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Updated: 5 days 11 hours ago

Western Sahara: Morocco recalls Tunisia ambassador over Polisario Front invite

Sat, 08/27/2022 - 09:07
Western Sahara: Morocco recalls Tunisia ambassador over Polisario Front invite
Move comes after President Kais Saied welcomed leader of independence movement to Tunis ahead of African summit
MEE and agencies Sat, 08/27/2022 - 10:07
Tunisia's President Kais Saied (R) with the head of the Polisario Front movement, Brahim Ghali, on the latter's arrival in Tunis on 26 August 2022 (Reuters)

Morocco has recalled its ambassador to Tunisia over his country's decision to host the head of the Polisario Front, the independence movement for Western Sahara, in Tunis. 

The disputed former Spanish colony is classified as a "non-self-governing territory" by the United Nations, and has been the source of a decades-long conflict between Sahrawi independence campaigners and Rabat, which claims it as its own.

Tunisian President Kais Saied received Polisario Front leader Brahim Ghali on Friday ahead of a Japanese development summit for Africa hosted in the Tunisian capital over the weekend.

Morocco described the invite as "a grave and unprecedented act that deeply hurts the feelings of the Moroccan people". 

It recalled its ambassador to Tunisia on Friday as a result, and Tunis responded by recalling its envoy to Rabat for consultations. 

On Saturday, Tunisia's foreign affairs ministry said it maintained complete "neutrality over Western Sahara issue in compliance with international legitimacy". 

It said the African Union had called on all members of the intergovernmental body to participate in the Tokyo International Conference on African Development Summit in Tunisia, which included the head of the Polisario Front. 

The president of the African Commission directly extended an invite to Ghali, Tunis said. 

Ghost towns, rockets and drones: Polisario’s war in Western Sahara
Read More »

Morocco's foreign ministry announced it would pull out of the summit, accusing Tunisia of "multiplied negative positions" against Morocco and labelling the decision to host Ghali as "confirm[ing] its hostility in a blatant way". 

Tunisia maintains close economic ties with neighbour Algeria, the main international backer of the Polisario Front, with a border crossing between the two countries reopening last week following two years of closure. 

In December 2020, the United States recognised Western Sahara as part of Morocco in return for Rabat normalising relations with Israel. 

Earlier this year, Spain announced its support for Morocco's autonomy plan for the disputed territory in a diplomatic U-turn, prompting Algeria to recall its Madrid envoy and upending relations between the two countries. 

Morocco recalls Tunisia ambassador over Polisario Front invite

Iraq: Guns and troops pile into Baghdad's Green Zone as threat of violence looms

Fri, 08/26/2022 - 22:07
Iraq: Guns and troops pile into Baghdad's Green Zone as threat of violence looms
Muqtada al-Sadr is fast running out of options, while his rivals are rapidly losing patience. Some Iran-backed factions are already preparing for the worst
Suadad al-Salhy Fri, 08/26/2022 - 23:07
A Sadrist fighter stands guard in front of an image of Muqtada al-Sadr, left, and Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr in Samarra (Reuters/File photo)

Muqtada al-Sadr no longer has many options. Armed clashes, feared but not yet witnessed, are now imminent, Iraqi armed factions leaders and politicians told Middle East Eye.

It seems the latest escalation by the influential Shia cleric's supporters - marching on the headquarters of the judiciary - has caused considerable anger in Iraq and internationally.

Sadr's followers behaved in a disciplined manner as they descended on the Supreme Judicial Council in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone on Tuesday.

They neither stormed the building nor confronted the security forces guarding it. Yet Faiq Zaidan, the council's president, responded firmly by suspending the entire judiciary in protest. He claimed threatening messages had been sent to Federal Supreme Court judges.

Sadr's office ordered the protesters to back down and return to their month-long sit-in around parliament, two kilometres away, yet that did nothing to mitigate the reactions of Sadr's opponents and critics, western diplomats and Iraqi politicians told MEE.

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As the Iraqi public nervously watched the Sadrists withdrawing on TV and social media, the commanders of the Popular Mobilisation Authority (PMA), a governmental paramilitary umbrella group that includes Sadr's Iran-backed rivals, met in Baghdad.

They convened to discuss developments in the situation and proposed steps to stop Sadr's "transgression of the sanctity of state institutions", a commander who took part in the meeting told MEE.

'We won't sit idly by and wait for Sadr's next move. Instead, we'll accelerate it and finish this game'

- Senior PMA official

It ended with a statement widely perceived as escalatory, in which the PMA said it felt "obligated" to end its impartiality to protect civil peace, defend the state and protect the constitution.

Several moves were agreed upon in the meeting. The commanders decided to raise the readiness of the PMA's forces in the Green Zone, adding an additional 6,000-8,000 troops to the troops already deployed in and around the district.

They also decided to increase coordination with the rest of the security forces deployed in the Green Zone, approving a joint and proactive security plan to confront any escalation by Sadr's followers there.

"At the beginning, our decision was not to interfere," said a senior PMA official. He told MEE that members of Sadr's armed faction were among the protesters at the judiciary.

"Sadr's use of Saraya al-Salam fighters to besiege the building of the Supreme Judicial Council and threaten the judges of the Federal Court with physical termination forced us to take a different position," he said. 

"If he seeks [armed] confrontation, we will secure it for him," the official, who also participated in the meeting, added.

"We gave him many opportunities to retreat in order to save his face, but he went too far. We won't sit idly by and wait for his next move. Instead, we'll accelerate it and finish this game."

Many weapons

Several PMA officials told MEE that 1,700 Saraya al-Salam fighters have been withdrawn from Samarra, 100km north of Baghdad, over the past few weeks.

Half of them were sent to southern Iraq's Najaf to secure Sadr's residence in the al-Hanana neighbourhood, while the rest were deployed inside the Green Zone to secure and sustain the Sadrist sit-in, where demonstrators are demanding fresh elections after Sadr's attempts to form a government failed.

Eyewitnesses, officials and PMA commanders told MEE that Sadr's fighters deployed in the Green Zone are wearing black uniform and have been using the PMA's equipment, including Toyota Hilux and Chevrolet Silverado vehicles and communications gear. 

"Smart" surveillance cameras connected to the joint military operations rooms responsible for securing the Green Zone helped to identify them and their numbers, officials told MEE.

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Some PMA officials and politicians said Sadrists had brought many weapons into the district using a number of their vehicles, taking advantage of the negligence of security at checkpoints "who fear the Sadrists' revenge if they subject their vehicles to inspection".

Eyewitnesses, including an MEE photographer, also said hundreds of Saraya al-Salam fighters and their commanders were at the judiciary on Tuesday. The fighters formed a separating cordon between Sadr's followers and the Special Division forces who were deployed near the parliament and cabinet offices.

Another group of Saraya al-Salam fighters stood between Sadrist followers and the Judiciary Council building. 

map

Saraya al-Salam commanders could be identified by their Hytera radio transceivers, which the PMA distributes to its officers, but most of their vehicles were unmarked and had no number plates.

Neither the Saraya al-Salam nor Special Division fighters were armed, but the commanders and their security were carrying handguns, eyewitnesses said

Two Saraya al-Salam leaders and a Sadrist leader close to the cleric told MEE that some of their fighters and commanders have been deployed inside the Green Zone from the first day of the sit-in on 30 July "to provide logistical support", but they denied bringing any weapons into the area.

"Our orders are strict with regard to carrying weapons or using them inside the Green Zone. We did not allow any of the protesters or fighters to even carry sticks," a prominent Saraya al-Salam commander involved in supervising the sit-in told MEE.

"It is ridiculous to promote the rumour that our fighters and youth carry weapons or even bring them into the sit-in area. If we wanted, we would do so, but we will not violate Sadr's orders, and he was clear in this regard."

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The commander denied withdrawing any forces from Samarra or even having the need to send them to Najaf.

However, sources told MEE that those close to Sadr are very concerned about possible attacks on the cleric at his Najaf residence.

Precautionary measures have been taken to secure Najaf's old city, where the majority of Iraq's senior Shia clergy are located, including Sadr.

A reactive policy

Sadr has been on a collision course with his Iranian-backed rivals ever since emerging from last October's parliamentary election with the largest number of seats and trying to form a government with his Kurdish and Sunni allies that would freeze them out.

The Shia factions opposed to him, which have grouped in the Coordination Framework alliance, managed to frustrate him so much that Sadr ordered his MPs to resign, which handed the initiative to his rivals rather than upturning the table to his benefit.

So he escalated things further, sending his supporters to camp out at the parliament building, demanding new elections.

As Iraq's political crisis deepens, US influence dwindles
Read More »

Since then, the Coordination Framework's parties and armed factions have sought to avoid a direct collision with Sadr. But behind the scenes some of them have from time to time been keen to provoke him and encourage more mistakes that could strip the cleric of his domestic and international support, politicians told MEE.

"Confronting Sadr directly was not an option on the table of the leaders of the Coordination Framework. That would be stupid if we take into account the numerical superiority he achieved inside the parliament and the local and international support he enjoys outside it," a prominent leader of the alliance told MEE.

"The alternative was to fight the battle away from him, targeting his Kurdish and Sunni allies, while exploiting any opportunity that loomed on the horizon to strengthen his arrogance and push him to commit more mistakes."

While the Framework leader said the policy had always been to react to Sadr's actions, "the problem now is that Sadr is trapped in a dead end, and he has no choice but to step forward and be politically eliminated, or to retreat".

"Therefore, the reaction policy that we adopted earlier is no longer appropriate, and we have to reverse the equation now," he said.

Escalation as a deterrent

It is not just the paramilitaries of the PMA and Sadrists who are on high alert.

By Wednesday morning, thousands of special forces, counterterrorism forces and PMA crack troops had been deployed in the Green Zone and neighbouring districts like Karrada and Jadriya, where the presidential palace is located. Meanwhile, concrete defences have sprung up around the most sensitive governmental buildings.

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Security forces can be seen along all the bridges and roads leading to the Green Zone, and orders have been sent out to prevent any forces from entering Baghdad, military commanders told MEE.

"It is not clear what Sadr's next step is, but he promised a sudden escalation, so these precautionary security measures were taken," another prominent Coordination Framework leader told MEE.

"Whatever his destination this time, what happened in the parliament and the Supreme Judicial Council will not be repeated."

The Framework leader said no decision has been taken to engage with the Sadrists with violence, "but everyone supports the option of escalation with the aim of deterrence".

"The goal is to stop Sadr's use of the street [the public], not to drag him into a military confrontation. There is no sane person who supports the option of a military confrontation."

Will Sadr risk armed confrontation?

The PMA commanders' decision on Tuesday to escalate does not seem to have the support of all Shia forces. 

After the PMA's statement was issued, Hadi al-Amiri, the leader of the al-Fatah bloc and one of the key leaders of the Coordination Framework, contacted Faleh al-Fayyad, the head of the PMA, to express his anger and rejection of the statement, a source close to Fayyad told MEE.

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Meanwhile Zaidan, President Barham Salih, Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi and Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi came together to demand that all security forces keep out of the political conflict.

Saraya al-Salam fighters have reportedly been redeployed to Baghdad (Reuters/File photo)
Saraya al-Salam fighters have reportedly been redeployed to Baghdad (Reuters/File photo)

"Shia-Shia fighting is a red line, we will not allow it to be crossed. The Popular Mobilisation forces will not interfere in this conflict except in the case of self-defence," another senior Coordination Framework leader told MEE.

"The PMA is there to defend the state and state institutions, and we will not allow it to be used by anyone in political conflicts. We will not allow it to interfere, neither in favour of the Sadrist movement nor the Coordination Framework."

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The leader argued that the PMA needs to be a deterrent, even for the forces that are included in it.

Though Shia-on-Shia fighting is a line that everyone fears will unleash hell if crossed, clerics and politicians close to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the top Shia religious figure in Iraq, have played down the risk.

"All available information and signs indicate that the current escalation is under control, that it is part of the pressure tools that both parties exert on each other," a source close to Sistani told MEE.

"Our assessment of the situation is that the clash will take place, but it will be limited. This will be the result of the tense rhetoric."

Baghdad
Guns and troops pile into Baghdad's Green Zone as threat of violence looms

New York man pleads guilty to helping IS group, planning knife attack

Fri, 08/26/2022 - 20:16
New York man pleads guilty to helping IS group, planning knife attack
The man sent a screenshot of a document titled 'Islamic State', detailing his plans, authorities say
MEE staff Fri, 08/26/2022 - 21:16
The Manhattan skyline rises over Calvary Cemetery in the Borough of Queens on 31 March 2020 in New York.
The Manhattan skyline rises over Calvary Cemetery in the Borough of Queens on 31 March 2020 in New York (AFP)

A man from Queens, New York pleaded guilty on Friday to attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State (IS) group.

Awais Chudhary, a naturalised US citizen born in Pakistan, admitted to "planning to carry out a lone wolf terrorist attack in Queens", according to the US Justice Department.

According to the criminal complaint, Chudhary allegedly pursued plans to conduct a stabbing attack, "order[ing] online a tactical knife, a mask, gloves, and a cellphone chest and head strap to facilitate his recording of the attack".

Authorities say the 22-year-old Chudhary also sent a screenshot of a document detailing his plans, titled "Islamic State" to an undercover law enforcement agent.

Kansas woman allegedly led an all-female IS group battalion, says US Justice Department
Read More »

"As he admitted today, Mr Chudhary planned to bring terror to the people of New York City on behalf of ISIS," FBI Assistant Director-in-Charge Driscoll said in a statement, using another term for the IS group.

According to court filings, in August 2019 he pledged allegiance to the IS group and began to plan out his attack.

Prosecutors said he told undercover agents he planned to record attacks on the pedestrian bridges over the Grand Central Parkway to the Flushing Bay Promenade. Chudhary allegedly said he wanted to use a knife “because that’s what he knows".

Chudhary was arrested as he attempted to retrieve the items from an online retailer's locker in Queens. He will now face up to 20 years in prison.

Earlier this year, a Kansas woman was arrested by US authorities on charges of organising and leading an armed all-female battalion on behalf of the IS group.

The Justice Department said it had collected at least six individual eyewitness accounts that backed up its charges against Fluke-Ekren, most of which alleged "terrorist conduct" from at least 2014 through approximately 2017.

The witnesses also claimed she had given military-style training to more than 100 women and young girls, while a detention memo states that she trained children - including her own five- or six-year-old child - how to use assault rifles in Syria.

State Department reaches settlements with ex-US intel operatives who worked for UAE

Fri, 08/26/2022 - 17:46
State Department reaches settlements with ex-US intel operatives who worked for UAE
The three men oversaw the creation of a 'zero-click' attack for the UAE which could hack into a device without any action by the targeted user
MEE staff Fri, 08/26/2022 - 18:46
The company the men worked at from 2016 to 2019 "supported and carried out computer network exploitation (CNE) operations" for the UAE (AFP/File photo)

The US State Department on Friday said it had concluded settlements with three former US intelligence operatives who worked as cyber spies for the United Arab Emirates and admitted last year to violating American hacking laws.

Under the agreements, Marc Baier, Ryan Adams and Daniel Gericke will be prohibited from participating in any activities subject to US International Traffic in Arms Regulations for three years, the department said in a statement.

In September 2021, the men admitted to violations of US export control, computer fraud and access device fraud laws. However, rather than facing jail time, the individuals were fined a total of $1.7m in addition to their three-year ban.

US accused over huge 'covert pro-Western' digital campaign targeting Middle East
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According to the Justice Department, they had originally worked for a US company providing cyber intelligence operations for the UAE government that met US regulations.

The men then moved in 2016 to higher-paying jobs at a UAE government-linked company, where they began carrying out hacking jobs on designated targets, including servers inside the US.

According to court documents, the company the men worked at from 2016 to 2019 "supported and carried out computer network exploitation (CNE) operations", also known as hacking operations, for the UAE government.

Given that they were all former employees of the US Intelligence Community or the military, they were required to obtain a licence from the State Department to conduct any work for foreign clients, which they did not do.

"Defendants stole and fraudulently obtained, used, and trafficked in access devices, authentication tokens, passwords, and other means of accessing without authorization protected computers, including protected computers located in the United States," a court document from last year said.

Among the hacking services they oversaw was the creation of a sophisticated "zero-click" attack, which could hack into a device without any action by the targeted user.

"Zero-click" attacks have come under the spotlight in the past several years, most recently with the bombshell investigation that found that the Israeli spyware Pegasus had been used by foreign governments - including the UAE - to spy on journalists, activists, and political dissidents.

Project Raven and Karma

The State Department said the settlement highlighted how important it is to control the export of its defence services to other countries or foreign entities.

"The Department takes seriously all violations of the Arms Export Control Act and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, because such violations may harm the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States," a State Department official told Middle East Eye.

Baier, Adams and Gericke were part of a clandestine unit named Project Raven, first reported by Reuters, which hacked into the accounts of human rights activists, journalists and rival governments at the behest of the UAE’s monarchy.

They admitted to deploying a sophisticated cyberweapon called “Karma” that allowed the UAE to hack into Apple iPhones without requiring a target to click on malicious links, according to court papers.

Karma allowed users to access tens of millions of devices and qualified as an intelligence gathering system under federal export control rules. 

Project Raven used Karma to hack into thousands of targets including a Nobel Prize-winning Yemeni human rights activist and a BBC television show host, Reuters reported.

UN agency for Palestinian refugees facing 'existential threat', says chief

Fri, 08/26/2022 - 15:41
UN agency for Palestinian refugees facing 'existential threat', says chief
Philippe Lazzarini warns that 'coordinated campaigns' to delegitimise UNRWA have pushed the agency to its limits
MEE staff Fri, 08/26/2022 - 16:41
Palestinians receive their monthly food rations from the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (Unrwa) warehouse in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on 14 June 2022 (AFP)
Palestinians receive their monthly food rations from the UN Relief and Works Agency warehouse in Khan Younis in the Gaza Strip, on 14 June 2022 (AFP)

The UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA) is facing an existential threat, the body's commissioner-general warned on Thursday. 

In a statement addressed to the UN security council, Philippe Lazzarini said “chronic underfunding” of the agency's programme budget in the past decade had pushed it to its limits. 

He cited several factors that contributed to the crisis, including “coordinated campaigns to delegitimise UNRWA with a view to erode the rights of Palestine refugees” which he said were “increasing in frequency and in maliciousness”.

He also said shifting geopolitical priorities, regional dynamics and the emergence of new humanitarian crises have led to the deprioritisation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. 

“Until last year, the funding gap was managed through cost control, austerity and carryover of large liabilities from one year to the other,” Lazzarini said. “But today, we have no financial reserve. We have reached the limit of austerity and cost control measures.” 

The denial of the Palestinian right of return is a crime as great as the Nakba
Read More »

UNRWA was founded in December 1948 to provide relief programmes for around 750,000 Palestinian refugees expelled by Zionist militias from their villages and towns during the establishment of the state of Israel - an event known to Palestinians as the Nakba, or "catastrophe".

There are now 5.7 million refugees registered as eligible to receive aid from the organisation.

According to Lazzarini, more than 80 percent of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, Syria and Gaza live below the poverty line.

The US had been UNRWA's largest single donor, followed by the European Union, until 2018, when the administration of then-US President Donald Trump cut its yearly contribution from $360m to $60m, before cutting all funding in 2019 - leaving the organisation cash-strapped.

In April 2021, the administration of US President Joe Biden announced that it was planning to provide $235m of aid in a bid to engage with the Palestinian Authority (PA) and move forward with a two-state solution.

UNRWA confirmed at the time that it would receive $150m of this aid from the US, barely enough to support its 700 schools and 150 health clinics that help Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, Gaza Strip, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

UN agency for Palestinian refugees facing 'existential threat', says chief

Palestinian Authority renews push for full UN member status

Fri, 08/26/2022 - 15:30
Palestinian Authority renews push for full UN member status
PA ambassador to the UN Riyad Mansour says he is in negotiations over gaining full status, but the US has warned leadership against any such move
MEE staff Fri, 08/26/2022 - 16:30
PA ambassador to the UN Riyad Mansour has been quietly negotiating the bid for full UN membership over the past several weeks.
PA ambassador to the UN Riyad Mansour has been quietly negotiating the bid for full UN membership over the past several weeks (AFP/File photo)

The Palestinian Authority has renewed a bid for full membership at the United Nations, but faces an uphill battle as the United States has warned PA leadership against any such move.

"We are negotiating in good faith with all [UNSC] members," PA ambassador to the UN Riyad Mansour told reporters in New York on Thursday.

"There is cautious optimism in the atmosphere."

Stop weaponising antisemitism: Jewish scholars urge UN members to support Israel probe
Read More »

Several weeks ago, Mansour quietly began consultations in New York with Security Council members over a possible full membership bid, Palestinian, Israeli and US sources told Axios.

The move has been seen as an attempt to break the international gridlock in the peace process. Mansour said that given there is no peace initiative on the table, the issue of full UN membership should move forward.

"This is a policy of the Palestinian leadership and their people from the top down," he said.

"If we succeed in admitting the state of Palestine to [UN] statehood, then maybe you can help Israeli leaders to paint in their head you will never succeed in destroying the two-state solution," Mansour said.

However, any application for full membership at the UN would need approval from the Security Council. The United States, which holds veto power at the council, has opposed any previous attempts to do so.

The Biden administration urged the PA not to pursue a vote at the UN Security Council on gaining full UN membership, Axios reported on Thursday, stressing it will likely veto any such move.

Full membership at the UN would equate to recognising Palestinian statehood at the international level, and the US believes this should occur after the resolution of an agreement for a two-state solution.

In 2012, the UN upgraded Palestinian status to that of a "non-member state", a move which grated the Palestinian's de-facto statehood status. However, this was done at the General Assembly, where no member has veto power.

Non-member status allowed the PA to participate in the UN as a state and sign treaties, but without the full rights granted to member states.

The push for full Palestinian membership at the UN also comes just several weeks ahead of the UN General Assembly, where world leaders will convene in New York for its annual summit.

Arabic press review: Lawsuit filed against Iran president in US over 1988 executions

Fri, 08/26/2022 - 13:36
Arabic press review: Lawsuit filed against Iran president in US over 1988 executions
Meanwhile, Qatar World Cup expects $6bn revenues, 94 percent of women in Jordan have no political affiliation, and Syrian writers publish 'collective novel' about the revolution
Mohammad Ayesh Fri, 08/26/2022 - 14:36
Some 800 portraits of Iranian political prisoners executed in 1988 go on display in Paris, 29 October 2019 (AFP)

Iran: Opposition files lawsuit against Raisi in New York

An Iranian opposition group announced on Thursday they had filed a lawsuit with a court in New York against President Ebrahim Raisi, accusing him of committing "crimes against humanity” in 1988 during the mass execution of political prisoners.

According to the Saudi Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper, the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) accused Raisi, president since August 2021, of committing crimes of “torture and murder” against Iranian opponents in the late 1980s when he was at the Public Prosecutor's office. 

The lawsuit claims that 30,000 members of the Iranian opposition were unlawfully killed in the notorious Evin and Gohardasht prisons in Tehran in 1988.

The lawsuit says that Raisi was a member of the "Death Committee" with three other judges when they ordered the implementation of thousands of executions and torture against members and sympathisers of the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) organisation, the predecessor of the NCRI. 

Two people who were allegedly subjected to torture, along with another person whose brother was executed, filed the lawsuit before the court in New York last week. The court is scheduled to hold a preliminary hearing to consider the lawsuit on 15 November.

"The lawsuit was filed against Raisi in his capacity as a person exercising powers granted to him by the Iranian government," said Steven Schneebaum, the lawyer assigned to the case.

The NCRI, which says it has support from 50 members of Congress, called on the US administration to prevent Raisi from visiting the US and delivering a speech before the United Nations General Assembly next September.

Qatar World Cup expects $6bn revenues

Nasser Al Khater, CEO of Fifa World Cup Qatar 2022, has said that Fifa estimates the tournament's revenues could reach $6bn, according to the Qatar News Agency.

Qatar will host the biggest football tournament in the world from 20 November to 18 December. It will be the first Arab and Middle Eastern country to host the World Cup.

Khater denied reports about the alleged surge in home rental prices in Qatar during the World Cup period. He claimed that "there are hotel rooms whose price does not exceed $80 [292 Qatari riyals] per night, and there are other luxury residence places that reach $5,478 [20,000 riyals] per night. Everyone will find the price that is fit for them."

As for ticket sales, he said: "It witnessed a great turnout, which surprised Fifa officials."

He added that "tickets for the Mexico-Argentina match were the highest in terms of sales, while the match between Saudi Arabia and Argentina came in second place, and tickets for the two matches were totally sold out”.

Jordanian women's political engagement

A study by the Jordanian Women's Union Association said that 94 percent of Jordanian women do not participate in any party activities, while only four percent are members of political parties, according to a report published by the Jordanian Al Ghad newspaper.

Jordan detains opposition writer over a post criticising King Abdullah II
Read More »

The study showed that only 1.5 percent of Jordanian women had previously taken part in partisan activities, and 11 percent had participated in general unions, which means that the vast majority of Jordanian women do not participate in political action.

The study said that 43.5 percent had participated in non-governmental organisations and associations, according to Al Ghad.

The study indicated that the percentage of women who participated in the municipal elections was 33 percent, compared with 66.7 percent who stated that they did not take part.

The researcher who conducted the study, Afaf Al-Jabri, said the percentage of female participation rises significantly in the parliamentary elections, to about 54 percent of all women eligible to vote. Women who live in cities had the lowest participation rate in the parliamentary elections, at 49 percent.

The study concluded that these figures do not reflect the weak political participation of women, but rather a position on participation in politics and the electoral processes.

A 'collective novel' about Syrian revolution

A group of volunteer Syrian writers is working on writing a collective novel on the Syrian revolution based on events documented by an independent organisation, according to the Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper.

The group, supervised by Syrian writer George Kader, consists of seven writers who were scattered by the "war conditions" to different continents around the world.

Kader said that “the writing team, after listening to the testimonies that I selected for them from the huge archive, reproduced the testimonies of the Syrian man who fought a bitter struggle with life, and with the parties to the armed conflict themselves, in a narrative form that allows the transmission of these testimonies from their own experience to the world of literature and the novel, in a way that enables us, in the end, to produce the narrative of the Syrian person, in the face of the narratives of the Syrian regime and the Syrian opposition”.

Kader explained that although this is only a voluntary project, about 60 Syrians had applied to participate.

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

London
Lawsuit filed against Iran president in US over 1988 executions: Arabic press review

Netherlands: Asylum seekers ‘living like dogs’ at Ter Apel shelter

Fri, 08/26/2022 - 12:46
Netherlands: Asylum seekers ‘living like dogs’ at Ter Apel shelter
Hundreds of asylum seekers forced to sleep in the open on muddy ground as the overcrowded asylum centre fails to provide shelter
Maya-Nora Saaid Fri, 08/26/2022 - 13:46
Ter Apel
Asylum seekers sleep on the ground for the third night in a row, outside the registration and application centre in Ter Apel, on 26 August 2022 (AFP)

More than 700 asylum seekers have been sleeping in the open for days outside the Netherlands' main asylum centre, where harsh conditions have prompted Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to deploy at the site for the first time.

Upon reaching the facility in the northern town of Ter Apel, asylum seekers are met with long queues of people waiting to be processed as the staff struggle to cope with the number of applicants. 

People say they have been forced to sleep on muddy ground because they could not get access to safe shelter due to overcrowding. The asylum seekers are a diverse group from Syria; Nigeria; Palestine; Morocco; Eritrea; and Tunisia, among others

Refugees show their papers at the main reception centre for asylum seekers, in Ter Apel, Netherlands 17 August 2022 (Reuters)
Refugees show their papers at the main reception centre for asylum seekers, in Ter Apel, Netherlands, 17 August 2022 (Reuters)

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"I've been here for 10 days and I have not even had one shower yet."

MSF described the conditions as "inhumane", adding there were no showers and no clean toilets. 

"People who are healthy will become unhealthy here," MSF director Judith Sargentini said on Friday.

One asylum seeker called on Dutch authorities to allow those with families in the country to stay with them while their asylum applications are being processed.

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"We have no space to sleep… why don't they just take our emails and phone numbers and contact us when they are ready to complete the procedure?" he said.

'We just want to sleep'

On 1 August, the Dutch Council for Refugees filed a lawsuit against the government saying the inhumane conditions at the shelter amounted to a violation of European law. 

The council, whose case is due to be heard on 15 September, is demanding improved conditions by 1 October, including access to clean water, showers, privacy, adequate food and health care.

'We do not expect women and children to cope with this kinda situation'

- Asylum seeker

"Some of us are depressed. We do not expect women and children to cope with this kinda situation. It is not OK," one asylum seeker told MEE.

On Friday, the Dutch government said it would tackle the situation at the Ter Apel shelter by increasing capacity and ordering regional authorities to accept more refugees.

The announcement came a day after the government opened an investigation into the death of a three-month-old baby by "unknown causes" at a sports gymnasium being used as a makeshift shelter for newcomers with nowhere else to sleep.

MSF nurse and midwife Ruth Kauffman told MEE that many people at Ter Apel had run out of medication for chronic diseases.

"We had to send three people to the hospital by ambulance for heart conditions and diabetes," she said. 

"We have a lot of people who have skin infections from being outside, infected wounds, respiratory tract infection, and gastrointestinal problems."

Last month, asylum seekers told MEE that conditions were getting worse because the Central Agency for the Reception of Asylum Seekers (COA), which oversees the shelters, has delayed starting the procedures for their asylum applications, leaving them out in the open.

A COA spokesperson said the system was being overwhelmed by arrivals.

"There has not been one single person who did not take advantage of us along the way," one asylum seeker said.

"We don't want money. We just want to sleep."

Ter Apel, Netherlands
Asylum seekers ‘living like dogs’ at Netherlands’ Ter Apel shelter

US accused over huge 'covert pro-Western' digital campaign targeting Middle East

Fri, 08/26/2022 - 12:10
US accused over huge 'covert pro-Western' digital campaign targeting Middle East
Dozens of social media accounts operating for years in an attempt to influence people in the Middle East and Asia have been shut down. Now a major new study believes the US is likely behind it
Elis Gjevori Fri, 08/26/2022 - 13:10
One of the most sophisticated campaigns to influence audiences in the cyber world has been shut down by Facebook and Twitter. (Reuters)

The US government is accused of sponsoring a digital campaign on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and other social media platforms targeting Central Asia and the Middle East to promote pro-Western narratives, according to a study by the Stanford Internet Observatory.  

In July and August of this year, Twitter and Facebook took down dozens of accounts for breaking their policies on "platform manipulation and spam" and for engaging in "coordinated inauthentic behaviour," according to the study titled "Evaluating five years of pro-Western covert influence operations."

The accounts, the study found, were engaged in "deceptive tactics" to promote pro-Western narratives in the Middle East and Central Asia. 

These campaigns were part of a broader mission to promote not just the interests of the United States and its allies but also actively involved in opposing Russia, China, and Iran, the study, published 24 August, said.

The research paper was conducted jointly with Graphika, an intelligence company that maps the world’s online communities and conversations.

Most recently, several of the accounts focused on criticising Russia and civilian deaths caused by Moscow's "imperial ambitions" following the Russian invasion of Ukraine this year. 

While in the West, the information campaign regarding the Ukraine war has largely prevailed, in many major African and Asian countries, there has been suspicion of Western narratives. 

How digital authoritarianism has permeated the Middle East
Read More »

Weighed by the legacy of western colonialism and the continuing fallout of the illegal US invasion of Iraq, many countries in the global south, while not supportive of Russia, have been less than enthusiastic in buying into Western talking points. 

The main focus of these accounts was Iran, Afghanistan, and an Arabic-speaking Middle East group comprising Iraqi and Saudi subgroups. Around 45 percent of the online social media messaging was aimed at Iran, which reflects US priorities toward the country. 

The latest influence campaign also shared content from US state-funded media outlets such as the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe, in addition to links to websites sponsored by the US military. 

While neither Twitter or Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, has attributed the information to any entity or organisation, according to the report, they would only say that the assumed countries were the US and UK. 

This is not the first time the US government has been accused of running propaganda campaigns with extensive research and reporting on how the US military is looking to shape the cyber sphere. 

What makes the latest study different is that the primary focus until now has been on digital propaganda campaigns from authoritarian regimes in countries such as Russia, China, and Iran, while this research has found what it says is the most "extensive case of covert pro-Western" propaganda that has been analysed. 

According to the report, US attempts to use "inauthentic tactics" to build online audiences have also exposed "limitations", with many of the accounts struggling to gain online traction. 

The Stanford investigation looked at almost 300,000 tweets from 146 accounts that were running between 2012 and 2022. Part of the information was overt US propaganda campaigns, while other types of messaging were covertly run.

Pro-Western Facebook propaganda campaigns were represented by 39 Facebook profiles, 16 pages, two groups, and 26 Instagram accounts active from 2017 to July 2022.

Past operations

In the past, a Middle East Eye investigation found that the parent company of Cambridge Analytica, the political consultancy firm accused of harvesting the data of tens of millions of Facebook users without authorisation, had run counter-extremism campaigns targeting potential Islamic State (IS) recruits for the US and UK governments.

Cambridge Analytica, set up in 2013, claimed credit for swaying voters during US President Donald Trump's 2016 election campaign and during the UK's Brexit referendum in the same year.

The counter-extremism campaign primarily targeted young men in countries including Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and France, while other targeted countries "remain secret to protect partnerships with their governments".

Palestinian Authority official defends killing of 'rude' dissident Nizar Banat

Fri, 08/26/2022 - 11:51
Palestinian Authority official defends killing of 'rude' dissident Nizar Banat
Anonymous official also admits to the use of torture by PA officers during interview with Britain's Jewish Chronicle
MEE staff Fri, 08/26/2022 - 12:51
Demonstrators hold up images of late Palestinian activist Nizar Banat as they march during a protest in the city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank on 13 July 2021 (AFP)
Demonstrators hold up images of the late Palestinian activist Nizar Banat during a protest in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank, on 13 July 2021 (AFP)

A top Palestinian Authority (PA) official has defended the murder of political activist Nizar Banat, saying he “deserved to die”, according to a report by a London-based newspaper.

The official, who spoke to The Jewish Chronicle on condition of anonymity, said Banat deserved to be killed because he was “rude” to the men who killed him.

“I believe Banat deserved what happened to him," said the official, who was described as a “high-ranking figure” in the PA.

"When you listen to his videos you can see he was not stable. He exaggerated his case. He was attacking the whole social system.”

Banat, 43, was killed in June 2021 after dozens of PA security forces stormed his home in Hebron to arrest him. 

Video shows Nizar Banat's arrest by Palestinian security forces
Read More »

The prominent political activist and advocate of free speech was known for his outspoken videos on social media, criticising the PA for its corruption, as well as its security coordination with the Israeli military in the occupied West Bank.

A post-mortem examination found he had been beaten on the head, chest, neck, legs and hands, with less than an hour passing between his arrest and his death.

Last June, 14 security officers who stand accused of killing him were released on bail by a Palestinian court, which cited precautionary reasons due to the spread of Covid-19 infections in jails.

The PA official who spoke to The Jewish Chronicle was quoted as saying: “I know the officers accused of killing him personally.

"They are good ones. I know their wives, their families, everyone.”

He also defended the use of torture by the PA. 

“I say [to British partners], yes we use torture if it’s needed. If I know I will save your kids’ lives if I torture someone, I will torture him,” the official, who works with British officials in training programmes, said. 

Torture accusations

Banat’s death was met with widespread outrage and angry protests in the West Bank. It also raised questions about the legitimacy of the PA as a governing body.

Banat's family described his killing as a politically motivated "assassination" and accused the PA’s courts of being complicit. 

A lengthy trial of those alleged to be responsible for Banat's death, which has been marred by criticism over court irregularities, has yet to lead to any convictions. 

Palestinian Authority is responsible for torture and ill-treatment of civilians, UN report says
Read More »

Amnesty International said in June that the PA had failed to ensure accountability under a judicial process it described as "a farce".

“When the very organisation that employs the suspects is also offering to guarantee the suspects’ cooperation with their trial… This is precisely why a military court can never bring the truth to light,” said Heba Morayef, the group’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Human Rights Watch (HRW) also in June accused Palestinian authorities of "systematically mistreating and torturing" Palestinian detainees and urged funding cuts to the PA. 

“In light of this pattern of abuse, other countries should cut assistance to abusive Palestinian security forces, including the PA police who played a central part in recent repression,” it said. 

In 2021, the Ramallah-based Independent Commission for Human Rights said it had received 252 complaints of torture and ill-treatment and 279 of arbitrary arrest against PA authorities in the West Bank. 

The Palestinian rights group Lawyers for Justice said earlier this week that since June this year, it had documented 117 cases of political arrests in the West Bank. 

Palestinian Authority official defends killing of 'rude' dissident Nizar Banat

Berlin Biennale: Iraqi artists denounce display of Abu Ghraib images next to their work

Fri, 08/26/2022 - 09:25
Berlin Biennale: Iraqi artists denounce display of Abu Ghraib images next to their work
Artists withdraw from event saying organisers never informed them French artist's installation would also be on show
Azhar Al-Rubaie Fri, 08/26/2022 - 10:25
The 2013 artwork 'I Can See You' shows an outline of Iraqi artist Sajjad Abbas' own eye printed onto a massive banner originally placed on a building facing Baghdad's Green Zone (MEE/Ali Yass)

The Berlin Biennale, often seen as a progressive platform for artists from around the world, has found itself at the centre of controversy after three Iraqi artists withdrew earlier this month from this year's event, arguing that curators at the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum had "prioritised the display of wrongly imprisoned Iraqis".

Sajjad Abbas, Layth Kareem and Raed Mutar objected to their work being displayed alongside the installation of the French artist Jean-Jacques Lebel, entitled "Poison Soluble", showing digitised life-size photos of Abu Ghraib prisoners being tortured by US soldiers in the infamous Iraqi prison in 2004.

'The Biennale team was very slow to respond to our request to remove our work from the exhibition'

- Raed Mutar, Iraqi artist

Every two years, the Berlin Biennale brings together international artists, theoreticians and practitioners in a range of exhibitions and accompanying programmes. 

According to the event's website: “With its political profile, it stands for committed art that addresses the urgent questions of the present.”

However, the staging of the artworks side by side and the event's slowness to react to the artists' concerns has shattered that image.

Mutar, a 34-year-old Baghdad-based artist, told Middle East Eye: “The Biennale team was very slow to respond to our request to remove our work from the exhibition.

"They shifted some of our artwork into another place, but my colleagues and I insisted on the removal of all the work from the display; they then acted after a couple of weeks of long negotiations.”

Rejecting a subsequent apology from the Biennale, the artists later said they would completely withdraw their works from the exhibition.

'Greasy material'

Mutar graduated from Baghdad's Institute of Fine Arts, a faculty of the University of Baghdad, in 2012.

He did not travel to Berlin to attend the Biennale, but was in contact with fellow artists Abbas and Kareem, along with Rijin Sahakian, the curator of the three Iraqi artists at the event.

Before arriving in Berlin, Mutar's portraits had most recently been displayed in Lebanon and the United States.

It is untitled artwork, created for the public, with the artist believing that each viewer will have a different comprehension and analysis of it.

“My artwork portrays a person - actually it is me - sitting to give fluid therapy to a person orally, and wearing a mask, and there is a skull of an owl near the characters," Mutar told MEE.

Iraq: Authorities say rare Picasso painting found during drug bust
Read More »

"In Iraq, the owl represents something bad or evil but it is not real.”

Mutar describes how Lebel’s Abu Ghraib images openly showed the genitals of victims, something he says should never have happened for use as an artwork.

"When the influence of other artists fades, they try to use certain Iraqi topics as ‘greasy material'," Mutar added.

"The images are like someone celebrating a group of animals, rather than treating them as humans.

“If the artist, Lebel, wanted to deliver a humanitarian message through his work, he should have at least done some research about the families of Abu Ghraib's victims and displayed their photos.

"That really would have helped them to regain justice from the US Army, as well as get psychological support from Biennale's visitors.”

'I was shocked'

Abbas, who finished his diploma at Baghdad’s Institute of Fine Art in 2014, is a multi-skilled artist, who uses visual works, animation and video in his works.

“When I arrived at the museum and saw my artwork close to the images of Abu Ghraib, I was shocked and asked ‘what is happening here?’” said Abbas, 29.

Abbas’s work, created in 2013 and entitled “I Can See You,” shows an outline of his own eye printed onto a massive banner originally placed on a building facing the Green Zone in Baghdad, and emblazoned with the words of the title.

'I had not been told by the Biennale that my artwork would be close to Abu Ghraib images until I travelled to Berlin and saw it myself. It was a really painful scene'

- Sajjad Abbas, Iraqi artist

“My work shows my real eye printed on a big banner of clothes. I put it at the top of the Turkish Restaurant building in Baghdad facing the Green Zone, where the US embassy is located," said Abbas.

"It is a message that I was a witness to US crimes during the invasion of 2003.”

Abbas faced pressure from the Iraqi government in 2013 to remove the work from the restaurant, just four days after placing it there.

“I had not been told by the Biennale that my artwork would be close to Abu Ghraib images until I travelled to Berlin and saw it myself. It was a really painful scene, I cannot describe it,” said Abbas.

“What is so weird was that my work ‘I Can See You’ was at the back, and my video and Mutar’s work at the front of the display, with Lebel’s work in the middle, which means you have to go through his work to see my artwork banner, and it is a one-way path, so you are forced to see all the images of Abu Ghraib torture.

“Kader Attia, the Biennale curator, said that Lebel’s goal is to be a witness to the US invasion to Iraq, while my artwork is also a clear sign to the occupation, but in a way without using the victims’ photos in an abusive manner.”

"‘I Can See you’ is a voice I raised to all people that I am witness to all government, policies and what is beyond

"It tells the life I lived under the US invasion and after, and to say we were, and are, still here.”

In contrast, Abbas says, rather than being a force of "repair" as claimed by Lebel, his installation is in fact "destructive".

The Biennale agreed to pass on questions from MEE to Lebel regarding the criticism of his work but there had been no reply at the time of publication.

Petition

Curator Sahakian, a writer who was born in Baghdad, told MEE: "From November 2021 I advised the Biennale on [the Iraqi] artists' works, contributed catalogue texts, and facilitated the lending of Raed Mutar's painting for the exhibition. 

"At no point prior to the opening were the artists or I informed of the work in question (Lebel's), nor that Sajjad Abbas and Raed Mutar's works would be installed in relation to it." 

In pictures: 'We want a new Iraq' says Baghdad mural maker
Read More »

Last month, Sahakian published an open letter - entitled "Beyond Repair: Regarding Torture at the Berlin Biennale" - denouncing Lebel’s installation and the event's decision to exhibit the Iraqi artists' work next to it.

As of 20 August, around 500 people, mostly artists and academics, had co-signed Sahakian's letter in support of the Iraqi artists’ stance.

“Before we walked into the museum, we were happy to share our work in Berlin, where many diaspora Iraqis now live and where we have long heard of the German capital’s support and appeal for artists," said Sahakian. 

"But we, and every Iraqi we met who saw the work in question, were deeply disturbed, and felt betrayed by this inclusion.

“I see the white female [US] soldier grinning over an arrangement of bodies piled together, and I am eye-level with a faceless person forced to hold his genitals. 

"I see a corpse, the dead still waiting. Still waiting to give their permission the first time, the thousandth time, and this time is no exception.

“I’m forced to see them once again, simply to view the second half of Abbas’s splintered work.”

Biennale response

A spokesperson for the 12th Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, which runs from 11 June to 18 September, told MEE: “We respect the artists’ decision, although we regret it very much. 

"The works by Raed Mutar and Sajjad Abbas had already been relocated to new exhibition venues in close consultation with the artists. All three works are now no longer on display.

'We believe in dialogue and very much value the relationships we have with all artists taking part in the Berlin Biennale'

- Berlin Biennale spokesperson

“As soon as they voiced their feelings, the Berlin Biennale, Kader Attia [the event's curator], and the artistic team made intensive efforts to engage in a personal exchange with the artists in order to find solutions with them. 

"We believe in dialogue and very much value the relationships we have with all artists taking part in the Berlin Biennale.”

Many attendees who visited the Biennale, along with Iraqis in the diaspora who heard about it, say they were traumatised by Lebel's installation.

Ali Yass, 30, a Berlin-based Iraqi who is a painter and filmmaker, was reluctant to go to the Biennale but decided to do so at the last minute after his friends encouraged him.

“When I entered the show hall, I was happy seeing the Iraqi artists’ work around me, but I got shocked by seeing the French artist’s images illustrating the victims of Abu Ghraib prisoners,” he told MEE.

“The Biennale was supposed to repair by art what had been caused by wars. The Abu Ghraib images recall the pain to us once again.

How one man’s Abu Ghraib torture led him to help displaced Yazidis
Read More »

"In addition to taking advantage of young Iraqi artists, they were, and still are, recirculating the same acts of violence through the use of these images."

After visiting the exhibition, Yass helped organise the launch of the website which published Sahakian's letter of protest.

“Can Lebel use any other worldwide known massacre in such a way? Of course he could not," said Yass.

"However, they thought that Iraqi artists would remain silent, but he [Lebel] is unlucky that he is exhibiting with artists who are aware of their positions and political capacity.

“There was no condemnation by Lebel of Abu Ghraib, on the contrary, he reproduced the pain again.”

Sahakian said: "I see the eye [in the 'I Can See You' exhibit] and turn to Abbas. All I can say is that I am sorry. That I should have known better than to trust an art world that finds culture in our flesh.

“We stand firmly against this unconsidered reproduction of the invader’s crimes.”

Basra, Iraq
'Painful scene': Iraqi artists denounce display of Abu Ghraib images next to their work at Berlin Biennale

Egypt: Videos show pro-government forces executing boy and alleged militants in Sinai

Fri, 08/26/2022 - 08:41
Egypt: Videos show pro-government forces executing boy and alleged militants in Sinai
Tribal sources confirm the men were Islamic State members killed by Union of Sinai Tribes fighters after being captured
Shahenda Naguib Fri, 08/26/2022 - 09:41
Members of the Union of Sinai Tribes pictured in North Sinai in one of their operations against alleged IS members, in May 2022 (UST/Telegram group)

Videos have emerged appearing to show pro-government paramilitary forces in Egypt’s war-torn North Sinai killing alleged militants, including one minor, after arresting them.

One video shows a boy, confirmed by tribal sources to be Anas Al-Tiyaha, a 16-year-old member of the Al-Tiyaha tribe. He can be seen in the video wounded and lying on his stomach, possibly following an explosion, with his right hand torn. He can be heard being interrogated by a man about the frequency of his handheld transceiver. He is later seen being shot with three bullets in the head.

The video was released on 20 August, but the operation took place in the first week of August, tribal sources told Middle East Eye.

Another video shows the execution of a man in his mid-30s, wearing a white jalabiya with his hands tied behind his back. He seems to be begging his captors not to shoot him, as he can be heard saying “Please have mercy on me. God, please have mercy,” before he is shot four times. 

The videos were first published on the Telegram social media channel linked to the Union of Sinai Tribes (UST), a pro-government paramilitary faction. The UST fights alongside Egypt's military against Islamic State group (IS) militants in the Sinai Peninsula's north, a bloody eight-year campaign that has uprooted thousands and left many towns and villages pulverised. 

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In earlier footage, the man in the white jalabiya, whom tribal sources said they had identified but declined to tell MEE his name, can be seen along with another person surrendering as he walks half-naked and barefoot towards a group of paramilitaries and soldiers. The caption to that video, which was published on 13 July, read: “The message is clear and it is saying to the rats in their hideouts, ‘You will not have peace’. With every drop of blood of our heroes, necks will fly.”

A fourth video shows an elderly man, whom tribal sources identified as Abu Tarek, a mid-ranking member of IS. On 2 July, pages affiliated with different pro-government paramilitaries published a video of Abu Tarek being interrogated by members of the military and paramilitary fighters.

Abu Tarek can be seen wearing a blue vest. In a later post by the Telegram channel of the Bir al-Abd Union paramilitary, pictures of the same man after he was shot dead were posted, with a caption that read “annihilation done”.

man
A poster released by Sinai tribes on Telegram shows an alleged IS member being interrogated by the Egyptian army and its militia allies in North Sinai in August 2022

One source from the al-Sawarka tribe in Sinai told MEE that the video of Tiyaha's killing has caused outrage among the region's tribes. He said that earlier this week, a high-ranking delegation from the military intelligence, accompanied by some MPs, visited several tribes to calm them and assure them of the benefits they will gain after the defeat of the IS insurgency. 

'Lack of discipline'

No Egyptian media outlet has reported on the videos. A military source told MEE that the footage is being investigated, but it refused to confirm or deny the content. The source, however, said that there is some “distress” among high-ranking officials regarding the behaviour of the UST, including the paramilitary's use of social media to post about its activity and operations, citing its "lack of discipline". 

Aida al-Sawarka, an MP representing North Sinai and a member of the al-Sawarka tribe, which is broadly supportive of the military, described the videos as “counter-propaganda” that is produced by IS to negatively affect morale among tribal fighters.

“In any war, there is the physical front and there is the psychological front. Daesh [IS] is trying to win the points by fabricating events and spreading lies,” she told MEE. 

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

The MP, who is also a member of the parliamentary defence and national security committee, said that any “military activity” by the UST is coordinated by the military intelligence apparatus.

sinai man execution 2022
An alleged IS militant is shown in captivity in footage published on paramilitary-linked social media accounts (Social media)

“The Union and the military have been coordinating in all raids and ambushes, and have even called upon members of the terrorist group to surrender with the promise they and their families will be granted amnesty.” 

She cited 26 cases where Islamic State militants have surrendered, either alone or with their families, in the month of July alone.

North Sinai residents have borne the brunt of the eight-year-long campaign in the region between Egypt's armed forces and Sinai Province, the local branch of IS. Militants first began staging attacks in 2011, while associated with al-Qaeda. Later, they pledged loyalty to IS, and began to be known as Sinai Province.

Death tolls in the conflict are not publicly available, but according to a count compiled by independent researchers who maintain anonymity for their safety, more than 1,500 military personnel were killed between 2011 and June 2018.

Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch believes that over 100,000 of North Sinai's 450,000 residents have been displaced or left the region since 2013.

Since 2017, when Sinai tribes began arming and working closely with the military to defeat IS, paramilitary groups have been involved in ambushes and raids against militants, as well as gathering intelligence. 

Fighting is currently intensifying in North Sinai, in the Jilbana village close to the Suez Canal. The Egyptian military sustains casualties almost weekly. However, heavy censorship means no local media outlet is allowed to publish news related to the military. 

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

Nevertheless, the military casualties receive military funerals in their hometowns. According to military sources, the latest soldier killed was Mahmoud al-Harabawi, an officer who died on 23 August in Jilbana. Harabawi served in the elite Thunderbolt 103 unit, which is spearheading the offensive in the area. 

Calls for inquiry into 'extrajudicial killings'

Commenting on the videos, London-based Sinai Foundation for Human Rights called on Egyptian authorities to "open an immediate, independent and transparent investigation into these killings and all previous extrajudicial killings, and bring the perpetrators to justice.

“The authorities should also send clear and unambiguous orders and instructions to all tribal groups who are armed by the Egyptian army and engaged in the fighting in recent months that armed action must be carried out in accordance with the law, that violations are unacceptable, and that perpetrators of violations will be held accountable,” the rights group added. 

This is not the first time Egyptian forces have been accused of extrajudicial killings during the “fight against terrorism”.

In May 2018, a video allegedly showing Egyptian soldiers executing a young man in the Sinai Peninsula sparked criticism from activists, who say the army is fighting in the area "under complete secrecy". However, the incident was not investigated either by the public prosecution or the military prosecution.

Egypt declared war on IS following the military coup led by President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in 2013, when the former army general ousted his democratically elected civilian predecessor, Mohamed Morsi. 

Egypt
Videos show Egyptian forces executing boy and alleged militants in Sinai

Algeria wildfires severely damaged Unesco-listed park, says expert

Sat, 08/20/2022 - 14:44
Algeria wildfires severely damaged Unesco-listed park, says expert
Fires across northeastern Algeria claimed dozens of lives in the past week
MEE and agencies Sat, 08/20/2022 - 15:44
Algerian farmer Hamdi Gemidi checks his charred animals at his farm on the outskirts of the city of el-Tarf, on 18 August 2022 (AFP)

Wildfires that left dozens of people dead across northeastern Algeria may also have destroyed as much as 10 percent of a Unesco-listed biosphere, an expert said on Saturday.

The figure cited by Rafik Baba Ahmed, former director of the El Kala Biosphere Reserve, means that the burnt area of the park alone is almost double what the civil defence service said has been destroyed throughout Africa's largest country since June.

Algeria's northeast has been particularly hard-hit since Wednesday in blazes exacerbated by climate change, but the fire service on Saturday said most of the fires there had been put out.

At least 38 people have reportedly been killed.

"The Wednesday fires damaged around 10,000 hectares" of the park, Baba Ahmed said.

'Tragic': Algeria wildfires kill dozens after blistering heatwave
Read More »

According to Unesco, the United Nations cultural agency, El Kala Biosphere Reserve covers more than 76,000 hectares.

It is the last refuge of the Barbary Red Deer and "home to a very remarkable bird life, more than 60,000 migratory birds every winter," Unesco's website says.

According to Baba Ahmed, forest covers 54,000 hectares of the park and most of the trees are cork oak.

"It is considered one of the main biodiversity reserves in the Mediterranean basin," he said, adding that he was "very pessimistic" about the area's future.

Civil Defence Colonel Boualem Boughlef said on television on Friday night that 1,242 fires have destroyed 5,345 hectares of woodlands in Algeria since 1 June.

Baba Ahmed said that figure was not realistic.

In 2021, fires that raged in the northeast of Algeria left around 90 people dead, including 33 soldiers who were deployed as firefighters, resulting in widespread anger in the country.

Last year's blazes resulted in more than 100,000 hectares of woodland burnt in a country where only one percent of the land is covered by forests.

Egypt empties Cairo's notorious Scorpion prison of detainees

Sat, 08/20/2022 - 12:06
Egypt empties Cairo's notorious Scorpion prison of detainees
The move, a first since the prison's opening, comes as Cairo seeks to use the land for investment projects
MEE staff Sat, 08/20/2022 - 13:06
An Egyptian policeman stands near watch towers at Tora prison on the southern outskirts of the Egyptian capital Cairo (AFP)
A policeman stands near watchtowers at Tora prison on the southern outskirts of Cairo (AFP)

Egyptian authorities have emptied Cairo's most notorious jail of its last prisoner for the first time since it opened in 1993, according to a London-based rights group.

Ahmed Attar, a researcher with the Egyptian Network for Human Rights, told Middle East Eye that the political prisoners on death row, including those connected to the Rabaa protests, were transferred from Maximum Security Prison 992 - known as Scorpion Prison, or al-Aqrab - to Badr prison.

Meanwhile, prisoners whose sentences were up for renewal were taken to Scorpion II prison.

Attar said the move comes amid reports that authorities are seeking to demolish the prison complex, along with others within the Tora prison complex, to use the land for future investment projects.

He added that Egypt took the decision earlier this year to empty some of its prisons and transfer the inmates to newly constructed prisons such Badr and Wadi Natrun.

"What they didn't publicly declare is what they are planning to do on these lands, especially that they are located in important regions south of Cairo," Attar said.

The government's plan includes moving the court complex in Tora to the Badr prison complex, located in a desert area, in the next couple of months, he said.

Egypt: Mega prisons deepen Sisi's dystopian system of repression
Read More »

Inmates have long suffered from the notoriously inhumane conditions at Scorpion, with some describing it as "living in tombs," according to Human Rights Watch.

In December 2020, HRW reported that prisoners are almost completely deprived of adequate ventilation, electricity, hot water, and family and lawyer visits.

"I hope this is good news for the political prisoners and that their prison conditions will improve," Attar said.

At least 60,000 political prisoners are estimated to have been jailed since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi overthrew Mohamed Morsi, the country's first democratically elected president, and took power in 2013. 

Hundreds of people have perished in prison since Sisi's coup due to medical negligence and lack of an urgent care system when a detainee suffers a medical emergency, including Morsi and former MP Essam el-Erian

The Geneva-based Committee for Justice documented the deaths of 51 prisoners as a result of denial of medical care in detention facilities during the first half of 2020, including 17 people who died of Covid-19. 

New Jersey mayor denounces inclusion of bulldozer at India Day parade

Fri, 08/19/2022 - 20:38
New Jersey mayor denounces inclusion of bulldozer at India Day parade
Indian American activists call for annual India independence rally in Edison to be suspended and investigated following bulldozer saga in New Jersey town
Azad Essa Fri, 08/19/2022 - 21:38
Mayor Samip Joshi said that symbols that sow division had no place in Edison, New Jersey (MEE/Azad Essa)

The mayor of a New Jersey town has denounced the inclusion of a bulldozer at last weekend's Indian Independence Day rally saying it was "unacceptable" and called for an apology from the group that organised the parade in his town.

Addressing several concerned residents and activists in a meeting on Friday, Samip Joshi said he understood that the inclusion of the bulldozer at the parade was a symbol of division and called for an apology from the Indian Business Association, which had organised the rally.

"I understand a bulldozer is a symbol of division and is absolutely unacceptable," Joshi told the delegation made up of local residents and activists from the Indian American Muslim Council, Council on American-Islamic Relations and Hindus for Human Rights. "There is no place for that in Edison Township," Joshi added.

"I would like to see an apology from the Indian Business Association," Joshi said. 

Over the past few years, bulldozers have become a symbol of hate in India, in a disturbing trend where authorities use excavators to demolish the homes of Muslim activists under the pretext of the structures being illegal.

However, several human rights groups as well as the UN have called for an end to the practice, describing it as collective punishment. Since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014, human rights groups have reported an increase in abuses against minorities, including Muslims and Christians.

Joshi, who attended the rally on August 14, said he saw the bulldozer during the parade but claimed he was unaware of what it represented. 

"I only found out the next day what it meant," Joshi told the delegation.

(IAMC)
The bulldozer rolled down the main street in Edison on 14 August 2022 (IAMC)

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Earlier, activists and residents told the mayor there had to be consequences for the Indian Business Association as organiser of the parade, calling for a suspension of the annual India rally that has taken place for the past 19 years. 

Activists said that it was unacceptable that an event billed as rally celebrating Indian independence had the national spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party, the right-wing party ruling India, as its guest of honour.

Why was a bulldozer at an India Independence Day event in New Jersey?
Read More »

"It was an extremist parade. If they want to have a Hindu right rally, then call it that," Haleema, who offered only her first name to MEE, told the mayor. 

Joshi wouldn't commit to suspending future rallies but promised that his town would be implementing a screening process for future events.

Haleema told the mayor that several Muslims were now feeling uncomfortable in the town knowing that there were Hindu nationalists living among them.

Though the delegation said they were thankful for the mayor's willingness to meet and address their concerns, several activists said they wouldn't be satisfied with an apology alone. "A hollow apology will not work. There is an urgent need to create a task force which can identify and mitigate bias and hate incidents," Haleema told MEE after the meeting concluded.  

One resident of Edison told the mayor that he was appalled that he wasn't aware of what the bulldozer meant given that so many of his constituents were from the subcontinent.

Amsi (MEE/Azad Essa)
Amsi said she was concerned that the event would set a precedent in the United States (MEE/Azad Essa)

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Amsi, an Indian American from New York, told the mayor she was concerned about the precedent the events in Edison could have for other parts of the country.

"Edison has the largest concentration of South Asians in the US. Everyone that's part of the Indian diaspora in the US knows Edison. We pray here, we have businesses here, we go out to eat here. It is a safe haven.

"When we see a bulldozer being driven around during India's independence day parade, it's alarming. We see it as a symbol that is meant to intimidate and divide," Amsi, who provided only her first name, said.

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The Indian Business Association did not immediately respond to MEE's request for comment.

Edison, New Jersey

Hezbollah chief says Israel maritime dispute separate from nuclear talks

Fri, 08/19/2022 - 19:58
Hezbollah chief says Israel maritime dispute separate from nuclear talks
Leader of Iran-aligned group says Lebanon is heading towards escalation with Israel if it is deprived of maritime rights
MEE staff Fri, 08/19/2022 - 20:58
Supporters of Hezbollah watch a televised speech by the group's leader, Hassan Nasrallah, at a camp in Lebanon's Janta region on 19 August 2022 (AFP)

Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah threatened an escalation with Israel on Friday over Eastern Mediterranean gas rights, regardless of efforts to defuse tensions via a nuclear deal with Iran.

"Whether a nuclear deal with Iran is signed or not, if the US mediator does not give Lebanon what it asked for in terms of its rights, we are heading towards an escalation - we are heading towards a problem," Nasrallah said.

Lebanon and Israel have been engaged in US-brokered talks to resolve a festering maritime dispute over the potentially gas-rich territory since 2020.

US energy envoy Amos Hochstein is expected to travel to the region in the coming weeks to continue meditation efforts that revolve around finding a compromise to a 855 sq km area of water that both Israel and Lebanon claim as their exclusive economic zone.

Lebanon should drill for gas regardless of maritime deal with Israel, MP says
Read More »

Tensions escalated earlier this summer after Israel sent a drilling ship into the disputed waters and Hezbollah launched three unarmed drones at the vessel, which were shot down by Israel.

Israel granted British-Greek company Energean the rights to develop the Karish gas field in 2016.

Karish was originally outside the area of dispute between Lebanon and Israel, but last year Beirut unveiled a new map expanding its maritime boundary to include part of the field.

Israel says it is ready to start production of the field in September. Hezbollah says any drilling in Karish before a maritime agreement is reached could provoke war.

"Lebanon's oil, gas and water resources must remain under its control and no one should be allowed to rob the country," Nasrallah warned earlier this month.

"The hand that reaches for any of this wealth will be severed," he said.

Lebanon's government has tried to tone down the risk of escalation from the Iran-aligned group, calling on the US to mediate.

Gridlock and corruption

In recent years, Israel has been developing its energy reserves in undisputed areas, and has become a net exporter of natural gas. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has sparked renewed interest in Eastern Mediterranean energy from countries such as Egypt and Israel.

However, Lebanon lags far behind its neighbours. Bidding on licences for oil and gas exploration even in undisputed waters has been hampered by political gridlock and corruption.

In June, the government extended the deadline for a second licensing round amid limited interest from energy companies.

Industry analysts say it could take six or seven years from the time Lebanon makes a gas discovery to when it is ready to produce and sell gas on the market, raising questions about whether it could benefit from renewed interest in gas following the conflict in Ukraine.

"Right now with the war in Ukraine, everybody wants Mediterranean gas - but this is very far ahead for Lebanon," Lebanese MP Neemat Frem told Middle East Eye in a July interview.

Congresswoman calls on White House to condemn Israeli closures of Palestinian NGOs

Fri, 08/19/2022 - 18:51
Congresswoman calls on White House to condemn Israeli closures of Palestinian NGOs
Biden administration sidesteps criticising Israel over closure of human rights organisations, while European countries say they will maintain cooperation with groups
MEE staff Fri, 08/19/2022 - 19:51
Office of the Union of Palestinian Women's Committees NGO in the West Bank city of Ramallah after it was raided by Israeli forces on 18 August 2022 (AFP)

US congresswoman Betty McCollum has slammed Israel’s “chilling attack” on Palestinian rights groups, as the Biden administration seeks answers as to why the organisations were shut down.

“Once again the IDF has launched a chilling attack on Defense for Children International - Palestine, a human rights organization supporting Palestinian children,” McCollum said in a Tweet.

Once again the IDF has launched a chilling attack on Defense for Children International-Palestine, a human rights organization supporting Palestinian children. The Biden admin. must condemn these efforts to silence groups advocating for Palestinian human rights & civil society.

— Rep. Betty McCollum (@BettyMcCollum04) August 18, 2022

Defense for Children International is one of seven groups in the occupied West Bank that Israel shuttered on Friday, with soldiers storming the groups’ offices and confiscating items.

Besides Defense for Children International, Israeli troops also sealed off the offices of Al Haq, one of the West Bank's most well-established NGOs, which has documented human rights violations by Israel and the Palestinian Authority since the 1970s.

Many of the organisations have received funding from EU countries.

In October, Israel declared six of the groups (excluding the Union of Health Work Committees) as terrorist organisations.

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'Lack of evidence'

The groups have denied the allegations and their closure has been met with criticism from both the United Nations and human rights organisations.

The foreign ministries of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain and Sweden have all said Israel has failed to provide them "substantial information" on the accusations and pledged to continue cooperating with the groups in the absence of any evidence.

Israeli forces raid offices of Palestinian civil society groups in West Bank
Read More »

State Department Spokesperson Ned Price said on Thursday that Washington was "concerned about the closure[s]”, but stopped short of criticising the move. Price said US officials were in contact with their Israeli counterparts "at a high level" to obtain more information on the decision.

McCollum was one of 22 lawmakers who urged the Biden administration to publicly reject Israel’s October move to designate the NGOs as terrorist organisations.

In an 18 July letter addressed to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, lawmakers asked the White House to conduct an inter-agency briefing on the move and provide a report to Congress within 30 days.

“A reported lack of evidence to support this decision raises concerns that it may be a deeply repressive measure, designed to criminalize and silence prominent and essential Palestinian human rights organizations,” the letter stated.

McCollum's office told Middle East Eye that the State Department and White House never responded to the letter.

MEE reached out to the State Department multiple times to see if a review was conducted, but had not received a response by the time of publication.

Syria: Government shelling at market kills 15 civilians in Turkish-controlled area

Fri, 08/19/2022 - 15:56
Syria: Government shelling at market kills 15 civilians in Turkish-controlled area
The rocket attacks come amid growing tensions between Turkish forces and Kurdish armed groups
Harun al-Aswad Fri, 08/19/2022 - 16:56
Six missiles hit a busy market and other buildings in Al-Bab city ahead of Friday prayers, on 19 August 2022 (MEE/Walid al-Idilbi)

At least 15 civilians have been killed, including five children, and 30 others wounded in government shelling that hit a busy market and other civilian buildings in the Turkish-controlled city of Al-Bab in northern Syria on Friday. 

The rocket attacks came from areas under the control of government forces, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and pro-Iranian militias based east of Aleppo province, the Paris-based Syrian Network for Human Rights (SNHR) told Middle East Eye.

According to the Syria Civil Defence group, commonly known as the White Helmets, the number of casualties is likely to rise as rescue workers continue their search operations. 

The attack came on Friday morning, an official holiday in Syria, when markets were bustling with customers ahead of the communal Friday prayer at noon.

“The attack was sudden. People were buying vegetables and breakfast,” Ibrahim al-Boushi, a survivor of the attack, told Middle East Eye.

“They can bomb the front lines, but instead they bomb the markets to terrorise civilians,” he added.

'We are just civilians, waiting for Friday to work. I sell vegetables, others sell bread, and yet they bombed us'

- Mahmoud Jubaili, Syrian vendor

Mahmoud Jubaili, a vendor who witnessed the shelling, told MEE that he and civil defence workers were pulling out body parts as they attempted to rescue the victims. 

"We are just civilians, waiting for Friday to work. I sell vegetables, others sell bread, and yet they bombed us," said Jubaili. "Even when we work to support our family, they don't leave us. We are just civilians, we are not fighters, and we don't carry any weapons. Let us live in peace.”

Mahmoud Qitaz, another displaced Syrian who survived the attack, hit back at Turkish calls for reconciliation with the government of President Bashar al-Assad while the army continues to target civilians. 

“The SDF and the Syrian regime forces are still bombing us continuously, yet there are calls for reconciliation with them. How can we forget the blood of innocents?” he said.

In a statement, the SDF denied having played any role in the Friday attack.

'It is a war crime'

Fadel Abdul Ghany, founder and head of the SNHR, told MEE that six missiles hit the area, landing in the crowded popular market, a civilian building and near a school.

"We condemn this indiscriminate attack and bombardment in the strongest terms, because it is a war crime, aims to terrorise civilians, and indicates the indifference to human rights and the rules of international law by the warring parties," Abdul Ghany said. 

The attack on Friday came days after Turkish airstrikes killed 17 people at a military post located between Syrian government forces and the US-backed SDF near the Syrian-Turkish border.

The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reported the raids on Tuesday, did not specify if the victims were affiliated with the government or Kurdish forces.

The Turkish strikes followed overnight clashes between Ankara's forces and the SDF west of Kobane, in which Kurdish forces struck inside Turkish territory, killing one soldier, according to Turkey's defence ministry. 

Turkey won't rush new operation in Syria, says Erdogan
Read More »

If government forces are confirmed to be among those killed on Tuesday, the attack would mark one of the largest escalations since Ankara and Damascus traded attacks in 2020 following a Syrian government strike that killed 33 Turkish soldiers in the northwestern province of Idlib.

On Tuesday night, mosque loudspeakers in southern Turkey called on residents to stay inside their homes, claiming that a military operation in Syria had begun.

Turkish officials have been threatening for months to launch a new offensive in Syria, to capture the SDF-held towns of Tal Rifaat and Manbij in northern Aleppo province, whose towns are otherwise mostly held by Syrian government troops. However, Turkey’s interior minister denied that the military launched an assault on Tuesday and said an investigation would be opened into the mosques that claimed an operation was imminent. 

On Wednesday, Imran Riza, United Nations Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator in Syria, voiced his concern over the escalation of attacks after his recent visit to northeastern Syria.

“The RC/HC [Resident Coordinator and Humanitarian Coordinator] also expressed his alarm at the recent uptick in military action in the north, which has included drone strikes and shelling resulting in civilian casualties,” the UN said in a statement about Riza’s visit. “This has already led to heightened anxiety and some movements. Continued military action will lead to further major displacements.”

Fear of violations

Amid fears of more violence, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned on Wednesday of the consequences that a new Turkish incursion in northern Syria would have on the population.

“Turkey and its allies have previously killed and arbitrarily arrested civilians following cross-border military operations in Syria that have resulted in massive displacement,” said Adam Coogle, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at HRW.

Syria war: Turkey's new border offensive is a deliberate test of the West's support
Read More »

“Without taking adequate precautions, Turkish forces and their Syrian proxies risk repeating their abuses. The conflict could only worsen the already devastating humanitarian situation for millions of people in northern Syria.” 

Turkish-backed forces have been accused of committing sexual violence against women and men in territories under their control, including at least 30 incidents of rape, according to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

The HRW added that Turkey and Turkish-backed factions have also failed in the past to ensure adequate water supplies to Kurdish-held areas in northeast Syria. About 460,000 people in these areas depend on water from the Allouk water station near the town of Ras al-Ayn (Serekaniye), the rights group added. 

The Turkish operation, if launched, would be the fourth of its kind mounted by Ankara in northern Syria since 2016, with the aim of expelling Syrian Kurdish armed groups from areas near its southern border, as well as enabling the resettlement of internally displaced Syrians.

Syrian government shelling at market kills 15 civilians in Turkish-controlled area

Islamic State: US court hands down life sentence to 'Beatles' member El Shafee Elsheikh 

Fri, 08/19/2022 - 15:04
Islamic State: US court hands down life sentence to 'Beatles' member El Shafee Elsheikh 
Elsheikh is the last member of the notorious Islamic State cell to be sentenced to prison. Families of the victims say it is only one more step towards justice
Umar A Farooq Fri, 08/19/2022 - 16:04
Carl Mueller, the father of Kayla Mueller, an American slain by Islamic State militants, embraces Rodwan Safer Jalani, a friend of Kayla’s, outside a federal courthouse in Virginia on 14 April 2022.
Carl Mueller, the father of Kayla Mueller, an American killed by IS militants, embraces Rodwan Safer Jalani, a friend of Kayla’s, outside a federal courthouse in Virginia on 14 April 2022 (AFP)

A US federal court on Friday sentenced a former British citizen to life in prison for his role in an Islamic State (IS) group cell that beheaded hostages in Syria and Iraq, and took captive dozens of people.

El Shafee Elsheikh, a 34-year-old who was born in Sudan and grew up in the UK, was found guilty earlier this year of eight charges related to his role in the notorious IS cell known as "the Beatles", including lethal hostage-taking and conspiracy to commit murder.

'As grateful as I am for this sentence, it is a hollow victory'

- Diane Foley, mother of slain US journalist James Foley

In convicting Elsheikh, the jury concluded that he was one of the notorious "Beatles" - IS captors nicknamed for their accents and known for their cruelty in torturing and beating prisoners, forcing them to fight each other until they collapsed and even making them sing cruel song parodies.

In addition to being found guilty of the deaths of four Americans - US journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid workers Kayla Mueller and Peter Kassig, who were reporting on or supporting victims of the Syrian war - he was also implicated in the deaths of British, Japanese and Norwegian captives.

The life sentence handed down to Elsheikh was the highest punishment he could receive after a deal was struck with the UK whereby British authorities handed over custody of him to the US in exchange for a guarantee he would not face the death penalty.

"Let this sentencing make clear to all who dare to kidnap, torture or kill any American citizen abroad, that US Justice will find you wherever you are, and that our government will hold you accountable for your crimes against our citizens," Foley's mother Diane said outside of the courthouse in Alexandria, Virginia, following the sentencing hearing on Friday.

"But as grateful as I am for this sentence, it is a hollow victory.

"Our country has lost four of its very best citizens. Our families lost our loved ones forever. And now Elsheikh and [Alexanda Amon] Kotey have lost their freedom, country and families. It's a tragic cycle of violence and heartbreak for all involved."

Waterboarding threat

The trial against Elsheikh lasted six weeks and included testimonies from several former hostages of "the Beatles". Some family members of the victims also attended the trial in northern Virginia.

It was filled with stories of how former hostages feared the presence of "the Beatles", including one account where multiple hostages were forced to fight each other for the entertainment of their captors, and if they didn't they would be waterboarded.

"We extend special thanks to the released hostages who testified. They taught us a lot about what our son and the other hostages endured. And their testimony was essential in proving guilt," said Kassig's mother Paula.

ElSheikh was given the opportunity to speak during the hearing, but declined to do so. The family members of the victims said his decision not to speak "speaks volumes" about his role in the killings.

Islamic State 'Beatles' member El Shafee Elsheikh convicted for role in deaths of Americans
Read More »

Elsheikh was one of four IS militants belonging to the execution squad that had been given the nickname "the Beatles". The cell garnered international attention after releasing videos of the murders of the Americans, among others. The videos sent shockwaves globally, and showcased the brutality of the IS group.

Elsheikh and the other IS members were also allegedly involved in the abductions of at least 27 people in Syria from 2012 to 2015.

Until now, he had been the last member of the IS execution squad that was alive and not in prison.

Mohammed Emwazi, known as "Jihadi John," was killed by a US drone in Syria in November 2015, while Aine Davis was recently arrested at a UK airport after being deported from Turkey, where he was serving a seven-and-a-half-year sentence for membership of the terror group.

Elsheikh and the fourth person, former British national Alexanda Amon Kotey, 37, were captured by a Kurdish militia in Syria in January 2018.

They were turned over to US forces in Iraq, stripped of their British citizenship, and flown to Virginia in October 2020. Kotey pleaded guilty and was also sentenced to life in prison in April.

One more step towards justice

The families said that the hearing on Friday was only one more step towards achieving justice, and that their efforts now would be focused on bringing attention to American hostages that are currently detained abroad.

According to the James Foley Foundation, there are currently 67 publicly disclosed cases of US citizens being wrongfully detained or held hostage in other countries.

The Biden administration recently introduced an executive order that would aim to improve efforts to free American hostages and detainees.

"No family should have to endure this, but this continues. Currently, we have more than 67 of our US nationals currently wrongfully detained, held hostage abroad simply for being American," said Diane Foley.

"So I call on President Biden to employ our shrewdest negotiations to quickly bring these innocent Americans home - less they die in captivity, as our sons and daughters did."

Washington
US court hands down life sentence to IS 'Beatles' member El Shafee Elsheikh 

Egypt: Residents of Cairo’s agricultural islands live under threat of displacement

Fri, 08/19/2022 - 14:50
Egypt: Residents of Cairo’s agricultural islands live under threat of displacement
The recent demolition of Cairo’s historic houseboats has revived fears of expropriation among the inhabitants of the agricultural islands of the Egyptian capital
Aida Delpuech Fri, 08/19/2022 - 15:50
Dotted with brick-built informal settlements, al-Dahab island has preserved its traditional agricultural methods (MEE/Aïda Delpuech)

Between the two bustling banks of the river Nile as it flows through Cairo, one of the most densely populated and polluted cities in the world, time seems to stand still.

Hard on the shores of the Nile right in the epicentre of the city, Cairo’s agricultural islands – al-Warraq, al-Qursayah, and al-Dahab – are a haven of green in the heart of an urban jungle.

On Gezirat al-Dahab, the golden island, there is barely a single car to disturb the calm of the 20,000 inhabitants and cattle, the only exception being the ice cream van, with its following of children just out of school.

Here, the majority of the population work in the fields. “I don’t even know how long it’s been like this. Farming is in our blood, that’s just the way it is,” Abir, a 45-year-old mother of four tells Middle East Eye.

The only way to get to the island of Dahab is on a small sailboat called a felucca. The Egyptian government has never had any presence here, and there is no administrative centre, making it a land apart right in the heart of the city. Cairo’s imposing ring road straddles the island without providing any access to it.

warraq
Aerial view of the Island of al-Warraq, on the Nile, in the north  of Cairo, 14 May 2021 (AFP)

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The absence of any public services means inhabitants have to make regular trips to the city, for health care, schooling, or for admin.

Long preserved, this enclave where Christians and Muslims live side by side is now threatened by the government’s city planning projects.

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With the recent destruction of the historic houseboats, a few kilometres away, the inhabitants of the agricultural islands, under pressure since 2000, are unnerved.

On Monday, the Egyptian security forces violently dispersed a protest on the island of al-Warraq, the biggest of Cairo’s three agricultural islands, resulting in seven arrests. Islanders were protesting the government’s plans to tear down their houses to make room for a series of Manhattan-style skyscrapers, called ‘Horus Island’. 

The authorities came to the island to assess certain houses in the Hawd al-Qalamiyeh district which were marked for demolition. Earlier, at the end of July, a hospital, a youth centre, and two schools serving 6,500 children were destroyed.

In 2002, residents won a court case asserting their right of ownership over the island. Now, the government is claiming possession of 71 percent of its surface area.

Food autonomy 

Regularly flooded by the waters of the Nile until the construction of the former Aswan Dam in 1902, rural exiles established informal settlements on Cairo’s agricultural islands and their descendants remain there to this day.

The islands belonged to the monarchy until 1953 when the Egyptian republic was established, after which date they were returned to the inhabitants.  

Dotted with brick-built settlements, the island of al-Dahab has preserved its traditional farming methods.

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The food crops – bananas, wheat, and corn - are grown without the use of pesticides, alongside fields of clover and alfalfa, which are used as cattle fodder.

Buffalo, cattle, and poultry live side by side with the inhabitants and form an integral part of the agricultural system of al-Dahab.

Any crops, principally food produce, that are harvested and not consumed by the islanders are sold on market stalls on the other side of the water.

“We grow wheat, alfalfa, vegetables. We want for nothing, we have everything we need. Often my husband goes to  Maadi [a residential district in the south of Cairo] to sell part of our harvest” says islander Abir.

'Our neighbours have all been driven out'

Although they have preserved their ancestral way of life and culture until now, the agricultural islands of Cairo have been under land pressure since 2000, with the launch of major government building and redevelopment plans which, according to the government, would serve the ‘public good’.

In 2021, for example, the Egyptian government decided to extend the al-Mounib bridge,  which had straddled al-Dahab island since the end of the 1990s and linked the suburb of Maadi with the working-class district of al-Mounib.

'The Government has taken some of our land, land that’s our sole source of income. We were promised compensation, and we’re still waiting'

- Omar, al-Dahab resident

To reduce congestion on the existing four-lane throughway, and double its capacity, the population of the island living at the foot of the first bridge were forced out of their homes.

According to witness accounts of islanders, given to Middle East Eye, promised compensation has not materialised.

“That right there, that’s our house’ says Abdallah, age 13, pointing towards the giant arterial road looming overhead.

The house he is referring to was a cinder block building, the remains of which are still standing, but part of the roof is missing. “To build the bridge, they needed to demolish the second floor. My parents never received any compensation.”

Under the bridge, among giant advertising hoardings, an immense stretch of wasteland where the houses in ruins bear witness to what once was.

“We had lots of neighbours. Now, there’s no one any more, they’ve all been driven out” Abdallah continues.

Formerly the property of the locals, the land now belongs to the Transport Ministry.

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A few metres from there, sheikh Omar and his wife Alia sit in front of their former house, at the south-west entrance of the island. They too have paid the price of the bridge extension.

“The government took our land,  land that was our sole source of income. We were promised compensation, and we’re still waiting. If nothing materialises, we’ll go to court” says Omar.

A few years earlier, in July 2017, the island of al-Warraq – the biggest of Cairo’s three agricultural islands - hit the headlines after clashes between the islanders and the security forces.

The security forces had stormed the island to enforce an order authorising the demolition of more than 100 houses, which it claimed had been built on land belonging to the State.

The same year the Egyptian government announced plans for the redevelopment of 588 hectares of land to build a tourism centre designed to attract national and overseas investment.

The pressure on the residents of the agricultural islands is mounting, with an increasing number of redevelopment plans, filed under land development strategies, comprising expropriation measures.

“The centrality of these spaces makes them prime targets for urban redevelopment” Corten Pérez-Huis, a geography PhD candidate at Paris 1 University tells MEE.

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The project “Greater Cairo 2050” established under the presidency of Hosni Moubarak, set out a plan to urbanise and transform the agricultural islands into tourism and real estate hubs. In this plan, which aspired to make Cairo a global showcase within Egypt, the island of al-Dahab was to be transformed into 2 green spaces, the so-called Dahab Island Parks.

Criminalisation of island residents

Although the project was officially abandoned the day after the 2011 revolution, it still influences and structures the current redevelopment plans.

At the end of July, the Egyptian government revealed its most recent redevelopment plan for the island of al-Warraq, which will be renamed Horus City. With a budget of 17.5 billion Egyptian pounds, the island will house eight residential areas, two ports, a central park as well as several shopping centres.

'The strategy of citing ecological concerns is nothing more than a pretence, mere window dressing that paves the way for the criminalisation of the inhabitants of the islands'

- Corten Pérez-Huis, geography PhD candidate 

The ‘Egypt 2052’ plan, led by the GOPP (General Organisation for Urban Planning), the body with oversight for the planning of the Egyptian territory, is rooted in an a continuation of Moubarak’s time in power and envisages the eradication of the so-called ‘illegal’ settlements on the Nile.

“There’s an island in the middle of the Nile that stretches more than 525 hectares, where people have built on the land they appropriated. Now there are some 50,000 houses there, where does their sewage go? It goes into the water of the Nile, that we drink. This can’t be allowed to go on, with the harm it’s doing” said President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi in 2017, during a speech specifically addressing Cairo’s agricultural islands.

“Legally, there shouldn’t be anyone there”, he added.

However, the day before he gave that speech, 6 June 2017, a presidential decree excluded seventeen isles from the ‘environmental management area’ – which are protected natural spaces – including al-Dahab, al-Warraq and al-Qursaya.

“The strategy of citing ecological concerns is nothing more than a pretence, mere window-dressing that paves the way for the criminalisation of the inhabitants of the islands”, said Corten Pérez-Huis.

In reality, the Egyptian authorities aims to take control of these central spaces, which it considers under-exploited, and shut down the agricultural activities to make way for tourism and property projects.

According to official information sources on the redevelopment of the island of al-Warraq, the government is thinking big, with plans to build 94 residential tower blocks comprising 4,092 apartments, alongside several seven-star hotels, schools, youth centres, shopping centres, two marinas for yachts, a corniche along the river and a large park.

On 18 June 2022, the Ministry of Irrigation welcomed the eradication of 58,000 illegal properties on the banks of the Nile, from Upper Egypt to the Delta, as part of his plan to bring about ‘high-quality water resource management’. 

These recent expulsions and expropriations "are just the first round, and will be followed by new governmental projects" said independent news source Mada Masr.

On the island of al-Dahab, residents are watching these events unfold with great unease, but remain determined: “we have been here for more than 100 years, and we’re not going anywhere” says sheikh Omar confidently.

*This article was first published in French.

Cairo

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