The Middle East

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