Greater Middle East

Egypt: Mubarak acquitted of 2011 killings

The Egypt Court of Cassation on March 2 acquitted former president Hosni Mubarak in a retrial of charges that he ordered the killing of protesters during the civil uprising of 2011 that ended his 30-year reign. Mubarak was initially convicted on these charges and sentenced to life in prison in 2012. But he strenuously maintained his innocence over the years, and an appeals court later ordered a retrial that ultimately brought the case to the Cassation Court. The retrial was postponed in November as it was moved from the high court building in Cairo to a different location. The Court rejected demands from lawyers for the victims and their families to initiate or reopen civil suits, which means that any remaining option for appeal or retrial is now closed.

US bombs post-Nusra militants fighting Assad

A militant said to be al-Qaeda's second-in-command was killed by a US drone strike in Syria's Idlib governorate, rebel leaders said Feb. 27. Egypt-born Abu al-Khayr al-Masri (formerly Abdullah Muhammad Rajab Abdel Rahman), the son-in-law of Osama bin Laden, was reportedly a close aide to al-Qaeda's current leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The drone attack on his vehicle was reported by Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham (Levant Liberation Body, HTS), a newly formed alliance led by Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the former Nusra Front. (MEE, BBC News, Feb. 27) Two days earlier, HTS claimed responsibility for a suicide blast in Homs that killed a Syrian senior military intelligence official who was reportedly close to dictator Bashar Assad. The official, Gen. Hassan Daabul, was slain along with several others when a suicide bomber penetrated a security complex in the city. An HTS statement said its "inghimasi fighters" were responsible for the raid, and claimed that some 40 personnel were killed. (LWJ, Feb. 25)

Turkey: investigate arrests of opposition leaders

The People's Democratic Party (HDP) of Turkey filed an application Feb. 20 asking the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) to address what it called the unlawful imprisonment of the party's co-chairs. Thirteen HDP politicians have been detained since November, and 10 still await trial. The HDP declared that these arrests "constitute a violation of the right to freedom and security, freedom of speech and the right to free elections as protected by both the [Turkish] Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights." Moreover, the HDP insisted that the arrests have strategically prevented HDP politicians from voting in an upcoming referendum that would expand President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan's powers. While the HDP already stated these concerns in an application filed in the Turkish Constitutional Court, the party has yet to receive a response.

Syria: chemical attacks on Aleppo claimed

Syrian government forces conducted coordinated chemical attacks in opposition-controlled parts of Aleppo during the final month of the battle for the city, Human Rights Watch said Feb. 13. Through phone and in-person interviews with witnesses and analysis of video footage, photographs, and posts on social media, Human Rights Watch documented government helicopters dropping chlorine in residential areas on at least eight occasions between Nov. 17 and Dec. 13, 2016. The attacks, some of which included multiple munitions, killed at least nine civilians, including four children, and injured around 200. The attacks took place in areas where government forces planned to advance, starting in the east and moving westwards as the frontlines moved, Human Rights Watch said.

Syria: Idlib between jihadis and imperial air-raids

Late last year, when the evacuation of Aleppo began as the city fell to Assad regime forces backed by Russian air-strikes, we noted that residents were being sent to Idlib governorate, which is both under control of jihadist factions and also targeted for air-strikes and eventual conquest by the regime and its Russian patrons. So secularists fleeing Aleppo were likely to find no refuge from either regime or opposition forces in Idlib. Now comes the news that Radio Fresh, voice of the embattled secularist civil resistance in ‪‎the Idlib town of Kafranbel‬, is being censored by the jihadists—and finding a creative way to resist. The FM station's manager Raed Fares told BBC News that they've been broadcasting hours of barnyard sounds each day to protest and mock censorious orders from local militants of Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (the former Nusra Front). "They tried to force us to stop playing music on air," said Fares. "So we started to play animals in the background as a kind of sarcastic gesture against them."

Bashar Assad: Trump's Syria policy is 'promising'

Syria's embattled dictator Bashar Assad was quoted by his own official news agency SANA Feb. 7 saying he found President Trump's stance on the war in his country to be "promising." This word was headlined by Reuters, but it is worth noting the full quote. Assad told a group of Belgian reporters: "What we heard as statements by Trump during the campaign and after the campaign is promising regarding the priority of fighting terrorists, and mainly ISIS, that’s what we’ve been asking for during the last six years. So, I think this is promising, we have to wait, it's still early to expect anything practical. It could be about the cooperation between the US and Russia, that we think is going to be positive for the rest of the world, including Syria. So, as I said, it's still early to judge it."

Turkish president approves constitutional overhaul

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Feb. 10 approved an 18-article bill that proposes significant changes to Turkey's constitution. A public referendum vote will be held on April 16 to determine if the changes will be incorporated. Erdogan has stated that the changes are necessary to provide stability in Turkey. Opponents of the bill have stated that the changes would remove some checks and balance on the presidency that could lead to Turkey being under a "one-man rule." The bill would "enable the president to issue decrees, declare emergency rule, appoint ministers and top state officials and dissolve parliament." If approved by the referendum vote, presidential elections would be held November 2019. The changes allow a president to serve up to two five-year terms. Erdoğan's current time as president would not count towards to term limits set by the bill.

Syria: 13,000 secretly hanged at military prison

An Amnesty International report published Feb. 7 exposes the "cold-blooded killing of thousands of defenseless prisoners" in a Syrian detention center where an estimated 13,000 have been hanged in the past five years. The mass hangings took place at Saydnaya military prison near Damascus between 2011 and 2015—and there are clear indications that the kiling remains ongoing. Most of those hanged were civilians believed to have opposed the government, with the killings taking place in great secrecy in the middle of the night. The executions take place after summary "trials," with no legal counsel and based on "confessions" extracted through torture.

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