Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Middle East Pro-Democracy Forces Seek Retribution

By William Fisher

The first waves of what could become a tsunami of demands for harsh punishments have begun appearing in the two Middle East countries that have successfully overthrown their dictatorial rulers.

In Egypt, the trial of former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly, who ran the country’s dreaded security police, began last week at a Cairo criminal court. He is charged with money laundering and profiteering, but it is the savage cruelty of Egypt’s secret police that is motivating the pro-democracy demonstrators who would like to see him executed.

And in Tunisia, which overthrew its long-term ruler, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Amnesty International is charging that the country’s security forces shot at bystanders, protesters who were fleeing and others who posed no threat, in “reckless disregard” for human life during that country’s December-January uprising.

In both countries, it is likely that there will be dozens of high-profile prosecutions of public officials who abused their positions of power to kill or injure citizens or amass personal fortunes. Bringing all of them to trial in an orderly manner that respects their legal rights is bound to present a challenge for interim governments.

As his trial opened, the former Egyptian interior minister denied charges of corruption and money laundering.

'It didn't happen,' said el-Adly, who faces charges of money laundering and profiteering.

Judge Almohammadi Qunsuah adjourned the session to April 2, after the defense asked for time to study the documents of the case.

El-Adly is the first of several former officials to face trial after 18 days of protests forced president Hosni Mubarak to step down on February 11.

Tight security measures were in place around the court where the session was held, with a few snipers seen on top of the building. Only 40 journalists were allowed inside the court, after first being required to leave their mobile phones outside.

Some 150 pro-democracy protesters gathered outside the court, calling for el-Adly and other officials to be held accountable for corruption and wasting the nation's wealth.

Some chanted 'the people want the death sentence for the murderer,' witnesses said.

Protesters have blamed el-Adly, among other officials, for violence against anti-Mubarak protesters that left more than 350 people dead earlier this year.

Meanwhile, the court started reviewing a request by the attorney general Abdel Meguid Mahmoud to freeze the assets of Mubarak and his family.

No decision was made, with the court adjourning the hearing until Tuesday.

Faced with a number of lawsuits targeting Mubarak's wealth, Mahmoud is seeking to freeze the properties, assets, bank accounts and government bonds held by the family of the ousted leader.

Egypt has also slapped a travel ban on Mubarak, his wife and children while allegations of embezzlement are investigated.

Mubarak is believed to have amassed a huge fortune during his nearly 30 years in power. His wealth is estimated at over 40 billion dollars and includes properties in London, New York and Los Angeles.

El-Adly’s difficulties will be compounded by the public display of secret documents snatched from the headquarters of various Security Services buildings. Many have already been seen on Face Book, Twitter and other social networking sites. Many of the documents present a grisly picture of torture, death in detention and mysterious disappearances.

Tunisia’s security forces shot at bystanders, protesters who were fleeing and others who posed no threat in “reckless disregard” for human life during the December-January uprising, Amnesty International disclosed in a report that calls for truth and accountability for the unlawful killings by the new government.

Amnesty released the human rights report at a press conference in the capital city of Tunis – the first time it has ever done so – and called for immediate independent investigations of the unlawful killings and acts of brutality by security forces during the protests that led to the fall of former President Ben Ali.

People detained by the security forces were also systematically beaten or subjected to other ill-treatment, according to the 46-page report, Tunisia in Revolt: State Violence during Anti Government Protests prepared by an Amnesty International fact-finding team in Tunisia during January.

“After the long years of repression under President Ben Ali, the Tunisian authorities must now rein in the security forces and instill a culture of human rights within the police force, in particular,” said Malcolm Smart, director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa program.

“The authorities must make it clear in both law and in practice that nobody is above the law. They must show that those responsible for unlawful killings, excessive force, torture or other abuses are held fully to account.”

Smart said: “The security forces acted with reckless disregard for human life in all too many cases.”

Smart said bringing those responsible for unlawful killings to justice would be the first step toward “turning the page on the long years of abuses under the former president. Such investigations must provide Tunisians with the truth, and the victims with both justice and reparation.”

Ghassan Chniti, 19, a seasonal worker, was fatally shot as he ran away from police in the small city of Thala in central Tunisia, youths who were with him said.

A doctor confirmed he was shot from behind after examining his corpse at Kasserine Hospital.

Chniti was one of five people killed by live ammunition in Thala on January 8 as skirmishes broke out between protesters and police.

His father told Amnesty International: “My son worked and got paid about 150 dinars a month [$96 U.S. dollars] to help out the whole family. He went to participate in the protest…Our income is not enough to feed the family.”

Malek Habbachi, 24, who had recently become engaged, was killed by a single bullet to his neck on the evening of January 12 in the Tadhamoun neighborhood, one of the largest and poorest suburbs of Tunis. He was shot by a sniper, eyewitnesses said.

Riot police wielding batons hit Malek’s brother, Youssri in the head, back and legs as he tried to carry Malek home.

Malek Habbachi’s father said that he had joined the protests to call for better life opportunities: “All Tunisian people refuse to accept their living conditions. Malek was fighting against corruption.”

Malek Habbachi’s sister, who is studying law, told Amnesty International researchers: “We want justice,” a call echoed by most victims’ families.

New incidents of violence took place on February 5 when security forces in the city of Kef opened fire on protesters calling for the resignation of the local police chief whom they accused of abusing power.

Police shot dead two people among protesters who they said were trying to break into the police station.

In January, Amnesty International researchers met with the families of those killed in the unrest, individuals injured during protests, other witnesses, and former detainees, as well as lawyers, human rights defenders, trade unionists and medical professionals. Researchers traveled to Hammamat, Bizerte, Regueb, Thala and Kasserine.

The current caretaker government says that 78 people died during the protests, with a further 100 injured. Tunisian human rights organizations say the real death toll was greater and the U.N. has placed the number at 147, in addition to the 72 people who died in prison in incidents linked to the unrest. Most of the killings are believed to have been committed by the Public Order Brigade.

Amnesty International on January 24 released a report, “Tunisia: Human Rights Agenda for Change,” calling on the Tunisian authorities to make fundamental and lasting reforms and to break with Ben Ali's decades long legacy of abuse.