Victims of Human Rights Abuses in UAE Share their Stories with UN Investigators

Justin Santabarbara
Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East

GENEVA, Switzerland – As the United Nations is preparing their annual human rights review for the Middle East, several of the investigators are taking some time to hear from individuals, who state that human rights abuses continue to be rampant and violent. Naji Hamdan, David Haigh, Mahmood al-Jaidah, and Khaled Mohamed Amed each sat on a panel at the Geneva Press Club to share their experiences with UN investigators and researchers.

Naji Hamdan (L) with Mahmood Al-Jaidah, survivors of torture in the UAE. Photo Courtesy of Middle East Eye.

The UAE human rights panel, which took place at the Geneva Press Club, detailed instances of rape, electrocution, and sleep deprivation. Each of the panel’s participants stated that they were detained for “anti-terror” crimes. Each were arrested by members of the secret intelligence services, which the UN has stated will weigh unfavorably against the UAE. the UN has counted arrests by intelligence services as kidnappings.

Hamdan, who gave the most detailed account of all the participants, stated that after being arrested by secret intelligence services, he was held in a freezing underground bunker with little food or water. Additionally, Hamdan stated that he was severely beaten over a period of 89 days, and for as long as 13 hours per day. Hamdan stated that despite being strapped to an electric chair, and the repeated blow to the head, the worst part was the threats made against his family for unsatisfactory answers to the interrogators’ questions.

Hamdan’s ACLU legal representatives asserted that he was tortured “by proxy” at the request of the United States.

In previous years, the UN has sent its researchers and investigators advisory notices regarding the purported human rights violations. The CIRI Human Rights Report has echoed this sentiment over the past violation reviews. CIRI has detected a strong decline in the state of personal integrity human rights in the UAE, as well as workers’ human rights. Additionally, the trends between the two subdivisions of review tends to echo much of the directives from the United Nations.

For more information, please see:

23 January 2018 – Middle East Eye -A Qatari citizen’s two years of abuse and false imprisonment by the UAE

21 January 2018 – Middle East Eye – Survivors of UAE Torture Detail Abuse Ahead of UN Human Rights Review 

CIRI Human Rights Report 

U.S. officials say Syria may be making new forms of chemical weapons

Matthew Sneed
Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East

WASHINGTON D.C., United States – On February 1, President Trump’s administration accused Syrian President Bashar Assad’s government of developing new chemical weapons. Officials say that the recent alleged attacks in Syria show characteristics similar to the chemical weapons attacks in 2013, the same year Syria agreed to destroy its chemical weapon program.

Workers and police stand outside of a restaurant following a missile attack in Syria on February 1. Photo courtesy of Can Erok.

Officials believe that the weapons used are not necessarily newly invented weapons, but rather they are being deployed in a new method. The possible reason for this is because the new deployments make it harder to trace the origins of the attack. For example, during the attacks in 2013, barrel bombs were used to launch chemical weapons, now, those have been replaced with ground-launched munitions. In addition, chlorine is being used more because of its non-chemical uses and because it is easy to acquire. Also, the chemical compound sarin has been found in the remains of recent attacks.

Speaking on anonymity, officials said the President has not ruled out a military response to Syria’s actions. “We reserve the right to use military force to prevent or deter the use of chemical weapons,” one official said, but would not go into detail about how serious a chemical attack would need to be to generate a military response. However, another official said the administration hopes that the increased sanctions and diplomatic pressure placed on Syria will be enough to stop the weapons program.

Assad’s government continues to deny the use of chemical weapons and Russia, Syria’s ally, claimed the reports of chemical attacks were false. Last year, Russia vetoed the renewal of the of the Joint Investigative Mission, a U.N. committee dedicated to the investigation of chemical weapons. This led the U.S. and other nations to accuse Russia of covering the attacks used by Assad’s army.

Official’s believe that Assad risks using such dangerous weapons to terrorize rebels and civilians, causing them to evacuate. This would allow him to consolidate control to specific regions. The weapons also compensate for Assad’s inability to take certain regains due to a lake of manpower. Moreover, officials believe that if the attacks continue without an adequate response, there will be an increased number of smaller chemical attacks. One official said, “They think they can get away with it if they keep it under a certain level.”

Since 2011, more than 5.4 million people have fled the country while millions more have been displaced inside the country itself. Over 13 million inside the country are in need and at least 3 million are in areas the U.N. describes as “hard to reach and besieged.”

For more information please see:

The Washington Post – US says Syria making new chemical weapons despite 2013 deal – 1, Feb. 2018

Reuters – U.S. says Syria may be developing new types of chemical weapons – 1, Feb. 2018

CBS News – Syria may be making new types of chemical weapons, U.S. says – 1, Feb, 2018

U.S. accuses Syria in the latest chemical attacks

Matthew Sneed
Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East

United Nations – On January 23, the United States accused the Syrian government of using chlorine gas attacks in the same rebel region four years ago. The chemical attack took place on January 22 in Eastern Ghouta. As of now, 21 people have been admitted to a hospital, including six children. The rebel base near Damascus, Syria’s capital, has fought against the government for the past seven years.

Victims in Eastern Ghouta receive treatment following the chemical attack on January 22. Photo courtesy of Mohammed Badra, European Pressphoto Agency.

On August 23, 2013, Eastern Ghouta was attacked with a strain nerve agent. This attack killed approximately 1,400 people. While President Assad denied responsibility, he agreed to destroy his arsenal of chemical weapons and promised to never use such weapons in the war. This deal, created by the United States and Russia, prevented an American response. The latest attack on January 23 is, at least, the second report of chemical attacks within the past months. However, there is no official way to determine who launched the attacks because the United Nation’s Security Council panel was disbanded after Russia vetoed the council’s renewal.

The UN called an emergency meeting the day after the attack. During the meeting, US Ambassador Nikki Haley heavily criticized the Russian government for failing to stop Syria. “We know that for years Russia has looked the other way while their Syrian friends use these despicable weapons of war,” she said. “Russia is complicit in the Assad regime’s atrocities. Will the Russian Federation say anything at all today about the suffering caused by Assad’s barbaric tactics? Will they hold Assad to account? Of course not. They never do.”

Haley was not the only U.S. official criticizing Russia. On the same day Haley spoke to the UN, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson spoke in Paris at a meeting where approximately 20 countries were coming together to discuss a new organization that would identify and punish countries who used chemical weapons. Tillerson condemned Russia’s failure to follow through on the agreement in 2013. “There is simply no denying that Russia, by shielding its Syrian ally, has breached its commitments to the United States as a framework guarantor,” he said. “Russia’s failure to resolve the chemical weapons issue in Syria calls into question its relevance to the resolution to the overall crisis.”

Russian officials denied the attacks and called the reports “uncorroborated.” While, Russia has claimed it has a proposal for a new method of investigations involving chemical weapons, Haley stated that the United States would not accept any Russian proposal regarding the matter.

For more information please see:

New York Times – U.S. accuses Syria of New Chemical Weapons Use – 23, Jan. 2018

Newsweek – U.S. blames Russia for Syrian chemical attack – 23, Jan. 2018

CNN – Nikki Haley says Russia is complicit in Syrian atrocities – 24, Jan. 2018

Syrian Rebel Forces Reject Peace Talks In Russia

Matthew Sneed
Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria – On December 25, Syrian rebel forces publicly announced that they would not attend the peace talks in scheduled in Sochi in January. The approximately 40 rebel groups, including military factions who had previously participated in talks in Geneva, said Russia failed to put pressure on the Syrian government to end the conflict.

A rebel fighter pours tea away from the front lines of battle. Photo courtesy of Alaa Al-Faqir.

According to the rebels, Russia asked the group to cease calling for the resignation of Assad. The rebels released a statement in which they said “Russia is an aggressor country that has committed war crimes against Syrians. It stood with the regime militarily and defended it politically and over seven years preventing UN condemnation of [Syrian President Bashar] Assad’s regime.”

While Russia claims that its attacks are directed towards militants, both the rebels and residents claim that airstrikes have killed hundreds of civilians. In addition, they bombed civilian areas away from the front-lines of battle.

The rebels further stated that, “Russia has not contributed one step to easing the suffering of Syrians and has not pressured the regime that it claims is a guarantor by moving in any real path towards a solution.”

The Syrian national dialogue congress, which is scheduled for January 29 and 30, is also backed by Iran and Turkey. While Russia and Iran support the government of Syria, Turkey supports the opposition. Syrian officials said they would attend the talks and that they are open to the agenda of new elections and possibly amending the constitution. The main point of contention between the two sides centers around the fate of Assad. The opposition continues to call for his removal from power, a position that the government says it will not consider.

The rebels continue to express faith in the UN-led Geneva process, and have called on the global community to end the violence in the region. The Geneva talks began in 2014 but have made little progress since.

Another hurdle for the talks in Sochi is determining who else should be invited to the conversation. Turkey insisted that the Kurdish group know as the PYD should not be invited to participate. The PYD controls about 25% of Syrian territory and wants independent control from the other factions. While Kurdish officials will attend, Russia stated that it did not invite members of the PYD.

While multiple cease-fire agreements in regions across Syria brokered by Russia, Iran, and Turkey have reduced the violence, the government continues to fight in regions close to the capital. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights have determined that at least 20 people have been killed in airstrikes in southern Idlib since December 25.

For more information please see:

Boston Globe – Syria rebels, opposition reject Russia-proposed talks – 26, Dec. 2017

Reuters – Syrian rebel groups reject Russian-sponsored Sochi Conference – 25, Dec. 2017

The Guardian – Rebel group rejects talks on Syrian conflict hosted by Russia – 25, Dec. 2017

Ahed Tumimi awaits trial following arrest for slapping Israeli Officers

Matthew Sneed
Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East

ISRAEL– Ahed Tamimi, 16, is waiting to hear whether the Israeli Military Court will release her on bail, or if she will be required to remain in jail until her trail begins. Tamimi made headlines after she was arrested for slapping two Israeli solders who entered her yard.

Bassem Tamimi discusses his daughter’s actions as part of the “popular resistance” which takes place on nearly a weekly basis to protest Israeli occupation. Photo courtesy of Majdi Mohammad.

On December 15, a protest began in the West Bank Village of Nabi Saleh in response to President Trump’s declaration that the United States would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. This decision triggered multiple Palestinian protests. During the protest, Ahed’s fifteen-year-old cousin was severely injured by rubber bullets fired into the crowds by the military. When Tamimi saw two Israeli soldiers outside of her home, she confronted them and slapped the solders in the face. She was arrested on December 19 in the middle of the night.

The military is planning to “throw the book” at the teenage girl, “whose indictment includes a dozen counts of assault, incitement, interference with soldiers, and stone-throwing in incidents since April 1, 2016.” She now faces up to fourteen years in prison.

It is unlikely that Ahed will be released considering the military courts in the West Bank deny bail to children approximately 70% of the time. A 2013 UNICEF report found that most children plead guilty in order to be released. Children in military court proceedings are often not allowed the presence of their lawyers or parents during interrogations. It is possible that this trial could take months, as the prosecutor has listed eighteen witnesses he plans to summon.

Her story, told in both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian papers, demonstrates the divide between the two groups. A Jerusalem Post op-ed stated that Ahed was being used for the “two components of the Palestinian war to annihilate Israel: terrorism and propaganda.” In contrast to this, an op-ed published on Monday by the Qatari-based Al-Jazeera described the Palestinian belief that “Ahed Tamimi is the Palestinian Rosa Parks.”

Ahed is not the only member of her family to protest against Israeli control. Her father, Bassem Tamimi, was an activist in the first Palestinian protests in the 1990s. These protests helped create the interim Israeli-Palestinian deals of the decade. Her family regular participates in what Palestinians call “popular resistance.” Palestinians gather on almost a weekly basis to protest Israeli occupation along the West Bank. Bassem said that he is proud of his daughter and her actions have resonated with the people because she is not “seen as the victim.” He further stated that “When you look at her, you feel proud, not sad.”

For more information please see:


Human Rights Watch – Israeli Prosecutors Throw Book at Palestinian Child Protestor – 14, Jan. 2018

Independent – Ahed Tamimi: 16-year-old Palestinian girl who kicked and slapped Israeli soldiers could face 14 years in prison – 9, Jan. 2018

AP News – Case against Palestinian teen spotlights her activist family – 9, Jan. 2018

Egypt sentences 16 men to three years for ‘debauchery’

Matthew Sneed
Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East

CAIRO, Egypt – A court in Cairo sentenced sixteen men to jail because of their identification as gay. Each received a three-year sentence for being found guilty of “inciting debauchery” and “abnormal sexual relations.” Fourteen of the convictions were handed down on November 26, with two more following on the next day.

Egypt began a cracking down on LGBT activities following the waving of the rainbow flag at a concert in September. Photo courtesy of Rainbow Egypt

Al-Ahram, a newspaper owned by the Egyptian government, reported that police raided an apartment in Cairo in September. At the apartment, they found the men in “indecent positions” and alleged that the men were engaging in prostitution with other men. “The defendants denied being homosexuals,” reported the paper. The prosecution ordered that the suspects be subjected to medical examinations to determine if they had committed homosexual acts.

The arrests have been part of an increased crackdown on the LGBT community in Egypt following an incident where a rainbow flag was waived during a concert in Cairo. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR) stated that at least seventy-five people have been arrested since the rainbow flag was raised on September 22. Of those arrests, ten are believed to be in connection to raising the flag while the rest stem from entrapment through dating apps. In addition, it was reported that at least 5 men received anal examinations.

While homosexuality is not a crime under Egyptian law, officials have used the 1961 prostitution law to charge people they believe engaged in homosexual activities. However, the Egyptian Parliament had proposed a bill that would make same-sex activity illegal. For the first time in the history of the nation, it would define “homosexuality.” Promoting or engaging in same-sex activities could lead to five years in prison and a combination of charges could result in a sentence of up to fifteen years. In addition, the publication of LBGT-friendly material would warrant a three-year sentence.

The U.S. State Department has expressed concerns regarding the actions of the Egyptian Government. One official stated, “We urge countries to uphold and respect their international human rights obligations and commitments,” said the official. “The United States will continue to engage on issues of universal human rights and democracy.”

On November 1, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) “urged Egyptian House of Representatives Speaker Ali Abdel Aal Sayyed Ahmed to publicly condemn the criminalization bill and the broader anti-LGBT crackdown.”

For more information please see:

BBC – Egypt jails 16 for ‘debauchery’ as LGBT crackdown continues – 28, Nov. 2017

Washington Blade – State Department reiterates concern over Egypt ant-LGBT crackdown – 28, Nov. 2017

Independent – Egypt LGBT crackdown: 16 men jailed for three years on ‘debauchery’ charges

UN concerned of Saudi blockade into Yemen

Matthew Sneed
Impunity Watch Reporter, The Middle East

SANAA, Yemen – On November 6, the Saudi military coalition announced that it would close all land, air, and sea ports to the Arabian Peninsula. The decision comes as the Saudis continue to fight the Houthi movement in Yemen. The coalition stated that the purpose was to slow the flow of arms to the Houthis from Iran.

The Saudi coalition has blocked air, land, and sea ports, making it difficult for Yemen to receive foreign aid. Photo courtesy of AFP/Getty.

Saudi Arabia accused Iran of directly arming the rebels, calling it, a “direct military aggression.” Tensions are also escalated after a ballistic missile was intercepted near the Saudi capital. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman said providing rockets to the rebels “may be considered an act of war.”

Nikki Haley, permanent representative of the US to the United Nations, believes that the missile could have been supplied by Iran. If true, then Iran would be in violation of two UN resolutions. First, Tehran is prohibited from buying, selling, or transferring weapons outside of the country without prior approval from the UN Security Council. Second, they are prohibited from selling weapons to Houthi leaders or their allies.

Despite the closure of ports following the missile strike, the Saudi coalition has said that humanitarian aid would be able to pass into Yemen under strict rules. However, some agencies have already experienced difficulties trying to enter the region. According to U.N. deputy spokesman Farhan Haq, the UN was expected to have two flights into Yemen on November 6, but both flights were cancelled. “We are in touch with our counterparts and we’re trying to see whether we can get our normal access restored, and we’re hopeful that we will be able to continue our normal operations,” he said.

The Red Cross has experienced difficulties as well. They stated that their shipment of chlorine tablets had been blocked. The tablets are crucial to fighting cholera, a disease which affects about 90,000 people in the area.

Jens Laerke, Office for the Co-ordination for Humanitarian Affairs spokesman, said, “If these channels, these lifelines are not kept open, it is catastrophic for people who are already in what we have said is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis at the moment.”

The situation has grown increasingly worse for a country that primarily relies on imports for items necessary for survival such as food, fuel, and medicine. The UN reports that approximately seven million people in the country are “on the brink of famine.”

For more information please see:

Reuters – Saudi-led forces close air, sea and land access to Yemen – 06, Nov. 2017

The Washington Post – UN expresses concern of aid to Yemen – 06, Nov. 2017

BBC – Yemen conflict: Saudi ban “catastrophic” for aid – 07, Nov. 2017

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


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