Greater Middle East
Turkish Prime Miniter Tayyip Erdogan's banning of YouTube is making more headlines than the extraordinary leak that prompted the move. Posted to YouTube anonymously, it appears to show Turkey's intelligence chief and cabinet members discussing a possible attack on the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of Sultan Osman I, founder of the Ottoman Empire. Erdogan seemed to confirm the leak, telling a crowd of supporters: "They even leaked a national security meeting. This is villainous... Who are you serving by doing audio surveillance of such an important meeting?" The government said in a statement: "It is a wretched attack, an act of espionage and a very heavy crime to record and leak to the public a top secret meeting held in a place where the most delicate security issues of the state are discussed." But outrage over the leak seems intended to distract from the actual conent of the leak...
A Cairo court on March 23 ordered the release on bail of blogger and activist, Alaa Abdel Fattah, who was imprisoned by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in October 2011 for violating Egypt's controversial protest law and refusing to answer prosecutors' questions. The SCAF accuses Abdel Fatah of inciting violence during protests in October, in which 27 people were killed and 300 people were injured. Abdel Fatah is currently on trial with 24 co-defendants, all of whom are charged with organizing public protests without prior government approval, destroying public property and assaulting members of the police. Abdel Fatah is reportedly known throughout Egypt for his criticism of the nation's shifting regimes. He was imprisoned once during the rule of Hosni Mubarak in 2006, and again during military rule in 2011. Reports indicate that Abdel Fatah's release on bail does not mean he has avoided conviction and sentencing for his alleged crimes.
An Egyptian court in Minya, south of Cairo, on March 24 sentenced to death 529 supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi, in a mass trial that lasted only two sessions. The 529 are accused in an attack on a police station that left a senior officer dead in protests last August after Morsi was deposed. All but 147 were tried in absentia; only 16 were acquitted. The verdicts are subject to appeal and may still be overturned. Amnesty International called it the largest issuance of simultaneous death sentences in recent years anywhere in the world. "This is injustice writ large and these death sentences must be quashed. Imposing death sentences of this magnitude in a single case makes Egypt surpass most other countries’ use of capital punishment in a year," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy Middle East and North Africa program director at Amnesty. (AI, AP, BBC News, March 24)
Syrian government troops backed by Hezbollah fighters on March 16 took the town of Yabroud near the Lebanese border, which was held by rebels inlcuding the Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front. Hours later, in apparent retaliation, the Shi'ite town of Nabi Othman in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley was struck by a suicide bombing that left four dead. (LAT, Reuters, March 17) Meanwhile, in comments sure to warm the heart of Bashar Assad, opposition leader Kamal al-Labwani of the Syrian National Council told Iran's Arabic-language al Alam new service that the Syrian opposition is willing to give up claims to the Golan Heights in return for Israeli military aid. "Why shouldn’t we be able to sell the Golan Heights because it is better than losing Syria and Golan at once," he said. (Haaretz, March 16)
Amnesty International (AI) on March 10 accused Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's forces of committing war crimes (PDF) and crimes against humanity on Palestinian and Syrian civilians in Yarmouk, on the outskirts of Damascus. The report, entitled "Squeezing the Life Out of Yarmouk: War Crimes Against Besieged Civilians," discusses the deaths of nearly 200 people since the tightening of the siege and cutting off of access to food and medical supplies in July, with 128 of those deaths caused by starvation. The report also states that government forces and government allies have repeatedly attacked civilian buildings, such as schools, hospitals and mosques in Yarmouk. AI's regional director, Philip Luther, stated that the siege of Yarmouk amounted to "collective punishment of the civilian population," going on to say that the Syrian government must end the siege immediately and allow humanitarian efforts access to assist the citizens. Despite efforts by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to provide aid during January and February, attempts to reach a truce in Yarkmouk to allow for food deliveries to the starving people have repeatedly collapsed.
Militants from the Qaeda-aligned insurgent group ISIS destroyed a Sufi Muslim shrine as they advanced on Tal Maaruf village in Syria's Kurdish-majority Hassakeh province, residents said Feb. 27. ISIS militants "blew up the shrine, and burned a mosque and a police station," said Massoud Akko, a Kurdish journalist and native of Hassakeh province, told Lebanon's Daily Star. ISIS also came under fire in their stronghold of Raqqa, as even rival jihadists criticized the group’s intention to impose a special "jizya" tax on Chrsitians and other religious minorities in their areas of control—including the provincial capital.
British police counter-terrorism forces announced on Feb. 25 the arrest of Moazzam Begg in his hometown of Birmingham, England, along with three other individuals on suspicion of terrorism offenses related to the war in Syria. Begg was a detainee at Guantánamo Bay, and he was one of the last detainees from the UK to be returned. British authorities have expressed concern about their citizens fighting in jihadist groups in Syria, and Begg is the most high profile arrestee in connection with the UK's attempt to minimize influence in the Syrian conflict. The police reported Begg is suspected of attending a terrorist training camp and facilitating terrorism overseas. According to British counter-terrorism laws, the police are authorized to detain Begg for up to 14 days, and police will conduct a search of the arrestee's vehicles and electronic devices.
A presidential panel in Yemen on Feb. 10 released a plan to transform the country into a "federal state of six regions" as part of its US-brokered political transition. Interim President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi convened the panel last month, at the end of a "national dialogue" on new territorial divisions to be incorporated into a new constitution this year. The former North Yemen is to be broken up into the regions of Azal, Saba, Janad and Tahama; the former South Yemen into Aden and Hadramout. The capital city of Sanaa is to have "a special status in the Constitution to guarantee its independence and impartiality," said a report in the state news agency. The port city of Aden, the former capital of South Yemen, would also have "independent legislative and executive powers."