HRW: US failed to protect civilians in Syria mosque

Free Syrian Army fighters carry their weapons as they walk in the northern province of Quneitra, Syria on Tuesday. (REUTERS)
Updated 19 April 2017
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HRW: US failed to protect civilians in Syria mosque

BEIRUT: The US military failed to take “necessary precautions” to prevent civilians deaths in a strike on a Syrian mosque last month that killed dozens of people, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.
The March 16 strike in the village of opposition-held Al-Jineh in northern Aleppo province killed 49 people, mostly civilians, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“United States forces appear to have failed to take necessary precautions to avoid civilian casualties,” in the strike, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a report.
The Pentagon said the strike targeted a meeting of senior Al-Qaeda leaders and denied a mosque had been hit in the attack.
But it launched a casualty “credibility assessment” after reviewing public and classified information.
HRW said it had interviewed 14 people with firsthand knowledge of the strike, and worked with organizations to analyze imagery of the attack and reconstruct the assault.
“The US seems to have gotten several things fundamentally wrong in this attack, and dozens of civilians paid the price,” said Ole Solvang, HRW’s deputy emergencies director.
“The US authorities need to figure out what went wrong, start doing their homework before they launch attacks, and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Part of the dispute over the attack centered around whether the building hit was a mosque or not.
HRW said the building did not have some traditional features of a mosque, including a domed roof and a minaret.
But it said aerial surveillance would have shown people regularly gathering for daily prayers, including in the moments before the attack.
“Any attempt to verify through people with local knowledge what kind of building this was would likely have established that the building was a mosque,” the group said.
HRW said it had found no evidence that militants were inside the mosque, but that even if they had been “striking a mosque just before prayer and then attack people attempting to flee, without knowing whether they were civilians or combatants, may well have been disproportionate or indiscriminate.”
“Indiscriminate or disproportionate attacks violate the laws of war, as does failing to take all feasible precautions to minimize civilian deaths,” it added.
HRW said it had submitted its findings to US Central Command and been told a “comprehensive investigation reached the preliminary conclusion that the strike was lawful.”
Washington leads a coalition that has been carrying out airstrikes against the Daesh group in Syria since 2014, as well as occasionally targeting other terrorists.
Last month, the coalition said its campaign against Daesh in Syria and Iraq had unintentionally killed at least 220 civilians, but monitors say the real number is far higher.


Tunisia’s ‘truth commission’ winds up four-year mission

Updated 12 December 2018
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Tunisia’s ‘truth commission’ winds up four-year mission

  • The commission, whose mandate was extended in the spring until the end of 2018
  • At the end of November, the commission drew up criteria for compensation that exclude those with post-2011 government

TUNIS: After four years working “under fire” and interviewing almost 50,000 witnesses, Tunisia’s commission tasked with serving justice to victims of half a century of dictatorship is poised to submit its recommendations.

Set up in 2014 following the 2011 revolution and in the wake of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s fall, the Truth and Dignity Institute has a mission to “reveal the truth about the human rights violations” in Tunisia between 1955 and 2013.

In its final act, the commission will submit its recommendations to Tunisia’s leadership.

The first version is to be delivered at a public event on Friday and Saturday, before the full report is submitted by Dec. 31.

The government, with the assistance of a parliamentary follow-up committee, will have one year to draw up an action plan based on the recommendations.

The commission’s task was to collect and disseminate testimonies, send some of those suspected of rape, murder, torture or corruption to specialised courts, and recommend measures to prevent any recurrence.

Operating in the only Arab Spring country which has kept to a democratic path since the 2011 revolt, its mandate has also been to seek national reconciliation through a revival of the North African state’s collective memory.

The commission, whose mandate was extended in the spring until the end of 2018, has been studying more than 60,000 complaints and has this year sent dozens of cases to the courts.

Over the past four years, the panel has heard harrowing testimony from victims of torture in jail, some of which has been aired to large television audiences.

“From the very start we’ve worked under fire and come up against difficulties, due to the absence of political will,” commission official Khaled Krichi told AFP.

He said demands for the handover of judicial cases involving corruption had been rejected, as well as for archive materials from the Interior Ministry on prisoners who had suffered torture.

A contested amnesty law passed in 2017 cleared some officials suspected of administrative corruption.

The commission also faced political resistance with the return of former regime leaders to power, internal disputes as well as the lack of cooperation by state institutions.

Thirteen specialized courts have been set up and started work at the end of May on dozens of cases submitted by the commission.

Twenty trials are underway, mostly of victims of the 2011 revolution and of radical and leftist opposition figures tortured under the rule of Ben Ali or his predecessor Habib Bourguiba.

Krichi said settlements have been reached in 10 cases of financial corruption involving former regime figures, including that of Slim Chiboub, a son-in-law of Ben Ali, who has agreed to pay back 307 million dinars ($113 million).

The state, however, faced with accusations of torture and sexual violence, has rejected 1,000 demands for “reconciliation” with the victims. A row has also broken out over compensation cases, with members of Parliament claiming the costs would bankrupt the state and that many claims were designed to benefit supporters of extremist movement Ennahdha.

At the end of November, the commission drew up criteria for compensation that exclude those with post-2011 government or parliamentary posts.

Around 25,000 people are eligible to compensation from the Al-Karama (Dignity) Fund established in 2014, according to Krichi.

It is being financed by donations, a percentage of the funds recovered through settlements and a one-time government grant of 10 million dinars ($3.7 million).