Tag Archives: Syria
Aside 21 Oct

Beirut: Hundreds try to storm PM’s office after funeral

Violence breaks out at the funeral of assassinated top intelligence chief Wissam al-Hassan as protesters call for PM’s resignation. Channel 4 News reports on why his death has caused so much upheaval.

Violent protests follow Lebanese funeral (R)

Mourners had gathered in Beirut’s central Martyrs’ Square district [photo below] when hundreds of protestors broke away and attempted to storm the offices of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati at the Grand Serail, writes Dalila Mahdawi from Beirut.

Soldiers fired bullets into the air and used tear gas in an effort to disperse the mob.

Security personnel quickly established a security cordon around the building as opposition leader and former prime minister Saad Hariri pleaded for calm, saying: “We are not advocates of violence and I call on all supporters to leave the streets immediately.”

Gerenal Wissam al-Hassan, who headed the controversial intelligence branch of the internal security forces, was killed along with seven others in a massive car bomb on Friday. He was a strong opponent of the Syrian government and was known for his close ties to the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated in 2005, and Hariri’s Future Movement party.

His death on Friday, which occurred as many parents were collecting their children from school, has largely been blamed on Syria. Damascus has rejected involvement, calling Hassan’s killing a “cowardly” act.

Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who many politicians are demanding resign over the killing, arrived to the funeral to a chorus of angry boos from the crowd of around 3,000 people.

Many protestors waved flags in Arabic, English and French calling for Mikati to step down. One read: “Get the Syrian out of the Serail [government],” in reference to the President Michel Sleiman and what many Lebanese see as Mikati’s close links to the Syrian regime.

The clashes appeared to have been contained before long, but there are reports that violence has spread across Lebanon, with protestors burning tyres and shooting guns in Tripoli and other areas of Beirut.

The man who knew too much?

Dubbed by one local newspaper as “the man who knew too much,” Hassan’s investigations helped the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the international court tasked with prosecuting Hariri’s assassins and which last year indicted four men with ties to Hezbollah and the Syrian government.

Earlier this summer, he had uncovered a plot by former information minister Michel Samaha to commit terrorist attacks against high-profile Lebanese figures.

“He was privy to a lot of highly confidential information that was dangerous to many people, so he had to be eliminated,” Karim Makdessi, an associate professor of politics at the American University of Beirut, told Channel 4 News.

He was targeted as he passed through a side street off Sassine Square, a busy area in Beirut’s Christian neighborhood of Achrafieh.

“We came today out of recognition for a man who died trying to protect all of the Lebanese people,” said Adil, 64. “We are embedded in a regional conflict in which the Lebanese people have no control over their destiny. It is the duty of all patriots to join hands and unite to prevent a civil war.”

Political upheaval

Mikati is part of the dominant March 8 coalition, formed of Hezbollah and its Christian and Muslim allies and backed by Syria and Iran. He tendered his resignation on Saturday but President Michel Sleiman rejected the move, saying his departure would lead the country into further crisis.

Professor Makdessi told Channel 4 News that the opposition March 14 bloc would now try to cash in on popular anger at Hassan’s assassination in order to reassert their weakened position in government.

March 14, a coalition of pro-Western Christian and Muslim parties led by the Future Movement, has played a muted role in Lebanese politics in recent years.

“Now is the time for mourning and for coming together to create a proper national security and political agenda for the whole country. It is not the time to point fingers or to assert parochial, sectarian agendas,” said Professor Makdissi.

‘I don’t feel safe’

But many see Hassan’s assassination as the beginning of a renewed campaign against anti-Syrian figures. Between 2005 and 2008, there were 11 assassinations or attempted assassinations in Lebanon. All of the targets were politicians or journalists vocally opposed to the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad.

“I don’t feel safe at all now,” said Zeina, 30. “There are only going to be more political assassinations and all of us ordinary Lebanese are going to stuck in the middle of it all again.”

Simon Haddad, a Lebanese political analyst, said that while a number of other senior Lebanese officials were now possible assassination targets, it was more likely that the diplomatic repercussions of Hassan’s death would play out in Syria.

“His killing will have more implications for the Syrian crisis more than on Lebanon,” he told Channel 4 News. “The Arab countries will start seriously to support the rebels with weapons.”

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The writing is on the wall for Lebanon’s government

13 Apr

Lebanon may have escaped the tumult of the so-called Arab Spring, but the country’s ruling classes seem illiterate to its main message: that conceited rulers who do little to assist ordinary people in their daily quest for dignity will one day face their wrath.  

Compared to elsewhere in the region, things look calm in tiny Lebanon. But underneath the photo-shopped veneer promoted by the Ministry of Tourism lies a steadily boiling pot of despair and ruin.

Today marks the 37th anniversary of the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war. In 15 years of horrific violence, up to 300,000 people were killed and 17,000 are still considered missing. Lebanon never had a truth and justice commission and ignored its international obligations to investigate the whereabouts of the missing. Instead, it introduced a sweeping amnesty law in 1990, which allowed many militia leaders to return to Lebanese politics as ministers. Their sectarian grievances now mostly play out in Parliament, but followers of their personality cults occasionally still fight it out on the streets or on television. Because of the constant political bickering, issues of critical importance to the nation are being left to rot, quite literally.

An on-going scandal has exposed a number of factories selling meat products years past their sell-by dates to the country’s supermarkets and restaurants. Only a few arrests have been made, however, and commentators are pessimistic that government pledges for a full investigation will translate to meaningful action.

In January, a residential building in Beirut collapsed suddenly, killing 27 people. This was followed by several other collapses, including a school wall, which crushed three pupils to death. But despite the urgency for new building regulations, the government is doing little to prevent further similar catastrophes, choosing only to demolish one bridge experts have been warning might buckle for years.

The country’s list of woes goes on and on. Migrant workers not protected by Lebanon’s labour law are committing suicide at startling rates and Lebanese women continue to struggle against institutionalised discrimination and misogyny. Lebanon’s overcrowded prisons have been described as tinderboxes teetering ever closer to disaster, as have the country’s landfills. The worst one, in the Southern city of Sidon, regularly collapses, dumping tonnes of hospital and chemical waste into the Mediterranean Sea. Gas and food prices have steadily increased over the last few months, making it virtually impossible for Lebanese living on the minimum wage (around £280) to make ends meet. To add insult to injury, Lebanon endures mandatory daily electricity cuts, ranging from three hours in the capital to around 12 hours daily in rural areas.

If this Sisyphean list of problems isn’t enough to stir the Lebanese leadership to action, one might think the crisis in Syria, which is slowing seeping its way across the border, would. Earlier this week Lebanese cameraman Ali Shaaban was shot dead, allegedly by Syrian soldiers, while on assignment near the border. There is frequent sectarian fighting between pro- and anti-Assad supporters in North Lebanon and the number of Syrians (mostly women now since Syria has placed a ban on all men between 18-40 years leaving the country) seeking refuge in Lebanon from the violence is growing steadily.

And yet, with all this trouble mounting, what does the Lebanese government choose to focus on? It is currently prosecuting a graffiti artist by the name of Semaan Khawwam, for  “disturbing the peace” after he was caught spray-painting figures holding big guns.

Use of graffiti is widespread in the Lebanese capital. In the absence of a coherent protest movement, street art is increasingly being used to convey people’s grievances with the state, whether it be over the lack of a marital rape clause in the criminal code, widespread corruption, drink-driving, or high unemployment.

Khawwam’s soldier-like figure doesn’t clearly attack any person or institution, so it remains a mystery to many why his case is being pursued out of many thousand possibilities. More importantly, graffiti art is not actually illegal under Lebanese law. Yet he faces a fine and possibly three months in prison if convicted. His lawyer, Adel Houmani, made an important point when he questioned the legitimacy of the case: “If this artistic work is vandalism,” he told Al Akhbar newspaper, “then what do we say about the photos of leaders that are posted everywhere, in addition to all the random posters and ads?”

The case against Khawwam shows just how muddled the logic of Lebanon’s leadership is. This is a country where politicians struggle to identify the country’s most basic priorities, mainly because their priorities are to stay in power, leading luxurious lifestyles deeply out of touch with most of their constituents.

The writing, it would seem, is on the wall. It’s not only Lebanon’s meat, fish and poultry that is way past its expiry date- its leaders are too.

NOTE: The travel ban on Syrian men has now been rescinded.

Syria amends honour killing law

2 Jul
President Bashar al-Assad

Article 548 was abolished by Bashar al-Assad’s presidential decree

THIS FROM THE BBC: Syria has scrapped a law limiting the length of sentences handed down to men convicted of killing female relatives they suspect of having illicit sex.

Women’s groups had long demanded that Article 548 be scrapped, arguing it decriminalised “honour” killings. Activists say some 200 women are killed each year in honour cases by men who expect lenient treatment under the law.

The new law replaces the existing maximum sentence of one year in jail with a minimum jail term of two years. Justice Minister Ahmad Hamoud Younis said the change was made by the decree of President Bashar al-Assad, following a recent increase in “wife-killings… on the pretext of adultery”.

The new law says a man can still benefit from extenuating circumstances in crimes of passion or honour “provided he serves a prison term of no less than two years in the case of killing”. The legislation covers any man who “unintentionally” kills his wife, sister, daughter or mother after catching her committing adultery or having unlawful sex. It also covers cases where the woman’s lover is killed.

Reports say women’s rights activists have given a cautious welcome to the change, with one group calling it a “small contribution to solving the problem”. Their objection remains, however, that the new law still apparently invites men to murder women if they catch them having sex or suspect them of doing so.

Syrian blogger lives precarious life as exile in Lebanon

27 Dec

Abdullah family has paid heavy price for speaking out
By Dalila Mahdawi
Saturday, December 27, 2008

Syrian blogger lives precarious life as exile in Lebanon
 

BEIRUT: Only 26 years old, Syrian human rights activist Mohammad al-Abdullah has already been imprisoned twice, beaten, and forced into hiding in neighboring Lebanon.

Jail has unfortunately become a defining feature of the Abdullah family, which has been all but splintered by the repeated arrests of its male members because of their calls for political reform in Syria.

When Abdullah’s father Ali was jailed in 2005, the son formed the Committee for Families of Political Prisoners in Syria, only to be himself marched off to a cell two days after the launch. His father received a presidential pardon six months later, along with 190 other political prisoners.

Ali, who has been banned from traveling since 1996, was re-arrested in 2006 and then in December 2007 with 11 other members of the Damascus Declaration, which calls for “democratic and radical change” in Syria. All received 30-month prison sentences.

Syria, which has been under the Baathist rule of the Assad family since the 1970s, has long treated dissidents and human rights activists with an iron fist. “In a transparent bid to silence its critics, the government is jailing democracy activists for simply attending a meeting,” Human Rights Watch has said.

“They took my father hostage in order to get me,” Mohammad told The Daily Star. “I stayed in jail for six and a half months, two floors underground in a cell smaller than me. After 18 days, they brought someone else and we stayed together there for 42 days. There was no light, the toilet was in the same place – it was terrible.”

During his imprisonment, Mohammad said he was beaten and forced to sign a document he was not allowed to read. “Later I found out it said I would work for the intelligence as an informer.”

Before his arrest, Abdullah had been a law student at the Lebanese University. With his final year exam approaching, he launched an eight-day hunger strike to be allowed to sit the test. “The judge said I would be released on October 4, the day before the exam,” said Abdullah, who wasn’t released until October 5. “I called a friend from university who told me the exam had been pushed back two days, but the authorities monitored the phone call and prevented me from leaving the country.”

In January 2007, Syria granted him permission to make one journey outside the country. “I came to Beirut on  February 1 and have stayed here since,” he said. Without a passport, he is stranded. “The only place I can go is Syria and if I go back I’ll be arrested.” He has been told by a friend who works at Damascus’ airport that there are 13 separate warrants for his arrest.

Abdullah’s younger brother Omar, meanwhile, is currently half-way through a five-year sentence for blogging. He is being held at Sidnaya military prison, the scene of deadly riots this July. “I haven’t heard anything from or about him since then,” said Mohammad. For the first time in the interview, Mohammad’s voice wobbled, his smile vanishing. “I cannot stop thinking about him.”

 

At the third annual Arab Free Press Forum held in Beirut earlier this month, Abdullah spoke of the rising importance of bloggers in the Middle East. Syrian bloggers had “become a source of information for Syrian citizens, despite all the constraints and obstacles for even just being on the internet,” he said. The Syrian authorities require Internet cafŽ managers to monitor the online activities of clients and register their personal details. They have also blocked many prominent blog sites, along with numerous Arabic newspapers, Wikipedia and Facebook.

Repressive governments appear increasingly wary of bloggers, as there are currently more online journalists and bloggers in prison than journalists from any other field. According to a study by the Committee to Protect Journalists, 56 out of 125 journalists imprisoned worldwide worked online, “a tally that surpasses the number of print journalists for the first time.” The reason for the crackdown on bloggers was simple, Abdullah said. “In general, bloggers write about issues that journalists don’t dare write about – about torture, corruption, subjects that the authorities cannot tolerate.”

While Abdullah publishes his blog, “I’m leaving and I’m not coming back,” under his real name, he said Syrian bloggers mainly wrote under pseudonyms. Readers of his blog, which deals with political prisoners and human rights in Syria, were so afraid of reprisals that many left their comments anonymously or sent them to his email account. Abdullah believes Syrian intelligence officers also read his blog, as he received “horrible” comments frequently. “I leave them up for people to see,” he said.

Being a Syrian in Lebanon was not easy, said Abdullah, adding he had experienced some racism. Despite that and the very real possibility of being followed by Syrian intelligence officers, he tries to lead a normal life. “I’m not paranoid, but at the same time I know the Syrians are still here … and in my opinion they are stronger than before. So I have to take care.” Abdullah said he would apply for a passport when the Syrian Embassy opened next week, but said he was not “optimistic.”

Abdullah hoped the thawing of relations between Syria and the West translated into greater rights for Syrians. “I’m not against Western engagement with Syria but it has to be conditional on freedom and human rights. Sometimes I get the feeling that the West is blocking democracy in the Middle East by supporting dictators,” Abdullah said, citing European support for the Tunisian, Saudi and Libyan regimes.

 

For Abdullah’s blog, see http://raye7wmishraj3.wordpress.com

As the 33rd Anniversary of the Start of the Lebanese Civil War passes, many, although not the government, are still asking: where are the ‘disappeared’?

13 Apr

(By Dalila Mahdawi, Published in the Middle East Reporter)

 

April 13, the anniversary of the outbreak of the devastating Lebanese 1975-1990 civil war, came and went quietly and perhaps even unnoticed for many in the capital city Beirut.

 

For many families, however, the anniversary was a painful reminder that the war and all of its consequences still haven’t been properly addressed. Even on the symbolic level, there is no official day to commemorate the war, nor any monument or memorial to honor the dead.

 

Around 100,000 people were killed in the 15 years of fighting and it is thought that up to 17,000 individuals ‘disappeared’. Many of those were arrested, kidnapped or killed by the Israeli and Syrian armies or by the Palestinian and various sectarian Lebanese militias that were involved in the fighting. Hundreds are thought to still be in Syrian and Israeli prisons. After the 1989 Taif Accord ended the civil war, the government was keen to leave issue of the war behind, and declared an amnesty law for all crimes perpetrated before March 1991. As a result, the fate of most of those who ‘disappeared’ remains largely unaccounted for and ignored to this day.

 

Civil Mobilization

In the face of governmental inaction, it has been left up to civil society in Lebanon to mobilize. There was a surge in activity in the weeks leading up to the April 13 anniversary. Offre Joie, the Lebanese Association for Human Rights and other local NGOs organized a peace march through Beirut that day. On April 10, the NGO Support of the Lebanese in Detention and Exile (SOLIDE) held a press conference outside the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) building in downtown Beirut, where several families have been holding a sit-in protest for the last three years to demand an investigation into the fate of their loved ones. Speaking to the assembled press, SOLIDE Director Ghazi Aad lamented the failure of the Lebanese government to investigate the ‘disappeared’, saying, “Lebanon is party to this crime in its refusal to take the issue seriously.” Another Lebanese NGO, UMAM- Documentation and Research (UMAM-D&R) organized a talk entitled “What is to be done? Lebanon’s War-loaded Memory”, together with an exhibition of photographs of hundreds of the disappeared, “MISSING”. At the talk was Dr. Alex Boraine, deputy chair of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission and chair of the International Center for Transitional Justice, who stressed that an open and honest assessment of war crimes could help to heal traumatized societies, citing South Africa’s experience as an example.

 

Just days after the anniversary, Lebanese authorities examined what was thought might be a mass grave on the Halat highway, near Byblos in northern Lebanon. Although nothing was found, the investigation testifies to the fact that Lebanon still has a long way to go in addressing its war memories, on both a symbolic and practical level. Further evidence attesting to that fact is the vicious criticism that Michel Aoun, head of the opposition Free Patriotic Movement, received from other MPs after alleging that a mass grave was located at the Halat site. AS SAFIR reported Amin Gemayel, head of the Phalange Party, as accusing Michel Aoun of “digging up the past,”  whilst AN NAHAR reported Christian Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea as criticizing Aoun for “lying”.

 

Amnesty Law

A key factor in the collective amnesia on the issue of the ‘disappeared’ is a 1991 Amnesty Law which absolved all individuals of accountability and prosecution for crimes committed before March 28, 1991. After that, many former militia men shed their combat clothes for expensive suits and took up ministerial positions in government, thus rendering the chance of any governmental probe into the civil war impossible. According to the brochure for UMAM-D&R’s MISSING exhibition, “The Lebanese choice-opting for amnesty and “turning the page of the past” – has clearly been a fiasco… The rationales for the amnesty laws demonstrate the factors that led to the complete absence of serious governmental or civil initiatives to deal with the past.”

 

The current political climate is not helping advance the demands of the families for an investigation into the disappeared, either. Lebanon has been in political deadlock for the last few years- parliament has not convened for the last sixteen months and no President has been elected to replace Emile Lahoud, who ended his tenure in November 2007. A bitter battle between the parliamentary majority and the opposition over the formation of the new government is to blame. The tents of the families camped outside ESCWA are almost invisible amongst those of the opposition, which have brought the area to a complete standstill.

 

In a related development, the Christian Phalange Party and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) on April 15 held a conference aimed at reconciling the two parties that were vicious enemies during the war. According to the official Phalange website (www.kataeb.org), Phalange chief Amin Gemayel stated at the conference that “we should – rather than remembering the battles and heroism that occurred between us and the Palestinians – recall the relationship between Lebanon and Palestine before the Naqba [Israeli victory of 1948, resulting in the “Catastrophe” of around 800,000 Palestinians being made refugees] … the social, cultural, and spiritual proximity between our two peoples that made Palestine, of all Arab states, closest to Lebanon.” The conference follows an apology to the Palestinians by 44 Christian figures who participated in the war, which was itself preceded by an apology in January on behalf of the Palestinians to the Christians by PLO representative in Lebanon Zaki Abbas. Although certainly positive steps towards reconciliation, it is to be seen whether these developments will lead to any admissions by either side over the fate of missing persons, or an investigation into their whereabouts.

 

With no end in sight to the political stasis strangling Lebanon, the families of the ‘disappeared’ look set to face more years of inaction. But, as the activities of SOLIDE, UMAM-D&R and other NGOs testify, those families do not appear willing to remain silent about their missing loved ones, even if their politicians do.