Eight-Year-Old Sparks Rally Against Religious Extremism

Eight-Year-Old Sparks Rally Against Religious Extremism

By Carolyn Abdenour
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

BEIT SHEMESH, Israel – After ultra-Orthodox extremists harassed eight-year-old Naama Margolese, rallies erupted against ultra-Orthodox Jewish extremism.  On her way to school, these extremists spat on Naama and called a prostitute for her immodest school uniform of long-sleeved shirts and a long skirt.

Naama and her mother in their home in Beit Shemesh. (Photo Courtesy of The Sydney Morning Herald)

Beit Shemesh borders an ultra-Orthodox area and a modern Orthodox Jewish community with many American immigrants, including Naama’s parents.  Tensions have increased over the years between secular Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews who want a strict interpretation of religious law.  Naama’s religious school moved to this location in September, and the ultra-Orthodox view the school as a territorial infringement.

Almost daily for months, dozens of ultra-Orthodox men physically confront and verbally harass the 400 school girls asserting the girls’ presence is a provocation.

Naama said, “When I walk to school in the morning I used to get a tummy ache because I was so scared…that they were going to stand and start yelling and spitting…They were scary.  They don’t want us to go to school.”

Israel became enraged when they saw Naama crying on her walk to school during a local news report.  The Israeli leadership issued statement of outrage, nearly 10,000 people joined a Facebook page to protect Naama, and thousands of Israelis demonstrated on Tuesday in her honor.

President Shimon Peres supported the rally.  He stated, “The entire nation must be recruited in order to save the majority from the hands of a small minority.”

Protestor Kinneret Havern added the rally combats “all the extremist elements that are rearing their heads and are trying to impose their worldview on us”.  People held signs staying “Stop Israel from becoming Iran” and “Free Israel from religious coercion”.

As journalists came to Beit Shemesh to report on Naama, extremists jeered and threw eggs at them.  Furthermore, “modesty patrols” required chaste appearance of female by throwing stones at outsiders and violators and calling women whores.  The ultra-Orthodox population has also posted signs for sidewalk segregation of sexes and for a woman’s dress code of closed-necked, long-sleeved blouses and long skirts.

300 ultra-Orthodox men and boys threw eggs and stones at police for requiring the sidewalk segregation sign removed on Monday.  Officers detained several people and one officer sustained injuries.  Although the ultra-Orthodox activists stated they condemned the violence, they claimed the media initiated the violence to make the obedient residents look bad.

On Thursday, Naama returned to school welcomed by Education Minister Gideon Saar and members of the Knesset’s Committee on the Status of Women.  Mr. Saar said Israel will not “back down in the face of bullying and threats.”

For further information, please see:

Haaretz – Israeli 8-Year-Old Returns To School For First Time Since Accosted By Haredi Men – 29 Dec 2011

The Sydney Morning Herald – Fury At Ultra-Orthodox Jews After Girl Abused – 29 Dec 2011

BBC – Israelis Rally Against Ultra-Orthodox Extremism – 27 Dec 2011

USA Today – Israeli Girl’s Plight Highlights Jewish Extremism – 27 Dec 2011

Moscow Protests For Jailed Opposition Leader Pass Peacefully

By Terance Walsh
Impunity Watch Reporter, Europe

MOSCOW, Russia —  Protests over the jailing of Russian activist Sergei Udaltsov took place in Moscow today.  The protests were not sanctioned but were smaller than expected and passed without incident, perhaps signaling a cooling of political unrest following teeming protests in Russia last month.  About two hundred Russians participated in the protests although two thousand indicated their intention to attend on social media outlets.

A demonstrator raises a picture of Sergei Udaltsov, a jailed opposition leader in Russia. (Photo courtesy of The Guardian)

The jailed activist, Udaltsov, is the leader of the socialist party Left Front.  He has been arrested over a dozen times but has failed to attract any attention outside a small core of supporters.  Udaltsov was arrested on December 5th upon allegations of jaywalking and has been in prison ever since.  Twice during his stay in prison Udaltsov has been admitted to the hospital for health problems caused by his hunger strike.

City officials in Moscow had denied the protestors a permit to gather, but Udaltsov’s wife, Anastasia Udaltsov, encouraged people to show up in Moscow’s Pushkin Square for the rally anyway.

There was a worry that the demonstrations would turn violent.  A source in the Moscow police department said if the protestors did not comply with prescribed meeting formats the police would intervene.  “Any attempts to abuse the format of the meeting will be viewed as violations, which the Moscow police must stop in strict compliance with the law,” he said.

Leaders of the gathering told protestors not to bring placards, chant slogans, or confront the police.  Instead participants brought photographs of Udalstov or simply stood silently on the steps of the monument.  A few people chanted simple phrases like “freedom for political prisoners” or used mega-phones to demand Udaltsov’s release.  Protestors were relieved when the demonstration went off without a single recorded arrest.

The Udalstov protests are the latest in a series of the largest protests Russia has seen since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.  The underlying thrust of the protests has been the perceived election fraud that occurred in the December 5th parliamentary elections.

Authorities’ response to the Udaltsov protests were soft, likely as a result of the lessons they learned after early protests resulted in violence and greater turnout.  The protests on December 5th were broken up and opposition leaders were jailed.  A few days later the crowd swelled to about 40,000 in Bolotnaya Square.  On December 24th the protests surged further to a crowd of 80,000 people.

Prime minister Vladimir Putin denied the protestors’ demands for a re-run of the parliamentary elections, but did take a conciliatory turn and said he would be willing to sit down with opposition.  His offer, however, was without substance as he followed his offer to meet with opposition by remarking that there was no opposition.  “Is there a common platform? No. Who is there to talk to?” he said.

Assistant to a law maker who was behind the demonstration Alexei Sakhnin, 30, said the protests were a statement to authorities that the political unrest was not yet ready to subside.

“The regime wants to clear the movement and divide it up the middle between radicals and moderates — these are their definitions of course — to show that there are people who will never be included at the negotiating table,” said Mr. Sakhnin, who carried his 4½-year-old son to the rally on his shoulders.  “That would of course be the death of the movement.”

Anti-corruption protestor Aleksei Navalny said that if violence broke out and riots took place in the street then it would be the judge that presided over Udaltsov’s case who would be to blame.  Udaltsov also received support from television host Tina Kandelaki, who is known to have connections with the Kremlin.  She wrote an open letter on Thursday calling for his release.

Udaltsov, in a speech delivered from his hospital bed that was projected onto large screens, channeled the Occupy Wall Street Movement.  He dubbed the protestors the “99 percent” who were being ruled and oppressed by the corrupt “1 percent” of bureaucrats and oligarchs.  He remains in the hospital due to health concerns following his hunger strike.

For more information please see:

CBC News — Moscow Anti-government Protests Avoid Crackdown — 29 December 2011

The Guardian — Protests for Jailed Activist Passes Off Peacefully — 29 December 2011

NY Times — Russians Rally for Sergei Udaltsov — 29 December 2011

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty — Opposition Activist Rally in Central Moscow — 29 December 2011

Washington Post — Several Hundred Demonstrators in Moscow Demand Release of Opposition Activist — 29 December 2011

Kyiv Post — Police to Stop Opposition Action in Moscow — 28 December 2011

China’s Christmas Crackdown Continues

By: Hibberd Kline
Impunity Watch Reporter, Asia

BEIJING, China – On Monday, an intermediate level people’s court in Guiyang, the capital of China’s southwestern Guizhou province, sentenced 57 year-old activist Chen Xi to ten years in prison for “subversion of state power” and “inciting subversion of state power.”

Chen Xi has been jailed repeatedly for his continued advocacy of human rights and freedom of expression in China. (Photo Courtesy of BBC News).

The court also announced that Chen will be “deprived of his political rights” for three years.

According to a statement by Amnesty International, neither “subversion” or “incit[ing] others to subvert state power,” which are common charges leveled against activists in China, is adequately defined by Chinese law  or related regulatory interpretations.

Chen Xi is a former soldier and factory worker, who was previously jailed for three years in 1989 for his support of the student protests in Tiananmen Square. Chen served an additional ten year jail term from 1995-2006 for “organizing and leading a counter-revolutionary group.” Chen is also a prominent member of Guizhou Human Rights Forum, which was outlawed inside China on December 5.

Chen’s conviction follows his arrest on November 29 in what activists claim to be a response to his authoring 36 online articles critical of the state and Communist party. The articles were published both domestically and abroad and called for political reform and improvement of human rights inside China. Chen has also recently incurred the ire of officials by campaigning for the election of independent candidates to the local people’s congress.

Chen Xi’s sentence is one in a series of lengthy prison terms recently handed down to human rights activists by Chinese authorities. Many analysts believe that the arrests, speedy trials, and imprisonments have been deliberately timed to coincide with an annual window of low-key diplomatic activity in the West during the Christmas holiday in order to minimize criticism.

The trial reportedly lasted only a few hours and was punctuated by frequent interruptions of the defense counsel by the judge, whom Chen’s wife, Zhang Qunxuan, claims ignored every point made in Chen’s defense. Though Chen was able to express his contention that he was innocent of all charges, he was prevented from reading out his final statement to the court. According to Zhang, the judge pointed out that Chen was a “repeat offender” deserving of a long prison sentence and said that Chen’s crime was “major” and “had a malign impact.”

Chen Xi’s family was informed of his trial on Saturday. However, according to Zhang the authorities refused to inform her what her husband had been charged with, citing rules against sharing information with family members. Additionally, the family was instructed that only three family members would be allowed to attend the court’s proceedings.

Many activists have suggested that the speed and consistency of the results of the Christmas trials prove that the trials were merely for show and that the verdicts were predetermined.

During the past year, Chinese authorities have clamped down on free expression and have arrested more than 130 activists and human rights lawyers. The government’s crackdown has come largely as a response to the popular pro-democracy protests that broke out across the Middle East. Authorities fear that the “Arab Spring” may spark copycat uprisings, which could undermine governmental authority in China.

Last winter, calls for a “Jasmine revolution” in China did circulate on the internet. However, the online pleas drew little visible support inside China and did not succeed in bringing about any large-scale protests.

Nonetheless, the Chinese Government has continued to tighten its control over free-expression, especially on the internet. The state has strengthened its nationwide firewall to further reduce the number of potentially “subversive” websites available for domestic consumption and has installed new monitoring equipment at many internet cafes.

Additionally, Chinese authorities have tightened restrictions on popular social networking service Twitter, which has been used around the world to advocate and coordinate protests against national governments. Though the use of Twitter in China is officially prohibited, many Chinese have found ways to access Twitter by circumventing the firewall through the use of private networks or other means. Accordingly,  many large cities, including Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, have recently passed laws requiring domestic Twitter users to register for the service using their real names. However, enforcement of the new laws may prove difficult.

The United States has been joined by the EU and several human rights organizations in repeatedly criticizing China’s decreasing tolerance for dissent. On Monday, UN human rights chief Navi Pillay criticized the Chinese judiciary following the sentencing on Friday of human rights activist Chen Wei to nine years in prison.

Like Chen Xi, Chen Wei was also charged with “subversion” after engaging in political speech critical of the Chinese government on the internet. Pillay called Wei’s sentence “extremely harsh” and indicative of a “further tightening of the severe restrictions on the scope of freedom of expression in China that has been seen over the last two years.” Pillay called upon China to release “any person detained for exercising his or her right to freedom of expression.”

During his trial, Chen Wei asserted that he had merely exercised his right to free expression, which is protected by China’s constitution. Both Chen Xi and Chen Wei claim that the one-sided nature of China’s legal system make appealing their verdicts futile.

Though the two activists are not as well-known as recent Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiabo, who was sentenced to eleven years in prison in 2009, both activists have held prominent positions in human rights movements inside China. Additionally, both Chen Xi and Chen Wei joined Liu Xiabo and thousands of other activists in China in signing the so-called “Charter 08,” which called for political reform.

For more information, please see:

Aljazeera — China Jails Veteran Activist for Ten Years? — 27 December 2011

BBC News — China Imprisons Veteran Activist Chen Xi — 26 December 2011

The Guardian — China Jails Dissident Chen Xi for Ten Years — 26 December 2011

The Telegraph — China Continues Christmas Crackdown on Activists as Chen Xi Given Ten Years in Prison —  26 December 2011

Amnesty International — China: Harsh Sentence for Activist Chen Wei Condemned — 23 December 2011

As Arab League Monitors Arrive in Syria, Mass Protests Continue

By Adom M. Cooper
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria–Arab League monitors have arrived in Syria to observe three key protest sites as the international community urges al-Assad’s regime to allow full access to the country. The observers must be able to adequately determine if the country is implementing a plan to end crackdowns on demonstrations and protests.


A Syrian protester in the city of Homs. (Photo Courtesy of Al-Jazeera)

The UN has stated that more than 14,000 people are in detention and estimated that more than 5,000 people have been killed in the government crackdown since anti-government demonstrations and protests began earlier this year in mid-March.

All of the detained demonstrators and protesters should be freed under a peace plan created by the Arab League.

Anti-government protests festered violence that continued on Wednesday 28 December 2011. Video shared by activists depicted the central city of Hama with gunshots being fired and black smoke rising above the city.

Dozens of men were seen marching through the streets, chanting and shouting, “Where are the Arab monitors?”

More violence was reported in the southern province of Deraa, where the Britian-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated that army defectors killed at least four Syrian soldiers. The organization also reported that at least one person was killed in the city of Homs.

On Tuesday 27 December 2011, activists stated that Syrian police used tear gas to disperse an estimated 70,000 people who took to the streets of Homs as the monitors arrived. Some demonstrators were fired upon with live ammunition as they made their way to Sa’a square, and four were wounded, one of them critically.

Before joining the march on Al-Sa’a square, some tens of thousands of protesters staged a sit-in in the al-Khalidiyeh neighborhood, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. There were also demonstrations that took place in the Bab Dreib and Jub al-Jandalia districts of the country. On Monday 26 December 2011, at least 34 civilians were reportedly killed in Homs’ Baba Amro district. T

Mustafa al-Dabi, the head of the Arab League’s mission, stated on Wednesday 28 December 2011, that monitors would head to Hama and to Iblib, on Syria’s nortern border with Turkey. These two areas have endured intense fighting between security forces and fighters who support the protesters. al-Dabi shared these words with Al-Jazeera about the monitors’ arrival.

“Yesterday was quiet and there were no clashes. We did not see tanks but we did see some armored vehicles. There were some places where the situation was not good. But there wasn’t anything frightening, at least while we were there. But remember, this was only the first day and it will need investigation. We have 20 people who will be there for a long time.”

The Arab League plan endorsed by Syria on 2 November calls for the withdrawal of the military from towns and residential districts, a halt in violence against civilians, and the release of detainees. A Syrian security officer in Homs told Human Rights Watch (HRW), a US-based rights organization, that after the government signed the Arab League protocol authorizing the observer mission, between 400 and 500 prisoners were moved out of his facility to other places of detention, including a nearby missile factory in Zaidal. The official shared these words with HRW.

“The transfers happened in installments. Some detainees were moved to civilian jeeps and some in cargo trucks. My role was inside the prison, gathering the detainees and putting them in the cars. My orders from the prison director were to move the important detainees out.”

Other witnesses corroborated the official’s account. HRW spoke with a detainee who claimed that a transfer of other detainees took place from the Military Security detention facility in Homs on the night of 19 December.

“There were about 150 detainees. They took them out around 1:30 or 2:00 in the morning. These guys were in detention the longest. Not criminals, but people who worked with journalists, or were defectors, or involved in protests.”

HRW has accused al-Assad’s regime of hiding from the monitors hundreds of detainees held in its crackdown on dissent. HRW’s Middle East director Sarah Leah Whitson released a statement about the hiding of detainees.

“Syria’s subterfuge makes it essential for the Arab League to draw clear line regarding access to detainees, and be willing to speak out when those lines are crossed. Syrian authorities have transferred perhaps hundreds of detainees to off-limits military sites to hide them from Arab League monitors now in the country.”

Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, has urged Syria to give the monitors the maximum amount of freedom as they move throughout the country to complete their mission.

“We constantly work with the Syrian leadership calling on it to fully cooperate with observers from the Arab League and to create work conditions that are as comfortable and free as possible.”

The Local Coordination Committees in Syria stated that seven people had been killed so far on Wednesday 28 December 2011, four in Homs, two in Hama, and one in Aleppo.

The ban on international journalists in Syria continues to be in effect, making it increasingly difficult to independently verify casualty figures and other information.



For more information, please see:

Ahram – Observers to Deploy in More Syria Protest Hubs – 28 December 2011

Al-Jazeera – Arab Monitors in Syria Flashpoint Towns – 28 December 2011

BBC – Syria ‘Release 755 Detained During Unrest – 28 December 2011

Reuters – ‘Nothing Frightening’ Seen in Syria Protest Hotbed – 28 December 2011

The Guardian – Arab League Monitors Visit Homs – 27 December 2011

Human Rights Watch – Syria: Detainees Hidden From International Monitors – 27 December 2011


New “Media Bill” Passes in Argentina, Threatens to Limit Freedom of the Press

by Emilee Gaebler
Impunity Watch Reporter, South America

BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – Last week, the “media bill” made its way through Argentina’s lower congress, passing in the lower house by a vote of 134 to 92.  It then moved forwards, where the Senate also passed it.  This week President Cristina Fernandez signed it into force.

President Cristina Fernandez has long had an adverse relationship with Clarins media. (Photo courtesy of BBC News)

The Argentine “media bill” is being criticized as way for the government to choke the freedom of the press.  The bill makes the sale and distribution of newsprint a national interest.  This places it under government control so that the paper is equally distributed to all media sources and has a set price.

Papel Prensa, which distributes 78% of all newsprint in Argentina, is now mandated by the government to operate at maximum capacity in order to meet all domestic needs.  They must also supply the state with a regular investment plan.

The main shareholders of Papel Prensa are the Clarins media group, which owns a 49% share and the La Nación media group, which owns 22.5%.  The government owns a 27.5% share.  Both Clarins and La Nación have stated that the bill is an underhanded government expropriation of private property.

It is well known that President Fernandez believes Clarins media group provides unfair reporting on herself and her government.  She has also alleged in the past that the sale of Papel Prensa to Clarins sometime during the 1976-1983 military dictatorship was illegal.

“The intention to seize Papel Prensa isn’t an isolated case, but the latest in a whole series of measures aimed at controlling the media,” said opposition deputy Federico Pinedo.

Clarins newspaper notes that there are a number of disturbing aspects to the bill.  First is the passage that allows for the state to unilaterally take a majority share of the company as the newsprint distribution is now classified a national interest.  Also of concerns is the portion that would permit the Economy Minister to determine how much newsprint to import, establishing government quotas that have never before existed.

The Argentine Association of Journalistic Enterprises also criticized the bill in a statement they released, noting that the actions taken will cause more problems than they propose to solve.

Supporters of the bill state that in the past, the monopoly held by Papel Prensa over access to newsprint has limited the abilities of independent media sources.  Smaller newspapers like Pagina 12 and El Tiempo Argentino applauded the passage of the bill.

Concurrent with the media bill passage is a new anti-terrorism bill that classifies certain “economic crimes,” including certain actions taken by the media, as terrorist acts.  The bill states that “economic terrorist acts” are those done with an intent to terrorize the general population.

Argentine newspaper, O Estado de Sao Paulo reported that this measure would allow the government to consider “terrorist” anything that negatively portrays or criticizes the government.  This second bill is viewed as a much more cunning move by the Fernandez administration to ensure that media sources within the nation are kept in check.

A third bill passed through the government at the same time.  It limits the amount of property that is purchased in Argentina by foreign companies or foreign individuals.  The law was passed close to unanimously in both houses.  It limits foreign entities from owning more than 15% of Argentine territory.

All three together are leading some commentators to note that the way is now paved for President Fernandez to establish an authoritarian regime.   Since she was sworn in for her second term as president, just two weeks ago, Fernandez’s administration has pushed through 11 new laws.


For more information, please see:

Merco Press – Argentine Media Bill: “A Dictatorship Couldn’t Have Done it Better” – 27 December 2011

Pulse America – Argentina This Week – 26 December 2011

BBC News – Argentina to Tighten Controls on Newsprint Supplies – 16 December 2011

Center for International Media Assistance – Argentina: Controversial Law to Control Newsprint Production in Argentina Moves Forward – 15 December 2011