Human rights groups urge Israel to release virus-vulnerable Palestinian prisoners

Human rights groups urge Israel to release virus-vulnerable Palestinian prisoners
HRW: “Israeli authorities should consider releasing detainees”
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Updated 17 April 2020

Human rights groups urge Israel to release virus-vulnerable Palestinian prisoners

Human rights groups urge Israel to release virus-vulnerable Palestinian prisoners
  • “The conditions of prisoners are the top subject in our dialogue with the Israeli authorities,” says ICRC spokesman

AMMAN: International human rights groups have joined forces to demand that Israeli authorities release older and sick prisoners to avoid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in the country’s jails.

The appeal coincided with Palestinian Prisoners Day on April 17 when Palestinians remember friends and family being held in Israeli prisons.

Yehiya Masswadeh, spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), told Arab News that committee members were concerned about the dangers posed by COVID-19 to detained Palestinians, especially those with serious medical conditions.

“The conditions of prisoners are the top subject in our dialogue with the Israeli authorities,” he said.

Last month, the Palestinian Human Rights Organizations Council (PHROC) sent letters to the ICRC and the diplomatic community in Palestine highlighting the rapidly deteriorating conditions of Palestinian prisoners and detainees in Israeli jails in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The council “urgently requested” intervention over the health and safety of Palestinian prisoners, particularly minors, the vulnerable and chronically ill, and those held under administrative detention in contravention of international law.

Separately, six Israeli organizations have written to the ministries of public security, and justice calling for immediate action to reduce to a minimum the number of prisoners and detainees held in Israel in order to protect their health during the virus outbreak.

Omar Shakir, the director of Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Israel-Palestine, who is now residing in Jordan after being deported by Israel, urged the release of vulnerable prisoners.

“Israeli authorities should consider releasing detainees, particularly those at high risk of suffering serious effects of COVID-19, ensure high-quality health care for those who remain detained, and aggressively guard against the threat of spread in places of detention.”

The New York-based Human Rights Watch organization had called for the early release of low-risk category detainees including those soon scheduled to be freed, those in pre-trial detention for nonviolent and lesser offenses, and others whose continued detention was unnecessary or unjustified.

“Detained individuals at high risk of suffering serious effects from the virus include older people and people with underlying health conditions,” said the HRW.

Hind Shraydeh, the wife of American-Palestinian scientist Ubai Aboudi who has been detained by Israel since October 2019, told Arab News that the Israeli authorities were not paying any attention to global or even US calls for the release of prisoners over the COVID-19 threat.

“The White House and the US State Department have called on the world community to release American citizens held in jails due to the pandemic, but Israel appears to have ignored the calls coming from Washington,” she said.

Sahar Francis, director of the Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, said that as of March this year, there were more than 5,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.


How Erdogan turned a failed Turkish military mission to his political advantage

How Erdogan turned a failed Turkish military mission to his political advantage
Updated 9 min 39 sec ago

How Erdogan turned a failed Turkish military mission to his political advantage

How Erdogan turned a failed Turkish military mission to his political advantage
  • Deaths of 13 hostages held by the PKK in Iraqi Kurdistan’s Gara region came to light after Turkish airstrikes
  • President has used the incident to whip up nationalistic fervor and dial up pressure on opposition parties

ERBIL, IRAQI KURDISTAN: In the immediate aftermath of a failed cross-border, hostage rescue attempt earlier this month, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened further military action against Kurdish fighters abroad and ratcheted up the rhetoric against his secularist opponents at home.

Erdogan’s latest foray against the PKK, an armed group fighting for greater political and cultural rights for Kurds in Turkey, has quickly expanded into a fresh crackdown on the pro-Kurdish HDP political party as well as a war of words with Washington over its ado-hoc alliance with a Syrian Kurdish PKK affiliate in the fight against Daesh.

It all began on February 13, when Turkey launched a raid against the PKK in the Gara region of Iraqi Kurdistan. After clashes, 13 Turkish citizens, most of them police officers and soldiers in PKK captivity since 2015 and 2016, were found dead.

Ankara said the PKK executed the hostages, but the group said Turkish airstrikes on the cave complex during the operation caused their deaths. Even as many Turks cast doubt on the government’s version of the events, security agencies arrested more than 700 people, including members of the HDP accused by Erdogan of being “official terrorist accomplices.”

Using the same political logic, Erdogan also accused the US of supporting terrorism. “What kind of NATO alliance is this? … They (the Americans) still act with terrorists,” he said on February 22, referring to US alliance with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) group in the campaign against Daesh in northeast Syria. The leading political entity in northeast Syria is the Kurdish PYD, which was founded as the Syrian branch of the PKK.

Many analysts view the combination of the crackdown at home and the outburst against the US as a cynical attempt by Erdogan to divert attention away from the bloody outcome of the hostage-rescue operation.

The developments also come as the Turkish people continue to struggle financially, student frustrations spill over into violence, and the country's management of the coronavirus crisis is rated a lowly 74th out of 98 by the Lowy Institute's COVID Performance Index.

“Erdogan and the Turkish government do not view the hostage-rescue operation as a failure,” Emily Hawthorne, Stratfor Senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at RANE, told Arab News. “The whipping up of patriotic fervour and the crackdown on the HDP are a familiar tactic employed by Erdogan to drum up support of his nationalist base for anti-PKK operations.”

She said the mileage Erdogan could get out of the crisis was not unlimited. “If the PKK did in fact kill the hostages, it will help build support at home in Turkey for more anti-PKK operations abroad and might strengthen Ankara case for more leeway in its Iraqi operations," Hawthorne said. “But it won’t help much with negative Iraqi public opinion vis-a-vis the operations.”

Clashes between Turkey and the PKK in Turkey’s Kurdish-majority southeast markedly decreased in 2020, compared with the years when the Turkish-PKK conflict (which began in 1984) flared following the collapse of a ceasefire in July 2015. Fighting now takes place mostly in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Of late, Erdogan has been threatening new cross-border offensives against the PKK in Iraq, including against its Yazidi affiliates in the Sinjar area. In January, Turkish officials met with the Iraqi and Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) leadership and discussed, among other things, removing the PKK from that region.

However, in addition to PKK affiliates, Iraqi Shiite militia groups, many of them backed by Iran, are present in Sinjar and will almost certainly oppose a Turkish military operation there.

Under the circumstances, Hawthorne doubts that Erdogan can effectively invoke the deaths of those Turkish hostages to win some support from the Biden administration for another bloody offensive against the PKK.

“The Turkish government has tried and failed for years to appeal to the US government regarding its concerns about the PKK,” she said. “It is unlikely that the US will become softer towards Turkey because of one particularly difficult and deadly operation in a decades-long struggle.”

More generally, the Turkish government has given repeated warnings of operations against the PKK. But if fresh incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan, or even a new foray into Sinjar, happen, Hawthorne anticipates that the “further south the operations are, the more complicated the issue will be with the Iraqi government.”

Her views are echoed by Kurdish analyst Gunes Murat Tezcur, the Jalal Talabani Chair and Professor at the University of Central Florida, who believes the failed Gara operation is unlikely to “have any influence over the Biden administration’s current policy towards Turkey, which is characterized by a divergence of interests at multiple levels.”

These include US opposition to Turkey’s procurement of Russian S-400 air defense missiles and Turkey’s opposition to American cooperation with the SDF in Syria. Furthermore, Tezcur said it is an indisputable fact that the Gara raid was a failure since it led to the deaths of all the hostages.

“The contrast with a successful rescue operation, such as the one conducted by Israel at Entebbe Airport in Uganda in 1976, is instructive in this regard,” he told Arab News, adding that one of the Gara raid’s negative outcomes is that Erdogan will not be able to “score any political points domestically.”

Even so, the opposition cannot hold the President Erdogan accountable for the loss of Turkish lives in view of “the prevailing power asymmetry” in Turkey, arising from his government’s domination over the media and the weakened state of parliament.

Analysts also say Erdogan’s relentless hounding of the HDP is part of a strategy, in play since 2015, of demonizing and criminalizing its leadership by equating it with the outlawed PKK and denying it autonomy as a political party.

“That strategy, which has had its ebbs and downs, has been very consistent for the last several years,” Tezcur said. “It keeps the MHP (Nationalist Movement Party), the junior partner of the ruling coalition, content, and aims to drive a wedge between the HDP and other Turkish opposition parties.”

He also noted that the HDP has become more dispensable for the government since the Turkish military and security forces have established stronger military leverage over the PKK in recent years, at least partially through technological developments such as the use of sophisticated and lethal armed drones.

“The government feels that it no longer needs the messenger/mediating role of the HDP given its relentless military operations that significantly limit the PKK’s room for maneuver,” Tezcur said.

While he foresees more Turkish incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan aimed at PKK bases throughout this year, he doubts that the Turkish military will open a new front by launching an unprecedented ground assault on Sinjar.

At least three factors have led Tezcur to this conclusion. First and foremost is the presence of Iraqi military and Shiite militia groups in the Yazidi homeland.

Then there is the “considerable international concern and sympathy” for the beleaguered Yazidis, who were subjected to a vicious campaign of genocide by Daesh in 2014.

Finally, the distance from the border would make logistical support for a ground operation considerably more difficult for the Turkish army.

Among those who view the arrests of HDP members as Erdogan’s way of shifting blame for the Gara raid failure is Mohammed Salih, a Kurdish affairs analyst and doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication.

The actions of Erdogan “reveal the impunity, at both the domestic and international levels, with which he can behave in an authoritarian way,” Salih told Arab News.

“The Turkish leader will certainly continue military incursions into Iraqi Kurdistan because foreign operations are now a sure way for him to deflect attention from the many problems at home.”

As for the Biden administration, Salih said it “has already made clear, with its silence over the mass arrests, and the violations of Kurdish rights in Turkey in general, that the human and democratic rights of the Kurdish people in Turkey are practically of no value.”

Twitter: @pauliddon
 


Report reveals scale of mental health crisis among Syrian refugees

Report reveals scale of mental health crisis among Syrian refugees
Updated 36 min 11 sec ago

Report reveals scale of mental health crisis among Syrian refugees

Report reveals scale of mental health crisis among Syrian refugees
  • 84% of those surveyed reported experiencing multiple symptoms of PTSD
  • ‘It’s very easy to see the need to fix the tangible damage … but we also need to fix the damage we can’t see,’ expert tells Arab News

LONDON: More than three-quarters of Syrian refugees may be suffering from serious mental health problems caused by their country’s 10-year conflict, according to a new report.

UK charity Syria Relief surveyed hundreds of refugees living in Lebanon, Turkey and Syria’s Idlib province, and found that 84 percent of people had at least seven out of 15 key symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

People suffering from PTSD, which is usually caused by witnessing or experiencing traumatic events, experience a range of symptoms including panic attacks and anxiety, and it often comes hand in hand with other mental health problems such as depression.

Despite the sky-high rates of PTSD, Syria Relief said accessing professional medical help is difficult, if not impossible, for many refugees.

Only 15 percent of refugees in Lebanon believe there is some mental health support available, and for internally displaced Syrians in Idlib that figure drops to just 1 percent.

One respondent to the survey, Ahmed, was hit by a government airstrike and trapped inside a destroyed building for 12 hours before being rescued.

“We could only see dust and darkness. We remained trapped under the rubble, in the cold for 12 hours until the Syrian Civil Defence (the White Helmets) freed us,” he said.

“What we saw, it cannot be described. The sound of aircrafts was so terrifying. I am, and I always will be, so scared of that sound, even after a hundred years. My fear has become my obsession,” he added.

“Whilst I received medical help, psychologically no one has taken care of me. I don’t even know if there is any mental health support for people like me, or even for people in a worse mental health condition than me.”

Charles Lawley, the report’s author and head of communications at Syria Relief, told Arab News: “There needs to be a change of attitudes toward mental health. It’s very easy to see the need to fix the tangible damage — broken buildings and bodies — but we also need to fix the damage we can’t see.”

He and the team at Syria Relief have urged the international community to “ensure there is funding to meet the psychosocial needs that are bound to result from people becoming victims of conflict and disaster.”

There is a danger that the mental health effects of the conflict on the millions of Syrian refugees could outlast the war itself, Lawley said. 

“One woman I spoke to witnessed her husband being killed in an airstrike on their home, and four months later lost two of her three children in another airstrike. This was six years ago. How is anyone ever going to come to terms with that without the help of a mental health professional?” he added.

“Some of the people I speak to haven’t been inside Syria or an active conflict zone for five, seven, even 10 years, but the symptoms of the trauma from their experiences aren’t healing.”

Nearly 12 million Syrians are either refugees or internally displaced — more than half of the pre-war population.

The conflict began in 2011 when a pro-democracy protest movement was met with brutal force by the Assad regime.


Iran place to look into for extraterritorial killings, says former US secretary of state

Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that Iran was the place to look into for extraterritorial killings and not Saudi Arabia. (File/AFP)
Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that Iran was the place to look into for extraterritorial killings and not Saudi Arabia. (File/AFP)
Updated 01 March 2021

Iran place to look into for extraterritorial killings, says former US secretary of state

Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that Iran was the place to look into for extraterritorial killings and not Saudi Arabia. (File/AFP)

LONDON: Former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Monday that Iran was the place to look into for extraterritorial killings and not Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia has denounced a CIA report about the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying it completely rejected the “negative, false and unacceptable assessment in the report pertaining to the Kingdom’s leadership, and notes that the report contained inaccurate information and conclusions.”

Pompeo told Fox News that President Joe Biden’s administration wanted to take the Kingdom, which is an important security partner for the US, and make it a foe. 

“They want to go sit down and cut deals with the Iranians who have, by the way, murdered far more people all across the world than the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has during our four years and the eight years before that as well,” he said. “Make no mistake about it, if you’re looking about extraterritorial killings the ayatollah is the place to look, (Foreign) Minister Zarif is the place to look, President Rouhani is the place to look in Iran, not the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.” 

The Kingdom’s Foreign Affairs Ministry said the people responsible for the journalist's death had been convicted and sentenced in Saudi courts, and that these sentences were “welcomed by the family of Jamal Khashoggi.”


Don’t let pandemic distract from fight against extremism: Experts 

Don’t let pandemic distract from fight against extremism: Experts 
Updated 01 March 2021

Don’t let pandemic distract from fight against extremism: Experts 

Don’t let pandemic distract from fight against extremism: Experts 
  • Pro-Iran Shiite militias pose ‘major’ Mideast threat: Ex-UK envoy to Saudi Arabia
  • Emirati ambassador: UAE has found success by listening to aspirations of country’s youth

LONDON: The UK and Middle Eastern countries should not allow the coronavirus pandemic and its restrictions to distract from the importance of countering extremism, a group of experts said on Monday.

At an event hosted by the UK’s Emirates Society and attended by Arab News, Sir John Jenkins, former British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said: “The danger of the pandemic is that it distracts our attention (from extremism), and weakens the ability of governments and societies to deal with it and address it honestly and intelligently.”

He added that the appeal of extremist ideologies “hasn’t gone away,” and that all governments need to remain focused on this issue. 

“One of the major threats to the Middle East is the spread of Shiite Islamist militias that have a degree of loyalty not simply to Iran, but to the supreme leader himself — they’re Khameneists, basically,” he said.

“We see it with Hezbollah in Lebanon, we see it in Syria, and we see it extraordinarily in Iraq. The hollowing out of state capacity in large parts of the Middle East, in favor of these predatory militias, is a major long-term threat,” he added. “The key for governments is not to lose focus of all of this.”

John Woodcock, the UK special envoy for countering violent extremism, echoed those concerns over the persistent threat of violent extremism.

“There has been a danger in the last 12 months that national focuses haven’t been on the issue of extremism,” he said.

“I think that’s potentially a far greater issue for the years ahead because of the huge resource pressure that countries will come under in the post-pandemic economic recovery.”

This financial pressure, Woodcock warned, could trickle down to multilateral agencies working in conflict and post-conflict zones, potentially hampering their ability to carry out work that acts as a preventative buffer to the allures of extremism.

His concerns appear to already be playing out in the UK, amid reports on Monday that Britain will cut its aid budget to Yemen, which is embroiled in a civil war involving pro-Iran Houthi militias.

Omar Ghobash, the UAE’s ambassador to France, said his country recognized early that religious extremism presented a real challenge that demanded attention, and was successful in tackling it.

In the UAE, “we saw that there was a very powerful narrative within our own Islamic community that was pulling kids into warzones and into acts of violence,” he added.

“This recognition happened some time ago,” he said, but after the 9/11 attacks “this became much clearer to us.”

To counter this, the UAE “focused on young people in particular and what aspirations they have, asking how we as a government can provide them with the means to achieve those aspirations,” Ghobash added.

The UAE “has continued to develop sensitivity to what young people want to do and what they can do,” he said.

“The approach of the leadership has been to invest in intellectual, legal and physical infrastructure to provide uplifting visions of where the country and its people can go.”

The launch of the Mars Hope probe, Ghobash said, presents just one example to the country’s youth of how Emiratis can operate internationally, bypassing cultural or religious differences.

Initiatives like that, he added, encourage the country’s youth to focus on “improving the lot of mankind, not just our own neighborhood.”


Suffering of Syria detainees ‘unimaginable’: UN panel

Suffering of Syria detainees ‘unimaginable’: UN panel
Updated 01 March 2021

Suffering of Syria detainees ‘unimaginable’: UN panel

Suffering of Syria detainees ‘unimaginable’: UN panel
  • Almost every major party that has controlled territory in Syria since 2011 has committed detention-related violations and abuses
  • Report stressed that detainees continued to be mistreated in notorious detention facilities even as the conflict approached its 11th year

GENEVA: Thousands of civilians have been subjected to “unimaginable suffering” including torture, sexual violence and death in detention during a decade of conflict in Syria, United Nations investigators said on Monday.
Tens of thousands of civilians who were detained are unaccounted for, with no trace of their whereabouts, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria found.
The three-member panel’s report, based on more than 2,500 interviews conducted over 10 years, carried out investigations into more than 100 detention facilities.
It found that almost every major party that has controlled territory in Syria since 2011 has committed detention-related violations and abuses.
“Hundreds of thousands of family members have a right to the truth about their loved ones’ fate,” said commission chair Paulo Pinheiro.
“This is a national trauma that needs to be urgently addressed by action from the parties and the international community.”
The report stressed that detainees continued to be mistreated in notorious detention facilities even as the conflict approached its 11th year.
“These detainees have endured unimaginable suffering,” the commission said.
“This has been happening with the knowledge and acquiescence of the governments who have supported the different parties to the conflict.
“The fate of tens of thousands of civilians who were forcibly disappeared by Syrian government forces, many nearly a decade ago, remains unknown. Many are presumed to have died or been executed.”
Commissioner Karen Koning AbuZayd said parties to the conflict had, with few exceptions, failed to investigate their own forces, with the focus seemingly on concealing rather than probing crimes committed in detention facilities.
The report said that men, women, boys and girls detained by government or pro-government forces were subjected to inhuman treatment and torture, including rape.
“At least 20 different horrific methods of torture used by the government of Syria have been extensively documented,” the report said.
“These include administering electric shocks, the burning of body parts, pulling off nails and teeth, mock executions, folding detainees into a car tire and crucifying or suspending individuals from one or two limbs for prolonged periods, often in combination with severe beating.”
The authors called for all parties in the conflict to stop violations, immediately release certain categories of detainee and allow independent monitoring of detention facilities.
Its findings will be presented to the UN Human Rights Council on March 11.
The Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria was mandated by the council to investigate and record all violations of international law since March 2011 in the country.
The commission has repeatedly accused the various sides of war crimes and in some cases crimes against humanity.
Since Syria’s civil war broke out in 2011, more than 387,000 people have been killed and millions forced from their homes.