Greater Middle East
Riot police in Istanbul used water cannons against demonstrators Feb. 9 in the latest protest against a bill that would increase government control over the Internet. Last month, demonstrators attempted to occupy Istanbul's main Taksim Square in protest of the law, before being evicted by riot police with water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets. The bill, granting Turkey's telecommunications authority the ability to block websites or remove content without a court order, has been approved by parliament and awaits the signature of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey made almost 1,700 requests for Google to remove material from the web in the first six months of 2013—more than three times any other country, and a rise of nearly 1,000% in one year. Google says most of the requests were turned down. (AFP, Feb. 9; Jurist, Feb. 7; Euronews, Jan. 18)
Egypt's military is denying that its chief of staff, Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, told Kuwaiti newspaper al-Siyasah that he will run for president in elections that are still yet to be scheduled. The newspaper quoted him as saying he could "not reject the demand" of the people that he should stand. Former strongman Hosni Mubarak meanwhile said in an interview with an independent Egyptian journalist that al-Sisi would be the next president. "The people want Sisi and the people's will shall prevail," journalist Fajer al-Saeed quoted Mubarak as telling her at the armed forces hospital where he is being held in Cairo.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported (PDF) Jan. 30 that Syrian authorities deliberately demolished residential neighborhoods with explosives and bulldozers in Damascus and Hama over the last year. The report found that the demolitions are related to the violent conflict in Syria between the government and opposition forces. HRW officials determined the correlation between the armed conflict and the demolitions from eyewitness testimonies, statements from government officials and the military's involvement in the demolitions. HRW believes this destruction to be in violation of the Hague Regulations, which forbid the unnecessary destruction of the enemy's property, and the Geneva Conventions (PDF), which prohibits the "extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly." HRW urges the Syrian government to halt wanton destruction of property and urges the UN Security Council to refer the situation to the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The Turkish armed forces on Jan. 29 attacked a convoy of al-Qaeda-linked rebel group ISIS in Syria in, destroying three vehicles, according to Turkish media reports. Turkish F-16s apparently struck the convoy "after militants opened fire on a military outpost" on the Turkey-Syria border. (Al Jazeera, Jan. 29) The skirmish comes amid reports that both ISIS and the Nusra Front, both al-Qaeda affiliates, have seized control of most of Syria's oil and gas resources, which lie in the country's north near the Turkish border, and are using the proceeds to underwrite their wars against both rival rebels and the Bashar Assad regime. While the oil and gas fields are in decline, control over them has been key to the growing power of the two groups. ISIS is even said to be selling fuel to the Assad government—lending weight to claims by opposition leaders that the regime is secretly backing the Qaedists to weaken the other rebel armies and discourage international support for their cause. (NYT, Jan. 28; The Telegraph, Jan. 20)
The Cairo Criminal Court on Jan. 20 sentenced outspoken ultraconservative Islamist leader and former presidential hopeful Hazem Salah Abu-Ismail to a year in prison for comments allegedly made at another trial. In that trial, during which he stood accused of attempting to conceal the US citizenship of his mother in order to qualify for a presidential bid, Abu-Ismail reportedly stated, "The court is void ... This is not a real judiciary in the first place." Abu-Ismail was a top ally and supporter of former Egyptian president Muhammed Morsi, and his supporters have seen his prosecution as part of the crackdown on Morsi supporters in the wake of the military coup that ousted him from power in 2013.
A team of lawyers, doctors and professors specializing in the prosecution of war crimes and forensic evidence issued a report (PDF) Jan. 20 including numerous photographs alleged to be "clear evidence'" of torture and systematic killings amounting to war crimes in Syria. The report is derived from almost 27,000 photographs which were obtained by a former military police officer in Syria who has since defected. The defector's role was to photograph the bodies of deceased individuals brought from detention facilities to a military hospital, which could reach up to 50 bodies a day. The report documents starvation, brutal beatings, strangulation, and other forms of systematic killings, and the majority of the victims are men aged between 20-40. The report stands by the defector's credibility, who was interviewed over three sessions in the previous 10 days. The report arrived just 48 hours before the Geneva II Conference on Syria is scheduled to commence in Switzerland on Jan. 22, with intense political posturing surrounding the UN backed conference.
Egyptians voter appear to have approved a new constitution, potentially setting the stage for army chief Ge. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to declare his candidacy for president. Authorities put the preliminary results at 90% in favor of the new charter. But the two-day vote was marred by violence. As polls opened, a bomb exploded near a Cairo courthouse, although no casualties were claimed. Over the next tow days, scattered clashes left 10 dead, despite streets flooded with soldiers. The Muslim Brotherhood, now officially banned and declared a terrorist group, called for a boycott of the vote, and is promising a new protest mobilization in the following 10 days, leading up to the third anniversary of the start of the revolution that brought down strongman Hosni Mubarak. Security forces have sealed off Tahrir Square to keep protesters from gathering. (Reuters, Daily News Egypt, Jan. 15; CNN, BBC News, Jan. 14)
A Saudi Arabian court on Jan. 12 sentenced to death a member of a militant cell convicted of producing explosives used in a May 2004 suicide attack on a western company operating in Saudi Arabia's northwestern port city of Yanbu. According to reports, the court also handed down sentences ranging from three to 12 years to 10 other co-defendants convicted of lesser offenses, including financing the attack and sheltering those involved. Reports indicate that the attack stemmed from a 2003 al-Qaeda initiative, which sought to interfere with relations between the US and Saudi Arabia. The accused have 30 days to appeal their sentences.