U.S. Airstrike Kills Afghan Civilians

By Shayne R. Burnham
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

KABUL, Afghanistan – On Wednesday, President Barrack Obama met with Afghan and Pakistan presidents and reaffirmed the U.S.’s commitment to defeating the al Qaeda while minimizing civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

“[L]et me be clear — the United States has made a lasting commitment to defeat al Qaeda but also to support the democratically elected sovereign governments of both Pakistan and Afghanistan. That commitment will not waiver and that support will be sustained.” Obama said in a statement.

However, U.S.-led airstrikes in the Farah province in southern Afghanistan on Monday and Tuesday resurrected Karzai and Zardari’s fears of violence among his citizens.  The Red Cross stated that dozens of civilians were killed.  Meanwhile, local officials say that at least 100 have perished.

The airstrike occurred in two villages over several hours.  In a joint investigation by the U.S. and Afghanistan into the number of casualties revealed that “villagers had taken refuge in a number of houses in each village. Reports also indicate that Taliban fighters deliberately forced villagers into houses from which they then attacked ANSF (Afghan security forces) and Coalition forces.”

The team confirmed that “a number of civilians were killed” but could not determine the number of casualties between militants and civilians since the bodies were buried.  The investigations are continuing.

The U.S. dismissed accusations that more than 100 civilians were killed, placing the blame on militants who used villagers as “human shields.”

“We deeply, deeply regret that loss,” U.S. Secretary of State Clinton said of the civilian deaths.  She expressed that despite the deaths, much progress resulted from the meeting with Afghanistan and Pakistan.

On Friday, Karzai urged the U.S. to put a stop to the airstrikes.  He said “we cannot justify in any manner, for whatever number of Taliban, for whatever number of significantly important terrorists, the accidental or otherwise loss of civilians.”

For more information, please see:

Associated Press – U.S.-Afghan Probe Confirms Civilian Deaths in Battle – 9 May 2009

BBC News – Afghan Death Toll Not Confirmed – 9 May 2009

Reuters – U.S. Committed to Defeating al Qaeda – 7 May 2009

Yemen Bans Eight Newspapers for Covering Violent Clashes in Southern Yemen

By Lauren Mellinger
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

SANA’A, Yemen  – On May 7, 2009 dozens of journalists gathered in front of the press syndicate in Sana’a in a staged sit-in to protest the Yemeni governments decision to suspend more than eight newspapers for their coverage of unrest in southern Yemen.  An additional protest was held in the city of Aden.

On May 4, the Ministry of Information ordered the suspension of several privately owned newspapers including Al-Masdar, Al-Wattani, Al-Diyar, Al-Mustaqila, Al-Nida, Al-Ayyam and Al-Share, due to their recent coverage of clashes between residents and government security forces in southern Yemen.  The government has followed its decree by taking active measures to forcibly halt the sale of these publications, including seizing the production plant of one of the newspapers in order to prevent distribution.  Security forces were directed to confiscate these publications from kiosks and stores throughout Sana’a.

Yemeni Ministor of Information Hassan Ahmed al-Luzi claimed that the decision to ban the sale of these publications was necessary as the journalists had violated Yemen’s press law “by publishing articles against national unity and the country’s highest interests and they incited to violate law and order and spread hatred and enmity among the united people of Yemen.”

Following the government’s order to ban the publication and distribution of these newspapers, security forces arrested Fuad Rashif, the Editor-in-Chief of the Mukalla Press Web site.  The Web site had been covering the recent violence between residents and security forces in the south, as well as the government’s marginalization of southern Yemen.  Rashid has been held incommunicado since his arrest on May 8.

According to Joel Simon, Executive Director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, “we are concerned about the ongoing ban on independent newspapers and call on authorities to immediately end this censorship…Covering the ongoing conflict in the south is an essential journalistic function, and for authorities to ban this coverage is to criminalize journalism itself.”

Saeed Thabit, spokesman for the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate has organized the recent demonstrations of journalists in Sana’a and Aden, claiming that the government’s recent crackdown on the media is tantamount to restricting free speech, which according to Thabit is “one of the pillars of national unity and democracy.”  Thabit is seeking to unite Yemeni journalists to oppose the recent government ban.  The Committee to Protect Journalists is calling on the Yemeni government to end its ban on the media and to disclose the location of a Rashid.

For more information, please see:

Committee to Protect Journalists – Yemeni Editor Held Incommunicado, Critical Newspaper Sued – 8 May 2009

AFP – Yemen Reporters Protest at Closure of Papers – 7 May 2009

Arab Monitor – Yemeni Government Confiscates Seven Newspapers – 7 May 2009

Committee to Protect Journalists – CPJ Alarmed by Yemen Government’s Newspaper Censorship – 7 May 2009

Yemen Times – Ministry of Information Prevents Seven Newspapers from Distribution – 6 May 2009

UN to seek reparations from Israel after Investigations

By Nykoel Dinardo
Senior Desk Officer, Middle East

UNITED NATIONS – The United Nations (UN) concluded an inquiry into parts of the Gaza offensive and found that Israel is responsible for damage to seven UN facilities.  The inquiry covered damage to nine facilities total.  Of the other two, Hamas was determined to be responsible for the damage to one, and it is unsure who is responsible for the damage to the last facility. 

The investigation was led by Ian Martin, former head of Amnesty International.  The damage was done to UN clinics, schools and offices.  UN staff and other civilians were also injured or killed in the incidents.  The investigation’s scope was limited only to damage to UN property and injury or death of staff; however, the investigatory staff stated that the other injuries should be investigated under international humanitarian law.

The investigatory committee found that Israel’s conduct was negligent or reckless. It further found that the Israeli military failed to take adequate precautions to protect the UN premises.  UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said that he would seek damages from Israel for the damage.  The damage rendered by Israel has been estimated at approximately $11 Million.  Damage by Hamas has been estimated at $29, 000. 

Israeli has responded to the investigations by claiming that they were “patently biased.”  Israeli Defense Force officials claim that the UN fails to consider the fact that they were fighting against a terrorist organization.  Furthermore, they claim that many of the UN facilities were hit after Hamas used them as bases and fired rockets at Israel.  The UN investigatory committee has rejected this argument in several cases.

For more information, please see:

Haaretz – UN Demand For IDF Compensation in Gaza Could Reach $11 Million – 6 May 2009

Times – UN Report Condemns Israel over Gaza War – 6 May 2009

The Washington Times – U.N. seeks Israeli ‘reparations’ – 6 May 2009

Guardian – UN accuses Israel of Gaza ‘Negligence or Recklessness’ – 5 May 2009

Reuters – UN Report Accuses Israel of Recklessness in Gaza – 5 May 2009

Voice of America – UN Report Slams Israel for Damages During Gaza Offensive – 5 May 2009

Sri Lankan Journalist Vithyatharan Released

By Shayne R. Burnham
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka – The Colombo Magistrate Court released journalist N. Vithyatharan from jail on April 24.  He was arrested on February 26 for alleged ties with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), a separatist group fighting the government.

Vithyatharan publishes two Tamil-language daily newspapers, Uthayan in Jaffna in the northern part of the country and Sudar Oli in Colombo.

He was arrested in connection with a February 20 air attack on Colombo by two Tiger planes.  The attack killed 3 people and injured 43.

“[N.] Vithyatharan has been a respected journalist for more than 25 years in Sri Lanka,” said Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. “The nature of his arrest and the allegations that he was somehow involved in an aerial attack on Colombo only point to governmental repression of critical reporting. We are concerned that like other arrested journalists he will be held for lengthy period, and hence we call for his immediate release. The forced arrest is a tactic we have seen before in Sri Lanka.”

A two month investigation by the Colombo Criminal Division (CCD), which included searching through Vithyatharan’s phone calls and bank accounts, failed to produce any evidence.

Reporters Without Borders and other press freedom organizations welcome Vithyatharan’s release and hope that the episode will open the door for other wrongfully detained journalists. “The decision of the justice system to release N. Vithyatharan is good news which should, we hope, open the way to the release of another Tamil journalist J.S. Tissanayagan, who has been held for more than a year without evidence against him, said Reporters Without Borders.

“The fact he has been completely cleared by the security services is very positive. It seems important today that officials, including Defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa, should accept the consequences, and apologize for the accusations made against the journalist,” it added.

In an interview, Defense Minister Gothabaya Rajapakse accused Vithyatharan of being a terrorist, stating, “He was implicated in a recent air raid. If you try to shield this person, you will have blood on your hands. And if someone says that he was arrested for his journalistic activities, then he will also have blood on his hands.”

For more information, please see:

Committee to Protect Journalists – Tamil Editor Arrested in Sri Lanka – 26 February 2009

Reporters Without Borders – Reporters Without Borders Welcomes the Release of N. Vithyatharan – 24 April 2009

Tamil National – Sudar Oli Chief Editor N. Vuthyatharan Released – 24 April 2000

War with Taliban Displace Thousands of Civilians in Pakistan

By Shayne R. Burnham
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia


ISLAMABAD, Pakistan
– According to a Pakistani NGO Al Khidmat, over 65,000 civilians have been displaced by the fighting between the Taliban and government forces in Lower Dir district of the North West Frontier Province, Pakistan.  Al Khidmat has been helping these people without assistance from the government.

“There is no sign that the central Pakistan government has prepared for the exodus of civilians,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia-Pacific director. “As the military operations spread, most likely to Swat next, the government has to ensure that the fleeing civilians have adequate food, shelter, and healthcare.”

The hospital in Timergara has reported that 13 civilians have been killed as a result of the fighting.  Eyewitnesses say that over 30 houses have been destroyed.  Casualties and damage have been the result of helicopters gunfire and heavy artillery that have been fired upon the village.

“Jets dropped bombs three times,” said a villager. “There was smoke and dust; I could not tell if they hit houses. We packed our things and then started moving because we thought they might hit us as well.”

Yet the number of civilans displaced is growing, especially due to the government’s offensive launched to recapture the neighboring Buner district from Taliban control.

Despite the number of casualties and property damage, civilians are grateful for the military’s presence.  “People are happy with the operation because the government gave them a deadline to leave and the people are saying that the Taliban really want to take over Tarbela Dam and Islamabad,” said Yaqoub Khan, a local farmer.  “If they had not come, the Taliban would have established positions here in this village by now,” he said.

General Abbas said that the army was concerned about the civilians. “Our constraint is that we are launching an operation in an area where militants have held the local population hostage,” he said. “We are trying to ensure there is minimum collateral damage and minimum displacement of local people.”

For more information please see:

Amnesty International – Pakistan Displacement Crisis Worsens as Fighting Spreads – 30 April 2009

Business Standard – Swat Peace Deal ‘Practically Dead’ Say Taliban – 1 May 2009

New York Times – Civilians Flee as Pakistani Forces Hit Resistance – 29 April 2009

Spanish Judge Opens Investigation of U.S. Involvement in Torture at Guantanamo

By Karla E General
Impunity Watch Reporter, North America

WASHINGTON, United States – Judge Baltasar Garzon, an investigating magistrate at the National Court in Madrid, said he would investigate allegations made by four detainees – Hamed Abderrahman Ahmed, Lahcen Ikassrien, Jamiel Abdul Latif al Banna and Omar Deghayes – who were held at Guantanamo Bay Detention Center during the Bush administration’s reign without charges. The investigation was sparked by torture complaints from the former detainees, who alleged that they had been sexually abused and beaten “under the authority of personnel from the U.S. Army.”

Garzon

In his ruling, Garzon said he will probe the “perpetrators, the instigators, the necessary collaborators and accomplices” to crimes of torture at the prison, at the U.S. naval base in Southern Cuba. Garzon also noted that recently-declassified CIA documents by the Obama Administration “have revealed what was previously a suspicion: the existence of an authorized and systematic program of torture and mistreatment of persons deprived of their freedom,” that defies international conventions.

Since 2005, Spain has assumed the principle of universal jurisdiction in cases of crimes against humanity, genocide, and terrorism. However, it is only authorized to proceed when the cases are not already subject to prosecution by the country involved.

Garzon is well-known for his use of international human rights laws to prosecute torturers from the Argentinian military dictatorships and his attempt to extradite Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet from Britain on charges of torture and genocide.