Tunisia arrests Al Jazeera journalist: bureau director

Tunisia arrests Al Jazeera journalist: bureau director
Samir Sassi a journalist at the Al Jazeera office in Tunisia (X)
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Updated 04 January 2024

Tunisia arrests Al Jazeera journalist: bureau director

Tunisia arrests Al Jazeera journalist: bureau director
  • Al Jazeera’s Tunisia bureau has been closed since President Kais Saied’s swift power grab in July 2021
  • Campaigners voiced concern over a growing number of journalists behind bars in the North African country

Tunis: Tunisian authorities have arrested an Al Jazeera reporter, the network’s bureau chief said Thursday, as campaigners voiced concern over a growing number of journalists behind bars in the North African country.
“Samir Sassi, a journalist at the Al Jazeera office in Tunisia, was arrested after security forces raided his house” late Wednesday, said Lotfi Hajji, director of the Qatar-based television network’s bureau in Tunis.
He told AFP that police did not disclose the reasons for the arrest nor where Sassi was being held. There was no official comment from Tunisian authorities.
Hajji said the security forces had also seized Sassi’s “computer, phone, and the phones of his wife and children.”
Al Jazeera’s Tunisia bureau has been closed since President Kais Saied’s swift power grab in July 2021, but the network’s journalists remained accredited and maintained their coverage in Tunisia.
Authorities did not provide a reason for shutting down the bureau at the time.
Tunisia has come under criticism for a crackdown on the freedom of speech, including the arrests of more than 30 journalists in 2023, according to the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).
In an open letter to Saied published on Thursday, the IFJ expressed its “deepest concern at the frequent imprisonment of journalists, in total contravention of the provisions of the Tunisian Constitution in respect of freedom of expression and the media.”
It mentioned the case of Tunisian journalist Zied El Heni, who was arrested on December 29 after criticizing Tunisian Commerce Minister Kalthoum Ben Rejeb in a radio show he hosts.
Heni became well known during the 2011 uprising that ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and set in motion what later came to be known as the Arab Spring.
The journalist remains in detention, awaiting trial scheduled for January 10.
“Heni’s case is not an isolated one, but clearly indicates the existence of a systematic policy of instrumentalising legal procedures and the judicial system to systematically intimidate, bully and imprison journalists,” said the IFJ.
Last summer, the United Nations human rights chief Volker Turk said he was “deeply concerned” over the crackdown on media in Tunisia, with vaguely worded legislation used to criminalize criticism.
Seventeen journalists in Tunisia currently face trial, according to local media.
Heni and some other journalists have been prosecuted under the provisions of Decree 54, which punishes those accused of spreading “false news” with a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
The legislation “is being used to silence journalists and opponents of the president,” Anthony Bellanger, general secretary of the IFJ, said earlier this week, accusing the government of “attacking journalists.”

EU Red Sea mission says it defended 120 ships from Houthi attacks

EU Red Sea mission says it defended 120 ships from Houthi attacks
Updated 4 min 43 sec ago

EU Red Sea mission says it defended 120 ships from Houthi attacks

EU Red Sea mission says it defended 120 ships from Houthi attacks
  • Human rights activist raps cases of prisoner fatalities as a result of torture in militia’s captivity

AL-MUKALLA, Yemen: The EU mission in the Red Sea, known as EUNAVFOR Aspides, said on Sunday that it had protected over 100 ships while sailing the critical trade channel and shot down more than a dozen Houthi missiles and drones in the last three months.

In a post on X marking three months since the start of its operation, the EU mission, which is now made up of five naval units and 1,000 personnel from 19 contributing nations, said that its forces had destroyed 12 drones, one drone boat, and four ballistic missiles fired by the Houthis from areas under their control in Yemen, as well as provided protection to 120 commercial ships since February.

“Great day for Freedom of Navigation, as 3 months have passed since the launch of ASPIDES. Three months of multiple challenges and great achievements. ASPIDES continues its mission in full compliance with international law, to ensure maritime security and seaborne trade,” EUNAVFOR Aspides said.

On Feb. 19, the EU announced the commencement of EUNAVFOR Aspides, a military operation in the Red Sea to defend international marine traffic against Houthi attacks.

At the same time, the Philippines Department of Migrant Workers said on Sunday that 23 of its citizens who were aboard the oil ship assaulted by Houthi militia in the Red Sea on Saturday were safe.

“The DMW is closely coordinating with international maritime authorities, shipping companies, and local manning agencies on the status of ships with Filipino seafarers traversing high-risk areas and war-like zones in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden,” the DMW said in a statement carried by the official Philippine News Agency. 

For seven months, the Houthis have launched hundreds of ballistic missiles, drones, and drone boats against commercial and navy ships along international commerce lanes off Yemen, including the Red Sea.

The Houthis claim that their strikes are intended to push Israel to cease the war in Gaza and allow humanitarian supplies into the Palestinian territory. 

Three civilian sailors, including two Filipinos, were killed in March after the Houthis launched a missile at their ship in the Red Sea.

Many international shipping companies directed their ships to avoid the Red Sea and other passages off Yemen, opting for longer and more costly routes through Africa.

Meanwhile, Yemen human rights activists have said that a man held by the Houthis during the last seven years died as a result of abuse in Houthi imprisonment, making him the latest victim of torture within Houthis detention facilities. 

On Saturday, the Houthis told the family of Najeed Hassan Farea in Taiz through the Yemen Red Crescent that their son had died in their custody, but they did not explain how.

The Houthis abducted Farea in February 2017 after storming his village and home in the Al-Taziya district, preventing him from contacting his family and denying them information about where he was being detained.

Eshraq Al-Maqtari, a human rights activist in Taiz who reached Farea’s family, told Arab News that the Houthis cruelly tortured the man and that his family was stunned to hear of his death after years of information blackout since his detention.

“He was denied the right to communicate, to know his fate, and the right to healthcare, which appears to have caused his death,” she said, adding that since the start of the year, there have been three verified cases of prisoner fatalities as a result of torture in Houthi captivity.

10 years on, thousands forgotten in Syria desert camp

10 years on, thousands forgotten in Syria desert camp
Updated 14 min 54 sec ago

10 years on, thousands forgotten in Syria desert camp

10 years on, thousands forgotten in Syria desert camp
  • Rukban camp was established in 2014 as desperate people fled Daesh and Syrian regime bombardment in hopes of crossing into Jordan

BEIRUT: In a no-man’s land on Syria’s border with Iraq and Jordan, thousands are stranded in an isolated camp, unable to return home after fleeing the regime and militants years ago.

When police defector Khaled arrived at Rukban, he had hoped to be back home within weeks — but eight years on, he is still stuck in the remote desert camp, sealed off from the rest of the country.

Damascus rarely lets aid in and neighboring countries have closed their borders to the area, which is protected from Syrian forces by a nearby US-led coalition base’s de-confliction zone.

“We are trapped between three countries,” said Khaled, 50, who only gave his first name due to security concerns.

“We can’t leave for (other areas of) Syria because we are wanted by the regime, and we can’t flee to Jordan or Iraq” because the borders are sealed, he added.

The camp was established in 2014, at the height of Syria’s ongoing war, as desperate people fled Daesh and regime bombardment in hopes of crossing into Jordan.

At its peak, it housed more than 100,000 people, but numbers have dwindled, especially after Jordan largely sealed its side of the border in 2016.

Many people have since returned to regime-held areas to escape hunger, poverty and a lack of medical care. The UN has also facilitated voluntary returns with the help of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent.

The last UN humanitarian convoy reached the camp in 2019, and the body described conditions there as “desperate” at the time.

Today, only about 8,000 residents remain, living in mud-brick houses, with food and basic supplies smuggled in at high prices.

Residents say even those meager supplies risk running dry as regime checkpoints blocked smuggling routes to the camp about a month ago.

Frankly Speaking: Saudi Human Rights Commission chief outlines mandate, ambitions

Frankly Speaking: Saudi Human Rights Commission chief outlines mandate, ambitions
Updated 8 min 47 sec ago

Frankly Speaking: Saudi Human Rights Commission chief outlines mandate, ambitions

Frankly Speaking: Saudi Human Rights Commission chief outlines mandate, ambitions
  • Hala Al-Tuwaijri cites “rapid advances, huge transformation” in women’s empowerment, particularly in the labor force
  • Describes “humbling responsibility” of handling human rights file, highlighting need for judicial reform

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia is undergoing a “huge transformation” in relation to women’s empowerment thanks to comprehensive reforms to legal, civil, and social rights, Hala Al-Tuwaijri, the first woman to lead the the country’s Human Rights Commission, has said.

The Kingdom has seen rapid advances in the representation of women in positions of leadership, from Princess Reema bint Bandar Al-Saud, the first female Saudi ambassador to the US, to Sara Al-Suhaimi, the first female chair of Tadawul, the Saudi stock exchange.

Indeed, Al-Tuwaijri’s own appointment as president of the Human Rights Commission with the rank of minister back in September 2022 is proof in itself of the tectonic changes underway in Saudi Arabia.

“Those are examples of women who made it to the top. (But) that’s basically the tip of the iceberg,” Al-Tuwaijri told Katie Jensen, host of the Arab News current affairs program “Frankly Speaking.”

“What has actually happened in Saudi Arabia is a huge transformation, especially when it comes to the issue of women’s empowerment.”

Hala Al-Tuwaijri, president of Saudi Arabia’s Human Rights Commission, said: “Yes, unfortunately, there is bias not only against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but generally against people from this region.” (AN photo)

In a freewheeling interview, Al-Tuwaijri discussed the progress she has witnessed since assuming office and addressed the criticisms of Western nations that scrutinize the authenticity of Saudi Arabia’s advancements in human rights.

Nowhere is the transformation in the rights of Saudi women more obvious than in the workplace. Thanks to a slew of reforms and new legal protections, women now make up a significant portion of the labor force at every level.

“The approach was comprehensive,” said Al-Tuwaijri. “We basically expanded all the legal, civil, social rights and looked at legislation, procedures and everything that was actually obstructing women’s progress was actually moved away.

“The biggest achievement, I think, is how women’s empowerment has changed the face of the country. Now you see women everywhere working in every field. The pipelines for women to join the labor force were all unclogged and therefore you see women joining the labor force.

“And this was translated in the data about women’s empowerment and especially women’s participation in the workforce.”

Perhaps the best examples of this transformation are the Saudi women making strides in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine — career paths that have traditionally been dominated by men.

“I would use the cliche ‘the sky’s the limit,’ but after (first Saudi female astronaut) Rayyanah Barnawi went to space, I think that metaphor does not describe the ambition of Saudi women,” said Al-Tuwaijri.

“I think that Saudi women have proved to be efficient and to be up to the positions that they’ve taken.”

Since 2016, the Kingdom has implemented a raft of reforms designed to empower women, from the lifting of the ban on driving and the relaxation of the male guardianship law to measures to combat violence against women and girls.

Although it is a challenging role, Al-Tuwaijri says her appointment to lead the Human Rights Commission reflects how seriously the Kingdom takes its obligations and its commitment to the shared values of the international community.

“This task of handling the human rights file anywhere in the world is a huge responsibility, a humbling one,” she said. “And also, it comes with a package of knowing you’re doing good for the people and for mankind in general. It has its own lofty values and principles as well.

“In Saudi Arabia, it’s no different. I come to work every day knowing that, yes, I’m doing my job on the one hand. But also, I know that this job includes the promotion and protection, the rights of people living in Saudi Arabia and also contributing to the international community and the new trends and approaches to human rights.

“So, the task is not a simple one. It’s not a straightforward one. It’s not that you have a goal and you have to accomplish it at a certain period of time. No, it’s ongoing. It’s dynamic. And it’s always changing, requiring a lot of exposure, communication with others.”

In a September 2023 interview with US broadcaster Fox News, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman admitted to being “ashamed” of the Kingdom’s laws after a retired teacher was sentenced to death for a critical post on social media.

“Shamefully, it’s true. It’s something I don’t like,” the crown prince told Fox News, highlighting his government’s efforts to reform and modernize the judiciary.

“We are doing our best … we have already changed tens of laws in Saudi Arabia, and the list has more than 1,000 items. In the cabinet they have only 150 lawyers, so I’m trying to prioritize the change day by day.”

He added: “But we are not happy with that. We are ashamed of that. But (under) the jury system, you have to follow the laws and I cannot tell a judge (to) do that and ignore the law, because … that’s against the rule of law. But do we have bad laws? Yes. We are changing that, yes.”

Asked about these comments, Al-Tuwaijri said the crown prince respects the authority of the Kingdom’s judiciary, but that reforms are necessary — measures that the Human Rights Commission is on board with.

“Yes, His Royal Highness the Crown Prince stated that. And I think it’s a verbal affirmation of the big initiatives that are taking place in terms of the transformation in the judicial system,” said Al-Tuwaijri.

“Three laws have been issued recently, all of them controlling the lives of people in a positive way — where by controlling we mean there is more clarity in terms of the judiciary and predictability, of course.

“The fact that all of this is taking place while we are also progressing, putting forward initiatives, is more like fixing a plane while you’re flying. And this is precisely what His Royal Highness the Crown Prince indicated.

“But in the same interview you have mentioned, he also showed so much respect for the judiciary. And I think every country that respects itself and its status has to also respect the judiciary.”

The Human Rights Commission is participating in this reform process “so the human rights lens is always applied when it comes to issuing a new law or reviewing one or giving advice on a certain procedure,” said Al-Tuwaijri.

“We have to make sure also that everything that’s happening in this journey of legal transformation is actually aligned with the human rights commitment.”

Although its reform agenda is driven by a broader domestic transformation plan under Vision 2030, the Kingdom engages with international agencies and human rights groups to ascertain where improvements can be made — provided they are based on fact rather than hearsay.

“In our mandate, we engage with all kinds of parties, whether it’s state, government organizations or non-government organizations,” said Al-Tuwaijri. “But the basis of this kind of engagement is cooperation, dialogue and constructive efforts.

“We do engage with all of these entities as long as the objective is to have a constructive dialogue that actually is on equal footing and, at the same time, understands the differences between us. This is basically how we function.”

She added: “And of course, we do monitor what the media addresses in terms of human rights issues, that includes everything. So, it depends on our relationship with these entities. We engage directly in cooperation and dialogue.

“And if we find that the reports are not based on facts but just meritless, hearsay or so, then we just focus on working on the ground and trying to continue our strategy and reach our goals and consider that (report) as one of so many reports that are actually politicizing human rights and not really engaging in a cooperative manner.”

In January, the UN held the Universal Periodic Review in Geneva, where Al-Tuwaijri emphasized Saudi Arabia’s determination to achieve the highest global standards in promoting and protecting human rights.

Despite the significant strides Saudi Arabia has made, several Western commentators have characterized this commitment as a PR stunt. Al-Tuwaijri brushed aside the criticism, pointing to the Kingdom’s positive record.

The Universal Periodic Review “covers a period where there were, on the ground, more than 100 reforms, and those reforms (have been) published,” she said. “They are supported with evidence, with data, and that is an actual manifestation of the reforms.

“Yes, some people would always criticize and some people would be cynical about what happens. But we keep open in terms of cooperation with states, government organizations, non-government organizations about addressing these issues and discussing areas of improvement.

“And for people who doubt, (who say) that it’s a stunt or that we’re not telling the truth, I invite them to come and visit the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and meet actually with men and women from the Saudi community and listen to how much they have actually benefited from all of these improvements and changes and developments that happened on the ground.”

Asked whether the negative perception of Saudi Arabia among international rights organizations is influenced by political bias or unrealistic expectations, Al-Tuwaijri pointed to the positive feedback the Kingdom has also received.

“There were more than 135 comments given to the Saudi delegation in Geneva last January. And what was astonishing is that all 135 comments were introduced by acknowledgement of the improvement,” she said.

“It is obvious that compared to the previous report, there is great improvement that was acknowledged by the international community.”

She added: “Yes, unfortunately, there is bias not only against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but generally against people from this region. But we try to overlook the negative implications of that bias and try to see the good in these approaches or reports or criticism and see what we can take from them.”

Al-Tuwaijri acknowledged that changing such attitudes would be a gradual process, but one that woule be achieved through continued engagement with friends and critics alike.

“The purpose is to make people see for themselves what is happening in Saudi Arabia,” she said. “Because the narrative is never complete, actually, without people witnessing it with their own eyes.”


Egyptian churches begin preparations to celebrate anniversary of Holy Family’s journey

Egyptian churches begin preparations to celebrate anniversary of Holy Family’s journey
Updated 22 min 8 sec ago

Egyptian churches begin preparations to celebrate anniversary of Holy Family’s journey

Egyptian churches begin preparations to celebrate anniversary of Holy Family’s journey

CAIRO: Egypt’s Coptic community is preparing to celebrate the Feast of the Entry of the Holy Family into Egypt, starting on June 1.

Churches in the country have begun early preparations to welcome visitors, focusing on securing and preparing the sites along the journey the Holy Family is believed to have taken.

Robier El-Fares, an Egyptian Coptic researcher for Arab News, said: “The celebration of the journey of the Holy Family is a relatively new tradition that benefits religious tourism in Egypt. This comes after many years of neglecting the celebration.”

He added: “The route includes about 20 locations that represent the journey from Bethlehem in Palestine, fleeing the persecution of Herod who intended to kill Jesus Christ, and their subsequent travel to Egypt through plateaus and deserts.”

Father Augustinos Morris, priest of the Holy Family Church in Zeitoun, Cairo, for the Coptic Catholics, told Arab News: “Masses will be held at nine in the morning and six in the evening for all Copts who wish to participate. The readings are from Matthew 2, which discusses the flight into Egypt, and include a passage from the Old Testament in the Bible, amid the procedures followed in the holiday masses organised by the scout team.”

Father Matta Philip, priest of St. Mary’s Church in Maadi, Cairo, said: “The church is considered the first point of the Holy Family’s journey to Upper Egypt through a staircase, from there to a boat and then to Upper Egypt.”

He said: “Inside the Church of the Virgin Mary in Maadi, there is an icon depicting the life of the Virgin Mary, the altar vessels, and the Bible open to the verse — ‘Blessed be my people Egypt,’ — and a map of the family's route that starts from Arish and extends to the Monastery of Al-Muharraq.”

“Inside the church is the historic staircase that the Holy Family crossed, with an altar at its beginning where prayers are held,” he said. “From this staircase, the family headed to areas like Al-Bahnasa and Mount Al-Tair and other routes to the Monastery of Al-Muharraq, a journey that took about six months.”

Robier El-Fares said: “The known points of the Holy Family’s journey are 20, starting from Farma, located between the cities of Arish and Port Said, then to Tel Basta.”

“In Cairo, there are many points through which the Holy Family passed, including the area of Ain Shams, in addition to other areas in Maadi and Zeitoun, to start the points of Upper Egypt (southern Egypt), which are numerous including Gabal Al-Tair in Minya, and the Monastery of the Virgin Mary,” he said.

Supporters of Hezbollah and Amal protest in Beirut against security plan

Members of the Lebanese security forces man a checkpoint on an avenue in the capital Beirut. (AFP file photo)
Members of the Lebanese security forces man a checkpoint on an avenue in the capital Beirut. (AFP file photo)
Updated 30 min 25 sec ago

Supporters of Hezbollah and Amal protest in Beirut against security plan

Members of the Lebanese security forces man a checkpoint on an avenue in the capital Beirut. (AFP file photo)
  • Security Forces warn against attacks on their units and members
  • MP fears concerted campaign against interior minister

BEIRUT: Motorcycle owners in Beirut and the southern suburbs have protested against a security plan launched by the Ministry of Interior in the capital since Monday.

The protests reached their peak with gunfire being exchanged between the protesters and the internal security forces in the heart of the southern suburbs of Beirut.

The situation worsened on Sunday as protesters marched to the Ministry of Interior, claiming that the decision to confiscate unregistered motorcycles was being made randomly and arbitrarily while the vehicle registration office had been closed for years.

Thousands of young men and women have turned to using motorcycles as an alternative to cars since 2019 amid Lebanon’s economic crisis.

The shift has led to a rise in motorcycle thieves targeting people at the entrances of Beirut, particularly on the airport road and highways to the suburbs.

A Lebanese security source said that thieves often seek refuge in Palestinian refugee camps at the entrances of Beirut or in slums in the southern suburbs of Beirut, where illegal weapons are prevalent.

Social media activists shared videos of security forces confiscating motorcycles, while owners claimed the registration service was inaccessible, leading to a lack of registration.

For more than four years, tens of thousands of transactions have accumulated in the vehicle registration department without market licenses, car books, electronic stickers or license plates being issued.

This is due to the crisis of fluctuating exchange rates between the government and contractors — especially contracts in dollars.

In addition to this crisis, corruption investigations are being conducted.

The southern suburbs of Beirut, a stronghold for Hezbollah and the Amal Movement supporters, saw clashes between protesters and security forces on Saturday night.

The supporters held motorcycle rallies to oppose the security plan.

Protesters gathered around the Al-Marija Police Station to chant the message to Interior Minister Bassam Mawlawi that the situation was not under his control.

The Internal Security Forces said that the protesters fired in the air, and the police officers fired in the air to remove them from the site. There was no deaths or injuries among the protesters or the police, as claimed by some social media sites, according to authorities.

The security plan started on May 15, following a meeting of security service leaders 10 days before.

The meeting focused on Beirut’s security due to the increase in pickpocketing, theft, weapon threats and drug trafficking using motorcycles.

The security plan is based on strict measures aimed at maintaining security.

Traffic police units in Beirut and the southern suburbs conduct patrols day and night, with support from various units of the Internal Security Forces, such as the Fuhud forces, the judicial police and others.

Protesters have been blocking main roads with burning tires during afternoon rush hours for days.

Some affected roads include Sports City Road, Mazraa Corniche and the Mar Mikhael-Chiyah intersection.

A political observer expressed concern that “the protest in the heart of the southern suburb of Beirut against one of the state’s police stations may have been carried out with direct cover from Hezbollah, which rejects any disturbance to this environment. Hezbollah maintains a stable security grip in the southern suburb of Beirut while focusing on its war on the southern front against the Israeli army.”

One of the most prominent objections was a statement by the mayor of Ghobeiry, Maan Al-Khalil, who is close to Hezbollah.

The mayor protested against “the confiscation of motorcycles and vehicles belonging to the municipality and driven by municipal employees.”

Beirut MP Nabil Badr said that there was a campaign targeting the interior minister, who is committed to safeguarding the Lebanese people’s safety.

The MP said: “From the start of the security operation, we have urged a comprehensive effort in government agencies, particularly the Car and Motorcycle Registration Department, to help citizens resolve their breaches. The minister has acknowledged the issues and assured that the strict measures will be eased.”

Badr fears that “the campaign aims to create complete chaos in the streets of the capital and its suburbs among those affected by the imposition of security and state prestige. This is something we categorically reject.”

In a statement released on Sunday, the Internal Security Forces rejected “any attacks on their units and members, regardless of the excuses.”

They said that the security plan was requested to protect citizens on public roads from theft, robbery and reckless motorcycle riders, as well as their failure to wear helmets, which has led to an increase in traffic accident deaths.

The security plan aimed to protect people, they said, not to seek revenge or retaliate against them, and, according to authorities, has resulted in a significant decrease in crimes.