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Film shows spread of conservative Islam in secular Syria

Monday, 19. December 2011 19:41

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Mon Dec 19, 2011 1:36pm EST

(Reuters) – A film about one of thousands of Koranic schools for girls in Syria has shocked some Syrians but impressed others with the implication that one of the bastions of Arab secularism has become a deeply religious society.

In “The Light In Her Eyes,” Houda al-Habash opens up the mosque and school she runs where hundreds of teenage girls, sent there by their parents, spend the summer learning to memorize the Koran and take religious study classes that conclude with most of them taking to the hijab, or Muslim headscarf.

The documentary’s directors, Julia Meltzer and Laura Nix, said they wanted to show that the conservatism depicted in the film reflects the mainstream in Syria today and should be seen as progressive in many respects.

“My experience was Syria and there is this religious population that’s growing and that’s a story that needs to be told about moderate Islam and it’s a story we don’t see, especially in the West,” said Meltzer, who taught journalism at Damascus University in 2005 and 2006.

Speaking to Reuters at the Dubai International Film Festival which ended this weekend, she said that this Islamist community is more organized in many respects than state institutions.

“What I saw in that educational environment (university) was that people did not arrive on time, teachers didn’t really seem to take things seriously,” Meltzer said. “In contrast to that world, going to Houda’s mosque was a really eye-opening, and complex, experience for me where girls were encouraged to read.”

Houda lectures the girls that the veil is an Islamic duty — a view that many Muslims would dispute — that God intended as protection and which for Houda is part of a process of empowering girls to play an active role in society as Muslims.

“The flag is the symbol of the state, but the hijab is the symbol of Islam … you have not been faithful to the symbol,” she tells the girls in one of her group pep talks. “God made the hijab an obligation to protect women from inappropriate looks and preserve her for her husband.”

However, she also tells them in another talk: “Does a woman have a right to be the president of the republic? Yes. Don’t let go your mind, or your choice” — an opinion that is the subject of dispute among Islamist political movements today.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has equivocated on whether women could rise the top positions in the state, while the leader of the Ennahda movement that won elections this year in Tunisia — another bastion of Arab secularism in the post-colonial era — says even non-Muslims could occupy such posts.

MODERATION VS. STRICT FUNDAMENTALISM

The directors splice the documentary with short segments from conservative preachers who argue on television that Muslim women should stay at home, avoid education and not work at all.

This debate between different visions of correct Islamic conduct is far more significant in Syria today than the polemic between secularists and Islamists over the religious values, women and politics, Meltzer said.

“That is the bigger question. Those people who are Salafi-influenced, more conservative, they don’t engage in dialogue,” she said. “The secular community in Syria has definitely been getting smaller.”

Syria has been gripped by unrest since activists began protesting for democratic changes in one of the most tightly run police states in the region.

The government of President Bashar al-Assad argues that it is facing an armed insurrection by Islamists dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood whose rise to power would destroy the balance that Assad’s secular state has maintained. Assad’s Baath party has relied heavily on his Alawite sect to run the security, military and other key arms of the state.

Meltzer said it was not clear to her while living in Syria and filming, the extent of any Brotherhood role in the moderate Islamic conservativism she witnessed and documents in the film.

She said there were only a handful of such girls’ schools in 1982, the year Assad’s father Hafez crushed a Brotherhood revolt, but now there are thousands.

The film includes scenes of girls whose families have sent them to the school deciding to take the veil after gentle persuasion in Houda’s lectures and one-on-one discussion.

Some Syrian expatriates during one screening were shocked at these scenes, but Meltzer said she wanted to leave the viewers to make their own decisions about the Islamic education and lifestyle depicted.

“I’m not convinced yet, but I’ll get used to it,” one girl tells Houda before her veiling ceremony. “It protects women, it shows you’re a Muslim person,” Houda says, adding: “No one can force anyone.”

The camera brings out many of the contradictions facing the young women.

The girls discuss the hair styles of television presenters and visit fashion shops which they leave after concluding they could never wear the fancy dresses on display.

Satellite channels subject them to a barrage of entertainment programming which Houda says is hindering their ability to focus on learning the Koran. The overwhelming impression is of happy growing teenagers, however.

Houda’s daughter Enas, a forthright 20-year-old studying at the American University in Sharjah, one of the more conservative cities of the United Arab Emirates, says she sees education as affording a chance to engage in Islamic missionary work that people of her mother’s generation did not have.

“I can see I can serve Islam by studying politics or economy. My mum didn’t have that,” she says in fluent American-accented English.

The film’s finale involves a celebration with the girls who have succeeded in memorizing the entire Muslim holy book dressed as if for a wedding in white dresses and tiaras.

They sing a song from which the title is derived: “Now we are veiled, there is light in our eyes.”

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Film reveals Paris crackdown of 1961 Algeria protest

Friday, 16. December 2011 19:43

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Fri Dec 16, 2011 8:24pm EST

(Reuters) – When Yasmina Adi got access to archives documenting the 1961 repression of Algerian protesters in Paris, she was shocked to uncover a trove of material relating to gaps in the story of one of the most contested events in recent French history.

As Algeria’s battle for independence spilled into France, Paris police chief Maurice Papon ordered police to crack down on thousands of Algerian protesters who defied a curfew on October 17 1961. Dozens of bodies were later pulled from the River Seine.

Papon, who died in 2007, was the only French Nazi official to be convicted for his role in the deportation of Jews during World War Two. France has acknowledged the deaths of 40 people in the 1961 incident, but Adi says her research suggests it was much worse.

“This period remains a blank page. France doesn’t recognize October 17 in school history books, it is not mentioned. Nothing you saw is in textbooks,” Adi, who is of Algerian origin, said after “Here We Drown Algerians – October 17, 1961″ aired at the Dubai International Film Festival this week.

“The people you saw are getting old, so this is an attempt to maintain the historical memory.”

The documentary is narrated through the testimony of Algerians dragged off the streets by police and uses archive footage showing haunting images of thousands held in detention centers, transported in buses and sitting in planes during deportation.

A media campaign branded the protesters as Muslim terrorists, Adi’s film says.

Some, such as Hadda Khalfi, one of the main interviewees who explains how her husband disappeared never to return, have never received an apology or compensation from the state.

“I managed to (access) the archives of the police department and state archives, which even some historians have not got permission to see. Then I asked myself what security bodies were there, and I found they all had their own archives,” Adi said.

“It was the same for the filmed material… sometimes I noticed there were two people taking photos, so I said I have to go find them,” she added.

“So I pieced together each part, when they put the Algerians on buses, when they detained them at the police department, the unseen photos from the Palais du Sport, the expulsions, the women’s protest. At a certain point I said to myself ‘wow’.”

The true number of those who died may never be known.

“It’s difficult to establish a figure. Some say 100, some say 200, some say 400, it’s complicated. The police prefecture has a list of dead but these lists are not trustworthy,” Adi said. “We could say around more than 1,500 were expelled.”

GRAFFITI

Adi took the title for the film from graffiti daubed on a bridge over the Seine on October 28 1961 and caught on camera before the authorities could remove it. The words and the image she says dropped out of France’s collective consciousness for decades.

She says France’s unwillingness to offer more public recognition of what happened in those days contrasts with France’s championing of Arab Spring causes such as Libya, which was taken up by President Nicolas Sarkozy and Bernard Henri-Levy, a prominent public intellectual in France.

“Sarkozy has said a few weeks ago why should Turkey be in Europe? If you Turks want to be in Europe you have to recognize the Armenian genocide. Before giving lessons to others, France ought to look at itself in history,” she said.

“As citizens we should not allow ourselves to be manipulated by methods, images, language, because they cross time and governments take up the same methods and language.”

France has had a complex relationship with Algeria since it was forced to give up a colony it ruled for 132 years in 1962 after a bitter war. Sarkozy has refused to apologize for Algerian dead.

France considered Algeria an integral part of the French state and more than 1 million French fled the country in the months before Algeria finally became independent.

Adi said she was surprised to see large audiences of young French people attending the screenings of her film in France when it was released in October.

“There were few Algerians but many French at the screenings, because many young people in particular are rediscovering the past and realizing it’s not an Algerian problem but a Franco-Algerian problem,” she said.

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Arab Spring films revive days of Egypt, Tunisia revolt

Tuesday, 13. December 2011 19:33

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Tue Dec 13, 2011 1:23pm EST

(Reuters) – The first cinematic output covering protests in Egypt and Tunisia this year recreates the euphoria of revolutions that many thought would never happen, but reveals signs of the conflicts that lay ahead over Islamist groups.

The last stage of the revolt that brought down Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia and then the entire three weeks of upheaval that led to Hosni Mubarak’s fall in Egypt took place before the eyes of the world with media and other documenters on the ground observing events day by day — unlike uprisings such as Iran witnessed in 1979 or Sudan in 1985.

In “Tahrir – Liberation Square,” Italian documentary maker Stefano Savona uses stunning camerawork in the midst of the lively crowds who spent three weeks in central Cairo in January and February in dreamlike sequences which capture the hypnotic chants and rhythms of Egyptian protesters.

Drummers and lead chanters who come up with an innovative array of rhymes party into the night in a record of events that emphasizes the hope of protesters whose spirits never flag and whose means of entertaining themselves is endless.

Young people also have animated discussions about the future, which given the lead Islamist groups led by the Muslim Brotherhood have established in Egypt’s first free elections, seem eerily prescient.

“I don’t know what to think of them (the Muslim Brotherhood) because everything we heard about them came from the state,” says a young woman called Noha. “Whether the future state is religious or not doesn’t matter, the important thing is that we get rid of the regime.”

After news of Mubarak’s resignation comes through, the camera focuses on another young Egyptian, Ahmed, who declares in English: “We will have now a civilian (secular) state, we won’t have a religious state.”

FIRST-HAND RECORD OF VIOLENCE

In “1/2 Revolution,” film-makers Omar Shargawi and Karim El-Hakim record their experiences of the revolt while staying in a flat in central Cairo. A raw personal account, it captures the violence of the security forces and thugs who controlled much of downtown Cairo outside Tahrir Square.

Shargawi is beaten up at one point, and fearing for his young child, Karim decides to leave. “It’s just gonna get worse, this place is gonna be unliveable,” he predicts.

Seven days later Mubarak stepped down, but the street is still an arena of political protest and confrontation several months after the Egyptian president’s February departure. More than 50 people died in November alone during clashes with police over the military’s continued grip on power.

“Things have settled down now a bit but on November 19 the violence really exploded,” Hakim said after a showing. “The police and army have blended into some kind of armed force, I’m not sure who they’re protecting.”

The documentaries, being shown at the Dubai International Film Festival, undercut the claim, oft-cited by supporters of U.S. power in the Middle East, that the revolts were not anti-American or driven by foreign policy concerns.

In “1/2 Revolution” Egyptians chant anti-U.S. slogans and angrily display bullet cartridges and teargas canisters made in the United States. Egypt is a major U.S. ally in the region.

“USA, it’s our decision not yours!” a placard held up by one protester to camera says in a third Egyptian revolution film, “Born on the 25th of January,” the day the protests began.

Rashwan, a feature film maker among an artistic community worried about an Islamist future, said the fear was overstated.

“I think the revolution is continuing. When people are disillusioned, all they have to do is go to YouTube and see all the footage there from before,” he told an audience.

DOCUMENTING TUNISIA

Tunisian director Mourad Ben Cheikh’s “No More Fear” documents the reactions of a blogger, a rights lawyer and a journalist during the latter stages of the Tunisian revolution after security forces had lost control of the streets.

It offers a reminder that although Egypt is famous for its street sloganeering, Tunisia is the origin of the signature Arabic chant of the Arab uprisings, “the people want to bring down the regime,” as well as “Get out!.”

“If you haven’t got it yet, here it is in Japanese,” says a placard held up by one protester in Tunis.

A smaller country than Egypt and easier for Ben Ali to control, Tunisia brooked far less dissent than Mubarak’s Egypt did, smothering civil society almost completely.

Lawyer Radhia Nasraoui discusses the ongoing events over a meal in a restaurant with colleagues.

“We couldn’t even meet like this before, they would have word in advance where we intended to dine,” she says.

Nasraoui recalls colleagues whose lives were ruined by police surveillance and harassment.

“We had a revolt in 1984 that was about bread, but this one is different, it’s about freedom, rights, duties,” she says.

Ben Cheikh said he felt he was witnessing the reawakening of a nation.

“In these two weeks while the world was watching, Tunisians view of themselves changed. I felt it was important to document this moment,” he told Reuters. “For the first time, a director could have the ability to deal with real-time events, we didn’t have this before.”

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Documentary looks at life of Palestinian leader Arafat

Monday, 12. December 2011 19:31

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Mon Dec 12, 2011 9:32am EST

Dec 12 (Reuters) – Associates of Yasser Arafat offer personal recollections in a documentary screened in Dubai this week on his search for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that descended into violence and failed to lead to a Palestinian state.

Figures from Arafat’s circle who entered into a historic peace process with Israel in 1993, including his wife Suha, as well as Israelis such as President Shimon Peres and activist Uri Avnery who knew him well, discuss controversial moments of a career that ended with Arafat’s unexplained death in 2004.

Arafat was depicted by his Israeli and U.S. detractors as an obstacle to bringing the peace talks to a resolution and who sought to take advantage of the violence of the Palestinian uprising which followed the breakdown of critical talks in 2000.

Peres sticks to that view in the “The Price of Kings – Yasser Arafat”, a sympathetic portrayal of Arafat by British director Richard Symons shown at the Dubai International Film Festival in which friends recall private moments.

“Without him we couldn’t start, with him we couldn’t finish,” Peres says of the Oslo peace process that created self-rule for Palestinians in territories Israel occupied in 1967. “At the last moment he didn’t take the tough decision.”

Other confidantes of Arafat, however, question those views, describing a man who took an enormous risk with a doomed bet on a peace process led by Peres and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli in 1995.

Nasser al-Kidwa, a nephew who is now Palestinian envoy to the United Nations, recounts Arafat’s gloom after Rabin’s death. Kidwa found a quiet, dejected figure when he visited Arafat in his office several days later.

“Before leaving I said something to the effect of ‘why are you so upset? Okay Rabin was an important leader, but Peres is coming and Peres has an even better position than Rabin’,” he remembers in one of the film’s most poignant sections.

“He didn’t answer me, but he gave me that look that obviously meant that I didn’t understand anything. And I didn’t, he was right, clearly.”

Shimon Peres lost the subsequent 1996 election to Likud leader Benyamin Netanyahu, signaling a shift to the right in Israeli politics and a stagnation in the peace process that has lasted to this day.

PEACE TALKS STALLED

Shunned by Washington and besieged by Israel in his Ramallah compound, Arafat died as the uprising was winding down. His widow is in tears as she recalls those final days.

Arafat’s successor Mahmoud Abbas has been no more successful in moving talks forward with Netanyahu, in power once more, and Palestinians in the territories remain stateless.

Nabil Shaath, another veteran of the self-rule administrations set up through Oslo, says Arafat feared entering the final status peace talks in 2000.

He was not prepared to make the concessions Israel and the U.S. administration hoped could be secured from him quickly, Shaath says. Those talks stumbled over the status of Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.

“He was viewed by his enemies on our side as being too lenient, for giving up. Also, he created expectations that were quite opposite from the truth when it came to permanent settlement negotiations,” Shaath said.

“When he came to Camp David, and the permanent settlement, he was as tough as nails and Mr. (U.S. President Bill) Clinton did not expect that.”

The Israeli and Palestinian acquaintances interviewed acknowledge Arafat’s charisma and achievement in uniting Palestinians across political and geographical divides. But say his desire to avoid making enemies led to overlooking corruption in his administration, helping provoke the 2000 uprising.

Arafat’s many bitter opponents among Palestinian and Arab politicians and intellectuals are notably absent from the documentary, which also includes some rare footage. It is the first of 12 on world leaders from Symon’s Spirit Level Film.

Symons said this was due to the film’s focus on those close to Arafat with personal stories and a willingness to talk. He also said the work had no agenda but that it had changed some of the views he grew up with in London’s Jewish community .

“I have a better understanding of the distortion and how important it is to question that from time to time,” he said. “He lived through the most difficult, extraordinary circumstances through 60 years.”

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Bahrain pledges to act on criticism of crackdown

Sunday, 27. November 2011 19:22

By Andrew Hammond

MANAMA | Sun Nov 27, 2011 10:58am EST

(Reuters) – Bahrain has announced a commission to steer reforms after an inquiry found systematic rights abuse during a government crackdown on pro-democracy protests this year, but opposition parties said they would not participate.

The U.S. administration has said it will delay a $53 million arms sale to Bahrain, which is home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, pending the government’s response to the inquiry.

Protesters, mainly from Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority, took to the streets in February demanding a bigger role for elected representatives and less power for ruling al-Khalifa family, who are Sunni Muslims. Some Shi’ite groups sought an end to the monarchy altogether.

The protests were followed by a harsh crackdown and two months of martial law. After complaints of abuse and torture, King Hamad set up an inquiry in June to look at the events.

It reported last week that abuse was systematic and called for a commission including opposition figures to implement reforms. Among its recommendations were recruiting more Shi’ites to the security forces, reviewing jail sentences for activists, punishing those to blame for abuse and compensating victims.

“The National Commission will study the recommendations and put forward proposals including with regards to the recommendation on necessary amendments in laws and regulations and how the recommendations can be implemented,” a statement on the official BNA news agency said late on Saturday.

“The Commission will end its work by the end of February in a framework of transparency,” it said, citing a royal decree from King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.

Wefaq, a Shi’ite Islamist party and the largest opposition political bloc in Bahrain, said two of its members had been asked to join the 22-member commission, but that they had not agreed to participate because the party itself was shut out.

“We as a political party have not been approached and we were not consulted over who represents us,” senior Wefaq member Jawad Fairooz told a news conference by five opposition groups.

The commission includes the justice minister and a range of Sunni and Shi’ite businessmen, politicians and rights figures. Only four, however, are considered members of the opposition, including the two Wefaq members and two rights activists.

Fairooz said the commission was dominated by pro-government figures and that the justice minister was responsible for mosque demolitions and criminal cases against doctors, teachers and opposition leaders, which were criticized by the inquiry.

CABINET RESIGNATION CALL

The opposition parties said the charges of rights abuse in the report were serious enough to warrant a cabinet resignation.

Radhi al-Musawi of the Waad party said the commission outlined in the decree, with powers to study, propose and comment, fell short of the language used in the inquiry report, which talked of powers to implement reforms.

The inquiry called for legal action against “those in government who have committed unlawful or negligent acts resulting in the deaths, torture and mistreatment of civilians.”

It said security forces should include Bahrainis from all communities. Sentences linked to political expression should be reviewed, sacked workers given their jobs back, and compensation paid to families of those killed – 35 died during the unrest – and those who suffered torture and incommunicado detention.

It also called on state media to relax censorship and give access to the opposition, and for a “national reconciliation program ” to address political, social and economic grievances.

It is not clear how far the government is prepared to go in negotiations with opposition groups. A “national dialogue” was held in June, but Wefaq walked out and few reforms were agreed.

The foreign minister told Reuters on Friday that opposition parties including Wefaq should take part in the National Commission and that all issues would be on the table. But he later said on Twitter that he was not suggesting the creation of a new political dialogue.

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Analysis: Bahrain digests inquiry as protests continue

Friday, 25. November 2011 19:29

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Fri Nov 25, 2011 3:30pm EST

(Reuters) – A report that slammed Bahrain for using systematic torture to crush pro-democracy protests has put pressure on the U.S.-allied Gulf Arab state to take some steps toward political reform but the opposition doubt anything substantive is in the works.

The hardhitting findings of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), headed by international rights lawyer Cherif Bassiouni, vindicated majority Shi’ites and opposition groups over claims of repression during martial law brought in after the government broke the protests up.

The government will have to be seen to implement its recommendations if it wants the U.S. Congress to approve a major arms sale, but it is not clear if hardliners in the ruling family opposed to empowering Shi’ites have the upper hand.

The Sunni-dominated government says it has formed a working group to study the report, which calls for an examination of Shi’ite political, economic and social grievances, but opposition parties say no one has contacted them yet.

“I fear that the government team formed will try to bury the issue. As Bassiouni said, there is a crisis of confidence between the government and opposition,” said Radhi Musawi, deputy secretary-general of the secular Waad party.

“What Bassiouni wrote about is only about 50 percent of what happened. There were acts of rape that he didn’t detail directly,” he said, adding policing remained heavy-handed.

Shi’ites complain of discrimination in jobs, housing, education and government departments, including police and army. They say electoral districts are gerrymandered.

The government has said it is addressing those concerns but the opposition says it has heard such promises for years now and there should be international monitoring of the government’s response to the Bassiouni report.

After martial law was lifted, the king initiated a national dialogue in July that recommended giving parliament more powers to monitor and question ministers, but it did not alter the fundamental balance of power. The elected chamber does not have full legislative powers, nor does it form governments.

Foreign minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa said in an interview Friday that reforms would be looked at again.

He told Reuters a national commission would invite opposition, including the main Shi’ite group Wefaq, to look at “all important issues,” both political and security.

ROYALS HEAR OF TORTURE

Senior figures of the ruling al-Khalifa family, including army and security officials listened to an unexpectedly harsh summary of how their agencies had repressed the protest movement this year at a lavish ceremony aired live on state television.

King Hamad, Crown Prince Salman and Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman sat mostly motionless on a podium as Bassiouni recounted the abuses their citizens had suffered to extract confessions and as punishment for protesting against the family.

The report made for harrowing reading: the foreign minister told Reuters he had read it and was “shocked.”

Details from the testimonies from unidentified detainees who the BICI team were given access to included sexual abuse, lost eyes, threat of attacks by dogs, the abuse of wounded hospital patients, electrocution, beatings with hoses and other objects, leaving many with permanent disabilities.

Opposition groups and street protesters who clash with riot police almost daily in Shi’ite villages have been emboldened. Thousands marched in a funeral procession Thursday taunting police with chanted snippets from Bassiouni’s report.

“There is ongoing violence, there are ongoing abuses, there is a complete lack of faith that the government will even read the report,” Alaa Shehabi, daughter of a prominent dissident based in London who opposes al-Khalifa rule, said at the march.

State media and opposition groups have focused on the parts of the BICI report that put their opponents in a bad light.

Government papers lauded Bassiouni comments this week to Saudi-owned Al Arabiya saying there was “no cause for revolution” in Bahrain, but the independent al-Wasat daily cited Bassiouni saying the interior minister and state security agency were responsible for “shortcomings” in investigating torture.

Bassiouni said Wefaq had passed up a genuine opportunity for reform from the crown prince during the protests, in the hope of making gains through street action rather than dialogue. He also said the last instance of mistreatment heard by the inquiry was on June 10, when martial law was over.

HARDLINERS ON BOTH SIDES

Many on the Shi’ite street say they do not want the monarchy at all, although that does not necessarily mean that in future elections they would not continue to give their vote to Wefaq.

If there is any U.S. pressure for some democratic reforms, they could be trumped by Saudi demands that Bahrain not empower Shi’ites, which would embolden its own Shi’ite minority in the nearby Eastern Province. Bahrain hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet.

Many Sunni Bahrainis look to the al-Khalifa as a safety valve against majority Shi’ites and there is pressure on the authorities not to back down. The Bassiouni report acknowledged cases of Shi’ites attacking Sunnis during the uprising.

“I’m optimistic, there is another neutral committee that will be formed by national figures to investigate national reconciliation,” said Samira Rajab, a prominent government loyalist who sits in the appointed upper house of parliament.

“The important thing is for there to be good intentions from the opposition and a will to solve the problems. There are demands that can be discussed within a timeframe.”

But Michael Stephens, a Royal United Services Institute researcher in Qatar, said there was a good chance the ruling family would ride out the storm and avoid critical changes.

“I don’t see how the king can implement more reforms. It would be too damaging to his powerbase and challenge the fundamental underpinnings of how they run the country,” he said.

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Bahrain used “excessive force” in crackdown: inquiry

Wednesday, 23. November 2011 19:20

By Andrew Hammond

MANAMA | Wed Nov 23, 2011 6:07pm EST

(Reuters) – Bahrain’s security forces used excessive force to suppress pro-democracy protests earlier this year, torturing detainees to get confessions, an inquiry panel charged with investigating abuses said on Wednesday.

The government commissioned report, designed to help heal sectarian divisions between the island kingdom’s Sunni rulers and majority Shi’ites, acknowledged five people had been tortured to death but said abuses were isolated incidents.

However the inquiry panel, led by Egyptian-American international law expert Cherif Bassiouni, dismissed Bahrain’s allegation of Iranian interference in fomenting unrest, saying that was not supported by any evidence.

“In many cases security agencies in the government of Bahrain resorted to excessive and unnecessary force,” Bassiouni said at the king’s palace, adding that some detainees suffered electric shocks, and beatings with rubber hoses and wires.

Bahrain’s Shi’ite-led opposition reacted cooly to the report, some saying it did not go far enough while others complained that those responsible for the abuses remained in office.

Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the Shi’ite Wefaq bloc which quit parliament over the unrest, said: “We cannot say Bahrain is turning a new leaf yet…because the government that carried out all those abuses is definitely not fit to be given the responsibility of implementing recommendations.”

The United States urged its ally Bahrain, home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, to quickly address abuses laid out in the report.

Washington, which has been faulted by rights activists for not criticizing Bahrain more sharply for the crackdown, appeared to carefully balance its demand for the abuses to be addressed with praise for its Gulf ally.

“We are deeply concerned about the abuses identified in the report and urge the Government and all elements of Bahraini society to address them in a prompt and systematic manner,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement.

“We believe the … report offers a historic opportunity for all Bahrainis to participate in a healing process that will address long-standing grievances and move the nation onto a path of genuine, sustained reform,” Clinton added.

Bahrain’s Shi’ite majority, inspired by uprisings that toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt, took to the streets in February and March to demand political reforms but their protests quickly escalated into the worst sectarian political violence since the mid-1990s.

The ruling al-Khalifa family responded by declaring martial law and called in troops from fellow Sunni Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates as it set about crushing the protests.

The inquiry panel said there was no official policy of abuse during the widespread unrest, led by Bahrain’s majority Shi’ite population demanding an end to sectarian discrimination and demanding a greater say in government. A few Shi’ite groups called for the abolition of the monarchy altogether.

The panel – which said 35 people were killed, including five security personnel – urged a review of sentences handed down on people arrested following the protests, when more than 2,000 state employees were also sacked, according to Bassiouni.

KING RENEWS ACCUSATION AGAINST IRAN

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, speaking after Bassiouni delivered his report, repeated the accusations against Iran, but said laws would be reviewed and if necessary revised in light of the unrest.

“We do not want, ever again, to see our country paralyzed by intimidation and sabotage… nor do we want, ever again, to discover that any of our law enforcement personnel have mistreated anyone,” he said.

“Therefore, we must reform our laws so that they are consistent with international standards to which Bahrain is committed by treaties,” he said.

In a statement, Bahrain noted the inquiry showed five deaths during the unrest were the result of torture, but added: “The report does not confirm that there was a government policy of torture, mistreatment or using excessive force.”

A section of the 500-page report found the security service and interior ministry “followed a systematic practice of physical and psychological mistreatment, which amounted in many cases to torture, with respect to a large number of detainees.”

Bassiouni also echoed elements of the kingdom’s narrative of the unrest, saying Sunnis were targeted for intimidation by protesters. These included foreigners, including Pakistanis that the opposition say were naturalized because they are fellow Sunnis and employed in security services.

The United States has said a $53 million arms deal depends on the delivery of the report, and Bahrain has already acknowledged security forces used excessive force in some cases, while consistently denying any coordinated policy of torture.

The report follows a state-orchestrated “national dialogue” in the wake of the unrest which opposition groups dismissed as a farce.

The crackdown has left Bahrain polarized along sectarian lines, with low expectations from both sides that the inquiry would lead to reconciliation.

“It should have criticized the opposition that claims to represent the Shi’a, it only criticized the government,” said Sheikh Muhsin al-Asfoor, a pro-government Shi’ite cleric who advises the king on Shi’ite affairs.

Maryam al-Khawaja, an activist with a Bahraini human rights group, suggested the investigation wound up exonerating Bahrain rather than identifying abuses, noting on Twitter: “Minutes after talked of violations…Hamad thanked the police.”

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Bahrain admits “excessive force” before rights report

Monday, 21. November 2011 19:25

By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI | Mon Nov 21, 2011 6:32pm GMT

(Reuters) – Bahrain admitted Monday its forces had used excessive force and mistreated detainees during pro-democracy protests, as it awaited the release of an independent report expected to criticise the Gulf state’s handling of the unrest.

“The government has carried out its own assessments and conducted its own investigations. These investigations have revealed things to praise as well as things to deplore,” said a cabinet statement sent to Reuters in English.

“Regrettably, there have been instances of excessive force and mistreatment of detainees. This was in violation of government policy. Twenty prosecutions against the officers involved have been initiated,” it added.

The death of a Bahraini teen-ager after he was run over by police during protests last week has raised the stakes ahead of the release of a report into the government’s crushing of the democracy protest movement early this year.

Sixteen-year-old Ali Yousef al-Sitrawi was killed during a protest in Manama. Officials said a police vehicle lost control because of oil spilt on the road deliberately by protesters, but activists say police often drove straight at them.

More than 40 people have been killed in the unrest which began in February, when thousands of Bahrainis, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and led by the Shi’ite majority, took over Pearl Roundabout in Manama demanding reforms.

A month later Bahrain called in Saudi and UAE troops to help crush the protests and imposed martial law.

The statement said the penal code would be amended to outlaw torture and the government would set up a human rights body.

The Sunni-led government has said the protests were fomented by Shi’ite power Iran and aimed to establish a Shi’ite Islamist republic like Iran’s. Opposition parties say the ruling elite are playing on sectarian fears to avoid reform.

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The report by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Investigation (BICI) is due to be presented Wednesday to King Hamad who requested the formation of the commission, led by eminent international rights lawyers, in June.

The opposition and majority Shi’ites say they expect it to play down the harshness of the crackdown.

Street protests in Shi’ite districts could erupt after the release of the report, which the government has feted in official media in advance.

Amnesty International urged Bahrain to act on the report’s findings.

“Allowing this independent inquiry … was a very welcome move, but the whole exercise will have been meaningless if the report’s recommendations are not translated into real action to redress abuses,” Philip Luther, an Amnesty regional director, said in a statement.

The cabinet statement said police had suffered over 800 casualties and accused opposition protesters of provocation.

“Our police forces have generally shown admirable restraint when faced with great provocation. Every civilian casualty is a defeat for the government. The extremists know this, and have engaged in reckless provocation,” it said.

“The police have suffered 846 injuries since the beginning of the events; four deaths; innumerable threats and insults, especially to their families.”

The economy of the island state has suffered during the civil unrest. Some banks and other firms have relocated business elsewhere in the Gulf.

Bahrain offered a high interest rate of 6.273 percent on an Islamic bond worth $750 million last week, with less turnout than usual from Asian consumers of debt, in a sign of investor concern about stability in Bahrain.

The government held a “national dialogue” in June which led to some promises of parliamentary reforms. But they stop short of the key opposition demand of giving the elected chamber legislative powers and power to form cabinets.

Bahrain’s government is headed by the world’s longest-serving prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, an uncle of King Hamad who has occupied the post since 1971.

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Iran says Bahrain plot claim “baseless”

Monday, 14. November 2011 19:39

By Andrew Hammond and Mitra Amiri

DUBAI/TEHRAN, Nov 14 (Reuters) – Iran denied on Monday it had any link to an alleged plot to stage attacks in Bahrain and a lawyer for two accused men said reports they had confessed were not true.

Bahrain said last week Qatar had handed over four men who Manama accuses of planning to attack the Interior Ministry, the Saudi embassy and a causeway linking Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. It said a fifth was arrested in Bahrain.

On Sunday, a Bahraini prosecution spokesman said the plot was coordinated with Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Basij militia as well as two Bahraini opposition figures in London.

He told state media that some of the men had confessed to this. But a lawyer for two, speaking to Reuters, said they told their family by telephone that they had not confessed at all.

The allegation surfaced before the expected release of an independent rights commission report on the government’s crushing of a democracy protest movement earlier this year.

Bahrain, a U.S. ally which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, says it is implementing measures to expand democratic government and accuses the main opposition parties of organising protests in coordination with Iran with a Shi’ite sectarian agenda.

Most of the island state’s population is Shi’ite but the Saudi-allied royal family is Sunni Muslim.

“IRANOPHOBIA”

Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian said the plot was a fabrication driven by “Iranophobia”, replicating a U.S. claim last month to have uncovered an Iranian plot to assassinate the Saudi ambassador in Washington.

“Instead of propagandising and presenting baseless claims, Bahraini officials should do something about the large rift that has opened between the government and the people,” Abdollahian said in comments carried by the website of Iran’s al-Aalam TV.

“(These) baseless accusations repeat the comical and fabricated scenario of America.”

Mohsen al-Alawi, lawyer for two of the men, said Isa Ahmed Shamloh, decided to join his friend, driver Ali Abbas Mubarak on a trip to Saudi Arabia for a change of air. He said the driver picked up the two others, Mohammed Sahwan and Emad Abdelhussein, in Saudi Arabia and it was not clear why they had gone to Qatar.

“Shamloh said by telephone that they had not confessed,” Alawi said, adding he hoped to have access to the men next week.

Bahrain named an Iranian, Asad Qasir, as the Revolutionary Guards link who trained one of the arrested men in machinegun and explosives use during a trip to Iran.

Alawi said Qasir was also cited in the case of 21 men sentenced this year for leading the protests of February and March. “They are trying to link the cases,” Alawi said.

Eight of the 21 men, including politicians, clerics, rights activists and a blogger, were found guilty of charges including “forming a terrorist group to change the constitution”.

Tension between Iran and U.S.-allied Gulf Arab states has been high over Iran’s nuclear energy programme, which Gulf rulers fear will give Tehran a nuclear weapon and increase its prestige among ordinary Arabs as a regional leader.

In Kuwait, the Foreign Ministry summoned Iran’s ambassador on Monday over the arrest of two Kuwaitis whom Tehran had said were detained with “spying equipment”, Kuwaiti state media said.

Kuwait’s journalists association said they had entered Iran legally to prepare a TV programme.

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Cradle of Tunisia revolt rocked by new protests

Friday, 28. October 2011 19:18

By Andrew Hammond

SIDI BOUZID, Tunisia | Fri Oct 28, 2011 9:36pm BST

(Reuters) – Smoke billowed from a wrecked police station in Tunisia’s Sidi Bouzid Friday after protesters angry that their election candidates were disqualified rampaged through the town that was the cradle of the “Arab Spring” revolt.

The only sign of any security presence were a few soldiers at the top of the street leading into the town centre, but they were making no effort to restore order, leaving several hundred protesters in control.

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The rioting appeared to stem from widespread sentiment in Tunisia’s provinces that while the revolution in January brought democracy, it has so far failed to deliver the jobs and better housing many people had hoped for.

Flames and a thick plume of smoke were coming out of the office of the municipal police after rioters earlier set fire to it, and the streets were littered with burning rubbish.

Sidi Bouzid was the town where, 11 months ago, a young vegetable seller called Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself in an act of protest at poverty and official repression.

His suicide unleashed protests which swelled and forced autocratic president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali to flee.

This in turn inspired uprisings in Egypt and Libya that forced out entrenched leaders, and protests which have convulsed Syria, Yemen and Bahrain.

MARGINALISATION

At the root of Sidi Bouzid’s protests during Tunisia’s revolution was the fact that residents feel marginalised and ignored by the ruling elite, 280 km to the northwest in the more prosperous capital.

Even with a new administration now in power in Tunis, those same issues appeared to have sparked the latest violence.

Officials with the independent commission overseeing an election for a new assembly ruled that candidates in several districts with the Popular List party would be disqualified because of alleged campaign violations.

The party, headed by London-based businessman Hachmi Hamdi, had a strong following in Sidi Bouzid. It ran a populist campaign that was heavily promoted by a television station which Hamdi owns.

Thursday night, after the disqualification was announced, rioters set fire to the mayor’s office and other buildings.

The violence resumed Friday morning, when soldiers fired in the air to stop a crowd attacking the office of the regional governor, witnesses told Reuters. The Interior Ministry imposed a night-time curfew that comes into force from Friday evening.

Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda party that won the election, appealed for calm in Sidi Bouzid.

“Ennahda calls on Tunisians to pull together, for dialogue and the rejection of violence … Sidi Bouzid will be given priority in our program of development,” he said.

He also said he suspected that people loyal to ousted President Ben Ali’s now-banned RCD party were behind the clashes.

Many Tunisians suspect Ben Ali loyalists of trying to sabotage their revolution, and Hamdi said publicly before Ben Ali fled to Saudi Arabia that he backed him.

Even with some of its candidates disqualified, the Popular List came fourth in the election, beating more established parties and surprising observers.

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