Over five tumultuous years in Egypt, the independent human rights community moved from a fairly parochial role chipping away at the Mubarak regime’s legitimacy, one torture case at a time, to media stardom in 2011, and from fielding a presidential candidate, who won over 134,000 votes, in 2012 to facing closure and the risk of prosecution two years later.
‘Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, a designated “high-value detainee” in US government parlance, is on trial in the Guantánamo Bay military commissions. The 49-year old Saudi Arabian is accused of directing the October 2000 al-Qaeda suicide boat bombing of the USS Cole off the coast of Aden, Yemen, which killed 17 sailors and injured 40 more, and a failed plan to bomb the USS Sullivans. Five other high-value detainees, including alleged “mastermind” Khalid Shaikh Mohammad, are being tried together for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. All six could face the death penalty if convicted.
The November 15 attack on an armored car transporting Shukria Barakzai, a women’s rights activist and parliamentarian in Afghanistan, shook me to the core. The attack, which Barakzai survived but three passersby did not, took place shortly after my return from a women’s rights meeting in Turkey. Several Afghan activists were in attendance, and they face similar risks each day. As I read the news, I thought, “It could have been any one of them.”
In Cairo this summer, there is scant appetite for anniversaries. The passage of one year since the critical events of the 2013 coup d’état scarcely attracts the public’s attention. There are few official ceremonies or rallies to mark the huge demonstrations on June 30 against Muhammad Mursi, the July 3 military takeover or the July 26 marches summoned by ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi to give himself popular cover in his self-styled fight against terrorism.
Over the past year, dozens of Yemeni-Americans visiting their ancestral homeland have had their US passports summarily revoked or confiscated by the embassy in Sanaa without any clear legal basis, effectively stranding them outside the United States. Last month, a coalition of US civil rights groups submitted a report on this practice to the Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) pursuant to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
As Israel pounds Gaza by land, air and sea, we turn for a moment to the West Bank city of Hebron. In 1997, Israel withdrew its military from the majority of the city’s area, called “H-1,” which became part of “Area A,” the parts of the West Bank policed by the Palestinian Authority (PA). Israeli soldiers remained in “H-2,” the old city, where some 400 Jewish settlers live among 40,000 Palestinians and where the Tomb of the Patriarchs / Ibrahimi mosque is located. When H-2 is not under curfew, visitors can walk down Shuhada Street and see soldiers in mesh-enclosed positions above.
On July 2, 16-year old Palestinian Mohammed Abu Khdeir was abducted, beaten and burned alive, apparently by a group of Jewish Israelis. News of this “torture and murder by fire,” prominent American commentator Jeffrey Goldberg confesses, “initially prompted in me a desire to say, ‘But.’” Alas, his considered response was scarcely more enlightened.
Among the would-be therapists of the foreign policy world, the alliance between the United States and Saudi Arabia is a textbook case of a “loveless marriage.”
Though the values of the two states are at odds, or so the thinking goes, the great democracy and the absolute monarchy are bound together by mutual interest in the stability of the Persian Gulf, home to almost half of the world’s proven oil and natural gas reserves.
Update 1 on prisoners and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, from the halls of the State Department: Last week, the United States considered releasing Jonathan Pollard, an American convicted of espionage on behalf of Israel, in exchange for Israel doing, as political analyst Yousef Munayyer put it, “several things it already should have done long ago,” including releasing both short- and long-term Palestinian prisoners. The media attention to the Pollard case is just another distraction from the wider issue of Palestinian political prisoners, whose incarceration affects thousands of families every day.
President Barack Obama capped his visit to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia on Saturday by presenting the International Women of Courage award to Maha al-Muneef, a pediatrician and executive director of the anti-domestic violence National Family Safety Program (NFSP). We are “very, very proud of you and grateful for all the work you’re doing here,” Obama told her in a brief ceremony at the Riyadh Ritz Carlton. “I’m looking forward to seeing you do even more wonderful things in the future.”
Lisa Hajjar’s spring lecture tour, entitled “Let’s Go to Guantánamo! An On-the-Ground Perspective on the Military Commissions,” explores secret renditions, black sites, torture, suppression of evidence, clandestineness and what it means to provide “legal counsel” to detainees in the post-September 11 “war on terror” in the absence of procedural fairness or public scrutiny.
The educated middle class that played an influential role in electing Hassan Rouhani to the Iranian presidency in June 2013 is anxious to see his promises of “prudence and hope” fulfilled. One area that Rouhani’s administration is expected to reform is higher education, which was targeted for political and intellectual purges under the hardline conservative administrations of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
A string of tiny lights bows from the awning of the Star of Freedom café across an unpaved plaza to the globe of the municipal lamppost, whose light the government has not turned on in years. Tabletops of tea and dominoes spread from the café’s cramped interior and fill the horseshoe-shaped plaza, rimmed by a hardware store, a bright yellow barber shop and a mosque with an optometry office for the needy. A zigzagging tuk-tuk blares spastic pop music over the din of evening conversation.
To hear Mazlum Tekdağ’s story is enough to understand why 700 Kurdish political prisoners have gone on hunger strike in Turkey. His father was murdered by the state in front of his Diyarbakır pastry shop in 1993, when Mazlum was just nine years old. His uncle Ali was kidnapped by an army-backed death squad known as JİTEM (the acronym for the Turkish phrase translating, roughly, as Gendarmerie Intelligence and Anti-Terror Unit) two years later. Mazlum never saw his uncle again, but a former JİTEM agent later claimed they tortured him for six months before killing him and burning his body by the side of a road in the Silvan district of Diyarbakır.
After drones became the American weapon of choice in Pakistan sometime toward the end of the 2000s, a number of US counterinsurgency experts expressed their discomfort with the killer robots in various military-related forums. For these writers, the non-human nature of drones, their blunt force and their distance from the enemy were something of an affront to counterinsurgency dictums about “hearts and minds” and “calibrated force.” The military characterizes counterinsurgency as a series of battlefield tactics (clear, hold, build) and developmental activities intended to persuade or coerce enemy civilians into supporting the counterinsurgent force.
As President Barack Obama geared up for the 2012 campaign, he and his administration were eager to capitalize on their most bipartisan “victory” — the targeted killing of Osama bin Laden on May 2, 2011. With the one-year anniversary of bin Laden’s death approaching, top officials took to podiums to deliver remarks that, while differing in some particulars, were consistent in their message: The targeted killing policy is legal, it is necessary to keep Americans safe, it is effective in eliminating terrorist threats, and it is undertaken with great care to minimize civilian casualties.
From the Green Movement in Iran in 2009 through the Arab revolts that began in 2011, social media have held center stage in coverage of popular protest in the Middle East. Though the first flush of overwrought enthusiasm is long past, there is consensus that Facebook, Twitter and other Web 2.0 applications, particularly on handheld devices, have been an effective organizing tool against the slower-moving security apparatuses of authoritarian states. The new technology has also helped social movements to tell their story to the outside world, unhindered by official news blackouts, unbothered by state censors and unfiltered by the traditional Western media.
Some ideas are so absurd that they reveal interesting things about the times in which we live. Take, for example, an opinion piece by Andrew Stobo Sniderman and Mark Hanis in today’s New York Times suggesting that human rights organizations employ drone aircraft to monitor brutal regimes such as in Syria. “If human rights organizations can spy on evil, they should.”
More than 52,000 would-be migrants have landed on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa in 2011. Roughly half of the arrivals are young Tunisian men looking for job opportunities in Europe. Most of the others are Sahelians, sub-Saharan Africans or South Asians fleeing the violence in Libya. In many cases, they were forced onto boats by Libyan soldiers, as part of the “invasion” Col. Muammar al-Qaddafi promised should his rule come under NATO attack.  The staggering number of arrivals does not include the estimated 1,500 who starved, suffocated or drowned in the central Mediterranean trying to reach Europe’s nearest shore.