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

Ceasefire in Syria Leads to Conflicting Reports of Reduced Violence

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria — An agreement aimed at reducing violence in Syria went into effect at midnight on Saturday, May 6th. The ceasefire was headed by Russia, which is the strongest ally of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, and backed by Turkey and Iran.

The four “de-escalation zones” cover a total of 2.5 million citizens (Photo courtesy of AlJazeera)

The plan calls for ending hostilities between rebel groups and government forces by creating “de-escalation zones” in the major areas of conflict in western Syria for a period of six months, which could be extended if all three signatory countries agree. Although Russia is permitted to fly over the de-escalation zones, the agreement strictly prohibits the use of weapons and air strikes in those areas.

The ceasefire further calls for the creation of “conditions for humanitarian access, medical assistance and return of displaced civilians into their homes.” The Syrian government is required to allow “unhindered” humanitarian aid into rebel-held areas, and must restore services such as water and electricity.

The largest de-escalation zone, in northern Syria, covers a population of over one million and encompasses the Idlib province, which was hit by a chemical attack in early April. The three remaining zones cover the northern Homs province, the eastern Ghouta region, and the area surrounding the Jordanian border in southern Syria, encompassing a total of over 1.5 million citizens. Qaboun, a town in the eastern Ghouta region, is exempt from the deal due to its history as housing the Nusra Front, a group linked to al-Qaeda.

Despite the agreement, however, there have been conflicting reports of its effectiveness. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (“SOHR”) stated that it has already started seeing breaches of the deal, mainly in the northern Hama province. A spokesperson for the Jaish al-Nasr rebel group, Mr. Mohammed Rasheed, stated that the fighting started after midnight. The SOHR added that fighter jets shot upon al-Zalakiyat, a village held by Syrian rebels, as well as upon the countryside of northern Hama. Mr. Rasheed further noted that barrel bombs were also used in the attacks. He added that “[t]he bombardment has not stopped, it is no different from before[.]” Furthermore, on Saturday, May 6th, less than twenty-four hours after the ceasefire was implemented, four opposition fighters were killed and a child was wounded when a suburb of Damascus was shelled by government forces.

The SOHR, in contrast, also noted that despite the reduction in fighting, that it was still “too early” to determine whether it would last. The director of the SOHR, Mr. Rami Abdulrahman, noted that “[t]he reduction in violence must be clear and lasting[.]”

For more information, please see:

AlJazeera—Syria’s ‘de-escalation zones’ explained—6 May 2017

Washington Post—Syria violence kills 4, wounds child despite safe zones—6 May 2017

Reuters—Syria fighting eases as Russian deal takes effect—6 May 2017

Deutsche Wells—Fighting continues in Syrian ‘safe zones’—6 May 2017

CBS News—Russia’s proposed Syrian “safe zone” deal goes into effect—6 May 2017

Turkish Military Launches Airstrike into Iraq and Syria

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

BAGHDAD, Iraq — The Turkish military released a statement indicating that its military jets attacked fighters of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (“PKK”) with airstrikes on Tuesday, April 25th, in northern Iraq and northeast Syria.

Turkey’s attack, which hit “shelters, ammunition depots and key control centers[,]” was intended to “prevent infiltration of Kurdish rebels, weapons, ammunition and explosives from those areas into Turkey.” (Photo courtesy of the New York Times)
Despite the Turkish military’s statement claiming that the attack was carried out “within the scope of international law[,]” it has been characterized as “unusually intense[.]” The statement indicated that the airstrike, which took place before dawn, hit targets on Sinjar mountain in Iraq and a mountainous region in Syria. It noted that the attack was necessary to “prevent infiltration of Kurdish rebels, weapons, ammunition and explosives from those areas into Turkey.” A second statement indicated that the airstrikes hit “shelters, ammunition depots and key control centers[.]”

The spokesperson for the Syrian Kurdish militia, also known as the People’s Protection Units (“YPG”), Mr. Redur Khalil, stated that Turkey’s jets struck their headquarters in the town of Karachok in the northeastern Syrian province of Hassakeh. Mr. Khalil added that the attack caused extensive damage to the headquarters as well as to neighboring civilian property.

The Turkish military’s statement noted that the airstrike killed a minimum of seventy people, with forty militants in Sinjar and thirty in northern Syria being “neutralized.” The YPG, however, stated that the attack killed twenty of its fighters and wounded eighteen more. The mayor of Sinjar, Mr. Mahma Khalil, stated that five members of the Iraqi Kurdish militia (“the peshmerga”), who support the fight against the Islamic State (“ISIS”) with the U.S.-led coalition, were also killed in the airstrike.

The YPG is a close ally to the U.S.’s fight against ISIS. However, Turkey considers the YPG to be a terrorist group due to its ties to Turkey’s Kurdish rebels, the PKK, which are being harbored in neighboring Syria and Iraq.

The attack attracted immediate international criticism and condemnation. The U.S.-led coalition stated that Iraq’s neighbors must be respectful of state sovereignty and encouraged “all forces to . . . concentrate their efforts on [defeating] ISIS [in Iraq and Syria.]” While Turkey claimed to have notified the U.S. and Russia in advance of the attack, the U.S. State Department indicated that it was “deeply concerned” by the airstrike and that it was not authorized by the U.S.-led coalition. The Foreign Minister of Iraq, Mr. Ahmad Jamal, stated that the airstrike was a “violation” of its sovereignty, and called upon the international community to end Turkey’s “interference[.]” The Syrian Kurdish fighters denounced Turkey’s airstrike, noting that the attack was “treacherous[,]” and accusing Turkey of “undermining the anti-terrorism fight.” Russia, which is a close ally of the Syrian government, also criticized the airstrike by stating that it “hindered efforts to combat [ISIS]” and added that it was “serious[ly] concern[ed]” about the strikes.

For more information, please see:

ABC News—Tensions rise after Turkish attack on Syrian Kurds—26 April 2017

The New York Times—Turkish Strikes Target Kurdish Allies of U.S. in Iraq and Syria—25 April 2017

AlJazeera—Turkey targets Kurdish fighters in Iraq and Syria—25 April 2017

BBC News—Turkey air strikes on Kurds in Syria and Iraq spark US concern—25 April 2017

The Washington Post—The Latest: Russia slams Turkish strikes in Iraq, Syria—26 April 2017

Boston Herald—Turkey strikes Kurds in Iraq, Syria, drawing condemnation—25 April 2017


France Confirms “Signature” of Assad Regime and Use of Sarin in Khan Sheikhoun Attack

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria — On Wednesday, April 26th, French officials stated that the chemical weapon attack in Syria earlier this month which killed eighty-nine people bears the “signature” of President Bashar al-Assad.

Samples taken from the attack site were compared to samples taken from 2013 attacks to confirm the use of sarin (Photo courtesy of CNN)


The French Foreign Ministry posted a tweet, which read “[t]here’s no doubt that Sarin was used.” The Foreign Minister of France, Mr. Jean-Marc Avrault, stated that samples had been taken from the attack site of the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun and that they matched samples which had been taken from a previous attack. Mr. Avrault noted that the French government had “definite sources” which confirmed that the procedure utilized to make the sampled Sarin is “typical of the methods developed in Syrian laboratories[.]” He indicated that they were able to compare the samples since French laboratories had stored samples taken from other chemical attacks in Syria. He added that the French government established responsibility for the attack by analyzing the method used to develop the Sarin, which “bears the signature of the regime[.]”

The French Foreign Ministry stated that samples taken from the attack site along with the blood of one of the victims confirmed that Sarin had been used in the attack. The Ministry added that the attack site and blood samples were compared with samples taken from a 2013 Syrian attack, in which three Sarin grenades were dropped from a helicopter. The French army had noted that the only forces in possession of a helicopter were the Syrian regime, and had thus concluded that the attack had been carried out by Syria.

The Ministry further added that a “warplane had been deployed from the Syrian regime’s Shayrat airbase on the morning of April 4[.]” The statement indicated that the plane had executed up to six airstrikes in the area of Khan Sheikhoun, and that only the Syrian regime is in possession of such assets.

A report released by French intelligence services alleges that the Sarin, or similar substance, used in the attack came from “hidden stockpiles of chemical weapons[.]” Syria had been required to destroy its chemical weapons in 2013 after 1,400 people had been killed in an attack in Damascus.

Western countries have been blaming this month’s Sarin attack on the Syrian government. The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), however, indicated that its international chemical weapons inspectors had found “incontrovertible evidence that Sarin, or a similar substance,” had been used in the chemical weapons attack in Khan Sheikhoun. After testing samples gathered from the attack site, scientists from the United Kingdom had previously confirmed that Sarin, or a similar chemical, had been used. The French Foreign Ministry stated that its “independent investigation” supported “with certainty[,]” the findings of the United States, United Kingdom, Turkey and the OPCW. Syria, on the other hand, has maintained its long-standing position that it is not in possession of any chemical weapons, and has denied any involvement in the Khan Sheikhoun attack, dismissing allegations as “fabrication[.]”

For more information, please see:

Los Angeles Times—Syrian chemical attack bears Assad’s signature, France says—26 April 2017

ABC News—French intelligence says Syria behind the deadly sarin gas attack—26 April 2017

CNN—France ‘has proof’ Assad regime was behind Syria chemical weapon attack—26 April 2017

The Washington Post—Samples from Syria’s deadly sarin attack bear Assad’s ‘signature,’ France says—26 April 2017

BBC News—Syrian government made Sarin used in Khan Sheikhoun, France says—26 April 2017

Turkish Referendum Divides Country After Suspicions of Fraud

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

ANKARA, Turkey — On Sunday, April 12th, Turkish citizens voted in a referendum designed to grant comprehensive powers to the president. The outcome of the vote, which has been plagued with allegations of fraudulent ballots, was 51.5 percent in favor of the proposal.

The referendum has sharply divided the country after a narrow 51.5% win (Photo courtesy of Turkish Minute)

The proposal was designed to replace Turkey’s parliamentary system with an “all-powerful presidency” after eliminating Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s current position. Most of the changes proposed in the plan will take effect only after the next election, which is currently scheduled to take place in 2019. However, despite Deputy Prime Minister Mehmet Simsek’s denial, there are rumors that Mr. Erdogan will hold the elections sooner to be vested with his new powers immediately.

Once effectuated, several constitutional changes will take place. The president will be granted a five-year tenure, for a maximum term of two years. He will be granted the power to appoint his own cabinet and several vice presidents. He will have the authority to select and remove senior civil servants without approval from the parliament. He will be able to intervene in the judiciary. Furthermore, the president will also be vested with the power to decide whether to impose a state of emergency.

Mr. Erdogan stated that twenty-five million people supported the proposal, with 51.5 percent of voters electing to vote “Yes” in the referendum. Referring to July’s failed coup attempt, Mr. Erdogan stated that the country’s ruling system was being changed for the first time in the history of the Republic through “civil politics[.]”

The three main cities in Turkey, Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir, along with the southeastern regions, voted “No.” While the tallying process was nearing completion, electoral authorities decided to permit ballots without official stamps to be counted, a decision which the Turkish Bar Association criticized as “illegal[.]” Afterwards, opponents of the referendum questioned the validity of the vote, and urged the authorities to recount the ballots. The head of the Republican People’s Party, Mr. Kemal Kilicdaroglu, which is the main opposing party to Mr. Erdogan’s ruling party, stated that his party would demand a recount of up to sixty percent of the ballots.

Opponents raised several concerns regarding the validity of the election, such as “[s]uspicions of ballot-stuffing[,]” the electoral commission’s decision “to significantly increase the burden needed to prove allegations of ballot-box stuffing[,]” the prevention of over 170 members of the opposition from observing the election, the temporary detainment of international election observers, and allegations of “No” votes being removed from ballot boxes and “deposited in a building site” in southern Turkey.

The referendum results, and questionable voting policies, have divided the country. Mr. Kilicdaroglu accused Mr. Erdogan of seeking a “one-man regime,” while noting that the impending constitutional changes would “put the country in danger.” Residents in affluent neighborhoods of Istanbul flooded the streets in protest, and others banged pots and pans at their homes while noting that the proposal is a “step toward greater authoritarianism.” On the other side of the spectrum, Mr. Bayram Seker, a self-employed citizen who voted “Yes” in Istanbul, stated that the referendum was their opportunity to “take back control of our country[.]” Mr. Seker added that a “one-man rule” is not “scary” as the country had been ruled by one man in the past, namely Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The referendum has also attracted international concern and criticism. The European Union’s executive body stated that the close result in votes should lead the Turkish government to “seek the broadest national consensus in implementing the vote,” and urged a “transparent investigation” into the allegations of fraud. The Council of Europe, which monitored the polls, stated that the voting process “did not live up to its standards.” The former Prime Minister of Belgian, Mr. Guy Verhofstadt, stated that the EU should “stop accession talks” if Mr. Erdogan does not “change course” following the “very tight” outcome of the referendum. The MP of Austria, Ms. Alev Korun, stated that there is a suspicion that “up to 2.5 million votes could have been manipulated[.]” Human Rights Watch noted that the Turkish government should “reverse the decision” because the campaign and election took place under a state of emergency and “in a highly repressive climate” following July’s failed coup attempt.

For more information, please see:

The New York Times—Videos Fuel Charges of Fraud in Erdogan’s Win in Turkey Referendum—18 April 2017

BBC News—Turkey referendum: EU urges Ankara to probe illegal vote claims—18 April 2017

Reuters—Turkey’s Erdogan declares referendum victory, opponents plan challenge—17 April 2017

ABC News—Turkish opposition party files to have referendum voided—18 April 2017

The Washington Post—Why Turkish opposition parties are contesting the referendum results—17 April 2017

Human Rights Watch—Turkey: End State of Emergency after Referendum—17 April 2017

First Phase of Syrian Evacuations Completed Following Agreement to Release Hostages

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria — On Friday, April 21st, the evacuation of thousands of Syrian civilians from four besieged areas was completed following a forty-eight-hour delay. The population transfer was resumed after an agreement to release hundreds of government detainees was reached.

30,000 people are expected to be evacuated as part of the population transfer deal (Photo courtesy of ABC News)

Friday’s evacuations marked the completion of the first phase of a population swap deal in Syria. Approximately 11,000 individuals, 8,000 from the pro-government towns of Foua and Kfarya and 3,000 from the rebel-held towns of Zabadani and Madaya, were evacuated. Forty-six buses carrying residents from Foua and Kfarya arrived at a suburb of Aleppo, and fifteen buses carrying residents and rebels from Zabadani departed for Idlib.

The fate of one of the largest population transfers in Syria’s civil war had been tied to twenty-six hostages who had been held in Iraq by members of the Shiite militia. Evacuees were forced to spend two nights in their buses after a disagreement emerged regarding the release of the hostages. The prisoners, which included members of Qatar’s royal family, were released after Qatar led negotiations for the deal. Under the deal, the Syrian regime will release 500 prisoners which will be transferred to a rebel-held area outside of Aleppo.

The evacuation plan, which has been dubbed “demographic engineering” by the opposition, entails the transfer of approximately 30,000 people from their hometowns over a period spanning sixty days. Most of those being evacuated will be from pro-government villages in the northern province of Idlib.

The agreement has been protested by rights groups, which stated that the evacuations were a “forcible displacement that is altering the country’s demographics along political and sectarian lines.” The head of the United Nations investigative panel on Syria, Mr. Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, cautioned that those evacuated into Idlib and Aleppo are “likely to be caught in escalating fighting from increasingly radicalized extremist groups.” Mr. Pinheiro noted that the panel is concerned that a “disaster” will happen in Idlib, and stated that the newly situated individuals “are under serious risk about their lives[.]” He linked the concerns to the strong presence of extremists in the areas of Idlib and western Aleppo.

The second phase of the population transfer is scheduled to begin in June.

For more information, please see:

The Washington Post—UN panel: Syria evacuees likely to be caught in new fighting—21 April 2017

ABC News—In Syria, first phase of population transfer concludes—21 April 2017

TRT World—Syria evacuation resumes after agreement on prisoner swap deal—21 April 2017

BBC News—Kidnapped Qatari hunting party of 26 freed in Iraq after 16 months—21 April 2017

Reuters—Evacuations from besieged Syrian towns end after two-day halt—21 April 2017

Syrian Evacuations Postponed after Suicide Bomb

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria — Over 3,000 Syrian civilians were scheduled to be evacuated from four areas on Sunday, April 16th, as part of a “population transfer[.]” Despite a suicide bomb that killed over 100 people on Saturday, the evacuation has been postponed due to unknown reasons.

Among those killed in the suicide bombing were at least sixty-eight children (Photo courtesy of the Washington Post)

On Saturday, April 15th, several buses evacuated over 5,000 residents from the northern towns of Fuaa and Kafraya. As the buses were waiting at a bus depot transit point in Rashidin, a rebel-held town west of Aleppo, several suicide car bombs were detonated. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights stated that the explosions killed nearly 126 people, including at least sixty-eight children, and injured hundreds more. A majority of the deceased, 109 out of 126, were evacuees. The remainder were aid workers and rebels tasked with guarding the evacuation convoy. The rights group further stated that a nearby gas station was also affected by the blast, which led to an increase in the number of victims.

The attack was apparently carried out with a pick-up truck, and nothing but its shell and engine block remained after the detonations. The explosions left “[b]ody parts and the belongings of evacuees[,]” such as clothing, dishes “and even televisions[,]” scattered throughout the attack site. Images released of the site showed bodies “lying alongside buses, some of which were charred and others gutted from the blast.” A young girl who had been wounded in the bombing lost four of her siblings. She stated that a man in the pick-up truck approached children “who had been deprived of food for years[,]” and told them to “come and eat potato chips.” She stated that the explosion happened shortly after several children had gathered, and that some were “torn [] to pieces.”

The suicide bombings have not yet been claimed by any party. One of the rebel groups, Ahrar al-Sham, which negotiated the evacuation deal, has denied any involvement. The Syrian government blamed the attacks on “terrorists[,]” which has been the “catch-all term for its opponents.”

The suicide bombings drew immediate international protest. The United Nations Aid Chief, Mr. Stephen O’Brien, condemned the bombing. He released a statement in which he characterized those responsible for carrying out the attacks as “monstrous and cowardly[,]” and indicated that they portrayed a “shameless disregard for human life.” Pope Francis urged “an end to the war in Syria[.]” The Executive Director of UNICEF, Mr. Anthony Lake, stated that a new “horror” has emerged after six years of war in Syria, one which must “break the heart of anyone who has one.”

Despite the agreement to evacuate residents, Sunday’s scheduled transfers were halted after the explosions. The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Mr. Rami Abdurrahman, stated that the evacuations were delayed because “permission” had not been given for it to proceed. An opposition activist, Mr. Hussam Mahmoud, stated that it was postponed due to “logistical reasons.” No announcement has been made as to whether the transfers were delayed out of fear of recurring bombings.

The evacuations, which were not being overseen by the United Nations, involves residents of the towns of Fuaa, Kafraya, Madaya and Zabadani. All four towns have been under siege for several years. The unaffected buses from the explosion site resumed their trip a few hours after the bombing and reached their destinations.

For more information, please see:

The Washington Post—Mass evacuation in Syria postponed after blast kill 68 kids—16 April 2017

The Guardian—’Sixty-eight children among dead’ of suicide bombing attack in Syria—16 April 2017

ABC News—Over 100 killed during Syria’s troubled population transfer—15 April 2017

The Independent—At least ’68 children among dead’ in Syria bomb attack—16 April 2017

ISIS Suicide Bombers Carry Out Attacks at Churches in Egypt on Palm Sunday

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

CAIRO, Egypt — On Palm Sunday, April 10th, the Islamic State (“ISIS”) carried out two suicide attacks at Coptic Christian churches in Egypt, injuring and killing over 100 people. Following the attacks, on Sunday evening, Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi declared a three-month state of emergency.

The suicide bombers detonated explosive devices at two churches in the towns of Tanta and Alexandria (Photo courtesy of CNN)

The suicide attacks, which were carried out merely hours apart, were responsible for the deaths of at least forty-four people, and injured at least 126 more. These attacks marked the “single deadliest day for Christians in decades” and were the worst since thirty people had died in a bombing at a church in December.

The bombings took place in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria. The first bomb, which exploded in Tanta at St. George’s Church, killed at least twenty-seven people and wounded seventy-eight. A civilian who rushed to the scene of the bombing, Mr. Maged Saleh, cried out “[w]here is the government? There is no government!”

The first explosion led to “horrific” scenes, and reportedly “destroyed” the church. A state-run news agency reported that an explosive device had been planted under a seat in the main prayer hall. The bombs reportedly “overturn[ed] pews, shatter[ed] windows and stain[ed] the whitewashed walls with blood.” Media reports from the site depicted “lifeless, bloody bodies covered with papers.” Several doors had been blown off, and women were shown as “wail[ing] outside.” A survivor who had been attending the Palm Sunday mass with his brother noted that smoke filled the area, leading to complete darkness.

A nearby resident, Ms. Susan Mikhail, stated that the explosion shook her building. “violently[.]” She reported that many of the deacons, who were the first to run out of the church, had “blood on their white robes[.]” Ms. Mikhail added that those who had been seriously injured were rescued by other survivors and carried out to private cars to be taken to the hospital.

The second bomb, which was detonated at St. Mark’s Cathedral in Alexandria, killed a minimum of eighteen civilians and four police officers, and injured forty-eight. A man who had reportedly been wearing an explosive belt was stopped from entering the church by two police officers. The bomb was detonated shortly thereafter near the gate of the church. An Egyptian blogger, Maged Butter, reported that there were bloodstains 100 meters away from the explosion. He added that women were “crying and looking for their loved ones[.]” A nearby witness stated that there were “bodies and body parts everywhere[,]” and added that he “saw a man put together what was left of his son in a bag.”

ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks, leading to escalating fear that the extremists are shifting their focus to civilians, and particularly on the Christian minority in Egypt: the Coptics. The group released a statement in which it provided the names of the suicide bombers, and stated that it “vow[s]” to continue its attacks against Christians.

For more information, please see:

CBS—Rage, crackdown after deadly ISIS attack on Christian minority—10 April 2017

The New York Times—Attacks Show ISIS’ New Plan: Divide Egypt by Killing Christians—10 April 2017

CNN—ISIS claims responsibility for Palm Sunday church bombings in Egypt—10 April 2017

Fox News—Palm Sunday attacks: 44 dead, more than 100 injured in church bombings carried out by ISIS in Egypt—9 April 2017

ABC News—Egypt declares state of emergency; ISIS attacks killed scores of Palm Sunday churchgoers—9 April 2017

Daily Mail—Egyptian forces shoot dead seven jihadists planning to attack a Christian monastery days after bombing Coptic church as part of ISIS plan to divide the country—11 April 2017

Syrian Town Hit With Two More Airstrikes After Chemical Attack

by Yesim Usluca
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria — On Tuesday, April 4th, the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun was hit with a chemical attack that left hundreds of civilians, including many children, dead or injured. This Friday and Saturday, April 7th and 8th, the same town was hit once more with a new wave of airstrikes.

Khan Sheikhoun was hit with an airstrike just days after the chemical attack that killed and injured hundreds of civilians (Photo courtesy of Middle East Eye)

Activist Alaa Al-Youssef stated that Saturday’s attack in Khan Sheikhoun targeted a residential neighborhood. The attack reportedly killed one woman and injured her son, while wounding three others.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed that Russian planes had carried out the attack with the support of the Syrian government. However, despite the fact that only Russian and Syrian aircrafts have been bombing the town of Khan Sheikhoun, it was not clear which party directed the second wave of attacks. It was also not clear where the missiles had been launched from. However, Russia, which is the main ally of the Syrian regime, had sent a frigate armed with cruise missiles to a port in western Syria. Russia’s decision to send the armed frigate was characterized as a “show of force” in response to the United States.

The latest attacks on Friday and Saturday appear to be retaliatory, and in response to Friday morning’s missile strike by the United States. The United States’ attack had targeted a military base in western Syria used to launch Tuesday’s chemical attack but led to the deaths of nine people. However, despite the fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles that hit this target on Friday morning, the Syrian air force has already resumed its flight operations from this base. On Saturday, a reporter for a state-run Russian network posted a video on Instagram showing a jet rolling down the tarmac at the air force base with the caption “Return to work at Shayrat.”

G-7 foreign ministers are scheduled to meet in Italy on Monday and Tuesday to build “coordinated international support for a ceasefire on the ground and an intensified political process.” Supporters of the Syrian opposition, such as Turkey, heralded the United States’ Friday morning attack, however, other countries, such as Russia and Iran, had the opposite reaction by “harshly condemn[ing]” it. The Foreign Minister of Turkey, Mr. Mevlut Cavusoglu, warned that Friday’s attack by the United States would remain purely “cosmetic” if Syria’s regime is not removed from power and if the intervention does not continue.

For more information, please see:

NBC News—Warplanes Strike Syrian Town Recovering From Chemical Attack: Human Rights Group—8 April 2017

LA Times—Warplanes strike Syrian town already hit by chemical attack—8 April 2017

CNN—Syria strikes: Site of chemical attack hit again—8 April 2017

Chicago Tribune—Syrian town hit by chemical weapons attack is targeted again in airstrikes—8 April 2017