is on all our hands. Successive British governments have supplied the Khalifas with submachineguns, sniper rifles, smoke canisters, stun grenades, tear gas and riot shields. These have been deployed, with murderous effect, against unarmed civilians in Pearl Square and Shia villages across Bahrain.

      Defenders of the Khalifas say it is wrong to compare countries in the Middle East; Bahrain is not Syria, they argue, and the Khalifas are not the Assads. Yet as Joshua Landis, a Middle East expert at Oklahoma University, says: "Bahrain has killed twice as many of its citizens as Syria has, if one adjusts for population size."

      But Bahrain's crimes are ignored and forgotten; in recent days, the US and UK governments have heaped praise on the government-sponsored "national dialogue" between the royal family and opposition. It is, however, a cruel charade. "How can there be real dialogue when most [of the opposition] is in jail?" says Kristin Diwan, a Gulf specialist at American University in Washington DC. In fact, of 300 invited participants, just five are from the main Shia opposition party, al-Wefaq, which gained 60% of the vote in last year's parliamentary election. The government, meanwhile, has involved a huge number of diverse organisations to try to dilute opposition voices. What contribution, for instance, will the Bahrain Astronomical Society make to discussions on democratic reform? "It is a joke," Said Shehabi, a London-based member of the Bahrain Freedom Movement, tells me. "It makes a mockery of dialogue."

      It is bad enough that we helped arm and equip the brutes of Bahrain and then turned a blind eye to their violence and torture; we must not now allow our leaders to endorse this farcical "national dialogue" or further patronise the country's bloodied and battered opposition. Bahrainis need democracy, not doughnuts.


      Lebanon is slowly reconstructed, five years on from devastating war
      After savage fighting between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, parts of Lebanon thrive, while parliament is still a site of struggle
      Martin Chulov in Tyre
      The Guardian, Tuesday 12 July 2011


      On an ancient hillside in southern Lebanon, a giant digger scrapes through slate and stone to prepare foundations for yet another new home.

      Across the valley, in the biblical town of Qana, dozens of houses are also under construction, and many hundreds more stand fresh and stark against the midsummer sky.

      Since the devastating war between Hezbollah and Israel, which began five years ago today, the place where Jesus purportedly turned water into wine has witnessed a near-miraculous transformation itself.

      Qana is now one of the most thriving enclaves in Lebanon's south, a place that shows little sign of the ravages of a war that reduced it to a rubble-strewn wasteland after 34 days of intense fighting.

      Towns and villages either side, from the Litani river to the north to the Israeli border 10km south, have helped consolidate a revival that has crept through the country since 2006 — and reshaped more than just the natural landscape.

      The national political power base, thrown out of kilter in the chaos of 2006, has been slowly re-orientating – away from the western-backed 14 March alliance into the orbit of the Iranian and Syrian-supported Hezbollah, which now has a whip-hand in Lebanon's affairs.

      Signs of a changing Lebanon are all around. Banners of a smiling benefactor, the Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Khamanei are peppered throughout Qana and all other Shia towns in the south.

      Other, less frequent posters show the two Lebanese Shia leaders, Hezbollah's Hassan Nasrallah, and a lesser light, Nabil Berri, who controls a second political party-cum-militia, Amal. Iran has used both to dispense hundreds of millions in cash to Lebanese who were caught up in the war.

      The war that the two arch foes fought was their most intense and savage since Hezbollah's inception in 1982. It erupted early on July 12 2006 after Hezbollah members crossed into Israel and ambushed a border patrol, killing two soldiers and abducting two more. The Israeli response quickly escalated into daily bombings for the next five weeks, mostly in the south.

      Less visible than the reconstruction project – but far more instructive – has been the power struggle for Lebanon, fought not in the country's parliament, but in the sitting rooms of its feudal lords and in the corridors of power of its neighbours.

      "Hezbollah, Iran and Syria have had the pro-western bloc in a vice for the past three years," said one senior western diplomat in Beirut. "And they have finally got them.

      "The past six months has been a profound shift here. No-one who backs the March 14 project can seriously say that the western agenda hasn't been set back."

      After ousting the government of Saad Hariri in January, Hezbollah now has enough numbers within the parliament – through the support of roughly half the country's Christian and Druze minorities, as well as Amal lawmakers – to set the political and legislative agenda.

      Hezbollah has vowed not to use its influence to railroad the parliament and claims that the country's new prime minister, Najib Miqati – a Sunni from northern Lebanon – is not beholden to it. Yet on one key issue – perhaps the most significant since 2006 for the country's deeply divided blocs, it is proving immovable.

      The party's lawmakers and its secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, have demanded that the parliament disavow a UN-backed tribunal set up to place on trial the killers of former statesman, Rafiq Hariri, who was killed on Valentine's Day 2005 in the most contentious and far-reaching assassination in the country for several decades.

      The tribunal earlier this month alleged that four members of Hezbollah had played direct roles in Mr Hariri's death – an assertion that if proven would pose a grave threat to the group's legitimacy as a patriotic body.

      Mr Miqati is so far struggling to find a position that satisfies both the 14 March forces, who see him as a turncoat and the Hezbollah-led government, whose trust he needs to survive as leader.

      In the streets of Dahiya, however, the jury has already returned. "The Israelis killed Hariri and everyone knows it," said Ahmed Badredine, a motor mechanic. "Their intent towards Lebanon was there for the world to see in 2006. And when there is another war we will beat them again."

      Summer has often been fighting season in the south. And in the densely wooded lands around the Litani, preparations have been made for the next war ever since the guns fell silent last time.

      Hezbollah knows it has a legend to protect after battling the powerful Israeli military to a stand-still in 2006. Israel, meanwhile, has a score to settle after believing its deterrent factor – an important part of it's armoury – was dented by its enemy's ability to fire rockets seemingly at will, despite a never-ending blitz of return fire."

      "It will come soon," said a second Dahiya man, Haithem Kissos. "The resistance is stronger than ever and the Zionists cannot let that reality stand."


      The quiet crackdown in a tourist playground
      While putting up a progressive front, the Emirates of the Gulf have tackled any sign of unrest
      By Loveday Morris
      Friday, 15 July 2011


      With its glistening skyscraper-lined highways so far untouched by the angry protesters who have filled the streets of other Arab cities, the United Arab Emirates appears on the surface to have escaped the dissent sweeping the Middle East. But the Emirates have not been immune to the ripples of the Arab Spring: a vociferous minority is demanding change, only to be met with a clandestine crackdown on dissent.

      While other countries in the Gulf have expedited reforms to appease citizens demanding more freedom, the UAE – despite having long-attempted to present itself as a model of progress – has taken a different tack, silencing any individuals or organisations questioning the status quo.

      The surreptitious crackdown has affected all spheres – professional associations, non-governmental organisations, think-tanks, the blogosphere and even art exhibitions.

      Five Emirati bloggers and academics who were rounded up in April are currently on trial for "opposing the government", threatening state security and insulting the country's leaders. The arrests have shocked the desert nation. Dr Nasser bin Ghaith, one of the accused, is an academic at the Abu Dhabi branch of the Sorbonne University.

      Since the arrests, authorities have cast their net wider, dissolving the boards of several non-governmental organisations such as the Jurists' Association, a group active in the defence of human rights, and replacing them with government appointees. The Teachers' Association has received similar treatment. Rights groups have described the move as a "hostile takeover of civil society".

      "What we are seeing is a collapse in democratic rights," said one activist, who, like many, now declines to have his name published for fear of reprisals. "We have gone back 30 years. They are afraid the revolutions will come to the UAE so they are scaring people into keeping silent."

      The targeting of respected academic institutions has raised eyebrows as they are hardly revolutionary hotbeds. Last month the Gulf Research Centre, one of the UAE's few political think-tanks, said it was being forced to leave the country after "objections by the Dubai government to various aspects of GRC's work." The head of the Dubai School of Government has also resigned.

      Amid an ever-growing state of paranoia, the chief of the Arab world's biggest art show, the Sharjah Biennale, has also been sacked for not sufficiently censoring the exhibition.

      The government's attack on the country's pro-reform voices began after 133 prominent Emiratis signed a petition in March requesting the right of all citizens to vote for members of the country's Federal National Council. Currently a government-appointed electorate votes for half the members of the council, which wields virtually no legislative authority, leaving power in the hands of the al-Nayhan royal family, headed by President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed.

      Signatories say they have since been threatened by security officials. "They come to us and say we will be the next in jail. They say we are trying to destroy our country," said one.

      Before his arrest, Ahmed Mansoor, one of the five activists on trial and a prominent Dubai-based blogger who helped organise the petition, wrote a final dramatic blog post.

      Entitled "They came to take me in at 3.50am", it described the moment his building's security guard knocked on his door to tell him three policemen outside wanted to speak to him about a problem with his car. "They make such tricks to and take you," Mr Mansoor wrote.

      Mr Mansoor had long suspected that his blog would lead him into trouble with the authorities. "My family have mixed feelings; they think this might bring trouble not only for me, but for them too," he said in an interview with The Independent before his arrest. "On several occasions they've asked me not to talk about more sensitive topics."

      There is concern that the trial, which resumes on 18 July, will result in heavy sentences. Professor Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a politics lecturer at UAE University who knows several of the detainees, described the charges as "heavy and loaded."

      "We can only hope the trial will be free and fair. This doesn't fit the image of the UAE: it has promoted itself as a country without political prisoners," he said.

      The oil-rich nation has played a careful balancing act since citizens across the Arab world took to the streets demanding the end of dictatorships. While outwardly trying to maintain the façade of a progressive haven for Western business and expatriate workers, in reality it has been increasing its grip on power.

      The country's divided interests are evident in its diplomacy. Abu Dhabi's F-16s and Mirage jets are supporting the Libyan rebels fighting against Gaddafi's brutal regime. But the UAE remains one of the most visible supporters of the region's other embattled leaders, with the President sending messages of solidarity with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad, and the Foreign Minister, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, visiting in a gesture of fraternity. He paid a similar visit to Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak shortly before he was ousted.

      It remains to be seen whether the recent crackdown will silence the dissent, or help to galvanise the reform movement. For one of the petition's signatories the latter seemed more likely. "Emiratis can't accept this treatment: the people are angry," he said.

      Then there are the reported lay-offs of hundreds of expatriates in the public sector as the UAE leaders scramble to bring down 14 per cent unemployment. With those expatriates who have been asked to leave said to have been given just weeks to go, the leadership's urgency in pacifying the country's disaffected youth is evident.

      Profile: UAE

      Formed one day after gaining independence from Britain in 1971, the United Arab Emirates is a confederation of seven states (Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Ajman, Fujairah, Sharjah, Umm al Qaiwain and Ras al Khaimah) and is now one of the Middle East's key economic centres. Drawn by the nation's thriving oil and financial industries, 75 per cent of residents are expatriates. However those living in the highly developed southern cities of Abu Dhabi and Dubai enjoy a much higher standard of living than those in the poorer northern emirates.
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