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.