Natacha Yazbeck – Informed Comment Thoughts on the Middle East, History and Religion Tue, 29 Jan 2019 04:03:25 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Defying US, Bahrain Affirms Life Sentence against Shiite Leader “farcically” charged with Spying Tue, 29 Jan 2019 05:04:17 +0000 Dubai (AFP) – A Bahraini court on Monday upheld a life sentence for opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman for spying for Gulf rival Qatar, a ruling his party slammed as “political revenge”.

Salman, who headed Al-Wefaq, a now-banned Shiite movement, was convicted by an appeals court in November in a decision rights groups called a travesty.

The supreme court confirmed the verdict against Salman and two of his aides for “spying for a foreign state in order to… overthrow the government”, according to a statement released by public prosecutor Osama al-Awfi.

Bahrain in 2017 cut all ties with Qatar as part of a Saudi-led boycott in response to what Riyadh and its allies say are Doha’s policies on Iran and Islamist groups.

The kingdom — a tiny archipelago, allied with the US and located between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran — has been hit by waves of unrest since 2011, when security forces crushed Shiite-led protests demanding an elected prime minister.

Hundreds of activists have since been jailed and some stripped of citizenship over what the government says is “terrorism” linked to Iran.

Human rights groups have frequently said cases against activists in Bahrain — men and women, religious and secular — fail to meet the basic standards of fair trials.

Ruled for more than two centuries by the Sunni Al-Khalifa dynasty, Bahrain has a majority Shiite Muslim population, according to unofficial estimates contested by the government.

– ‘Complete farce’ –

Salman’s opposition group, Al-Wefaq, was dissolved by court order in 2016. The cleric is currently serving a four-year sentence in a separate case on charges of “inciting hatred” in the kingdom.

Al-Wefaq hit out at the verdict against Salman as “political revenge”.

“The majority of Bahrainis hold firm to the need to move from a tyrannical regime to a democracy,” it said.

“US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is greeted by Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa on a January 2019 trip to the Gulf kingdom (AFP Photo/ANDREW CABALLERO-REYNOLDS).”

The United States had urged Bahrain’s high court not to overturn an earlier acquittal of Salman. But US President Donald Trump’s administration has treaded lightly on criticizing Gulf Arab allies over human rights and responded carefully on Monday.

The verdict “narrows the space for free expression and political activity, something historically protected under Bahrain’s constitutional system,” State Department deputy spokesman Robert Palladino tweeted.

After taking office, Trump eased restrictions on arms sales to Bahrain, a vital link for Western militaries which is home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet as well as a permanent British base.

The European Union said the verdict “marks a further step against dissenting voices and undermines the residual chances for an inclusive political dialogue in the Kingdom of Bahrain.”

Amnesty International described the country’s justice system as “a complete farce” and called on officials to release Salman and rescind a ban on the two main opposition groups.

Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have categorised Salman and other jailed opposition leaders as prisoners of conscience.

In addition to Al-Wefaq, the kingdom has banned the secular National Democratic Action Society, or Al-Waad, over allegations of links to terrorists.

Both are denied representation in parliament.

Bahraini activist Sayed Alwadaei, advocacy director for the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy, said Monday’s verdict was “an insult to justice”.

– Aides sentenced in absentia –

Salman’s aides Ali al-Aswad and Hassan Sultan, who had been sentenced to life in absentia, also lost their appeals Monday. Both men are former members of parliament and reside outside Bahrain.

Qatar has repeatedly denied accusations of conspiring against Bahrain with Salman.

The Gulf diplomatic row is now in its second year. Doha has denied accusations it supports Iran and radical Islamist groups. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have banned their citizens from travel to Qatar.

Bahraini authorities accuse Tehran of inciting anti-government rallies and have said jailed protesters have been trained in and armed by Iran, which denies the allegations.

Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi on Monday denounced the verdict and said Bahrain’s authorities should “refrain from acts that could cause instability in their country”.

“We do not interfere in the internal affairs of Bahrain, but we have advised Bahraini officials that in order to guarantee their rule they need to recognise the rights of all the people,” he said.

In June, Bahrain amended its law on political rights, prohibiting leaders and members of dissolved political associations from running in legislative elections.

The king last year signed off on a decree granting military courts the right to try civilians accused of “terrorism”, a vague legal term.

© Agence France-Presse

Featured Photo: “A Bahraini man holds a picture of Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the Shiite opposition movement Al-Wefaq, during a protest on May 29, 2016 against his arrest (AFP Photo/MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH).”

Yemen’s Warring Parties agree to Ceasefire at Key Port in UN Talks Fri, 14 Dec 2018 05:14:40 +0000 Rimbo, Sweden | AFP | –

Yemen’s warring parties on Thursday agreed to a ceasefire on a vital port in a series of breakthroughs in UN-brokered peace talks that could mark a major turning point after four years of devastating conflict.

If implemented, the deal on the Hodeida port, a key gateway for aid and food imports, could bring relief to a country where 14 million people stand on the brink of famine.

In a highly symbolic gesture on the seventh and final day of the peace talks in Sweden, Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani and rebel negotiator Mohammed Abdelsalam shook hands to loud applause — although both later voiced scepticism.

The two leaders gave contradictory readings of the Hodeida deal shortly after the announcement by UN chief Antonio Guterres.

The week-long talks left a number of key issues unresolved. A new round of talks is scheduled for the end of January, with analysts predicting the US will continue to up the pressure on ally Saudi Arabia, a key backer of the Yemeni government, to end the conflict.

Impoverished Yemen has been mired in fighting between Iran-backed Huthi rebels and troops loyal to President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi since 2014. But the war escalated in 2015 when a Saudi-led military coalition stepped in on the government’s side.

– Withdrawal ‘within days’ –

Under the Hodeida agreement, released on Thursday evening, an “immediate ceasefire” should come into effect in Hodeida and its three ports upon signing, followed by a “mutual redeployment of forces… to agreed upon locations outside the city and the ports”.

The UN will play a “leading role” in management and inspections at the ports, for four years under rebel control. The port will eventually be under the control of “local security forces” — a term the rival parties disagree on.

Yemeni Foreign Minister Khaled al-Yamani, who agreed to the deal in Sweden, declined to specify whether the forces would be solely state security forces but told AFP they would report to the “central authority” — the government.

But the head rebel negotiator told AFP the phrase referred to the “security forces currently present in Hodeida” — the rebels.

Saudi Arabia and its allies accuse the rebels of arms smuggling from Iran through Hodeida and the capital Sanaa, charges Iran has denied. The Saudi led-military coalition currently controls Yemen’s maritime borders and airspace.

UN chief Guterres said the rivals had also reached a “mutual understanding” on Yemen’s third city of Taiz, the scene of some of the most intense battles in the conflict, to facilitate the delivery of aid. No further details were given.

– ‘More than expected’ –

“Map showing territorial control in Yemen as of December 5. (AFP Photo/Valentina Breschi)”

No deal has been reached on the future of the airport in the capital Sanaa or on economic measures needed to spare the population from further hunger.

Sanaa airport has been closed to commercial flights for nearly three years. The airport will be discussed at the next round of talks, UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths said.

Foreign Minister Yamani said the deal was the biggest step forward since the outbreak of the war but remained “hypothetical”. “We will wait and see,” he told AFP.

The rebels’ Abdelsalam told AFP his group was “bound by an agreement”.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was upbeat, saying “peace is possible”.

“The work ahead will not be easy, but we have seen what many considered improbable begin to take shape,” he said in a statement.

“The end of these consultations can be the beginning of a new chapter for Yemen.”

Analysts said the Rimbo talks progressed better than anticipated, two years after the last negotiations hosted by Kuwait in 2016 collapsed with no breakthrough after three months.

“The Sweden talks have achieved more than anyone expected,” the International Crisis Group told AFP.

“We have heard a different tone from the government of Yemen in these talks, and US pressure has clearly focused minds in the Gulf.”

– US Senate vote –

Yemen’s warring parties are in the rural Swedish village of Rimbo for UN-brokered talks (AFP Photo/Jonathan NACKSTRAND)

The case of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, along with the humanitarian crisis in Yemen, were the turning point for the US.

The US, Britain and France are still the biggest arms suppliers to Saudi Arabia.

Both the rebels and government alliance are accused of failing to protect civilians. The UN last year blacklisted the Saudi-led coalition for the killing and maiming of children in air raids.

The US Senate on Thursday approved a resolution to end American backing for the Saudi-led intervention.

Rival sides in Yemen’s civil war, the country’s foreign minister Khaled al Yamani and rebel negotiator Mohammed Abdelsalam shake hands after agreeing a ceasefire for a vital port on the seventh day of the UN-brokered peace talks in Sweden. IMAGES
The largely symbolic resolution cannot be debated in the House of Representatives before January, and would likely be vetoed in any case by US President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly signalled his backing for the Saudi regime.

Saudi Arabia and its Arab coalition partners “strongly support” the agreement, Riyadh’s US ambassador Khalid bin Salman said, while Iran hailed the breakthroughs as “promising”.

© Agence France-Presse

Featured Photo: Yemen’s foreign minister and the chief rebel negotiator shook hands watched by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres (AFP Photo/Jonathan NACKSTRAND)

150 Killed in Battle for Yemen’s Hodeida as Millions Face Starvation Tue, 13 Nov 2018 05:32:35 +0000 Main Author: Khaled Mohammed with Natacha Yazbeck in Dubai

Hodeida (Yemen) (AFP) – At least 150 people have been killed in 24 hours of clashes in the Yemeni port city of Hodeida, medics said Monday, as Britain’s top diplomat visited the Gulf seeking to boost international calls for a ceasefire.

Government loyalists supported by a Saudi-led coalition are fighting to oust the Iran-backed Huthi rebels from the strategic Red Sea city, whose docks are a lifeline to 14 million Yemenis at risk of starvation.

Asked about the possibility of a ceasefire, a coalition spokesman told reporters in Riyadh that “the operation is still ongoing”, adding that it was meant to pressure the rebels to come to the negotiating table.

A Hodeida resident reported an ebb in fighting around the city by Monday evening, but UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned of a possible “catastrophic situation” if the port is destroyed.

“The fighting must stop, a political debate must begin, and we must prepare a massive humanitarian response to avoid the worst next year,” he said.

A military source in the pro-government coalition said the insurgents had pushed back a large-scale assault aimed at moving towards the port, under rebel control since 2014.

In a statement sent via the Telegram messaging app, the Huthis said they had “lured” loyalists up the western coastline of Hodeida, where the rebels then launched an attack on the troops.

Government forces, led on the ground by Emirati-backed troops, have made their way into Hodeida after 11 days of clashes, reaching residential neighbourhoods in the east on Sunday and sparking fears of street fights that would further endanger civilians trapped in the city.

Residents and government military sources have reported rebel snipers stationed on rooftops in civilian streets in eastern Hodeida, a few kilometres (miles) from the port on the western edge of the city.

The fighting forced hundreds of terrified medical workers and patients to flee the al-Thawra hospital –- Hodeida’s largest public medical facility — as a series of explosions rocked the area on Sunday, Amnesty International said.

A medical worker told Amnesty that they “dodged a hail of shrapnel” as bombardment near the hospital lasted more than 30 minutes.

– ‘Enough is enough’ –

The Hodeida offensive has sparked an international outcry unprecedented in nearly four years of conflict between the Huthis and the Saudi-backed government.

Britain, the United States and France have all called for an end to hostilities. All three countries are major suppliers of arms to Saudi Arabia.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has urged Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, a major ally of Washington, to engage in peace talks.

AFP / Laurence SAUBADU. The battle for Hodeida.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt met with Saudi King Salman and Prince Mohammed on Monday during a visit to the kingdom to press its rulers to support UN efforts to end the conflict.

Hunt also flew to the United Arab Emirates, a key pillar of the Saudi-led coalition, to meet the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.

In France, Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said it was time “the international community said enough is enough.

“There will be no victor in this war,” Le Drian told France 2 TV.

– Civilian toll –

Aid groups fear for the safety of hundreds of thousands of people living in Hodeida — and for millions of others dependent on its port for what little food and humanitarian aid trickle into impoverished, blockaded Yemen.

A military official in Hodeida on Monday confirmed seven civilians had died, without giving further details.

A 15-year-old boy died last week of shrapnel wounds in Hodeida, Save the Children said.

Medics in hospitals across Hodeida province reported 111 rebels and 32 loyalist fighters killed overnight, according to a tally by AFP.

Sources at the Al-Alfi military hospital, seized by the rebels during their 2014 takeover, said charred body parts had been delivered there overnight. Military sources confirmed that the Saudi-led alliance had targeted the rebels with multiple air strikes.

AFP / ESSA AHMED. A Yemeni woman carries her child who is suffering from severe malnutrition at a hospital in northwestern Hajjah province on November 11, 2018.

The rebels have begun to evacuate their wounded to Sanaa, the capital, which the Huthis seized during a 2014 takeover that included a string of ports on Yemen’s coastline.

Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in the Yemeni government’s fight against the Huthis in 2015, triggering what the UN now calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

Nearly 600 people have been killed since clashes erupted in Hodeida on November 1, ending a temporary suspension in a government offensive to take the city that began in June.

– Diplomatic pressure –

The coalition has come under intense international pressure to end the conflict, particularly following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an ardent critic of Prince Mohammed, in his country’s consulate in Istanbul on October 2.

AFP / ESSA AHMED Displaced children from Hodeidah province wait for water supplies in a camp in the northern district of Abs in Yemen’s northwestern Hajjah province on November 10, 2018.

Multiple countries, including Germany and Norway, have announced the suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi’s killing.

The United Nations’ Yemen envoy, Martin Griffiths, is pushing for peace talks between the Huthis and the government by the end of the year.

The United States, which for years provided military training and aerial refuelling for the Saudi-led coalition, on Saturday announced it would end its inflight refuelling support for the alliance.

The alliance accuses Iran of smuggling arms to the Huthis through Hodeida port. Tehran denies the charges.

Featured Photo: AFP / STRINGER. Yemeni pro-government forces drive through the eastern outskirts of Hodeida as they battle to seize the key Red Sea port city from Huthi rebels on November 10, 2018.

Khashoggi’s Murder grabbed Headlines but Brutal Saudi War on Yemen Invisible Sun, 28 Oct 2018 05:47:21 +0000 Dubai (AFP) – The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi has triggered a diplomatic and public relations crisis for Saudi Arabia, but little may change for the victims of the Yemen war.

On Wednesday, at least 24 civilians were killed in strikes on Yemen’s Hodeida province, the Red Sea district at the heart of a fight between a regional military alliance led by Saudi Arabia and Yemen’s Iran-backed Huthi rebels.

AFP / ESSA AHMED. The conflict in Yemen has struggled to garner international attention even as 14 million of its citizens face imminent famine.

Among the locations hit was a facility where labourers were packing vegetables, the United Nations said.

But the bombings went largely unnoticed by statesmen around the world.

Saudi Arabia and its allies are mired in the conflict in Yemen, which has struggled to garner international attention even as 14 million of its citizens face imminent famine.

In September alone, the country was hit by at least 154 air raids, according to the Yemen Data Project.

Children have been killed in air strikes, while blockades and corruption leave entire cities unable to find food and clean water.

Saudi Arabia is now under nearly unprecedented scrutiny following the murder this month of Khashoggi, the former royal court insider-turned-critic who wrote a column for the Washington Post.

But analysts say it is unlikely the Khashoggi killing will turn the spotlight on Saudi Arabia’s broader policies — leaving Yemenis fighting to survive war, famine and a failed economy that may prove as fatal as the violence.

– Killing, maiming children –

“Saudi Arabia has been called out on the murder of Jamal Khashoggi more than they have been over the past years of the Yemen war,” said Farea al-Muslimi, associate fellow at Chatham House.

“For a government, it’s an easy public relations play — even if you yourself have been involved for years in Yemen,” Muslimi said.

Under the order of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — now heir to the Saudi throne, then his country’s defence minister — Saudi Arabia led a regional coalition into Yemen in 2015 to aid the government in its fight against the Huthis.

While both sides stand accused of acts that could amount to war crimes, Riyadh and its allies have been blacklisted by the UN for the killing and maiming of children.

The Saudi-led alliance also controls Yemen’s airspace and has imposed a blockade, fluctuating in severity, on the country’s ports, a measure they say is aimed at curbing the smuggling of Iranian arms to the Huthis.

But it is unlikely the crown prince — whose country is also the world’s top donor to Yemen — will be called out for his role in the war there, analysts say.

“Jamal’s murder is a clear-cut scenario… Western states had no immediate role in this,” Muslimi told AFP.

“Yemen, however, is complex. There’s no black and white. It requires thinking.”

Since the Saudi-led coalition intervened in the conflict, nearly 10,000 civilians have been killed, according to the World Health Organization.

Other rights groups estimate the toll could be as high as 50,000.

– Each victim ‘worthy’ –

Europe and the United States supply over 98 per cent of weapons imported by Saudi Arabia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

AFP / John SAEKI. Europe and the United States supply over 98 per cent of weapons imported by Saudi Arabia, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

While Germany last week said it had suspended its arms sales to Saudi Arabia over the Khashoggi murder, French President Emmanuel Macron initially dismissed the idea as populist.

Macron later said he backed a “coordinated European position” on potential sanctions.

Washington has likewise refused to let go of Saudi Arabia as a trade partner which had, according to President Donald Trump, bought “$110 billion” in arms from the United States.

In August, reports emerged that US firm Lockheed Martin had manufactured the laser-guided Mk 82 bomb that hit a bus in rebel-held northern Yemen, killing 40 children.

Under Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama the US military expanded its operations in Yemen, home to Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

AFP/File / STRINGER. A Yemeni boy at a hospital after he was wounded in an air strike in Saada province on August 9, 2018, which killed 40 children.

And since Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in Yemen in 2015, US armed forces have provided aerial targeting assistance, intelligence sharing, and mid-flight aerial refuelling to the Saudi-led coalition.

Khashoggi’s role writing for one of the US’ most high-profile newspapers gave his murder global prominence. But rights groups fear those trapped in a war in which Saudi Arabia plays a central role will remain relegated to the margins.

“Each victim of an unlawful Saudi coalition strike in Yemen is as worthy of concern as a Washington Post columnist,” said Kristine Beckerle, Yemen researcher for Human Rights Watch.

“A groom and his wedding party. A child locked in jail. Villagers digging a well. Crowds shopping at a market. All killed or wounded in bombings by the Saudi-led coalition,” she said.

“None of these apparent war crimes in Yemen were able to provoke the type of international outrage that the murder of Khashoggi has these past few weeks.”

Featured Photo: AFP/File / Ahmad AL-BASHA. Yemenis form a human chain to pass food aid, supplied by the UAE Red Crescent, to mountainous towns on the outskirts of the city of Taiz on October 16, 2018.

At Midnight, Riyadh Erupts in Cheers for Women Drivers–but Women Activists still in Jail Sun, 24 Jun 2018 08:00:47 +0000 Riyadh (AFP) – Every few metres someone — a newlywed couple, a group of young girls with balloons — stops Samar Almogren to cheer her on or flash her a thumbs-up.

It’s midnight in Riyadh, and she’s making her way across the city she was born and raised in, finally in the driver’s seat of her own car.

Saudi Arabia’s notorious ban on women driving ended on Sunday. After drinking tea and counting down the minutes, at midnight, Samar — a TV anchor and mother-of-three — went upstairs to kiss her four-year-old son Salloum goodnight.

She then put on a flowing white abaya, strode out of her front door, accompanied by her best friend, and walked towards a white GMC parked outside her house in the Narjiss neighbourhood in northern Riyadh.

Across the street, her neighbour had just arrived home with two bags of groceries. He paused, placed his shopping on the hood of his car, and watched her closely.

In her cateye glasses, wedge sandals and nose ring, she did not skip a beat. She smiled, climbed in, started the ignition and pulled out of her parking spot.

AFP / FAYEZ NURELDINE. It’s midnight in Riyadh, and Samar Almogren is making her way across the city she was born and raised in.

“I have goosebumps,” she says as she turns onto the King Fahd highway, the main road in the Saudi capital.

She drives in silence for a few minutes, glancing up at the moon, then adds: “I never in my life imagined I would be driving here. On this road. Driving.”

– ‘Ready’ to drive –

The question of whether Saudi Arabian society is “ready” for women to drive has been hotly debated in the kingdom.

In 2013, Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan, a notable Saudi cleric, announced driving could damage a woman’s ovaries and push the pelvis up, thus leading to birth defects.

Resistance to the end of the driving ban still resonates across some segments of society, with songs titled “You will not drive” and “No woman no drive” popping up on social media in recent weeks.

But as she drives across Riyadh, men and women stopped Samar’s SUV to congratulate her and voice their support.

AFP / FAYEZ NURELDINE. Resistance to the end of the driving ban still resonates across some segments of society.

A group of men in their 20s, waiting for the police assessment of a minor accident, spot Samar driving by. They smile and cheer. The policeman, too, looks up and smiles.

A man in a suit, smoking on a sidewalk, applauds her loudly. A young couple walking hand-in-hand –- him in a t-shirt and jeans, her in head-to-toe black abaya and niqab — stop to flash her a thumbs-up and a victory sign.

“I’m proud, proud, proud,” says one man driving by the scene. “It feels like a holiday”.

“This is the society they say is not ready for women to drive,” Samar says, visibly moved.

Samar, whose youngest son was born with Down’s syndrome, has already decided where she will drive the next day.

“My first trip, tomorrow, is to take Salloumi to my mother’s house,” she says. “And then to take my mother wherever she wants.”

– ‘It’s politics’ –

For many, the end of Saudi Arabia’s driving ban for women is a welcome step, but far from enough in a country that still has a guardianship system in 2018.

Under the system, women need the permission of their closest male relative — husband, father, brother or even son — for most facets of life, including travelling, enrolling in school and in certain cases receiving medical attention.

Samar says she is fully aware that her newfound freedom to drive was not the fruit of activists who have long fought Saudi Arabia’s repressive gender policies — some of whom were arrested just this month.

Decades of campaigning by activists failed to achieve what one stroke of the king’s pen ended in a royal decree signed last year.

“This was a political decision,” she says.

AFP / FAYEZ NURELDINE. Women’s will to drive in Saudi Arabia –- like the will to dismantle the guardianship system -– goes back nearly two decades.

But the will for women to drive in Saudi Arabia –- like the will to dismantle the guardianship system -– goes back nearly two decades.

On November 6, 1990, 47 women drove themselves through the streets of Riyadh in an act of protest against, and in defiance of, the ban, stopping only when they were arrested.

Some lost their jobs. Others lost the support of their families. What was not lost was their cause.

One of the women, Faiza al-Bakr, now works with Samar at the national paper where she runs a twice-weekly column.

“It was them,” Samar says of Bakr and the 46 others. “They’re the ones who started it all for us. They’re the ones who cut the yellow tape.

Featured Photo: AFP / FAYEZ NURELDINE. Across Riyadh, men and women stopped Samar’s white SUV to congratulate her and voice their support.