Growing up in Yemen Far from Pretty

By Justin Dorman
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

SANA’A, Yemen – Political upheaval, civil war, and the presence of al-Qaeda have all largely been problems for Yemeni adults. Make no mistake, the existence of such conflicts have surely had a negative impact on the lives of the youth of Yemen.

Malnourished Yemeni children sitting in their slum house on the outskirts of Sana’a. (Photo Courtesy of the Guardian)

Yemen is one of the poorest countries in the Middle East. It has a weak infrastructure and a perpetually struggling economy. As a result, Yemen is facing a horrible humanitarian crisis where at least ten million people suffer from chronic hunger, making Yemen the country with the second highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world. Fifty-eight percent of the children there under the age of five experience chronic malnutrition. In an attempt to help, donors led by the British government met earlier this month in Saudi Arabia, where they pledged to donate a funding package of $6.4 billion.

While the children may not have much food, at least they have toys to play with. The truth is though that these toys could make the children just as sick as the malnutrition does. Children’s toys in Yemen have been linked to physical scarring, suffocation, and other invisible hazards that appear with the passage of time, like cancer.  Hazardous toys have infiltrated the Yemeni markets because the importers seek cheap toys and the government really can’t afford to monitor the process.

Abdullah Al-Sharfi, manager of the Identification Certifcate Issuance Unit and Brand in the Yemeni Standardization and Quality Control Organization explained, “The Yemeni importer buys from the Chinese market, contrary to other importers in the region. The Yemeni importer doesn’t directly deal with the manufacturer. The problem lies in lacking the test reports, health or chemical certificates.”

Most of the screening done on toys once they have entered Yemen involves making sure the toys do not offend the morals of Islam. Importers go out of their way to make sure the toys enter the market without being tested, because if the toys must travel to the labs, importers face paying a customs fee which defeats the purpose of buying cheap toys that are exempt from the fees. A “qualities official in Hodeida lost his post because he attempted to apply the law,” said Mustafa Nassar, chairman of Studies and Economic Media Center. Importers lobbied the local council until he was removed.

Although the youth do not get much to eat and their toys are not very safe, at least they can still go to school to learn and peacefully interact with their friends. That was generally true until the 2011-2012 uprising caused government forces and other armed groups to deploy troops into schools. Forces occupied Yemeni schools and used them as barracks, bases, surveillance posts, firing positions, a place to store weapons and ammunition, to detain prisoners, and to torture detainees often while students and teachers were present in the buildings.

Yemeni students ready to leave the Tarim School which had been occupied by at least three different armed groups. (Photo Courtesy of Human Rights Watch)

These occupations were not going to help raise Yemen’s literacy rate which was the lowest in the Middle East or its low enrollment rates. Besides for inhibiting education, these armed forces regularly put children’s lives at danger. Priyanka Motaparthy, a children’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch stated that, “when soldiers and rebels deploy in schools, children and their education get put in harm’s way.”

The occupations also forced children to see things that they shouldn’t yet have seen. Ahlam, a thirteen year old student remembers how scared everyone was as the soldiers tortured an old man at their school. He recalls that, “they beat him [and] electro-shocked him right in the courtyard of the school. It was during recess.”

Many of these armed groups claimed that by using these schools they were also able to better protect the buildings, teachers, and students. International humanitarian law, however, states that in times of war, all feasible efforts are to be made to avoid civilians and that a school or other civilian structure cannot be attacked unless it is being used for military purposes. Motaparthy concludes that, “the moment soldiers enter a school, it becomes a military target and stops being a safe place for students.”

When these children grow a few years older and start attending university, life is still not safer. Security forces in Yemen often target students who engage in peaceful political protests. Theses students are then arbitrarily detained and are often subject to torture and other ill-treatment.

Life is not easy for the youth of Yemen.

For further information, please see:

Yemen Times – Yemen Toy Market Poses Danger – 13 September 2012

Human Rights Watch – Classrooms in the Crosshairs – 11 September 2012

Human Rights Watch – Yemen: Troops Used Schools, Endangering Children – 11 September 2012

Guardian – Donors Pledge $6.4bn to Address Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis – 6 September 2012

Amnesty International – Yemen Must end Intimidation of Southern Activists – 30 August 2012


Palestinian Detainees’ Lives at Stake in Hunger Strike

By Ali Al-Bassam
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

JERUSALEM, Israel — The International Red Cross issued a warning last Friday that three Palestinian hunger strikers were at risk of death in an Israeli jail.  The three men, Samer Al-Barq, Hassan Safadi, and  Ayman Sharawna, began their hunger strikes on May 22, June 21 and July 5, respectively, to demand better conditions of Israeli prisons, and an end to arbitrary administrative detention and long-term isolation.

Relatives of Al-Barq, Safadi, and Sharawna call for their release during a protest in Gaza City. (Photo courtesy of Ma’an News)

“These people are going to die unless the detaining authorities find a prompt solution,” the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross delegation in Israel and the occupied territories, Juan Pedro Schaerer, said in a statement.

Al-Barq originally began his hunger strike on April 15, when he took part in a mass hunger strike with approximately 2,000 other Palestinian prisoners to protest prison conditions.  He ended his hunger strike on May 14, and resumed it again on May 21 after Israel issued new administrative detention orders.  Al-Barq has been on a hunger strike for 120 days, and due to his current condition he is unable to walk.  He was moved from his prison cell to a civilian hospital last Sunday, but details on his current condition are not available.

Like Al-Barq, both Safadi and Sharawna have suffered physical ailments because of their hunger strikes.

Safadi has been on a hunger strike for 86 days.  Fares Ziad, a lawyer for a prisoner rights group called Addameer, says that Safadi  has been suffering from heart contractions and chronic pain in his kidneys and joints.  Ziad says that Israel has detained Safadi multiple times since the 1990’s without ever raising charges against him.

Sharawna, whose hunger strike has lasted 76 days, was released from prison in 2011 when Israel swapped prisoners with Hamas, yet he was arrested once again by Israeli forces last January without ever being charged.  He has lost 86 percent of the vision in his right eye and was vomiting blood as of last week.

Meanwhile, Zakaria Zubeidi, who was arrested by the Palestinian Authority on May 13, has refused food in protest of his detention without charges or trial.  He told his lawyer that Palestinian authorities had tortured him and denied him access to both a lawyer and his family for an extended period.  Palestinian interrogators claim that Zubeidi knew the location of guns that were used by Palestinian armed groups when they fired shots into the home of the governor of Jenin, in the northern West Bank.

Zubeidi began his hunger strike on September 9, when a judge extended his detention for eight days.  He began accepting fluids after September 11 when he started suffering from kidney problems related to the strike.  Zubeidi said he would resume a total hunger strike until death after the court extended his detention to give the prosecution additional time to build their case.

For further information, please see:

Al Resalah — Fears for Palestinian Hunger Strikers’ Lives — 19 September 2012

Al Jazeera — Palestinian Hunger Strikers ‘Close to Death’ — 18 September 2012

Human Rights Watch — Israel/Palestinian Authority: Charge or Free Palestinian Detainees — 18 September 2012

Ma’an News Agency — Red Cross Warns Hunger Strikers Risk Death — 14 September 2012

UN Announces Release of List of Syrian War Crimes Suspects

By Ali Al-Bassam
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

DAMASCUS, Syria — Human rights complaints have increased in Syria, as United Nations human rights investigators said last Monday in a press conference in Geneva that they have drafted a new secret list of Syrians they suspect of committing war crimes.

UN Inquiry Commission Chief Paulo Pinhero (left) announced the release of a new list of Syrian war crimes suspects last Monday. (Photo Courtesy of Al Jazeera)

“We have good evidence in terms of summary executions, forced disappearance, arbitrary detentions, torture and sexual violence from both sides,” said Paulo Pinhero, head of the investigative panel.  The UN decided not to publicly release the names on its list, because “the commissions follow a lower standard of inquiry as compared to the courts of law,” Pinhero said.

Pinhero also said of the violations that they were “a dramatic escalation, indiscriminate attacks on civilians in the form of air strikes and artillery shelling leveled against residential neighborhoods.”

The report states that the incidents occurred in the northern provinces of Idlib and Aleppo, and also in the coastal region of Latakia.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that opposition groups must also shoulder the blame for human rights violations.  Even though opposition forces have told HRW that “they have taken measures to curb abuses,” the organization still believes that opposition forces have participated in the acts of torture and unlawful executions.

HRW spoke to a prisoner named “Sameer,” who was captured by the Free Syrian Army in early August, and claims that he was tortured by opposition forces when they beat the soles of his feet with a wooden stick for about two hours until he confessed.

HRW also documented more than a dozen extrajudicial and summary executions by opposition forces, claiming that two FSA fighters informed them of executing four people after the battalion stormed a police station in the town of Haffa, executing two people immediately after capture, and the others after a trial.

While western governments are seeking another condemnation of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, Faysal Khabbaz Hamouia, a representative of the Syrian government, had slammed the report, calling it inaccurate and biased.  Hamouia also claims that the international community is guilty of “stoking the flames of the conflict,” while 17 countries were sending “jihadist terrorists” to fight for the “fragmentation of the Middle East into Islamic emirates.”

Lakhdar Brahimi, the joint UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, met with Assad in Damascus last Sunday, where he said that the Syrian conflict threatens both the region and the world.  “The crisis is getting worse, and it is a threat to the Syrian people, the region and the world,” said Brahimi.

The UN currently places the death toll in Syria at 20,000.

For further information, please see:

Al Jazeera — Widespread Rights Abuses Alleged in Syria — 17 September 2012

Human Rights Watch — Syria: End Opposition Use of Torture, Executions — 17 September 2012

Middle East Online — UN Probe Seeks ‘Appropriate Action’ as Syria Abuses Soar — 17 September 2012

The Telegraph — UN Expands Secret List of War Crimes Suspects — 17 September 2012

Update: Extra Crispy Fried Chicken in Lebanon as Protests Continue

By Justin Dorman
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

BEIRUT, Lebanon – Another day has passed, and chaos ensues in the Middle East as demonstrators continue to violently protest America. These protests are in reaction to an anti-Mohammed film, The Innocence of Muslims, made by one fairly unknown American filmmaker.

Tripoli branches of American restaurants chains Hardee’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken were set on fire. (Photo Courtesy of the Guardian)

Demonstrations have taken place all over the Middle East and Northern Africa. So far protesters have congregated in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Sudan, Egpyt, the Gaza Strip, Lebanon, Yemen, Somalia, Iraq, Kuwait, Iran, Pakistan, Kashmir, Bangladesh, and Jakarta.

Many of these demonstrations have been violent and have involved the storming of U.S. embassies in these countries. There have been casualties on both sides of this conflict. On Tuesday in Libya four Americans were killed at the U.S. Embassy including Ambassador Stevens. In many of these countries, to keep protesters from rioting the embassies, police have used tear gas, guns, and water cannons when necessary. On Friday, three protesters were reported dead outside of Tunis, another was killed in Tripoli, and another in Khartoum. Many others have been injured.

Protesters run from tear gas fired at them during a demonstration in front of the embassy in Tunis. (Photo Courtesy of Reuters)

Just outside the embassy in Tunis, protesters chanted, “Obama, Obama, we are all Osamas.”

While nearly all of the Middle East is protesting this anti-Mohammed film, not every country has turned to violence. Religious leaders in Afghanistan have urged their people to protest, but peacefully. As they assembled in Jalalabad they burned an effigy of Obama and a U.S. flag but have made no attempts to riot on any embassy. Two U.S. marines were killed at Camp Bastion in south Helmand but that involved a complex Taliban attack unrelated to demonstrations against the film.

For further information, please see:

Guardian – Middle East Live – 14 September 2012

Reuters – Middle East and North Africa Live – 14 September 2012

Impunity Watch – YouTube Video Fuels Islamic Unrest Across the Middle East – 13 September 2012

YouTube Video Fuels Islamic Unrest Across the Middle East

By Justin Dorman
Impunity Watch Reporter, Middle East

TRIPOLI, Libya – Very little is known about the film, The Innocence of Muslims, or its maker, Sam Bacile. One thing we do know is that the anti-Muhammad film has led to Muslim protests and violence directed at American embassies in Egypt, Iraq, Libya, and Yemen.

Shi’ites burn the American flag in response to the American made film that ridiculed Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. (Photo Courtesy of the Associated Press)

The film was supposedly shown at one largely vacant theatre before a thirteen-minute clip found itself posted on YouTube for the world to see. For most Muslims, any depiction of Mohammed is met with scorn, but The Innocence of Muslims’ depiction of Mohammaed as a religious fraud, womanizer, child molester, and ruthless killer has particularly incensed Muslims.  The actors involved in making the video claim to have been “grossly misled” about the purpose of the film. The crew believed they were making an Arabian Desert adventure film titled “Desert Warrior.” They maintain that all of their lines were dubbed over in post-production with the anti-Mohammed content.

Bacile has since gone into hiding following the fury he evoked in the Arab world. No one in the Hollywood film community has ever heard of him or his film, which casts serious aspersions as to whether The Innocence of Muslims is actually a full-length movie or just a thirteen-minute clip. After partaking in a single interview, the Associated Press described Bacile as “a California real estate developer who identifies himself as an Israeli Jew.” Neither the California Association of Realtors nor the Israeli consulate in Los Angeles claim to have ever heard of Sam Bacile. The Israeli consulate claims that he is part of the Egyptian Coptic diaspora, but a cleric with the Coptic Orthodox Church diocese of Los Angeles denies having ever heard of him. Regardless, Bacile is connected to Morris Sadik, an Egyptian Coptic Christian in California who played the clip for his group, the National American Coptic Assembly.

Public reaction against the film in the Middle East began on Tuesday and continue to spark demonstrations at the U.S. embassies in Yemen, Egypt, and Iraq.  In Yemen, hundreds of angered Muslims have congregated at the U.S. Embassy in Sana’a, burning U.S. Flags and chanting “death to America” as they attempted to storm the building.

“We want to close the American embassy for this insult on prophet Mohammed,” said Abdullah Rahman Safi, echoing the protesters’ sentiments.

Yemeni troops eventually suppressed the uprising by firing tear gas and live ammunition into the air. Both Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and the Yemeni Embassy in Washington have apologized to America for the attacks and have sworn to investigate the attacks on the embassy and keep U.S. foreign diplomats safe.

Similar demonstrations, involving the throwing of rocks, are taking place near the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, Egypt. The initial protests occurred at the embassy, but police have since been able to keep protesters away from the building through the use of tear gas. So far, sixteen protesters and thirteen policemen have been wounded in the clashes. Additionally, twelve dissidents have been arrested. Egypt’s first Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, has pledged to not allow attacks on foreign embassies, but expressed some conflict with suppressing his people’s freedom of expression.

Hundreds of Shi’ites in Iraq also congregated outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad calling for the termination of the embassy in response to the film. They too burned American flags and chanted “No, no, to Israel! No, no to America! Yes, yes for Messenger of God.”

The most violent protest took place at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Tuesday night. There, demonstrating protesters were accompanied by heavily armed militants who shot gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades at the U.S. Consulate for four straight hours. Shortly after the firing began, the gunmen gained access to the building and were able to set it on fire. Many were injured and at least four people were killed, including Christopher Stephens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya. He initially started working as an English teacher in Morocco, where he said he quickly realized that he “grew to love this part of the world.”

Suzanne Nossel, Executive Director of Amnesty International USA, said that, “However offensive this film may be it can in no way excuse such killings and violent attacks.”

While many of the Muslim protesters are upset about the movie, not everyone is convinced that the true motivation of the violence is the response to the film.  U.S. officials are currently investigating the question of whether the killings in Libya were planned to coincide with the anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

Al-Qaeda’s most active branch is located in Yemen. Prior to Tuesday night’s attacks on the U.S. Embassy, the country’s government announced that al-Qaeda’s “number two man” had been killed in a U.S. airstrike.

For further information, please see:

Huffington Post — U.S. Embassy Attacks: “Death to America” Chants and Flag-Burning Protests Spread to Iran, Iraq — 13 September 2012

USA Today – Protesters Storm U.S. Embassy in Yemen – 13 September 2012

Amnesty International – Libya: No Excuse for Attack on US Consulate – 12 September 2012

Guardian – Mystery Surrounds ‘Sam Bacile’, Maker of Controversial Anti-Muhammad Film – 12 September 2012

CNN – Six Things to Know About Attack That Killed Ambassador Stevens – 12 September 2012