Assad blocks access to Damascus for EU envoys

The blast killed one person and injured five others. (Sana)
Updated 23 January 2019
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Assad blocks access to Damascus for EU envoys

  • Car bomb hits regime stronghold Latakia

BRUSSELS, DAMASCUS: Syria’s Bashar Assad has revoked special visas for EU diplomats and officials traveling regularly between Beirut and Damascus, complicating efforts to distribute aid to civil war victims, three senior EU diplomats said.

Since conflict broke out in Syria in 2011, the EU has used the Lebanese capital, the nearest major city, for its diplomatic base while closing most embassies in Damascus in protest over what they describe as Assad's brutal assault on the opposition.

But the special permission to use multiple-entry Syrian visas for access to Damascus was rescinded at the start of January with no explanation from the Syrian
regime, the EU diplomats said, meaning personnel have to apply for time-consuming, single-entry visas every time they wish to travel.

The EU diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity said they believed it was an attempt to try to force European governments and the bloc to reopen embassies in Damascus, as the Syrian army, backed by Russian and Iranian forces, regains control of most of the country.

“It is a serious problem for the EU’s humanitarian assistance,” said one EU diplomat. “This is a measure that hits diplomats and staff of European government embassies and the European Union institutions.”

Reuters was unable immediately to reach Syrian Foreign Ministry officials for comment.

After more than seven years of a devastating war drawing in foreign powers, the European Commission, the EU executive, has channeled almost €800 million ($909.44 million) on food, medicine and shelter for Syrians inside the country.

There was no immediate available estimate for the impact of the multi-visa ban, but a Commission spokesman said that the bloc was “doing everything in our power to take appropriate measures to minimize any impact on the delivery of EU humanitarian assistance inside Syria.”

The EU, which imposed the latest in a series of economic sanctions on Assad’s regime on Monday, says it will not shift its policy until a political transition away from Assad is underway as part of a UN-led peace process.

But EU diplomats also say Assad feels far more secure in his position than several years ago as he consolidates territorial advances and other countries reconsider their positions.

“So far, the EU is united on its policy that we won’t deal with Assad, but he appears to feel his bargaining position is stronger now,” a second diplomat said.

Bomb explosion

A car bomb exploded on Tuesday in the Syrian regime’s coastal stronghold of Latakia, killing one person and wounding four others, state news agency SANA reported.

“Initial reports indicate that a car bomb exploded and that the driver was killed while four other people were wounded,” SANA said, adding that the explosion occurred in the city’s Al-Hammam Square.

Authorities found a second bomb in the same place and defused it just before it was due to blow up, the agency added.

It published video footage showing a burnt-out car surrounded by firefighters and soldiers.

Latakia is a bastion of the Assad family.

The city, the capital of Latakia province located on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, has largely escaped the violence that has devastated other regions of Syria since the conflict began in 2011.

According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, Tuesday’s blast was caused by an explosive device hidden inside the car or near it.

Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP that the driver killed in the blast was not a suicide attacker.

In September 2015, a car bomb had exploded in the same square, killing dozens of people.

The latest explosion comes days after a blast — the first in more than a year — hit the Syrian capital Damascus, which has also been largely insulated from the war.

According to SANA, the bomb blast hit southern Damascus without causing any victims, but the Observatory reported it left a number of people dead and wounded.


Iran faces angry online backlash over activists’ abuse claims

Since protests began in December, Iranians have had their internet access disrupted and have lost access to the messaging app Telegram. (Reuters)
Updated 18 February 2019
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Iran faces angry online backlash over activists’ abuse claims

  • The Arab minority in southwest Iran has long claimed that it faces discrimination from the central government

GENEVA, LONDON: In early January, labor activist Esmail Bakhshi posted a letter on Instagram saying he had been tortured in jail, attracting support from tens of thousands of Iranians online.
Bakhshi, who said he was still in pain, also challenged the intelligence minister to a public debate about the religious justification for torture. Late last month, Bakhshi was rearrested.
Sepideh Qoliyan, a journalist covering labor issues in the Ahvaz region, was also rearrested on the same day after saying on social media that she had been abused in jail.
Bakhshi’s allegations of torture and the social media furor that followed led Iranian President Hassan Rouhani to call for an investigation, and the intelligence minister subsequently met with a parliamentary committee to discuss the case, a rare example of top officials being prompted to act by a public backlash online.
“Each sentence and description of torture from the mouths of #Sepideh_Qoliyan and #Esmail_Bakhshi should be remembered and not forgotten because they are now alone with the torturers and under pressure and defenseless. Let us not forget,” a user named Atish posted on Twitter in Farsi on Feb. 11.
“When thousands of people share it on social media, the pressure for accountability goes up,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director at the New York-based Center for Human Rights in Iran. “Sham investigations won’t put it to rest. Social media is definitely becoming a major, major public square in Iran.”
Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dolatabadi said last month, without naming Bakhshi, that allegations of torture online constitute a crime.
His comments follow growing pressure from officials to close Instagram, which has about 24 million users in Iran. Iran last year shut down the Telegram messaging app, which had about 40 million users in the country, citing security concerns.
“Today you see in cyberspace that with the posting of a film or lie or rumor the situation in the country can fall apart,” Dolatabadi said, according to the Iranian Students’ News Agency. “You saw in recent days that they spread a rumor and announced the rape of an individual or claimed suicide and recently you even saw claims of torture and all the powers in the country get drawn in. Today cyberspace has been transformed into a very broad platform for committing crimes.”
The arrests of Bakhshi and Qoliyan are part of a crackdown in Ahvaz, center of Iran’s Arab population. Hundreds of activists there pushing for workers’ and minority rights, two of the most contentious issues in Iran, have been detained in recent weeks.
The Arab minority in southwest Iran has long claimed that it faces discrimination from the central government.