Syria’s civil war: On Syria’s forgotten detainees

Al Jazeera reports: In early May, hundreds of detainees at Syria’s Hama central prison went into a week-long revolt to protest against the planned transfer of five inmates to the notorious Sednaya prison near Damascus, purportedly so that they could be executed.

The prisoners, many of whom are held without charge, rioted in solidarity.

Seven prison guards were taken hostage. Prisoners demanded “basic rights,” including a fair trial or release.

A deal, however, was soon reached resulting in the release of 83 prisoners held without charge.

Two weeks later, a similar scene played out again when inmates captured a high-ranking police officer to protest at what they say was the government’s reneging on an earlier deal to release several hundred political detainees.

Inmates have previously demanded the restoration of electricity and water amid food shortages and serious medical conditions among prisoners, according to to UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Both incidents highlighted the plight of thousands of detainees who are languishing in government prisons in appalling conditions. Both rights groups and opposition negotiators had hoped the first Hama standoff would push Syria’s forgotten detainees back to the forefront of the Syria peace talks. [Continue reading…]

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After Orlando, gay rights moves off diplomatic back burner

The New York Times reports: For years, diplomats were more comfortable talking about nuclear warheads than sexual orientation.

Sexual orientation was one of those subjects burdened with too many cultural sensitivities. American officials, even if they wanted to advance it on the diplomatic agenda, were wary of offending their allies, not least in the Islamic world.

The attack on a gay nightclub in Orlando, Fla., moved the needle.

In its aftermath, the United States corralled an unlikely group of countries to support a United Nations Security Council statement that condemned the attack for “targeting persons as a result of their sexual orientation.” Even Egypt and Russia — not known for embracing their gay and lesbian citizens — signed on, after what diplomats called intense consultations.

Earlier in the day, the United States delivered a pointed rebuke to countries that block gay rights at the United Nations, urging them to “contribute more than condolences and condemnations” after the Orlando attack.

And American embassies in several countries, including India, which still has an anti-sodomy law on the books, draped themselves in the colors of the rainbow flag that signifies gay pride.

The Security Council statement, which was drafted by the United States and issued Monday, carries no legal weight. But it is the first time that the powerful institution, with the capacity to authorize wars, weighed in on sexual orientation.

Homosexuality is still a crime in 73 of the world’s 193 countries, according to the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association; in 13, the death penalty can be applied. In some countries, like Egypt, laws against “debauchery” are used to target gays. Russian law prohibits what it calls “propaganda on nontraditional sexual relationships,” which critics call a thinly veiled measure to harass gay men and lesbians.

“We’re hopefully moving into an era when gross acts of violence are condemned by global leaders rather than when violence motivated by sexual orientation or gender identity” is “dismissed as irrelevant or unworthy,” said Jessica Stern, the executive director of OutRight Action International, an advocacy group.

Still, she said, the United States will be able to sway others only if it can protect its own citizens. “The more we demonstrate respect for Muslim Americans and the more violence we prevent domestically by passing meaningful gun control, the more credible we are likely to be as a global leader,” she said. [Continue reading…]

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Let’s not give in to fear after the Orlando shooting

Steven W Thrasher writes: For generations, gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Americans have turned to night clubs and bars like Orlando’s Pulse – the scene today of the deadliest shooting in American history – as places of refuge. They have been our sanctuaries.

When our homes would kick us out for being queer, there was the bar. When we were at risk of getting beaten up, as men, for wearing drag on the street, there was the club. When our places of employment might fire us for being queer (as they legally still can in most states), there were leathers bars and glam dance clubs where we could shake our moneymakers.

Bars offered us the illusion of a freedom from terror as queer people, the illusion that there was a place where our sexual desires and our communal need to gather with fellow queers would not be under attack.

This illusion was a lie, of course. Bars were not, and never have been, safe places. This should especially obvious every June when we celebrate Pride month. It’s when we remember the Stonewall riots, when all kinds of queers from all kinds of backgrounds were attacked by police inside a New York City dive bar 47 years ago, in June of 1969.

The police were violent to the queer people there. They thought they could do anything they wanted to them, because they knew queer people lived in fear. The police didn’t see the Stonewall as a sanctuary, but as a disgusting cage. They thought the patrons were sick and would be too ashamed of who they were to make a fuss.

But the brave queers at the Stonewall fought back against that. In finding the best spirit of themselves, they started what would become a worldwide movement – a movement that would evolve to fight legal oppression, challenge homophobia, organize around the holocaust of HIV/Aids, and lead to marriage equality many decades later. [Continue reading…]

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The Orlando massacre: A reminder of the dangers LGBT people live with every day

Michelangelo Signorile writes: We still know very few details about the horrific, heartbreaking mass shooting in an Orlando gay club, Pulse, where 50 people have been killed and over 50 more were injured. Omar S. Mateen of Port St. Lucie, Florida, is reported to have entered the club and soon went on a shooting rampage. It’s not yet been confirmed as a hate crime, a terror attack or random shooting.

Whatever the case, a Pride month night of celebration and fun — the weekly Latin Night at the popular club, focused on Latin music, performances and dancing — turned into a morning of mass death and devastation. It happened in an area where LGBT people feel welcome and accepted. Orlando has a large and diverse LGBT community, one in which, like so many across the country, many LGBT people surely feel comfortable and safe.

But the brutal reality that jarred Orlando’s LGBT community, and the entire nation, is something that LGBT have always experienced, as gay and lesbian bars and clubs have been targeted in the past by those who harbor hate toward LGBT people. And it’s a reminder — whatever the motives — of the animus against us, and the ever present danger, with which we still live. [Continue reading…]

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Father of Orlando shooter says his son’s homophobia may have been motive behind massacre

NBC News reports: While no one may ever know what was truly going through the head of the man who shot over 100 people at a gay Orlando nightclub on Sunday, his family says he may have been motivated by pure hate against the LGBT community.

Various law-enforcement officials have identified the shooter as Omar Mateen, 29, who was born in New York and lived in Port . St. Lucie, Florida.

Because of his name and heritage, there were immediately questions about Islamic fundamentalism — but his father said it may have been a recent incident involving two men showing each other affection that set the gunman off.

“We were in Downtown Miami, Bayside, people were playing music. And he saw two men kissing each other in front of his wife and kid and he got very angry,” Mir Seddique, told NBC News on Sunday. “They were kissing each other and touching each other and he said, ‘Look at that. In front of my son they are doing that.’ And then we were in the men’s bathroom and men were kissing each other.’

“We are saying we are apologizing for the whole incident,” said Seddique. “We weren’t aware of any action he is taking. We are in shock like the whole country.”

Seddique added, “this had nothing to do with religion.” [Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast reports: [a] senior law enforcement source reports that Mateen became a person of interest in 2013 and again in 2014. The Federal Bureau of Investigation at one point opened an investigation into Mateen but subsequently closed the case when it produced nothing that appeared to warrant further investigation.

“He’s a known quantity,” the source said. “He’s been on the radar before.” [Continue reading…]

NBC News reports: The gunman who opened fire at a gay Florida nightclub early Sunday, shooting over 100 people, had called 911 moments before to pledge allegiance to the leader of ISIS, law enforcement sources told NBC News. [Continue reading…]

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Guantánamo lawyers deny colluding with judge in key 9/11 case

The Guardian reports: The military lawyers prosecuting the self-proclaimed architect of the 9/11 attacks have struck back against accusations that they colluded with a military judge to destroy evidence relevant to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s defense.

In the latest sign that the US’s premier military commission at Guantánamo Bay is becoming what one observer likened to a “schoolyard brawl”, the prosecutors said Mohammed’s attorneys had cynically pursued a “scorched-earth litigation strategy” that involves “batter[ing] the reputation” of the army colonel presiding over the case.

In a 24 May military commissions filing recently unsealed to the public, the prosecution accuses Mohammed’s defense team of bad faith and shoddy lawyering and says the true goal of its counterparts was to destroy the credibility of the controversial military trial system.

Yet in the filing, the chief commissions prosecutor, Brigadier General Mark Martins, and his team elide the central charge in the controversy: the destruction of evidence in a death penalty case.

Last month, Mohammed’s attorneys leveled the extraordinary allegation that military judge and army colonel James Pohl had secretly issued an order permitting the government to destroy evidence that he had earlier publicly agreed to preserve. While extensive classification rules render central facts in the case difficult to conclusively determine, other rulings suggest the evidence in question concerns Mohammed’s torture by the CIA at secret prisons. [Continue reading…]

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Rebecca Gordon: Justice for torturers?

If you happen to be a potential American war criminal, you’ve had a few banner weeks.  On May 9th, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter presented former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger with the Department of Defense Distinguished Public Service Award, that institution’s highest honorary award for private citizens.”  In bestowing it on the 92-year-old who is evidently still consulting for the Pentagon, he offered this praise: “While his contributions are far from complete, we are now beginning to appreciate what his service has provided our country, how it has changed the way we think about strategy, and how he has helped provide greater security for our citizens and people around the world.”

Certainly people “around the world” will remember the “greater security” offered by the man who, relaying an order from President Richard Nixon for a “massive” secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, used a line that may almost be the definition of a war crime: “Anything that flies on anything that moves.”  The result: half a million tons of bombs dropped on that country between 1969 and 1973 and at least 100,000 dead civilians.  And that’s just to start down the well-cratered road to the millions of dead he undoubtedly has some responsibility for.  Public service indeed.

Meanwhile, speaking of American crimes in the Vietnam era, former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, who ran for president of the U.S. and then became the president of the New School in New York City, was just appointed to “lead” Fulbright University Vietnam, the first private American-backed school there.  Its opening was announced by President Obama on his recent visit to that country.  Only one small problem: we already know of some children who won’t be able to apply for admission.  I’m thinking of the progeny-who-never-were of the 13 children killed by a team of U.S. SEALs under Kerrey’s command and on his orders in South Vietnam in 1969 (along with a pregnant woman, and an elderly couple whose three grandchildren were stabbed to death by the raiders) — all of whom were reported at the time as dead Vietcong guerillas.

It seems that if you are a distinguished citizen of the most exceptional country on the planet, even war crimes have their rewards.  Consider, for instance, the millions of dollars that were paid for memoirs by top Bush administration officials responsible for creating an American offshore torture regime at CIA “black sites” around the world.  Must-reads all!  With that in mind, turn to TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, author most recently of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, to consider what “justice” for such figures might look like in a different and better world. Tom Engelhardt 

Crimes of the War on Terror
Should George Bush, Dick Cheney, and others be jailed?
By Rebecca Gordon

“The cold was terrible but the screams were worse,” Sara Mendez told the BBC. “The screams of those who were being tortured were the first thing you heard and they made you shiver. That’s why there was a radio blasting day and night.”

In the 1970s, Mendez was a young Uruguayan teacher with leftist leanings. In 1973, when the military seized power in her country (a few months before General Augusto Pinochet’s more famous coup in Chile), Mendez fled to Argentina. She lived there in safety until that country suffered its own coup in 1976. That July, a joint Uruguayan-Argentine military commando group kidnapped her in Buenos Aires and deposited her at Automotores Orletti, a former auto repair shop that would become infamous as a torture site and paramilitary command center. There she was indeed tortured, and there, too, her torturers stole her 20-day-old baby, Simón, giving him to a policeman’s family to raise.

[Read more…]

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The new president of the Philippines says many slain journalists deserved it

The Washington Post reports: Many slain journalists in the Philippines had been corrupt and had “done something” to warrant being killed, the country’s president-elect said.

“Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch,” Rodrigo Duterte said Tuesday, Agence France-Presse reported.

The brash, tough-talking former mayor, who will be sworn in as president on June 30, was responding to a question about how he would handle the killing of journalists.

He has previously attracted international outrage for his comments, including remarks about the rape and killing of an Australian missionary in 1989. Human Rights Watch has deemed him the “Death Squad Mayor.”

The Philippines ranks as the second-deadliest country for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. At least 75 journalists there have been killed since 1992. [Continue reading…]

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Report slams Israel’s military law enforcement system

Al Jazeera reports: Citing a raft of deep systemic failures, human rights group B’Tselem has announced that it will no longer cooperate with Israel’s military law enforcement system.

For the past 25 years, B’Tselem, which documents Israeli human rights violations in the occupied Palestinian territories, has served as a “subcontractor” for the system by submitting complaints about soldiers’ alleged misconduct, gathering relevant documents and evidence, and requesting updates for affected Palestinian families.

While the goal was to help to bring justice to Palestinian victims and deter future misconduct, the reality has been the opposite, B’Tselem said in a scathing report released on Wednesday. [Continue reading…]

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The radical future of interrogation

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Robert Kolker writes: The trouble with modern interrogation technique… is that, despite its scientific pose, it has almost no science to back it up. Reid and Inbau [authors of Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, which in 1962 set the mold for police interrogations in America] claimed, for instance, that a well-trained investigator could catch suspects lying with 85 percent accuracy; their manual instructs detectives to conduct an initial, nonaccusatory “behavioral analysis interview,” in which they should look for physical tells like fidgeting and broken eye contact. But when German forensic psychologist Günter Köhnken actually studied the matter in 1987, he found that trained police officers were no better than the average person at detecting lies. Several subsequent studies have cast doubt on the notion that there are any clear-cut behavioral tells. (Truth tellers often fidget more than liars.) In fact, the more confident police officers are about their judgments, the more likely they are to be wrong.

But the scientific case against police interrogations really began to mount in the early 1990s, when the first DNA-based exonerations started rolling in. According to the Innocence Project, a group dedicated to freeing the wrongfully imprisoned, about a third of the 337 people who’ve had their convictions overturned by DNA evidence confessed or incriminated themselves falsely. These and other exonera­tions furnished scientists with dozens of known false-confession cases to study, giving rise to a veritable subfield of social psychology and the behavioral sciences. (At least one confession elicited by John Reid himself — in a 1955 murder case — turned out to be inaccurate; the real killer confessed 23 years later.)

Researchers have even broken down these false confession cases into categories. There are “voluntary” false confessions, like the many presumably unstable people who claimed credit for the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in order to get attention. Then there are “compliant,” or “coerced,” false confessions, in which people are so ground down by an intense interrogation that, out of desperation and naïveté, they think that confessing will be better for them in the long run. The third category, “persuaded,” or “internalized,” false confessions, may be the most poignant. Here, the interrogator’s Reid-style theming is so relentless, the deployment of lies so persuasive, that suspects — often young and impressionable or mentally impaired — end up believing they did it, however fleetingly. [Continue reading…]

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Monitor: 60,000 dead in Syria government jails

Al Jazeera reports: More than 60,000 people have been killed through torture or died in dire humanitarian conditions inside Syrian government prisons throughout the country’s five-year uprising, according to a monitor.

The numbers were obtained from Syrian government sources, the United Kingdom-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Saturday.

“Since March 2011, at least 60,000 people lost their lives to torture or to horrible conditions, notably the lack of medication or food, in regime prisons,” said the Observatory’s Rami Abdel Rahman. [Continue reading…]

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Unholy alliance: Muslim countries join forces with America’s religious right

Brian Whitaker writes: The United Nations will hold a three-day meeting in New York next month in a move towards ending the worldwide Aids epidemic by 2030. But preparations for the meeting were thrown into disarray last week when Egypt blocked 11 gay and transgender advocacy groups from attending.

In a letter to the UN, Egypt gave no reason for objecting to the groups’ participation but said it was acting on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which represents 57 predominantly Muslim countries.

The UN responded by emphasising the need for “nongovernmental organisations working on the ground” to contribute to the discussion, and to hear “the voices of people living with HIV and people most affected by the epidemic, including women and girls, sex workers, people who use drugs, gay men and other men who have sex with men and transgender people”.

Samantha Power, the American ambassador to the UN, also complained about the blocking action by Egypt and the OIC. “Given that transgender people are 49 times more likely to be living with HIV than the general population, their exclusion from the high-level meeting will only impede global progress in combating the HIV/Aids pandemic,” she said.

It is the second time in less than two months that something of this kind has happened at the UN. In March, Saudi Arabia – where the OIC has its headquarters – objected to a report from Juan Méndez, the UN special rapporteur on torture, who had been asked to consider how the prohibition of torture in international law could be applied “to the unique experiences of women, girls, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex persons”. [Continue reading…]

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The real source of terror in Bangladesh

William B. Milam writes: On Friday, a doctor in western Bangladesh was hacked to death. Last weekend, it was a Buddhist monk, in southeastern Bangladesh. The week before, it was a Sufi Muslim leader, up north. Less than two weeks earlier, it was an L.G.B.T. activist. Just days before that, an English professor.

Some of these attacks have not yet been claimed, but they follow a gruesome pattern: There have been at least 25 violent, sometimes public, killings of religious minorities, secularists and free-speech advocates in Bangladesh since February 2015. A dozen more people have been assaulted in similar ways and survived.

Of these attacks, more than 20 have been claimed by the Islamic State, about half a dozen by Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent and one each by the indigenous Bangladeshi extremist groups Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh and Ansar al-Islam.

The surge is worrying Western governments, which fear that local Islamist terrorists may now be competing for the attention of international jihadist networks or cooperating with them. Several Western countries have responded with antiterrorism measures: Japan is providing aviation security; the United States has called for strengthening cooperation with the Bangladeshi authorities to counter terrorism and violent extremism.

This is a predictable reaction, but it is misguided, and dangerous, because it proceeds from the wrong diagnosis.

The recent string of vicious killings in Bangladesh is less a terrorism issue than a governance issue: It is the ruling Awami League’s onslaught against its political opponents, which began in earnest after the last election in January 2014, that has unleashed extremists in Bangladesh. [Continue reading…]

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CIA internal watchdog ‘accidentally’ destroyed its only copy of Senate torture report

Michael Isikoff reports: The CIA inspector general’s office — the spy agency’s internal watchdog — has acknowledged it “mistakenly” destroyed its only copy of a mammoth Senate torture report at the same time lawyers for the Justice Department were assuring a federal judge that copies of the document were being preserved, Yahoo News has learned.

While another copy of the report exists elsewhere at the CIA, the erasure of the controversial document by the office charged with policing agency conduct has alarmed the U.S. senator who oversaw the torture investigation and reignited a behind-the-scenes battle over whether the full unabridged report should ever be released, according to multiple intelligence community sources familiar with the incident.

The deletion of the document has been portrayed by agency officials to Senate investigators as an “inadvertent” foul-up by the inspector general. In what one intelligence community source described as a series of errors straight “out of the Keystone Cops,” CIA inspector general officials deleted an uploaded computer file with the report and then accidentally destroyed a disk that also contained the document, filled with thousands of secret files about the CIA’s use of “enhanced” interrogation methods. [Continue reading…]

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In fight against Western decadence, Iranian prosecutor attacks ‘actions that run counter to the values of the establishment’

The New York Times reports: Iran’s judiciary unleashed one of its periodic crackdowns on social media permissiveness on Sunday, announcing the arrest of eight people involved in online modeling without a mandatory head scarf and questioning another woman, a former model, live on state television on Sunday.

A blogger, Mehdi Abutorabi, 53, who managed a publishing tool called Persian Blog, was also detained, the semiofficial student news agency ISNA reported Monday.

The former model, Elham Arab, 26, had been something of an Instagram star, posting pictures of herself in bridal gowns with eye-catching, dyed-blond hair. But on Sunday, months after her Instagram account had been shut down, she wore a pious black scarf and matching gloves as she was questioned by two prosecutors during a live television program.

In sharp contrast to the happy and glamorous images of herself posted online, Ms. Arab spoke of her “bitter experiences” in Iran’s technically illegal modeling industry and warned young women to think twice before posting pictures of themselves online. “You can be certain that no man would want to marry a model whose fame has come by losing her honor,” she said.

The head scarf issue often features prominently in the constant tug of war between powerful hard-liners and Iran’s increasingly urbanized and worldly society. Iran’s laws require that all women, even visiting foreigners, cover their hair out of a traditional respect for culture and morality. Many hard-liners view the obligatory veil as a last-ditch defense against what they say is an onslaught of Western cultural decadence.

But the main culprit was not Ms. Arab, Tehran’s public prosecutor, Abbas Jafar-Dolatabadi, concluded on the television program. No, the main offender was “the enemy,” Iran’s household label for the West and its unwanted influences.

“The enemy is investing in order to create a generation without any willpower,” the prosecutor said of social media. “We must refrain from any actions that run counter to the values of the establishment.” [Continue reading…]

IranWire reports: In March, Iran’s online authorities shut down the Instagram pages of several well-known models, as well as those of hair salons and photography workshops. In their place, online visitors found a large blue frame with the caption “These pages are blocked by the authority of Operation Spider 2 to open security cases by order of the judiciary.” They did not provide any details about the operation, which became known as “the spider attacks.”

Now, Dolatabadi has explained what the so-called “spider attacks” were all about. “In the past two years, a lot of good things have been done in the fight against hair salons and fashion workshops related to modeling,” he said. “In operations Spider 1 and Spider 2, around 50 hair salons, 50 fashion workshops, and 50 photography workshops were prosecuted. Individuals were arrested and pages were shut down by the supervisor of the Prosecution Office for Media Crimes.”

At the same time, the website Gerdab, which promotes news about Revolutionary Guards’ online activities, reported on what it called the successes of Operation Spider 2 over the past two years.

Gerdab’s report accused the “secret supporters and operators of Instagram” of attempting to subvert the “Islamic Iranian lifestyle.” It championed what it called an important achievement in combating “modeling and vulgarity.”

“The first phase resulted in the creation of an accurate database of more than 300 Instagram pages,” the report said, quoting the Organized Cyberspace Crimes Unit of the Revolutionary Guards. “The database is an intelligent collection of specifics about these pages such as postings, followers, those who are followed, the ‘likes,’ the comment writers, addresses of [account users on sites] such as Facebook, Line, and Telegram, and emails, phone numbers, addresses and bank account numbers.” [Continue reading…]

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