There's No Free Press in Egypt

That’s some bad timing U.S. Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey had last week.  Speaking at a public conference in Egypt, Scobey declared that “Egyptians are very free to speak out. The press debates so many things.” She then implied human rights organizations are free to investigate human rights abuses.

Activists call for the release of imprisoned Egyptian blogger Karim Amer

Activists call for the release of imprisoned Egyptian blogger Karim Amer

It didn’t take long for the Egyptian government to undercut the ambassador’s comments.  Today, Egyptian human rights activists announced their support for one of their own, blogger Hani Nazeer Aziz, when the government refused to implement for the fourth time a court order demanding his release from jail.  Aziz has been detained without charge at Borg AlArab prison since October 2008, activists say because the government wanted to silence his pro-democracy writings.

Scobey didn’t mention Aziz in her conference.  Nor did she mention arrested blogger Karim Amer, who is an Amnesty prisoner of conscience; nor did she cite a former POC Abdel Moneim Mahmoud, a journalist and blogger detained for more than a month in 2007 for denouncing torture ; nor did she mention novelist Musaad Suliman Hassan Hussein, known by his pen name Musaad Abu Fagr, who is a subject this month of Amnesty International’s Write-a-Thon.  Earlier this month, one of the most famous bloggers in Egypt, Wael Abbas, was convicted in absentia to 6 months in jail on charges of sabotage.

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Hold Your Applause

Source: Peace Now

President Obama’s strategy of “reaching out to the Muslim world” over the past few weeks has inspired strong sentiments of both praise and derision from across the US to the Muslim world itself. Supporters see him heralding a brilliant new vision for American foreign policy while critics view this vision as little more than naïve pandering.

Among what is widely seen as a departure from the past, the president has stood steadfast on the issue of Israeli settlement expansion, calling for a complete freeze on settlements being built in the West Bank, including “natural growth”. One thing to keep in mind, however, is that this is the same position taken by the Bush Administration in 2003’s Road Map to Peace. By demarking expansion (natural or not) as the only settlement issue, he legitimizes already-built settlements as permissible—though they are anything but. International Law clearly states that “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”, so in order to comply with this, all settlements must be disassembled.

Settlements continue to grow at a staggering rate, with settlement populations in East Jerusalem growing faster than the general population in 2008: 4.5 percent compared to 1.5 percent. There are currently close to 500,000 settlers living in the West Bank.

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

Iranian Presidential Debate Heats Up

Last night turned into a fiery exchange of words during the second of several debates lined up ahead of next week’s presidential election. While there currently no English translations available on YouTube of the debates, CCTV has a couple of clips up here:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ythBumOAtZ0

Former Prime Minister Mir Hussein Musavi and incumbent Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traded barbs on issues ranging from the economy to nuclear power to Ahmadinejad’s inflammatory comments about the Holocaust.

Reuters, the New York Times, and Bloomberg all discuss the debate in more detail.

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

Obama’s Hotly Anticipated Speech to the Muslim World

Obama's BBC Interview

Obama's BBC Interview

President Obama is due to arrive in Cairo on Thursday to give a hotly anticipated speech to the Muslim world during a five day trip to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Germany and France.

His speech is said to be similar to his previous one in Turkey, in which he will reiterate that the US wishes to foster warm relations with Muslim nations and will not, in his words, “simply impose… values on another country with a different history and a different culture.” He also told the BBC he plans to engage in “tough, direct diplomacy”.

This tough and direct diplomacy, though, should entail recognizing and tackling human rights violations in the region, such as those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Israel, and the Palestinian territories. President Obama has said that while his administration will not impose our American values on other nations, they will encourage universal principles like freedom of speech and religion. He has also said that “part of being a good friend is being honest”.

Now is the perfect time to be honest. This is an important moment for the universal value of human rights in the Middle East, and excuses are not acceptable.

Be sure to take a look at Obama’s full BBC interview regarding the trip here.

Samah Choudhury contributed to this post

Hemming and Hawing with Saudi Arabia

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

AP Photo/Charles Dharapak

President Obama has added Saudi Arabia to the list of countries he will be visiting this June.  He reportedly will meet with King Abdullah to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Iran and terrorism.  The Arab Peace Initiative, designed by King Abdullah, would grant Palestinians an independent state, settle the issue of Palestinian refugees and create a more peaceful environment between Middle Eastern states. It has also been embraced by the Obama team. The trip reflects a new commitment by the US government to work more closely with Arab countries on issues of peace and power.

Peace in the Middle East is a noble cause for the Obama administration.  But as the Dalai Lama has said, “Peace can only last where human rights are respected.”

Saudi Arabia’s death row list is lengthy.  Juveniles have been sentenced to death and now executed after unfair trial proceedings.  There are also restrictions on freedom of speech and expression, with journalists threatened and censored by religious and political leaders alike.

While Saudi Arabia has made some strides on the human rights front, there is much more work to be done before a regional peace, built on respecting human rights, can stand.  President Obama should take this opportunity to build a relationship based on human rights respect.

Dear President Obama, When you meet with President Peres …

Israeli President, Shimon Peres, speaking to AIPAC at annual conference today.

Israeli President, Shimon Peres, speaking to AIPAC at annual conference today.

Israeli President, Shimon Peres, flew to the United States to give a speech at the 2009 AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) annual conference in Washington DC Monday and to meet with President Obama Tuesday at the White House.  YouTube already has a video of his speech.

Although George Mitchell, Special Envoy to the Middle East who was appointed by President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has met with Israeli officials, this will be the first meeting between President Obama and a high ranking official from the newly established Israeli government under Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu which is considered ’right-wing’.

 AIUSA asked President Obama to raise the issues of increasing settlement expansion in the West Bank and the eviction of Palestinian families and demolition of homes in east Jerusalem.  Despite repeated U.S. statements condemning the demolitions and settlement expansion in the Occupied Territories, settlement expansion and demolitions continue.  Settlement building/expansion, evictions and demolitions in occupied territory are also illegal under international law.

Demolitions in east Jerusalem have increased dramatically in the last two years with wide swathes of land slated for demolitions.  Settlement expansion which has been in the works for some time is now being given the green light by newly elected government officials. 

Obama has also been asked to follow up on recent events in Gaza.  Despite statements by Sec’y Clinton that goods and humanitarian aid is getting into the Gaza Strip, other sources such as the U.N. and other monitors on the ground continue to report excessive restrictions which continue to keep out spare parts for medical equipment or equipment needed to rebuild, such as bulldozers.

We’ve also asked that Obama urge Israel to cooperate with the investigation being conducted by the team created by the United Nations Human Rights Council and under the leadership of Justice Richard Goldstone, a highly respected war crimes prosecutor.  Justice Goldstone has stated that he will be investigating the allegations of human rights abuses by all parties involved in the conflict.  The team is currently meeting in Geneva to organize and outline their investigation into war crimes committed during the Gaza crisis.  The government of Israel has publicly stated that they do not plan to cooperate with the team.

Even though the two leaders will be focused on the peace process, human rights are directly linked to any workable resolution.  Both parties must respect the basic human rights of each other and the United States must play a key role in getting all the  parties involved to recognize this basic tenet.

UPDATE May 6, 2009: Video covering comments made at AIPAC conference and responses.

New Amnesty report calls for comprehensive arms embargo on Israel and Hamas

Amnesty International released a report today ‘Fuelling conflict: Foreign arms supplies to Israel/Gaza’ calling for a comprehensive arms embargo on both Israel and Hamas.  Amnesty researchers during their fact finding mission in Gaza found both Israel and Hamas used weapons supplied from abroad to carry out attacks on civilians.

The report states that Israeli forces used white phosphorus and other weapons supplied by the USA to carry out serious violations of international humanitarian law, including war crimes. Their attacks resulted in the death of hundreds of children and other civilians and destoyed homes on a massive scale while Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups fired hundreds of rockets that had been smuggled in or made of components from abroad at civilian areas in Israel. The report points out that although far less lethal than the weaponry used by Israel, such rocket firing also constitutes a war crime and caused several civilian deaths.

Bomb shelter in Sderot, Israel in Dec. 2008. www.activestills.org

Of course the the Gov’t of Israel and Hamas have both rejected the findings of the report with their own justifications for their actions and wide, sweeping statements against Amnesty International methodology.  [Watch for future blogs addressing the responses.]

The report takes a closer look at white phosphorous but also documents how US made shell fragments were found throughout Gaza including by the American School in Gaza, homes, playgrounds, hospitals.   The misuse of flechettes, artillery and mortars, DIME (Dense Inert Metal Explosives) and tank ammunition is also included. The report documents the use of US made missiles in the killing of civilians, including an incident where an AGM 114 Hellfire missile produced by Hellfire Systems of Orlando, killed three paramedics and a child.

The team also documented the use of a new type of missile, apparently launched from unmanned drones, which explodes tiny sharp-edged metal cubes which can penetrate thick metal doors and maximize injury.  These missiles have killed a 13 year old girl asleep in her bed, three primary school-age boys carrying sugar cane, two young women on their way to a shelter, a 13 year old boy on his bicycle, eight secondary school students waiting for the school bus, and entire family sitting in the courtyard of their home and many others.

The report points out that for many years the USA has been the major supplier of conventional arms to Israel and has a 10-year agreement (to 2017) in which the USA is due to provide $30 billion in military aid to Israel, a 25 percent increase compared to the period preceding the Bush administration. Based on the US being the major supplier of weapons to Israel, the USA has a particular obligation to stop any supply that contributes to gross violations of the laws of war and of human rights. And based on the evidence gathered showing a direct link to US made weaponry used against civilians, the Obama Administration should immediately suspend US military aid to Israel.

There’s too much information in the report to include in one blog post.  The report has also gained a lot of attention overseas in such non-English publications as El Pais, Le Monde , Diario Portugal, El Mundo as well as responses from the Government of Israel and Hamas officials.  Look for more posts on this subject to come.

Major settlement expansion announced in West Bank

Palestinian land was declared ‘state lands’ recently by Israel to expand the settlement of Efrat, near Bethlehem. This announcement was made just two weeks before Secretary of State is due to meet with newly elected government officials in Israel.

Settlements are illegal under international law and Amnesty International condemns their presence in the Occupied Palestinian Territories based on their illegality and believes the existence of these settlements has led to mass human rights violations against the local Palestinian population.

Settlements aren’t only illegal under international law, but are at odds with American policy. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice repeatedly made trips to Israel, often having to repeatedly condemn settlement activity.

Settlements are an impediment to peace, but also a catalyst for human rights violations including (but not limited to) evictions and home demolitions. Often Palestinian lands are confiscated for direct construction or ‘security reasons’ created by settlement expansion and water confiscation and shortages are a major issue.

B’tselem video on water shortages due to settlement activity:

The expansion of Efrat specifically threatens the environs of Bethlehem such as the Hope Flowers School which is supported by peace groups and churches here in the US. Back in 2007, the BBC wrote a story already alluding to the expansion of Efrat saying,

“Officials say the order was issued because the cafeteria [at Hope Flowers School] was built without a permit, but staff believe it is to make way for the expansion of the adjacent Jewish settlement of Efrat.”

Special Envoy George Mitchell strongly condemned illegal Israeli settlements in his report in 2001 calling on Israel to freeze all settlement activity. President Obama made overtures to the Arab world and showed that he is willing to listen and show respect for their perspectives and human rights

But, will Sec’y Clinton, when she’s in Israel this March, go farther than parroting diplomatic sound bites? Will there be any constructive pressure put upon the parties to move forward, adhere to international law and prior peace agreements or will she continue to spout empty words like Sec’y Rice?

Obama Appoints New Mideast Envoy, Comments on Gaza

President Barack Obama has earned early accolades for appointing former Senator George Mitchell to be his Middle East envoy.  Mitchell, the son of an Irish father and Lebanese mother, was the Senate Majority leader and served 15 years in the Senate.  Best known for his work on Northern Ireland and his most recent investigation on performance enhancing drugs in baseball, Mitchell is being praised by both Jewish and Arabs groups for his balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee, said Mitchell could be a “good and logical choice.” Laila Al-Qatami, the communications director for the Arab Ant-Discrimination Committee said, “George Mitchell is an exceptionally well qualified and highly respected public servant.”

Meanwhile, in a statement that shows Obama’s willingness to look at both sides of the Gaza crisis, he showed sympathy both for the loss of civilian life in Israel as well as the stifling poverty in Gaza. He said,

“Now, just as the terror of rocket fire aimed at innocent Israelis is intolerable, so, too, is a future without hope for the Palestinians. I was deeply concerned by the loss of Palestinian and Israeli life in recent days, and by the substantial suffering and humanitarian needs in Gaza. Our hearts go out to Palestinian civilians who are in need of immediate food, clean water, and basic medical care, and who have faced suffocating poverty for far too long.”