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Iranian press review: Russia's ‘joy’ over sanctions on Iran sparks anger

Thu, 10/27/2022 - 12:48
Iranian press review: Russia's ‘joy’ over sanctions on Iran sparks anger
Meanwhile, judiciary threatens protesters with death penalty, Iran and Azerbaijan trade war of words, and reformists refute officials' claim about resuming nuclear talks
MEE correspondent Thu, 10/27/2022 - 13:48
Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in the 6th summit of the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-building Measures in Asia (CICA), in Astana, Kazakhstan on 13 October 2022 (Reuters)

Moscow looks forward to more sanctions on Iran

Comments by a Russian official welcoming new international sanctions on Iran as a profitable situation for Russia have sparked anger among experts and Iranians, who have been under tremendous pressure due to a severe economic crisis.

Last week, BBC Persian reported that Konstantin Simonov, the head of Russia's National Energy Security Funds, relayed Moscow's delight at additional sanctions on Iran's oil, gas, and petrochemical industries.

According to the report, Simonov told a Russian state TV channel: "Iran will remain under sanctions, and they will worsen, which honestly speaking, is good news for us."

"For the future, we will have to enter into joint economic relations. We have quite ambitious investment plans, which include the Iranian oil and gas sector.”

Simonov added that the new sanctions on Tehran would provide Moscow with a $40bn investment opportunity.

"What else should Russia do or say to make it clear that they win bread with Iranian people's blood," Rahmatollah Bigdeli, a reformist cleric, wrote on Twitter.

Iranian sociologist Mohammad Fazeli also criticised the authorities' policy of increasing ties with Russia while Moscow seemed to welcome Iran's worsening economic crisis.

"When they openly show their joy, we should think of what they say and plan for in their secret meetings. Do they also plot to increase the sanctions?," Fazeli said

Iran slaps protesters with death penalty

Iran's judiciary has tightened the noose on anti-government demonstrators by handing down the death penalty to a detainee who participated in the 2019 protests and charging current protesters with moharabeh, which means waging a war against God and is punishable by death.

Iran protests: How political groups are using the uprising for their own agendas
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According to a state-run daily, the judiciary has kicked off the trials of 516 protesters in Tehran and Alborz provinces, four of whom have so far been charged with moharebeh.

Last week, the same charge was used by the judiciary to sentence Abbas Deris to death, the Norway-based Iran Human Rights organisation reported on Tuesday.

Deris was arrested during protests in November 2019 that engulfed the country after a sudden rise in fuel prices.

Iranian authorities have heavy-handedly suppressed anti-government demonstrations in recent years and used the death penalty to further crackdown on protesters.

In 2020, Iran executed Navid Afkari, a national wrestling champion, who was arrested during protests in 2018.

Tehran warns Baku against ‘geopolitical changes’

Iranian officials and Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders have renewed threats against Azerbaijan following the three days of war games at the border between the two countries that took place last week. 

During the military drill, IRG forces installed a PMP floating bridge and for the first time crossed the Aras River that marks the border with Azerbaijan, the IRGC-affiliated media reported.

Brigade General Ali Akbar Pourjamshidian, deputy commander for the IRGC ground forces, warned Baku about attempts to capture new territories in Armenia after military clashes broke out between Iran’s northern neighbours in mid-September.

"Azerbaijan gained what it wanted in Nagorno-Karabakh, and we congratulated them," local media quoted Pourjamshidian as saying in reference to the contested enclave that Baku recaptured from Yerevan following a weeks-long conflict in late 2020.

"But if today they decide to change our borders and tarnish our connecting path to Europe, we will respond decisively," he added, referring to talk of establishing the so-called Zangezur transport corridor that would connect Azerbaijan to its exclave Nakhchivan. 

The 44-kilometre corridor is the current Iranian-Armenian borderline.

A day after the military drills, Iran's foreign minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian inaugurated Iran's consulate in the Armenian city of Kapan, about 80 kilometres from the Iran-Armenia border.

During this visit, Abdollahian promised Armenia that Iran would not allow any geopolitical changes in the region.

"Geopolitical change in this region is our red line, and we will take all measures necessary to prevent such actions," Fars news quoted him as saying.

Doubts cast on claims of new US message to Tehran

Pro-reformist outlets cast doubt on Tehran’s claims that it has received a message from Washington indicating that it is highly interested in rapidly signing a deal with Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear agreement.

On Saturday, Iran's foreign minister, Hossein Amir Abdollahian, said: "Three days ago, we received a message from the American side…evaluating their message, we reached the conclusion that they are in a rush [for an agreement]."

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The ultra-conservative Kayhan daily echoed the same claims. 

"Following the failure of Americans in fuelling riots [in Iran], they put out a diplomatic gesture, and now they are begging for negotiations," the daily wrote on Sunday.

Despite the conservatives' claims about Washington's readiness to resume talks with Iran for a potential return to the nuclear pact with western powers, the pro-reformist Ham Mihan daily suggested they were mere "speech therapy".

"By these positive comments, the officials attempt to give hope to people. This can control the economic crisis, but at the moment, no country has the plan to continue the talks," Ham Mihan wrote.

Since April 2021, Tehran and Washington have engaged in indirect talks to restore the nuclear deal that former US President Donald Trump withdrew from in 2018. 

However, the talks have repeatedly become deadlocked over this period. They were recently halted in response to the violent suppression of demonstrations that broke out last month following the death of Mahsa Amini in the custody of the morality police.

*Iranian press review is a digest of news reports not independently verified as accurate by Middle East Eye. 

Tehran

Egypt's currency hits record low as IMF loan deal secured

Thu, 10/27/2022 - 11:30
Egypt's currency hits record low as IMF loan deal secured
The sudden dip comes following introduction of new flexible exchange rate
MEE and agencies Thu, 10/27/2022 - 12:30
An employee counts Egyptian pounds at a foreign exchange office in central Cairo, Egypt, 20 March  2019 (Reuters)
An employee counts Egyptian pounds at a foreign exchange office in central Cairo (Reuters)

Egypt's currency hit a record low against the US dollar on Thursday, reaching over 23 pounds to $1 as the country secured a new loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The rapid dip from the opening level of 19.67 EGP to the dollar came after the central bank raised interest rates by 200 basis points as a part of a new exchange rate regime.

The central bank said it was set on intensifying economic reforms, and had "moved to a durably flexible exchange rate regime, leaving the forces of supply and demand to determine the value of the EGP against other foreign currencies".

The policy shift came in a bid to secure a new loan from the IMF after Egypt's economic woes deepened due to the war in Ukraine. The fund has long been urging Egypt to allow greater exchange rate flexibility. 

Egypt: Central bank governor resigns as currency hits another low
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Against the backdrop of the 15 percent currency depreciation, the government said it had clinched a $3bn loan agreement with the IMF over the next three years and eight months.

The IMF confirmed the deal and welcomed Egypt's exchange rate regime changes and commitments to boosting social protections. 

"The commitment to durable exchange rate flexibility going forward will be a cornerstone policy for rebuilding and safeguarding Egypt's external resilience over the long term," the IMF said in a statement. 

The central bank had allowed the pound to depreciate by 14 percent in March, and the currency had been slipping more gradually in recent weeks ahead of Thursday's sudden fall.

In March, the pound was trading at 15.6 to the dollar. The central bank then raised interest rates for the first time since 2017, allowing Egypt's currency to fall sharply in an attempt to secure dwindling foreign exchange reserves. 

Ukraine war fallout 

Egypt has been one of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa hardest hit by the Russia-Ukraine war. It is the world's largest importer of wheat, with almost 80 percent of its supply coming from Russia and Ukraine last year. 

In its statement on Thursday, the bank said the conflict had "dire economic ramifications" and consequently led Egypt to weather large capital outflows.

The tourism sector, which employs 9.5 percent of Egypt's workforce, is also reliant on Russia and Ukraine, from where a third of all the tourists who visited the country in recent years have come.

The central bank also said on Thursday that by December it would gradually phase out a rule that mandated the use of letters of credit for import finance.

The rule, an effort to preserve scarce dollars, had caused a major slowdown in imports of everything from consumer goods to industrial components, and had left some basic commodities stuck at ports.

In May, MEE reported that Egyptians were stockpiling US dollars and buying gold, in order to diversify their investments following the hike in interest rates and the fall in the pound.

Saudi Arabia releases Pakistanis arrested for insulting officials in Medina

Thu, 10/27/2022 - 11:28
Saudi Arabia releases Pakistanis arrested for insulting officials in Medina
King Salman issues rare pardon after request made by Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif
Rayhan Uddin Thu, 10/27/2022 - 12:28
Saudi police arrested at least five people for “abusing and insulting” Pakistani officials at Masjid al-Nabawi in the holy city of Medina, Saudi Arabia on 29 April 2022 (Screengrab)
Saudi police arrested at least five people for “abusing and insulting” Pakistani officials at Masjid al-Nabawi in the holy city of Medina, Saudi Arabia on 29 April 2022 (Screengrab)

Saudi Arabia's king has pardoned six Pakistani nationals arrested earlier this year for insulting a government delegation from Pakistan at the Prophet's Mosque in Medina.

In April, Saudi police arrested at least five people for “abusing and insulting” Pakistani Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb and Minister for Narcotics Control Shahzain Bugti at Masjid al-Nabawi, the second holiest site in Islam. 

The two officials were part of a delegation visiting Saudi Arabia on Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s first foreign trip as Pakistan’s premier. 

Why Gulf leaders welcome Pakistan's return to the status quo
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Saudi Arabia’s King Salman “issued an order to pardon and release six Pakistani nationals who were arrested last Ramadan after they assaulted a Pakistani woman and her companions with offensive words at the courtyard premises of the Prophet’s Mosque,” a statement published on the Saudi Press Agency said on Wednesday.

It added that the pardon was granted in response to a request from the Pakistani prime minister. 

Saudi Arabia rarely issues royal pardons in political and security cases.

Sharif and 18 members of his family spent several years in exile in Saudi Arabia after his older brother Nawaz Sharif was deposed as prime minister in 1999 on charges of kidnapping, hijacking, and corruption. 

Imran Khan removal

Just weeks before the incident in April, former Prime Minister Imran Khan was controversially removed from office after losing a no-confidence vote on his leadership.

Medina’s police authority said at the time that the actions of those arrested “contradict the sanctity of the place and impact the safety of visitors and worshippers”. 

المقيمين الباكستانيين في المدينة المنورة يتهجمون على الوفد الباكستاني في ساحة المسجد النبوي، ويصفون أعضاءه ب"السارقين" pic.twitter.com/0cxQt1sp8w

— حذيفة فريد Huzaifah Farid (@PM_Huzaifah) April 28, 2022

The arrested expats were alleged to have been supporters of Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. 

Khan denied involvement in the incident but said that it was a reaction to the circumstances around his removal from office. 

“We are not asking the people to come out, it’s the public themselves coming out to protest as they are in pain and anger,” he said. 

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“A bunch of crooks [have been] imposed on Pakistan… therefore what happened at Masjid-al-Nabawi was a result of their deeds.”

While prime minister, during a visit of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman to Islamabad in 2019, Khan drew attention to the plight of 3,000 Pakistani prisoners in Saudi jails. 

The de facto Saudi leader agreed then to release 2,107 Pakistani prisoners with “immediate effect,” though the majority of those are still believed to be detained.

Mass arrests in West Bank as Israel siege on Nablus continues

Thu, 10/27/2022 - 11:01
Mass arrests in West Bank as Israel siege on Nablus continues
Youths among 40 detained by Israeli forces in sweeping military raids across the the occupied West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip
MEE staff Thu, 10/27/2022 - 12:01
Israeli soldiers stand guard in the Palestinian village of Huwara, south of Nablus in the occupied West Bank on 26 October 2022 (AFP)
Israeli soldiers stand guard in the Palestinian village of Huwara, south of Nablus in the occupied West Bank on 26 October 2022 (AFP)

Israeli troops arrested more than 40 Palestinians in sweeping military raids across the the occupied West Bank, Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip overnight on Thursday. 

The arrests focused on the town of Beit Ummar in the Hebron governorate, where 19 people were detained, including minors, according to the official Palestinian news agency Wafa. Others were held in Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem, Jenin and occupied East Jerusalem. 

Five fishermen were detained at dawn by the Israeli navy in al-Sudaniya, northern Gaza.

'Who are the terrorists?': How a new Palestinian generation is fighting occupation
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According to the Palestinian Prisoner’s Society, a high proportion of Thursday's arrests were children and young boys. 

The monitoring group said the escalation was a form of “collective punishment”, and included the re-arrest of several former prisoners.  

The campaign comes as Israeli forces continue their siege on Palestinians in Nablus for a third week, with roadblocks and checkpoints preventing vehicles from moving in and out of the governorate. 

The Israeli army says the measures were enforced to stop attacks against Israeli targets carried out by a newly-formed armed group in the city called the Lions' Den.

However, the Israeli army has been criticised for the closures, which have disrupted the lives of more than 200,000 Palestinians living in the area. 

"Restricting the movement of more than 200,000 Palestinians has paralysed life in the area, forcing hundreds of businesses to stop operating and harming the livelihoods of all their dependents," Israeli human rights group B'tselem said on Wednesday.

"Imposing the restrictions in full knowledge of the harm they would cause reflects Israeli decision-makers’ view that Palestinian subjects are lesser human beings. This is what apartheid looks like."

Rising death toll 

In recent months, Palestinians in the West Bank have faced increasing violence by Israeli forces not seen in years.

Near-daily raid-and-arrest operations have increased across the occupied Palestinian territories, which the Israeli army says are aimed at stamping out a resurgence of Palestinian armed resistance, particularly in the northern cities of Nablus and Jenin.

Earlier this week, Israeli army forces stormed Nablus with dozens of armoured vehicles and anti-tank guided missiles, in a three hour raid which killed five Palestinians, at least two of whom were unarmed.

It took the Palestinian death toll at the hands of Israeli forces and settlers this year to over 175 people, of whom more than 44 were killed in the last two months alone.

On Thursday, Defence for Children International published a report stating that 29 children have been killed by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem in 2022. 

"All of the children were killed after being shot with live ammunition in their upper extremities," the rights group said. "This is evidence of intentional killing."

Cop27: Egypt turns Sharm El-Sheikh into military fortress fearing possible dissent

Thu, 10/27/2022 - 11:01
Cop27: Egypt turns Sharm El-Sheikh into military fortress fearing possible dissent
Civilians have been harassed, shops asked to close, and residents without proper IDs told to return after the conference
Shahenda Naguib Thu, 10/27/2022 - 12:01
View of a Cop27 sign on the road leading to the conference area in Sharm el-Sheikh, 20 October 2022 (Reuters)

With less than three weeks until Egypt hosts the UN annual conference on climate change (Cop27) in Sharm el-Sheikh, residents say the South Sinai city and its surrounding areas have turned into what looks like "a warzone" with security measures allegedly aimed at securing the event.

The measures coincide with online calls for anti-government protests on 11 November, the sixth day of the climate summit due to be held in the Southern Sinai of Sharm el-Sheikh from 6 to 18 November.

'The amount of police and military in the city these days gives the impression that we are in a warzone'

- Narges, gym owner

The resort town is usually used by the Egyptian government to host peace talks and international conferences away from the busy Nile Delta.

On a regular day, getting to Sharm El-Sheikh is very difficult for Egyptians, even for those who work there or local tourists, due to the number of military checkpoints that stop all cars and search all passengers en route to the area.

Middle East Eye spoke to several residents of the city who cited restrictive security measures which have disrupted their lives, including cancellation of events, forcibly returning non-Sharm residents to their cities, tight surveillance at entrances and exits, and a notably increased number of plain-clothed policemen. 

Abanoub, an owner of a grocery and diving equipment shop, was forced to close his shop.

“I was approached by two officers who threatened me to close the shop for good due to lack of licences if I don’t close it now.”

Abanoub was told he can re-open after the conference is over. “November is a season for local tourism, and with the number of guests coming for the conference, it would have been a great chance to make good money.”  

The 34-year-old Abanoub told MEE that several other shops were given the same warning: close for the time of the conference or close forever. “Some of these shops have been operating for years, but there are no criteria.”

And whether having political opinions is linked to the closures, Abanoub said “none of these shop owners and workers and delivery boys know who the prime minister’s name is.”

egypt map sharm

Meanwhile, Narges, a gym owner who legally employs three African refugees in her business, was shocked to hear that her colleagues had to travel back to Cairo, where their refugee cards are registered. “They were stopped while they were getting their breakfast, and were put in a car and deported to Cairo. I tried to investigate the situation but could not even get the authorities to admit that the incident happened.”

“The amount of police and military in the city these days gives the impression that we are in a warzone,” the business owner who has been a resident of the city for 20 years said.

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While she was not approached by any authorities to close her business, Narges says she felt helpless toward her employees. “At the same time, I don’t want to escalate the situation, which might lead to them and myself being subjected to more injustice.”

ID checks

Aya, a student, resides in Dahab (an hour's drive from Sharm El-Sheikh) most of the year. She told MEE that she was stopped by the police while going home from her yoga class only to have her background checked. 

“I was confronted by the police that I was arrested once in 2014 in an anti-government protest. They also questioned me whether I plan to visit Sharm El-Sheikh, or have any tendency to protest.”

'This conference is just a big show of what the authorities want the foreigners to see: Egyptians living happily. But the reality is different'

- Aya, Dahab resident

While she was allowed to go to her house in Dahab, others were detained from the public transportation she was taking. “Four males who looked like they were construction workers were stopped and taken into the police van,” Aya said. 

“Escaping trauma, I have left Cairo in order not to witness such scenes of arrests and illegal harassment by the police. But it seems South Sinai will be militarised till the conference ends,” Aya said, adding that “this conference is just a big show of what the authorities want the foreigners to see: Egyptians living happily. But the reality is different.”

Hotels and hostels are fully booked in Sharm El-Sheikh due to the accommodations of hundreds of guests from all over the world on the occasion of Cop27. 

Two hotel workers told Middle East Eye that hotel police officers check all passports and all reservations, and every hotel has an on-duty National Security Agency (NSA) officer in the lobby to monitor the arrivals and departures of guests.

A French freelance journalist who spoke to Middle East Eye on condition of anonymity said that she arrived in Egypt days before the conference to spend time with her Egyptian partner and friends. In Dahab where she was staying, she was stopped by plainclothes policemen who refused to show their identity. 

“They asked me about my relationship with my boyfriend and told us that there are no hotels or campsites available in Dahab, and we, or rather only me, can come back during Cop27,” she said, adding that they had a different line of questioning for her partner, such as whether he was arrested before in any political protests. She also added that he was interrogated for an hour because he had memes about President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi in his phone gallery. 

Restrictions on protests

Being stopped by the police and having one’s phone searched is not new to Egyptians. Most recently, the technique was used in 2019 after calls for mass protests attracted widespread support. 

Even in Cairo and Egypt's main squares, MEE has heard several testimonies of policemen stopping civilians to check their social media interactions and phone gallery in the weeks leading to Cop27.

The crackdown in South Sinai comes amid warnings by Egyptian and international rights groups that the rules announced by the government regarding designated places for protests during Cop27 are a threat to safeguarding freedom of assembly, an essential component of the annual summit.

COP27: Say the names of Egypt's political prisoners
Read More »

Since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi ousted elected leader Mohamed Morsi in 2013, his government has banned demonstrations and jailed thousands for taking part in anti-government protests or sit-ins. 

In a recent communique, a number of independent UN experts said that a “Climate of fear” created by the Egyptian government will curtail the ability of Egyptian civil society groups to engage with Cop27.

The communique also warned against “lack of information and transparent accreditation criteria for Egyptian NGOs, a coordinated increase in hotel room rates, undue restrictions to freedom of peaceful assembly outside the conference venue, and unjustified delays in the provision of visas to those travelling from abroad.”

MEE approached the UN Egypt office for a comment but has not received a response at the time of writing.

A spokesperson of the office of Major General Khaled Fouda, governor of South Sinai, told Middle East Eye that “any allegations about Egypt’s ban on demonstrations in Sharm El-Sheikh during the Cop27 is untrue”, stressing that the city includes an area where demonstrations are allowed. 

The official said a large space will be dedicated to civilians and guests to practice their right to protest, adding that there will be “cafeterias, restaurants, and places for people to sit, talk, and have beverages to preserve the civilised image of the country.”

The official however refused to answer any security-related questions, referring MEE to the security directorate which was not available for comment. 

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In a televised interview with pro-government presenter Ahmed Moussa, Fouda said he had received 60 delegations from foreign embassies, whose questions revolved around the issue of allowing demonstrations. He added that “whoever wants to demonstrate [can] carry their own banner in the area designated for that. We [the officials] allow the matter, but if they make mistakes [break the law] such a situation is not allowed.”

‘Ruthless’ security

A tribal source in one of South Sinai’s biggest families told MEE that security forces have met with them in recent weeks to intensify cooperation, enhance intelligence, and stop any “militant infiltrators from the mountains.” 

“Egyptian security is ruthless when it comes to securing international conferences. Middle-aged and elderly tribe members and their families remember how brutal the regime was when it cracked down on civilians after the 2005 Sharm el-Sheikh bombings.”

'What you say is happening now [random searches and harassments] is a cakewalk to what used to happen before'

- Tribal source, South Sinai

The bombings at the time were claimed by the Abdullah Azzam Brigades, which was one of the first militant groups to operate in Sinai. Eighty-eight people were killed.

The tribesman himself was detained for seven months and was tortured to confess his relation to the militants, but was released in the end. 

“What you say is happening now [random searches and harassments] is a cakewalk to what used to happen before,” the tribal source told MEE adding that a lot of the tribes are collaborating with the security apparatuses in order to prevent any attacks or dissent because they will be held as “scapegoats if anything happens.”

Since 2011, few militant operations have reached South Sinai, as most of the insurgency has and still taking place in North and central Sinai. Following the retreat of Israeli forces from Sinai after the 1979 peace treaty, Egypt’s military intelligence services intensified cooperation and economic integration of South Sinai tribes unlike tribes in the North. 

The last attack in South Sinai, where Sharm El-Sheikh is located, took place in 2017 near the St. Catherine's Monastery where gunmen attacked security forces killing two officers and injuring five. 

Israel and Lebanon officially sign 'historic' maritime border deal

Thu, 10/27/2022 - 10:30
Israel and Lebanon officially sign 'historic' maritime border deal
Lebanese officials say its delegation will not be in the same room as the Israeli side, and the two parties would not even sign the same piece of paper

MEE staff Thu, 10/27/2022 - 11:30
US mediatorAmos Hochstein and Lebanon's President Michel Aoun pose for a picture as they hold a letter at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon 27 October 2022 (Reuters)
US mediator Amos Hochstein, left, and Lebanon's President Michel Aoun pose for a picture as they hold a letter at the presidential palace in Baabda, Beirut, on 27 October 2022 (Reuters)

Lebanon and Israel signed a maritime border agreement on Thursday, paving the way for lucrative offshore gas extraction by the neighbours, which remain technically at war.

The US-brokered deal, hailed by President Joe Biden as a "historic breakthrough", comes as western powers clamour to open up new gas production and reduce vulnerability to supply cuts from Russia.

A letter approving the deal was first signed by Lebanese President Michel Aoun in Beirut and then by Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid in Jerusalem. 

Lapid claimed that Lebanon's signing of the deal amounted to a de-facto recognition of Israel.

"It is not every day that an enemy state recognises the state of Israel, in a written agreement, in front of the entire international community," he said, shortly before a special cabinet meeting in which the deal was signed. 

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In a palace statement after he signed the agreement, Aoun said the deal would have "no political dimensions or impacts that contradict Lebanon's foreign policy."

Speaking from the presidential palace, Lebanon's top negotiator and deputy prime minister Elias Bou Saab said the agreement marked the beginning of "a new era". 

A letter exchange is due to take place later in Naqura, southern Lebanon, in the presence of US mediator Amos Hochstein and the UN's special coordinator for Lebanon Joanna Wronecka.

'[The Lebanese delegation] will not... meet the Israeli delegation'

- Rafic Chelala, Lebanese presidency spokesman

"The agreement... will take the form of two exchanges of letters, one between Lebanon and the United States, and one between Israel and the United States," said Stephane Dujarric, spokesman for the UN Secretary General.

Lebanon, which has fought a series of wars with Israel, said it would not allow its delegation to be in the same room as the Israeli side, and the two parties would not even sign the same piece of paper.

Rafic Chelala, a spokesman for the Lebanese presidency, confirmed that the Lebanese delegation "will not... meet the Israeli delegation". 

The deal comes as Lebanon seeks to extract itself from what the World Bank calls one of the worst economic crises in modern world history, and as Lapid seeks to lock in a major achievement days ahead of a general election on 1 November.

Hochstein said on Thursday that he expected the agreement to hold even amid changes in leadership in both countries.

The US mediator was referring to both the upcoming Israeli elections and the end of Aoun's term on 31 October, saying the agreement should be kept up "regardless of who is elected very soon as next president of Lebanon".

No quick returns

Israel on Tuesday gave London-based company Energean permission to begin producing gas from Karish, an offshore field at the heart of the border agreement. 

Lebanon meanwhile will have full rights to operate and explore the so-called Qana or Sidon reservoir, parts of which fall in Israel's territorial waters, with Israel receiving some of the revenues.

Lebanon-Israel maritime deal

With the demand for gas rising worldwide because of an energy crisis sparked by Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Lebanon hopes that an offshore discovery would ease its financial and economic crisis.

But analysts caution that it will take time for production to start in Lebanese waters, meaning no quick returns for a country that is desperately short of foreign exchange reserves. 

Exploration has so far only been tentative. A 2012 seismic study of a limited offshore area by the British firm Spectrum estimated recoverable gas reserves in Lebanon at 25.4 trillion cubic feet, although authorities in Lebanon have announced higher estimates. 

The deal could not have been signed without the consent of the Lebanese movement Hezbollah, which threatened over the summer to attack Israel if it began extracting gas from the Karish field before reaching an agreement.

Lapid said on Thursday that the deal "strengthens and fortifies Israel's security and freedom of action against Hezbollah and the threats from the north".

Qatar World Cup 2022: Spanish fan walking to tournament goes missing in Iran

Wed, 10/26/2022 - 20:03
Qatar World Cup 2022: Spanish fan walking to tournament goes missing in Iran
Santiago Sanchez was last seen 1 October in a picture on the Iraq-Iran border with the heading: “Entry to Iran”
MEE staff Wed, 10/26/2022 - 21:03
The Lusail Stadium, the 80,000-capacity venue which will host the FIFA World Cup final in December, on the outskirts of Qatar's capital Doha, on 11 August 2022 (AFP)

A 41-year-old Spanish football fan who set out to walk to Qatar to attend the World Cup in November has gone missing in Iran, Spain's foreign ministry has confirmed.

Santiago Sanchez was last seen on 1 October after sending his friends a picture of himself on the Iraq-Iran border with the heading: “Entry to Iran”.

Sanchez’s parents in Madrid told Spanish media that their son was likely arrested in Iran.

"A 99 percent chance that he is in a prison in Iran, but the [Spanish] embassy has told my daughter that until they go to the prison to see him and have the permission of the Iranian government, they cannot give that news," his mother Celia said.

Police have asked the parents to provide dental records, personal items such as a toothbrush, and photos of Santiago's tattoos, which they will send to Interpol, she explained.

Spain's foreign ministry confirmed Sanchez was in Iran. The Spanish embassy in Tehran is seeking information on his whereabouts to provide him with consular services.

"The embassy is in permanent contact with the Iranian authorities since it was made aware of the disappearance,” the embassy said in a statement.

Sanchez left Madrid in January, backpacking through Europe on his way to Turkey and Iraq.

He told Reuters in Zakho in Iraqi Kurdistan last month that he hoped he might meet the Spanish team and inspire them to victory in the 2022 World Cup.

"If you don't set a date for your dreams, you don't realise them," he said.

War of words escalates between US and Saudi Arabia over Opec+ cut

Wed, 10/26/2022 - 18:41
War of words escalates between US and Saudi Arabia over Opec+ cut
Saudi officials trumpet nationalist interest at investment conference, while US Secretary of State equates oil production cut with aid to Ukraine
MEE staff Wed, 10/26/2022 - 19:41
Saudi Arabia's Minister of Energy Abdulaziz bin Salman
Saudi Arabia's Minister of Energy Abdulaziz bin Salman gestures during a panel as part of the annual Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in the Saudi capital Riyadh, on October 25, 2022 (AFP)

Saudi Arabia's "positive" steps towards Ukraine are not enough to make up for the kingdom's backing of an Opec+ decision to cut oil production, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday.

The Opec+ group of oil-producing countries infuriated US President Joe Biden when it decided to slash production by two million barrels a day starting in November, putting pressure on consumer prices ahead of US midterm elections in November while boosting revenues for Russia.

The Biden administration publicly accused the Saudi-led Opec+ group of "aligning" with Russia. The kingdom has defended the decision to cut production as necessary to spur investment in fossil fuels and support prices amid fears of a slumping global economy.

'We're looking at it from a Western point of view and the rest of the world needs to adapt. No, it doesn't work like that'

- Amin Nasser, chief executive of Saudi Arabian Oil Co

Blinken acknowledged that Saudi Arabia had since voted with the United States to condemn Moscow's annexations of Ukrainian territory and has announced $400 million in humanitarian aid for Ukraine. 

"So these are positive developments. They don't compensate for the decision that was made by Opec+ on production. But we take note of that," Blinken said at a Bloomberg News event.

Blinken's comments come as Saudi Arabia hosts its premier investment conference - dubbed "Davos in the Desert".

The kingdom snubbed US officials from attending the event, which has previously been attended by leading US businesspeople including JP Morgan's Jamie Dimon, Blackstone co-founder Stephen Schwarzman, and David Solomon, head of Goldman Sachs.

Saudi officials have used their platform at the event to counter the US narrative that it had betrayed Washington with the production cut.

'We are for Saudi Arabia'

Amin Nasser, chief executive of Saudi Arabian Oil Co, the state-owned energy giant, echoed recent criticism from Qatari officials that blamed rising energy prices on largely Western efforts to cut investment in fossil fuels and to push green energy alternatives.

"We're looking at it from a Western point of view, and the rest of the world needs to adapt. No, it doesn't work like that," Nasser said.

In pointed remarks, Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman, the kingdom's energy minister, also blasted the notion that the kingdom had to justify the Opec+ decision to the US.

"I keep listening, are you with us or against us? Is there any room for 'We are for Saudi Arabia and for the people of Saudi Arabia?'" he said to applause at the investor conference.

Outraged US looks for ways to break up Opec, reassess Saudi ties
Read More »

Asked about getting the decades-old partnership between Riyadh and Washington back on track, he said: "I think we as Saudi Arabia decided to be the maturer guys and let the dice fall."

The Opec+ decision came despite heavy lobbying from the US against the move, and after Biden's visit to the kingdom in July. Biden, who faced heavy criticism from members of his Democratic Party over the trip, cast the visit as necessary to obtain an oil production increase from Saudi Arabia.

Biden as a candidate vowed to shun Riyadh over human rights abuses, including the killing of US-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate.

'Nothing in the analysis'

On Wednesday, Blinken reiterated that Saudi Arabia had made "the wrong decision" to back the production cut, and dismissed its argument that it was responding to market dynamics. 

"There was nothing to suggest in the analysis that we had - and it was shared with the Saudis - that we were looking at prices plummeting in ways that would be problematic for them," Blinken said.

The administration has been left scrambling to limit the fallout of the Opec+ cut ahead of midterm elections, in which Biden’s Democrats are expected to perform poorly. The administration has already tapped the US strategic oil stockpile for 15 mn barrels of crude.

Oil prices drop as Opec+ cuts compete with recessionary outlook
Read More »

"Losing emergency stocks may be painful in the months to come," Prince Adbulaziz said on Tuesday, in a veiled warning that governments were trying to manipulate energy prices. 

US gasoline prices have remained relatively flat since the Opec+ cut. According to AAA, the national price for a gallon of gasoline stood at $3.76 on Wednesday, up slightly from last month's $3.72.

Blinken again said that the Biden administration was reassessing its relationship with Saudi Arabia, without giving details.

"We're going to do it in a very deliberate fashion, in consultation with members of Congress to make sure of this, that the relationship better reflects our own interests," he said.

What US mainstream media gets wrong about the ‘LGBTQ+ book ban’ in Dearborn

Wed, 10/26/2022 - 18:24
What US mainstream media gets wrong about the ‘LGBTQ+ book ban’ in Dearborn
Dearborn parents argue that their issue is not with members of the LGBTQ+ community, but rather with books depicting sexually explicit content
Zainab Iqbal Wed, 10/26/2022 - 19:24
Demonstrators who support the removal of books that contain sexually explicit content gather during a protest outside of the Henry Ford Centennial Library in Dearborn, Michigan, on 25 September 2022 (AFP)

Ayah was one of the hundreds of parents who attended a school board meeting in Dearborn last week to voice her concerns about having books in school libraries that depict sexually explicit acts, both in graphics and words.

Though she did not speak at the meeting, she silently stood with her friends, her heart filled with anger. She recalled how a journalist approached her and asked her why she was there. “Why does it seem like Muslims have an issue with the LGBTQ+ community?” the journalist asked her. 

Ayah walked away. 

“I wish I could scream this from the rooftops. We Muslims do not have a problem with gay people! You can be gay, you can be transexual, you can be bisexual. I do not care,” she told Middle East Eye over the phone Wednesday morning. “We Muslims have a problem with what is being shown in these books. We have a problem with the books. We don’t have a problem with you!”

'We wouldn’t have Playboy or Hustler in our school libraries'

- Amy Doukoure, Cair

Ayah said it isn’t hard to understand why the majority of news stories in mainstream media are pitting Muslims against the LGBTQ+ community, as Muslims are always portrayed as the bad guys and it’s the easy way out. 

The chaos erupted after the Dearborn school district temporarily restricted access to seven books after parents raised concerns that the books contained sexually explicit content. But parents told MEE that the narrative from the media has since changed, with them turning it into an issue with the LGBTQ+ community.

Moustafa, who like Ayah didn’t want his last name used for fear that people will criticise him, has lived in Dearborn his entire life. He loves it so much that he continues to stay and raise his children there. After all, Dearborn is home to one of the largest Arab communities in the US, making up nearly 47 percent of the city's overall population. 

Unsure who took the photo, but this is from one of the books Muslims are protesting in Dearborn. After explicit sections on how to engage in various sexual activities, this section completely skewers Islamic law, with a crude punchline, and then misrepresents that Qur'anic verse. pic.twitter.com/VCcMLcGS4P

— Heraa H. (@caveheraa) October 22, 2022

It saddens Moustafa when people don’t understand that the contents of the books he is trying to get removed are content that “no child should have to read”, he said.

“One of the books describes a sexual act. It is very explicit and very detailed. It shows graphic images as well as oral sex. How is that in any way appropriate?” he told MEE. “People can go be lesbians or gay. It’s not allowed in Islam, but what can we do about it? That’s not what we are calling for. We don’t want these books read by our children. What is so hard to understand?”

Muslims 'not at war' with LGBTQ+ community

Last week, The Guardian published a piece about the Dearborn protests, titled: “Conservative Muslims join forces with Christian right on Michigan book bans”. The article said: “A recent school board meeting at which about 1,000 people gathered in Dearborn, Michigan, to pressure district officials to censor books with LGBTQ+ themes was in most ways similar to hundreds of other recent book ban hearings across the US."

In an article by the Detroit Free Press, one paragraph describes a Muslim woman as "cloaked in a robe" when it says, "As he spoke, some in the crowd held up signs denouncing books and educational materials in the public schools that they believe are too explicit for children. 'Stop brainwash[ing] our children,' read the sign of a woman cloaked in a robe."

An article by Firstpost included the headline which began with, “Muslims don’t want LGBTQ+ books in schools.”

According to the parents, they are not pushing to censor books with LGBTQ+ themes. They are pushing to censor books that contain sexually explicit content, whether in text or visually, something that has been done before in other school districts. Some of those seven books the parents are trying to get removed from their school libraries just happen to include LGBTQ+ references or are written by authors that identify as LGBTQ+, parents told MEE.

The books in question contain “extremely graphic depictions and descriptions of sexual activity. These sexual acts include oral sex, sodomy and group masturbation (among teenagers), as well as step-by-step instructions and images explaining how to engage in various acts,” the Council on American-Islamic Relations (Cair) Michigan said in a statement.  

When concerned parents wanted to know their rights and what they could do to raise their concerns, they reached out to Cair.

“The mainstream media has portrayed this as an issue with the LGBTQ+ community. But this is not an issue in regards to authors or protagonists. It’s about the sexual nature of the books,” Amy Doukoure, the staff attorney at Cair Michigan, told MEE. 

There are several books and series that have already been “banned” from Dearborn public schools. Such books include the Fifty Shades of Grey series and the Game of Thrones series. These books are not eligible to be placed in the Dearborn school libraries because of the sexual content that is included. 

“The books these parents are trying to get removed are deplorable. They are books no parent of a 14-year-old would want them to read,” Doukoure said. “We wouldn’t have Playboy or Hustler in our school libraries.”

Doukoure believes this kind of bad journalism harms Muslims. She said that this is something that is a grassroots effort, not by Republicans or right-wing influencers, but led by parents in Dearborn. 

'They are books no parent of a 14-year-old would want them to read'

- Amy Doukoure, Cair

“The way the media portrays this, makes Muslims look like they are at war with the LGBTQ+ community. This is not about sexual orientation or gender identity. It plays on orientalist tropes of Muslims being homophobic,” she said.

“By painting this as an issue aimed at one group of people in a discriminatory fashion, it creates this divide among the community members who live together as neighbours and friends and colleagues. And it is not fair for them to do that just because it’s politically prudent for them to do so.”

Abdullah Hammoud, Dearborn’s Arab and Muslim mayor, took to social media to issue a statement saying that no book would be removed from the school shelves.

“The same dangerous ideology that once considered people like me ‘a problem’ in Dearborn is now being revived under the guise of preserving ‘liberty’,” he wrote.

“Our libraries serve as a gateway to knowledge, a gateway to imagination, and a gateway to possibility. When it comes to our city’s libraries, for the sake of our children, no book will be removed off the shelves.”

Iran: Fifteen people killed in shrine attack claimed by Islamic State

Wed, 10/26/2022 - 18:21
Iran: Fifteen people killed in shrine attack claimed by Islamic State
State media reports say three armed men carried out attack on Shah Cheragh Shrine in Shiraz
MEE staff Wed, 10/26/2022 - 19:21
Armed men opened fire at the Shah Cheragh in Shiraz in southern Iran, on 26 October 2022.
Armed men opened fire at the Shah Cheragh Shrine in Shiraz in southern Iran, on 26 October 2022 (Wikimedia Commons/File photo)

At least 15 people have been killed in an attack on a Shia religious shrine in the southern Iranian city of Shiraz, several Iranian state outlets have reported, and the Islamic State (IS) has claimed responsibility for it.

The attack, which took place at the Shah Cheragh Shrine early on Wednesday evening, was carried out by three armed men who entered the shrine, the reports said.

State TV, which said at least 19 people had also been wounded, blamed the attack on "takfiris", a term used by predominantly Shia Muslim Iran to refer to hardline, armed, Sunni Islamist groups.

Nour News, a media outlet close to Iran's Supreme National Security Council, claimed that the attackers "do not have Iranian nationality".

IS later claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement on their telegram channel, according to Reuters.

Shiraz, located in south-central Iran, is a popular tourism and pilgrimage destination. The last such attack to take place there was in April 2008, when a bomb planted in a mosque killed 14 people.

Iran's President Ebrahim Raisi said on Wednesday that the attack would not go unanswered.

"Experience shows that Iran's enemies, after failing to create a split in the nation's united ranks, take revenge through violence and terror," Raisi said.

"This evil will definitely not go unanswered, and the security and law enforcement agencies will teach a lesson to those who designed the attack."

IRGC member shot dead

The attack comes as Iran continues to face protests since the September death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died after she was detained by the country’s morality police for wearing an "improper hijab".

Riot police deployed as thousands gather to mark 40 days since Mahsa Amini's death
Read More »

Wednesday marked 40 days since Amini died, with thousands of people gathering in her hometown in the northwest of Iran.

In a separate incident from Wednesday's attack, a member of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) was shot dead "by rioters" in the western city of Malayer, according to Irna, Iran's state news agency.

"One of the members of the Revolutionary Guard's intelligence organisation based in Malayer, Hamadan province, was killed by a direct bullet shot by some of the riots' leaders in the province," Irna said.

Saudi Arabian wealth fund eyes $24bn investment in Arab states

Wed, 10/26/2022 - 16:44
Saudi Arabian wealth fund eyes $24bn investment in Arab states
The Public Investment Fund chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman plans to open five offices across the region in bid for influence and investment
MEE staff Wed, 10/26/2022 - 17:44
Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman speaks during the Future Investment Initiative (FII) conference in a virtual session in the capital Riyadh, 28 January 2021 (AFP)

Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) plans to invest $24bn across the Arab world, as the kingdom looks to boost its influence in the region.

The PIF said in a statement it would set up companies in Iraq, Jordan, Bahrain, Oman and Sudan to invest in industries ranging from infrastructure and manufacturing to healthcare and food.

The decision follows the PIF's establishment of a company in Egypt earlier this summer to facilitate new investments. The PIF acquired $1.3bn-worth of minority stakes in some of Egypt's most prominent sectors, including fertiliser and technology companies.

Egypt: Sale of state assets to Saudi and UAE wealth funds divides opinion
Read More »

Egypt has emerged as a prime example of energy-rich Gulf states stepping in with investments in neighbours whose economies have been battered by the global economic downturn and the war in Ukraine.

Emirati investments in Egypt more than doubled during the first half of the 2021-2022 fiscal year. Meanwhile, Qatar has pledged to inject $5bn dollars in the struggling North African country.

While the investments have been welcomed by the indebted government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, they have drawn the ire of some who believe Cairo is selling out national assets after spending big on arms purchases and the construction of a lavish new capital city.

'Not charity'

Besides shoring up their neighbours, analysts say Gulf states are looking to profit from the acquisitions.

"Investments from the Gulf have been a lifesaver to the Egyptian economy, but Egypt is also a good place to do business," Mirette Mabrouk, founding director of the Middle East Institute's Egypt programme, told MEE.

"This money isn’t charity - it's investments, and the Gulf expects to make their money back."

The countries where Saudi Arabia plans to open new investment offices have been hit by geopolitical instability and global economic headwinds.

Egypt and Qatar find 'synergies' in post-Ukraine Middle East
Read More »

Unemployment in energy-poor Jordan is at 24 percent, and double that for the kingdom's youth. Sudan has seen international aid dry up after the military's ousting of a democratic transition government. Iraq has been beset with political tensions.

"[The new subsidiaries] will contribute to an increase in regional investment opportunities for PIF's portfolio companies and Saudi Arabia's private sector, bolstering attractive financial returns over the long term, and creating more avenues for strategic economic collaboration with the private sector in the target countries as well as enabling the Saudi private sector," the PIF said in a statement.

The wealth fund is chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and has emerged as the main vehicle for his attempts to overhaul the kingdom's oil-dependent economy. This summer it purchased $7bn of shares in US companies including Starbucks, Zoom and Microsoft.

The fund was the world's second-most active state investor between January and October, according to the wealth fund tracker Global SWF. The PIF plans to grow its $620 billion in assets to more than $1tn by 2025.

Congress needs to rein in foreign influence in US think tanks, experts say

Wed, 10/26/2022 - 15:19
Congress needs to rein in foreign influence in US think tanks, experts say
Several bills in US Congress, if passed, could increase transparency around foreign funding, much of which stems from countries in the Middle East
Umar A Farooq Wed, 10/26/2022 - 16:19
There are currently several bills introduced in Congress to increase transparency around the foreign money given to think tanks.
There have been several bills introduced in Congress to increase transparency around foreign money given to think tanks (AFP/File photo)

With foreign influence in the United States becoming a rising issue ahead of a pivotal midterm election, experts say Congress needs to rein in the foreign funding of think tanks, much of which stems from Gulf states in the Middle East.

During a webinar hosted by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, experts on foreign influence operations raised concerns about how think tanks in Washington play an "outsized role" in shaping US foreign policy, despite many receiving money from foreign governments.

"It's really crucial right now in an era when public trust in institutions is slipping," said Eli Clifton, an investigative journalist with the Quincy Institute.

"And think tanks, if they fail to take steps to bring themselves in line with how academia, journalism science, scientific research is conducted in terms of those ethical standards, they may teeter on the brink of becoming perceived or in reality, an extension of the dark money politics that have increasingly defined the modern political debate."

Hundreds of retired US military officers cash in with jobs for Saudi Arabia, UAE, say reports
Read More »

In July, one of the most prominent think tanks in the country, the Brookings Institution, had to cut ties with its president, retired US Marine General John Allen, after it was revealed that he was under investigation over alleged illegal lobbying for Qatar.

A 2020 report by the Center for International Policy found that out of the $174m in foreign funding poured into US think tanks, several countries in the Middle East were among the top benefactors.

The United Arab Emirates and Qatar were among the top ten countries donating to these organisations, donating $15.4m and $8.5m respectively, according to the report. Morocco, meanwhile, was included in the top 20 countries, with donations totalling $2.8m.

Most think tanks organised as nonprofits are not obliged to disclose their funding, though some do so voluntarily.

Earlier this month, The Washington Post released two long-term investigative reports showing that hundreds of retired US military officers were using their work experience to cash in on lucrative jobs and contracts with Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

The reports found that 280 military retirees sought authorisation to work for the UAE, either as military contractors or consultants, and the highest-ranking officer was retired General Jim Mattis, who served as former President Donald Trump's secretary of defence.

Recent polling from Cast from Clay, a UK-based public relations firm, found that think tanks ranked among the lowest when it comes to the US public's trust in various institutions.

Only 48 percent of people polled found think tank experts to be "valuable to society", while an even lower 15 percent of those polled trusted think tank experts to come up with ideas to improve the country.

Katy Murray, insights and relationships lead at Cast from Clay, noted during the webinar that other experts who were more trusted included universities and local community groups - institutions that generally have more connection to the public.

"Regular citizens don't really have a kind of connection to think tanks. And I think that we would say that this is an important part of the piece," Murray said.

Unintended consequences

There are currently several pieces of legislation that have been introduced to either curb the foreign money given to these think tanks or increase the transparency around this funding.

Last November, Republican Congressman Jim Banks introduced a bill seeking to close a longstanding loophole and require experts giving congressional testimony to disclose foreign contributions that their employers receive.

'There's no such thing as a think tank in the law'

- Nicholas Robinson, International Center for Not-for-Profit Law

In June this year, a bipartisan group of lawmakers introduced legislation that would impose a lifetime ban on members of Congress, senior military leaders and senior executive branch officials from lobbying for a foreign government or political party.

The legislation, led by Democrat Congressman Jared Golden, would also compel tax-exempt groups, including think tanks, to disclose large monetary donations and gifts from foreign powers.

These bills, if passed, would help to curb the use of foreign funding in the think tank sphere.

But Nicholas Robinson, senior legal advisor at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law, said that they could have unintended consequences given that any legislation would have to target all non-profits as a whole, because that is how think tanks are categorised.

"There's no such thing as a think tank in the law," Robinson said during the webinar.

"So you're not just regulating think tanks, but also environmental advocacy groups, trafficking groups, pro-life groups, pro-choice groups, potentially religious organisations, humanitarian organisations, and I think there's a real danger in some of these proposals."

Washington

Qatar World Cup 2022: Negative Covid tests no longer required

Wed, 10/26/2022 - 15:13
Qatar World Cup 2022: Negative Covid tests no longer required
Visitors to Qatar will no longer be required to present a negative PCR or antigen test
MEE staff Wed, 10/26/2022 - 16:13
A picture shows a view of the main ticket centre for Qatar's FIFA football World Cup, with a mural of its mascot "La'eeb", in the capital Doha on 16 October 2022 (AFP)

Spectators at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar will no longer have to show a negative Covid test to enter the country, Qatar's public health ministry announced Wednesday.

The new changes to Covid tests no longer being compulsory will take effect on 1 November, which is 20 days before the start of the FIFA World Cup.

Qatar World Cup 2022: Where will the games be played? How do you get to the stadiums?
Read More »

According to the public health ministry statement, citizens and residents of Qatar are no longer required to take a rapid antigen test or PCR test within 24 hours following arrival in Qatar. Visitors are also no longer required to present a negative Covid-19 PCR or rapid antigen test result before travelling to Qatar.

Spectators are still urged to follow standard precautionary measures to reduce the risk of Covid infection. 

This update comes just one month after it was announced that spectators in Qatar would not be required to be vaccinated against Covid-19, but would have had to present a negative test to fly to the country, the government and the Supreme Organising Committee said.

"People arriving in Qatar are not required to quarantine, regardless of their vaccination status or their country of origin," the organisers added.

Qatar, the first Muslim-majority country to host the tournament, expects 1.2 million visitors for the 20 November - 18 December event, and has been rolling out announcements in recent weeks.

Saudi Arabia detains Egyptian publisher participating in Riyadh Book Fair

Wed, 10/26/2022 - 15:04
Saudi Arabia detains Egyptian publisher participating in Riyadh Book Fair
Ahmed Diouf has lost contact with family and friends since his detention, with an online hashtag calling for disclosing his whereabouts
MEE staff Wed, 10/26/2022 - 16:04
Ahmed Diouf was arrested by Saudi authorities from inside one of Riyadh International Book Fair's events on 8 October 2022 (Social media)

Saudi authorities arrested an Egyptian publisher who was taking part in the Riyadh International Book Fair earlier this month and his whereabouts remain unknown to his family and friends, according to local reports.

On 8 October, the last day of the Riyadh Book Fair, Ahmed Diouf was arrested by Saudi security services while participating as the co-founder and representative of Kotopia, an independent publishing house.

Ibrahim Ahmed Essa, the director of Kotopia, raised the issue of his arrest and disappearance in a Facebook post on 23 October, saying everyone avoided publishing about it for fear of repercussions against Diouf in a Saudi jail.

Essa said that Diouf was representing Egypt at the Riyadh International Book Fair and that they had informed the Publishers' Association, the Egyptian embassy in Riyadh, the Egyptian Presidency, the Cabinet, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs offices about his arrest.

"We also asked the fair management, and they did not have any information," he wrote.

Essa added: "Until now, no official response has clarified where Ahmed is?! What is the reason for his arrest? He was in an international exhibition representing the Arab Republic of Egypt!"

Egypt confirms arrest

According to Mada Masr news website, the Egyptian foreign ministry told Diouf's family that he was under arrest and facing an investigation in Saudi Arabia.

Egypt's foreign ministry official did not explain the accusations against Diouf, Mada Masr reported.

Egypt: Sisi pardons imprisoned former parliamentarian Zyad el-Elaimy
Read More »

Riyadh International Book Fair 2022 is an annual event, this year held between 29 September and 8 October.

Kotopia publishing house, in which Diouf acted as its director of international book fairs, was participating as part of the Egyptian pavilion.

Kotopia said in a statement that: "We understand the desire of many to know the details in order to be reassured and provide assistance.

"We follow all available official channels and are keen to choose our steps to ensure the safety and freedom of our friend."

Mada Masr reported that this was the third visit of Diouf to Saudi Arabia and that he was apolitical, while Kotopia house does not publish contemporary political or religious books but fiction, thrillers, and historical ones.

Family and friends of Diouf have launched an online hashtag "Where is Diouf" calling for the disclosure of his whereabouts.

Israel elections: Increasingly far-right youth gives an insight into future

Wed, 10/26/2022 - 14:30
Israel elections: Increasingly far-right youth gives an insight into future
As many young Israelis cast their first ballots for politicians like Itamar Ben-Gvir, parties on the left are predicted to do even worse in years to come
Lily Galili Wed, 10/26/2022 - 15:30
Itamar Ben-Gvir is greeted by his supporters during a campaign rally in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon on 25 October (AFP)
Itamar Ben-Gvir is greeted by his supporters during a campaign rally in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, on 25 October 2022 (AFP)

Two sectors - or rather age groups - are about to decide the outcome of Israel’s 1 November parliamentary elections: first-time voters and Russian-speaking youth.

This is the fifth round of polls in three years, so the majority of those heading to the ballots for the first time will be 18-year-olds. In the long run, they are the citizens who will form the future of Israel and thus have an impact on the Middle East.  

The numbers are surprisingly high: according to the Israeli Central Elections Committee, 209,000 first timers (whose votes will count towards about five out of 120 seats in parliament in Israel's proportional system) joined the Israeli voting cohort between the fourth round in March 2021 and the upcoming round. About 165,000 of these are Jewish voters. Among them are recently recruited soldiers and their orthodox peers who stay away from military service. They share little in Israeli everyday life; they share a lot as a political cohort. Both tend towards the right or radical right - or, in other words are part of what is now known as “Bibi’s bloc”.

A supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu wears a hat displaying the Likud party slogan at a campaign event in the run up to Israel's elections in Ramat Gan (Reuters)
A supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu wears a hat displaying the Likud party slogan at a campaign event in Ramat Gan, in the run-up to Israel's elections (Reuters)

The orthodox first timers are solid and dedicated. They follow their rabbis’ orders, and the rabbis say Benjamin Netanyahu. Likud officials in charge of the election campaign, and more importantly election day, trust them as dedicated volunteers just happy to get away from the holy books and bring orthodox voters to the ballots. Yet even that well-established routine now comes with a twist: Itamar Ben-Gvir, the far-right MP of the Religious Zionism party, fascinates quite significant numbers of those youths.

//--> //--> //-->

In many ways, he is what they would like to be, and cannot. Even if they choose to violate the rabbis’ instructions and vote for him, their vote remains in the family, meaning in Netanyahu’s bloc. After all, Netanyahu helped get Ben-Gvir into parliament and now has vowed to make him a legitimate and influential member of the next government, if he gets to form it. Ben-Gvir wants the position of minister of public security, and he might get it.

In a recent poll of Russian-speaking Israeli voters, Religious Zionism - the most radical right-wing party in these elections - thrives

The voting patterns of their non-orthodox first-timer peers are more diverse, but not significantly so. Research conducted in July by Midgam, a major Israeli research company, examined voting patterns of voters aged 18 to 25, to see what Israeli politics would look like if this age group was the only one to vote. In that case, Netanyahu’s bloc, which encompasses the far right and ultra-orthodox parties, would get 71 seats in parliament. Forty-six percent of respondents define themselves as “right”, 16 percent as “centre right”, and only 10 percent as “left”. Meretz, the only Zionist party that defines itself as “left”, fails to cross the electoral threshold. Prophesizing is a risky business in the Middle East, but that allows a peek into the future, way beyond 1 November.

Even before that scenario prevails, an unprecedented minor phenomenon captures the spirit of the changing politics in Israel: about 100,000 voters, most of them young, still define themselves as “floating vote”, meaning they have not made up their minds whether to vote for Benny Gantz, the ex-army chief who leads the National Unity Party, or Ben-Gvir, a man so racist the military refused to recruit him.

Generational change

The second group we turn to is the Russian-speaking youth.

For three decades, immigrants from the former Soviet Union were considered the kingmakers in Israeli elections. Now, for the first time since the onset of this huge wave of immigration, the Arab vote is now perceived as the decisive factor in the upcoming elections. Still, the 15 potential seats that the Russian-speaking community's vote can deliver can make a big difference. The politicians to best understand it are Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, finance minister and head of Yisrael Beiteinu, which is still perceived as a “Russian” party.

Meet the right-wing youth who are going to shape Israel’s future
Read More »

What both of them seem to miss, however, is the “change of guards” seen when we compare the views of the 720,000 voters born in former Soviet states to the 310,000 children born to them in Israel and now eligible to vote.  Those children tend to vote differently from their parents’ generation. Less sectarian interests motivate their vote, and the “national interest” translates into support for more radical right-wing politics.

A recent poll presented for the first time here and conducted exclusively for One Million Lobby, an advocacy group for Russian-speaking Israelis, provides another look at the upcoming elections and beyond. It is not necessarily good news. Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu still lead with almost five seats each; Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party follows with less than four seats. Labor and Meretz disappear below the electoral threshold in both generations.

Lieberman’s party gets 30 percent of the “Russian vote” from the parents’ generation, but only 13 from those born in Israel. Religious Zionism, the most radical right-wing party in these elections, thrives. It has just five percent support from the parents’ generation but 13 percent from the younger.

This is, in fact, the most striking finding in the poll. One-third of the ex-Soviet immigrants and their children are not considered Jewish according to rabbinical law, a status that is a major source of anger for the younger generation. Still, many of them choose to subordinate their personal and communal interests to what they perceive as a national interest – which for many of the youth is embodied by the policies of Religious Zionism.

Ukraine absent

One crucial issue is near absent from the elections discourse among both Russian-speaking generations: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Until recently, the Russian-speaking community judged Israeli politicians by their stance on this issue. It seemed to be a dealbreaker for the community, for whom the war was not a political issue but rather a source of personal pain.

Over the past weeks, however, Ukraine has become more of a background noise. Few refer to Lieberman’s cautious distancing from the conflict. Those Russian-speaking voters migrating to Netanyahu’s Likud party since the last election also pay little attention to the fact the former prime minister sounded almost like Vladimir Putin’s partner in a recent interview with MSNBC.

For those who still care deeply about the war, he was quick to “adjust” his position. As a minor pro-Ukraine demonstration was held in Jerusalem, Netanyahu told USA Today that he believes “if elected, he will be asked to serve as mediator between Russia and Ukraine and will look into supplying weapons to Ukraine”.

It was a cynical last-minute attempt to reach out to the large community of Ukrainian Israelis, too little and too late. The remote sounds of that war were probably silenced by the renewed noise of violence both in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territories, and the fear campaign Netanyahu himself conducts indirectly. That always serves well the politics of the right wing in Israel.

Tel Aviv, Israel
Israel's future can be spied in its increasingly far-right youth

Riot police deployed as thousands gather to mark 40 days since Mahsa Amini's death

Wed, 10/26/2022 - 14:17
Riot police deployed as thousands gather to mark 40 days since Mahsa Amini's death
Mourners chant 'death to Khameini' during the memorial event, as widespread protests across Iran enter the seventh week
MEE staff Wed, 10/26/2022 - 15:17
Thousands make their way to Mahsa Amini's grave at at Aichi cemetery in Saqez, in Iran's Kurdish province (Social media)
Thousands make their way to Mahsa Amini's grave at at Aichi cemetery in Saqez, in Iran's Kurdish province (Social media)

Iranian security forces confronted mourners gathering in Mahsa Amini’s hometown to mark 40 days since the 22-year-old’s death in custody, according to a human rights group. 

Videos widely shared on social media showed thousands of people marching towards Amini’s grave at Aichi cemetery in Saqqez, a city in the Kurdish province of Iran, in cars, motorbikes, and on foot.

Several of the female protesters were seen without headscarves, which are mandatory in Iran.

Amini died on 16 September, days after being arrested by Iran’s morality police for “inappropriate hijab”. 

Her death sparked widespread anti-government protests across all of Iran, which are now entering the seventh week. 

Tear gas

Hengaw, a Norway-based rights group that monitors rights abuses in Iran’s Kurdish region, tweeted that authorities had shot tear gas and opened fire on people gathered in Saqez’s Zindan square on Wednesday.

Mourners chanted popular slogans “woman, wife, freedom” and “death to [Supreme Leader Ayatollah] Khamenei”, according to Reuters. 

One witness said that the cemetery was filled with riot police and volunteers from the Basij paramilitary group. 

"They tried to stop us from entering the cemetery ... but I managed to get in,” another told Reuters. 

Videos on social media appeared to suggest that security forces had blocked roads leading to the city to prevent mourners from other cities from gathering at the grave. 

Kurdistan governor Zarei Kusha denied that the state had imposed any such limitations, adding that the Amini family had decided “not to hold a gathering”, according to state media. 

Football stars join protest

In Islamic tradition, and particularly in Iran, memorial gatherings take place to commemorate 40 days after a person’s death.

According to Hengaw, Iranian football stars Ali Daei and Hamed Lak had travelled to Saqez to take part in the 40-day mourning but were reportedly put under “strict security oversight” from intelligence agencies from their hotel. 

Daei is one Iran’s greatest players, and was last year overtaken by Cristiano Ronaldo as the leading goalscorer in men’s international football. Several footballers and celebrities, including ‘Iran’s Maradona’ Ali Karimi have publicly backed the protests.

Iran's atomic energy organisation emails hacked, in solidarity with protests
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Hengaw said strikes were underway in several Kurdish towns and cities including Divandarreh, Marivan, Kamyaran, and Sanandaj, as well as Javanrud and Ravansar in the western province of Kermanshah.

141 demonstrators have been killed since security forces cracked down on this recent wave of protests, according to Norway-based Iran Human Rights on Tuesday. 

The protests have turned into one of the boldest challenges to the Iranian government since the 1979 revolution. 

Lebanon: Cholera cases soar with refugee camp in north at centre of outbreak

Wed, 10/26/2022 - 11:08
Lebanon: Cholera cases soar with refugee camp in north at centre of outbreak
Health officials say outbreak is much worse than official figures suggest, as hospitals in impoverished northern Akkar region overwhelmed
Philippe Pernot Wed, 10/26/2022 - 12:08
Medical staff treat a child with cholera at a ward in a mosque converted into a hospital in Bebnine, northern Lebanon, 26 October 2022 (AFP)
Medical staff treat a child with cholera at a ward in a mosque converted into a hospital in Bebnine, northern Lebanon, 26 October 2022 (AFP)

Lebanon’s first cholera outbreak in 30 years is spreading across the country, with health officials fearing that the serious and potentially fatal disease is being transmitted through contaminated food and water.

The Ministry of Health recorded 718 cases on Monday, including 287 confirmed cases within 24 hours, with 11 deaths.

The majority of cases were recorded in Akkar and Bekaa, two regions that host thousands of refugees from Syria - where a cholera outbreak is sweeping over cities such as Idleb and Aleppo.

But patients have also been hospitalised in the cities of Beirut and Tripoli, as well as most other regions in the country. Tests of water samples confirmed that cholera was present all over Lebanon, according to the World Health Organisation.

Syria: Cholera surge sparks fears of uncontrollable outbreak in Idlib camps
Read More »

According to a local official and medic, Lebanon’s northernmost region Akkar - which is also its poorest - is at the centre of the outbreak.

“In Bebnine alone, we’re recording 200 cases a day,” Kifah el-Kasser, the city’s mayor and a doctor at the al-Iman health centre, told Middle East Eye.

He warned that actual contaminations may be much higher than health ministry numbers.

“Last week alone, we treated 1,200 patients,” Kasser said.

According to his estimates, Lebanon may have recorded thousands of cases nationwide, by far exceeding official counts. 

Similar patterns have also been seen in Halba, Akkar’s only government hospital, with 120 patients treated there on Saturday alone.

“Our services are very stretched, and we have to increase our capacity quickly to match the pace of contamination,” the hospital’s director, Mohammad Khadrine, told MEE.

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The emergency services are under severe pressure as patients arrive in critical condition. Cholera causes acute diarrhoea and vomiting, with patients quickly becoming dehydrated. Without treatment, patients can lose up to 50 percent of bodily fluids and die within a few hours.

'Death's door'

On the first floor of the Halba hospital, men, women, and children filled the beds.

“My daughter was at death's door, her skin had changed colour and her eyes had sunk into their pockets,” Qyada Ahmad Murrha, a Lebanese citizen originally from Bebnine, told MEE.

Luckily, a simple IV drip with a rehydration solution usually helps patients heal quickly.

“Most severe cases can leave the hospital after a few hours,” a nurse, who wished to remain anonymous, told MEE.

For two years, Lebanon has been gripped by the worst economic crisis in its history. Its healthcare system used to be among the best in the region, but is now struggling to keep up with successive epidemics.

Lebanon’s caretaker health minister, Firas Abiad, has visited Halba’s public hospital several times during the last few weeks.

“It is on the frontline,” he said during a press conference at the hospital on Saturday, promising vaccines for hospital staff and 5m chlorine tablets for the region so that residents could disinfect their drinking water. He also highlighted the "frightening decline" in the level of basic services in Akkar.

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Of the 145 pumping stations in northern Lebanon, only 22 are running on electricity provided by the state, he said, with the rest either running on private fuel supplies or not running at all. All of Akkar's rivers are polluted by waste and sewage, providing an ideal environment for the spread of cholera, according to the WHO.

Children sit by as a woman washes dishes in a plastic basin outside a tent at a makeshift camp for Syrian refugees in Talhayat in the Akkar district in north Lebanon, 26 October 2022 (AFP)
Children sit by as a woman washes dishes in a plastic basin outside a tent at a makeshift camp for Syrian refugees in Talhayat in the Akkar district in north Lebanon, 26 October 2022 (AFP)

With the poverty rate at 92 percent, according to UN figures, Akkar has been largely abandoned by the state for decades, with development funding largely going to Beirut and the other large cities.

“There is only one hospital and one waste collection company. The roads are in bad shape and many people don’t have running water,” Nadine Sabah, founder of the Akkar Network for Development, a local NGO, told MEE.

“Some houses have only recently got electricity for the first time,” she added.

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Refugee camps

In Syrian refugee camps, dilapidated sanitary conditions have led to infected sewage running into streams and contaminating neighbouring agricultural land.

“Our toilets are nothing more than a hole in the ground," said Hoda Ismail*, a Syrian woman originally from Qusayr who lives in one of Akkar’s refugee camps.

"When it rains, the sewage flows into the streets where our children play.”

'Our toilets are nothing more than a hole in the ground. When it rains, the sewage flows into the streets where our children play'

- Hoda Ismail*, Syrian refugee

In Bebnine’s Wadi Jamous neighbourhood, infections are being reported in nearly every family.

“All of my five children are sick, my wife too - and I just got better after a week of severe diarrhoea,” said Muhammad Awad Ibrahim, 62, also from Qusayr.

He said he could afford to pay for only one treatment, sending his wife to Halba’s hospital.

“I can barely pay the rent for my tent, so can you imagine all seven of us going to the doctor?” he said.

The government has pledged to pay for every Lebanese victim of cholera, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees covers the costs of treating Syrian nationals.

Yet, most patients MEE spoke to claimed they had been asked to pay for cholera tests or hospital admission.

“If you can’t pay, they’ll let you die at their doors,” Ismail said.

* Name changed by request

Bebnine, Lebanon
Cholera cases in Lebanon soar with country's north at centre of outbreak

Egypt: Gamal Mubarak attends funeral of lawyer who helped acquit late president's family

Wed, 10/26/2022 - 11:05
Egypt: Gamal Mubarak attends funeral of lawyer who helped acquit late president's family
In a rare public appearance, the son of Hosni Mubarak receives warm reception at procession for celebrity attorney
MEE staff Wed, 10/26/2022 - 12:05
Gamal Mubarak, son of former long time Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak, embraced during funeral of lawyer Farid al-Deeb on 26 October 2022 in Cairo (Social media)
Gamal Mubarak (masked), son of former Egyptian ruler Hosni Mubarak, is embraced during the funeral in Cairo of lawyer Farid al-Deeb, 26 October 2022 (Social media)

Gamal Mubarak, the son of late Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, was spotted among crowds of supporters at the funeral of controversial celebrity lawyer Farid al-Deeb on Tuesday. 

Deeb, who defended the Mubaraks along with other prominent clients in a career which spanned over five decades, died at the age of 79 this week after a battle with cancer. 

A funeral procession took place at Cairo’s Sayeda Zeinab Mosque on Tuesday afternoon. 

Videos posted on social media showed passersby warmly receiving the 58-year-old Mubarak, mobbing him with handshakes and embraces, with one woman even calling for a “return” to the rule of his father, who led Egypt from 1981-2011 and died in February 2020. 

“We extend our sincere condolences and sympathy on the death of Professor Farid al-Deeb, asking God almighty to accept the deceased with his mercy and forgiveness and to inspire his family patience and solace,” Gamal's brother, Alaa Mubarak, tweeted.

"We do not forget the man's standing with the family at a time when others withdrew. May God have mercy on him."

Defending the Mubaraks 

Earlier this year, Deeb left Egyptians baffled and outraged after he came out of retirement to defend Mohamed Adel, a former university student who admitted to the murder of 22-year-old Nayera Ashraf after she rejected his marriage proposal. 

Egypt's public prosecutor referred Adel to the Mansoura Criminal Court only two days after the crime, in the country's swiftest ever referral.

Deeb, Egypt's most famous criminal lawyer, has often shown little interest in the tide of public opinion. 

In 2015, he launched a defence of Hosni Mubarak, who had been forced from office four years earlier after three decades in power. The former president and his sons were facing a long list of charges, including corruption and ordering the killing of peaceful demonstrators during the 18-day uprising against his regime in 2011. 

Nayera Ashraf: Egyptian lawyer who defended Mubarak to represent convicted murderer
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Deeb succeeded in getting the ex-president and his two sons out of jail with only light sentences, following a six-year trial. 

In May, Gamal Mubarak raised eyebrows after he was spotted in Abu Dhabi on his first foreign trip since the 2011 revolution. Questions were asked about how he had left Egypt despite a longstanding travel ban against the family. 

The trip came days after Swiss federal prosecutors dropped an 11-year investigation into suspected money laundering by Egyptians close to Hosni Mubarak during the revolution, freeing up millions of dollars for the late strongman's family. 

The decision followed the EU's top court deciding on 6 April to uphold a ruling deeming EU sanctions against the Mubaraks unlawful, and ordering the EU to pay legal costs incurred by the family.

According to Transparency International, it is estimated that as president, Hosni Mubarak "stole nearly $70bn in public funds that are now concealed in France, Germany and Spain".

The international anti-corruption group said the EU court's decision "signals impunity for corrupt actors".

Gamal Mubarak attends funeral of lawyer who helped acquit late Egyptian president's family

Lebanon buses refugees back to Syria as repatriation plan starts

Wed, 10/26/2022 - 07:38
Lebanon buses refugees back to Syria as repatriation plan starts
Some refugees were 'shocked' to be notified at the border that they cannot cross because their names had not been cleared by Syria
Adam Chamseddine Wed, 10/26/2022 - 08:38
Syrian refugees on a pick-up truck as they prepare to return to Syria from Wadi Hmayyed, on the outskirts of the Lebanese border town of Arsal, 26 October 2022 (Reuters)

Several buses transported Syrian refugee families to Syria from different areas in Lebanon on Wednesday, as part of a government repatriation scheme revived earlier this month, local media reported.

Caretaker Minister of the Displaced Issam Charafeddine said last week that 6,000 Syrian refugees would be repatriated on a voluntary basis under a revived programme run by the General Security agency.

The repatriation process was however thrown into chaos on Wednesday when a number of refugees who were initially cleared to leave the country were told at the border crossings that they could not cross, according to Rana Ramadan, a legal coordinator at the Lebanese Ministry of the Displaced.

“Many were shocked to find their names were from the lists drawn by the Lebanese General Security because they have not been cleared by the Syrian side,” Ramadan told Middle East Eye.

Convoys from Nabatieh, Tripoli, and Arsal, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, carried around 750 refugees to border crossings in the early morning, despite concerns from rights groups that the policy may have involved elements of coercion.

Repatriations were taking place through the Masnaa border crossing on the Lebanese-Syrian border in the eastern Bekaa Valley and at the al-Aboudiyeh border crossing in north Lebanon.

Ramadan said that some of the refugees on the lists were either still wanted for military service in Syria or for minor legal issues, adding that the Lebanese General Security had not received the necessary clearance in time for the repatriation on Wednesday.

“This situation created discontent amongst many of those wanting to leave,” she said. 

“Some men had to send their families and delay their departure after resolving the legal status, but this should have been resolved by the Lebanese general security beforehand.”

'No place to stay'

Mahmoud, one of the Syrian refugees who were held back, told MEE that he had no choice but to send his family alone and stay in Lebanon.

“I had to send my family and stay behind as I have packed all of our belongings and cleared the house we were residing in because I thought I will not be coming back,” Mahmoud said.

“I don’t have a place to stay anymore.”

Mahmoud said he was told by General Security that he and his family were cleared to go, only for him to be surprised at the border that there are unresolved legal issues surrounding his name. 

“I have been displaced for over 10 years, at least my family will go back. I hope I wouldn’t have to wait another 10 years to go back,” Mahmoud said.

Amnesty International had warned that returning refugees may not have accurate or complete information on the level of risk in their hometowns, meaning the returns may not be "free and informed."

"In enthusiastically facilitating these returns, the Lebanese authorities are knowingly putting Syrian refugees at risk of suffering from heinous abuse and persecution upon their return to Syria," Amnesty said in a statement earlier this month.

Social affairs minister Hector Hajjar, who was overseeing the repatriation process on the ground, denied accusations that the Lebanese state is forcing Syrians out of the country and putting them in danger. 

“It is enough to see the conditions in which the refugees are leaving Lebanon, taking all their belongings, including furniture, with them,” Hajjar told Middle East Eye.

“It is enough to speak to them to understand that they have been waiting for this decision [to be implemented].” 

Revived scheme

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On Tuesday, Lebanon's General Security chief Abbas Ibrahim said in a press conference that Lebanon had opened 17 public security centres across the country to organise the return of Syrian refugees.

"The return will be voluntary, and we will not force any displaced to return; this is a principle we have established, and we seek to reduce the burden on Lebanon," he said.

In 2018, the General Security agency launched a mechanism through which any Syrian refugee can communicate their desire to return home. Lebanon would then liaise with Syrian authorities to make sure that the individual was not wanted there.

Abbas said that 540,000 Syrians had "voluntarily returned to their country" since the General Security started implementing the plan.

That policy was put on hold with the outbreak of Covid-19, but outgoing Lebanese President Michel Aoun revived it this month and it resumed on Wednesday.

Lebanon hosts more than 1.5 million Syrian refugees who have fled more than a decade of war back home, marking the world's highest proportion of refugees per capita in one country. 

Beirut

Bahrain: UK accused of breaking own funding rules amid death penalties

Tue, 10/25/2022 - 19:24
Bahrain: UK accused of breaking own funding rules amid death penalties
As UK-funded bodies in Bahrain are implicated by report alleging serious human rights abuses, rights groups and peer say it appears government violated its own policy
Dania Akkad Tue, 10/25/2022 - 20:24
Then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson welcomes Bahraini Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa to 10 Downing Street during one of his most recent visits (Reuters)

The UK government appears to have violated its own guidelines by providing millions in funding to Bahrain while death sentences are handed down in the kingdom, a parliamentarian and human rights groups say.

“Do I think the government has breached its own rules? All the evidence would suggest yes,” said Lord Scriven, vice-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Democracy and Human Rights in the Gulf, during a panel discussion in parliament on Tuesday. 

His comments follow the release of a report from the Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy (Bird) and Human Rights Watch documenting the case of eight men currently on death row in the kingdom, the majority over convictions for killing police officers.

'Do I think the government has breached its own rules? All the evidence would suggest yes'

- Lord Scriven

The report found that the men were sentenced to death without any physical evidence, but solely or in large part on confessions that authorities coerced them to make through torture and ill-treatment.

Bahraini prosecutors and courts failed to “genuinely investigate” their allegations of torture and ill-treatment or take independent medical evidence seriously before the men were sentenced to death, according to its findings.

The Bahrain embassy in London did not immediately respond to MEE’s request for comment, but responded to the report earlier this month saying that its criminal justice system operates in full compliance with international law.

"The UN's human rights principles, including the right to a fair trial, are enshrined in the country's constitution and legislative instruments," a Bahraini government spokesperson told The Telegraph.

Questions over assessments

Three Bahraini institutions which receive funding from the UK government - Bahrain’s Ministry of Interior, the Ministry of Interior Ombudsman and the Special Investigation Unit - are implicated in the report.

The three bodies are supported by the UK’s Gulf Strategy Fund, a £70m ($80m) fund that assists projects in six Gulf states, and has been dogged by criticism for being run opaquely.

Now those concerned about the fund say the HRW-Bird report raises doubts about whether the government has breached its own Overseas Security and Justice Assistance guidelines with its support to Bahrain. 

According to those guidelines, the government should seek written assurances that “anyone found guilty would not face the death penalty” before agreeing to provide support.

In the absence of assurances, “the case should automatically be deemed ‘High Risk’ and FCO Ministers should be consulted”.

The UK government has said it conducted Overseas Security and Justice Assessments for the GSF programmes in Bahrain. 

But Yasmine Ahmed, HRW’s UK director, said the Bird-HRW report has shown that UK taxpayer money is potentially going to bodies directly implicated in human rights abuses, raising questions about whether the government’s guidance was followed properly.

“Have assurances been provided by the Bahraini authorities and the king that the death penalty will not be imposed? If those assurances have been provided, why are these situations in fact arising?” she said.  

“And if those assurances have been breached, then the provision should be immediately suspended.”

Sayed Ahmed Alwadaei, Bird's director of advocacy, said: "I strongly believe that the government has broken its own guidance when it comes to the overseas justice and security." 

MEE asked the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) whether the government had sought such assurances from Bahrain over the death penalty or if GSF funding had been subject to further ministerial scrutiny.

An FCDO spokesperson responded: “We fund projects in Bahrain that support reform of the justice system. For example, our work to introduce alternatives to prison sentences has benefitted 4,300 individuals and reduced the prison population by over half.

“All projects on justice and security issues with partners overseas are subject to rigorous risk assessments to meet our human rights’ expectations. While we recognise challenges remain, stepping back from supporting reforms would be counterproductive.”

Lack of physical evidence

Joshua Colangelo-Bryan, a lawyer with the New York-based law firm Dorsey and Whitney and an HRW consultant, said the charges brought against the eight men documented in the report were based solely on statements given by people in custody.

“We don’t see fingerprints. We don’t see DNA linking a defendant to a crime scene. There are no CCTV videos showing a defendant doing something in particular. We don’t have independent eyewitness accounts,” he said. 

One of the few times DNA evidence appears in court documents linked to the cases was in reference to a woman who held a bag that contained a bomb that killed a police officer. 

“So the one time we see what we might think of as modern physical evidence, it exculpates the defendant,” he said. "But to the court, that was completely irrelevant.”

Once in custody, Colangelo-Bryan said, there were similarities in the types of alleged violence used. All of the men allege that officers beat them using fists, while seven said their genitals were specifically targeted with punches, kicks or electric shocks.

Other treatments used on several of the men include sleep deprivation, threats to harm their relatives, including threats of rape, and officers using a metal bar and chair to suspend them off the ground. 

Some of the alleged torture and ill-treatment documented in the report happened in the Interior Ministry’s Criminal Investigation Directorate while the Ministry of the Interior’s Ombudsman and the Special Investigations Unit were found to have failed to credibly investigate torture allegations.

Four men documented in the Bird-HRW report have alleged that they were tortured at the Royal Academy of Policing, where the University of Huddersfield runs an off-site masters degree in security science for members of the Bahraini security forces. 

Lord Scriven, who is from Huddersfield, said he wrote this month to the university asking for concrete evidence of any monitoring it is doing to show their programme is not implicated in human rights violations.

He said the university responded on Monday, citing the government’s view of its cooperation with Bahrain. “It is worrying that a higher education establishment in the UK was unable to provide any evidence, but just give a general view of government policy,” he said.

The University of Huddersfield did not immediately respond to MEE’s request for comment late on Tuesday.

UK 'broke own funding rules' by giving Bahrain millions as it executes prisoners

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