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Middle East and North Africa (MENA): News from Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain

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  • Zafar Khan
    Robert Fisk: Arab Spring has washed the region s appalling racism out of the news The Long View: Migrant workers from the subcontinent often live eight to a
    Message 1 of 1 , May 25, 2012
      Robert Fisk: Arab Spring has washed the region's appalling racism out of the news
      The Long View: Migrant workers from the subcontinent often live eight to a room in slums – even in oil-rich Kuwait


      How many tracts, books, documentaries, speeches and doctoral theses have been written and produced about Islamophobia? How many denunciations have been made against the Sarkozys and the Le Pens and the Wilders for their anti-immigration (for which, read largely anti-Muslim) policies or – let us go down far darker paths – against the plague of Breivik-style racism?

      The problem with all this is that Muslim societies – or shall we whittle this down to Middle Eastern societies? – are allowed to appear squeaky-clean in the face of such trash, and innocent of any racism themselves.

      A health warning, therefore, to all Arab readers of this column: you may not like this week's rant from yours truly. Because I fear very much that the video of Alem Dechasa's recent torment in Beirut is all too typical of the treatment meted out to foreign domestic workers across the Arab world (there are 200,000 in Lebanon alone).

      Many hundreds of thousands have now seen the footage of 33-year-old Ms Dechasa being abused and humiliated and pushed into a taxi by Ali Mahfouz, the Lebanese agent who brought her to Lebanon as a domestic worker. Ms Dechasa was transported to hospital where she was placed in the psychiatric wing and where, on 14 March, she hanged herself. She was a mother of two and could not stand the thought of being deported back to her native Ethiopia. That may not have been the only reason for her mental agony.

      Lebanese women protested in the centre of Beirut, the UN protested, everyone protested. Ali Mahfouz has been formally accused of contributing to her death. But that's it.

      The Syrian revolt, the Bahraini revolution, the Arab Awakening, have simply washed Alem Dechasa's tragedy out of the news. How many readers know – for example – that not long before Ms Dechasa's death, a Bengali domestic worker was raped by a policeman guarding her at a courthouse in the south Lebanese town of Nabatieh, after she had been caught fleeing an allegedly abusive employer?

      As the Lebanese journalist Anne-Marie El-Hage has eloquently written, Ms Dechasa belonged to "those who submit in silence to the injustice of a Lebanese system that ignores their human rights, a system which literally closes its eyes to conditions of hiring and work often close to slavery". All too true.

      How well I recall the Sri Lankan girl who turned up in Commodore Street at the height of the Israeli siege and shelling of West Beirut in 1982, pleading for help and protection. Like tens of thousands of other domestic workers from the sub-continent, her passport had been taken from her the moment she began her work as a domestic "slave" in the city; and her employers had then fled abroad to safety – taking the girl's passport with them so she could not leave herself. She was rescued by a hotel proprietor when he discovered that local taxi drivers were offering her a "bed" in their vehicles in return for sex.

      Everyone who lives in Lebanon or Jordan or Egypt or Syria, for that matter, or – especially – the Gulf, is well aware of this outrage, albeit cloaked in a pious silence by the politicians and prelates and businessmen of these societies.

      In Cairo, I once remarked to the Egyptian hosts at a dinner on the awful scars on the face of the young woman serving food to us. I was ostracised for the rest of the meal and – thankfully – never invited again.

      Arab societies are dependent on servants. Twenty-five per cent of Lebanese families have a live-in migrant worker, according to Professor Ray Jureidini of the Lebanese American University in Beirut. They are essential not only for the social lives of their employers (housework and caring for children) but for the broader Lebanese economy.

      Yet in the Arab Gulf, the treatment of migrant labour – male as well as female – has long been a scandal. Men from the subcontinent often live eight to a room in slums – even in the billionaires' paradise of Kuwait – and are consistently harassed, treated as third-class citizens, and arrested on the meanest of charges.

      Saudi Arabia long ago fell into the habit of chopping off the heads of migrant workers who were accused of assault or murder or drug-running, after trials that bore no relation to international justice. In 1993, for example, a Christian Filipino woman accused of killing her employer and his family was dragged into a public square in Dammam and forced to kneel on the ground where her executioner pulled her scarf from her head before decapitating her with a sword.

      Then there was 19-year old Sithi Farouq, a Sri Lankan housemaid accused of killing her employer's four-year-old daughter in 1994. She claimed her employer's aunt had accidentally killed the girl. On 13 April, 1995, she was led from her prison cell in the United Arab Emirates to stand in a courtyard in a white abaya gown, crying uncontrollably, before a nine-man firing squad which shot her down. It was her 20th birthday. God's mercy, enshrined in the first words of the Koran, could not be extended to her, it seems, in her hour of need.


      Robert Fisk: The Children of Fallujah - the hospital of horrors
      Special Report day two: Stillbirths, disabilities, deformities too distressing to describe - what lies behind the torments in Fallujah General Hospital?


      The pictures flash up on a screen on an upper floor of the Fallujah General Hospital. And all at once, Nadhem Shokr al-Hadidi's administration office becomes a little chamber of horrors. A baby with a hugely deformed mouth. A child with a defect of the spinal cord, material from the spine outside the body. A baby with a terrible, vast Cyclopean eye. Another baby with only half a head, stillborn like the rest, date of birth 17 June, 2009. Yet another picture flicks onto the screen: date of birth 6 July 2009, it shows a tiny child with half a right arm, no left leg, no genitalia.

      "We see this all the time now," Al-Hadidi says, and a female doctor walks into the room and glances at the screen. She has delivered some of these still-born children. "I've never seen anything as bad as this in all my service," she says quietly. Al-Hadidi takes phone calls, greets visitors to his office, offers tea and biscuits to us while this ghastly picture show unfolds on the screen. I asked to see these photographs, to ensure that the stillborn children, the deformities, were real. There's always a reader or a viewer who will mutter the word "propaganda" under their breath.

      But the photographs are a damning, ghastly reward for such doubts. January 7, 2010: a baby with faded, yellow skin and misshapen arms. April 26, 2010: a grey mass on the side of the baby's head. A doctor beside me speaks of "Tetralogy of Fallot", a transposition of the great blood vessels. May 3, 2010: a frog-like creature in which – the Fallujah doctor who came into the room says this – "all the abdominal organs are trying to get outside the body."

      This is too much. These photographs are too awful, the pain and emotion of them – for the poor parents, at least – impossible to contemplate. They simply cannot be published.

      There is a no-nonsense attitude from the doctors in Fallujah. They know that we know about this tragedy. Indeed, there is nothing undiscovered about the child deformities of Fallujah. Other correspondents – including my colleague Patrick Cockburn – have visited Fallujah to report on them. What is so shameful is that these deformities continue unmonitored. One Fallujah doctor, an obstetrician trained in Britain – she left only five months ago – who has purchased from her own sources for her private clinic a £79,000 scanning machine for prenatal detection of congenital abnormalities, gives me her name and asks why the Ministry of Health in Baghdad will not hold a full official investigation into the deformed babies of Fallujah.

      "I have been to see the ministry," she says. "They said they would have a committee. I went to the committee. And they have done nothing. I just can't get them to respond." Then, 24 hours later, the same woman sends a message to a friend of mine, another Iraqi doctor, asking me not to use her name.

      If the number of stillborn children of Fallujah is a disgrace, the medical staff at the Fallujah General Hospital prove their honesty by repeatedly warning of the danger of reaching conclusions too soon.

      "I delivered that baby," the obstetrician says as one more picture flashes on the screen. "I don't think this has anything to do with American weapons. The parents were close relatives. Tribal marriages here involve a lot of families who are close by blood. But you have to remember, too, that if women have stillborn children with abnormalities at home, they will not report this to us, and the baby will be buried without any record reaching us."

      The photographs continue on the screen. January 19, 2010: a baby with tiny limbs, stillborn. A baby born on 30 October, 2010, with a cleft lip and cleft palette, still alive, a hole in the heart, a defect in its face, in need of echocardiography treatment. "A cleft lip and palate are common congenital anomalies," Dr Samira Allani says quietly. "But it's the increased frequency that is alarming." Dr Allani has documented a research paper into "the increased prevalence of birth defects" in Fallujah, a study of four fathers "with two lineages of progeny". Congenital heart defects, the paper says, reached "unprecedented numbers" in 2010.

      The numbers continue to rise. Even while we are speaking, a nurse brings a message to Dr Allani. We go at once to an incubator next to the hospital delivery room. In the incubator is a little baby just 24 days old. Zeid Mohamed is almost too young to smile but he lies sleeping, his mother watching through the glass. She has given her permission for me to see her baby. His father is a security guard, the couple married three years ago. There is no family record of birth defects. But Zeid has only four fingers on each of his little hands.

      Dr Allani's computer files contain a hundred Zeids. She asks another doctor to call some parents. Will they talk to a journalist? "They want to know what happened to their children," she says. "They deserve an answer." She is right. But neither the Iraqi authorities, nor the Americans, nor the British – who were peripherally involved in the second battle of Fallujah and lost four men – nor any major NGO, appears willing or able to help.

      When doctors can obtain funding for an investigation, they sometimes turn to organisations which clearly have their own political predetermination. Dr Allani's paper, for example, acknowledges funding from the "Kuala Lumpur Foundation to Criminalise War" – hardly a group seeking to exonerate the use of US weaponry in Fallujah. This, too, I fear, is part of the tragedy of Fallujah.

      The obstetrician who asked to be anonymous talks bleakly of the lack of equipment and training. "Chromosome defects – like Down's Syndrome – cannot be corrected prenatally. But a foetal infection we can deal with, and we can sort out this problem by drawing a sample of blood from the baby and mother. But no laboratory here has this equipment. One blood transfer is all it needs to prevent such a condition. Of course, it will not answer our questions: why the increased miscarriages here, why the increased stillbirths, why the increased premature births?"

      Dr Chris Busby, a visiting professor at the University of Ulster who has surveyed almost 5,000 people in Fallujah, agrees it is impossible to be specific about the cause of birth defects as well as cancers. "Some very major mutagenic exposure must have occurred in 2004 when the attacks happened," he wrote two years ago. Dr Busby's report, compiled with Malak Hamdan and Entesar Ariabi, says that infant mortality in Fallujah was found in 80 out of every 1,000 births, compared to 19 in Egypt, 17 in Jordan and only 9.7 in Kuwait.

      Another of the Fallujah doctors tells me that the only UK assistance they have received comes from Dr Kypros Nicolaides, the head of Foetal Medicine at King's College Hospital. He runs a charity, the Foetal Medicine Foundation, which has already trained one doctor from Fallujah. I call him up. He is bursting with anger.

      "To me, the criminal aspect of all this – during the war – was that the British and the American governments could not go to Woolworths and buy some computers to even document the deaths in Iraq. So we have a Lancet publication that estimates 600,000 deaths in the war. Yet the occupying power did not have the decency to have a computer worth only £500 that would enable them to say "this body was brought in today and this was its name".

      Now you have an Arab country which has a higher number of deformities or cancers than Europe and you need a proper epidemiological study. I'm sure the Americans used weapons that caused these deformities. But now you have a goodness-knows-what government in Iraq and no study. It's very easy to avoid to doing anything – except for some sympathetic crazy professor like me in London to try and achieve something."

      In al-Hadidi's office, there are now photographs which defy words. How can you even begin to describe a dead baby with just one leg and a head four times the size of its body?

      Tomorrow: Sayef Ala'a, the five-year-old Fallujah child with no hearing in his left ear

      Robert Fisk: The Children of Fallujah - Sayef's story
      Special Report day one: The phosphorus shells that devastated this city were fired in 2004. But are the victims of America's dirty war still being born?


      Robert Fisk: Iraq's road back from oblivion
      Memories of sectarian war, kidnapping and child killing are fading. It is safer. But nine years since Saddam's fall, Robert Fisk meets many who feel they have lost their homeland


      Erdogan denies Iraq's meddling claim
      Turkish PM accuses Nuri al-Maliki of being 'self-centred' and inciting sectarian tension in Iraq.
      Last Modified: 22 Apr 2012 04:00


      Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister, has rejected charges he sought to inflame sectarian divisions in Iraq and accused Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of trying to gain "prestige", the latest in a series of bitter exchanges between the neighbours.

      The Turkish PM comments on Saturday came just days after he had accused Nuri al-Maliki of being "self-centred" and inciting tensions between the country's Shias, Sunnis and Kurds amid a constitutional crisis in Baghdad.

      Maliki, in response to Erdogan's comments on Thursday, branded Turkey a "hostile state" and said Erdogan's remarks "represent another return to flagrant interference in Iraqi internal affairs," according to a statement on his website on Friday.

      "We don't differentiate between Sunnis or Shias. Arab, Kurd or Turkmen, they are all our brothers," Erdogan told
      reporters in comments reported by the NTV news channel.

      "If we respond to Mr. Maliki, we give him the opportunity to show off there. There is no need to allow him to gain prestige."

      Turkey, which is majority Sunni, has been seen as a key ally and even a role model for Iraq, because of its secular
      constitution and close relations with the West, including membership in NATO.

      Iraq is Turkey's second largest trading partner after Germany, with trade reaching $12 billion last year, more than
      half of which was with the semi-autonomous Kurdistan region.


      Baghdad has occasionally accused Ankara of meddling in its affairs since the 2003 US-led invasion. Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria have also been accused of destabilising their neighbour.

      The bitter exchange between Maliki and Erdogan came after the Turkish leader met Masoud Barzani, president of the Kurdish region, who has cultivated close relations with Turkey's government.

      Erdogan also met Iraq's Sunni vice president, Tareq al-Hashemi, who fled Iraq in December after a warrant for his arrest was issued, sparking the current political crisis in Baghdad.

      Hashemi is wanted on charges he ran death squads. Turkey's Foreign Ministry weighed in on the dispute and issued a statement that said Turkey has no intention of interfering in Iraq or any other neighbour's internal affairs.

      "The foundation of the political crisis in which Iraq finds itself is that Iraqi politicians seek to consolidate power and
      exclude others, rather than (follow) politics that are based on democratic and universal principles," it said in a statement.

      "It is a fact that behind the misperceptions that led to the accusations against Turkey by Prime Minister Maliki, who
      instigated the crisis in Iraq, this wrong understanding of politics can be found," it said.

      As long as they present no obstacles, Turkey seeks friendly relations with its neighbours, the statement also said.

      Erdogan previously has warned that Turkey would not remain silent if a sectarian conflict erupted in Iraq.

      He is also a vocal critic of erstwhile ally Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown against a largely Sunni uprising.
      Turkey is worried that the violence in Syria and growing tensions in Iraq could lead to a wider conflict between Shia
      and Sunni Muslims in the region.

      Relations with Iran have also soured over Turkey's opposition toward Tehran's ally Assad


      Dozens killed by suicide bomber in military uniform in Yemen
      A suicide bomber dressed in military uniform blew himself up in the middle of a battalion of soldiers in the Yemen capital Sana'a on Monday, killing up to 96 people and wounding dozens of others, according to an official.
      10:36AM BST 21 May 2012


      The military official said that the toll could rise following the attack.
      The bomber detonated his explosives in the middle of battalion of soldiers rehearsing for an army parade to mark the 22nd anniversary of the unification of north and south Yemen, the official added.
      So far, no one has claimed responsibility for the blast which according to witnesses was heard across the city, causing panic among residents.
      The unidentified bomber detonated his explosives as soldiers from the government's central security forces, commanded by a nephew of former president Ali Abdullah Saleh, rehearsed for an army parade to mark the 22nd anniversary of the unification of north and south Yemen, according to the official.
      Yemen's defence minister, Mohammed Nasser Ahmed, was present at the time of the explosion but escaped unharmed, the official added.

      Witnesses said human remains were scattered across the site of the blast at Sanaa's Sabeen Square, where the Yemeni government often holds large military parades.
      Monday's attack is the most deadly since President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi took power in February with a pledge to fight al-Qaeda's growing presence in the county.
      It comes 10 days into a massive army offensive against al-Qaeda in Yemen's restive southern Abyan province, where the jihadists have seized control of a string of towns and cities in attacks launched since last May.
      Yemen is home to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), which the United States views as a major security threat, not only in the region but also on US soil.
      Militants have exploited political instability in Yemen to gain a foothold in a country paralysed for most of 2011 by protests that eventually unseated President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
      The offensive followed days after the White House announced that a plot by AQAP to blow up a US airliner had been foiled.
      A senior US official told the New York Times that a bomb for the would-be attack was sewn into "custom fit" underwear that would have been difficult to detect even in a careful pat-down at an airport.

      Yemenis choose jihad over Iranian support
      The 'Guevara of south Yemen' describes how activists fighting for independence have become pawns in a larger power struggle
      Ghaith Abdul-Ahad in Aden
      guardian.co.uk, Thursday 10 May 2012 21.10 BST


      Jemajem is a young, dark-eyed militant leader who bears the self-important nom de guerre of "the Guevara of south Yemen". Based in the impoverished port of Aden, he belongs to the Hirak group of activists, who have been calling for south Yemen to be allowed to secede from the north for half a decade.

      It's not hard to see why he thinks an independent future for the south would be better than its current situation. Sadness and poverty settled on Aden many decades ago. The streets are littered with piles of rotting fish and festering rubbish, while haggard men sit on pavements chewing qat to stave off the boredom of unemployment. Cliffs of volcanic rock are crowded with migrants' illegal shacks made of breeze blocks and corrugated iron.

      But beneath this layer of grime is a tale of outside interference in Yemen that is likely to bring further conflict and exacerbate the divisions within the country. Shortly after the Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, was toppled last November in the Arab spring, Jemajem was approached by an intermediary working on behalf of what the man described as a "friendly country" known for its international support for revolutionary causes.

      Jemajem was frustrated: although Saleh had gone, the separatists had not achieved any of their demands. But help was at hand, the man told him. Was he interested? "Of course I was," said Jemajem. "I would take money from the devil if he could help my nation. A drowning man will hang on to a straw."

      His encounter with what turned out to be the Iranians is remarkable in itself, but it illuminates the much bigger tale of foreign interference in Yemen, of how the conflicts between the Gulf states and Iran, the US and al-Qaida have reduced parts of Yemen to rubble and are pushing Yeminis into the arms of the jihadis.

      When the Iranians approached him, Jemajem was asked to gather a group of Hirak activists and a week later they were flown to Damascus, where they met two officials from the Iranian embassy. According to Jemajem and other activists who travelled with him, the officials told the Yemeni delegation that they would support demands for federalism within Yemen, but not the separate state that Hirak was calling for.

      "I told them the people want independence," said Jemajem. "It's not me who decides; my people will condemn me if I agree to federalism."

      Days later the Iranians came back and told the Yemenis they would have to go to Tehran to meet more senior officials. They arranged for the 15 Yeminis to fly to Tehran without visas on an IranAir flight. There was no one else on the plane, the activists said, and when they landed they were whisked through security without their passports being stamped.

      From then on, they were treated more like detainees than negotiating partners, the Yeminis said. They were taken by bus to a hotel and only allowed to leave under escort, to go to meetings with Iranian officials.

      "All the officials we met used aliases," said a female member of the delegation who did not want to be named. "They didn't tell us who they worked for but they asked us many questions." The meetings were held in ministries, but they were not told which ones, and the Iranians often spoke to them in near-perfect Arabic.

      "They said Iran would invest in infrastructure projects in the south," said Jemajem. "They said they would build a hospital and pay salaries to the activists. They said they would give me – personally – a few million dollars in the beginning to start paying salaries.

      "Most importantly, they said they would send us weapons and train people," he said.


      The Iranians were looking for a foothold in the peninsula, according to a senior Hirak activist who did not want to be named. Iran and Saudi Arabia have interfered in the affairs of Yemen for years, but their meddling had been exacerbated by the Arab spring.

      "The Sunni monarchies, such as the Saudis and Qataris, are supporting the Sunnis in Syria and turning a blind eye to the Shia of Bahrain, and the Iranians are looking for a foothold in the region to pressure the Saudis and to be close to the straits of Bab al-Mandab in case there is war with the Americans," he said.

      The narrow Bab al-Mandab strait, where the Red Sea meets the Gulf of Aden off Yemen's south-western tip, is a conduit for all shipping going through the Suez canal, and about 30% of the world's oil passes. Yemen also shares a long and porous border with Saudi Arabia, which stretches for 1,100 miles through mountains and desert, and across which guns, qat and Islamic militants are smuggled into the Gulf kingdom, a historic enemy of Iran.

      Young men were leaving quietly to train in Iran, the senior activist said. "They leave in small numbers. I don't think the Iranians are training an army there – we don't need military training. I think they are recruiting them to be future intelligence agents here. But why do you need to recruit an agent in a revolution? Help the revolution and the whole people will come and help you."

      Iran is not the only country trying to place spies in the region. This week it emerged that an apparent jihadi bomber involved in a plot to attack an American jet was working with Saudi intelligence and the CIA. The double agent was also linked to a drone strike on Sunday that killed Fahd al-Quso, the leader of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, who was behind the 2000 attack on USS Cole.

      Before 1990, Yemen consisted of two separate states. When British forces left the south in 1967, Marxists took over and it became known as the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen. In 1990, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled the north, negotiated a deal with the southern regime to unify the country under a power-sharing arrangement. The southerners soon had second thoughts, though, and in 1994 war broke out between the northern and southern armies (which had not been unified).

      Saleh's forces defeated the south in a matter of weeks and then consolidated their grip over the territory. The result was increased corruption, with the northern elites picking off the best jobs and land. Southerners point to swaths of prime coastal real estate that is fenced off. They say government officials from the south were all sent home and replaced by people from the capital, Sana'a. The contractors who run the gas and oilfields are from the north.

      Every night, young and old march in the streets of Aden, waving flags and calling for an end to unification. Spontaneous protests erupt as pupils leave the school gates.

      One Friday we followed a procession of 15,000 people marching with the bodies of two "martyrs" who had been killed by police. When the crowds reached the cemetery and began waving their flags, soldiers positioned on high ground overlooking the funeral opened fire, injuring three youths. The furious demonstrators taunted the soldiers, telling them to go to the Abyan region, where Islamist militants had seized control and declared an emirate. Later, a group of young men danced with the old flag of South Yemen in front of the military's armoured vehicles.

      Small units of gunmen known as "birds of heaven" fill the city at night. No one knows quite who they are: jihadis, separatists or both. One morning in the Mu'ala district of Aden we saw five of them: short, thin and hungry young men manning a roadblock that was carjacking government buses. We saw them again one night standing on a street corner by the qat market, waiting to attack a police convoy. Another time, a different group of gunmen with faces covered had blocked another road to demand the release of a comrade.


      In an old house in Aden, Jemajem gathered a dozen of his followers. His attire, like his politics, was a mix of every militant and revolutionary trend that has swept through the Middle East. The black shirt; black combat trousers and black keffiyeh wrapped around his head is a nod to the Shia fighters of Hezbollah, while his long unkempt beard and the black hair falling to his shoulder is a salute to the jihadis of south Yemen.

      "The youth is agitated, militant and demands freedom," Jemajem told them, "and the only way to get freedom is by grabbing it with your hand. America won't give us freedom – we have to fight for it."

      Many years before the Arab spring, he and hundreds of other activists in south Yemen started a peaceful movement demanding freedom, the end of Saleh's autocratic rule and the northern exploitation of the south. The state responded with oppression.

      In less than half a decade, Jemajem was jailed six times, beaten up, tortured – including being hanged from the ceiling of his cell for days – and had his hair and beard shaved with a knife. At the end of this experience, he had been transformed from a peaceful demonstrator into a militant leader calling for armed struggle.

      The peaceful demonstrators evolved into a separatist movement, Hirak, demanding the "independence" and "restoration of the state of South Yemen". But Hirak followed the trajectory of other Arab uprisings: a mass popular movement without real leaders degenerated into an array of supreme salvation councils and revolutionary committees, each claiming to be the real representative of the people while bickering over personal slights and antagonisms.

      "I tell you my brothers, you have to revolt against not only the oppression of the north but also against those who claim to be our leaders," Jemajem told his followers. "The Arab world is deposing its dictators and you are bringing your own. These people are nothing but stuffed mummies."

      It was frustration at the Hirak leaders' ineffectiveness that led the group to Tehran. "We went to Iran with a sense of shame," said a woman activist, "because all doors were closed in our faces and only the Iranians offered to help."

      What did they say to the Iranians in the end? "We said no," said Jemajem. The Iranians attached a key condition: that the supply of guns would not be controlled by Hirak but by the Houthi rebels in the north – Shia insurgents who have been fighting the central government for almost a decade and are widely believed to be backed by Iran.

      "They told us the Houthis would deliver the weapons and the money," said Jemajem. "We are trying to liberate our country from the northerners – I am not going to be under the control of another northerner.

      "We realised then that the Iranians want us to be pawns," he said. "I refused to take their money."

      On his return from Tehran, Jemajem turned to the jihadis. He spent a few weeks living with them in the nascent Islamic emirate based in the southern Yemeni city of Ja'ar. Although at heart a secular leftist, the "Guevara of the south" was impressed by the Islamists' strength.

      "Look at our brothers the mujahideen in Ja'ar," he said to the group gathered in Aden. "They carried weapons and liberated their lands and they have created order. They created something out of nothing. Do you know how? Because the youth of al-Qaida fight for a cause while we in the Hirak haven't put our beliefs in our hearts. We have to sacrifice and die."

      At this, some of the assembled young revolutionaries rolled their eyes: most are secular activists who chew qat and smoke, and have little to do with religion.

      "Do you want a sharia state?" asked one. "We are fighting for a civil state here. The jihadis won't bring us that."

      "I don't want an Islamic state but the jihadis are coming," said Jemajem. He drew a circle on a cushion. "Look, the jihadis are surrounding Aden, they have taken the east [Zanjibar and Ja'ar] and are now attacking checkpoints in the north. Some of their men are already inside the city."

      The battle for Aden was coming soon, Jemajem said, and the separatists would be making a mistake to resist them.

      "I told our leaders that when the jihadis take Aden, I won't send my men to die fighting them," he said.

      "If young men lose hope in our cause they will be looking for an alternative. And our hopeless young men are joining al-Qaida.

      Yemen's 'untouchables' doubtful of change
      The Akhdam caste live in slums and work menial jobs, with little regard given to their basic human rights.
      Last Modified: 24 Apr 2012 05:05


      Distinguished by their dark skin, Yemen's 'untouchables', who prefer to be called the marginalised ones, are a caste languishing at society's lowest social order.

      Named the Akhdam, an Arabic word for servant, they are confined to living in slums and working menial jobs, with no regard given to their basic human rights.

      Activists and community leaders are fighting to eliminate stereotypes and destroy the stigma that surrounds them.

      But there is a growing sense among many Akhdam that there is nothing they can do to put an end to the pervasive culture of discrimination and prejudice.

      In the second in a three-part series called "Breaking The Bonds," Al Jazeera's Hashem Ahelbarra reports from Sanaa.


      Saudi Arabian girls' school defies basketball ban
      Girls' school in Eastern province defies clerics by installing basketball hoops and allowing pupils to play at break-time
      guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 25 April 2012 12.59 BST


      A girls' school in Saudi Arabia has defied a religious ban on female sports by erecting basketball hoops and allowing pupils to play at break-time, the daily al-Watan has reported.

      Powerful clerics in the conservative Islamic kingdom have long spoken against permitting girls to play sports, with one senior figure saying in 2009 it might lead them to lose their virginity by tearing their hymens.

      Saudi Arabia's austere interpretation of Islamic law prevents women from working, opening bank accounts or having some elective surgery without the permission of a male relative. They are not allowed to drive.

      King Abdullah has pushed for women to have better opportunities in education and employment and last year said they could vote and run for office in municipal elections, the only official polls in the monarchy.

      The school in Saudi Arabia's Eastern province has become the first state-run girls' school openly to encourage sports, Watan reported on Wednesday, quoting a supervisor as saying it would expend pupils' energy "in a positive way". Private girls' schools already offer sports classes.

      In recent months Saudi Arabia has faced criticism for having never fielded a woman athlete at the Olympics, with Human Rights Watch calling for the kingdom be barred from this year's London games.

      Amid mounting international scrutiny of the issue, local media reported this month that the deputy education minister for female student affairs, the kingdom's first woman minister, was considering setting up "a comprehensive physical education programme" for both sexes.

      "The school administration is hoping to instil the importance of sports among the students and introduce them to its benefits, as well as allowing them to spend their spare time doing something beneficial," Amina Bu Bsheit, a school supervisor, was quoted as saying by Watan.

      She added that the school, which was not named in Watan's report, still did not provide a physical education class but that the students play during weekly "activities classes".


      Bahrain: The stories that aren't being covered
      Bahraini human rights activists and commentators come together to discuss issues that aren't getting covered.
      Last Modified: 06 May 2012 18:23


      Nabeel Rajab - arrested on May 5 by Bahraini authorities - is one of Bahrain's most well-known human rights activists and president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights. Mohammed is a pseudonym for an activist. Abdulhadi Khalaf is a professor of sociology at Lund University and Ala'a Shehabi is a political activist and commentator based in Manama. These interviews were conducted by Al Jazeera via email, skype and in person.


      Britain’s craven silence over Bahrain stinks of hypocrisy
      By Emanuel Stoakes
      Notebook - A selection of Independent views -, Opinion
      Monday, 30 April 2012 at 4:35 pm


      The recent Grand Prix in Bahrain drew the world’s attention, but hardly for reasons that will be pleasing to the ruling House of Khalifa or their embattled government in Manama. The highly-visible anger of protesters prior to the race, directed both at the regime and Formula One, reminded the world that Bahrain is still a country in crisis, a nation in which a large portion of its citizens are still calling for full civil rights.

      Revelations about the deportation of Channel 4 film crews recording protests and the death of Salah Abbas Habib, a protester alleged to have been killed by riot police prior to the race, only made matters worse for F1 and the leadership of the small gulf state. The latter incident brought back reminders of the repressive response by Bahrain’s security forces to the first burst of the continuing, Arab Spring-inspired civil unrest in spring last year.

      That a great deal of the security services’ treatment of protesters a little over a year ago was grossly disproportionate and probably criminal is not a matter of controversy: the Khalifa monarchy both commissioned and appeared to endorse the findings of the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), a paper that detailed the conclusions of a probe into the government crackdown on protests last year. The report recognized that the torture of detainees in custody and civilian deaths at the hands of the security services occurred. In response to its conclusions, the King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa indicated that reforms would be forthcoming.

      Despite such highly public gestures, according to a recent report produced by the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights at least 31 people have died at the hands of the state since the BICI paper was published – three reportedly tortured to death. In addition, Amnesty Internationalstated in February that the “Bahraini government remains far from delivering the human rights changes that were recommended by [the BICI report]”.

      It seems that there’s little sign of meaningful reform quite yet. So why did Britain still sell arms to Bahrain between July and September 2011, and why did David Cameron not call for the Grand Prix to be halted in order to send a clear message to back the Foreign Office’s self-proclaimed commitment to the promotion of democracy and human rights?

      Questioned on the issue of Bahrain before the Grand Prix, the Prime Minister provided the media with two anaemic sound-bites: he mustered the intellectual honesty to state that “Bahrain is not Syria” (full marks for observation) and added that “there is a process of reform underway [in Bahrain], and this government backs that reform.” Cameron omitted to mention in his press sermon, however, that Bashar Al-Assad’s Uncle, Rifaat, currently lives in luxury in London where the coalition have failed to trouble him about a bloodbath in Hama in 1982 that he is alleged to have been involved in – resulting in the death of up to an estimated 40,000 people. His son maintains that his father was innocent of the massacre and was framed in revenge for allegedly attempting a coup against the President, his late brother. As for the “process of reform” claimed as being underway in Bahrain, there are many who are waiting to see it bear real fruit. One of
      them is Sara Yasin from the international rights group Index on Censorship, an organisation that continues to follow the situation in Bahrain closely.

      “As far as I’ve seen, the reforms have been a sham”, she said. “I was in Bahrain for the reading of the report and we’ve been monitoring the situation since then. There’s still protests being crushed, there’s still people dying.” She added that “there are lots of people still in prison for liking a page on Facebook, for sending mobile phone messages” containing anti-government content.

      Yet if the UK’s quiescence about the small gulf island’s human rights problems are worthy of reprobation, how much more so is the UK’s long-standing silence over the rights record of Bahrain’s neighbour Saudi Arabia- arguably the most illiberal nation in the region?

      Sadly, it is not difficult to suspect why we don’t draw attention to Riyadh or Manama, but criticise the regimes in Tehran or Damascus. Both Bahrain and Saudi Arabia have traded with Britain for a long time in two key markets: oil, and the arms trade.

      Vince Cable, ever a man less inclined to equivocation then many of his slick colleagues in the coalition, told a committee of MPs last year that “we do trade with governments that are not democratic and have bad human rights records … We do business with repressive governments and there’s no denying that.”A brief glance at Amnesty’s report on Saudi Arabia will confirm Cable’s candid assessment.

      If Britain really cared about human rights as a universal principle to be held above the dictations of political expedience we’d at least be a bit more balanced and/or selective about which nations we criticize, partner with or sell arms to.

      During the war on terror our ally the US allied itself with Uzbekistan’s dictator Islam Karimov, a man who has reportedly boiled his political opponents alive. According to John Pilger, writing in The Guardian, we sold arms and provided diplomatic support to some of the world’s most appalling autocrats during Thatcher’s years.

      Then there are the other scandals that dance about our post-war history: extraordinary rendition, Operation Jackboot, the depopulation of Diego Garcia, the lies and machinations over Suez, the Mau Mau rebellion, the bloody mess in Iraq. In the opinion of this writer, the long list of Britain’s offences (direct and indirect) against peace in the years since we signed the Geneva conventions – continuing right up to the present day – mock our occasional posturing as a moral arbiter on the international stage.

      What’s more, as long as our banks invest in cluster bombs, British arm companies do business with wealthy dictators, PR firms practice their “dark arts” on behalf of dubious governments under the cover of weak lobbying laws, we engage in self-ridicule every time we talk of promoting British values, human rights, democracy.

      But tell that to the Foreign Office. Realpolitik shadows our steps.
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