Emotions run high as Syrians plead with UN Security Council to investigate war crimes

Emotions run high as Syrians plead with UN Security Council to investigate war crimes
Omar Alshogre addresses the UN Security Council on November 29, 2021. (Screenshot)
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Updated 30 November 2021

Emotions run high as Syrians plead with UN Security Council to investigate war crimes

Emotions run high as Syrians plead with UN Security Council to investigate war crimes
  • Torture survivor Alshogre urges delegates to hold Assad regime accountable for its treatment of political prisoners
  • Sentencing by a German court of former Syrian agent Eyad Al-Gharib to 4.5 years in prison hailed as historic

NEW YORK: The atmosphere in the UN Security Council changed when human rights activist and survivor of Assad regime prisons Omar Alshogre began to talk. Monday’s meeting had been convened to shed light on the prevailing impunity in Syria and the need for the council to do more to end it and ensure accountability for crimes committed during the country’s ongoing war.

The conflict began when the regime launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters during the “Damascus Spring.” Since then, more than 350,000 people have died and millions more forced from their homes.

Alshogre, whose harrowing experiences as a political prisoner in Bashar Assad’s jails — “being detained, starved, tortured within an inch of my life” — had made the news worldwide, looked the representatives of world powers in the eye in the UNSC chamber and asked them: “If you were presented with the opportunity to save an innocent life without risking your own, would you do it? Most people would.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the 25-year-old refugee continued. “The opportunity is presenting itself today. It presented itself yesterday, and every day since March 15, 2011. That is 3,912 missed opportunities to save lives in Syria. In that time, more than 350,000 people have been killed by the Syrian regime, according to the UN.”

The informal meeting was convened by council members Estonia, France, the UK and the US, along with a dozen sponsors including Qatar and Turkey.

Alshogre told the ambassadors that it was his own mother’s “courage to stand up to the brutal dictatorship” that saved his life and urged them to remember her name, “Hala,” and follow her example.

Despite her husband and sons being massacred in front of her eyes by Assad’s men and their “Iranian allies,” and “instead of complaining about her limitations, (my mother) found a way to take action.

“Despite many failed attempts to get me out of prison, she kept trying again and again. She persisted until I was freed,” Alshogre said.

“By saving me from prison, my mother set an example of how we all must act to stop the Syrian regime from taking more lives and hold its leaders accountable for the countless lives it has already taken.

“It doesn’t require a miracle. It just requires courage, action and persistence.”

A recent report by the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic concluded that thousands of detainees have been subjected to “unimaginable suffering” during the war, including torture, death and sexual violence against women, girls and boys.

The UNSC had tasked the commission with investigating and recording all violations of international law since the start of the conflict.

“At least 20 different, horrific methods of torture used by the government of Syria have been extensively documented,” the investigators wrote in their report.

“These include administering electric shocks, the burning of body parts, pulling of 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 perpetrators, however, still roam freely in Syria amid no tangible deterrence, as violations and crimes continue to this day.

The sentencing by a German court in Koblenz in February of former Syrian secret agent Eyad Al-Gharib to four and a half years in prison on charges of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity has been hailed as historic.

Al-Gharib had been accused of rounding up peaceful anti-government protesters and delivering them to a detention center, where they were tortured. The verdict marked the first time a court outside Syria had ruled on state-sponsored torture by members of the Assad regime.

Christoph Heusgen, Germany’s former permanent representative to the UN, said the verdict of the Koblenz state court sends a clear message to Assad that “whoever commits such crimes cannot be safe anywhere.” He added that “Assad’s state has turned the cradle of civilization into a torture chamber.”

Teams from war crimes units in Sweden, France and Germany have recently begun joint investigations into Syria’s war crimes, with Sweden focusing on torture and killings by both the Assad regime and Daesh.

In France, a preliminary investigation has drawn on the tens of thousands of photos of dead bodies taken between 2011 and 2013 by “Caesar,” the codename for a former Syrian military photographer.

While speakers at Monday’s meeting welcomed similar proceedings in courts outside of Syria, they said that such moves “do not come close to addressing the magnitude of the Syrian crisis.”

They lamented the UNSC’s inaction and the fate of its 2014 resolution to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, which was not approved.

“Several resolutions aimed at identifying those responsible for the use of chemical weapons met the same fate,” said the meeting’s sponsors in a statement. They reiterated their call for the file to be placed in the hands of the ICC.

As Syrian filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab, who also gave heart-wrenching testimony about life under Assad, played a video in the chamber showing an Aleppo mother at the moment she lost her child in an Assad bombing, some council members choked back tears.

Alshogre said: “We have stronger evidence today than what we had against the Nazis at Nuremberg. (We) even know where the mass graves are located. But still no international court and no end to the ongoing slaughter for the civilians in Syria.

“I understand that there are barriers to action, but I also believe in the international system and the UN and the principles they were founded upon.”

Alshogre made a final plea to the international community that, while it is too late to save those who died, there are millions of Syrian lives that can still be saved and “that is my biggest ask to you: That you save them.”


Israeli police demolish Palestinian home in Sheikh Jarrah

Israeli police demolish Palestinian home in Sheikh Jarrah
Updated 52 min 58 sec ago

Israeli police demolish Palestinian home in Sheikh Jarrah

Israeli police demolish Palestinian home in Sheikh Jarrah

JERUSALEM: Israeli police on Wednesday evicted Palestinian residents from a disputed property in a flashpoint Jerusalem neighborhood.
Earlier in the week the residents of the buildings in Sheikh Jarrah held a tense standoff with police officers who had come to evict them from the property, but were stopped by crowds. Several other properties in the neighborhood are also disputed.
Police said officers arrested several people Wednesday suspected of “violating a court order, violent fortification and disturbing public order."
The Salhiya family say they purchased the property before 1967, while the state has argued against the family’s claims in court. The Jerusalem Municipality formally seized the property in 2017 for the purpose of building a special needs school, but the family continued to operate a plant nursery there.
A Jerusalem court ruled last year in favor of the city and authorized the eviction. The family has appealed and is awaiting a ruling, but the judge did not freeze the eviction order.
The municipality and police said in a joint statement Wednesday that the family’s “illegal takeover of public space prevented hundreds of children with special needs from East Jerusalem from receiving a educational service that the municipality seeks to provide.”
Dozens of Palestinian families in east Jerusalem are at risk of eviction by Jewish settler organizations, and thousands face the threat of demolition because of discriminatory policies that make it extremely difficult for Palestinians to build new homes or expand existing ones.


Houthi terror chief among 20 killed as coalition strikes back

Houthi terror chief among 20 killed as coalition strikes back
Updated 19 January 2022

Houthi terror chief among 20 killed as coalition strikes back

Houthi terror chief among 20 killed as coalition strikes back
  • Coalition air strikes hit militia targets in Yemen's capital following Houthi drone attack in Abu Dhabi
  • Abdullah Qassim Al-Junaid, the dead Houthi leader, was head of the Iran-backed militia’s aviation academy

JEDDAH: A Houthi terrorist chief was one of about 20 people killed on Tuesday when airstrikes by the Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen struck militia targets in Sanaa.

Abdullah Qassim Al-Junaid, the head of the Iran-backed militia’s aviation academy, had been sentenced to death in his absence by a court in Marib last year on charges of staging a military coup and committing war crimes.

Tuesday’s airstrikes targeting Houthi camps and strongholds in the Yemeni capital were the heaviest in nearly three years. They followed a Houthi drone attack on Monday on an oil storage depot on the outskirts of UAE capital Abu Dhabi, in which three people died, and the launch of eight armed drones from Yemen to Saudi Arabia, which the Kingdom’s air defenses intercepted and destroyed.

After Monday’s drone strike the UAE said it reserved the right to respond to “terrorist attacks and criminal escalation,” and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan agreed in a phone call to “jointly stand up to these acts of aggression.”

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The US vowed to hold the Houthis accountable for the attack, which was also condemned by the UN, the EU, Britain andFrance, and throughout the Gulf and the wider Middle East, including Israel.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett sent a letter of condolence to Abu Dhabi’s crown prince, offering “security and intelligence support in order to help you protect your citizens from similar attacks.”

Bennett said: “I have ordered the Israeli security establishment to provide their counterparts in the UAE with any assistance, should you be interested. Israel is committed to working closely with you in the ongoing battle against extremist forces in the region, and we will continue to partner with you to defeat our common enemies.” 

The attack on Abu Dhabi came as the Houthis suffered a series of military defeats in the Yemen war, including a lengthy battle in which they were driven out of Shabwa province by the UAE-trained Giants Brigades. That defeat dealt a blow to the Houthis’ campaign to capture the battleground province of Marib, the government’s last stronghold in the north.

“There is no end in sight for the Yemen war,” said Elisabeth Kendall, a researcher at the University of Oxford’s Pembroke College. “Rather, the conflict is escalating.”

However, she added: “The UAE will not rush to a knee-jerk reaction. It has invested heavily in Yemen, particularly in new political and military infrastructure in the south. It is unlikely to veer from its long-term strategy… on the basis of a provocation.”


Sudanese barricade streets, staging rallies in protest against coup

Sudanese barricade streets, staging rallies in protest against coup
Updated 19 January 2022

Sudanese barricade streets, staging rallies in protest against coup

Sudanese barricade streets, staging rallies in protest against coup
  • EU foreign affairs chief says repeated calls for authorities to refrain from violence against protesters ‘have fallen on deaf ears’

KHARTOUM: Sudanese shuttered shops and barricaded streets with burning tires and rocks on Tuesday, staging angry rallies to protest against one of the bloodiest days since a coup derailed the country’s democratic transition.

Security forces on Monday opened fire killing at least seven people as thousands marched against the army’s Oct. 25 takeover, taking the total number killed in a crackdown since the coup to 71, according to medics.

“No, no to military rule,” protesters chanted in southern Blue Nile state, where some carried banners daubed with the slogan “No to killing peaceful protesters,” said witness Omar Eissa.

The protests come as Washington ramps up pressure in a bid to broker an end to the months-long crisis in the northeast African nation, with top US diplomats expected to arrive in the capital Khartoum for talks.

Sudan’s main civilian bloc, the Forces for Freedom and Change, called for two days of civil disobedience to begin on Tuesday.

“Shop closed for mourning,” said a series of small signs posted on the closed outlets at the sprawling Sajane construction supplies market in Khartoum. One of the merchants, Othman El-Sherif, was among those shot dead on Monday.

Protesters — sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands — have regularly taken to the streets since the coup led by Gen. Abdel Fattah Al-Burhan nearly three months ago.

The military power grab derailed a fragile transition to civilian rule following the April 2019 ouster of autocrat Omar Bashir, with Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok resigning earlier this month warning Sudan was at a “dangerous crossroads threatening its very survival.”

After Monday’s deaths, the UN special representative Volker Perthes condemned the use of live ammunition, while the US Embassy criticized “violent tactics of Sudanese security forces,” the latest such appeals by world powers, which have not curbed a rising death toll. On Tuesday, police fired tear gas at dozens of protesters setting up roadblocks in east Khartoum.

In several other parts of Khartoum, many pharmacies and other shops were shuttered.

Sudan’s University for Science and Technology suspended all activities as part of civil disobedience, according to an official statement.

Outside the capital, hundreds of protesters also staged demonstrations in other cities, witnesses said.

“We took to the streets to protest the massacre that the security forces committed in Khartoum yesterday,” said protester Hassan Idris, in the eastern state of Kassala.

Al-Burhan on Tuesday formed a fact-finding committee to probe Monday’s violence, with its findings to be submitted within 72 hours, Sudan’s ruling Sovereign Council said in a statement.

It comes as US Assistant Secretary of State Molly Phee and special envoy for the Horn of Africa, David Satterfield, were expected in Khartoum, where they would “reiterate our call for security forces to end violence and respect freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” spokesman Ned Price said.

On Monday, Sudan’s police said they used “the least force” to counter the protests, in which about 50 police personnel were also wounded.

Sudan’s authorities have repeatedly denied using live ammunition against demonstrators, and insist scores of security personnel have been wounded during protests. A police general was stabbed to death last week.

On Tuesday the “Friends of Sudan” — a group of Western and Arab nations calling for the restoration of the country’s transitional government, and which includes the US, EU, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the UN — held talks in Saudi Arabia.

“Deep concern about yesterday’s violence,” the UN envoy Perthes said on Twitter, after attending the meeting via video link.

“International support and leverage is needed. Support for political process needs to go along with active support to stop violence.”

The EU foreign policy chief said Sudan’s military rulers have shown an unwillingness to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the country’s ongoing crisis.

EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said that repeated calls for Sudanese authorities to refrain from violence against protesters “have fallen on deaf ears.”

Borrell said the ongoing crackdown, including violence against civilians and the detention of activists and journalists, has put Sudan on “a dangerous path away from peace and stability.” He urged the military authorities to de-escalate tensions, saying: “avoiding further loss of life is of the essence.”

The crackdown, Borrell said, also risks derailing UN efforts to find a peaceful solution to the crisis.

The protest groups, which have continued to mobilize protesters against the coup, have rejected negotiations with the generals. They insist on handing over power to a fully civilian government to lead the transition.


As Shiite rivals jostle in Iraq, Sunni, Kurdish parties targeted

 As Shiite rivals jostle in Iraq, Sunni, Kurdish parties targeted
Updated 18 January 2022

As Shiite rivals jostle in Iraq, Sunni, Kurdish parties targeted

 As Shiite rivals jostle in Iraq, Sunni, Kurdish parties targeted
  • In recent days, unknown attackers have hurled grenades at Kurdish and Sunni targets including political party offices and a lawmaker’s home

BAGHDAD: As Iraq’s Shiite leaders jostle to secure a majority in the newly elected parliament, Sunni and Kurdish minorities have been caught up in a spate of warning grenade attacks, analysts say.

In recent days, unknown attackers have hurled grenades at Kurdish and Sunni targets including political party offices and a lawmaker’s home — groups that could help Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr win the critical parliamentary majority needed to make his choice of prime minister.

“It is a way of punishing the forces that have allied with Moqtada Sadr to form a parliamentary majority,” said political scientist Ihsan Al-Shammari.

“Their message is political,” he added, calling the attacks “part of the mode of political pressure” adopted by some groups.

In multi-confessional and multi-ethnic Iraq, the formation of governments has involved complex negotiations since the 2003 US-led invasion toppled dictator Saddam Hussein.

No single party holds an outright majority, so the next leader will be voted in by whichever coalition can negotiate allies to become the biggest bloc — which then elects Iraq’s president, who then appoints a prime minister.

HIGHLIGHTS

•Grenades have been lobbed at the home of a Taqadum lawmaker, as well as at the party offices of Azm, Taqadum and the KDP in Baghdad.

•On Sunday, flashbang stun grenades were hurled into the branches of two Kurdish banks in Baghdad — wounding two people.

In previous parliaments, parties from Iraq’s Shiite majority have struck compromise deals to work together and form a government, with an unofficial system whereby the prime minister is Shiite, the president is a Kurd and the speaker of parliament is Sunni.

But Sadr, who once led an anti-US militia and who opposes all foreign interference, has repeatedly said the next prime minister will be chosen by his movement.

So rather than strike an alliance with the powerful Shiite Coordination Framework — which includes the pro-Iran Fatah alliance, the political arm of the former paramilitary Hashd Al-Shaabi — Sadr has forged a new coalition.

That includes two Sunni parties, Taqadum and Azm, as well as the Kurdistan Democratic Party.

It has infuriated the Coordination Framework — who insist their grouping is bigger.

In recent days, grenades have been lobbed at the home of a Taqadum lawmaker, as well as at the party offices of Azm, Taqadum and the KDP in Baghdad.

On Sunday, flashbang stun grenades were hurled into the branches of two Kurdish banks in the capital Baghdad — wounding two people.

The heads of both banks are said to be close to political leaders in Iraq’s autonomous northern Kurdistan region.

There has already been unrest following the election, with Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi escaping unhurt when an explosive-packed drone hit his residence in November during what his office called an “assassination attempt.”

No group has claimed the attack.

While the culprits of the recent grenade blasts have also not been identified, a security source charged that the attacks “convey the messages of the parties that lost in the elections.”

The purpose, the security source claimed, is to “disrupt the formation of the government” — implicitly pointing to the Coordination Framework, and in particular the Fatah alliance.

Fatah lost much of its political capital in the Oct. 10 polls, having secured only 17 seats, compared to the 48 it had before.

It alleged the vote was rigged, but Iraq’s top court rejected a complaint of electoral irregularities filed by Hashd.

Hashd, which maintains an arsenal of weapons, fighters and supporters, has sought a variety of ways to make itself heard outside parliament, including demonstrations and sit-ins.

“Rather than accepting defeat at the polls, they threaten violence,” said Lahib Higel, of the International Crisis Group.

Sadr has considered striking deals with certain members of the Coordination Framework, such as Fatah chief Hadi Al-Ameri, at the expense of other figures in the bloc, such as former Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki, Higel said.

But such an arrangement “is not Iran’s preference” Higel argued, adding that Tehran “would rather see a consensus that includes all Shiite parties.”

However, she said Iran could settle for a deal where Shiite parties held sway. “It is possible that they (Iran) would accept a scenario where not everyone is represented in the next government, as long as there is a sufficient amount of Shiite parties, including some Hashd factions,” she said.


Giants Brigades discover cache of mines, explosive devices smuggled by Houthis under guise of UN aid

Giants Brigades discover cache of mines, explosive devices smuggled by Houthis under guise of UN aid
Updated 18 January 2022

Giants Brigades discover cache of mines, explosive devices smuggled by Houthis under guise of UN aid

Giants Brigades discover cache of mines, explosive devices smuggled by Houthis under guise of UN aid
  • The minister said the boxes had UN logos on them and called on the UN and relief organizations to investigate
  • He urged the international community to designate the militia as a terrorist organization

RIYADH: The Giant Brigades fighting the Houthis in Yemen have discovered a large quantity of mines and explosive devices hidden by the militia in aid boxes in Harib, Saudi Press Agency reported on Tuesday.

The Houthi militia left the boxes, used to smuggle weapons, behind after fleeing the district in Marib province, Yemen’s information minister Moammar Al-Eryani said.

The minister said the boxes had UN logos on them and condemned the Houthi actions as “a heinous crime that reveals the ugly face of the criminal militia.”

He said the crime reveals tricks used by the militia to transport weapons and ammunition and exploit humanitarian work as a cover to continue killing Yemenis and carry out criminal activities. 

It also shows how the militia employs airports and ports to smuggle ballistic missiles and Iranian-made drones, he said. 

“We call on the UN and international relief organizations to investigate the incident and denounce the crime of using their logos as cover to transport and store mines and explosive devices used by the Houthi militia in homes, schools, mosques, markets, roads, (targeting) innocent civilians, including women, children, and the elderly,” Al-Eryani said.

He also called on the international community, and UN and US envoys for Yemen to condemn these practices and put pressure on the Houthi militia to stop its crimes against civilians.

He urged the international community to designate it as a terrorist organization and prosecute its leaders in the International Criminal Court as “war criminals.”

The discovery comes a day after the Houthis carried out a drone and missile attack on the UAE that killed three people.

The attack was condemned by the UN and the international community.