Egypt’s hollowed-out society

Gamal Eid writes: On Wednesday, three judges in Cairo will decide whether to allow prosecutors to pursue their case against me and my co-defendant, the journalist and human rights advocate Hossam Bahgat, in the government’s continuing attack on nongovernmental organizations in Egypt. The case against me has centered on my role in founding the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, which aims to educate the Egyptian public about their civil and human rights.

As for Mr. Bahgat, it is widely known that his investigative reporting has rattled the government. But the case against him has focused on the activities of the organization he founded, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

We have been targeted because our groups provide critical resources to those facing human rights abuses in Egypt. We have represented victims of torture from across the spectrum: Muslim Brotherhood members, liberals, leftists, victims of arbitrary arrest and even government supporters. We have stood for the ideas that human rights belong to all, no matter their ideology, and that civil rights belong to all citizens, no matter their wealth or power. [Continue reading…]

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Prisoner’s letters document tragedy and hope inside Guantánamo

The Intercept reports: On April 16, the Department of Defense issued a short press release announcing that Mohammed al-Hamiri, a Yemeni citizen held at Guantánamo Bay, had been transferred for release. Hamiri had been incarcerated at Guantánamo since 2002, when he was detained by American forces. First taken into custody at the age of 19, Hamiri spent more than a third of his life at the prison. During that time, he was never charged with any crime.

Writing was one of Hamiri’s greatest comforts during the 13 long years he spent at Guantánamo. Hamiri’s letters and other personal writings were cleared for release earlier this year through the work of lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights. The letters reflect an enduring sense of hope, love for family and friends, and a remarkably poetic imagination.

Hamiri’s release this week represents the start of a new chapter in his life, one he has spent years waiting for with both hope and trepidation. His writings from Guantánamo offer a glimpse into what the prospect of freedom meant to him during his long imprisonment. “I do not know why I am writing these words, and I do not know if my letters and my words are going to be read by eyes that know the meaning of justice,” he reflected recently, writing that prison had given him “no voice other than this pen with which to write a painful memory from the pages of my life.” [Continue reading…]

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Karen Greenberg: No justice at Gitmo

With only nine months to go, in the fashion of modern presidents, Barack Obama is already planning his post-presidential library, museum, and foundation complex.  Such institutions only seem to grow more opulent and imperial as the years and administrations pass.  Obama’s will reportedly leave the $300 million raised for George W. Bush’s version of the same in the dust.  The aim is to create at least an $800 million and possibly billion-dollar institution.  With his post-Oval Office future already in view and his presidency nearly history, his “legacy” has clearly been on his mind of late. And when it comes to foreign policy, he definitely has some accomplishments to brag about.  The two most obvious are the Iran nuclear deal and the opening to Cuba.  In their own ways, both could prove game changers, breaking with venomous relations that lasted, in the case of Iran, for more than three and a half decades, and in the case of Cuba, for more than half a century.

You can already imagine the exhibits celebrating them at the Barack Obama Presidential Center to be built on the south side of Chicago.  But it’s hard not to wonder how that institution will handle the three major foreign policy promises the new president made in the distant days of 2008-2009.  After all, he was, in part, swept into the presidency on a blunt promise to end George W. Bush’s catastrophic war in Iraq.  (“So when I am Commander-in-Chief, I will set a new goal on Day One: I will end this war.”)  Nine years later, he’s once again taken this country into the Big Muddy of an Iraq War, either the third or fourth of them in the last five presidencies (depending on whether you count the Reagan administration support for Saddam Hussein’s war with Iran in the 1980s).  At this moment, having just dispatched B-52s, the classic Vietnam-era carpet-bombing plane of choice (Ted Cruz must be thrilled!) to Qatar as part of that war effort, and being on a mission-creep path ever deeper into what can only be called the Iraq quagmire, we’re likely to be talking about a future museum exhibit from hell.

But it won’t begin to match the special exhibit that will someday undoubtedly explore the president’s heartfelt promise to work to severely curtail the American and global nuclear arsenals and put the planet on a path to — a word that had never previously hovered anywhere near the Oval Office — nuclear abolition.  The president’s disarmament ambitions were, in fact, significantly responsible for his 2009 Nobel Prize, an honor that almost uniquely preceded any accomplishments.  Now, the same man is presiding over a planned three-decade, trillion-dollar renovation and modernization of that same arsenal, including the development of an initial generation of “smart” nukes, potentially first-use weapons.  It’s certainly been a unique path for our first outright anti-nuclear president to take and deserves a special place of (dis)honor at the future Obama center.

Barring surprising developments in the coming months, however, no exhibit is likely to be more striking or convoluted than the one that will have to be dedicated to the “closing” of Guantánamo, the notorious offshore, Bush-era prison camp.  After all, as TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg, author of Rogue Justice: The Making of the Security State, a striking soon-to-be-published anatomy of post-9/11 national security state mania, points out today, the closing of Guantánamo within a year represented one of the president’s first promises on entering the Oval Office.  Unless somehow he succeeds in shutting Gitmo down over fierce Republican congressional opposition in these final months, it could prove the pièce de résistance of his future museum. Tom Engelhardt

Still in the Bush embrace
What really stands in the way of closing Guantánamo
By Karen J. Greenberg

Can you believe it?  We’re in the last year of the presidency of the man who, on his first day in the Oval Office, swore that he would close Guantánamo, and yet it and everything it represents remains part of our all-American world. So many years later, you can still read news reports on the ongoing nightmares of that grim prison, ranging from detention without charge to hunger strikes and force feeding. Its name still echoes through the halls of Congress in bitter debate over what should or shouldn’t be done with it. It remains a global symbol of the worst America has to offer.

[Read more…]

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UK firm ’employed former child soldiers’ as mercenaries in Iraq

The Guardian reports: A former senior director at a British firm says that it employed mercenaries from Sierra Leone to work in Iraq because they were cheaper than Europeans and did not check if they were former child soldiers.

James Ellery, who was a director of Aegis Defence Services between 2005 and 2015, said that contractors had a “duty” to recruit from countries such as Sierra Leone, “where there’s high unemployment and a decent workforce”, in order to reduce costs for the US presence in Iraq.

“You probably would have a better force if you recruited entirely from the Midlands of England,” Ellery, a former brigadier in the British army, told the Guardian. “But it can’t be afforded. So you go from the Midlands of England to Nepalese etc etc, Asians, and then at some point you say I’m afraid all we can afford now is Africans.” He said the company had not asked recruits if they were former child soldiers.

Aegis Defence Services, which is chaired by Sir Nicholas Soames, a Tory MP and Winston Churchill’s grandson, had a series of contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars to provide guards to protect US military bases in Iraq from 2004 onwards. From 2011 the company broadened its recruitment to take in African countries, having previously employed people from the UK, the US and Nepal.

Contract documents say that the soldiers from Sierra Leone were paid $16 (£11) a day. A documentary, The Child Soldier’s New Job, to be broadcast on Monday in Denmark alleges that the estimated 2,500 Sierra Leonean personnel who were recruited by Aegis and other private security companies to work in Iraq included former child soldiers. [Continue reading…]

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The human rights violations we’re powerless to prevent

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UK took weeks to act on Cairo student killing concerns

Middle East Eye reports: The British foreign secretary expressed serious concerns about allegations of Egyptian security service involvement in the killing of a Cambridge University student in Cairo weeks before the UK government called for a “full and transparent” investigation into the case, Middle East Eye can reveal.

In a 24 March letter obtained exclusively by MEE, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond wrote to Prime Minister David Cameron warning that reports that Egyptian security forces were involved in the death of Giulio Regeni would be an “extremely concerning development” if proved correct.

Regeni’s battered body was found in a ditch nine days after he had gone missing on 25 January, the anniversary of the Tahrir Square revolution.

The 28-year-old was in Egypt researching labour movements – a contentious subject in the country – as part of his doctoral studies at Cambridge.

The government led by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has faced accusations that its security forces were responsible for Regeni’s torture and death. It has repeatedly denied the allegations.

Relations between Italy and Egypt have soured in recent days over the investigation. Officials from Cairo refused to hand over what Rome saw as vital evidence, including mobile phone records and CCTV footage from the night Regeni went missing.

On Friday, Italy recalled its ambassador to Egypt for consultations in protest of the lack of progress in the probe.

Two weeks earlier in his letter to the prime minister whom he addresses as “David”, Hammond writes, “My officials have followed the case of Mr Regeni closely since his disappearance”.

“The UK is aware of reports of the Egyptian security forces’ involvement in Mr Regeni’s death. If substantiated, this would be an extremely concerning development,” the Foreign Secretary added. [Continue reading…]

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The Assad files

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Ben Taub reports: The investigator in Syria had made the drive perhaps a hundred times, always in the same battered truck, never with any cargo. It was forty miles to the border, through eleven rebel checkpoints, where the soldiers had come to think of him as a local, a lawyer whose wartime misfortunes included a commute on their section of the road. Sometimes he brought them snacks or water, and he made sure to thank them for protecting civilians like himself. Now, on a summer afternoon, he loaded the truck with more than a hundred thousand captured Syrian government documents, which had been buried in pits and hidden in caves and abandoned homes.

He set out at sunset. To the fighters manning the checkpoints, it was as if he were invisible. Three reconnaissance vehicles had driven ahead, and one confirmed by radio what the investigator hoped to hear: no new checkpoints. Typically, the border was sealed, but soldiers from the neighboring country waved him through. He drove until he reached a Western embassy, where he dropped off the cargo for secure transfer to Chris Engels, an American lawyer. Engels expected the papers to include evidence linking high-level Syrian officials to mass atrocities. After a decade spent training international criminal-justice practitioners in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Cambodia, Engels now leads the regime-crimes unit of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, an independent investigative body founded in 2012, in response to the Syrian war.

In the past four years, people working for the organization have smuggled more than six hundred thousand government documents out of Syria, many of them from top-secret intelligence facilities. The documents are brought to the group’s headquarters, in a nondescript office building in Western Europe, sometimes under diplomatic cover. There, each page is scanned, assigned a bar code and a number, and stored underground. A dehumidifier hums inside the evidence room; just outside, a small box dispenses rat poison.

Upstairs, in a room secured by a metal door, detailed maps of Syrian villages cover the walls, and the roles of various suspects in the Syrian government are listed on a whiteboard. Witness statements and translated documents fill dozens of binders, which are locked in a fireproof safe at night. Engels, who is forty-one, bald and athletic, with a precise, discreet manner, oversees the operation; analysts and translators report directly to him.

The commission’s work recently culminated in a four-hundred-page legal brief that links the systematic torture and murder of tens of thousands of Syrians to a written policy approved by President Bashar al-Assad, coördinated among his security-intelligence agencies, and implemented by regime operatives, who reported the successes of their campaign to their superiors in Damascus. The brief narrates daily events in Syria through the eyes of Assad and his associates and their victims, and offers a record of state-sponsored torture that is almost unimaginable in its scope and its cruelty. Such acts had been reported by survivors in Syria before, but they had never been traced back to signed orders. [Continue reading…]

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Why U.S. domestic violence is akin to honor crimes

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Jessica Winegar writes: The dramatic finale of the FX series “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story” aired this week after topping television ratings for over a month. The Oscar-winning documentary about an honor killing, “A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness,” recently aired on HBO to critical acclaim.

One was set in Brentwood, a suburb of Los Angeles. The other was set in Punjab, Pakistan. One is called a domestic violence homicide. The other is called an honor crime.

A round-up of statistics from the Violence Policy Center, Bureau of Justice Statistics, National Institute of Justice and the Center for American Progress found that more than 18,000 U.S. women were killed in this country by intimate partners between 2003 and 2014. In the U.S., more than 22 percent of women will experience an extreme act of violence at the hands of an intimate partner in her lifetime, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Why do we not call these acts of violence in this country honor crimes?

Human Rights Watch defines honor crimes as “acts of violence, usually murder, committed by male family members against female family members who are perceived to have brought dishonor upon the family” and defines those family members as “husband, father, son, brother or cousin.” There are 5,000 honor crimes each year in the world, according to the site, mostly in the Middle East and South Asia. In Pakistan alone, there are 1,000 honor killings every year.

But there is a common nefarious defense by perpetrators that links these cases of violence against women in the U.S and those acts called honor crimes in the Middle East and South Asia.

In both arenas, the woman who transgresses the boundaries of what men will accept has to be punished. And the men doing the punishing are from her domestic world.

In both domestic violence and honor crimes, male relatives and/or intimate partners rape, beat, psychologically abuse and kill. [Continue reading…]

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An American interrogator’s memories of Abu Ghraib

In his newly released book, Consequence: A Memoir, Eric Fair writes: I take the time to ask the general about his life and learn what I can about Iraq. I do this with most prisoners, whether they have intelligence value or not. When I write the report, I’m supposed to call this the approach phase. I’m supposed to be building rapport. Some interrogators talk about how good they are at this, how they develop relationships with prisoners and come to some sort of understanding, opening lines of communication that will eventually produce good intelligence.

It’s all bullshit. This is Abu Ghraib prison. The Iraqis hate all of us.

As I talk to the general about the village where he grew up, his service in the Iran-Iraq War, and how much he loves his sons, I ignore the memories from the previous night, when I interrogated a young man in one of the uncomfortable interrogation booths. I made him stand with his arms in the air until he dropped them in exhaustion. He lied to me, said he didn’t know anything about the men he was captured with or the bomb that had been buried in the road. So I hurt him. Now I’m in a decent room serving decent tea and acting like a decent man. The comfortable interrogation booth is all I need to convince myself that the general and I are enjoying this conversation. I’ve fallen for my own stupid trick. When I pour the tea and turn up the heater, I complete the illusion.

As we drink our tea, the translator starts a conversation with the general about what it was like growing up as a Christian in Iraq and how her Muslim neighbors always took good care of her. I was an Arabic linguist in the Army, and while my language skills have faded,

I understand enough to allow the translator to steer the conversation for a bit. The general says he was never very religious, but as he gets older he attends Friday prayers more often. The translator seems to like him. I do, too. I pretend the general feels the same way about me.

I talk about growing up in Pennsylvania and attending a Presbyterian church as a boy and how hearing the call to prayer from the mosques of Baghdad reminds me that I should be praying to my god more often. “No, no,” the general says in English. “Not a different god. Same god. Same god.” He points at both the translator and me.

“We are same god.” [Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast interviewed Fair: Your upbringing as a devout Presbyterian plays a large role in the pages of Consequence, and you very openly explore the role that faith has had on your life, before, during and after Iraq. Why was that important to you?

It’s a foundational part of who I am and how I view my place in my world. And it has been my entire life, just how I was raised and how I’m raising my son now. It’s been a lifelong upbringing. I remember a youth pastor teaching me as child that faith was not this mystical experience, or not just it. Faith takes a lot of work and it takes a lot reading and care. Having that foundation helped me prepare for when things went totally wrong, which will happen one way or another to just about everybody.

Since Iraq, I will say that I’m far more cautious to suggest that my faith gives me any sort of right or privilege to tell anyone else what they’re doing is right or wrong. Approaching my faith with this type of humility is something I learned to do more of over time.

“I want him to be comfortable in the quiet.” This is my favorite line in a book full of beautiful writing. It’s about your son and his own developing faith, but what does Being Comfortable in the Quiet mean to you now, as a person, father and author?

Growing up in the Bethlehem community, the Presbyterian Church had this beautiful choir, a very well known choir, at least in our area. Bethlehem Steel had purchased this beautiful pipe organ for the church many years before … anyhow, every Sunday, they’d put on this incredible, incredible performance. Afterwards, though, there’d be nothing but silence. You were not to applaud or express outward admiration. And if you did, you were looked upon as someone who didn’t quite know what they were doing. The idea was that you modeled everything in your life after this approach—you don’t do things for show, or with expectations of affirmation. You simply just had to be comfortable in the quiet, and had to be willing to listen, and listen in a way that meant actually hearing what others were saying, rather than just waiting for your turn to speak.

The theological side of that quiet is when a person can experience God, or the Holy Spirit, or something spiritual, or what have you. Those moments of quiet are when we all chart our course of life, whatever it may be. And that’s what I want for my son.

“War stories aren’t for me.” We’ve talked before about hearing that from friends and readers alike. What’s your response to that sort of mindset, especially in regards to Consequence?

Well, certainly a reader can make their own decision, but I’m of the thought that war stories are, unfortunately, for everyone. That’s particularly the case in a country such as ours, a democracy, a republic. On some level there’s an obligation to be engaged with some war stories … that doesn’t mean that people have to read mine, but I think that if someone wants to self-identify as well informed, and well-read, and as a good citizen of the country, you need to interact and encounter this stuff. Literature is just one way to do that. [Continue reading…]

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Italian official warns Egypt over inquiry into Giulio Regeni’s death

The New York Times reports: The foreign minister of Italy said Tuesday that his government would take “immediate and proportional” measures against Egypt if it failed to help uncover the truth behind the death of an Italian graduate student in Cairo two months ago.

“We will stop only when we will find the truth, the real one,” Foreign Minister Paolo Gentiloni told Parliament, adding that he would not accept any “fabrication.”

The threat by Mr. Gentiloni came the day before a team of Egyptian investigators was scheduled to land in Rome for meetings on the case of the student, Giulio Regeni, 28, a doctoral candidate, whose brutalized body was discovered on a roadside in February in Cairo. [Continue reading…]

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Giulio Regeni murder: Egypt postpones Italy meeting as criticism mounts

GIULIO-REGENI

The Guardian reports: Egypt has postponed a meeting in Rome at which a Cairo delegation was due to hand over evidence relating to the torture and murder of the Italian researcher Giulio Regeni.

The highly anticipated meeting was scheduled for Tuesday but is now expected later this week. There is a growing perception in Italy that cracks are beginning to emerge in Egypt over how the government of President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has handled the murder investigation.

Italy’s foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni, will outline the government’s position on the case in a parliamentary statement on Tuesday, his ministry said.

Regeni’s body was found in a ditch off a desert road on 3 February, more than a week after the 28-year-old – a Cambridge PhD student researching labour unions in Egypt – disappeared. [Continue reading…]

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Libya’s deep state is back and wants you to know it

Borzou Daragahi reports: A pudgy, graying middle-aged man in a brown sweater vest sat quietly sipping tea in the hotel lobby. If you noticed him at all, you might have thought he was a businessman, or an engineer, maybe a mid-ranking civil servant. He frowned occasionally as he contemplated the messages on his smartphone.

He allowed a smile as two men approached. They greeted each other as old friends, exchanging embraces, asking after relatives. One of the men complained a little about the state of business in the region, and warned he might have to head off at some point: “My daughter has a ballet recital.”

The entourage moved to a darkly lit corner of the hotel, their voices dropping, sometimes to a whisper. They looked up with paranoid glares each time a waiter or hotel guest walked by. The three men knew they could never be too careful.

The newcomers were retired colleagues; the first, a balding man in his sixties, works for a charity that helps African migrants in Libya; the second, in his late forties, is a real estate developer, dividing his time between the Libyan capital, Tripoli, and Europe.

But this was no workaday meeting of middle-aged businessmen. The three men are operatives from one of the most feared institutions in the Middle East: Libya’s mukhabarat, or intelligence agency. Formed shortly after the Second World War, the mukhabarat has worked behind the scenes to monitor and manipulate Libya for decades. And they have now joined the war against ISIS, as well as al-Qaeda and loyalists to the former regime of Muammar al-Qaddafi. They have made many, many enemies over the years.

“Extremists are extremists,” said the man in the sweater vest, a senior ranking official of the agency’s counter-terrorism division. “It doesn’t matter if they’re government militias, ISIS, or Qaddafi loyalists. In my focus, I target them all. Political extremists are all the same. And I want stability.” [Continue reading…]

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Ex-CIA director Michael Hayden on torture and drones

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Trump attack on Geneva Conventions denounced by ex-officers and advocates

The Guardian reports: Retired senior military officers and human rights advocates are reacting with disgust at Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump’s description of the Geneva Conventions as a “problem” for the conduct of US wars.

At an appearance in Wisconsin on Wednesday that was obscured by his suggestion that women who choose abortion should face punishment, Donald Trump was also quoted as saying: “The problem is we have the Geneva Conventions, all sorts of rules and regulations, so the soldiers are afraid to fight.”

Trump has previously advocated killing the families of terror suspects; torture “a hell of a lot worse” than waterboarding; and widespread bombing campaigns against Islamic State, which operates in civilian-packed areas. The Geneva Conventions provide the basis for protections against war crimes, privileging the status of civilians and detainees during wartime.

Several retired officers said the comments called into question Trump’s fitness to serve as commander-in-chief, saying that service members operating in line with his predilections would be tasked with behavior ranging from the disgraceful to the illegal.

“Donald Trump cannot possibly understand [Geneva] because he has neither the experience, the expertise or the moral compass to grasp it,” said Steve Kleinman, an air force reserve colonel and an interrogations expert. [Continue reading…]

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Leahy asked State Dept. to investigate Israel and Egypt’s human rights ‘violations’

Politico reports: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and 10 House members have asked the Obama administration to investigate claims that the Israeli and Egyptian security forces have committed “gross violations of human rights” — allegations that if proven truei could affect U.S. military aid to the countries.

In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry dated Feb. 17, the lawmakers list several examples of suspected human rights abuses, including reports of extrajudicial killings by Israeli and Egyptian military forces, as well as forced disappearances in Egypt. The letter also points to the 2013 massacre in Egypt’s Rab’aa Square, which left nearly 1,000 people dead as the military cracked down on protesters, as worthy of examination.

Leahy’s signature is particularly noteworthy because his name is on a law that conditions U.S. military aid to countries on whether their security forces are committing abuses. [Continue reading…]

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