Thursday, June 30, 2011

BAHRAIN: We All Owe Maryam

By William Fisher

Her name is Maryam Alkhawaja.

She is a young Bahraini woman who risks her life every day to send me and other journalists emails about the brutal repression of a long-aggrieved people and the kangaroo courts that are throwing their lives away.

Why does she do it?

She gives a simple answer: Injustice and brutality drives her nuts. She can’t be an observer. She needs to act.

And act she does, one, two, three times a day, all at huge and immediate risk.

Yesterday, her communiqué must have been especially tough to write. With journalistic lack of emotion, she reported the trials of her friends and colleagues. They were among the peaceful demonstrators from Bahrain’s Shia majority who have spent the last three months pushing against the Sunni royal family for basic human rights and a voice in the governance of their tiny country.

Eight of those tried by the military court were sentenced to life in prison. One of those eight was her father, Abdulhadi Alkhawaja, the founder
of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. “After the sentence was read, my father raised his fist & shouted “WE SHALL CONTINUE ON THE PATH OF PEACEFUL RESISTANCE!”, Ms. Alkhawaja told the New York Times.

Thirteen other activists were sentenced by the same court to terms of between two and 15 years in jail. Just one of the 21 men sentenced on Wednesday was a Sunni. The state news agency described them as “plotting to topple the government.”

In March, prominent members of the Shiite Muslim community took to the streets, peacefully to demand political concessions from the Royal family. They were met with, first, teargas, truncheons and rubber bullets and, later, with live ammunition fired randomly into crowds of demonstrators, killing and wounding scores.

Discrimination against the Shia majority is sometimes blatant, sometimes subtle, but it is always present. Shiites are barred from senior posts in both government and business. Housing is redlined. Shiites tend to have been ghettoed into property on the Eastern part of the island, just across the water from the sizable Shia community in Saudi Arabia.

So determined was the King and his entourage to stifle the outbursts, he called in army units from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, courtesy of the Gulf Cooperation Council.

At the military trials, the verdicts were immediately condemned by rights groups who said all those found guilty had been campaigning to end discrimination at the hands of the Sunni dynasty.

Rights groups have urged Bahrain to halt the special military court proceedings, with Human Rights Watch deeming them a violation of international law.

"Most defendants hauled before Bahrain's special military court are facing blatantly political charges, and trials are unfair," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

The trials were held despite the government pronouncing the end of three months of martial law earlier this month, which had given the exclusively Sunni security forces extra powers of detention and arrest.

Activists called for protesters to again take to the streets in Manama in defiance of the verdicts and the government, which has vowed to continue a crackdown on dissent.

Up to 30 doctors and nurses from key city hospitals were last week also put on trial accused of subversion and of using government facilities for political purposes. These health care professionals were attempting to treat the wounds created by government security forces during demonstrations. It is thought the government does not want them to be able to see the wounds, making it impossible for them to testify to their severity and nature.

Government security services have surrounded a main hospital, preventing new patients and visitors to enter or leave. Meanwhile, it is reported that security police have been systematically moving wounded patients to another hospital where their conditions can be kept secret. There is no verdict in this trial as yet.

Meanwhile, the Obama Administration has been playing nice with one of the leaders of the Bahraini Royal family. He is Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa. The 41-year-old royal graduated from American University in Washington, speaks fluent English,. And is said top be the most “Westernized” member of the Royal family.

Prince Salman met last week with President Obama and his national security adviser, Thomas E. Donilon,Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., and
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Why, asks the New York Times, does the president “engage with a royal family that has led such a brutal crackdown?” Especially, it adds, “Given Mr. Obama’s lofty rhetoric about the historic significance of the
uprisings in the Arab world.”

Partly, the Times writes, “It is an acknowledgment of geopolitical reality. Bahrain’s royal family is unlikely to topple, if only because the Sunnis who rule Saudi Arabia will not tolerate their neighbor being run by a Shiite-led government. Bahrain is also home to the United States Navy’s Fifth Fleet. And it is close to Saudi Arabia, Washington’s most powerful ally in the region.” We could go on for quit a time debating the meaning of “ally, ” but that’s for another time.

For now, The Times says, “administration officials are clinging to the hope that, perhaps against the odds, Bahrain’s leaders — or at least the crown prince — may be willing to undertake democratic changes.”

“You have somebody in the crown prince who’s credible, who seems to want to do the right thing,” one senior administration official told The Times.

Leslie Campbell, regional director for the Middle East and North Africa at the National Democratic Institute, which is active in Bahrain, told The Times that the prince is on “a world tour to convince people that Bahrain is turning over a new leaf when in fact the hard-liners are conducting business-as-usual at home.”

According to The Times’ account, the Crown Prince was most upset that the crackdown “had tarnished Bahrain’s image, particularly since the government had worked so hard over the past decade to present Bahrain as an enlightened Persian Gulf kingdom.”

Image? Image? Who talks about image when people are being murdered and thrown into prison for the rest of their lives for the simple demand of a voice in the future of their country?

Image is for PR people, not statesmen.

If the president persists in hanging his hopes for a peaceful resolution on the slender reed of Bahrain’s image, he is going to be disappointed.

But the people of Bahrain are going to be even more disappointed. It would be a fool’s errand to expect anything from them but save the bitterest anti-American feelings. And these may still be around long after the Royal Family is history.

This article originally appeared in Prism Magazine.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

JORDAN: Abdullah’s Survival Strategy

By William Fisher

Jordan’s King Abdullah II and his new government appear to be racing the clock to begin enacting political and economic reforms before the largely peaceful street demonstrations turn ugly.

Whether his proposed reforms will be seen by the people as going far enough, and whether he can light a fire under his government to actually begin implementing the first serious reforms – these are the key questions that remain to be seen.

The recommendations were produced by a 52-member National Dialogue Committee. They include proposing an increase in the number of seats in Parliament from 120 to 130, call for an independent panel of retired judges appointed by royal decree to oversee elections, instead of the Interior Ministry, and a new draft law to make it easier to form political parties and encouraging participation by women.

Some of the reforms proposed by the King are not new – some are a decade old -- and may thus be easier to implement. But most of these were ignored in the past by the government elites who actually make things happen. Their delay has been a source of frustration for the young King.

Marwan Muasher, former Jordanian Foreign Minister, has commented on this phenomenon. He asks: “Could reform efforts have taken a different course in Jordan? In a country where the king has broad powers over all branches of government, his expressed frustration over the struggling reform efforts begs the question of why the status quo remains intact.”

He continues: “This decade-long process, initiated by the King, has
been largely ignored by an ossified layer of elites seeking to protect their own interests. The clear discrepancy between the king’s directives to the seven prime ministers he had entrusted to form governments in his twelve years of power—and the actual record of reform completed by these respective governments—points to a structural problem that is all too often ignored.”

“These elites have become recalcitrant, self-appointed guardians of the state who believe they alone should decide how the country ought to evolve. They have no qualms about opposing the directives of the leaders or systems that created them in the first place if those leaders are seen as adopting policies that threaten their interests,” he charges, adding:

“An examination of the political reforms conducted by successive governments in Jordan over the last decade suggests that, in most cases, the king’s directives were ignored, diluted, and, at times, directly opposed. This does not imply that the objectives of this class and the monarch were always in contradiction, but suggests that the rentier system has, over time and through entrenchment, created monsters who will only acquiesce as long as the system perpetuates the old policy of favors.”

So Abdullah has now responded by firing the entire government and appointing replacements he hopes with be more sympathetic to the reforms he has already proposed and others that will certainly be forthcoming.

The King charged Marouf Al Bakhit, an ex-army general and former prime minister, with forming a new government. Marwan Muasher says his major task is “to take speedy practical and tangible steps to unleash a real political reform process that reflects [Jordan’s] vision of comprehensive reform, modernization and development.”

King Abdullah has he was committed to pushing ahead with democratic reforms, but believed street pressure for change was a recipe for chaos. Again and again, he has admonished would-be street demonstrators that outpourings of this kind are likely to hinder rather than speed the pace of reform.

The monarch, speaking in a televised speech marking his 12 years as ruler and ninety years since the state’s creation, said he backed a new electoral law proposed by a government-appointed panel that would allow for a cabinet to be elected by a parliamentary majority rather than being chosen by him.

"We hope these recommendations ensure a modern electoral law that leads to a parliament that is representative of all Jordanians," he said.

Parliaments are currently elected under laws that ensure a pliant pro-government assembly composed of tribal loyalists.

The Islamist-led opposition has expressed disappointment over the limited nature of the reforms proposed by the committee that they boycotted and which came after weeks of street protests earlier this year calling for political changes, Reuters reported.

Vis a vis Parliament, the proposals unveiled thus far amount to tinkering around the edges. But if “fix Parliament” is not high on Abdullah’s “to do” list, many of his proposals will have minimal effect—and probably won’t placate those inclined toward demonstrations. The parliamentary proposals the King put forward would preserve a gross under-representation of Jordan’s cities. The reason is that Jordan’s major cities are where Palestinians and members of the Muslim Brotherhood live. The King’s formula would aim to preserve the strength of rural, sparsely populated tribal areas, where his support is strong.

Michele Dunne of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace put it well when she told us, “What King Abdullah has proposed are reforms to the electoral system and laws, which will go part of the distance toward satisfying demands on those specific issue. But there is nothing so far on the issue underlying lack of faith in politics: the fact that the elected parliament has little real power.”

An even stronger note of skepticism comes from Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab Politics at Georgetown University. He told us, “Obviously I'm highly suspicious of autocrats making promises about reform. Autocrats usually don't put themselves out of business.”

This is the situation King Abdullah faces, as expressed in the U.S. State Department’s annual Human Rights report:

“The government respected human rights in some areas, but its overall record continued to reflect problems. The government restricted citizens' right to change their government, and the electoral law led to significant under-representation of urban areas and citizens of Palestinian origin in the Chamber of Deputies. Domestic and international NGOs reported cases of arbitrary deprivation of life, torture, poor prison conditions, impunity, arbitrary arrest and denial of due process through administrative detention, prolonged detention, and external interference in judicial decisions. Citizens continued to describe infringements on their privacy rights. Restrictive legislation and regulations limited freedom of speech and press, and government interference in the media and threats of fines and detention led to self-censorship, according to journalists and human rights organizations. The government also continued to restrict freedoms of assembly and association. Religious activists and opposition political party members reported a decline in government harassment; however, legal and societal discrimination remained a problem for women, religious minorities, converts from Islam, and some persons of Palestinian origin. Local human rights organizations reported widespread violence against women and children. The government restricted labor rights, and local and international human rights organizations reported high levels of abuse of foreign domestic workers.”

It would seem that King Abdullah and his government have a long and difficult road ahead.

This article was originally published in Prism Magazine.

Monday, June 13, 2011


By William Fisher

Ayat Al-Qormezi, a 20-year-old Bahrain poet, who recited poems critical of Bahrain's rulers, was sentenced yesterday (Sunday) to a year in prison by a special security court set up during Bahrain's crackdown on Shiite protesters calling for greater rights.

The tribunal's decision sent a message that the Sunni monarchy is not easing off on punishments linked to the unrest despite appeals for talks with Shiite groups in the strategic Gulf island kingdom, which is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet.

The official Bahrain News Agency said Ayat al-Qurmezi was convicted of anti-state charges, including inciting hatred. She can appeal.

Two former parliament members, Jawad Fairooz and Mattar Mattar, also went on trial as part of wide-ranging arrests and trials of perceived enemies of the ruling system. Both are members of the main Shiite political group, Wefaq, whose 18 lawmakers resigned to protest the harsh measures against protesters..

The U.S. has condemned the violence, but has stopped short of any tangible punishments against the rulers in one of Washington's military hubs in the Persian Gulf.

In another action of major consequence, medical personnel who treated the many Bahrainis injured in antigovernment protests during the months of unrest in this tiny but strategically important Gulf nation go on trial today (Monday) charged with taking part in efforts to overthrow the monarchy.

Legal medical, health, and human rights groups have labeled these court proceedings as “show trials” similar to those held for dissidents in the Soviet Union from 1934 to 1939. A feature of Stalin's Reign of Terror was a series of "show trials" in which political opponents were forced to plead guilty to activities designed to undermine state security.

The 47 Bahraini health professionals were arraigned in a closed hearing in a security court.

They are largely members of the country’s Shiite majority, which had been demonstrating to achieve greater freedom, equal rights and an elected government from the Sunni monarchy. Bahrain is about 70 per cent Shiite and 30 per cent Sunni Muslims. But the country is governed by a Sunni monarchy.

During the unrest, in which government security forces fired live ammunition, wounding or killing dozens of protestors, medical professionals said it was their duty to treat everyone and rejected accusations that treating protesters was the same as supporting their cause.

Those injured by government forces were frequently brought to the (name) hospital, but that unit has been under the control of the government’s security personnel. In some cases, these officers intervened in the physicians’ treatment and ordered that no further treatment be given.

Then many of the doctors, nurses and the patients were moved by the government to other hospitals in an effort to keep them from being able to prevent patients from identifying the wounds they had received at the hands of security services, Similarly, doctors and nurses were to be silent about the nature of the injuries they treated.

But most of the doctors and nurses refused, saying they had a responsibity to provide the best care they could to the wounded and injured.

Meanwhile, bloggers and other members of the press continue to the harassed by security forces and in many cases, arrested, tried before Kangaroo security courts and sentenced to substantial jail terms.

Ayat Al Cormozy, a 20 years old student and poet, was arrested last March by Bahraini security forces after she had recited poems in the Pearl Roundabout criticizing in it the Bahraini authorities. Ayat had been detained in an unknown place and without any specific charges until the Bahraini authorities had informed her family that she would be prosecuted in a martial court on Thursday 2 June as the first sitting of the court. This prosecution took place only two days after the lift of emergency law according to which these martial courts were held. The court has indicted the young poet of “touching on Bahraini King and participating in illegal demonstrations” and decided to postpone the hearing to Monday 6 June 2011.

This prosecution came after the lift of the notorious emergency law which had been imposed in 15 March 2011 and according to which 600 opponent activists were arrested and around 2000 persons were fired from their jobs because of their participation in the demonstrations that had broken out in the kingdom since last February and which had been violently suppressed by the security forces.

Ayat Al Cormozy is the second woman to be prosecuted in a martial court in the wake of the last events in Manama after that Galila Salman, an activist, had been sentenced to four years jail for possessing forbidden singing records and not obeying the orders of the police officers in the street in 12 May 2011.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) said the “Human rights situation in Bahrain is in ongoing deterioration and the lift of emergency law was merely a trial from the authorities to improve their image while they are actually still following suppressive measures and holding martial courts in fighting freedom of expression”

ANHRI added “Bahraini authorities should stop attacking human rights activists and opponents and prosecuting martial courts against civilians, and should release immediately all activists and arrested demonstrators, and allow a suitable environment for freedom of opinion and expression without adopting prosecution, or arrest or jail policies. It is not logic that the Bahraini authorities calls for dialogue with different political movements while the opposition leaders are in jail.”

In the past few days, the authorities have arrested more photographers and photo-journalists who had been covering the pro-democracy demonstrations taking place in Bahrain since mid-February. The aim of these targeted arrests is to limit the dissemination of news reports, photos and video of the protests and the government crackdown.

Reporters Without Borders calls for the immediate release of these photographers and of all the other people who have been arrested for circulating information about the protests and repression. The press freedom organization also calls on the courts to overturn the conviction of Hassan Salman Al-Ma’atooq, a photographer who has been sentenced to three years in prison.

Reporters Without Borders has learned that a military court imposed the sentence on Ma’atooq on 12 May after convicting him on four charges including two relating to his work as a photographer – fabricating photos of injured people and disseminating false photos and information. Aged 29, he has been held since 23 March.

Reporters Without Borders has also learned that Mohamed Ali Al-Aradi, who works for the newspaper Al-Bilad, was arrested on 8 May, and that, Abdullah Hassan, who was recently fired from the newspaper Al-Watan, was arrested on 14 May. He had been injured on 13 March while covering clashes between demonstrators and the security forces. Mohamed Salman Al-Sheikh, a photographer who heads the Bahrain Society of Photography, is meanwhile still being held. He was arrested at his home in Sanabis, a village west of Manama, on 11 May. Photographer Nedhal Nooh, a member of the Bahrain Society of Photography, was summoned for interrogation on 18 May in West Riffa (a city to the south of the capital). He has been held ever since.

Fadel Habib, a columnist who writes mainly about educational issues for Al-Wasat, was arrested at a check-point on 20 May and was released last night.
Naziha Saeed, a journalist who works for Radio Monte-Carlo and France24, was summoned and interrogated for nearly 12 hours on 22 May. She has often talked about the government-orchestrated repression in the foreign media in recent months.

The photo-journalist Mazen Mahdi was summoned and questioned for two hours on 22 May, mainly about is Twitter activities during demonstrations, his work for DPA and his alleged links with Lebanese and Iranian media. He was handcuffed and blindfolded, beaten several times and threatened with torture. Mahdi was previously detained briefly in March for taking photos of thugs smashing shop windows.

Reporters Without Borders has learned that Ali Abdulkarim Al-Kufi, a member of the Bahrain Society of Photography, and Hassan Al-Nasheet were released on 20 May after being held for five days. Al-Wasat journalist Haydar Mohamed was released on 22 May.

The trial of three of the opposition newspaper Al-Wasat’s most senior journalists – editor Mansour Al-Jamari, managing editor Walid Nouihid and local news editor Aqil Mirza – began before a criminal court on 18 May. They are accused of disseminating false information that undermined the country’s international image and reputation ( Jamari told Reuters that the prosecutors have added the charge of intending to cause instability in Bahrain, which carries a two-year sentence.

Jamari acknowledged to Reuters that six articles with false information did appear in Al-Wasat but he said all six were emailed to the newspaper together with bogus phone numbers from the same IP address in what appeared to be a deliberate plot to get the newspaper to publish wrong information.

Founded in 2002, Al-Wasat was banned on 3 April, one day after the national television programme “Media Watch” accused it of trying to harm Bahrain’s stability and security. The Information Affairs Authority, a government agency that regulates the media, reversed this decision and gave Al-Wasat permission to resume publishing on 4 April under new editors. The newspaper’s board initially announced that the newspaper would close, but subsequently said it would continue operating.

Another hearing was held on May 22 in the trial of 21 human rights activists and opposition members. After witnesses gave evidence, the court adjourned until 25 May. The defendants present in court included the blogger Abduljalil Al-Singace. Fellow blogger Ali Abdulemam, regarded as one of the country’s Internet pioneers, is also a defendant but he is being tried in absentia. Despite the judge’s instructions to the contrary, it seems that most of the detainees have been in solitary confinement.

The following are still detained: Faysal Hayyat,Ali Jawad, Abdullah Alawi and Jasem Al-Sabbagh, who were arrested after being forced to resign from the newspaper Al-Bilad. Ali Omid, Hani Al-Tayf, Fadel Al-Marzouk, Hossein Abdalsjad Abdul Hossein Al-Abbas, Jaffar Abdalsjad Abdul Hossein Al-Abbas, Hamza Ahmed Youssef Al-Dairi and Ahmed Youssef Al-Dairi, who are all online forum administrator or moderators.
Photographer Hossein Abbas Salem, and Abbas Al-Murshid, a freelance journalist and writer who contributes to several online forums. He was arrested on 16 May.

All of this activity took place against a background of a demonsration by more than 10,000 pro-democracy activists, during which the leader of the Gulf nation's main Shiite political party urged backers to press ahead with peaceful protests for greater political rights after fierce crackdowns by security forces.

TIME Magazine wrote, “The event carried twin messages in a nation wracked by unrest since February when protesters took to the streets, inspired by successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

“The Sunni monarchy controlling Bahrain allowed the rally in a bid to ease
tensions and open dialogue with Shiite-led groups. For opposition forces, the
gathering was a chance to voice their demands and show resolve after facing
relentless pressure from the Western-backed government, including martial
law-style rules removed earlier this month,” TIME wrote.

“The strategic island kingdom — home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet — has been in lockdown mode for months as Sunni rulers launched massive arrest sweeps and military patrols to quell the protests. The crackdown included bringing in a 1,500-story Saudi-led military force to back up Bahrain's embattled leadership, which claims that Shiite power Iran seeks to make gains by the unrest.” TIME reported.

At least 31 people have died in the unrest since February.

EGYPT: Military Honeymoon is Over

By William Fisher

When Egypt’s ruling military council abolished the government’s Ministry of Information and appointed a general to monitor the country’s press, the pro-democracy forces that toppled dictator Hosni Mubarak were hopeful that Egypt was entering a new era of free expression.

Now, three months after that amazing victory, the bloom appears to be off the rose: The protesters who filled Tahrir Square are charging that the military is carrying out a Mubarak-like program of repression. The country’s military police are accused of indiscriminate arrests and torture of prisoners. Women, arrested for taking part in demonstrations, have been given “virginity tests” by their jailers. Civilians are being tried in military courts. Social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook are overflowing with grievances against the military council posted by activists frustrated by the slow pace of democratic change, the arrest of human rights defenders, and the jailing of critics of the interim government.

In this post-Mubarak period, perhaps no facet of Egyptian life has suffered more than freedom of expression. The official government censor is gone and the country’s press is arguably freer than at any time during the 30-year reign of the aging Mubarak. The interim government also replaced the board chairmen and chief editors of seven state-run newspapers and magazines.

But many journalists and their editors are practicing self-censorship rather than challenging ominous signs from the government that there are still bright red lines they cross at their peril.

One of these red lines is the military itself. Under Mubarak, criticism of the military was a crime. Now, the military council has assumed that the old law is also the new law; bloggers who have raised questions about the military have been arrested, tried before military courts, convicted and sentenced to substantial prison terms.

Last month, an Egyptian military court sentenced a young blogger to three years in prison in what Human Rights Watch (HRW) described as a "serious setback to freedom of expression" in post-Mubarak Egypt.

In a blog post, Maikel Nabil had denounced the military’s conduct since Egypt’s revolution began on Jan. 25, citing human rights reports on the army’s alleged use of violence and torture against citizens. In earlier writings, the 26-year-old blogger had explained his decision to resist compulsory military service and called for others to do the same.

A number of human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Reporters Without Borders, have strongly criticized Nabil’s sentencing by a military court.

The US government has also denounced the sentence. State Department spokesman Mark Toner said the US is "deeply concerned" about Nabil's sentencing. He said Egypt experiencing a "rocky time" in its transition from decades of autocracy. And he called on Egypt's government to allow greater freedom of expression, saying this is not the kind of progress the US is looking for.

These methods do not go "in the direction desired by the Egyptians” when they met up at Tahrir square, Cairo, to demand the resignation of President Mubarak, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said. "We are concerned about reports of initiatives to crack down on journalists, bloggers, judges and others," Clinton said to the press.

Media watchdog Reporters without Borders noted in February that while Internet censorship had officially ended, some online controls were still in place. Now, in June, they are still in place.

Nabil’s “harsh sentence was intended to send a message that criticism of the army would not be tolerated,” Adel Ramadan, one of Nabil’s defense lawyers, told the IPS news service.

According to Human Rights Watch, the sentence is the worst attack on Egyptian free expression since the Mubarak regime jailed its first blogger in 2007. Activists suspect anywhere from hundreds to thousands of additional Egyptians are being held and tried before military courts behind closed doors. The military said that Nabil may appeal the sentence, but that anything that threatened the safety of the army was a crime that would be prosecuted.

The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) was not impressed. "Once again we reiterate that the Egyptian revolution had broken out against the oppression, suppression and violation of freedom expression and the sovereignty of the law means evidently that nobody is above criticism," the group said.

ANHRI has also asked the Egyptian authorities to modify the Egyptian rules and legislation to prevent the prosecution of opinion analysts because of their views.

In another development, activists and youth groups were further infuriated by news of the questioning of two journalists and a prominent blogger over criticism of the army on live talk shows.

Reem Maged and Nabil Sharaf El-Din, the two reporters, and prominent blogger and activist Hossam El-Hamalawy, were questioned for three hours by Adel Morsi, who heads the military justice authority. They were later released.

Despite a growing number of press freedom abuses, some newspaper editors and reporters have given the impression that Egypt was now enjoying full press freedom. One of them, Ashraf El-Leithy, deputy editor of Middle East News Agency (MENA), Egypt’s official news wire, told IPS, “Before Feb. 11, we had strict orders not to discuss certain topics, such as the Muslim Brotherhood or Mohamed ElBaradei (Mubarak’s political opponent) “Now we have complete freedom to write about anything – without any restriction.”

He said many of MENA’s journalists and editors backed the revolution, but were afraid of losing their jobs if they strayed from the official line. With Mubarak gone and his ruling party dissolved, the news wire has gone “from being the voice of the government, to being a voice of the people.”

But observers caution that this view of press freedom in Egypt is seriously exaggerated. For example, they cite a letter to newspaper editors on Mar. 22 from the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) warning that all coverage of topics involving Egypt’s military establishment must first be vetted by the SCAF’s public relations and intelligence directorates.

Last week, more than 20 pro-democracy youth groups said they would boycott a meeting organized by the military council because the army was adopting the repressive measures of the Mubarak era.

In a statement, the groups said they would reject any dialogue while military trials of civilians carry on. They said the army had failed to investigate claims of violations by military police and denounced a new set of laws criminalizing protests and sit-ins. Rights advocates argue that the military lost its immunity from media criticism the minute it assumed control of the country.

Rights watchdogs have always rated the Middle East and North Africa region as one of the toughest areas of the world for journalists. Last year, Freedom House ranked Egypt 130 out of 196 countries for press freedom, and reported an increase in legal intimidation against journalists and bloggers to the alarming rate of one lawsuit per day.

But that was to be expected for any period before the Tahrir Square uprising. That the same kinds of criticisms should be valid now is a tragic betrayal of those whose demonstrations risked so much.

During the nightly Tahrir Square demonstrations, the army became the darling of anti-Mubarak forces. It was the army that kept the demonstrators safe from Mubarak loyalists. But, sadly, the honeymoon would now appear to be over.

Egypt’s military rulers, strengthened by an overwhelming vote for their position in a referendum, have decreed an accelerated path toward parliamentary and presidential elections. They say they did so because they were not comfortable in business of governance. While we may applaud the army’s rush to get out of the governance business, quick elections will restore civilian rule but will probably aid those parties which are best organized, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood and what is left of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party.

Voters in the referendum were thus forced to choose between two bad options: lingering military rule or rule by unknown parties with questionable credentials.

Whether they knew it or not, they unquestionably chose the latter. Only time will tell how wise they were.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Welcome to Post-Legal America

By William Fisher

Tom Engelhardt, who writes the Nation Institute's column says he thinks the dumbest question of the 21st Century is: “Is it Legal?”

Tom begins with a litany of some of the related questions raised recently: “Is the Libyan war legal? Was Bin Laden’s killing legal? Is it legal for the
president of the United States to target an American citizen for assassination? Were those ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’legal?”

His answer: These questions are irrelevant. He writes, “Think of them as twentieth-century questions that don't begin to come to grips with twenty-first century American realities. In fact, think of them, and the very idea of a nation based on the rule of law, as a reflection of nostalgia for, or sentimentality about, a long-lost republic. At least in terms of what used to be called “foreign policy,” and more recently “national security,” the United States is now a post-legal society. (And you could certainly include in this mix the too-big-to-jail financial and corporate elite.)”

Engelhardt explains: “If, in a country theoretically organized under the rule of law, wrongdoers are never brought to justice and nobody is held accountable for possibly serious crimes, then you don’t have to be a constitutional law professor to know that its citizens actually exist in a
post-legal state.”

And he adds, “If so, ‘Is it legal?’ is the wrong question to be asking, even if we have yet to discover the right one.”

Tom says, “Of course, when it came to a range of potential Bush-era crimes -- the use of torture, the running of offshore “black sites,” the extraordinary rendition of terrorist suspects to lands where they would be tortured, illegal domestic spying and wiretapping, and the launching of wars of aggression -- it’s hardly news that no one of the slightest significance has ever been brought to justice.”

He recalls, “On taking office, President Obama offered a clear formula for dealing with this issue. He insisted that Americans should ‘look forward, not backward’ and turn the page on the whole period, and then set his Justice Department to work on other matters. But honestly, did anyone anywhere ever doubt that no Bush-era official would be brought to trial here for such potential crimes?”

He continues: “After 9/11, the Bush administration quickly turned to a crew of hand-picked Justice Department lawyers to create the necessary rationale for what its officials most wanted to do -- in their quaint phrase, ‘take the gloves off.’ And those lawyers responded with a set of pseudo-legalisms that put various methods of ‘information extraction beyond the powers of the Geneva Conventions, the U.N.’s Convention Against Torture (signed by President Ronald Reagan and ratified by the Senate), and domestic anti-torture legislation, including the War Crimes Act of 1996 (passed by a Republican Congress).”

“In the process, they created infamously pretzled new definitions for acts
previously accepted as torture. Among other things, they essentially left the
definition of whether an act was torture or not to the torturer (that is, to
what he believed he was doing at the time). In the process, acts that had
historically been considered torture became “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

On the issue of waterboarding, he writes, a technique once been bluntly known as “the water torture” or “the water cure,” “the issue of the legality
of such techniques was superseded by a fierce national debate over their
efficacy. It has lasted to this day and returned with a bang with the bin Laden killing.”

Nothing, he says, “better illustrates the nature of our post-legal society. Anti-torture laws were on the books in this country. If legality had truly mattered, it would have been beside the point whether torture was an effective way to produce ‘actionable intelligence’ and so prepare the way for the killing of a bin Laden.”

He continues: “By analogy, it’s perfectly reasonable to argue that robbing banks can be a successful and profitable way to make a living, but who would agree that a successful bank robber hadn’t committed an act as worthy of prosecution as an unsuccessful one caught on the spot? Efficacy wouldn’t matter in a society whose central value was the rule of law. In a post-legal society in which the ultimate value espoused is the safety and protection a national security state can offer you, it means the world.”

As if to make the point, the Supreme Court recently offered a post-legal ruling for our moment: it declined to review a lower court ruling that blocked a case in which five men, who had experienced extraordinary rendition (a fancy globalized version of kidnapping) and been turned over to torturing regimes elsewhere by the CIA, tried to get their day in court. No such luck. The Obama administration claimed (as had the Bush administration before it) that simply bringing such a case to court would imperil national security (that is, state secrets) -- and won,” Tom writes.

The realities of our moment are simple enough: other than abusers too low-level (see England, Lynndie and Graner, Charles) to matter to our national security state, no one in the CIA, and certainly no official of any sort, is going to be prosecuted for the possible crimes Americans committed in the Bush years in pursuit of the Global War on Terror.

Tom cites a number of other legal irrelevancies. Whistleblowers and the journalists they confide in are likely to find themselves facing criminal charges in federal courts. Witness Jeffrey Sterling and New York Times reporter James Risen. And, of course, Bradley Manning. And those who rail against the erosion of our traditional “notions of American privacy (versus American secrecy), as Senator Rand Paul did recently in reference to the Patriot Act, are promptly smeared as potentially “giving terrorists the opportunity to plot attacks against our country, undetected."

Englehardt urges us to consider the vast national security network arrayed against those who dare to object. He notes that there are centers of security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States, a U.S. Intelligence Community (as it likes to call itself) made up of 17 different agencies and organizations, with its $80 billion-plus budget, the National Security Complex, including the Pentagon and that post-9/11 creation, the Department of Homeland Security, with its $1.2 trillion-plus budget, and the imperial executive have thrived in these years.

“They have all expanded their powers and prerogatives based largely on the claim that they are protecting the American people from potential harm from terrorists out to destroy our world,” he writes.

In conclusion, Tom asks us to “consider again the question ‘Is it legal?’ When it comes to any act of the National Security Complex, it’s obviously inapplicable in a land where the rule of law no longer applies to everyone.”

He concludes: “If you are a ordinary citizen, of course, it applies to you, but not if you are part of the state apparatus that officially protects you. The institutional momentum behind this development is simple enough to demonstrate: it hardly mattered that, after George W. Bush took off those gloves, the next president elected was a former constitutional law professor.”

He counsels us to “Think of the National Security Complex as the King George of the present moment. In the areas that matter to that complex, Congress has ever less power and, as in the case of the war in Libya or the Patriot Act, is ever more ready to cede what power it has left.”

Finally, he writes, “So democracy? The people’s representatives? How quaint in a world in which our real rulers are unelected, shielded by secrecy, and supported by a carefully nurtured, almost religious attitude toward security and the U.S. military. Welcome to post-legal America. It's time to stop wondering whether its acts are illegal and start asking: Do you really want to be this “safe”?

I asked a number of the country’s most respected human rights lawyers what they thought of the idea of giving up on our traditional notions about the role and reach of the law.

One of the most profound responses came from Chip Pitts, former Chair of Amnesty. He told me: “We're now in a post-legal America, in many ways – yes. But are questions about legality ‘dumb’ and ‘irrelevant’? No. I share the serious concern about the grave transgressions in the rule of law as revealed by the utter lack of accountability and continued secrecy and cover ups, and welcome the provocative way Tom seeks to engender greater debate about the questions.”

But, he added, “is he right? God, I hope not. In my view, we can’t succumb to the complacency encouraged by people passively pointing out that history shows that ‘it takes time’ to correct similar deviations from the rule of law that have occurred in the past. But of course, neither can we accept that the rule of law is gone and that only expediency and convenience remain.”

He continued, “Typically, in previous depredations (like Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and temporary recourse to military tribunals during the factually distinguishable, truly existential Civil War, or the excesses of the McCarthy Era during the similarly existential threat posed by the nuclear-armed Soviet Union), it’s taken only a very few years to see the light. This time, although the threat from al Qaeda and its offshoots is clearly less existential, and more manageable, it’s taking more than a decade already.”

Pitts is discouraged by the “painfully few signs of a more evidence-and-reality based approach peep over the horizon, and the entrenched interests ranging from politicians and the media to the military-industrial-surveillance complex seem for the moment to have succeeded in institutionalizing a very profitable, low-level, persistent, yet wholly unjustified and counterproductive and manipulated fear.”

The reality, he says, is that “’we the people’ are the ultimate answer to Tom’s question, if there’s to be one. And he is correct that the practical consequences of acceding to the encroaching lawless state will be the main driver, ultimately (if ever), for more of the people to wake up and do something about it. For my own part, I vacillate between raging ‘at the dying of the light,’ in Dylan Thomas’s memorable phrase, and lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. But I’ve by no means reconciled myself to seeing the flame of justice extinguished. Not just yet, anyway.”

As a journalist, I’m delighted to report on the combat taking place today over these warring points of view. It makes good copy. But as a citizen, I despair for the future of my country and what I fear it is becoming. I fear that for generations we will be caught up in the over-reaction to 9/11. That reaction led to Congress creating a vast new bureaucracy – the Department of Homeland Security – to overlay our already enormous and largely dysfunctional intelligence apparatus. The many alternative ways the terror threat might have been met have been laid out many times and have largely fallen on deaf ears.

But most of all, don’t all of us have to be profoundly disappointed in the failure of Obama’s loudly-trumpeted policy of transparency? All governments have secrets; they have to have secrets. But that does not mean that governments have to be secretive. During and after his campaign, Obama told us that openness, transparency and accountability were going to be the touchstones of his justice policy. He never gave us the slightest hint that a major mission of his administration would be to suppress evidence so that victims of Bush-Cheney policies would never have to face justice in a court of law. And that we would morph into a permanent surveillance society.

I don’t know whether Obama, the Constitutional Law professor, was snookered by the defense and intelligence complex or whether he had some unexpected epiphany that transformed him into a hardline secret-hugger.

Whatever the cause, that’s what he has become. And it is the president, more than any combination of people in the intelligence community, who has created the environment, set the tone, of our post-legal America.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Women in the Arab Spring

By William Fisher

Since the beginning of the Arab Spring – starting with the unrest in Tunisia in early January – questions have been raised about the role of women in the uprisings across North Africa and the Middle East.

Photography of demonstrations in Egypt’s Tahrir Square reveals the presence of women of all ages. The same appears to be true in other parts of Egypt, and in Tunisia, Syria, and Bahrain.

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights has catalogued the role of women in the demonstrations in that country and the often brutal actions taken by security forces to force them from the streets.

The Center says, “Bahraini women are paying dearly for expressing their views.”

The organization says that dozens of Bahraini women “are being detained in prison facing torture and humiliation for participating in peaceful protests. The government is killing, detaining, physically and verbally abusing and dismissing women from work and education.”

In a statement, the Center says it “strongly condemns the ongoing crackdown against the peaceful protesters in Bahrain, specially the repression and detention of a great number of Bahraini women such as political and social activists, doctors, teachers, housewives as well as school and university students. These women are facing torture as well as physical and verbal abuses that leads to death in some cases; in addition to the dismissal from work and education.”

The Center says it believes these actions are “a vengeance against Bahraini women for the key role they played since the beginning of the protests; a way to force them giving up that role and retreat any activity they had in the protesting movement since last February. It is also a way to add pressure on the opposition to retreat their legitimate demands.”

Since the early days of the Bahraini revolution on February 14th, 2011, Bahraini women participated as an active and influential entity in the protests, the Center says, adding, “They advanced in great numbers on the front lines of the peaceful protests and expressed their opinion by demanding their political and human rights, giving speeches and reciting poetry. Their presence in the Pearl Square -The symbol of Bahrain’s revolution- was significant in taking up management roles, rescuing those injured by the excessive force used by Bahraini security forces; as well as documenting the brutalities committed against protesters and speaking to various media outlets.”

The crackdown reached its peak with the arrest of unprecedented numbers of women in the history of Bahrain (over 100 women during less than two months), as well as the direct shooting of a woman by a sniper in Bahrain’s army, the Center declares.

“Since the beginning of the protests last February, government forces faced peaceful protesters, including women, with excessive violence.” The Center says the forces shot tear gas and rubber bullets directly towards the women leading to fainting, wounds and injuries. “Even in their homes and living areas, women are not safe from being targeted by the security forces.”

The Center compiled a catalogue of actions committed by government security forces. For example:

A woman in her sixties was admitted to the Military Hospital after being shot by riot police causing fracture of the skull and tumescence in the eye. Reports indicate that she was standing in front of her house door, when she was unexpectedly shot by riot police, who were trying to disperse a protest organized by the residents during the afternoon.

A woman was hit by a shotgun pellet in her eye and forehead. She said she was in her house on the top floor when the security forces and protesters clashed in the street, and the riot police tried dispersing the protesters and shot her.

Female doctors and nurses who treated the wounded and injured were also subjected to physical attacks. On March 14, 2011, “thugs” backed by civilian militias under the command of Bahraini security forces physically attacked the nurses in the University of Bahrain and abused them verbally.

Two female doctors were threatened to death with a knife ; one of them was Dr. Alaa Al-Safaar. On March 15, 2011, Dr. Haneen Al-Bosta was a victim of physical attack while she was treating injured protesters who were attacked by security forces in Sitra. An officer in the security forces slapped her on the face, kicked her and forced her to crawl in the street, as a punishment for treating the injured.

At least one woman was intentionally killed. On, the day the Pearl Square was forcefully cleared of protesters by the army and security forces, Bahiya Abdul Rasool Al-Aradi, 51, lost her life when a bullet hit the front of her head. Instead of investigating her death, the government tried forcing her family to sign the death certificate, which stated “car accident” as cause of death. Her family refused to sign.

Since the announcement of Martial law -state of emergency- on March 15th, national security forces have launched aggressive raids arresting women who were suspected of having participated in the protests or strikes,expressed their support, or helped protesters by offering them medical treatment.

The attacks were specially targeted against teachers, university students, doctors, paramedics and even housewives. Their homes and workplaces were raided during the early hours of dawn. Moreover, some intermediate and secondary girls’ schools were raided leading to arrests a number of pupils under the age of 18. Other women were arrested at check points, where protest pictures or forwarded messages related to the protests were found on their mobile phones.

The Center reports that at least 100 women have been arrested in less than two months since March 15th and 30 of them are still in custody. It is believed that the total number of arrests is much higher than this number given the pace at which the daily detentions take place under a media blackout and fear or embarrassment of most families to report the arrest of their daughters. It is also believed that a large number of women are being detained on a daily basis to be interrogated for hours or days before being released.

The ages of the female detainees who remain in prison are between 16 to 51 years old. These arrests often happen after midnight, in the absence of female police. Security forces break the house doors and locks and threaten family members so they hand over their daughter if the troops don't find her.

This is what happened to the family of Ayat Qurmuzi, 20, a student and poet, whose parents were threatened to witness the killing of all their children there and then if they refused to disclose the whereabouts of Ayat. To add to the emotional pressure on the family of the detainee, the authorities denied later the arrest of Ayat after taking her from her home.

In some cases, teachers were arrested from their classrooms in front of their pupils while teaching. Some of the arrested teachers, who were interrogated and then released, confirmed that they were subjected to severe beatings by male interrogators in the detention centers. Some of them said they were blindfolded from the moment of their arrest and throughout the interrogation and had to face the wall while being beaten.

A student who was arrested and released two days later said “she was severely beaten and was made to choose between insulting religious symbols and being raped”.

Also, according to information received by the center, most of the detainees were beaten during their interrogation. They were slapped on the face and beaten on the back and neck leaving marks that were visible even after their release.

The Center says it observed at least one case of a woman and mother of an infant, who was repeatedly detained in Hamad Town police station for refusing to have sex with security personnel in the detention center.

The center was also informed that the poet Ayat Qurmuzi has been subjected to severe torture in order to force her to confess, in front of cameras, of things she has not committed. This is a habitude Bahraini regime has observed since the events of the nineties and was repeated in 2008 when confessions of tortured detainees were filmed and officially aired on national television.

Many women physicians and nurses have been arrested in the hospitals where they work to prevent them from treating patients injured in the demonstrations and later testifying about the nature of their wounds.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Does Cable Television Have Anything to Do With National Security?

By William Fisher

The Memorial Day holiday in the US gave me a brief respite from my daily scribbling and an opportunity to watch a little cable television.

I don’t want to sound like one of the elite, but I didn’t actually expect to be enlightened or stimulated or challenged by the morning’s TV fare, which I usually avoid with the exception of C-Span.

But I admit that I really wasn’t prepared for the “five minutes for the police car chase and the 30-second sound bite for the uprisings in Syria” news formula. Nor was I fully aware of the extent to which cable news simply ignored a bunch of really important world developments in favor of domestic crime stories and feel-good program–enders about pandas or teddy bears.

I left an hour of cable news right up to date on Congressional sex scandals and particularly gruesome child murders, but hopelessly uninformed about movements and actions that truly have the potential to change lives in large numbers.

And, as for the rest of cable’s daily menu, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, these channels know their audiences. And, by and large, I’m told that the people who are watching non-news (entertainment) television in the morning are a pretty good cross-section of our most challenged demographics – people who can’t find jobs, the working poor, single moms struggling to care for their kids, housewives who abandoned the soaps for Oprah, et cetera.

These are not stupid people. But politically, cable news is feeding them a highly censored smorgasbord of meaningless sound-bites combined with the kinds of stories most likely to stimulate their most prurient interests.

Between newscasts, cable audiences are being enchanted by the seemingly endless supply of reality, game, courtroom, and pop-psyche guidance shows.

Now, lest I be misunderstood, there are some mighty smart and well-informed people working for cable channels. However, I find it an unfortunate turn-off that anchors like Chris Matthews of MSNBC, Bill O’Reilly of FOX, and even Wolf Blitzer of CNN, have had to build their audiences by making outrageous hyperbolic (and usually untrue) statements, and booking guests who seem programmed to scream at (and over) one another on virtually any subject.

So what, you might ask, has this to do with National Security?

Let me state what should be obvious: Our form of government depends on the consent of the governed. When we find that our citizens are about as well-informed as Sarah Palen, we should be afraid – very afraid. Because to the extent our brains are A.W.O.L. on critical national and international issues, to that extent we give license to every demagogic politician to sell us whatever narrative he wants.

And they do. And because we are unaware we have options, politicians more often than not have their way. In the end, they persuade us to vote against our own interests.

And that makes us, as a nation, very, very insecure.


By William Fisher

President Obama’s recent speech on the Middle East was intended, finally, to put the U.S. on “the right side of history.” After months of fence-sitting, the president was going to throw the full moral weight of the United States behind the Arab Spring.

How he did depends a lot on where you’re sitting. In the U.S., reception to his remarks appears to have been largely positive – even among some of the human rights groups that have been consistently critical of what they see as the double-standard applied to different nations based on U.S. strategic interests.

“I thought the speech did a good job of clearly aligning U.S. policy in support of democratic change in the region,” said Neil Hicks of Human Rights Watch.

But the view from the Middle East and North Africa was less enthusiastic – a lot less.

Pro-reform activists in a number of Arab Spring countries were quick to point out that Saudi Arabia was not mentioned a single time in the more than 5,000 words Obama spoke.

The Sacred Cow is still Sacred!

Anger over that particular omission was dramatically evident in Bahrain, where Saudi troops are supporting the royal family in one of the most viscous crackdowns ever seen in this tiny Gulf country. King Abdullah’s forces are in Bahrain, along with others from the UAE, at the instigation of the Gulf Cooperation Council. It is unclear whether these foreign soldiers are participating directly in the beatings and murders and faux trials of protesters, but their presence casts a huge dark shadow over the country.

As The Guardian reported, “Arab analysts said Obama's words were impressive but came largely too late and reflected US fears of the consequences of uprisings without guidance from the West.”

Those Arab analysts haven’t forgotten that in 2009 Obama came to Cairo University to address the Muslim world promising support for democracy. Nothing happened.

Nor have they forgotten that in 2005 George W. Bush attempted to embarrass Mubarak into holding multi-party elections that would be free and fair. Condi Rice even cancelled a trip to the region in protest. But nothing happened and everything went back to the status quo ante.

Most recently, Egyptians are remembering that the U.S. stood at the side of the Mubarak Regime until they were sure which side was going to win before they put their full-throated endorsement behind the headless horsemen of Tahrir Square.

Hussein Ibish, a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, summed up Obama’s latest speech well. He said, “Perhaps the most important change in tone in this regard was on Bahrain, where Obama condemned the crackdown in much stronger terms than the United States has to date. He called for dialogue but noted ‘you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail’.”

Bahrainis appeared to be heartened that their tiny country was mentioned at all, but disappointed that listeners were spared the awful impact of what’s taking place there today.

The bloodbath in Bahrain has been almost universally neglected by major elements of the mainstream press, even though the spokesman for the Bahrain Center for Human Rights has been a consistent supplier of frequent and accurate news and updates. The Bahraini situation is not simple, though it would be easy to simplify it. At its root, it is a story of a Sunni Muslim king ruling over a Shia Muslim majority population. The tactics employed by the royal family are unspeakably barbaric. In many respects, they make Egypt’s security services look like the Keystone Cops.

Chip Pitts, a long-time human rights defender and former CEO of Amnesty USA, summed up Obama’s speech this way:

“The president's speech mainly gave the minimum acknowledgment of new Middle Eastern realities without really constituting anything new or that would represent true leadership that could transcend the classic status quo interests operating there. The last thing those in the region needed was more tired rhetoric; the first thing they need from the US is more genuine, principled, consistent, and results-oriented leadership aimed at producing transformative change.”

But then, the sixty-four thousand dollar question: Does it really matter anymore what the United States thinks or says?

There is a substantial segment of well educated, well informed Arabs that sees the influence of the United States in sad and steady decline. After all, the U.S. was for many years the country that supported and helped finance the enemies of self-government, anti-corruption, a fair legal system, extraordinary rendition, police torture chambers, free elections, and repeal of so-called emergency laws.

Maybe Chip Pitts had it about right: “The last thing those in the region needed was more tired rhetoric; the first thing they need from the US is more genuine, principled, consistent, and results-oriented leadership aimed at producing transformative change.”

Meantime, U.S. pronouncements are triggering a growing ho-hum. As
Jon Alterman from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, put it, "There's not a huge amount of curiosity about what the president thinks. President Obama's speech…did nothing to change that social media site Twitter: ‘Obama gave a speech? Really? As if I care’.”

“We’ve Never Seen Such Horror” –HRW’s Chilling New Report on Syria

By William Fisher

Amid the anger that has erupted in Syria following the publication of images of the battered face of 13-year-old Hamza al-Khateeb, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has released a chilling new report detailing the brutality of Syrian security forces in the Syrian city of Daraa.

“For more than two months now, Syrian security forces have been killing and torturing their own people with complete impunity. They need to stop – and if they don’t, it is the (UN) Security Council’s responsibility to make sure that the people responsible face justice.”

These are the words of Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, introducing a chilling new 54-page report, "We've Never Seen Such Horror: Crimes against Humanity in Daraa."

The “systematic killings and torture” by Syrian security forces in the city of Daraa since protests began there on March 18, 2011, “strongly suggest that these qualify as crimes against humanity,” the Human Rights Watch report said.

Hamza -- a pudgy-cheeked 13-year-old -- was reportedly arrested, tortured and killed in custody and has become a symbol of the violent suppression of protesters by the Assad regime and a potential tipping point after 12 weeks of bloodshed, HRW said.

HRW‘s report is based on more than 50 interviews with victims and witnesses to abuses. It focuses on violations in Daraa governorate, where some of the worst violence took place after protests seeking greater freedoms began in various parts of the country. The specifics went largely unreported due to the information blockade imposed by the Syrian authorities. Victims and witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch described systematic killings, beatings, torture using electroshock devices, and detention of people seeking medical care.

HRW said the Syrian government “should take immediate steps to halt the excessive use of lethal force by security forces. The United Nations Security Council should impose sanctions and press Syria for accountability and, if it doesn't respond adequately, refer Syria to the International Criminal
Court (ICC).”

But getting the Security Council to act is not going to be easy. Russia and China have made it clear they are not inclined to participate in any overall condemnation of the Assad regime nor any call for referral to the ICC.

The US has already adopted unilateral sanctions against Assad and his top lieutenants, but they are not likely to have a major negative impact on the country.

China and Russia are likely to oppose UN-backed sanctions and are strongly opposed to a Libya-type action, even if such an operation were militarily possible in Syria.

The HRW reports says “the protests first broke out in Daraa in response to the detention and torture of 15 children accused of painting graffiti slogans calling for the government's downfall. In response and since then, security forces have repeatedly and systematically opened fire on overwhelmingly peaceful demonstrators. The security forces have killed at least 418 people in the Daraa governorate alone, and more than 887 across Syria, according to local activists who have been maintaining a list of those killed. Exact numbers are impossible to verify.”

Witnesses from Daraa interviewed by Human Rights Watch provided consistent accounts of security forces using lethal force against protesters and bystanders, in most cases without advance warning or any effort to disperse the protesters by nonviolent means. Members of various branches of the mukhabarat (security services) and numerous snipers positioned on rooftops deliberately targeted the protesters, and many of the victims had lethal head, neck, and chest wounds. Human Rights Watch documented a number of cases in which security forces participating in the operations against protesters in Daraa and other cities had received "shoot-to-kill" orders from their commanders.

Human Rights Watch called on the Syrian government to halt immediately the use of excessive and lethal force by security forces against demonstrators and activists, release all arbitrarily arrested detainees, and provide human rights groups and journalists with immediate and unhindered access to Daraa.

It also called on the Security Council to adopt targeted financial and travel sanctions on officials responsible for continuing human rights violations, as well as to push for and support efforts to investigate and prosecute the grave, widespread and systemic human rights violations committed in Syria.

"Syrian authorities did everything they could to conceal their bloody repression in Daraa," Whitson said. "But horrendous crimes like these are impossible to hide, and sooner or later those responsible will have to answer for their actions."

Michelle Shephard, National Security reporter for the Toronto Star, wrote that young Hamza went missing after a protest in the southern Syrian village of Jiza on April 29, and “until his body was returned to his family Friday, his whereabouts were unknown. Activists said he was tortured and killed by Syria’s security services during a month in custody.”

Syrian state TV reported that Hamza was hit by three bullets outside the military complex where he was protesting. There was a delay in returning the body because his identity was unknown, the government-sponsored station stated.

But a video posted on YouTube showing his beaten corpse has sparked international condemnation and become a rallying cry for Syria’s protesters, who shouted this week: “We are all Hamza al-Khateeb.”

Hamza’s father, obviously under duress, appeared on Syrian State TV and praised Assad for his leadership. It was widely reported that the government has threatened his family.

HRW said. “It is difficult to look at his injuries and not think about what he endured — the boy’s face is purple and swollen; there are bullet and burn marks on his chest. A narrator states that his kneecaps were also shattered and his penis severed.”

“I have a child who is exactly that age and I just cannot comprehend the cruelty. It is so hitting home,” said Abdalla Rifai, of the Syrian Emergency Task Force. The Washington-based non-profit group was established to support the “democratic aspirations of Syrians” and is suing Assad’s regime in U.S. courts for human rights abuses.

Despite the courage of the protesters and the ferocity of their clashes with government forces, Syria experts remain doubtful that there are enough demonstrators to outnumber the security services. As long as they situation remains, Assad may be able to control the uprising.

Assad inherited power in July 2000, a month after his father Hafez al-Assad died. The senior Assad had ruled for three decades and his son inherited a government led by the Arab Socialist Baath party and dominated by Alawites - a minority Shia sect that makes up between five and 10 per cent of the population in a predominantly Sunni country (74 per cent). The Alawites are regarded as extraordinarily clever in holding on to their minority power.