The Middle East

Dozens of Saudis Arrested after Prison Protest

By Ali Al-Bassam
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Dozens of men were arrested on Monday by Saudi security forces in the desert around Tarfiya prison in central Qassim province, where more than 100 demonstrators staged a one-day protest to press for the release of relatives.  The arrests happened after the police confined protesters to a desert area outside the prison, where they were kept without food or water for nearly a day.

Saudi police forces detained and transported dozens of protestors to an unknown location on Monday. (Photo Courtesy of the Tehran Times)

Protestors say they ended the demonstration when police forces confronted them with shields and batons, telling them that “their message had been heard and their demands would be looked into.”

Referring to Monday’s arrests, Reema Al-Juraish, who protested her husband’s incarceration, said “[w]hen we left the ‘Emergency Forces’ followed our cars.  They chased us to detain the men.  I saw them grab five and when I tried to intervene they pushed me and hit me with a baton.”

Al-Juraish claimed that she saw the police arrest up to 60 men, who were then taken to an unknown location.  Saudi Arabia says that it is holding protestors’ relatives for reasons of security.  The activists believe that their family members were detained for purely political activity and have never been charged with crimes.

A spokesman for the Interior Ministry claimed that those accused of “terrorism related” activity were undergoing a fair judicial process.  “As for the gathering of a limited number of relatives of the detained people at a prison, they have been stopped according to legal procedures and will be dealt with if they are found in violation of the laws,” the spokesman said in reference to the protestors.

The Interior Ministry says that 5,080 of the nearly 5,700 people it detained last year on security grounds were put on trial.

In Riyadh, a separate protest took place in front of the Saudi Human Rights Commission.  Ever since uprisings took place last year, the country has been criticized for its human rights record regarding prisoners detained for participating in anti-government protests.  Rights activists say hundreds of political prisoners remain incarcerated in harsh conditions without access to a lawyer.  People have even been arrested by police forces for “looking suspicious,” and have been held for many years without ever being formally charged for a crime.

One such prisoner, human rights campaigner Mohammed Al-Bajadi, was arrested and sentenced to four years in prison last April.  He had been accused of forming a human rights association, tarnishing Saudi Arabia’s reputation, questioning the independence of the judiciary, and owning illegal books.

The non-governmental Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association claims that some 30,000 political prisoners are currently being held by Saudi forces.

For further information, please see:

The Daily Star — Dozens Arrested After Prison Protest in Saudi Arabia — 25 September 2012

Tehran Times — Saudi Forces Detain Dozens of Protesters — 25 September 2012

Al Jazeera — Dozens of Saudis ‘Detained’ After Jail Rally — 24 September 2012

Reuters — Dozens Arrested After Saudi Prison Protest — 24 September 2012


‘Oops…’ Error When Accessing Account: Iran Blocks Google and Gmail

By Justin Dorman
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

TEHRAN, Iran – Mobile phone users and television viewers in Iran were notified on Sunday that their access to Google and Gmail would be censored for the foreseeable future.

Western websites are regularly blocked in Iran. (Photo Courtesy of Al Jazeera)

Iranian officials have claimed that the block on the search engine, Google, and its e-mail service, Gmail, is in response to the anti-Muhammad film that has recently enraged Muslims across the Middle East. Abdolsamad Khoramabadi, a representative of Iran’s state run agency in charge of online censorship and computer crimes, states that many Iranians urged the agency to block the sites because they contain links to the film.

Many do not believe that the film had anything to do with the governments filtering measures. A popular sentiment expressed is that many in Iran are not as upset about the anti-Muhammad film as other neighboring countries, and that the government is using the film as propaganda. To those people, the true motive behind the recent actions instead has to do with Iran’s government’s urge to create a national intranet, separate from the worldwide internet.

“This is a pre-determined scenario to block Google in Iran, they wanted to do this since long time ago,” tweeted Hadi Khezriyan.

These restrictions are not the first that this Iranian regime has implemented. Google and Gmail were both blocked last February, just prior to parliamentary elections. YouTube has been blocked since mid-2009, after people used the tool to contest the validity of President Ahmadinejad’s re-election. Other sites routinely blocked and censored are the Guardian, BBC, CNN, Facebook, and Twitter. There are few countries that are censored more often than Iran.

Last year, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei set up the Supreme Council of Virtual Space to watch over the country’s internet. Since then, the group has been planning to create a national intranet. Experts believe that Iran is doing this to protect sensitive information like military and banking records from an outside cyber-attack. Others feel that Iran just wants to control the outside information that is coming into the country and pull out of the worldwide web all together.

Ali Hakim-Javadi, the country’s deputy communications and technology minister, said that, “[i]n recent days, all governmental agencies and offices have been connected to the national information network.” The fear is that the next step will be getting all the regular citizens onto the national intranet.

Many Iranians have taken to social networking sites to complain about the recent ban. Golnaz Esfandiari, who writes a blog for Persian Letters, a website run by Radio Free Europe, wrote, “By blocking Gmail/Google, #Iran government punishes its own people over anti-Islam movie.  Most Iranians have not seen it/don’t care.”

For some, anger about the prohibition is more a matter of principle than practicality. Iranians can still access Gmail by using virtual private networks (VPNs). Many already use these VPNs to gain access to blocked Western sites, despite government restrictions.

“[E]very schoolchild knows how to bypass restrictions by using VPNs, it’s very common in Iran,” said Mahmood Tajali Mehr, an Iranian telecommunications consultant.

For further information, please see:

Al Jazeera – Iran Blocks Access to Google and Gmail – 24 September 2012

BBC – Google Search and Gmail Censored in Iran – 24 September 2012

Guardian – Iran set to Block Access to Google – 23 September 2012

BBC – Iran’s Supreme Leader Sets up Body to Oversee Internet – 7 March 2012


14 Sentenced to Death by Egyptian Courts for Sinai Attacks

By Ali Al-Bassam
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

CAIRO, Egypt — Fourteen reportedly militant Islamists’ death sentences were upheld by the Supreme State of Emergency Court on Monday for their part in a deadly attack on a bank and police station. The strike killed an army officer, five policemen, and a civilian in the North Sinai town of Arish last year.  The jihadists were originally sentenced to death on August 14 by a court in Ismailiya, northeast of Cairo. Four men received life sentences for their parts in the attack, while six were acquitted.

A Bedouin man in Sinai investigates the scene of an explosion. (Photo Courtesy of Egypt Independent)

Those who were sentenced belonged to the “Tawhid wal Jihad” (Monotheism and Holy War) organization.  The group was accused of killing 34 people in a series of bombings that were carried out  against tourist resorts in South Sinai in 2004 and 2005.  Ever since the Mubarak era, North Sinai villages have dealt with many issues involving Islamic jihadists who seek an Emirate in Sinai.  After its founders were killed by police following the attack, the group kept a low profile, but experienced a resurgence after President Mubarak was overthrown.

Mohamed Zare’ a human rights lawyer who is also the head of the Arab Organization for Penal Reform, described the ruling as “deterrent, especially because of what is being carried out in Sinai.  It also is proof of fears the country has of Jihadists.”  Zare’ believes that the ruling is proof of the executive and judicial bodies’ awareness of the issues that Sinai currently faces.

Nageh Ibrahim, former fighter who is now an Islamist researcher, agreed with Zare’.  In an interview with Al Jazeera, he said that “[t]his court decision is a milestone.  It gives a strong message to the militant groups that the state, President Mohamed Morsi’s government, will not tolerate attacks on the Egyptian armed forces and police.”

Tarek Abdel-A’al, head of field work for the Egyptian Initiative for Human Rights, disagrees, finding the sentence to be “very harsh,” especially considering the modern trend many countries are following in abandoning the death penalty.

Those convicted blame President Mohamed Morsi for the court’s decision.  After the verdict, one defendant was heard shouting that “Morsi is an infidel and those who follow him are infidels.”

Al Jazeera reported that the Egyptian government and Israel are currently coordinating on a security operation which involves hundreds of Egyptian troops with tanks, armored vehicles and helicopters in a joint operation with police to raid militant hideouts, arrest suspects, and seize weapons.  Yet there is still little information over whether this will be enough to bring Sinai back under government control.

For further information please see:

Al Bawaba — Egypt: Six Islamists to be Executed — 24 September 2012

Al Jazeera — Egypt Upholds Death Penalty in Sinai Attacks — 24 September 2012

Daily News Egypt — Over a Dozen Sentenced to Death for Deadly Attack in North Sinai — 24 September 2012

Egypt Independent — Egypt Condemns 14 to Death for 2011 Sinai Attack — 24 September 2012

Syrian Children Pay Heavy Toll in Civil War

By Emily Schneider
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria – Daily life for citizens in war-torn Syria is getting harder every day as indiscriminate attacks continue. Although the reality of war affects every aspect of life for citizens, children are especially vulnerable to the instability caused by crisis. This week marked the beginning of the school year but for many of Syria’s children learning is a luxury only afforded in peacetime.

A book lies on the ground outside a destroyed school in Aleppo. (Photo courtesy of the Associated Press)

According to Syria’s Ministry of Education, more than 2,000 of the country’s 22,000 schools have been damaged or destroyed and are unusable. Leila Zerrougui, the United Nations’ envoy for Children and Armed Conflict, says that she has called on the Syrian government to make the evacuation of all schools a top priority. In smaller villages, citizens whose homes have been destroyed congregate in common buildings, such as schools, for safety. The Ministry estimates that about 759 schools are being used as sanctuaries for displaced persons. But according to Amnesty International, many of these schools have been the targets of air strikes or large-caliber bullet spray from helicopters in spite of the fact that their occupants are civilians.

The Ministry claims that most schools are still operational and handling the overflow by scheduling classes in shifts. The government said more than 5 million students attended school on Sunday. But according to Dina Craissati, UNICEF’s regional education adviser, at least 200,000 children within the country are having difficulty accessing education due to internal displacement. in an effort to off-set the lack of structured school activities, UNICEF was able to provide a small number of children with “recreational kits” for entertainment.

The unavailability of education extends outside of the country’s borders, following the flow of refugees. The U.N. Children’s Fund said that the Lebanese government was struggling to place an estimated 32,000 Syrian refugee children in school. In Jordan, UNICEF is currently building a school that will hold up to 5,000 students and workers were registering school-age children at the Zaatari refugee camp.

For most children, the inability to attend school is a secondary concern. Zerrougui said that she and her staff have “documented government attacks on schools, children denied access to hospitals, girls and boys suffering and dying in bombardments of their neighborhoods, and also being subject to torture, including sexual violence, sometimes for weeks.”  Non-state groups have also committed violations against children. According to Zerrougui, the Free Syrian Army “may have children associated with their forces.”

“The situation for children in Syria is dire,” she told the Security Council.

For further information, please see:

Al Arabiya News – U.N. Security Council Split over Children and Armed Conflict – 20 September 2012

CNN – Deaths Mounting in Syrian Towns; Children Being Tortured, U.N. Official Says – 20 September 2012

Huffington Post – Syria Bombardments, Air Strikes Terrorize Civilians, Amnesty International Says – 20 September 2012

CNN – Growing Jihadi Presence in Syria ‘Alarming,’ U.N. Investigator Says – 17 September 2012

Boston Globe – Civil War Keeps Many Syrian Children from School – 16 September 2012

Amnesty International – Indiscriminate Attacks Kill, Terrorize and Displace Civilians – 14 September 2012

UNICEF – As Population in Syrian Refugee Camp in Jordan Soars, Focus is on Needs of Children – 14 September 2012

Syrian Government Accused of Using ‘Barrel Bombs’

By Emily Schneider
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East Desk

DAMASCUS, Syria – The Syrian opposition has reported that the Syrian government used ‘barrel bombs’ this past weekend.  ‘Barrel bombs’ are large drums that are filled with explosives, oil, and pieces of steel.  The crude explosives are dropped from helicopters or low-flying jets and usually result in craters close to seven meters deep where they fall.  Their purpose is not only to destroy its target, but also to cause terror and permanently maim its victims.

Based on eye-witness accounts and amateur videos, a large number of people were killed on Saturday when a barrel bomb was dropped by a low-flying military aircraft in Aleppo.  Macit Abdunnur, a local activist, claimed that a residential building was destroyed by the blast and several corpses of women and children have been pulled from the rubble so far.

“The sound was like nothing else I’ve ever heard. It was an almighty whoosh,” Mohammed Ibrahim, a rebel fighter who got caught by the explosion, told the Telegraph. He lost his cousin in the blast and his own eardrums were perforated by the noise. He told reporters, “I was lucky I was standing behind a corner, but I was still knocked off my feet.  When I came round my ears were bleeding.”

There have been amateur videos posted online of the bombs exploding in Aleppo, although news agencies have not been able to independently verify the location of the videos. There are also videos of the helicopters and military planes hovering above targets while the crew pushes the barrel bomb out of the door.

The recent use of barrel bombs follows Syrian government’s use of indiscriminate shelling and bombing in an attempt to quell the opposition for the past several weeks.  These recent indiscriminate strikes constituted deliberate targeting of civilians, far from the front lines of the battle. Some opposition members speculated that the recent use of a barrel bomb is in response to the opposition’s attack on the regime’s security buildings in the Aleppo area on Friday.

A spokesman for the Local Coordination Committee in northern Aleppo said that the barrel bombs have been used in at least two areas of the city previous to this incident.

“How long are we going to sit and watch while an entire generation is being wiped out by random bombardment and deliberate mass targeting?” asked Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmed Davutoglu.

For further information, please see:

CNN – Syria Accused of Using ‘Barrel Bombs’ – 11 Sept. 2012

Turkish Weekly– Syrian Opposition Says Military Jets Drop “Barrel Bombs” on Aleppo – 10 September 2012

Israel National News – Video: Syria Drops New ‘Barrel Bomb’ on Aleppo – 2 Sept. 2012

Telegraph – Syrian Regime Deploys Deadly New Weapons on Rebels – 31 August 2012