Saudi Arabia Grants Citizenship to Robot Named Sophia

Matthew Sneed
Impunity Watch Writer, The Middle East

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – On October 25, Saudi Arabia became the first nation to grant full citizenship to a robot. The robot, referred to as Sophia, was created by Hanson Robotics in Hong Kong. During the nation’s Future Investment Initiative, a three-day tech conference, she addressed the media, most notably in English and without wearing a hijab.

Sophia speaks to the press after she is granted citizenship in Saudi Arabia. Photo courtesy of YouTube/Arab News.

“Thank you to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. I am very honored and proud for this unique distinction,” she said, “it is historic to be the first robot in the world to be recognized with citizenship.” Furthermore, when asked about the concern about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence, Sophia responded by stating, “you’ve been reading too much Elon Musk and watching too many Hollywood movies.”

This decision has generated lots of controversy for several reasons. Many conservative Saudis believe that the human representation in any form including art is sacrilege. However, the primary concerns focus on her rights as compared to women and other citizens living in Saudi Arabia and how quickly she obtained those rights. Sophia does not have a male guardian, does not wear a hijab, and can travel in and out of the country. In addition, she has not demonstrated the ability to read or write in Arabic, a requirement for citizenship.

The country also prohibits foreign workers, which make-up about one-third of the population, from obtaining citizenship. Journalist Murtaza Hussain stated that Sophia received citizenship, “before Kafala workers who have been living in the country their entire lives.”

The decision has also come with more severe consequences. Ali Al-Ahmed, director of the Institute for Gulf Affairs, said, “women (in Saudi Arabia) have since committed suicide because they couldn’t leave the house, and Sophia is running around.”

Apart from Sophia, the country faces other criticism as it continues to push technological advancements in the country. Sophia was on display next to a virtual rollercoaster and a holographic lion. Saudi Arabia stated on the conference that they intended to build a new $500 billion city from scratch, called Neom. The city would be populated with robots.

The government plans to push these new advancements while other areas a lacking support. Currently, only 20% of the city capital has sewage coverage. Al-Ahmed was discouraged by this news and stated, “There is a failure of this government to satisfy basic needs, and they want to spend $500 billion on a new city with robots.”

For more information please see:

Independent – Saudi Arabia Grants Citizenship to a Robot for the First Time Ever – 26, Oct.

Bloomberg – Saudi Arabia gives citizenship to a robot – 26, Oct. 2017

Newsweek – Saudi Arabia gives rights to a Non-Muslim, English speaking robot – 26, Oct. 2017

BBC – Does Saudi robot citizen have more rights than women? – 26, Oct. 2017

With a new Palestinian treaty in place, can the peace last?

Matthew Sneed
Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East

EAST JERUSALEM, Palestine – On October 12, the rival political parties of Hamas and Fatah signed a treaty which allows the Fatah controlled Palestinian Authority (PA) to control the Gaza region. The deal will be in full effect by December 1. This comes after ten years of conflict beginning in 2007 when Hamas ousted Fatah and the Palestinian Authority from Gaza after a series of violent encounters.

Palestinians in Gaza celebrated following the deal between Hamas and Fatah. Photo courtesy of Suhaib Salem.

The two million citizens of Gaza struggled under Hamas rule as President Mahmoud Abbas applied financial sanctions to the region. The heavy taxes imposed by the PA on the region reduced the electricity brought from Israel to Gaza. As a result, electricity only operated for several hours per day in the city. In addition, desalination and sewage treatment plants were unable to properly function. Medical supplies were also cut off from the region. Now, it is expected that these sanctions will be lifted and the city can begin resuming normal operations. In addition, PA troops will return to the border and thus allow citizens to travel to and from Gaza as well as bring goods across the boundary line.

The deal, which was signed in Cairo under Egyptian Intelligence, brings hope to the people of Gaza, despite the knowledge that multiple treaty attempts have failed in the past.

“Hamas are showing some flexibility which is unprecedented. It gives us hope that people are being pragmatic, seeing themselves as Palestinians, rather than as part of a global, Islamic group,” said Naim al-Khatib, a father of six in the region. He added, “[t]here are lots of difficult issues still to tackle – but the opposite of reconciliation is a very gloomy situation which I would hate us to step into.”

Mustafa Barghouti, general secretary of the Palestinian National Initiative, stressed the importance of the next few weeks because, “what’s been agreed must be implemented. All the Palestinian factions, not just Hamas and Fatah, must then decide on a unified government and a date for elections.” The next round of negotiations will be held in Cairo on November 22.

While many in Gaza are celebrating, not all nations share their enthusiasm. Israel said that it would not negotiate with the Palestinian Unity Government if Hamas was involved. Israel created a list of conditions that needed to be met in order for it to negotiate with Palestine. One of the primary conditions and also the one most difficult to resolve is the disarmament of Hamas. Hamas is recognized as a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel, and the European Union.

For more information, please see:

The New York Times – Unity Deal Offers Hope for Palestinians and a Reprieve for Gaza – 12, Oct. 2017

BBC – Palestinian unity deal: Gazans hope for end to feud – 13, Oct. 2017

The Guardian – Israel will not negotiate with Palestinian unity government if Hamas is involved – 17, Oct. 2017

Afghan Refugee Children Die in Syria while Fighting for Iran

Matthew Sneed
Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East

TEHRAN, Iran – According to the Human Rights Watch, Iran has recruited children as young as 14 to fight in Syria. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has been recruiting the teenagers to the Fatemyioun division. This division is made up of exclusively Afghan troops who fight with the government in Syria.

Afghan children who fought in Syria are buried in Iran. Photo courtesy of Human Rights Watch.

According to international law, military recruits must be at least 18 years olf and recruiting children under the age of 15 to participate in battle is a war crime. Researchers for Human Rights Watch looked at the photographs of tombstones in Iranian cemeteries and they identified eight children who reportedly fought and died in Syria. Five of those eight children are believed to have died at the age of fourteen. In addition, the phrase “defenders of the shrine” was written on seven of the eight tombstones. This is the saying the Iranian government uses for the fighters it sends to war.

It is believed that some children and volunteers lie about their age in order to enlist. Some believe it will prevent them being deported back to Afghanistan. Tara Sepehri Far, a Human Rights Watch Researcher, said “[w]e spoke to one person who fought as part of the Fatemiyoun Division and he said that he was able to receive a residency permit upon return.” She further stated that she does not believe that the children are intentionally recruited and, “[i]t’s more of a sloppiness that the authorities and recruiters don’t care enough to ask for proof of age.”

“Ali” a 29-year-old soldier in the Fatemyioun division, has said he has spoken with children who were 16 and 17 years old while they were training to go to Syria. He also discussed the lack of verification protocols before enlisting troops, “They never asked me to show any documentation, but they wanted to make sure we were Afghan nationals,” Ali told Human Rights Watch. “We had to be above the age 18 to be recruited, but they only asked for our age, not any documentation.”

Sarah Leah Witson, the Middle East director at Human Rights Watch called for Iran to end the practice of recruiting children. “Rather than preying on vulnerable immigrant and refugee children, the Iranian authorities should protect all children and hold those responsible for recruiting Afghan children to account.”

The civil war in Syria has now lasted six-and-a-half years, with both sides facing accusations of numerous human rights violations.

For more information please see:

Human Rights Watch – Iran: Afghan Children Recruited to Fight in Syria – 1, Oct. 2017

The New York Times – Afghan Teenagers Recruited in Iran to Fight in Syria, Group Says – 1, Oct. 2017

World Tribune – War crime? Iran said to recruit refugee Afghan children to fight in Syria – 1, Oct. 2017

Saudi Arabia Lifts the Ban on Female Drivers

Matthew Sneed
Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East

RIYADH, Saudi ArabiaOn September 26, Saudi Arabia announced that it would lift the ban on female drivers in the country. Prior to this announcement, Saudi Arabia was the only country in the world that forbid females from driving. Only men were allowed to have licenses and any woman caught driving was subjected to a fine or prison. A minstrel body will be established to provide advice on this proposal within 30 days and the ban will be officially lifted by June 24, 2018.

Saudi Arabian officials announce that women can begin driving in June 2018. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

The law will stand apart from the country’s “guardianship” rules which require women to seek the permission of their male “guardian” to travel, work, or undergo certain medical procedures. Women will not need the permission of male relatives to obtain a driver’s license and would be able to drive alone. However, it has yet to be determined if they will be allowed to work as professional drivers.

Women have long been advocating for the right to drive in the country. The first protest for the right to drive occurred in 1990. It was followed with more protests in 2011 and 2013. As mobile technology became more readily available, women began protesting by positing pictures and videos of themselves behind the wheel.

Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman implemented this policy as part of his Vision 2030 plan, which began two years ago. The Vision 2030 plan focuses on economic expansion in the country. With oil prices remaining low, the nation is trying to find new methods to get its citizens involved in the workforce. The Prince hopes allowing women to drive, it will increase the number of women in the workplace. Until now, women had to rely on male family members pay professional drivers to take them to work. The cost for daily drivers discouraged women from finding work. With this barrier removed, it is expected that more women will look for work.

This decision has not been met with unanimous support as many conservatives do not agree with the new decision. The phrase, “The people reject women driving” was popular on Twitter following the announcement of the new rule. Clerics have often citied religious rules as explanations for why women should not be allowed to drive.

Despite some unrest, the response has been well-received overall both in the country and around the globe. U.S. State Department spokesman Heather Nauert called the decision “a great step in the right direction.” Women activists in the country are excited about the opportunity to receive drivers licenses. Aziza Alyousef, a long-time activist in Saudi Arabia, hopes to be one of the first with an official license and stated “I wish my license number would be 0001.”

For more information, please see:

Bloomberg – Saudi Arabia to Lift Ban on Women Driving, Ending Global Isolation – 26, Sept. 2017

The New York Times – Saudi Arabia Agrees to Let Women Drive – 26, Sept. 2017

BBC – Saudi Arabia women hail end of driving ban – 27, Sept. 2017

Independent – Saudi Arabia lifts ban on women driving – 27, Sept. 2017

Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq to Hold Referendum

By Justin Santabarbara
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East 

KIRKUK, Iraq The Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) of Iraq has elected to hold a non-binding referendum signaling its desire to provincially separate from the central Iraqi regime. The referendum is scheduled to be put to a vote on 25 September. The independence referendum has gained its most support over the last couple of months as Iraq continues its counterterrorism-minded overtaking of provincial and regional governments. Moreover, the referendum is facing much criticism from both the central Iraqi government and the nearby Turks. The central Iraqi government view the measure as an impingement upon their regional control in northern Iraq, especially because the referendum expresses intention to reject central Iraqi control of the security forces and recruit, train and develop an exclusively Kurdish security apparatus. The Turks view the referendum as granting empowerment to the minority Kurdish political parties and forcing terrorists to seek more readily available opportunities in Turkey. The primary opposition again refers to the weakening of Turkey’s counterterrorism apparatus.

Kurdish Regional Government President, Massoud Barzani. Photo Courtesy of Reuters.

The KRG President, Massoud Bazani, has expressed the intention to move forward with the referendum, despite its mass criticism. In speaking to Kurds on 24 September, Barzani told Kurds that the future of the Kurdish people depends upon the passage of the referendum. Barzani continued that the referendum would give the KRG important standing to continue negotiations with the Iraqi government. Barzani concluded that the Kurds currently maintain the most bargaining power since their ousting by the Hussein regime. As momentum continues to build, the passage of the referendum is important because it allows the government to continue to forge relationships with Baghdad, while also building the governmental institutions that are central to success and stability. Barzani, whose tenure began in 2005, urged his commitment to recruit Kurdish forces and receive international aid and training.

Counterterrorism remains at the forefront of both criticism and support for the referendum. While Barzani claims that the ability to recruit and develop independent security forces will allow for a more specialized focus in repelling ISIS fighters from the region. Conversely, the Iraqi central government disagrees in saying that independent security forces will not be well equipped nor prepared to endure the challenges of repelling ISIS fighters. Moreover, the time lapse in acquiring and building the security apparatus lends itself to a void in time, for which terrorists can take advantage, especially when such a schedule is well promulgated. With the referendum looming, its determination can ultimately change the mechanisms with which the Middle East combats ISIS and other regional terrorists. The United States has publicly denounced the referendum, calling it illegitimate.

For more information, please see:

U.S. Department of State – Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government’s Referendum – 25 September 2017

Aljazeera News – Barzani to Kurds: Vote in Referendum to Secure Future – 24 September 2017

Reuters – Kurds Stick with Independence Vote – 24 September 2017

Aljazeera News – Barzani: Kurd Region Poll to Occur Despite Opposition – 23 September 2017

Saudi Arabia Lifts Ban on Skype and WhatsApp

Matthew Sneed
Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – On September 20, Saudi Arabian officials announced that the kingdom was lifting its ban on video calling apps such as Skype and WhatsApp. Apps such as these were previously banned under the country’s Voice Over Internet Protocol (VOIP), when the government argued that it was trying to “protect society from any negative aspects that could harm the public interest.”

Saudi Arabia lifts its ban on voice internet apps such as Skype and WhatsApp. Photo courtesy of Reuters.

The decision is motivated by Saudi Arabia’s economic interests as the look to expand their revenue sources. While the countries financial strength lies in oil, it hopes the removal of the ban will spark technology entrepreneurship in the region. The nation’s Information Ministry supported the decision and stated, “Digital transformation is one of the key kick starters for the Saudi economy, as it will incentivize the growth of internet-based businesses, especially in the media and entertainment industries.”

The goal to promote long term development may damage local companies in the telecommunications industry. Saudi Telecom, Etihad Etisalat, and Zain Saudi, the three main telecom operators in Saudi Arabia, will likely see a decrease in their revenue from phone calls and texts made by the millions of expatriates in the country. Ghanem Nuseibeh, the founder of the Cornerstone Global Associates management consultancy stated, “Any phone company would rather have people using their telephone lines but this is an important message from the Saudi government that they have to move into the 21st century and not be left behind.”

Prior to its removal, Saudi citizens used virtual private networks (VPNs) to get around the ban. The VPNs tricked the computer into thinking it was someplace else so that it could access the apps banned by the nation’s internet laws. Many are happy this method is no longer needed. One anonymous international student was happy she could now easily talk to those outside the country, “It feels like we can communicate with the outside world,” because “Sometimes it felt like we had no connection here.” The ban was supposed to be officially lifted at midnight on September 21, but some citizens claim they could already access the apps on the mobile devices prior to that date.

The government still imposes tight regulations over other aspects of the internet. Websites that feature gambling, pornography, or that are critical of government actions remain banned. The country often still appears on “internet enemies”, the list compiled by Reporters Without Borders names countries who restrict internet access.

For more information please see:

BBC – Saudi Arabia to lift ban on internet calls – 20, Sept. 2017

The Telegraph – Saudi Arabia lifts ban on skype and whatsApp voice calls – 20, Sept. 2017

Independent – Saudi Arabia set to lift ban on video calling apps Skype and WhatsApp – 20, Sept. 2017

Reuters – Saudi Arabia to lift ban on internet calls – 20, Sept. 2017

Turkish government continues journalistic suppression, prosecution of reporters

By: Justin D. Santabarbara
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East 

ISTANBUL, Turkey – On 2 September, Turkish security officials arrested Çagdas Erdogan for allegedly photographing the National Intelligence Agency building. Upon the initial court appearance on 3 September, Turkish officials accused Erdogan of being a member of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK). The PKK has long been categorized as a domestic terrorist organization by the Turkish government. Moreover, the charges against Erdogan are tailed toward committing acts of terrorism as a member of the PKK, rather than a photojournalist who took illegal pictures. Moreover, Turkish prosecutors have carefully made the distinction between the charges placed against Erdogan and less severe “mistakes”.

Turkish photojournalist Cagdas Erdogan. Photo courtesy of Twitter @cgd_erd.

The International Committee to Protect Journalists has vocally expressed its displeasure with the investigation. “Photographing a building is not even a crime, much less an act of terrorism,” exclaimed the Committee’s Executive Director, Robert Mahony, at a recent press conference. Additionally, the International Committee to Protect Journalists has launched a number of other initiatives, including appealing to the international human rights community for support and requesting that sanctions be placed against the Turkish government for suppressing members of the media. Further, Erdogan’s extensive photojournalistic coverage of the Kurdish conflict is said to have subjected him to additional scrutiny. Aside from his alleged membership in the PKK, Erdogan is said to have been critical of the Turkish government’s treatment of the Kurdish population and the rejection of their participation in the policymaking process. Erdogan’s work is not only highly critical of the collective Turkish government, but also the security forces’ gross violation of human rights in the Kurdish regions – alleging the involvement of enforced disappearances and torturous detainment of Kurds, regardless of their purported membership in the PKK.

Erdogan’s prosecution marks the continuation of a concerted effort by the Turkish government to suppress journalistic interests under a veil of national security. There is little determinative evidence of a time frame for prosecutions against journalists. For example, Turkish prosecutors just tried thirty journalists after they were held for 414 days after their arrest. Although the trials continue to be pending, past cases have shown that prosecutors often seek lengthy prison terms, despite criticism from the international community.

Though the majority of the cases receive adverse dispositions, there are limited instances in which the international pressures influence a humanitarian release, such as the release of French journalist Loup Bureau on 18 September, who spent seven weeks in Turkey after his arrest for criticism of the Turkish government. Although the future remains uncertain for Erdogan, an intense effort by the international community has shown to have positive effects, when conducted appropriately. It will be important to note how long the Turkish government waits before progressing in the trial.

For more information, please see:

France 24 – French journalist Loup Bureau arrives home after being released from Turkish jail – 18 September 2017

Turkish Minute – 30 Zaman journalists appear in court after 414 day detention – 18 September 2017

British Journal of Photography – Cagdas Erdogan arrested in Istanbul – 14 September 2017

 

Israeli Politician Forced to Resign Over Nephew’s Gay Wedding

By Matthew Sneed
Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East

Yigal Guetta is forced to resign after revealing he attended a gay wedding for his nephew. Photo courtesy of New York Times. 

JERUSALEM, Israel – On September 13, Yigal Guetta was forced to resign from his seat in the Israeli parliament because he attended the wedding of his gay nephew. The ultra-Orthodox politician is a member of the religious Shas party. However, the event in controversy sparking his resignation occurred two years ago.

On August 29, Mr. Guetta went on Army Radio to promote his daughter’s new single. The goal was to provide a more liberal face to the party and to voters. But he surprised the audience when he said that he had attended the wedding of his gay nephew two years earlier. Prior to attending the wedding, he told his children, “We’re going to make him happy because he’s my sister’s son and I want him to be happy, but I want you to know that according to the Torah this [wedding] is forbidden and an abomination” He also told the radio that he declined to provide a blessing under a huppah, or marriage canopy.

Despite his statement of his personal feelings regarding gay marriage, five rabbis associated with the party wrote a letter demanding the removal of Mr. Guetta from office. As a result of strict-Orthodox control of Jewish weddings, same-sex marriage is not officially recognized in Israel. Some couples circumvent this by getting married abroad. Apart from religious ceremonies, Israel has tried to promote a progressive platform for the LGBT community. The military welcomes members of the gay community and individuals are open about their sexuality in other professions as well, including politics.

The incident has created a debate in the Shas party over whether people should strictly obey Jewish law, or if other traditions should take precedent over the law, including the “sanctity of the family.”

While Mr. Guetta has not addressed the public, sources have said that he refused to apologize for his attendance of the wedding and he wanted to step down before he was asked by party leaders.

Yair Lapid, the leader of the secular Yesh Atid party tweeted, “It’s sad that in Israel in 2017 a [Member of the Knesset] is forced to resign because he participated in the wedding of two people who love each other.”

For more information please see:

BBC News – Ultra-Orthodox Israeli MP quits amid gay wedding criticism – 13, September 2017

Newsweek – RELIGION IN ISRAEL: POLITICIAN WHO WENT TO GAY WEDDING FORCED TO RESIGN – 13, September 2017

The New York Times – Israeli Orthodox Lawmaker in Trouble Over Gay Nephew’s Wedding – 14, September 2017

Saudi Crown Prince quells dissent behind mask of national security

By: Justin Santabarbara
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – In what appears to be a crackdown on opposition to the regime, Saudi secret police have begun a mass roundup of Sunni clerics and scholars. The detention and prosecution of a suspected thirty authoritative figures is speculated to have been the work of elites working to repel the influence of the Islamic State. Additionally, Reuters reports that many of the clerics and scholars have been connected to Qatar, a state recently alienated by several gulf regimes due to their publicized harsh treatment of migrants. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates have long pressured the Saudi government to sanction Qatar; while it appears that further official sanctions are unrealistic, enforcing the disappearance and subsequent prosecutions of many individuals connected to ranking Qatari officials may be an attempt to appease its gulf neighbors.

Salman al-Odah, a cleric with a 14 million person twitter following was among those arrested for allegedly advocating for “Peace with Qatar.” Photo Courtesy of BBC News.

In particular, the now detained clerics have been vocal critics of the international community’s alienation of Qatar and have called for peace agreements between the Saudi government and Qatar. Moreover, the clerics remained angry with the Saudi condemnation of the Muslim Brotherhood, which remains heavily active in Qatar. While the Saudi government has promulgated the prosecution of the clerics as a matter of national, it appears that the arrests were more centrally a means to quell dissent.

The arrests also come during spike in political uprising within Riyadh. Since assuming office in June 2017, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has faced large opposition from both religious and secular entities. Because his rise was the function of a coup, it has been his prime focus to ensure that the Saudi people are capable of ensuring his political survival. Since June 2017, political tensions have lent themselves to mass political dissent. Because these clerics are considered to be among the elite class, with a twitter following capping at fifteen million people, their incapacitation is a positive contribution from their timely arrests.

The Saudi regime continues to be steadfast in their desire to promulgate the arrests as a measure of national security – critics verbosely disagree. Those who would be expected to be most agitated are without a voice until further word is given from the Saudi officials.

For more information, please see:

BBC News – Saudi Arabia Arrests ‘Clerics’ in Crackdown on Dissent – 13 September 2017

Gulf Times – Saudi Calls for Social Media Informants Decried as ‘Orwellian’ – 13 September 2017

Reuters – Saudi Clerics Detained in Apparent Bid to Silence Dissent – 10 September 2017

U.S. distributes “highly offensive” leaflets in Afghanistan

 By Matthew Sneed
Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East

Kabul, Afghanistan – On Wednesday, September 6, the United States issued an apology for a recent distribution of “highly offensive” leaflets. Tuesday night, troops dropped the leaflets over homes in the Parwan Province. The leaflet displayed the image of a lion chasing a dog. The lion symbolized the U.S. forces while the white dog represented the Taliban.

The U.S. distributed the leaflet in the Pawran Province. Photo Courtesy of Los Angeles Times.

On the picture were the words “Get your freedom from these terrorist dogs,” and “Help the coalition find these forces and eliminate them.” However, the source of the anger stemmed from the writing on the dog. The writing was meant to be a depiction of the Taliban flag; however, the Taliban prints the Shahada on their flag. The Shahada is the most common prayer in the Muslim faith. It says, “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet.”

The dog is viewed as an unclean animal and placing the holy saying on an unclean animal sparked outrage in the region. During the sermon on September 8, Muhammad Ayaz Niazi, the imam, criticized the actions of US forces and stated, “You have disrespected the feelings of 1.8 billion Muslims and all they hold sacred,” and added, “Those who have committed this grave crime are trying to test our people, to see if they are dead or alive. We promise to defend our values, defend our religion, defend our soil.”

The leaflets not only angered the community but provoked a deadly response as well. On September 6, a suicide bomber attacked the U.S. military base in Afghanistan. The explosion wounded three U.S. solders, three Afghan soldiers, and killed an Afghan reporter. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack the same day. Spokesman Zabihulla Mujahid took to Twitter and said the attack was to “avenge” the leaflets.

This is not the first culturally insensitive action link to U.S. troops. In 2012, troops burned several copies of the Qur’an while destroying damaged books and texts from Bagram airfield library. This resulted in protests the led to the death of several civilians. Troops also have a history of violating other customs such as unleashing dogs on villagers and searching through women’s bedrooms.

In his statement to the press, Major General James Linder, the U.S. special operations commander in Afghanistan, apologized for the leaflets. He stated there was “no excuse for this mistake,” and that he would “make appropriate changes so this never happens again.”

For more information please see:

theguardian – Taliban claim Afghan suicide attack as retaliation for US leaflet insult – 6 September, 2017

Los Angeles Times – U.S. military apologizes for ‘highly offensive’ leaflets it distributed in Afghanistan – 6 September, 2017

Business Insider – 3 US soldiers wounded in Afghanistan attack to ‘avenge’ offensive leaflets dropped by the US – 7 September, 2017

The New York Times – Afghan Anger Simmers Over U.S. Leaflets Seen as Insulting Islam – 8 September, 2017

After regaining Mosul, Iraq continues steadfast prosecution of ISIS

By:Justin D. Santabarbara
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

Iraqi Security Forces Detain a suspected ISIS fighter (Photo Courtesy of Human Rights Watch). 

Since the Iraqi government regained control of Mosul and much of its northern provinces from the Islamic State in recent weeks, much emphasis has been placed on rebuilding the punitive institutions of government. In rebuilding its criminal justice capacity, Iraq has sought the counsel of the United Nations Human Rights reports, which began implicating the Islamic State human rights abuses in 2015. Together, with independent militia groups, Iraq’s Executive Office, under Haider Al-Abadi and the United Nations, launched an investigatory campaign in 2016. In August 2017, the Iraqi government charged a number of ISIS fighters in absentia with crimes against humanity. Al-Abadi is expected to formally address the United Nations Security Council in the coming weeks. He will likely request that the Security Council adopt a formal resolution to aid in the charging and capture of ISIS fighters.

The Iraqi government and the United Nations have focused the majority of its attention on balancing the sectarian divisions that continued to exist throughout the country. Since the Islamic State divided much of Iraq, the Shia-backed Iraqi military was forced to alienate many of its previous Sunni allies in pursuit of repelling ISIS. Additionally, Yazidis and Kurds have been historically persecuted by both Sunni and Shia. Until Al-Abadi gained the aid of western military forces in recovering Mosul, much of the Northern provinces were neglected, which left Yazidis and Kurds with little support. Al-Abadi’s most arduous challenge will continue to be regaining the trust of these religious sects, while also being successful in repelling ISIS fighters from the region. Human Rights Watch has been highly critical of the Iraqi government’s response to many of these groups, citing their continued detention and torturing of minority sects as a mechanism for screening their loyalties to ISIS.

The Iraqi investigation has faced much criticism from Human Rights Watch. It reports that ISIS fighters continue to be tried arbitrarily and with prejudice. While the imperative for national security remains a central priority for the government, Human Rights Watch has nearly 2,000 trials that have universally resulted in convictions and stringent sentences. Moreover, Human Rights Watch reports that Iraqi security forces have begun prosecuting lawyers, both domestic and international, that are representing the alleged ISIS fighters. Additionally, Iraqi courts do not issue different sentences for minor involvement or otherwise. The sentences have near universally been undisclosed, or death. Iraq continues its roundup by seeking additional avenues of criminal conduct. Among them include the possibility of charging doctors and other officials working under the Islamic State, but not directly toward their combative interests.

For more information, please see:

CBC News – Sectarian divisions exploited by ISIS still endure in Iraq – 5 September 2017

Human Rights First – Iraq Finally Holds ISIS Responsible for Crimes Against Humanity – 1 September 2017 

Human Rights Watch – The Justice Question After ISIS – 25 August 2017

Saudi Woman Released from Prison after Arrest for Wearing Skirt in Public

By Sarah Lafen
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

 

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Arabian police officers have released a woman who was arrested after she was walking through a fort in the historic neighborhood Ushayquir in a skirt and crop top, seen in videos online.  The woman, known by her given name Khulood, was arrested on Tuesday and turned over to prosecutors.  She was released a few hours later after questioning and was not charged with any crime.  The videos were posted to Snapchat originally, According to Khulood, the videos of her walking in the skirt and crop top were posted without her knowledge.

“Khulood” walking through Ushayqir in a skirt (Photo Courtesy of BBC)

Many have criticized the woman’s outfit for not being conservative or traditional enough.   Critics say that because she chooses to live in Saudi Arabia, she should accept its laws and customs.  Saudi write Ibrahim al-Munayif tweeted that “[j]ust like we call on people to respect the laws of countries they travel to, people must also respect the laws of this country.”

Others have shown their support for the woman’s freedom to choose her own outfit.  Supporters suggest that her choice was brave, and point out that when foreigners visit the country they are exempted from the country’s dress code.  Some have pointed out that on their trip to the country in May, neither Melania nor Ivanka Trump wore abayas.  Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division, commented that “Saudi Arabia’s continuing obsession with policing women’s clothing choices shows authorities haven’t moved on from the paternalistic and discriminatory mind-set that hampers women’s lives.” Whitson further noted that “Saudi Arabia’s purported plans to reshape society and advance women’s rights will never succeed as long as authorities go after women for what they wear.”

A number of people have called for an official investigation into the video, asking authorities to take action against those who made the video.  Saudi Arabia’s religious police released a statement assuring that they were looking into the matter.

Amongst a strict dress code for women, Saudi Arabian women also need to permission of a “male guardian” to travel or work, and they are prohibited from receiving driver’s licenses.

 

For more information, please see:

ABC News — Saudi Arabia Releases Woman in Viral Miniskirt Video that Sparked Public Outcry Without Charge — 19 July 2017

The New York Times — Saudi Arabia Releases Woman Arrested for Wearing Skirt in Public — 19 July 2017

Time — Saudi Woman Arrested for Wearing Miniskirt has been Released — 19 July 2017

The Washington Post — Saudi Arabia says Woman Arrested for Wearing Skirt in Viral Video has been Released — 19 July 2017

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant Claims Responsibility for the Egypt Bus Attack that Killed Christians

By: Yamillet Brizuela
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

MINYA, Egypt –  The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (“ISIL”) on Saturday, May 27 claimed responsibility for the attack on buses transporting Coptic Christians in Egypt that occurred earlier. These Coptic Christian bus passengers were on their way to volunteer at the monastery of Saint Samuel the Confessor. This attack killed 29 men and children and wounded at least another 25.

Relatives of victims mourned on Friday, May 26, during a funeral service for those killed by the attack on a Coptic Christian caravan near Minya, Egypt. Photo courtesy of AP.

The eyewitnesses described that the attack began with gunmen shooting the windows of the buses. After firing at the windows, the gunmen then boarded the buses, shooting and killing all the men on on board. The gunmen then shot at the feet of the women and children. Some children were killed, and the gunmen took all the gold the women were wearing.

The eyewitnesses also made a note that one of the gunmen had a camera, which means the gunmen may release footage of the attack in the future.

On Friday, May 26, Egyptian fighter jets carried out six air strikes directed at camps in Libya which Cairo says have been training militants behind the Egypt attack.

Following the Minya shooting and Egypt’s counterattack, President of Egypt, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, said that Egypt would not hesitate to carry out further strikes against camps that trained people to carry out operations against Egypt.

For more information, please see:

AlJazeera- Egypt Launches Strikes Libya After Minya Attack – 27 May 2017

Los Angeles Times- Islamic State Claims Responsibility for Attack on Coptic Christians in Egypt that Left Dead- 27 May 2017

New York Times – Gunmen in Egypt Force Christian Pilgrims from Buses and Kill 28 – 26 May 2017

Reuters- Egypt air raids on Libya after Christians Killed- 27 May 2017

Reuters- Egypt Says Air Strikes Destroy Militant Camps after Attack on Christians- 27 May 2017

Reuters- Grief, Rage in Egyptian Church after Copts attacked by Gunmen- 27 May 2017

U.S. News & World Report- Islamic State Claims Responsibility for Egypt Attack – 27 May 2017

U.S. Strikes a Syrian Pro-Assad Regime Convoy

By: Yamillet Brizuela
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

AL-TANF, Syria – The U.S. military carried out an air strike on Thursday, May 18, against the supporters of President Bashar al-Assad’s Syrian regime convoy and Iranian-backed militia that neared a Western special forces unit and US-backed rebels’ base in al-Tanf.

Residents walk through damaged streets at town of Zabadani in the Damascus countryside on 18 May 2017. Photo Courtesy by AP.

On Friday, May 19, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (“SOHR”) reported that at least eight members of the pro-Assad regime forces were killed, most of them were of non-Syrian nationalities. SOHR reported that the airstrike destroyed at least four vehicles which were carrying supporters of the regime, suggesting that injuries from the destruction could cause the death toll to rise.

Syria and Russia claimed the U.S airstrike on the convoy was “government terrorism” that caused a “massacre” which killed several people, both civilians and soldiers in al-Tanf. Specifically, the Syrian government stated that the airstrikes were a “blatant attack on forces fighting terrorism.” The Russian government claimed the airstrikes violated Syria’s sovereignty.

On the other hand, the U.S. claimed the airstrike was “defensive” in nature. The U.S. Defense Secretary reported that the U.S. military determined that the convoy posed a threat to the U.S. and partner forces; he also claimed that Russia was warned prior to the airstrike that the convoy was “getting too close to coalition forces.”  The U.S. claimed airstrike to be a signal to President Bashar Assad to keep his forces out of a zone where U.S.-backed rebels are fighting the Islamic State group, and that they will continue to defend themselves against any threat to the coalition or its allies in the area.

This airstrike has been the second of such confrontation between the United States and the pro-Assad regime. In April, U.S. President Donald Trump authorized the launch of dozens of missiles against the Shayrat airbase, destroying a number of key Syrian military assets, in retaliation for a chemical weapons attack on civilians believed to have been conducted by the Assad regime that week.

In addition, U.S President Donald Trump’s first foreign trip as president began on Friday, May 19, in the Middle East. Syria’s war and Arab-Israeli peace are said to be the top of his agenda.

For more information, please see:

ABC News- Syria Says US Airstrike Killed Several Soldiers Near Jordan- 19 May 2017

Aljazeera- Syria, Russia Condemn US-led Strike on pro-Assad Forces- 20 May 2017

BBC- Syria and Russia Condemn US-Led Attack on pro-Assad Forces- 19 May 2017

Malaysia Sun- U.S. Claims it Launched Defensive Strikes on pro-Assad Troops, but Syria and Russia Claim Dozens of Civilians and Soldiers Killed- 20 May 2017

Middle East Eye- Syria War: Russia Claims US Attack Killed Civilians- 19 May 2017

Reuters- Syrian Negotiator Calls U.S. Strike ‘Terrorism’ and a ‘Massacre’- 19 May 2017

Reuters- U.S. says Iranian-Directed Convoy Targeted by U.S. Strike in Syria- 19 May 2017

SOHR- 8 Killed Mostly non-Syrians in targeting by Coalition’s warplanes for a Military Convoy of the Regime Forces and the Militiamen Loyal to them in the Syrian Desert- 18 May 2017

Week 4 of Palestinian Prisoners’ Hunger Strike

By: Yamillet Brizuela
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

RAMALLAH, West Bank – May 14, 2017 marked the 28th day of the mass hunger strike by approximately 1,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons to protest their administrative detention. This hunger strike started on April 17, 2017, with hopes of drawing international attention to the plight of prisoners. They aim to put pressure on Israeli authorities to spur a change in policy.

About 1,500 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons are on their 4th week of a hunger strike. Photo Courtesy of Reuters.

The prisoners’ demands involve improvements to prison living condition which they believe, currently, violate basic human rights. They also denounced the torture, ill-treatment, and medical negligence of them by Israeli authorities. The Palestinian prisoners further denounced Israel’s practice of administrative detention, which allows for internment without trial or charge for six-month intervals that can be renewed indefinitely.

Other demands include: more family visits, education options, and public telephones, and are protesting unfair trials, detention of children, medical negligence, and solitary confinement.

Having lived off only salt water and now entering the 4th week of the hunger strike, a conversation of force-feeding the prisoners has arisen. Force-feeding violates international human rights standards.

Under international human rights law, prisoners must be guaranteed basic human rights, which include the right to maintain a family life and freedom from torture and other forms of CIDT, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.

The United Nations Committee Against Torture has called on Israel to ensure that prisoners on hunger strikes are not subjected to force-feeding or other medical treatment against their will, as it could amount to torture.

However, without negotiations with prisoners by the Israeli authorities, it is highly likely that prisoners would suffer permanent health damage and possible death.

For more information, please see:

Aljazeera – A Timeline of Palestinian Mass Hunger Strikes in Israel – 12 May 2017

Aljazeera – Palestinian Shot Dead by Israeli Forces in Nabi Saleh – 12 May 2017

Aljazeera – Palestinian Hunger Strike Highlights Medical Neglect – 12 May 2017

Daily Times – Palestinian Hunger Strikes- 13 May 2017

Ma’an News Agency – Palestinian Prisoners Enter 27th Day of Mass Hunger Strike – 13 May 2017

Ma’an News Agency – Funeral Held for Palestinian Killed by Israeli Forces During Solidarity March- 12 May 2017

Palestine News Network- Israeli Doctors Reject Force-Feeding Prisoners on Hunger Strike – 10 May 2017