Greater Middle East
Syrian government forces this week retook control of Homs after the evacuation of rebel troops. State TV declared May 8 that the Old City was "totally clean of armed terrorist groups," although officials later confirmed that the evacuation was not fully over. The negotiated evacuation marks the end of three years of resistance in Homs, called the "capital of the revolution." (Al Jazeera, Daily Mail, May 9; BBC News, May 8) This, with the upcoming sham elections, is being portrayed by the Bashar Assad regime as the beginning of the end for the revolution. Don't buy it. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) and allied groups are gaining ground in the areas around Latakia, Dara'a, al-Qunaitra and Aleppo. The FSA is in control of most of Dara'a, where a southern front is reportedly being organized. And the most reactionary elements in the insurgency, the Nusra Front and ISIS, are engaged in their own mini-civil war in Deir Al Zour and north of Aleppo. With any luck, they will destroy each other in the process. (Gulf News, UAE, May 8)
Clashes rocked central Istanbul on May 1 as Turkish protesters attempted to defy a government ban on May Day rallies at the city's iconic Taksim Square. Police fired tear gas, water cannon and rubber bullets to demonstrators, some of whom responded with hurled fire-bombs. Authorities shut parts of the city's public transport system, erected steel barricades and deployed thousands of riot police to block access to the square. Only a handful of trade union leaders were allowed into the area under police guard to lay flowers commemorating the deaths of at least 34 people there during a May Day gathering in 1977.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) announced April 29 that it would begin a fact-finding mission into allegations of the use of chlorine gas in Syria. Although both rebel forces and the Syrian government acknowledge that the chemical weapon was used on the Syrian town of Kafr Zita, both factions deny responsibility for the attack. Chlorine was not a chemical Syria was required to give up, but the use of chlorine gas is prohibited under the Chemical Weapons Convention, to which Syria is a signatory. Some western governments believe that Syria has failed to declare all the chemical weapons in its possession, including chlorine gas, and has retained some of its chemical stockpile.
An Egyptian judge on April 28 sentenced 683 alleged supporters of the banned Muslim Brotherhood to death, including the group's supreme guide, Mohamed Badie. The judge also confirmed the death sentence of 37 of 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters sentenced to death in March. The remaining defendants sentences were commuted to life prison. Under Egyptian law the death sentence recommendations in the case of Badie and the 682 other alleged supporters will be passed to the Grand Mufti of Al Azhar, the country's leading religious official, who will provide his non-binding opinion to the presiding judge. The defendants were all accused of taking part in violence in the southern governate of Minya on Aug. 14. The guilty verdict and death sentences are still subject to appeal.
A contingent in support of the Syrian Revolution will meet at the Abraham Lincoln statue, in the 16th Street walkway of Union Square, at 5 PM for the May Day march in New York City this Thursday, May 1. The contingent has issued the following statement:
SUPPORT SYRIA'S FREEDOM STRUGGLE!
DOWN WITH THE DICTATOR BASHAR ASSAD!
The Syrian revolution has its roots in the same kind of economic grievances faced by working people in the US and the West: widespread youth unemployment, high food prices, austerity measures, and a bloated military budget. Fearing unrest, the Bashar Assad regime muscled up on its security, pouring money into the police and intelligence services at the expense of social spending. Any vocal criticism of the government was met with persecution by the police state long before the eruption in the spring of 2011.
A Saudi Arabian court on April 21 sentenced three people to death for their roles in attacks on expatriate resident compounds in Riyadh in May 2003, bringing the total death sentences to eight. Another 77 people have been sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to 35 years by the court, which was created to handle terrorism cases. The 2003 attacks, in which blasts at three residential compounds in Riyadh left 35 people dead, were part of a three-year campaign by al-Qaeda aimed at destabilizing Saudi Arabia. The identities of the 85 defendants have not been disclosed, though the Sabq news website has reported that five men sentenced to death a day earlier had been found guilty of assembling the car bombs used to attack the compounds. They have 30 days to appeal their sentences, all of which were handed down for charges of taking part or abetting in the attacks.
Notable human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair was taken into custody in Saudi Arabia April 15 after a hearing at the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh. Abu al-Khair, founder and chief of the Saudi Arabia Monitor of Human Rights, faces charges that include inciting public opinion. Amnesty International (AI) condemned Abu al-Khair's imprisonment demanding his immediate release. In their press release AI criticized Saudi authorities stating that "Waleed Abu al-Khair's detention is a worrying example of how Saudi Arabian authorities are abusing the justice system to silence peaceful dissent. Nobody should be jailed for peacefully exercising the right to freedom of expression." According to AI, Abu al-Khair faces charges including breaking allegiance to and disobeying the ruler, disrespecting the authorities, offending the judiciary, inciting international organizations against the Kingdom and founding an unlicensed organization. In October Abu al-Khair was sentenced to three months in prison on similar accusations related to "ridiculing or offending" the Saudi Arabian judiciary.
The United States and Turkey have said they are following up on renewed accusations that the Syrian regime continues to use chemical weapons against civilians. If true, the government's use of such weapons would be a violation of its agreement with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and the Chemical Weapons Convention, both of which it signed last September. Over the past few months, members of the Syrian opposition, including the main umbrella group the Syrian National Coalition, have accused the regime of using chemical weapons, mainly in the suburbs of Damascus, in areas such as Jobar and Harasta. "There have been at least four such attacks in recent months, involving high doses of chlorine and pesticides," said Sinan Hatehet, director of the Coalition's media office. He added that although the attacks only killed around 15 people, the chemicals were primarily being used as a psychological weapon.