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UK Home Office challenged over independence of Prevent review

Tue, 01/24/2023 - 12:04
UK Home Office challenged over independence of Prevent review
Rights group says details of emails and meetings between Home Office officials and William Shawcross's team suggest significant 'interference' in review process
Simon Hooper Tue, 01/24/2023 - 12:04
Priti Patel asked to see a draft copy of the Shawcross report last April, Home Office emails show (AFP)

The UK’s Home Office is facing fresh questions over the credibility and lawfulness of a long-delayed review of its contentious Prevent counter-terrorism strategy after being challenged by a human rights advocacy group over the independence of the process.

Rights and Security International (RSI) said on Monday it had written to the Home Office to raise its concerns that the department may have “interfered significantly” in a draft report by reviewer William Shawcross.

Caroline Ott, a solicitor at Leigh Day that is representing RSI, said: “Our client has raised serious concerns about the lawfulness of the ongoing independent review of Prevent and considers that the nature of the interactions between the Home Secretary and the independent reviewer may compromise the review’s ‘independence’.”

RSI published details of redacted emails obtained from the Home Office through a freedom of information request in which members of the review team discussed dealing with “comments and requests” from department officials.

The emails also reveal that then-Home Secretary Priti Patel asked to see a draft of the report in April last year because, according to an email from an official to the review team, she was coming under “significant pressure” from the Home Affairs Select Committee over delays to its completion.

Patel and other senior Home Office officials met with Shawcross or members of his team 13 times between February 2021 and August 2022, according to information disclosed by the Home Office.

'Deeply alarming'

The executive director of RSI Sarah St Vincent said: “Parliament, by law, required an independent review of Prevent. If the government has shaped the content, then the review is not independent, and the public and Parliament should not be told that it is.

“This is a fundamental issue of good governance, and the idea that the UK government might be willing to put the label of ‘independence’ on a report in which it has interfered behind closed doors is Orwellian and deeply alarming.”

A Home Office spokesperson said: “These concerns are unwarranted and we will be responding directly to this letter in due course.”

The government commissioned the Prevent review in January 2019 after agreeing to a House of Lords amendment to a parliamentary bill that stipulated that the review should be independent.

What is the Prevent Strategy?

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Prevent is a strand of the British government's counter-terrorism strategy that aims to “safeguard and support those vulnerable to radicalisation, to stop them from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”.

It was publicly launched in the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings and was initially targeted squarely at Muslim communities, prompting continuing complaints of discrimination and concerns that the programme was being used to collect intelligence.

In 2011, Prevent's remit was expanded to cover all forms of extremism, defined by the government as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

In 2015, the government introduced the Prevent Duty which requires public sector workers including doctors, teachers and even nursery staff to have “due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism”.

A key element of Prevent is Channel, a programme that offers mentoring and support to people assessed to be at risk of becoming terrorists. Prevent referrals of some young children have proved contentious. 114 children under the age of 15 received Channel support in 2017/18.

Criticism of the Prevent Duty includes that it has had a “chilling effect” on free speech in classrooms and universities, and that it has turned public sector workers into informers who are expected to monitor pupils and patients for “signs of radicalisation”. Some critics have said that it may even be counter-productive.

Advocates argue that it is a form of safeguarding that has been effective in identifying and helping troubled individuals. They point to a growing number of far-right referrals as evidence that it is not discriminatory against Muslims.

In January 2019 the government bowed to pressure and announced that it would commission an independent review of Prevent. This was supposed to be completed by August 2020. After being forced to drop its first appointed reviewer, Lord Carlile, over his past advocacy for Prevent, it conceded that the review would be delayed. In January 2021 it named William Shawcross as reviewer.

It was originally due to have been completed by August 2020, but the government was forced to drop its original choice of a reviewer, Lord Carlile, following a legal challenge from RSI (then known as Rights Watch (UK)) over Carlile’s past advocacy for Prevent.

Shawcross’s appointment in January 2021 was also contentious, with many human rights groups and Muslim organisations boycotting the review.

His report was due to be presented to parliament by the end of 2021, but no date for publication has been announced.

Leaks of the draft report have suggested Shawcross will call for a renewed focus within Prevent on Islamist extremism.

Last month, it was reported that the Home Office, currently headed by Home Secretary Suella Braverman, was seeking to redact the names of a number of individuals and groups named in the report.

RSI said it written to Braverman and Shawcross to request copies of all drafts of the report sent to the Home Office and all comments returned to the review team.

Jordan: MP asks why King Abdullah II is exempted from taxes

Tue, 01/17/2023 - 11:46
Jordan: MP asks why King Abdullah II is exempted from taxes
Parliament votes to delete opposition lawmaker's comments from the session's record, accusing him of saying 'nonsense'
MEE staff Tue, 01/17/2023 - 11:46
King Abdullah II of Jordan at the royal Al-Husseiniya Palace in Amman, 21 December 2022 (AFP)
King Abdullah II of Jordan at the Al-Husseiniya Palace in Amman, 21 December 2022 (AFP)

A Jordanian MP was shouted down in parliament on Monday when he questioned why King Abdullah II was exempt from paying taxes on his properties, causing an uproar in the house.

Saleh al-Armouti, a member of the opposition Jordanian Islah Party, said that King Abdullah II is "a normal citizen, and he has registered properties under his name. So, why is he exempted from taxes?"

He was addressing Finance Minister Muhammad al-Issis during a meeting in parliament.

The question prompted uproar in the house, and the parliament speaker asked that Armouti's question and remarks be omitted from the session's record. The parliament voted with a majority to delete the question. 


Jordanian MPs objected to Armouti's comments, and one of them was heard saying, "What is this nonsense?"

مجلس النواب يصوت بالاغلبية على شطب مداخلة النائب صالح العرموطي التي تسائل فيها عن استثناء الملك من قانون الضريبة وقانون الرسوم على تسجيل الأراضي pic.twitter.com/SgrbEo7eVE

— Mohammed al Ersan (@JournalistErsan) January 16, 2023

However, some Jordanian citizens expressed sympathy with Armouti on social media and saw the deletion of his comments as invalid.

One of them said that he "did not find a single reason to delete it, or does the Speaker of the House see that removal as a defensive position on behalf of the king, ignoring that this removal will lead to raising doubts and questions?"

Jordan's tax laws state that the monarch is granted exemption from paying taxes, while import and customs regulations also exempt him from paying fees on purchases made in his name.

King Abdullah's fortune was under scrutiny in 2021 when it was revealed in The Pandora Papers that he secretly spent more than $100m on property listings in the UK and US.

His lawyers said then that "HM [His Majesty] has not at any point misused public monies or made any use whatsoever of the proceeds of aid or assistance intended for public use."

Ronaldo to make Saudi debut in all-star friendly against Messi’s PSG

Tue, 01/17/2023 - 11:41
Ronaldo to make Saudi debut in all-star friendly against Messi’s PSG
Portuguese star will captain combined team of Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal players in exhibition match against French side in Riyadh
MEE staff Tue, 01/17/2023 - 11:41
Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo accompanied by his partner Georgina Rodriguez and his son Cristiano Ronaldo Jr at the Mrsool Park Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on 4 January 2023 (AFP)
Portuguese forward Cristiano Ronaldo accompanied by his partner Georgina Rodriguez and his son Cristiano Ronaldo Jr at the Mrsool Park Stadium in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on 4 January 2023 (AFP)

Cristiano Ronaldo will captain an all-star combined team of Al-Nassr and Al-Hilal players on Thursday in a friendly against Paris Saint Germain, in his first match since moving to Saudi Arabia

Turki Al-Sheikh, the head of the Saudi entertainment authority, announced Ronaldo’s captaincy by putting an armband on the Portuguese star in a video shared on Twitter.

It will mark the 37-year-old’s first start since he penned a $200m a year deal with Nassr that will make him the highest paid footballer of all time. 

Ronaldo said earlier this month that his "work is done" in Europe, and that his move will help to develop the women's game and inspire younger generations in Saudi Arabia. 

Al Nassr: The past and present of Ronaldo's new Saudi team
Read More »

The exhibition match, which brings together Riyadh’s top two teams, will pit Ronaldo against longtime footballing rival Lionel Messi. 

Messi and Ronaldo have shared 12 of the last 14 Ballon d’Or prizes for best individual footballer, comfortably making them two of the greatest players of all time. 

Hilal and Nassr are huge local rivals, with the latter reportedly poking fun at Ronaldo earlier this month by printing shirts with Messi’s name. 

The combined XI on Thursday will include former Porto striker Moussa Marega, Brazilian winger Matheus Pereira and Saudi star Salem al-Dawsari. 

Dawsari already has experience defeating Messi, after scoring a goal in Saudi Arabia’s sensational group stage victory over Argentina during the World Cup group stages in November. 

Thursday’s showdown at King Fahd Stadium in Riyadh is sold out, with over two million people reportedly having requested a ticket. 

An auction for a VIP “Beyond Imagination” ticket surpassed $2.7m on Tuesday.

The match will be aired on beIN Sports in Arabic, English and French across the Middle East and North Africa, Asia, North America, France, Turkey and Australasia. 

Ronaldo’s first competitive match in the Saudi Pro League will come on Sunday when Nassr take on Al-Ettifaq. 

Israeli forces kill Palestinian man north of Hebron

Tue, 01/17/2023 - 10:34
Israeli forces kill Palestinian man north of Hebron
Local media says Hamdi Shaker Abu Dayyeh, the 11th Palestinian shot dead in the West Bank in six days, was a member of the PA security forces
MEE staff Tue, 01/17/2023 - 10:34
An Israeli soldier walks at the scene where Hamdi Shaker Abu Diya, 40, was shot dead by troops in near Hebron in the occupied West Bank on 17 January 2023 (Reuters)
An Israeli soldier walks at the scene where Hamdi Shaker Abu Diya, 40, was shot dead by troops in near Hebron in the occupied West Bank on 17 January 2023 (Reuters)

Israeli forces shot dead a Palestinian man after he allegedly opened fire at troops north of the occupied West Bank city of Hebron on Tuesday. 

He was identified as Hamdi Shaker Abu Dayyeh, 40, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health.

The Israeli army radio station said Abu Dayyeh shot at soldiers stationed near an entrance to Halhul town, using an improvised submachine gun (known locally as Carlo). The troops returned fire and killed Abu Dayyeh, the army added.

There were no immediate reports of Israeli casualties.

Palestinian media said Israeli troops prevented medics from reaching Abu Dayyeh after he was shot. They added that he was a member of the Palestinian Authority security forces.  

#Breaking| Israeli occupation forces shot dead the Palestinian man Hamdi Abo Dayya near the town of Halhul in the south of the occupied West Bank city of Hebron.#FreePalestine pic.twitter.com/2rq0pGzvsT

— Al-Jarmaq News (@Aljarmaqnetnews) January 17, 2023

Israeli forces killed 11 Palestinians in the last six days. So far this year, 15 Palestinians have been killed, including four children.


Omar Lotfi Khumour, a 14-year-old boy, was killed on Monday in Bethlehem. 

At least 167 were killed last year in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, the highest death toll since the Second Intifada. 

In March 2022, Israel launched the "Break the Wave" military campaign, focused on crushing armed Palestinian resistance that has seen a revival in the West Bank.

According to figures provided by the Israeli army, there have been at least 285 shootings at Israeli targets - mainly army posts and checkpoints - by Palestinians in 2022, compared to 61 in 2021, 31 in 2020 and 19 in 2019. 

Rifaat al-Assad's furniture auctioned off in France

Tue, 01/17/2023 - 09:47
Rifaat al-Assad's furniture auctioned off in France
Over $1.8m of goods sold came from mansion of Bashar al-Assad’s uncle, who left France for Syria last year
Céline Martelet Tue, 01/17/2023 - 09:47
More than 500 lots were on display at Hotel Drouot in Paris on 11 January before being auctioned by Ader. (Céline Martelet/MEE)

Catalogues in hand, excited art dealers bustled around the first floor of Paris’s Hotel Drouot, the biggest art marketplace in France.

In a special sale by French auction house Ader, 536 luxury lots - including sofas, tables, paintings, chandeliers, porcelain dinner sets and rugs - were laid out across four rooms, up for auction over the next two days.

The items came simply from a “grand townhouse in Avenue Foch”, an opulent area in West Paris, according to Ader.

Nowhere amongst the intricate detailing of each luxury piece did they mention that they came from the former mansion of Bashar al-Assad’s 85-year-old uncle, the former Syrian vice-president, Rifaat al-Assad, who left France for Syria last year.

Rifaat al-Assad corruption trial: French court finds Syrian leader's uncle guilty
Read More »

The property, reportedly bought with embezzled Syrian government money, was once one of many he owned, Middle East Eye has confirmed, building on reports by Le Journal du Dimanche and L’Orient le Jour.

But whilst the state could seize the townhouse, the furniture inside fell through a legal loophole, meaning an anonymous seller would go on to sell at least €1.6m ($1.8m) worth of pieces, according to available data.

Few of the art dealers and punters walking through the exhibition halls last Wednesday seemed to realise what they were ogling, however.

“I wanted to call you right away,” an elegantly dressed woman in her fifties whispered, phone to her ear. “You have to come. It's all beautiful."

In the midst of the hubbub, though, two young Syrians - who arrived in France in 2015, fleeing the Assad government and its brutal repression of the opposition - understood what surrounded them.

“All this belongs to us Syrians. The Assad clan plundered it,” said one of them in a low voice, asking to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions. “But no one is saying anything.”

Contacted several times, Ader did not disclose the identity of its client and refused to confirm the provenance of the goods. “The information is confidential and the sale complies with the relevant laws,” it told MEE.

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War crimes and corruption

Rifaat al-Assad was exiled from Syria in 1984 by his brother Hafez after leading a failed coup attempt against him.

Since then, he has lived in France, reportedly offering intelligence to France about terrorist organisations in exchange for state protection.

In 2013, Swiss authorities opened a war crimes investigation into his alleged role in the deaths of “several thousand people” during massacres in Hama and another in Tadmor the early 1980s, accusations he denies.

Among the items auctioned by Ader were luxurious sofas, tables, paintings, chandeliers, porcelain dinner sets and rugs. (Céline Martelet/Middle East Eye)
Among the items auctioned by Ader were luxurious sofas, tables, paintings, chandeliers, porcelain dinner sets and rugs. (Céline Martelet/MEE)

In 2017, Spanish authorities also seized more than 500 properties worth $736m also belonging to him.

Assad was sentenced to four years in prison in France in June 2020 for illegally using Syrian state funds to build a French real estate empire worth at least €90m ($9.7m). His assets were confiscated.

When a top French court upheld the decision in September 2022, Assad left for Syria after more than 30 years in exile, having been allowed to return by his nephew Bashar. “Disappointed” with France, he returned the Legion d’Honneur president Francois Mitterrand had awarded him in 1986.

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‘For his excellency REA’

Half of the items in the Ader catalogue sold on day 0ne, for €1,673,000 ($1.8m). Information about the day two sales has not been made public.

Some of the goods auctioned off - including several fancy sofas and armchairs - are recognisable from pictures taken during interviews Assad gave before his conviction. Ader’s catalogue also includes two dinner sets made “for his excellency REA” - Rifaat el-Assad.

MEE has also identified two of the paintings up for auction. One by French 17th century artist Claude Gellee, which sold for €3,000 ($3,200), and another by 19th century Russian artist Gaspard de Toursky, which went for €1,200 ($1,298).

Rifaat al-Assad in his townhouse on Avenue Foch, Paris, in 2011, with two of the paintings - by De Toursky (R) and Gelee (L) - auctioned off by Ader. (Michel Euler/AP/SIPA/Ader screenshots)
Rifaat al-Assad in his townhouse on Avenue Foch, Paris, in 2011, with two of the paintings - by De Toursky (R) and Gelee (L) - auctioned off by Ader. (Michel Euler/AP/SIPA/Ader screenshots)

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The townhouse on Avenue Foch was seized by French authorities following the court decision in 2022. The furniture inside was not.

In accordance with a new legal mechanism set up in France in July 2021 for the restitution of assets obtained via corruption, the value of the townhouse must somehow be returned "to the people" of Syria. (How to do that remains a headache for Paris. France in 2012 cut off diplomatic relations with Syria, whose government is under international sanctions.)

But French authorities say they were not involved in the furniture sale. The Agency for the Management and Recovery of Seized and Confiscated Assets, a French public administrative body that sells off assets taken by the state, told MEE it was “not behind the auction organised by Ader”.

“It was not possible to find out how the furniture was acquired,” said Chanez Mensous, head of advocacy and litigation on illicit financial flows at French NGO Sherpa, which has been a civil party in the French proceedings against Rifaat al-Assad since 2013.

“The investigations [into the French case] were very long,” said Mensous, “the procedures started back in 2013. For the acquisition of real estate there are legal provisions that apply, but this is not the case for furniture.

“Unlike goods that have been seized by the courts, in this case, the profit from the sale will go to the owner of these goods. It should be remembered that this sale is technically not illegal,”  she added. Ader received 25 percent of auction profits. Where the rest of it went is unknown.

Anonymous seller

In room number 9 of Hotel Drouot, prices leapt on 13 January, the auction’s second day, as bidders went for higher value items.

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

“What do we have here?” a young auctioneer asked onlookers, wielding his hammer, having sold a set of 70 crystal glasses for €5,000 ($5,400).

Lot 294. “A flat desk from the Napoleon era,” he said, excitedly. “We start at €1,000.”

Quickly, hands shot up. On the phone, others pushed the price higher. In two minutes, the desk sold for €10,000, ten times its initial valuation. The buyers remain anonymous, so does the seller.

Over €1.6m of furniture was sold by Ader on the first day of the auction alone (Céline Martelet/Middle East Eye)
Over €1.6m ($1.7m) of furniture was sold by Ader on the first day of the auction alone (Céline Martelet/MEE)

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Rifaat al-Assad’s French counsel Elie Hatem denied that the goods auctioned in Paris belonged to his client.

“He is currently in Damascus, complying with both French law and that of his country. Consequently, he does not intend to reclaim any of the property confiscated from him,” he told MEE, adding that further legal action against him in the European Court of Human Rights is pending and that “the Syrian state will proceed with a request for the restitution of any property declared to have been diverted from the country as soon as this [ECHR] case is finalised”.

According to Hatem, “the goods auctioned by Ader come from the third floor of the Avenue Foch townhouse, which Mr al-Assad gave up to his ex-wife a long time ago in the context of painful divorce proceedings. And now she is probably selling those goods to make a profit, without my client’s approval.”

France came to Syria with a list of children to take home. One was left behind
Read More »

Line al-Khayer and Raja Barakat, two ex-wives of Rifaat al-Assad, each had their own apartments in the building, which they reached by separate elevators designed to prevent them from bumping into each other. Elie Hatem did not specify which of the two he was alleging were behind Ader’s auction.

Then there’s Siwar al-Assad, the son of Rifaat and Barakat. Siwar has served as Rifaat’s spokesperson from London, where he heads the Aramea Foundation, which says it helps Syrian refugees and works for the protection of the historical heritage of the Levant region.

Siwar did not miss a single day of hearings during the 2022 trial in Paris. He is also a business ally to his father. "His name appears as a beneficiary in all shell companies created by Rifaat al-Assad to conceal the source of his funds,” said an insider with in-depth knowledge of Rifaat al-Assad's case in France, who asked to remain anonymous.

Khayer and Barakat also appear in the network of companies mentioned in the French investigations alongside Siwar al-Assad. None of them could be reached for comment.

‘Unpleasant surprises’

“I fear that this money will ultimately go back into the pockets of the Assad clan,” Franco-Syrian activist and jurist Firas Kontar told MEE. “Of course the auction house organising this sale has the right to do so, but have these people asked themselves the question of morality and of their responsibility? They’re hiding behind the law, that's all.”

“If the conviction of Rifaat al-Assad marked a considerable victory in the fight against ‘probity breaches’, the sale of these assets unfortunately adds to the many unpleasant surprises following this conviction,” Vincent Brengarth, Sherpa’s French counsel, told MEE.

“In view of what the [French] investigations have revealed about the fraudulent way in which Rifaat al-Assad was able to build up a large part of his assets, this shows that anti-corruption justice can still be improved. Even if a large number of goods were confiscated, it is clear that the auctioned goods, which are of great value, escaped justice.”

Paris, France
'All this belongs to us Syrians': Rifaat al-Assad's furniture auctioned off in Paris

More than 90 countries slam Israel over 'punitive measures' against Palestine

Tue, 01/17/2023 - 08:56
More than 90 countries slam Israel over 'punitive measures' against Palestine
Israeli government slapped a series of sanctions on PA after it approached the ICJ for a ruling on abuses and occupation
MEE staff Tue, 01/17/2023 - 08:56
Palestinian relatives mourn the death of Abdulhadi Nazzal, reportedly killed during a raid by Israeli forces in Qabatia town, at his funeral in the same West Bank village on 13 January 2023 (AFP)

More than 90 countries have expressed their "deep concern" in a statement on Monday at Israel's punitive measures against the Palestinian people, following a UN request for an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

The UN General Assembly voted 87-26 with 53 abstentions on 30 December in favour of the resolution calling for the ICJ to give an opinion on the legality of Israeli policies in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

In a statement, the signatories called for a reversal of Israeli measures, saying regardless of their position on the General Assembly's resolution, "we reject punitive measures in response to a request for an advisory opinion by the International Court of Justice".

In response to the successful Palestinian initiative at the UN, Israel's new far-right government seized $39m of tax revenues collected on behalf of the Palestinian Authority (PA).

Breaking News: pic.twitter.com/YajuBfhYm7

— State of Palestine (@Palestine_UN) January 16, 2023

The statement released by the PA on its Twitter account was signed by representatives of Arab nations and the 57-member Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, as well as 37 other countries, including Germany, France, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Brazil, Mexico and South Africa.


Earlier this month, Israel also banned the Palestinian foreign minister, Riyad Maliki, from leaving the occupied West Bank to stop him from meeting foreign dignitaries. 

The opinions of the Hague-based ICJ, which settles disputes between countries, are binding, but the court has no power to enforce them. Its rulings, however, have a significant influence on international opinion.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told his cabinet that the measures against the Palestinians are aimed at what he called "an extreme anti-Israel" step at the UN.

Daily raids

In the occupied West Bank, Israeli raids on Tuesday in several Palestinian cities, including Hebron, Nablus, Ramallah, and Jenin, resulted in dozens of homes being raided and arrests taking place, according to Palestinian media. 

Israeli forces arrested a number of Palestinians under the pretext of resisting the occupation. 

Mandela’s grandson shows solidarity with Palestine and Western Sahara
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In response to the raids, some Palestinian armed groups opened fire at the Israeli forces. However, no Palestinians or Israelis were reported to have been killed or wounded. 

On Monday, the Israeli military killed a 14-year-old Palestinian boy near the occupied city of Bethlehem. 

Israeli forces killed nine Palestinians last week. So far this year, 14 Palestinians have been killed, including three children.

At least 167 were killed last year in the occupied West Bank, the highest death toll since the Second Intifada. 

Israeli forces conduct near-nightly search-and-arrest operations in the West Bank, which often turn deadly.

In recent months, most of the raids have focused on Nablus and Jenin in recent months, where Palestinian armed resistance is growing in turn.

US citizen jailed by Iran begins hunger strike, urges Biden for help

Mon, 01/16/2023 - 19:31
US citizen jailed by Iran begins hunger strike, urges Biden for help
Siamak Namazi sends letter to Biden saying his efforts to urge US president for assistance were 'to no avail'
MEE staff Mon, 01/16/2023 - 19:31
Namazi is among several Americans currently detained in Iran, including environmentalist Morad Tahbaz and businessman Emad Shargi.
Namazi is among several Americans currently detained in Iran, including environmentalist Morad Tahbaz and businessman Emad Shargi (AFP/File photo)

An Iranian American imprisoned in Iran has started a week-long hunger strike and sent a letter on Monday to US President Joe Biden, pleading to bring him home.

In his letter, which was shared on Monday by his lawyer, Siamak Namazi said he would be on a hunger strike for seven days and he asked Biden to spend a minute each day for the next week thinking about the suffering of Americans detained in Iran.

"When the Obama Administration unconscionably left me in peril and freed the other American citizens Iran held hostage on January 16, 2016, the US Government promised my family to have me safely home within weeks," Namazi said.

"Yet seven years and two presidents later, I remain caged in Tehran's notorious Evin prison."

Namazi was arrested in October 2015 on charges of trying to overthrow the state, accusations that he denies.

Alireza Akbari: Iran condemned for 'barbaric' execution of British dual citizen
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His father, Baquer, who travelled to Iran in 2016 out of concern for his detained son, was subsequently arrested on espionage-related charges. He was released two years later but banned from travelling and then was finally allowed to leave Iran in October 2022 for medical treatment.

The letter falls on the seventh anniversary of the release of five US citizens in a prisoner exchange with Iran which coincided with the implementation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Namazi is among several Americans currently detained in Iran, including environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, 67, who also has British nationality; and businessman Emad Shargi, 58.

A White House National Security Council spokesperson told CBS News that the government was committed to securing the freedom of Americans detained in Iran.

"We remain committed to securing the freedom of Siamak Namazi, and we are working tirelessly to bring him home along with all US citizens who are wrongfully detained in Iran, including Emad Shargi and Morad Tahbaz," the spokesperson said.

The Biden administration has been urged to help secure the release of several Americans who have been detained in countries in the Middle East. Last July, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken held a call with the families of individuals who have been detained abroad.

However, the families of individuals imprisoned in Egypt or Saudi Arabia were not invited, sparking anger from those relatives.

"In the past, I implored you to reach for your moral compass and find the resolve to bring the US hostages in Iran home. To no avail. Not only do we remain Iran’s prisoners, but you have not so much as granted our families a meeting," the letter from Namazi said.

Last year, the US engaged in several prisoner swaps to free Americans detained in other countries, including striking a deal with the Taliban in Afghanistan and engaging in a high-profile swap that saw American basketball player Britney Griner freed in exchange for the release of the notorious arms dealer, Viktor Bout.

US rights group demands probe into Trump's business with Saudi-financed golf league

Mon, 01/16/2023 - 18:01
US rights group demands probe into Trump's business with Saudi-financed golf league
Saudi Public Investment Fund reported to own 93 percent of LIV Golf, according to rights group
MEE staff Mon, 01/16/2023 - 18:01
Former US President Donald Trump at the LIV Golf Invitational at Trump National Golf Club on 28 July 2022 in Bedminster, New Jersey.
Former President Donald Trump at the LIV Golf Invitational at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, on 28 July 2022 (AFP)

A Washington-based human rights group is calling on the US government to investigate the business dealings between the Saudi Arabia-financed LIV Golf tour and former US President Donald Trump, who hosted a series of LIV golf tournaments at his resorts last year.

The demand for a probe into the business dealings comes after it was stated in a court hearing last week that the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund (PIF) owns 93 percent of LIV and pays all of the costs associated with its events.

While LIV had already disclosed that the PIF was its majority shareholder, the court hearing - in which LIV Golf and several professional golfers are suing the PGA Tour - was the first to mention the full extent of the investment fund's ownership.

US senator warns of 'deep concerns' over Saudi-backed golf tournament
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The claim was made during the hearing by the lead counsel to the PGA Tour, according to Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn).

Middle East Eye reached out to LIV Golf and the Trump Organization for comment, but did not receive a response by the time of publication.

"The revelation that a fund controlled by Crown Prince MBS actually owns almost all of LIV Golf means that MBS has been paying Donald Trump unknown millions for the past two years, via their mutual corporate covers," Sarah Leah Whitson, Dawn's executive director, said in a statement.

"The national security implications of payments from a grotesquely abusive foreign dictator to a president of the United States who provided extraordinary favors to him are as dangerous as they are shocking."

The PIF is at the centre of Saudi Arabia's efforts to remake the kingdom's economy and diversify away from petrodollars and is chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The two golf associations - LIV and PGA - have been engaged in a battle over the past year after a number of key golf stars decided to sign with LIV, including three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, who said the Saudi golf league gave him and golfers willing to participate "leverage" against the PGA Tour.

Last August, several players and LIV Golf sued PGA on antitrust grounds. Then in September, PGA filed a countersuit against LIV, accusing it of interfering with its players' contracts.

In October, PGA moved to file a lawsuit against the PIF, the backers of the Saudi golf tour.

'National security emergency'

Dawn raised further concerns about whether Trump had engaged in business deals with Saudi Arabia's PIF while he was in office.

Congress has already been scrutinising the business dealings of former Trump officials, including his son-in-law Jared Kushner who received a $2.5bn investment in his firm, Affinity Partners, from the Saudi government.

The New York Times also reported in November 2022 that the Trump Organization had inked a deal with a Saudi-based real estate firm to license its name for a housing and golf complex in Oman. The real estate endeavour is reportedly worth $1.6bn.

Last year, the former president hosted LIV tournaments at his golf resorts in Florida and New Jersey, to the condemnation of rights groups as well as the families of 9/11 victims who protested outside of the tournament held in New Jersey.

"If Trump or his agents discussed any deals with LIV Golf or PIF while Trump was still in office, a criminal investigation would also be in order because federal law strictly prohibits this sort of business dealing by sitting federal officials with foreign governments," said Whitson.

"Given that Trump is also planning to run again for president, his business ties to Mohamed bin Salman are a national security emergency."

The issue of LIV Golf has previously been raised in Congress, when in June 2022 Senator Richard Blumenthal sent a letter to the Biden administration with "deep concerns" over the golf association.


Hamas publishes unverified video of Israeli citizen held captive in Gaza

Mon, 01/16/2023 - 15:57
Hamas publishes unverified video of Israeli citizen held captive in Gaza
Avera Mengistu, who was detained after wandering into the besieged enclave in 2014, purportedly filmed for the first time since capture
MEE staff Mon, 01/16/2023 - 15:57
Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, publishes video on 16 January 2023 purportedly showing Israeli captive Avera Mengistu in an undated video clip (Screengrab)
The Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, publishes video on 16 January 2023 purportedly showing Israeli captive Avera Mengistu in an undated video clip (Screengrab)

Hamas has released footage it claims is of Avera Mengistu, an Israeli citizen of Ethiopian descent who has been held by the Palestinian group in Gaza since 2014. 

Mengistu climbed over the fence separating Israel and the besieged enclave eight and a half years ago, and has been held captive by Hamas ever since. 

In an unverified, undated video, Mengistu asks: “For how long will I be in captivity? After so many years, where is the state and the people of Israel?” 

'For how long will I be in captivity? After so many years, where is the state and the people of Israel?' 

- Avera Mengistu speaking in video

The video was published on Monday by the Qassam Brigades, Hamas’s military wing, in what is believed to be the only purported footage of Mengistu since his disappearance. 

In a written statement accompanying the video, the group says the Israeli army's new chief of staff, Herzl Halevi, "should be prepared to carry the burden of [his predecessor Aviv Kochavi's] failure and its consequences".  

Mengistu reportedly suffers from mental illness.

"Avera was sick for two years, after his brother Michael, a prominent figure in the family whom he was very connected to, suddenly died of a sickness. He was never the same after that," Yonit Tlayenesh Fenta, a family friend, told Middle East Eye in June 2017. 

His brother, Ilan Mengistu, told MEE at the time that Israeli officials urged the family not to tell anyone about what happened.

"For 10 months they told us that if we stayed quiet, it would help them save Avera. Looking back, I think these first moments were critical in locating him and obtaining information," he said.

The family and campaigners have long maintained that Mengistu's case has not been prioritised by the government, and that they have struggled to bring his plight to public attention.

Hamas is also holding another Israeli citizen, Hisham al-Sayed, a Palestinian citizen of Israel who wandered into Gaza in 2015 and was accused of being “a soldier in the occupation army”. 

Last year, the group released footage of Sayed on a ventilator, the first images of him published since his capture. 

The bodies of two Israeli soldiers, Hadar Goldin and Oron Shaul, are also believed to be held by Hamas. 

Arabic press review: Egyptian officials 'on high alert' amid dramatic price hikes

Mon, 01/16/2023 - 15:27
Arabic press review: Egyptian officials 'on high alert' amid dramatic price hikes
Meanwhile, government institutions in Kuwait witness mass resignations as people take advantage of retirement packages, and Syria has bread crisis linked to shortage of fuel
Mohammad Ayesh Mon, 01/16/2023 - 15:27
Egyptians walk past a poster depicting US dollars and other currencies outside an exchange office in Cairo, Egypt, on 12 January 2023 (AP)

Egypt's food crisis

Egypt's presidency has issued instructions to governors and ministers to "urgently address the crisis of the shortage of basic foodstuffs" for fear of a new wave of protests in the country, Al-Araby Al-Jadeed newspaper reported.

The report comes after a sharp drop in the Egyptian pound, which fell nearly 4 percent against the US dollar last week. The currency lost nearly half of its value last year after Cairo agreed to painful austerity measures to secure a loan from the International Monetary Fund. 

The devaluation has doubled the price of basic food like bread, meat, poultry, and dairy, which had already been high due to successive currency devaluations since an initial IMF deal in 2016. 

Egyptian pound plunges again as government makes painful IMF adjustments
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The presidential directives are based on reports warning of the consequences of "a state of popular discontent", according to government sources that spoke to the online paper.

Parliamentary and media sources said the ministers and governors are seeking to find urgent solutions, albeit temporary, to the successive economic and living crises, while some of them complain of two major obstacles.

The first is the lack of adequate coordination between the different ministries and institutions in the state, and the second is related to the interference of some officials from the security agencies, according to Al-Araby Al-Jadeed.

"Under the directives of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the armed forces continued to mitigate the living burdens of citizens and distributed large quantities of food baskets in various governorates of the republic to counter the economic repercussions,” said a statement issued by the armed forces last Monday.

Mass resignations in Kuwait's public sector

Government institutions in Kuwait have witnessed a wave of resignations over the past few weeks, with people taking advantage of a generous retirement provision that was due to expire on 31 December, according to a report published by The New Khalij website, which specialises in covering Gulf news.

The largest mass resignation was on the last working day of 2022, including by senior officials in various ministries and government agencies. 

Sources told the paper a large number of the senior officials were keen to resign before the beginning of 2023 to take advantage of retirement benefits, estimated to be 80 percent of the last monthly salary received. The resignations came after reports of the government's intention to cancel the decision that stipulates this benefit.

"These resignations, which were estimated at hundreds in various ministries, agencies and government institutions, are considered a precedent that did not occur in the history of Kuwaiti governments to this extent,” according to the report.

Syria's bread crisis

Many bakeries in government-controlled areas in Syria were forced to suspend their work due to their inability to secure the fuel needed for the bread industry, according to a report published by Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper.

The crisis comes after fuel prices surged to record levels, followed by a severe shortage in supplies.

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The crisis has escalated in the past few days after the Kurdish YPG, which controls most of the oil fields in eastern Syria, stopped supplying the government-controlled areas with oil derivatives, the London-based paper reported.

The shortage of bread, which is considered a staple for Syrians, has caused huge crowds in some bakeries which operate one or two days a week. Syrian citizens have been experiencing successive economic crises for ten years.

The suspension of work for many bakeries has led to a shortage of bread and a significant price increase. A package containing seven loaves reached 3,000 Syrian pounds (half a dollar), while its price doubled on the black market.

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

Egypt sentences 22 minors and whistleblower to lengthy prison terms over 2019 protests

Mon, 01/16/2023 - 14:46
Egypt sentences 22 minors and whistleblower to lengthy prison terms over 2019 protests
Rights groups denounce the sentencing of teenage boys to up to 15 years in prison after a 'politically motivated' mass trial
MEE staff Mon, 01/16/2023 - 14:46
Egyptian whistleblower Mohamed Ali speaking to MEE from a secret location in Spain, October 2019 (MEE)

An Egyptian court on Sunday sentenced 22 children to lengthy prison sentences ranging between five and 15 years over rare anti-government protests that took place across the country four years ago. 

The verdict also included a life sentence in absentia (25 years) for the exiled businessman and actor Mohamed Ali for leading the calls to protest against the government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2019.

The first terrorism circuit of the Cairo Criminal Court sentenced 39 people in the same case, known in local media as "The Joker", after a mass trial of 103 people.

The charges brought against the defendants included posting videos on YouTube calling for the protests, and sharing these videos on Facebook and WhatsApp. Other charges included disrupting traffic and using violence against civil servants, such as police officers, to prevent them from carrying out their work.

"The sentence comes as a shock, sending many kids to ten years in prison," said Aya Hijazi, director of the Washington DC-based Belady Centre for Rights and Freedoms. 

"There was no real crime. Neither blood nor terrorism. Only a legitimate and legal call to protest," she told Middle East Eye.

قضت محكمة جنايات القاهرة، الدائرة الأولى إرهاب، برئاسة القاضي محمد سعيد الشربيني، بجلسة اليوم الموافق 15 يناير 2023، على 28 طفلاً رفقة السيدة الوحيدة المدرجة على ذمّة القضيّة بأحكام تتراوح من البراءة وحتى السجن 15 عام. pic.twitter.com/9CSBYW2mTn

— Belady-بلادي جزيرة الإنسانية (@Belady_IH) January 15, 2023

The sentence cannot be appealed, because it has been issued by a terrorism circuit, said Ahmed Attar, a researcher at the Egyptian Network for Human Rights.

He told Middle East Eye that the detention of people who were accused of participating in 2019 protests was "arbitrary and was done without warrant".

"Many of the defendants were subjected to enforced disappearance and torture before being charged," Attar said. "These cases are politically motivated, with no evidence to support the charges."

Call for protests from Spain

Mohamed Ali was a fledgling actor and owned a property company that contracted with the Egyptian military on construction projects. He turned into a whistleblower in 2019, accusing Egyptian army officials of corruption.

He used his Youtube channel to call for protests against the government of President Sisi, which prompted rare demonstrations in 2019, followed by a broad arrest campaign of 4,000 people, including academics, activists and lawyers.

Egypt to loosen military's grip on economy as part of IMF bailout
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Ali's social media videos, filmed chiefly in an apartment in Spain, went viral and were seen by millions of people in Egypt and outside it, and got the attention of Sisi, who Ali described as "a failed man", "a disgrace" and a "midget".

Attar told MEE that Sunday's ruling was based on the anti-terrorism law, a draconian bill which grants the public prosecution powers deemed unconstitutional by rights groups.

The longstanding state of emergency, and the Emergency Supreme State Security Court, established in 1980, does not allow defendants to appeal their rulings, and it prosecutes people suspected of "being a threat to national security and public order".

However, in October 2021, Egypt lifted the state of emergency imposed in the country in June 1967, and it also cancelled the power of emergency state security courts, except over cases already in the trial process.

Sunday's rulings would remain inactive without the ratification of the military governor, who is Egypt's president or his authorised representative.

Egyptian jails held an estimated 65,000 political prisoners in 2021, arrested for their opposition to the Sisi government.

Half of Jewish Israelis believe they should have 'more rights than non-Jews'

Mon, 01/16/2023 - 13:54
Half of Jewish Israelis believe they should have 'more rights than non-Jews'
Survey finds most Jewish citizens of Israel identify as rightwing, and believe key decisions on security and the economy should be made by the Jewish majority
MEE staff Mon, 01/16/2023 - 13:54
Israeli protesters attend a rally against Israel's new government in Tel Aviv on 14 January 2023 (AFP)
Israeli protesters attend a rally against Israel's new government in Tel Aviv on 14 January 2023 (AFP)

Nearly half of Jewish Israelis believe that they “should have more rights than non-Jewish citizens”, according to an annual survey published by the Israel Democracy Institute on Sunday. 

Almost half of respondents, 49 percent, agreed with the statement, an increase of 12 percent on the same poll last year. 

The survey interviewed a total of 1,311 Jewish and Palestinian citizens of Israel between May and June last year.  

Most Jewish Israelis (80 percent) believe that crucial decisions on peace and security should be made by a Jewish majority, while 59 percent believe the same to be true on matters of the economy and society. 

Two thirds of Jewish Israelis thought that human rights organisations were causing damage to the state, while only 35 percent of Palestinian citizens of Israel held that view. 

When Jewish Israelis were asked whether Jewish or democratic elements of the country should be dominant, 43 percent favoured the Jewish element, 30 percent backed both equally, while 26 percent favoured the democratic element. 

A large majority of Palestinian citizens (78 percent) believe that Palestinians are discriminated against in Israel, while 49 percent of Jewish Israelis agree.

“Over the past two decades there has... been an erosion of public attitudes regarding basic principles of democracy, especially among Jewish Israelis, regarding civil equality,” said Tamar Herman, a policy research director at the Israel Democracy Institute. 

“With the exception of the secular public, among the majority of Jewish Israelis today there is a growing preference to put more of an emphasis on the country’s Jewish character.”

Support for Supreme Court powers

Among Jewish Israelis, the highest level of trust in state institutions was for the Israeli army (88 percent) followed by the country’s presidency (62 percent). 

There were lower levels of trust in the Supreme Court (42 percent), police (35 percent), government (24 percent), media (23 percent) and political parties (nine percent).

Among both Palestinians (71 percent) and Jewish Israelis (56 percent), a majority of citizens believe the Supreme Court should have the power to overturn laws passed in parliament if they contradict democratic principles. 

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The newly elected Israeli government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning highly controversial judicial reforms, which include a proposed clause allowing parliament to reenact laws disqualified by the Supreme Court with a simple majority of 61 MPs (out of 120). 

“The data in the Israeli Voice Index is clear: there is no majority for initiatives that seek to weaken the Supreme Court and diminish the judiciary,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. 

“What is needed now are leaders from across the political spectrum who can come together and seek reforms that can lead to a constitutional compromise based on the counsel of leading experts and a broad consensus among Israelis.”

The new government is the most rightwing administration in Israel’s history, with Netanyahu’s Likud party in coalition with far-right religious Zionist factions and ultra-Orthodox parties. 

The survey found that 62 percent of Jewish Israelis consider themselves to be on the right, 24 percent in the centre, while only 11 percent are on the left. 

Notably, younger people were more likely to identify with the right, with 73 percent aged between 18 and 24, and 75 percent between 25 and 34. Among people over 65s, 46 percent considered themselves to be on the right.

The vast majority of respondents belonging to religious groups identified with the right, while secular Israelis were more evenly spread between the left, right and centre political leanings.

Palestinian boy aged 14 shot dead by Israeli forces

Mon, 01/16/2023 - 12:51
Palestinian boy aged 14 shot dead by Israeli forces
Omar Lotfi Khumour is the youngest Palestinian to be killed this year after he was shot in the head
MEE staff Mon, 01/16/2023 - 12:51
14-year-old Palestinian boy, Omar Lotfi Khumour, was killed by Israeli forces (Social Media)
Omar Lotfi Khumour, a 14-year-old Palestinian boy, was killed by Israeli forces (Social Media)

A 14-year-old Palestinian boy was killed by Israeli forces on Monday near the occupied city of Bethlehem. 

The Palestinian Ministry of Health identified the boy as Omar Lotfi Khumour who was shot in the head and succumbed to his wounds later in hospital.

The Israeli army has not commented on the killing, but it said its forces entered the Dheisheh refugee camp in dawn raids on houses.

“Suspects threw stones, explosives, and Molotov cocktails at the forces, who responded with riot dispersal means and live fire,” the Israeli army said in a statement.

No suspects were arrested in the camp, according to the statement.

Israeli forces killed nine Palestinians last week. So far this year, 14 Palestinians have been killed, including three children.

At least 167 were killed last year in the occupied West Bank, the highest death toll since the Second Intifada. 

Israeli forces conduct near-nightly search-and-arrest operations in the West Bank, which often turn deadly.

Most of the raids have focused on Nablus and Jenin in recent months, which are home to a growing number of Palestinian fighters.

Tensions at Al-Aqsa, shops demolished

There were further tensions on Monday after Israeli forces demolished 15 Palestinian-owned shops located at the entrance to the town of Hizma, east of occupied Jerusalem. 

This was followed by Israeli settlers storming the Al-Aqsa Mosque courtyard under the protection of Israeli forces. 

Palestinian worshippers to Al-Aqsa faced restrictions as a result of the raids, facing stringent checks at key entry points.

In Hebron, Palestinian farmers were not allowed to work on their lands after Israeli forces raided their allotments.

Mandela's grandson faces racist abuse over Western Sahara solidarity

Mon, 01/16/2023 - 10:20
Mandela's grandson faces racist abuse over Western Sahara solidarity
Zwelivelile Mandla Mandela in a speech called the Moroccan-controlled territory Africa's 'last colony' provoking fury from the kingdom
Alex MacDonald Mon, 01/16/2023 - 10:20
Former South African President Nelson Mandela's grandson, Chief Mandla Mandela joins hundreds of demonstrators at an inter-denominational march of members of pro-Palestinian groups and other civil society organisations during the holy month of Ramadan in Durban on June 2, 2018 (AFP)
Late South African President Nelson Mandela's grandson, Chief Mandla Mandela, joins hundreds of demonstrators at a pro-Palestine march on 2 June 2018 (AFP)

The grandson of former South African President Nelson Mandela has provoked a storm of racist abuse online after he referred to Morocco-controlled Western Sahara as Africa's "last colony" in a speech.

Speaking at the opening of the African Nations Championship football tournament on Friday in Algiers, Zwelivelile Mandla Mandela called for the "liberation" of Palestine and Western Sahara.

“We say that, in his [Nelson Mandela] honour, let us not forget the last colony of Africa, Western Sahara, let us fight to free Western Sahara from oppression," he told the crowd.

The comments provoked fury from Morocco, who denounced them as "provocative" while the African Nations Championship organisers, the Confederation of African Football, said on Sunday it would be opening an investigation into the issue.

On social media, in the days following the controversy, Mandela was subjected to a wave of criticism from Moroccans, as well as racist abuse including monkey pictures.

Mandela’s grandson shows solidarity with Palestine and Western Sahara
Read More »

"Shame on you and your family name to attack Morocco's territorial sovereignty. It's wrong for you to do so, you destroy your grandfather's legacy and you look like an ignorant," wrote one user to his Twitter account.

Another user wrote: "how much is your price n***er? I would like to buy you to herd some camels I have from Moroccan Sahara."

Others users claimed he had been bought off by 2023 CHAN host nation Algeria, which has long been a supporter of Western Sahara independence.

"The new slave face of Algerian petrodollars. Come and try to penetrate the Morocco Sahara, then you will see what are we doing with terrorist like you," one user wrote.

During the CHAN opening match in the Algerian capital, video also emerged of Algerian fans chanting against Morocco, denouncing them as "animals" and saying "give them bananas".

The African Nations Championship takes place once every two years and is organised by the Confederation of African Football since 2009.

Morocco has claimed Western Sahara as part of its territory since the end of Spanish colonial rule in 1975.

Though that status has long been disputed internationally, in December 2020 then-US President Donald Trump agreed to recognise Moroccan sovereignty over the territory in exchange for Moroccan recognition of Israel, a position the current Biden administration has not reversed.

Sahrawi campaigners have regularly faced arrest, raids and violence from Moroccan authorities in the territory, with several female activists in particular being threatened with, and subjected to, sexual assault.

Between 1975 and 1991, the Polisario Front - an Algeria-backed Sahrawi group - fought an armed struggle with Morocco for independence for Western Sahara.

In 1991, a ceasefire was established that broke down in November 2020, leading to resurgent violence and the deterioration of relations between Morocco and Algeria.

Since then, Sahrawi campaigners have complained of an intensifying crackdown by Moroccan authorities.

Turkey's Bosphorus reopens to traffic after Ukraine cargo ship refloated

Mon, 01/16/2023 - 09:03
Turkey's Bosphorus reopens to traffic after Ukraine cargo ship refloated
Tugboats had been deployed to shift vessel, as route between Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara was briefly blocked off
MEE staff Mon, 01/16/2023 - 09:03
The Palau-flagged bulk carrier MKK1, carrying grain under UN’s Black Sea grain initiative, is seen drifted aground in the Bosphorus, Istanbul, Turkey, 16 January 2023 (Reuters)

Maritime traffic at Istanbul's Bosphorus waterway is once again moving after being suspended earlier on Monday following a cargo ship being stranded.

The incident with the Palau-flagged vessel called the MKK1, travelling from Turkey to Ukraine, has not resulted in damage, according to Turkish authorities. However, it had briefly blocked all traffic in the highly important waterway.

According to maritime vessel traffic websites, the 142-metre vessel is now moving across the straits towards the Sea of Marmara. 

The freighter experienced a rudder failure at around 7.30am local time.

In a tweet, the Turkish coastguard authority said that it had promptly dispatched five tugboats to the scene.

The Bosphorus Strait connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and is one of the world's busiest maritime passages.

By some estimates, around 48,000 ships pass through the strait each year, which can be challenging to navigate partly due to the narrow width of some parts of the waterway. 

A similar incident involving a Ukrainian ship occurred in September last year after it collided with another vessel and briefly ran aground.

Speaking to Middle East Eye at the time, Yoruk Isik, a long-time naval Bosphorus observer said: "The Bosphorus is one of the most professionally managed in all steps, including pre-planning and foreseeing what can happen - it is extremely well managed."

Rare incidents

The last major accident on the Bosphorus was in 2019 when a Liberian-flagged cargo ship ran off course and collided with Istanbul's coast, forcing Turkish authorities to close the waterway.

The Bosphorus is one of the world's most important choke points for maritime oil transports, with more than three percent of global supply - mainly from Russia and the Caspian Sea - passing through the 27km waterway.

In the past Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has called for a new canal to be built that would ease traffic on the Bosphorus shipping route. 

He first mentioned the idea in 2011, dubbing it his "crazy project". But a currency crisis in 2018 prompted Turkey to freeze investments in large projects.

Kanal Istanbul has returned to the president's agenda periodically. Yet, ground has yet to be broken on the idea.

The 400-metre-wide canal planned to the west of Istanbul would connect the Black Sea in the north to the Sea of Marmara, which eventually runs into the Mediterranean.

Sudan's attempts to boost Hemeti's reputation aren't going to plan

Sat, 01/07/2023 - 11:37
Sudan's attempts to boost Hemeti's reputation aren't going to plan
He may have been named person of the year by the Sudanese human rights commission, but schemes to find favour at home and abroad are falling flat
Mohammed Amin Sat, 01/07/2023 - 11:37
Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, aka "Hemeti", holds his hands together during a reception ceremony in Khartoum in October 2020 (AFP)

When Mohamed Hamdan Daglo, the paramilitary leader better known as Hemeti, was named Sudan's human rights defender of the year last month, eyebrows were raised.

Hemeti is the second-most powerful man in Sudan and head of the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary born from the notorious Janjaweed militia accused of atrocities in Darfur, South Kurdofan and Blue Nile State. Under his leadership, the RSF has also played a key role in the 2021 military coup and repeated (sometimes deadly) crackdowns on pro-democracy protesters.

The irony was hard to miss. But to his critics, the award was just the latest example of Hemeti's attempt to improve his reputation this year. And he's spending big.

People stand holding signs showing Hemeti during a ceremony to sign a South Sudan peace accord in October 2020 (AFP)
People stand holding signs showing Hemeti during a ceremony to sign a South Sudan peace accord in October 2020 (AFP)

Not all his attempt to win hearts and minds, both at home and abroad, are going exactly as planned, however.

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

During the World Cup, Hemeti opened clubs across the country allowing Sudanese in deprived neighbourhoods to watch the games for free.

But the venues remained largely quiet, with the pro-democracy Resistance Committee activist groups calling on Sudanese to boycott the attempt to curry favour and warning the government against interfering in sports.

Other initiatives have similarly fallen flat. If 2022 was supposed to be the year Hemeti won legitimacy, there's still some way to go in 2023.

Darfur implications

In the camps for people displaced by the conflict in Darfur, which Hemeti is accused of playing a leading role in, the paramilitary leader's award was met with disbelief.

Adam Rigal, a spokesperson for the Darfur displacement camps, condemned the National Human Rights Commission's decision.

"This is clear fraud and cheating. How can the abuser become the defender? This award is very painful for us as victims of war, people still stranded in the camps or seeking refuge worldwide," Rigal told Middle East Eye.

"RSF violations are still ongoing. Four million people are still in the camps, the militias are attacking civilians every day in the region, the situation is getting worse every day. What the commission did is treason."

'How can the abuser become the defender? This award is very painful for us as victims of war'

- Adam Rigal, Darfur camps spokesperson

Similarly, Mossad Mohamed Ali, a prominent human rights defender and director of the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies (ACJPS), noted that under international law human rights defenders "are individuals or groups who act to promote, protect or strive for the protection and realisation of human rights and fundamental freedoms through peaceful means".

"Based on this definition, Hemeti cannot be considered a human rights defender simply because he is the head of the state that violates the rights of its people on a daily basis. As head of state and as a leader of the armed forces and RSF, he is involved in widespread and systematic crimes against international human rights law, such as extrajudicial killings, torture and the arbitrary arrest of human rights defenders and political activists," Ali told Middle East Eye.

He noted that the national human rights commission is not independent and up to international standards. "In one word: this commission lacks credibility," he added.

World Cup watching

Another attempt to rally support that appears to have misfired was the "Daglo initiative for free viewing of the World Cup".

In impoverished neighbourhoods in Khartoum and elsewhere, the RSF opened 200 clubhouses with TV screens and other services for people to enjoy the World Cup for free. It was supported by local governments, youth groups close to the RSF and the Sudanese Football Union.

Yet in places like Burri, a neighbourhood that has been a centre of the revolutionary pro-democracy movement, Resistance Committee activist groups have urged a boycott, Mohamed Ahmed from Burri Football Club told MEE.

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

The RSF offered to give Burri Football Club televisions to screen the games ahead of the World Cup kick off in November.

UAE-led team arrests 'world's most wanted human trafficker' in Sudan 
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"We rejected to receive these screens because the population of Burri rejected it. We have martyrs, our sons from Burri been killed, so we couldn't accept this offer at all," Ahmed said.

Sports analyst Hassan Faroug told MEE that many saw Hemeti's campaign as a governmental intervention in footballing activities - something that could attract sanctions from Fifa, football's international governing body.

"We see Hemeti trying to target the youth and turn them to his side through these cheap things. But that won't work and I believe that this may lead to sanctions from Fifa because it violates the independence of football in Sudan," he warned.

Football was just the latest venture the RSF has been splashing out on. The paramilitary has also opened schools and clinics in remote areas, backed initiatives to deliver clean water, delivered medics and medical supplies to communities hit with dengue fever and HIV, secured Covid-19 vaccines from the UAE and elsewhere, and sponsored tribal reconciliation talks.

And while those causes have brought relief to the needy, journalists and tribal leaders told MEE that they had been offered large amounts of money to promote the RSF and its flagship causes. They said they refused the offers.

International recognition

One way Hemeti's RSF has sought international recognition is by helping combat migration to Europe. It set up a large base, known as Chervrolit, in the desert between Sudan and Libya to crack down on those seeking to travel to Europe for economic or political refuge.

Hemeti has repeatedly urged the EU to recognise his efforts in blocking migration routes to Europe. And though the Khartoum Process between European countries and African countries provides Sudan with funds for capacity building to tackle informal migration, it is notable that the EU has been forced to deny that those funds have ended up in RSF hands.

Hemeti's attempt to find favour abroad began in 2019, when the Canadian firm Dickens & Madsen, owned by Israeli ex-spy Ari Ben-Menache, was paid $6m to lobby on behalf of the paramilitary leader.

Three sources close to Hemeti told MEE that he is also being given support from senior Emirati intelligence officers, and has recruited several top Sudanese political advisers.

Meanwhile, Russia-based Facebook accounts pushing content targeting Hemeti's civilian political rivals have also been identified and shut down. Facebook's parent company Meta did not disclose which Russian networks were behind the accounts, but organisations linked to the Wagner Group private military contractor, which has ties to the RSF, have previously been accused of similar tactics.

As reported owner of the al-Junaid gold-mining company, which operates in River Nile, Darfur, South Kordofan and other states, Hemeti likely has cash to burn.

Wagner-linked Russian mining companies, which are close to the Kremlin and supportive of the Sudanese military establishment, are also known to pay Sudan's military large sums for access to the country's gold reserves.

Attempts to boost Hemeti’s reputation aren’t going to plan

Tunisia: Five people die, 10 missing after boat sinks off coast

Sat, 01/07/2023 - 11:16
Tunisia: Five people die, 10 missing after boat sinks off coast
The coastguard rescued 20 people who had been on the overcrowded boat which was heading to Italy on Friday
MEE and agencies Sat, 01/07/2023 - 11:16
People from sub-Saharan Africa sit in a makeshift boat that was being used to clandestinely make its way towards the Italian coast, rescued by Tunisian authorities about 50 nautical miles in the Mediterranean sea off the coast of Tunisia's central city of Sfax on 4 October 2022 (AFP/file photo)

At least five Africans died and another 10 were missing after a boat sank off Tunisia, as they tried to cross the Mediterranean to Italy, a judicial official told Reuters on Saturday.

The coastguard rescued 20 people who had been on the overcrowded boat, which sank off Louata in Sfax region on Friday, the official said.

The coastline of Sfax has become a major departure point for people fleeing poverty in Africa and the Middle East for Europe.

In recent months, hundreds of people have drowned off the Tunisian coast, with an increase in the frequency of attempted crossings from Tunisia and Libya towards Italy.

In light of an unprecedented economic and financial crisis in Tunisia, more than 18,000 Tunisians travelled by boat to Europe in 2022, according to the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.

Mahsa Amini: Iran executes two more protesters amid ongoing crackdown

Sat, 01/07/2023 - 09:52
Mahsa Amini: Iran executes two more protesters amid ongoing crackdown
Mohammad Mahdi Karami and Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini had reportedly been held in inhuman conditions and denied access to lawyers
MEE staff Sat, 01/07/2023 - 09:52
Mohammad Mahdi Karami, 21, an Iranian-Kurdish karate champion, was one of two protesters killed by Iranian authorities (Social Media)

Iran said it executed two men on Saturday after finding them guilty of killing a member of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard's volunteer Basij force during the anti-government protests that have swept the country in recent months.

"Mohammad Mahdi Karami and Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini, the main perpetrators of the crime that led to the martyrdom of Ruhollah Ajamian, were hanged this morning," judicial news agency Mizan Online reported.

The latest hangings bring the number of people executed since the protests that followed the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman from the country's Kurdish region, to four.

Amini died on 16 September while being held in police custody after being arrested for allegedly wearing her mandatory hijab "inappropriately".

A spokesperson for the European Union said it was "appalled" by the new executions.

"This is yet another sign of the Iranian authorities’ violent repression of civilian demonstrations," the spokesperson for EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.

"The European Union calls once again on the Iranian authorities to immediately end the strongly condemnable practice of imposing and carrying out death sentences against protesters."

Confessions under torture

Mohammad Hossein Aghasi, a lawyer speaking for Karami but not allowed by Iranian authorities to represent his client, posted on Twitter on Saturday that Karami was not given final rights to speak to his family before his execution.

The lawyer added that Karami had also started a hunger strike from Wednesday to protest authorities not allowing Aghasi to represent him.

Karami, 21, was an Iranian-Kurdish karate champion who joined the national youth team and later won at the national championships.

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Last month Karami's parents posted a video to social media pleading with authorities to halt the execution. His father said: "My son is among the karate champions of Iran and has several national titles and was the fourth ranked member on Iran's national team… I beg of you to please lift the execution order."

Seyyed Mohammad Hosseini, 20, was remembered for volunteering with children by a German parliamentarian who advocated his case.

Lawyers representing Hosseini said he was beaten and had his feet and hands tied while in prison.

"Hosseini's confessions were made under torture and have no legal grounds," said Ali Sharifzadeh Ardakani on Twitter, adding that his client showed signs of being electrocuted.

Iran's Supreme Court upheld the sentence on 3 January.

Iran carried out its first execution related to the protests in early December of Mohsen Shekari, 23, who was hanged after a court convicted him for participating in protests and committing violence. 

The Iranian judiciary's Mizan Online website at the time reported that Shekari was "a rioter who blocked Sattar Khan Street in Tehran on 25 September and wounded one of the security guards with a machete".

Amnesty International said that Shekari's judicial proceedings "bore no resemblance to a meaningful trial".

Death of the peg: Why is Egypt's pound plunging?

Fri, 01/06/2023 - 21:13
Death of the peg: Why is Egypt's pound plunging?
Egypt's currency is suffering cliff-hanging drops as the country tries to kick its dollar addiction
Sean Mathews Fri, 01/06/2023 - 21:13
The currency of the Arab world’s most populous nation is falling abruptly (MEE)

Egypt’s pound is plummeting.

The pound plunged 40 percent against the dollar in 2022 - one of the worst performances of an emerging market currency last year - and this week, it kicked off 2023 by falling more than seven percent.

Middle East Eye spoke with economists and analysts to unpack why the currency of the Arab world’s most populous nation is falling - and why it's happening so abruptly.

The peg

The dramatic swings are the result of what Brad Setser, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and an expert on global trade and capital flows, calls Egypt’s attempts to move away from a “de facto dollar peg”.

Currencies like the US dollar, Euro, or British pound trade freely, meaning their value in relation to peers is determined by buyers and sellers agreeing to a price on the market. That’s why a chart tracking the Euro vs the US dollar zigzags up and down.

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Not so for Egypt, where the government has tried to manage the pound’s rate of exchange. Between 2018 to 2021, a person could be confident that one US dollar would buy about 16 Egyptian pounds at the official rate of exchange.

Egypt inflation

“Egypt has traditionally linked its currency to the dollar,” Setser told Middle East Eye. There are lots of ways for governments to manage their rate of exchange, but the most straightforward is for central banks to use their foreign currency reserves.

“Egypt’s central bank will sell dollars into the market when they are in short supply or buy them when there are too many,” he said.

Currency pegs are common in the Middle East.

The Gulf states all peg their currencies to the dollar because much of their revenue comes from oil, which is priced in the greenback. Egypt also has foreign revenue sources - remittances from abroad, tourism profits and Suez Canal fees - but nowhere near the level of its wealthier neighbours.

Egypt’s government denies managing its currency, but analysts and economists say Cairo has supported the pound in an effort to keep prices stable and control inflation.

 'The immediate impact is a drop in demand for imports'

- Charles Robertson, Renaissance Capital

“The peg means dollars are constantly flowing out of the country,” Charles Robertson, global chief economist at the frontier investment bank Renaissance Capital, told Middle East Eye.

“Egypt doesn’t have the foreign exchange reserves or foreign inflows to maintain a fixed exchange rate,” Setser added.

In an effort to conserve scarce dollars, Egypt's government had asked importers to provide letters of credit, creating a black market demand for dollars and a backlog of goods at ports. President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said in December that the government would help banks secure foreign currency to clear the pileup. 

Egypt has $45bn in debt payments due this year. But it’s struggling to find creditors. Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, foreign investors pulled $22bn from its debt market. Rising interest rates in the West make Egypt a less desirable destination for foreign investors.

And its currency is just too high.

“Egypt has held its exchange rate at an artificially high level, at the same time they have huge debts coming due in dollars,” Patrick Curran, a senior economist at Tellimer Ltd, a firm that specialises in emerging-market research, told MEE.

“People we have as clients aren’t going to put their money into the country until the exchange rate is at a market clearing level,” Curran added. “Markets are still pricing in 20 percent depreciation over the next year and the currency is trading below the black market rate."

In December, Egypt turned to the IMF for its fourth loan from the lender in six years. As part of a $3bn deal, Cairo agreed to shift to a “flexible exchange rate regime", agreeing to let the pound's value be determined by market forces. 

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Since then there have been several abrupt devaluations in the pound.

“What we are seeing during the drops is the government taking their hands off the steering wheel, letting it (the pound) adjust in line with where supply and demand says it should be," Curran said. 

Egypt Inflation

As the pound decreases in value, imports become more expensive. In effect, it is a form of national belt-tightening. What Egypt must do, Robertson from Renaissance Capital says, is produce more and consume less, particularly from abroad.

“As the currency weakens, Egypt’s exports will become less expensive and more competitive, that’s a longer-term response,” he said. “The immediate impact is a drop in demand for imports.”

The pain is being borne by the Egyptian people, who are experiencing massive price hikes in everything from medicine to electronic appliances, as the pound drops in value.

The currency depreciation is also feeding into higher inflation, which Capital Economics, a London-based consultancy, expects to peak at 27 percent by the end of Q1. In November, Egypt’s inflation hit 18.7 percent.

Capital Economics says there are already signs that the depreciation is having an effect, with the country benefiting from increased competitiveness in exports. Gulf states, wary of a potential economic collapse, have also pledged billions of dollars to try and shore up the economy.

But Setser says a lot more pain is to come for ordinary Egyptians.

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“The successful outcome is one where Egypt tightens its belt, gets additional help from its neighbours, and catches a break with food prices falling and tourism picking up.”

“The risk is that Egypt’s debts spiral out of control.”

Taliban condemns Prince Harry's comment on Afghan killings

Fri, 01/06/2023 - 19:51
Taliban condemns Prince Harry's comment on Afghan killings
Taliban leader says those killed 'were not chess pieces, they were humans'
MEE staff Fri, 01/06/2023 - 19:51
Prince Harry's highly personal book Spare will launch globally on 10 January 2023.
Prince Harry's highly personal book "Spare" will launch globally on 10 January 2023 (AFP/File photo)

The Taliban administration in Afghanistan has criticised Prince Harry after the British royal said in his memoir that he had killed 25 Afghans when serving as a military helicopter pilot, describing them as "chess pieces removed from the board".

"The western occupation of Afghanistan is truly an odious moment in human history and comments by Prince Harry is a microcosm of the trauma experienced by Afghans at the hands of occupation forces who murdered innocents without any accountability," Abdul Qahar Balkhi, spokesperson for the Taliban-led Afghan foreign affairs ministry, said.

Harry's highly personal book Spare went on sale in Spain days before its global launch on 10 January. In one section of the memoir, the 38-year-old recounts his two tours in Afghanistan, first as a forward air controller in 2007/08 and again in 2012, when he was an Apache helicopter pilot in the British Army Air Corps deployed to Camp Bastion in the south of the country.

Prince Harry says he killed 25 people in Afghanistan
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"It’s not a number that fills me with satisfaction, but nor does it embarrass me," Harry wrote, according to the Spanish version of the book. "When I found myself plunged in the heat and confusion of combat, I didn't think of those 25 as people.

"They were chess pieces removed from the board, Bad people eliminated before they could kill Good people."

Anas Haqqani, leader of the Taliban, condemned the remarks on Twitter, saying: "Mr. Harry! The ones you killed were not chess pieces, they were humans; they had families who were waiting for their return. Among the killers of Afghans, not many have your decency to reveal their conscience and confess to their war crimes."

"I don't expect that the ICC will summon you or the human rights activists will condemn you, because they are deaf and blind for you. But hopefully these atrocities will be remembered in the history of humanity," he added.

The Duke of Sussex also credited his effectiveness as an Apache gunner to his fondness for video games. "It's a joy for me because I'm one of those people who loves playing Playstation and Xbox, so with my thumbs I like to think that I'm probably quite useful," he said.

The Taliban, a militant group that first took power in Afghanistan in the 1990s, was not responsible for the 9/11 attacks but was accused by the US of harbouring fighters belonging to al-Qaeda, the group which was. 

In late 2001, the US and its close allies invaded Afghanistan, which has remained in a state of turmoil and instability ever since. As of September 2021, more than 70,000 Afghan and Pakistani civilians are estimated to have died as a direct result of the war.

In addition to the Taliban, the royal was also criticised by his fellow British servicemen.

"That’s not how you behave in the army; it’s not how we think. He has badly let the side down. We don’t do notches on the rifle butt. We never did," retired British Army colonel Tim Collins told Forces News.