Sunday, September 25, 2016
‘Damascus dictator’s arm can reach even to Britain’ says award winning campaigner
British authorities have confiscated the passport of a prominent Syrian critic of Bashar al-Assad at the request of the government in Damascus, effectively preventing her from travelling and blocking her work as an activist.
Zaina Erhaim, an award-winning journalist and campaigner based in Turkey, had her passport taken away by UK border officials when she landed at Heathrow airport. After more than an hour of questioning, they told her that the document had been reported stolen.
The complaint came from the government she has been campaigning against for years. “I expect to be harassed inside my country,’ Erhaim told the Observer. “I know that if I went home I would be killed, but now I find that Assad’s arm can even reach to the UK. This is a dictator pursuing a journalist.”
A receipt that Erhaim was given for the passport states: “Document reported as stolen.” Erhaim, who is travelling to the UK for an event with the BBC’s Kate Adieat the Kew literary festival, said it contained her name, photograph and fingerprint. Erhaim had previously used the passport without problems to travel to the UK in April, when she collected the Index on Censorship’s Freedom of Expression Journalism award for her work. She had also travelled on it without any problems across Europe.
The officials told her that they “did not get involved in politics” and that this was “our system, our rules”. The passport would be returned to Damascus, they said. Erhaim also has an older Syrian passport that she can use to return to Turkey, because it is still valid. But because it has no pages left for visas or immigration stamps – the reason she got the new document – she will effectively be unable to leave Turkey again.
“This is just the regime trying to handicap us,” she said. “They are collaborating with him. And they still wonder why Syrians are floating all over Europe seeking asylum.” The decision is particularly painful because it was taken by a government that had given Erhaim a prestigious Chevening Award, which brings “future leaders, influencers and decision-makers” to study in the UK. “What really, really hurts me is I am a Chevening scholar, you funded my master’s degree and I work for a UK-based, UK-funded organisation,” she said. “And despite that you take the regime’s word against mine.”
The development came two days after foreign secretary Boris Johnson said a change of government was the key to peace in Syria, and blamed Assad’s government for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians. “There can be no genuine ceasefire unless there is a genuine political agreement that we can have a transition away from the Assad government,” Johnson told the UN security council. “Because it is the Assad government that is responsible. That regime is responsible for the vast majority of the 400,000 deaths.”
The Home Office said Britain had to comply with the request because passports are the legal property of the government that issues them. “If a passport is reported as lost or stolen by a foreign government we have no choice but to confiscate it,” the spokesman said. He suggested that Erhaim seek consular assistance from the Syrian government, which has a well-documented history of imprisoning, torturing and killing opponents.
This was condemned by Index on Censorship, which invited Erhaim to speak at the event. “I am appalled and frankly ashamed at the treatment of Zaina Erhaim by the UK. This is a woman who has risked her life simply to do what every good journalist aspires to do – bring both sides of the story – in an area of conflict that is also her home,” chief executive Jodie Ginsberg said. “The message the UK sends when it takes such action is that it is not on the side of those struggling to defend human dignity amid the inhumanity of war.”
Saturday, September 24, 2016
Unicef says children at risk of outbreaks of waterborne diseases after two pumping stations left out of action
Heavy bombardment of the rebel-held eastern area of Aleppo has left about 1.75 million people without running water, the United Nations has said.
Intense attacks on Friday prevented repairs to the city’s damaged Bab al-Nayrab pumping station, which supplies water to 250,000 people in the eastern parts of the city, according to the UN’s children’s agency, Unicef.
In retaliation, the nearby Suleiman al-Halabi station, which pumps water to 1.5 million people in the west of Aleppo, was switched off, it said.
Fighting continued on Saturday, with pro-government forces intensifying the siege around eastern Aleppo and capturing a former refugee camp overlooking roads into the area. Rebel officials said heavy airstrikes, mostly carried out by Russian warplanes, hit at least four areas of the opposition-held east.
Hanaa Singer, the Unicef representative in Syria, said: “Nearly 2 million people in Aleppo are once again with no running water through the public network. Depriving children of water puts them at risk of catastrophic outbreaks of waterborne diseases and adds to the suffering, fear and horror that children in Aleppo live through every day.
“In the eastern part of Aleppo, the population will have to resort to highly contaminated well water. It is critical for children’s survival that all parties to the conflict stop attacks on water infrastructure, provide access to assess and repair damage to Bab al-Nayrab station, and switch the water back on at the Suleiman al-Halabi station.”
At least 25 people were killed on Saturday as the Syrian military continued its offensive on opposition-held areas in its attempt to retake control of the entire city, according to rebel sources. The death toll was expected to rise, with many victims still trapped beneath rubble.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said it had documented 47 deaths on Friday, including five children.
Residents of rebel-held eastern Aleppo said the area had been subjected to the most ferocious bombardment of the war in the latest offensive.
“Unfortunately it continues. There are planes in the sky now,” said Ammar al-Selmo, the head of the Syrian Civil Defence in the area.
The attackers appeared to be using ordnance more destructive than anything previously used against the area, and residents said many buildings had been destroyed.
They described the use of a missile that produced earthquake-like tremors upon impact and razed buildings to basement level, where many residents seek protection during bombing.
“They are using weapons that appear to be specifically for [bringing down] buildings,” a senior official in an Aleppo-based rebel faction, the Levant Front, told Reuters. “Most of the victims are under the rubble because more than half the civil defence has been forced out of service.”
The 250,000 residents left in eastern Aleppo have been under near-continuous siege since government troops encircled the area in mid-July.
Syrian government forces supported by Palestinian fighters took control of Handarat camp in a rebel-held area north of Aleppo on Saturday, the observatory said. The former Palestinian refugee camp, which overlooks one of the main roads into Aleppo, had been in rebel hands for years.
“Handarat has fallen,” an official with one of the main Aleppo rebel groups told Reuters. An army statement confirmed the advance, saying “large numbers of terrorists” had been killed.
Elsewhere, seven people were killed by a strike as they queued to buy yoghurt at a market in the Bustan al-Qasr neighbourhood, which sits on the frontline between the government-held west and rebel-held east of the city.
There was also major destruction in several neighbourhoods, including Al-Kalasseh and Bustan al-Qasr, where some streets were almost erased by the bombardment. Unexploded rockets lay buried in the roads in some areas, while elsewhere enormous craters had been left by the bombing, Agence France-Presse said.
The civil defence, known as the “white helmets”, was overwhelmed by the scale of the destruction, which included several of its bases.
The group said it had just two fire engines left for all of east Aleppo which, like its ambulances, were struggling to move around the city.
With no electricity or fuel for generators, the streets of Aleppo are pitch black and difficult to navigate at night, and the fuel shortage has made it hard to refill vehicles. In many places, rubble strewn across streets has rendered them impassable and has effectively sealed off neighbourhoods to traffic.
On Saturday morning the streets were nearly empty, with just a few residents out looking for bread.
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said on Saturday that reviving the ceasefire in Syria depended on all sides. “One can speak about the ceasefire revival only on the collective basis,” he told Russian television.
Russia and the US agreed to a ceasefire on 9 September, but the truce effectively collapsed after a week when an aid convoy was attacked, killing about 20 people..
The Syrian army said it was targeting rebel positions in the city, and denied hitting civilians.