Saturday, December 6, 2014
WITH HANEEN ZOU'BI
At a Glance
Write a letter, change his life
Please write to the King of Saudi Arabia and urge him to release Raif Badawi now.
Start your letter “Your Excellency” and send it to: His Majesty King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz Al Saud, The Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques, Office of His Majesty the King, Royal Court, Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Raif Badawi is serving a 10-year prison sentence in Saudi Arabia, mainly for setting up a website. We talk to another local blogger – who has to remain anonymous for their own safety – about different tactics the authorities use to silence people online.
1. Gagging anyone with an independent opinion
“Overall, the situation in Saudi Arabia is very bad, particularly from the point of view of people with independent opinions who go against the grain. Recently, there have been investigations, arrests and short-term detentions of journalists, athletes, poets, bloggers, activists and tweeters.”
2. Blaming everything on terrorism
“The authorities are fragile. They seek to gag and stifle dissent using various means, including the shameful Terrorism Law that has become a sword waved in the faces of people with opinions. Courts issue prison sentences of 10 years or more as a result of a single tweet. Atheists and people who contact human rights organizations are attacked as ‘terrorists’.”
3. Personal attacks on bloggers
“I have been harassed in many ways. The authorities approached the internet providers hosting my personal website and asked them to block it and delete all the content. They also dispatched security officers to tell me to stop what I was doing in my own and my family’s best interests. I was later officially banned from blogging and threatened with arrest if I continued. I succumbed and stopped in order to protect my family.”
4. Bans, false accusations and being fired from your job
“There are many cases of bloggers being restricted or banned. Some of them – whom I know – are still being investigated about blogs they wrote in 2008, even though they aren’t involved in blogging anymore. Saudi bloggers can also be fired from their jobs and prevented from making a living. Many face false allegations that they are ‘atheists’or ‘demented’. Restrictions are imposed on almost every aspect of the blogger’s life.”
5. Far-reaching online surveillance and censorship
“Censorship is at its maximum, especially after passing the Terrorism Law. A poet was arrested as a result of a single tweet which indirectly criticized King Abdullah using symbolic language. With millions of web users in Saudi Arabia, this means the authorities are keeping an eye on everything that’s being written. We have also received reports through international newspapers that Saudi Arabia uses surveillance to hack and monitor activists’ accounts.”
6. Deploying an electronic army
“The authorities have powerful cyber armies which give a false impression of the situation in Saudi Arabia to deceive people overseas. They launch websites, YouTube channels and blogs to target activists and opponents, and depict them as atheists, infidels and agents who promote disobedience of the Ruler. By contrast, these websites, channels and blogs often praise the state and its efforts. I have personally been the victim of such state orchestrated campaigns that harmed my reputation.”
7. Brutal punishments
“Raif Badawi’s case further demonstrates the brutality of a state that still rules through punishments from the Middle Ages, like flogging, hefty fines and exaggerated prison terms. The Saudi government needs to know that it doesn’t own the world and that it can’t silence the world’s voice with its money.”
Britain to set up new naval base in repressive kingdom
By Brian Whitaker
Britain announced yesterday that it is to build a new naval base in Bahrain, in what Sky News describes as "a landmark deal". The BBC notes that this will be Britain's first permanent military base in the Middle East since it formally withdrew from the region in 1971.
Commenting on the deal, defence secretary Michael Fallon said: "This new base is a permanent expansion of the Royal Navy's footprint and will enable Britain to send more and larger ships to reinforce stability in the Gulf ... We will now be based again in the Gulf for the long term."
Britain currently has four mine-hunter warships based at Mina Salman in Bahrain and the facilities there will be expanded to "provide a forward operating base, with a place to plan, store equipment for naval operations, and accommodate personnel".
The announcement came less than two weeks after Bahrain held controversial elections which were boycotted by the main opposition party and several others, and just a day after Zainab al-Khawaja, a prominent Bahraini dissident, was sentenced to three years in jail for tearing up a picture of the king.
It also came after a report last month by the British parliament's foreign affairs committee criticised the government's stance on Bahrain. It said:
"We see little or no evidence that Bahrain has made enough progress in implementing political reform and safeguarding human rights, and we believe that the FCO [the British Foreign Office] should have bitten the bullet and designated Bahrain as a country of concern."
Negotiations over the military base may help to explain the British government's enthusiasm for the recent elections in Bahrain. On election day, both the Foreign Office in London and the British embassy in Bahrain, together with a British MEP invited by the Bahraini government, used social media to put a positive spin on the polls.
Opposition parties boycotted the elections on the grounds that Bahrain's parliament has too little power and electoral boundaries had been gerrymandered to the regime's advantage.
Bahrain is ruled by the Khalifa family who belong to the Sunni minority (most Bahrainis are Shia Muslims). Since independence, the kingdom has had only one prime minister – the present king's uncle – who has been in office for 43 years and is the world's longest-serving prime minister.
In 2011, when large-scale protests erupted, other Arab Gulf states – led by Saudi Arabia – sent troops to prop up Bahrain's autocratic monarchy and the main protest camp on Pearl Roundabout was cleared by force. The regime has since promised reforms but has been slow to deliver amid reports of disagreements within the ruling family about how to proceed.
Among western powers, Britain has the cosiest relationship with Bahrain – partly for historical reasons since the kingdom is a former British protectorate – and Britain has been heavily involved over the years in "helping" with its internal security. This included placing Ian Henderson, a notorious Scottish-born colonel who became known as the "Butcher of Bahrain", at the head of the kingdom's secret police.
In 2010, Bahrain demanded the removal of Britain's ambassador, Jamie Bowden, accusing him of "interfering in the country's internal affairs" after he met members of the opposition al-Wefaq party. Britain duly shuffled Bowden off to Oman and replaced him with Iain Lindsay who is regarded as little more than a PR man for the regime.
Although the American Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, since the 2011 uprising the US has been more critical and circumspect than Britain in its dealings with the regime. Last July, Bahrain ordered Tom Malinowski, the US assistant secretary of state for human rights, to cut short a visit on the grounds that he had violated "conventional diplomatic norms" by meeting the leader of the Wefaq opposition party. The US responded by suspending some of its arms sales and this week Malinowski was finally allowed to return.
Malinowski has since been making more conciliatory (if ambivalent) noises, saying "There has been progress but there's still a ways to go, and I think the election showed both sides of that."
Last year Bahrain also launched a campaign against the American ambassador, Thomas Krajeski, on the grounds that he had held "repeated meetings with instigators of sedition" but the US – unlike Britain – did not cave in to this pressure and Krajeski is still in his post.
Bahrain's anger seems to have been partly motivated by a State Department report which said the most serious human rights problems in Bahrain included "citizens' inability to change their government peacefully; arrest and detention of protesters on vague charges, in some cases leading to their torture in detention".
The future of the Fifth Fleet in Bahrain has also been called into question by some senior American figures, including Dennis Blair, a former chief of the US Pacific Command. In an article published last year, Blair wrote:
"The Fifth Fleet headquarters should be moved back on board a flagship, as it was until 1993. This is an expensive proposition at a time when the defense budget is being reduced, but it is necessary. Permanent basing in a repressive Bahrain undermines our support for reform and is vulnerable if instability continues."
Violating freedom of speech
The sentencing of Zainab al-Khawaja this week for tearing up the king's picture is just one example of the regime's repressive behaviour – often over very trivial matters. The case is an obvious violation of Bahrain's commitments under the International Covenant on Civil and Politicial Rights (ICCPR).
As the UN Human Rights Committee has made clear in the past, the right to criticise and even insult a head of state is an essential part of the right to free expression:
"In circumstances of public debate concerning public figures in the political domain and public institutions, the value placed by the Covenant upon uninhibited expression is particularly high. Thus, the mere fact that forms of expression are considered to be insulting to a public figure is not sufficient to justify the imposition of penalties ... Moreover, all public figures, including those exercising the highest political authority such as heads of state and government, are legitimately subject to criticism and political opposition."
However, this is not the first time that Bahrain has run into trouble with the UN over its flouting of the Covenant in connection with Ms Khawaja.
A move in the wrong direction
Establishing a "permanent" British military presence in Bahrain is plainly a move in the wrong direction, with little regard for Britain's long-term interests. Defence secretary Fallon says it will "reinforce stability in the Gulf" – which it may well do in the short term – but it will also make things worse when the floodgates eventually burst.
It ties Britain yet more closely to the Gulf's autocratic regimes which are holding out against political change while also fomenting sectarian conflict in their efforts to cling on to power.
And it's foolish to talk of a permanent base in Bahrain – and spend money on it – when nobody can say with any certainty who will be ruling the country 10 or 20 years from now.
I don't know whether to laugh or cry as I hear Syrian media outlets pay lip service to Bashar Al-Assad for his steadfastness as he battles a so-called international conspiracy against him. These sources claim that Al-Assad managed to force the conspiracy towards the route of failure. So, if the failure of this international conspiracy led to the destruction of Syria and the displacement of its people, what would its success look like, God forbid? What would Syria look like? Perhaps with another victory of this nature the country would disappear from the map in its entirety.
Friday, December 5, 2014
Journalist Max Blumenthal says centrist parties have no other political purpose besides promoting the image of Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East
By Jonathan Cook
- See more at: http://www.alaraby.co.uk/english/politics/17c0e1a5-3570-434e-9839-b9dcbec43e07#sthash.GN0n3VMV.dpuf
Dr Azzam Tamimi
The New York Times
BAGHDAD — Iranian fighter jets struck extremist targets in Iraq recently, Iranian and American officials have confirmed, in the latest display of Tehran’s new willingness to conduct military operations openly on foreign battlefields rather than covertly and through proxies.
The shift stems in part from Iran’s deepening military role in Iraq in the war against the Sunni extremists of the Islamic State. But it also reflects a profound change in Iran’s strategy, stepping from the shadows into a more overt use of hard power as it promotes Shiite influence around the region.
Iranian and Pentagon officials acknowledged that Iran had stepped up its military operations in Iraq last week, using 1970s-era fighter jets to bomb targets in a buffer zone that extends 25 miles into Iraq.
The new military approach highlights an unusual confluence of interests in both Iraq and Syria, where Tehran and Washington find themselves fighting the same enemy in an increasingly public fashion. While there is no direct coordination between Iran and the United States, there is a de facto nonaggression pact that neither side is eager to acknowledge.
“We are flying missions over Iraq, we coordinate with the Iraqi government as we conduct those,” Rear Adm. John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, said Tuesday. “It’s up to the Iraqi government to de-conflict that airspace.”
For months, Iran has flashed its military prowess around the region. It has offered weapons to the Lebanese Army and supported the Shiite Houthi rebels in Yemen who have taken over the capital, Sana, where a car bomb struck the Iranian ambassador’s residence on Wednesday.
In Syria, Hezbollah, the Iranian-supported Shiite militant movement, and the Iranian paramilitary Al Quds force, have kept President Bashar al-Assad in power. And in Iraq, Iran’s once-elusive spymaster, Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, the commander of the Quds force who has spent a career in the shadows orchestrating terrorist attacks — including some that killed American soldiers in Iraq — has emerged as a public figure, with pictures of him on Iraq’s battlefields popping up on social media.
The apparent shift in Iran’s strategy has been most noticeable in Iraq, where even American officials acknowledge the decisive role of Iranian-backed militias, particularly in protecting Baghdad from an assault by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, but also working with the American-led air campaign.
While Iran’s increasingly public military role has proved essential in repelling the advances of the Islamic State, American officials worry that it could ultimately destabilize Iraq by deepening sectarian divisions. Iraq’s Sunnis blame the Iranian-backed Shiite militias for sectarian abuses, and are reluctant to join in the fight against extremists because of Iran’s influence.
Admiral Kirby said: “Our message to Iran is the same today as it was when it started, and as it is to any neighbor in the region that is involved in the anti-ISIL activities. And that’s that we want nothing to be done that further inflames sectarian tensions in the country.”
The admiral, who indirectly confirmed the airstrikes by saying that he had “no reason to believe” the reports about them were untrue, said that they appeared so far to be limited.
The airstrikes occurred at the end of November in Iraq’s eastern Diyala Province, where Iran’s territory is closest to Iraq’s battlefields, Hamid Reza Taraghi, an Iranian politician, confirmed. He also confirmed the existence of the buffer zone, which he said was accepted by the Iraqis.
“We do not tolerate any threats within the buffer zone, and these targets were in the vicinity of the buffer zone,” Mr. Taraghi said, adding that the strikes had killed dozens of extremist fighters.
In Iraq, a degree of coordination between the American military and Iran’s is imperative but also awkward, making it appear that the United States is working in tandem with its adversary. Often a single Iraqi officer will serve as an intermediary between the American-led air campaign and the Iranians.
Iraqi leaders say that Tehran has often been faster than Washington to offer help in a crisis. When the Islamic State stormed Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, in June and moved south toward Baghdad, President Obama took a measured approach, pushing for political changes before committing to military action. But Iran jumped right in. It was the first country to send weapons to the Kurds in the north, and moved quickly to protect Baghdad, working with militias it supported already.
“When Baghdad was threatened, the Iranians did not hesitate to help us, and did not hesitate to help the Kurds when Erbil was threatened,” Iraq’s prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, said in a recent television interview here, referring to the Kurdish capital in the north.
He contrasted that approach to that of the United States, saying the Iranians were “unlike the Americans, who hesitated to help us when Baghdad was in danger, and hesitated to help our security forces.”
“And the reason Iran did not hesitate to help us,” Mr. Abadi added, “was because they consider ISIS as a threat to them, not only to us.”
Ali Khedery, a former American official in Iraq, said, “For the Iranians, really, the gloves are off.”
Of the growing regional role of General Suleimani, Mr. Khedery was blunt. “Suleimani is the leader of Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Yemen,” he said. “Iraq is not sovereign. It is led by Suleimani, and his boss, Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei” — Iran’s supreme leader.
While the United States and Iran are traditional rivals, if they can reach a deal over Iran’s nuclear program, more normal relations could follow, including close cooperation against the Islamic State. That was the point Mr. Obama made in a letter to the ayatollah last month urging him to sign off on the nuclear deal.
But the letter, as well as an earlier one wishing the Iranian leader a speedy recovery from surgery, may have backfired, one analyst said, projecting a weakness that only encouraged Iran to display its power more openly.
“When Obama sends letters to our leader wishing him a speedy recovery, to us that is a sign of weakness,” said one Iranian journalist closely connected to the conservative Revolutionary Guards. “During meetings the letter is discussed and we conclude: ‘Obama needs a deal. He needs us.’ We would never write him such a letter.”
Shiite politicians in Iraq are hopeful that a nuclear deal would lead to greater coordination between the United States and Iran in the war here, though experts say there is no indication Iran would welcome direct coordination. In an interview this week, Hakim al-Zamili, an Iraqi politician and a Shiite militia leader, said, “If there were an honest coordination between U.S. and Iranian advisers, Iraq could have been liberated within a week.”
Sunnis fear that such a deal would give Iran legitimacy on the world stage, and embolden them to exert even more influence here and across the region. Mithal al-Alusi, a Sunni lawmaker, said that an agreement between the United States and Iran would mean “the Americans are handing over Iraq to Iran.”
The Obama administration has made clear that while it welcomes Iran’s help in fighting the extremists, there is no actual coordination.
“I think it’s self-evident that if Iran is taking on ISIL in some particular place and it’s confined to taking on ISIL and it has an impact, it’s going to be — the net effect is positive,” Secretary of State John Kerry said on Tuesday in Brussels, where he met with other members of the coalition against the Islamic State. “But that’s not something that we’re coordinating.”
Correction: December 4, 2014
Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misidentified the country that is not directly coordinating with the United States in its military operations against extremist fighters in Iraq. That country is Iran, not Iraq.