Why was an Italian graduate student tortured and murdered in Egypt?

The New York Times reports: The target of the Egyptian police, that day in November 2015, was the street vendors selling socks, $2 sunglasses and fake jewelry, who clustered under the arcades of the elegant century-old buildings of Heliopolis, a Cairo suburb. Such raids were routine, but these vendors occupied an especially sensitive location. Just 100 yards away is the ornate palace where Egypt’s president, the military strongman Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, welcomes foreign dignitaries. As the men hurriedly gathered their goods from mats and doorways, preparing to flee, they had an unlikely assistant: an Italian graduate student named Giulio Regeni.

He arrived in Cairo a few months earlier to conduct research for his doctorate at Cambridge. Raised in a small village near Trieste by a sales manager father and a schoolteacher mother, Regeni, a 28-year-old leftist, was enthralled by the revolutionary spirit of the Arab Spring. In 2011, when demonstrations erupted in Tahrir Square, leading to the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak, he was finishing a degree in Arabic and politics at Leeds University. He was in Cairo in 2013, working as an intern at a United Nations agency, when a second wave of protests led the military to oust Egypt’s newly elected president, the Islamist Mohamed Morsi, and put Sisi in charge. Like many Egyptians who had grown hostile to Morsi’s overreaching government, Regeni approved of this development. ‘‘It’s part of the revolutionary process,’’ he wrote an English friend, Bernard Goyder, in early August. Then, less than two weeks later, Sisi’s security forces killed 800 Morsi supporters in a single day, the worst state-sponsored massacre in Egypt’s history. It was the beginning of a long spiral of repression. Regeni soon left for England, where he started work for Oxford Analytica, a business-research firm.

From afar, Regeni followed Sisi’s government closely. He wrote reports on North Africa, analyzing political and economic trends, and after a year had saved enough money to start on his doctorate in development studies at Cambridge. He decided to focus on Egypt’s independent unions, whose series of unprecedented strikes, starting in 2006, had primed the public for the revolt against Mubarak; now, with the Arab Spring in tatters, Regeni saw the unions as a fragile hope for Egypt’s battered democracy. After 2011 their numbers exploded, multiplying from four to thousands. There were unions for everything: butchers and theater attendants, well diggers and miners, gas-bill collectors and extras in the trashy TV soap operas that played during the holy month of Ramadan. There was even an Independent Trade Union for Dwarfs. Guided by his supervisor, a noted Egyptian academic at Cambridge who had written critically of Sisi, Regeni chose to study the street vendors — young men from distant villages who scratched out a living on the sidewalks of Cairo. Regeni plunged into their world, hoping to assess their union’s potential to drive political and social change.

But by 2015 that kind of cultural immersion, long favored by budding Arabists, was no longer easy. A pall of suspicion had fallen over Cairo. The press had been muzzled, lawyers and journalists were regularly harassed and informants filled Cairo’s downtown cafes. The police raided the office where Regeni conducted interviews; wild tales of foreign conspiracies regularly aired on government TV channels. [Continue reading…]

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14 Saudi Shiites accused of staging protests now face execution

The Washington Post reports: Munir al-Adam spends his hours alone in a Saudi prison, his mother says. He doesn’t know if it is day or night because he is kept mostly in a dark cell. Partially blind and partially deaf, he has experienced different forms of torture in the five years since his arrest.

“He has been ordered to stand for long intervals of time,” said his mother, Zahraa Abdullah. “He was beaten with sticks and cables. He was electrocuted and prevented from eating or going to the bathroom.”

Adam and 13 other Saudi men are facing execution any day now for allegedly staging protests in the kingdom. All from the country’s Shiite minority, they include a teenager who was arrested just before he was to board a flight to visit a U.S. college where he planned to study English and finance.

The men were charged with terrorism-related offenses. But human rights activists and American academics say confessions from the defendants were extracted under torture and that the death sentences breach international law. Activists have launched a public appeal to Saudi Arabia’s new crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, to dismiss the sentences. [Continue reading…]

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Syria: The disappeared

Bente Scheller writes: I was first confronted with the fate of political prisoners in Syria fifteen years ago. To this day, I am grateful for the conversations with lawyers such as Anwar al-Bounni who is in attendance today and Razan Zeitouneh, who was abducted in 2013.

One day, Razan Zeitouneh took me along to meet Fares Mourad who had, after twenty years imprisonment, finally been released. First sentenced to death, his sentence was later reduced to seven years imprisonment, and yet he was detained for another thirteen years. Prisoners in Syria were never granted claimable rights.

Fares was sitting across from me. Even though he could no longer raise his head and was only able to look at me with great strain, he smiled: “What irony that the first foreigner I meet happens to be German,” he said and pointed to his overstretched neck: “We call the torture technique with which this was done to me the ‘German chair’.”

Excruciating detention conditions and torture always were defining features of the Syrian state under Assad rule. That did not first begin with the onset of the Syrian revolution.

Thousands were killed in the Hama massacre in 1982, while thousands more disappeared in prisons. To date, no trace of them has been found.

The neighbouring country, Lebanon, saw the Syrian army in their capacity as occupying power deport political prisoners to Syria and to this day 30,000 of those disappeared are not accounted for. [Continue reading…]

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A leading PR firm in the U.S. is working directly for one of Egypt’s top spy services

The Atlantic reports: On a Tuesday night in early May, all the big players in the public relations industry gathered at Cipriani 42nd Street, a lavish restaurant in Manhattan, for the annual “Superior Achievement in Branding Reputation & Engagement” awards. The event, where winners were selected by a panel of industry insiders, was billed by its organizers as a “showcase for the best that public relations has to offer”—it was like the Oscars, but for the titans of PR. #CupFusion, a hashtag designed to build buzz around a new Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, won a best in show award for Ketchum. Edelman took home a trophy for a Starbucks video campaign focusing on “normal” people doing “extraordinary” things.

The New York-based Weber Shandwick was also a big winner, taking home three trophies: one for North American agency of the year, another for a social-media campaign celebrating a body-positive Barbie Doll, and one more for a science-education program sponsored by Lockheed Martin. One of its campaigns, however, did not attract much notice: a $1.2 million-a-year deal with Egypt’s General Intelligence Service (GIS). The agency, roughly the country’s equivalent of the CIA, is part of a constellation of infamous intelligence services known as the mukhabarat. Perhaps most notorious in the United States for collaborating with the CIA in the torture of suspected al-Qaeda members after 9/11, GIS has been accused of working in secret with Egypt’s domestic intelligence to manipulate elections and suppress internal dissent since the coup that installed Abdel Fattah el-Sisi as president in 2013.

Weber’s contract with the Egyptians is not, in itself, unconventional. But the firm’s decision to do business with a foreign-intelligence service known for torture and repression, one that has been instrumental to Sisi’s crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups, is unorthodox. And it comes at a key moment. Four years after Sisi toppled Egypt’s elected government, he’s eager to cement ties with a new U.S. administration that’s willing to overlook his authoritarianism, and at the same time win friends in Congress who oversee Egypt’s massive aid package. In Weber Shandwick, it would appear that the Sisi regime has found a PR firm willing to apply its considerable messaging prowess to the cause of funneling U.S. taxpayer money and goodwill towards the increasingly brutal leadership of the world’s largest Arab country.

Weber and the lobbying firm Cassidy & Associates—a “specialty” firm that’s part of Weber (both are owned by InterPublic Group, a public company)—signed deals with Egypt in late January, eight days after Donald Trump’s inauguration. According to paperwork filed with the Department of Justice, the firms would be reporting directly to General Naser Fahmy of the GIS. They would be promoting Egypt’s “strategic partnership with the United States,” and emphasizing its “leading role in managing regional risks.” The firm, in other words, would be amplifying the Egyptian government’s own message: that arming and backing up an increasingly authoritarian Egypt state is necessary to keep the peace. [Continue reading…]

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At 15 I was tortured in Assad’s prisons. I escaped, but thousands still suffer

An anonymous Syrian torture victim writes: For the 10 months I spent as a detainee in the prisons of Bashar al-Assad, I only saw my family in my dreams. At night, the screams would stop for an hour or two, and I could close my eyes and remember what it was like to be human. When I slept, I would return to my life.

Today is the UN’s International Day for Support of Victims of Torture. Unfortunately in Syria, there is no shortage of victims of torture. Tens of thousands of us have been thrown in Assad’s prisons and tortured beyond what our bodies and minds can take. Many of us die there. Those of us who have survived will spend the rest of our lives being reminded of just how evil humanity is capable of being.

I was only 15 when I was arrested and subjected to months of physical and psychological torture.

I am lucky to have survived. There were times I wished for death. As happy as I am to return to life again, I am equally gripped by sadness and pain knowing more than 200,000 prisoners are still there. My freedom feels incomplete as long as my Syrian brothers and sisters suffer behind those high walls. I am a hostage of my memory.

Aleppo is my home. I was forced to leave there in 2013 to try to escape the barrel bombs and besiegement of the city by Assad and his allies. My mother, siblings and I fled to Lebanon. At the age of 14, I had to leave school and begin working to try to sustain our family. At the end of 2014, we were forced to return to Syria because we could not afford Lebanese residence and working permits.

On the way home, I was arrested by members of a political security branch in Damascus. They accused me of taking part in the peaceful demonstrations at the beginning of the popular Syrian revolution against Assad.

This is a regime known for its oppression, its tyranny, and its corruption. But it is also a regime that stands against humanity. It is a regime that could arrest a 15-year-old, a kid, and subject him to months of torture and starvation and psychological trauma. And I am not by any means a unique story in Syria. [Continue reading…]

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In Yemen’s secret prisons, UAE tortures and U.S. interrogates

The Associated Press reports: Hundreds of men swept up in the hunt for al-Qaida militants have disappeared into a secret network of prisons in southern Yemen where abuse is routine and torture extreme — including the “grill,” in which the victim is tied to a spit like a roast and spun in a circle of fire, an Associated Press investigation has found.

Senior American defense officials acknowledged Wednesday that U.S. forces have been involved in interrogations of detainees in Yemen but denied any participation in or knowledge of human rights abuses. Interrogating detainees who have been abused could violate international law, which prohibits complicity in torture.

The AP documented at least 18 clandestine lockups across southern Yemen run by the United Arab Emirates or by Yemeni forces created and trained by the Gulf nation, drawing on accounts from former detainees, families of prisoners, civil rights lawyers and Yemeni military officials. All are either hidden or off limits to Yemen’s government, which has been getting Emirati help in its civil war with rebels over the last two years.

The secret prisons are inside military bases, ports, an airport, private villas and even a nightclub. Some detainees have been flown to an Emirati base across the Red Sea in Eritrea, according to Yemen Interior Minister Hussein Arab and others.

Several U.S. defense officials, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the topic, told AP that American forces do participate in interrogations of detainees at locations in Yemen, provide questions for others to ask, and receive transcripts of interrogations from Emirati allies. They said U.S. senior military leaders were aware of allegations of torture at the prisons in Yemen, looked into them, but were satisfied that there had not been any abuse when U.S. forces were present. [Continue reading…]

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Trump administration moves to conceal report on CIA torture by permanently placing it in Senate vaults

The New York Times reports: The Trump administration has begun returning copies of a voluminous 2014 Senate report about the Central Intelligence Agency’s detention and interrogation program to Congress, complying with the demand of a top Republican senator who has criticized the report for being shoddy and excessively critical of the C.I.A.

The Trump administration’s move, described by multiple congressional officials, raises the possibility that copies of the 6,700-page report could be locked in Senate vaults for good — exempt from laws requiring that government records eventually become public. The C.I.A., the office of the Director of National Intelligence and the C.I.A.’s inspector general have returned their copies of the report, the officials said.

The report is the result of a yearslong investigation into the C.I.A. program by Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee, telling the story of how — in the years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — the C.I.A. began capturing terrorism suspects and interrogating them in secret prisons beyond the reach of the American judicial and military legal systems. The central conclusion of the report is that the spy agency’s interrogation methods — including waterboarding, sleep deprivation and other kinds of torture — were far more brutal and less effective than the C.I.A. described to policy makers, Congress and the public.

It is the most comprehensive accounting of the Bush-era program that exists, and a declassified executive summary of the report was made public in December 2014 — with the support of some Republicans on the committee.

The committee, which was then run by Democrats, also sent copies of the entire classified report to at least eight federal agencies, asking that they incorporate the report into their records — a move that would have made it subject to requests under the Freedom of Information Act. That law, which allows citizens, the media and other groups to request access to information held by the federal government, does not apply to congressional records. [Continue reading…]

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Iraqi troops torture and execute civilians in secret videos

ABC News reports: Officers of an elite Iraqi special forces unit, praised by U.S. military commanders earlier this year for its role in fighting ISIS, directed the torture and execution of civilians in Mosul in at least six distinct incidents caught on tape.

“That’s a murder,” retired Green Beret Lt. Col. Scott Mann told ABC News after reviewing the graphic footage. “There should be punishment for anyone doing it. It’s reprehensible and it shouldn’t be allowed on any modern battlefield.”

The alarming footage was smuggled out of Iraq by a prize-winning Iraqi photojournalist, Ali Arkady, who spent months embedded in combat with the elite Iraqi troops leading the fight against ISIS late last year. Since turning over his cache of photos and videos to ABC News, he says he has received death threats from the soldiers he once considered friends and has now fled Iraq to seek asylum in Europe. [Continue reading…]

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The Arab Spring unleashed a wave of torture and abuse

 

Nader Hashemi writes: Assad’s chemical weapons attack and the subsequent U.S. missile strike on Syria jolted our world. Most of the commentary that ensued, however, was about the West.

What are the implications for U.S-Russian relations?

Is there a strategic vision behind Trump’s new Syria policy?

What can we learn about White House palace intrigue in terms of who has the president’s ear?

What was completely ignored was a connection between these attacks and the broader politics of the Middle East.

Assad’s sarin gas attack was not a sui generis event that took place in a vacuum. It is directly related to longstanding trends that help explain the region’s turmoil. Two themes stand out: 1) the extreme measures that authoritarian regimes will adopt to retain power, and 2) the severe human rights crisis facing the Middle East. [Continue reading…]

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‘The hospitals were slaughterhouses’: A journey into Syria’s secret torture wards

The Washington Post reports: One evening in the early days of Syria’s uprising, Mohsen al-Masri’s band of activists slipped through the Damascus streets and waited for the coast to clear. Then they crouched, opened their bags and let out a stream of color.

Thousands of ping-pong balls, painted green, pink, blue and yellow, bounced past policemen, who scrambled to stop them. Residents would find balls tucked in nooks and crannies for months. Each was marked with a single word: “Freedom.”

The punishment for Masri’s acts of peaceful protest would begin a journey into hell, unusual not because of what he saw, but because he survived.

In a series of interviews, he described how he was tortured and interrogated over a two-year period in four detention facilities before arriving in a hospital at the heart of a nationwide system of brutality.

The hospital, known as 601, is not the only site of torture in Syria. But after it was seen in a cache of photographs showing thousands of skeletal corpses, it became one of the most notorious. [Continue reading…]

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Syrian defector to Trump: Stop Assad’s machinery of death

CNN reports: The Syrian defector who smuggled out tens of thousands of photos of people allegedly tortured to death in Assad regime jails has spoken out in his first TV interview.

In an exclusive interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, the defector, code-named “Caesar,” urged US President Donald Trump to stop what he calls the “criminality” taking place in Syria’s government-run prisons.

“We have shown the killing and torture of so many of the Syrian people,” he said, “and you cannot give back the lives to those that have lost it. But we ask you, out of your humanity, to stop the machinery of death.”

“We are asking to all the officials, to all the policy makers, to President Trump’s White House, which we are hoping will do the right thing, we beg you to stop the machinery of death in Syria.” [Continue reading…]

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UN accuses Turkey of killing hundreds of Kurds

The New York Times reports: Turkey’s military and police forces have killed hundreds of people during operations against Kurdish rebels in southeastern Turkey, the United Nations said on Friday in a report that listed summary killings, torture, rape and widespread destruction of property among an array of human rights abuses.

The report, by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, details how operations by the Turkish infantry, artillery, tanks and possibly aircraft drove up to half a million people from their homes over a 17-month period from July 2015 to the end of 2016.

Though the report is focused on the conduct of security forces in southeastern Turkey, the 25-page document underscores the deepening alarm of the United Nations over the measures ordered by Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, since a failed coup attempt last July.

The state of emergency Mr. Erdogan imposed after the coup attempt appeared to “target criticism, not terrorism,” Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, said here on Tuesday. [Continue reading…]

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Iraq launches west Mosul offensive as torture videos emerge

The Guardian reports: Iraqi government forces have launched an offensive to capture the western part of the city of Mosul from Islamic State.

Hundreds of military vehicles, backed by air power, were filmed travelling across the desert towards the jihadis’ positions in the city early on Sunday.

Government forces retook the eastern side of Mosul, the last major Isis stronghold in Iraq, last month. But military officials say the western side of the city, with its narrow, winding streets, may prove a bigger challenge.

According to Lt Gen Abdulamir Yarallah the latest attack began well, with the rapid response units capturing the villages of Athbah and al-Lazzagah near Mosul airport.

However, the launch of the new offensive was overshadowed by graphic videos of men in Iraqi security force uniforms carrying out beatings and killings of unarmed people on the streets of Mosul. [Continue reading…]

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Up to 13,000 secretly hanged in Syrian jail, says Amnesty

The Guardian reports: As many as 13,000 opponents of Bashar al-Assad were secretly hanged in one of Syria’s most infamous prisons in the first five years of the country’s civil war as part of an extermination policy ordered by the highest levels of the Syrian government, according to Amnesty International.

Many thousands more people held in Saydnaya prison died through torture and starvation, Amnesty said, and the bodies were dumped in two mass graves on the outskirts of Damascus between midnight and dawn most Tuesday mornings for at least five years.

The report, Human Slaughterhouse, details allegations of state-sanctioned abuse that are unprecedented in Syria’s civil war, a conflict that has consistently broken new ground in depravity, leaving at least 400,000 people dead and nearly half the country’s population displaced. [Continue reading…]

Reuters reports: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said U.S. President Donald Trump prioritizing the fight against jihadists led by Islamic State was promising although it was too early to expect any practical steps, state news agency SANA reported on Tuesday.

The Kremlin, Assad’s most powerful ally, said Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin discussed setting up “genuine coordination” in the fight against Islamic State and “other terrorist groups” in Syria during a phone call last month.

Assad was quoted by SANA as telling a group of Belgian reporters that Trump’s position was promising. “I believe this is promising but we have to wait and it’s too early to expect anything practical,” he said. Assad was also quoted as saying that U.S-Russian cooperation in stepping up the fight against the militants would have positive repercussions. [Continue reading…]

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New CIA deputy director, Gina Haspel, had leading role in torture

The New York Times reports: As a clandestine officer at the Central Intelligence Agency in 2002, Gina Haspel oversaw the torture of two terrorism suspects and later took part in an order to destroy videotapes documenting their brutal interrogations at a secret prison in Thailand.

On Thursday, Ms. Haspel was named the deputy director of the C.I.A.

The elevation of Ms. Haspel, a veteran widely respected among her colleagues, to the No. 2 job at the C.I.A. was a rare public signal of how, under the Trump administration, the agency is being led by officials who appear to take a far kinder view of one of its darker chapters than their immediate predecessors.

Over the past eight years, C.I.A. leaders defended dozens of agency personnel who had taken part in the now-banned torture program, even as they vowed never to resume the same harsh interrogation methods. But President Trump has said repeatedly that he thinks torture works. And the new C.I.A. chief, Mike Pompeo, has said that waterboarding and other techniques do not even constitute torture, and praised as “patriots” those who used such methods in the early days of the fight against Al Qaeda.

Ms. Haspel, who has spent most of her career undercover, would certainly fall within Mr. Pompeo’s description. She played a direct role in the C.I.A.’s “extraordinary rendition program,” under which captured militants were handed to foreign governments and held at secret facilities, where they were tortured by agency personnel.

The C.I.A.’s first overseas detention site was in Thailand. It was run by Ms. Haspel, who oversaw the brutal interrogations of two detainees, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. [Continue reading…]

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Trump poised to lift ban on CIA ‘black site’ prisons

The New York Times reports: The Trump administration is preparing a sweeping executive order that would clear the way for the C.I.A. to reopen overseas “black site” prisons, like those where it detained and tortured terrorism suspects before former President Barack Obama shut them down.

President Trump’s three-page draft order, titled “Detention and Interrogation of Enemy Combatants” and obtained by The New York Times, would also undo many of the other restrictions on handling detainees that Mr. Obama put in place in response to policies of the George W. Bush administration.

If Mr. Trump signs the draft order, he would also revoke Mr. Obama’s directive to give the International Committee of the Red Cross access to all detainees in American custody. That would be another step toward reopening secret prisons outside of the normal wartime rules established by the Geneva Conventions, although statutory obstacles would remain. [Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast reports: “The President can sign whatever executive orders he likes. But the law is the law. We are not bringing back torture in the United States of America,” said Republican Senator John McCain, himself a victim of torture at the hands of his Vietnamese captors.

“We haven’t engaged in waterboarding since 2004…We haven’t used black sites since President Bush emptied the black sites, and we’ve somehow managed to keep our country safe,” said former CIA chief of staff Jeremy Bash, in answer to a Daily Beast question. “I have picked up precisely zero appetite for doing that again from intelligence officers,” a sentiment echoed by other former intelligence officers.

“With respect to torture, that’s banned,” Senate Republican Conference Chair John Thune told reporters Wednesday afternoon. “We view that to be a matter of settled law.” [Continue reading…]

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The Senate torture report must be saved

Senators Carl Levin and Jay Rockefeller write: In President Obama’s final national security speech on Tuesday, he spoke about the importance of staying true to our values, of not returning to torture, and of transparency. Now, in his remaining time in office, he has an opportunity to take action to advance these goals and to do something of great importance for the public’s understanding of our history. He has the ability to protect the Senate Intelligence Committee’s full 6,700-page report on torture from being lost, perhaps forever.

Given President-elect Donald J. Trump’s unconscionable campaign pledge to “bring back waterboarding” and “a hell of a lot worse” — acts that would be illegal if carried out — President Obama’s leadership on this issue has never been more important.

Drawing on our decades of work in the Senate and our chairmanships of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, we are calling on President Obama to preserve the full torture report as a matter of profound public interest. We are not asking him to necessarily agree with all of the report’s findings, though we certainly hope he does, but we are asking him to protect it as an important piece of history.

The president could do this simply by allowing departments and agencies that already possess the document to enter it as a federal record, making it much more difficult for a future administration to erase. [Continue reading…]

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