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February 17 2014

Sudan: Blogger Remains in Detention for Criticizing Presidents

Sudanese blogger and activist Tajeldin Arja has been in detention since his arrest on December 24, 2013 at a joint press conference of the Sudanese and Chadian Presidents in Khartoum, Sudan's capital. Arja, a political activist from North Darfur, interrupted the speaker at the opening session and criticized the two leaders, in what Amnesty International described as an effort to “[hold] them responsible for the atrocities committed in Darfur.”

He was then arrested by security guards, as the video below clearly shows. Local and international human rights organization stated that the 26-year-old blogger is at serious risk of torture and other ill-treatment. Activists in Sudan have called for a solidarity sit-in before the governmental human rights commission to demand his immediate release. The sit-in will take place on Tuesday, February 18.

Chadian president Idris Deby was on an official two-day visit to Khartoum to discuss peace, security and border issues in the Darfur region with Sudanese president Omar Al-Bashir. On the day before his arrest, Arja, who hails from North Darfur, announced on his Facebook account his intention to attend the presidential press conference and confront the audience whom he described as “opportunist leaders.” He called on other activists to do the same and express their “impressions” about the event and its attendees.

Arja's arrest was widely reported on after video footage of the incident — apparently taken by an anonymous attendee from a mobile phone — was uploaded on YouTube. The video shows Arja standing in the front row and shouting criticism at the two presidents. “You want to fool and deceive public opinion!”, he was heard saying to Al-Bashir and Diby. Security guards immediately seized him and can be seen escorting him outside the conference hall. “You can kill us, torture us…” were his last spoken words on the short video. News sources have reported that members of the security service at the conference confiscated the equipment of international journalists and TV channel crewmen at the event and conducted on-site search of their content in anticipation that the arrest might have been caught on camera.

Amnesty International has issued an urgent action appeal calling on Sudanese authorities to charge Arja with a recognizable criminal offense or to release him without delay, warning that he remains under serious risk of torture and other forms of mistreatment. The organization emphasized that Arja was one of the victims of their ill-fated policies surrounding the conflict in Darfur:

Tajeldin Ahmed Arja is from North Darfur. He was displaced with his family during the early years of the Darfur conflict. Since then, he has reportedly become critical of the Sudanese government and has written and blogged about the situation in Darfur.

Independent online newspaper Al-Taghyeer [ar] reported that a close relative of Arja, who was able to visit him in prison, said that the blogger was held in solitary confinement and was subjected to systematic and continuous beating and torture:

وقال المصدر للـ (التغيير الالكترونية) إن علامات الاعياء والتعذيب ظهرت بوضوح علي المعتقل الذي قال انه ظل يتعرض منذ اعتقاله “لعمليات تعذيب متواصلة توقفت قبل الزيارة بيومين”. وقال عرجة، انه وضع طوال مدة اعتقاله في “حبس إنفرادي وتم تحويله قبل ايام لسجن كوبر في معتقل جماعي”.

وابلغت السلطات اسرة عرجه انها لن تتمكن من مقابلته إلا بعد مرور خمسة عشر يوما علي مدة الزيارة الاولي.

The source has told Al-Taghyeer Online that signs of fatigue and exhaustion were visible on [Tajeldهn] Arja, who said that he has been subjected to “continuous torture since his arrest that only stopped two days before the visit”. Arja said that he was put under solitary confinement during all his detention, and was only transferred days ago to Kober Prison.

A Blow to Government Rhetoric

Blogger and activist leader Amjed Farid wrote a blog post putting Arja's arrest in the context of that state of freedom of expression in Sudan and the upcoming 2015 presidential elections:

It is not only the case of Tajeldin Arja although it is enough to make the point. Sudan government keeps a very harsh censorship on daily newspapers with three of them (Almidan, Rai Alsha’ab and Altayar) prohibited from printing for almost three years now without any official reasons (the first two are official publications of legally registered parties). Moreover, during September and October last year, the regime detained hundreds of politicians and activists from their homes and the reason was their political views and stands. The detention was the easy part of that, others hundreds were killed in the streets in cold blood for demonstrating against price raise and economic measures in September 2013.

The youth movement Sudan Change Now has called on its Facebook page [ar] for the activism community in Sudan to hold a peaceful sit-in on February 18, 2014, in front of the government-run Human Rights Commission (HRC) to demand the immediate release of Arja.

Observers have argued that Al-Bashir's failure to issue an executive order to release all political detainees renders the government's new language of open dialogue, reform and reconciliation “empty rhetoric”, as Tajeldin Arja and many other activists languish in prisons while the perpetrators of crimes and human rights violations enjoy impunity.

February 14 2014

Venezuela: Protests Leave Three Dead as Threats to Media Escalate

Estudiante protestando el 12 de febrero, 2014. Foto de Carlos Becerra, copyright Demotix.

Student protesting on February 12th, 2014. Photo by Carlos Becerra, copyright Demotix.

[All links lead to Spanish language pages, unless otherwise noted]

Yesterday Venezuela saw a wave of protests [en] in the streets of its major cities. The citizens, mainly university students, took to the streets to demand that the authorities release a group of young people who had been arrested in previous demonstrations. They also demanded improvements in food supply (food shortages [en] are around 27%) and public safety.

The march, which aimed to reach the federal prosecutor's office, was organized mainly by opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez. The protest unfolded peacefully until the demonstrators neared the center of Caracas, where a group of riot police and members of armed security forces, hooded and on motorcycles, had taken control of the zone. The majority of the protesters left the area, but a small group remained and clashed with the security forces.

The confrontations in the center of Caracas resulted in two fatalities: a student and a member of a collective. Users uploaded videos of the moment when Bassil Alejandro Da Costa Frías was hit by a bullet and killed.

The protests spread to the east of the city, and during the night, another student was killed. The day ended with a toll of three deaths and dozens of people injured and arrested.

 

Jóvenes protestando en Caracas el 12 de febrero, 2014. Foto de Carlos Becerra, copyright Demotix.

Young people protesting in Caracas on February 12th, 2014. Photo by Carlos Becerra, copyright Demotix.

During the events, including the march and the ensuing violence, Venezuelan media continued to air their regular programming, after authorities threatened [en] to sanction any media that covered the protests. Those who sought information about what was happening had to tune in to the cable news channel NTN24.

In reaction to these events, Hilda Lugo Conde posted on Facebook:

Mientras se reportan heridos graves y hasta un muerto según la agencia Reuters en la marcha de hoy en Caracas, esto es lo que se ve en las pantallas de televisión de señal abierta en el país en este momento:
1- Venevisión: telenovela En nombre del amor
2- Globovisión: las películas más taquilleras en Estados Unidos este fin de semana según NTN24
3- Canal I: Mundo Fitness
4- VTV: Diosdado Cabello en la sesión especial de la Asamblea Nacional por los 200 años de la Batalla de la Victoria
5- Televen: telenovela Las Santísimas
6- La Tele: telenovela Cada quien a su santo
7- Tves: Pocoyo

Y la radio, también, en su mundo paralelo. Ese que impone la censura, la autocensura…

While the agency Reuters is reporting serious injuries and even a death during the march today in Caracas, this is what is being seen on open-signal television in the country right now:
1. Venevisión: Soap opera “En nombre del amor”
2- Globovisión: The highest-grossing movies in the United States this weekend, according to NTN24
3- Canal I: Mundo Fitness [Fitness World]
4- VTV: Diosdado Cabello in the special session of the National Assembly for the 200-year anniversary of La Batalla de La Victoria
5- Televen: Soap opera “Las Santísimas”
6- La Tele: Soap opera “Cada quien a su santo”
7- Tves: Pocoyo
And the radio, too, exists in a parallel universe. One that is under censorship, self-censorship…

In the afternoon, journalists of the news channel NTN24 condemned the fact that the government had pressured subscription television companies to remove NTN24 from their selection of channels. Minutes later, the complaint had become reality, and Venezuelans could see the channel only via internet.

Fran Monroy posted on Twitter:

At 6:17 PM Caracas time, the signal for NTN24 went dead on MovistarVe.

Rodrigo Blanco posted an alert about the situation:

To our friends outside of Venezuela: two students killed and information blackout by the government. Police are repressing.

Estudiantes protestando en Caracas. Foto de Juan Hernandez, copyright Demotix.

Students protesting in Caracas. Photo by Juan Hernandez, copyright Demotix.

 

Daniel Prat questioned the state of democracy in the country after what took place in the capital:

Don't protest, because I'll shoot you. Don't make demands, because I'll take you prisoner. Don't inform, because I'll take you off the air. Nice democracy, right?

However, Gabriel Lopez expressed his disagreement with the protests proposed by Leopoldo Lopez and marked by the hashtag #LaSalida:

“La salida” [The Exit] that some people are proposing is undemocratic. There are loopholes and ways to “exit” the government, including a recall referendum. Not by force.

The night ended with a national parade where President Nicolas Maduro celebrated Youth Day and the bicentennial of La Batalla de la Victoria.

Furthermore, a judge issued an arrest warrant for Leopoldo Lopez. This morning, the office of his party, Voluntad Popular, was searched.

The protests have not stopped.

The Facebook page Rebelión 2014 is collecting reports and photos (unverified) of the current protests.

February 08 2014

Some Kazakh Bloggers Dine With Mayor, Some Get Jail Terms

alm

Almaty Mayor and selected Kazakh bloggers, February 5, 2014. Image by @evlaman, used with permission.

A court in Kazakhstan has sentenced three bloggers to 10 days in jail on “minor hooliganism” charges. Nurali Aitelenov, Rinat Kibraev, and Dmitry Shchyolokov were detained by police outside a restaurant in Almaty, where the city's mayor, Akhmetzhan Esimov, was meeting with selected bloggers on February 5. The three young men were prevented from entering the restaurant because they had not been invited to the meeting. They were also not allowed to film the restaurant. Police detained the three bloggers after they unfolded posters saying ”Esimov Talks To Tamed Bloggers Only” and “Esimov! Come Out”.

‘Corrupt bloggers’

The meeting with the mayor has split the Kazakh blogger community. Those who had not received an invitation to the event accused the invited bloggers of being “venal” or “corrupt”. One of the detained individuals, Aitelenov, tweeted one day before the meeting:

Tomorrow at #Esimov's lunch… [Text under Esimov's photo reads, "Dear corrupt bloggers"].

Shortly before his detention, Aitelenov tweeted this image:

Rally against corrupt bloggers

Several social media users found it strange that the bloggers who had frequently criticized the Almaty mayor were dining with him at one of the city's most expensive restaurants, apparently at his expense.

I hope at least some of the bloggers attending a lunch meeting with Esimov have taken out their wallets and paid for their food?

Some netizens interpreted the meeting as a deliberate tactic by the mayor to divide the blogger community and improve his own image.

Brilliant move by the [mayor]: If bloggers don't come to the meeting, they don't want to hold a conversation. If they do come, they are corrupt.

Blogger Ernar Prediktor suggests [ru] that the Kazakh public views bloggers as “just and independent”. He argues that the meeting with “not the most prominent or popular” bloggers was part of the Almaty mayor's public relations campaign:

[P]ебята, вас просто поюзали. Использовали имидж блогера для достижения своих целей. Теперь на каждом углу будут говорить (писать), что аким такой распрекрасный и демократичный, без проблем встречается с представителями алматинцев, решает совместно проблемы и пр..

You have been used, guys. They have used the blogger's public image for their own benefit. Now they will claim everywhere that the mayor is good and democratic, that he easily meets with the representatives of the residents of Almaty and solves problems jointly with them, etc.

‘Useful’ meeting

But those who attended the meeting and some of their followers on social media sites thought the event was useful.

Judging by the bloggers’ meeting with Esimov, he has made a good impression and evoked their empathy.

Following the meeting, bloggers have also responded to criticisms.

If someone thinks that an opportunity to have at least some kind of a civilized conversation and discuss problems is a matter of who pays the bill at the restaurant, unfollow [me].

Only recently they all complained that they could not get hold of #Esimov; now those who are not at a meeting with him curse those who are there. Typical #Kazakhs.

Bloggers Samson keeps a record of online discussion related to the Almaty mayor's meeting with bloggers here [ru].

February 05 2014

Four Months in Jail and Counting for Algerian Blogger Who Criticized President

Algerian blogger Abdelghani Aloui has been in jail since September 25, 2013. His crime? Sharing images on Facebook that are caricatures of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal.

Since his arrest, the 24-year-old has been detained in Serkadji prison of Algiers, the capital city of Algeria, a prison known for hosting terrorists and criminals. A trial has yet to take place for Abdelghani Aloui.

caricature aloui boutef

“Blogs: No Mocking Allowed” says this poster. The poster shows Aloui on the right and one of the photo he posted on the left. The poster was originally published on the weekly online El Watan Weekend following the activist arrest then republished by the blog “Chouf el Djazair”- Posted with the permission of Chouf el Djazair's author.

Like many other young people who make up the the majority of the Algerian society, Aloui believed or was made to believe that his country was different from Syria, Libya or other authoritarian countries. But after he exercised his right to express himself on social networks, he was arrested by Algerian police and was placed under custody warrant, a type of preventive detention that appears to have become indefinite in Aloui's case. Demands for his provisional release have been refused several times by the district attorney of Sidi M'hamed in Algiers, the latest being on October 9, 2013.

Aloui was first charged with insulting the president, a charge of glorifying terrorism was added later on. In this French-language video, one the Aloui's lawyers explains that he believes his client is innocent of the charges against him. The lawyer states that he took his case because he believes Aloui is being harassed because of a political agenda and not because he broke any laws:

Many people, from activists to netizens, embraced Aloui's case and asked for his release. An online petition [fr] condemning the abuse of authority regarding his arrest was even created. The text of the petition read:

Ces graves dérives autoritaires qui portent atteinte aux acquis démocratiques des Algériens doivent sans cesse être dénoncées et combattues, afin que les citoyens algériens accèdent à une Algérie de droit, dans laquelle les libertés individuelles et collectives sont respectées

These dangerous authoritarian abuses that violate the democratic gains of all Algerians should always be denounced and fought so that Algerian citizens can fully live in an Algerian state where individual and collective freedoms are respected.

Philip Luther, the Middle East and North Africa Director at Amnesty International, links this case to the upcoming elections in Algeria:

The Algerian authorities appear to be trying to stifle criticism at a time of uncertainty ahead of presidential elections due next year.

Unfortunately, public mobilization around the case seems to be faltering. Many human rights activists in Algeria are afraid that Aloui's case will fade into oblivion. Indeed, the Algerian regime is orchestrating a campaign calling Aloui a dangerous terrorist supporting jihad, or the holy struggle against the enemies of Islam. To support this idea and assert Aloui's guilt, a video of him praising jihad was posted on YouTube:

Amine Sidhoum, Aloui's laywer, immediately slammed the video as a fake and denounced it as an alleged manipulation. The objective of the video, he said, is to discredit Aloui by portraying him as an Islamist. Sidhoum also raised doubts about the true identity of the user, who posted the video on Facebook under the name “Malik Liberter“, Aloui's nickname on YouTube. Sidhoum argues that someone used Aloui's YouTube nickname on Facebook to post videos that would implicate Aloui. Interviewed by Algerie Focus, Sidhoum noted:

On entend trois voix différentes sur cette vidéo et le décalage entre les lèvres d’Abdelghani et le son est flagrant. De plus, mon client a arrêté sa scolarité à la 9ème, à 15 ans, il ne maîtrise donc pas assez l’arabe classique pour tenir un tel discours sans note

We hear three different voices in this video and the mismatch between Abedelghani's lips and the actual sound is blatant. Moreover, my client stopped schooling at the age of 15. His command of classical Arabic is not good enough for him to hold such a speech without cue cards.

Algerian authorities are doing their best to make the public forget that Aloui was originally arrested for “insults against the President of the Republic,” which is far removed from conducting a terrorist act. To put things into historical perspective, in the 1990s Algeria suffered a violent civil war between Islamists and the state. Anyone contesting the legitimacy of the regime back then would automatically be labelled a terrorist.

After four months in jail, Aloui's future is gloomier than ever, especially if one considers that Article 87-bis of the Penal Code that deals with “the proponents of terrorism” remains vague and can often lead to dangerous interpretations. From Facebook to prison, the tragic fate of this Algerian cyber-activist proves that the so-called promise of ”democracy and freedom” waved by the Algerian regime might just be a front.

January 31 2014

AB14: “We Must Stop Thinking That Technology Will Solve All of Our Problems”

This article originally appeared on El Diario, in Spanish. Translation by Ellery Roberts Biddle.

Empty seats for those who were absent from #AB14. Photo by Hisham Almiraat via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Empty seats for those who were absent from #AB14. Photo by Hisham Almiraat via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

“Those who live in western societies do not understand the importance of being able to criticize the actions of their government. This is a right we do not have in our countries.”

It was with this that Walid Al-Saqaf, founder of Portal Yemen, began a panel on censorship and digital surveillance at the Arab Bloggers Meeting #AB14 that took place from the 20-23 of January in Amman.

Banner calling for the release of Alaa Abd El Fattah and Bassel Safadi, former participants at the Arab Bloggers Meeting.

Banner calling for the release of Alaa Abd El Fattah and Bassel Safadi, former participants at the Arab Bloggers Meeting.

The political context for this event has changed dramatically since the last meeting in September of 2011, when bloggers and activists from every Arab country came together in Tunis, meeting under a banner that read: “Welcome to a Free Tunis.” Since this time, censorship and repression have continued. The ardent, palpable feeling of hope at the last meeting, fueled by uprisings against dictatorships in the region, has given way to difficult transitions in some cases and armed conflict in others, all struggles that we see plainly in the online realm.

“We must stop thinking that technology will solve all of our problems,” Al-Saqaf pleaded. “Censorship is here to stay, regardless of the tools, so we must stop being obsessed with them and begin to think in the long term.”

The meeting focused on the strategic pursuit of protection against censorship and surveillance, and the preservation of common bonds in a milieu that feels more and more fragmented each day. An on-site photo project featured a message from each of the participants.

“We watch the government, not the other way around,” message from Moroccan blogger Zineb Belmkaddem during the Arab Bloggers Meeting in Amman. Photo by Amer Sweidan, used with permission.

“We watch the government, not the other way around,” message from Moroccan blogger Zineb Belmkaddem during the Arab Bloggers Meeting in Amman. Photo by Amer Sweidan, used with permission.

This year, the absence of two participants from past meetings was especially palpable: Egyptian blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah and Syrian web developer Bassel Safadi. The meeting was dedicated to them, journalists and activists detained in the region. A statementcalling for freedom for Razan Zaitouneh, co-founder of Syria’s Center for Violations Documentation, a group that documents human rights abuses, who was kidnapped in December in Damascus.

As a community, we have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with activists promoting freedom and exposing human rights violations in service of our shared humanity. We at AB14 demand that the UN and all countries involved in the Geneva II Middle East Peace Conference establish verifiable mechanisms to protect and secure the release of opinion detainees and kidnappees in Syria.

These were not the only people absent. A Syrian member of the Enab Baladi project, a local independent media project created at the start of the March 2011 uprising, was sent back to Turkey after several hours of interrogation at the Amman airport. Two Iraqi participants were denied entry visas altogether. Restrictions for citizen travel between countries in the region remains a constant (at the last meeting, Palestinian participants were not able to get into Tunisia) a reality that contradicts the illusion of regional unity.

“I have no words, only shame, to describe how Arab regimes treat citizens in other Arab countries, while a person with a Western passport can move freely without a visa through practically the entire region,” wrote Abir Kopty. She added: “We will keep fighting until we are separated neither by borders nor by authoritarian regimes.”

January 28 2014

Arab Bloggers Demand Release of Rights Activists in Syria

The 4th Arab Bloggers Meeting participants support the release of Razan Zaitouneh, a human rights lawyer and the co-founder of Syria's Violations Documentation Center (SVDC) — a non-violent civil group documenting human rights abuses in Syria since March 2011. Ms. Zaitouneh, 36, who is a co-awardee of the European Union's Sakharov Prize for her human rights work was kidnapped on December 9, 2013 in the outskirts of Damascus along with Samira al-Khalil, Wael Hamada and Nazim al-Hamadi, also members of SVDC.

In the 33 months since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising, Razan Zaitouneh's work with her colleagues at SVDC became a vital source of information for the international community on the violations of human rights in the country. Now that the UN has made the unfortunate decision not to track the death toll in Syria, the work of SVDC has become more crucial than ever.

Razan and her colleagues worked in extremely difficult conditions, taking great risks in order to fulfill a vital task enriching our understanding of the plight of the Syrian people. So were many others, like our colleague blogger  Bassel Safadi – in detention since March 2012 – who worked on promoting freely available and open-source technology, and who is highly missed at the 4th Arab Bloggers Summit, which took place from January 20-23 in Amman, Jordan.

As a community, we have a responsibility to stand in solidarity with activists promoting freedom and exposing human rights violations in service of our shared humanity.

We at AB14 demand that the UN and all countries involved in the Geneva II Middle East Peace Conference establish verifiable mechanisms to protect and secure the release of opinion detainees and kidnappees in Syria.

January 10 2014

Award-Winning Egyptian Activists Receive One-Year Suspended Sentence

Prominent Egyptian activists Alaa Abd El Fattah, his sister Mona Seif, and ten others on January 5 received a one-year suspended sentence in a case in which they were accused of torching the headquarters of ex-Presidential candidate Ahmed Shafiq’s campaign. This is one of many cases that has Egyptian and international activist communities worried about the government’s apparent backlash at those active in fueling the January 25 revolution in Egypt in 2011.

Tweet showing Mona Seif coming out of the court hall where she was just handed a one-year suspended sentence.

Alaa did not attend the court session. He has been detained since November 28, after being accused of organizing a protest in front of The Shura Council (the upper house of Egypt's Parliament) without obtaining legal permission. Two days prior to the protest, legislators passed a law requiring all protest organizers to submit logistical information about planned protests to the Ministry of the Interior. Under the new policy, the Ministry reserves the right to (indefinitely) require a change of logistics. Practically speaking, this enables the Ministry to prevent protests from taking place, if it so chooses.

The protest in question was organized by the No to Military Trials for Civilians group, a campaign initiated by Mona Seif but of which her brother Alaa is not a member. The group has issued a press statement claiming responsibility for the organization of the protest. Members of the group have also filed a report with the public prosecutor claiming responsibility for the event. The protest, which took place on November 26, called for the abolishing of military trials for civilians in the new constitution which Egypt is to vote on later this month.

The protest was violently dispersed by the police roughly half an hour after it began. Police detained 11 women, most of them members of the No to Military Trials group, and 24 men. The women, all of whom were beaten and some of whom were sexually harassed while being detained, remained in custody for a few hours. They were then forced to ride a police car and thrown in the desert sometime after midnight. The men were detained for a week and are now released (except for one, Ahmed Abdel Rahman) pending investigation. Alaa was detained after police stormed his house two days later and accused him of organizing the protest. This allegation came despite the fact that Alaa waited outside the police station where his sister was detained on November 26 all evening until she was picked up by friends after police threw her and her colleagues in the desert. Although both Alaa and Ahmed Abdel Rahman have been detained for over a month pending investigation, no court date has been assigned yet for the case.

The suspended sentence should allow the activists to serve a period of probation, rather than jail time, on the condition that they abide by the law during this period.

These are not the only two cases currently in progress against prominent activists in Egypt. Ahmed Maher, Ahmed Douma, and Mohamed Adel have all recently been given a hefty 3-year-sentence with hard labor in another case, in which they were also accused of organizing a protest without permit. Maher is the founder of the April 6 Youth group, and Adel is the group’s spokesperson. The three activists have also been each fined EGP 50,000 ($7,000) each, and would be put on probation for another three years if found guilty. The activists have appealed the sentence, but they currently remain in prison.

In Alexandria, long-time activists Mahinour El Masri and Hassan Mostafa, along with four others, were convicted of organizing a protest without permit, and were given two-year prison sentences and a fine of EGP 50,000 ($7,000) each. Hassan Mostafa had just been released from jail in November after the public prosecutor suspended a one-year-sentence he received for slapping a prosecutor while filing a complaint for torturing detainees.

Activists in Egypt believe these cases and others are merely political in nature, and meant to keep prominent activists behind bars while intimidating others to keep them away from the political process. The government passed the Protest Law in November claiming it was necessary to control the chaos created mostly by Muslim Brotherhood sympathizers in clashes with security forces that often turned violent. Since it has been put in effect however, the law has been used to crack down on all kinds of opposition, including peaceful protesters, and individuals and groups that have been closely associated with the January 25 revolution and its aftermath.

January 09 2014

Prison Flees: Reflections on Alaa, Activism, and Community

Adapted from Alaa’s own Twitter icon by Hugh D’Andrade. Free for reuse.

Adapted from Alaa’s own Twitter icon by Hugh D’Andrade. Free for reuse.

By Lina Attalah, Chief Editor, Mada Masr.

He has two hours of fresh air and 22 hours of cell air.

He discusses the constitution draft with other inmates from across the wall of his cell.

And then he reads. He mostly reads.

He is not receiving letters this time. Letters are barred.

But he is receiving books. Some books, not everything. Some are novels. Others are comics. And others are social theory.

He reads both comics and theory because he believes that we are both plumbers and philosophers; we, the children of precarity, of mischief, of bold adventures and of impossible dreams. We work and work and work on bits and pieces and then sit back and reflect on the whole that our work is gazing at. And sometimes we write about it.

When the revolution broke out and everyone celebrated the kids that came out of the Internet, Alaa, who had tirelessly spent years on the forefront of organizing online activism, reminded us how our encounter with technology became a way of living. Everyone celebrated the Facebook, the Twitter and the Blogosphere. Alaa was thinking of the community and the way in which activism was changing and differing from what he had heard about from his folks and from tales of the 1960s and 1970s.

Alaa rose to fame with the hype of the Egyptian blogosphere in the beginning of the millennia, the stars of which have been mostly young middle-class Egyptians. He believed in this new wave of activism and created with Manal, his partner, the famous Omraneya aggregator, which collected and archived blog entries and which was at times the house of alternative expression and at others the amplifier of muted voices. He often reminded us how at the same time that he and others were blogging in the heart of our cities, the youth of our slums scrambled to buy locally assembled computers. This all happened while the government announced the forming of colossal partnerships, promising to provide a laptop for every child in the context of some grand 2010 scheme. He also reminded us how bandwidth was already being shared by hundreds and supporting the livelihoods of dozens in the countryside and the slums every day, while it took years for the government and its service providers to promise connectivity for all.

While he spent years building websites around causes and campaigns and developing Arabization tools to make that sea of knowledge accessible, he sat back and observed how our social and political work is evolving on a multiplicity of levels: organization, the production of narrative, and ambition. He would talk about this evolution, and eventually write about it, but most importantly, he was actively thinking of how Internet tools should serve these changes.

When we set out to create Mada, which we commonly describe as a product of crisis and inevitability, Alaa and Manal naturally became our technology partners. When they sat with us to brainstorm on the website we would build, they made us think about the different ways we want to tell our stories, at a time when a mainstream narrative is dominating the news from Egypt. Being both techies and tellers, they made us think of technology as more than a sheer logistical tool, and more of a vehicle of possibility. For us, web development became less of a list of technical requests but more a process of carving out a space for expression, where prose would unfold in performance, and so would the visual narration, and other unknown forms of storytelling.

What happens when you confiscate a computer from a kid for whom technology has become a trigger for thinking, an entry point to philosophy, to a new and emerging social theory?

This is not theory crafted by academics or theorists, but rather by the children of precarity, of mischief, of bold adventures and of impossible dreams. And this is theory born out of practise. The computer and the tools are no prison companions. But the thinking is. It is a prison companion for Alaa and also for us, who strive to fetch for his presence in his absence, through written correspondence, memory and imaginary conversations.

In his incarceration, Alaa continues to exist, by reading, by talking, by eventually writing and most importantly, by staying in conversation with us. It takes a leap of faith to be in conversation with a prisoner today. We do it because we are capable of imagining and because his thinking transcends time and space.

In the grandeur of analysis and punditry, we are deemed the losers of the margins today in Egypt’s dazed revolution. But we remain the children of precarity, of mischief, of bold adventures and of impossible dreams. That is so long as we read and write and talk and continue to exist.

This article originally appeared on Mada Masr.

On Alaa, Learning, and the Struggle

Alaa and Manal. Photo by Lilian Wagdy via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Alaa and Manal. Photo by Lilian Wagdy via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Egyptian activist, blogger, and GV Advox friend Alaa Abd El Fattah is currently in prison because of his work as an activist. This essay originally appeared on Jillian C. York's personal blog.

I don’t really remember meeting Alaa. I just remember that, from the first moment I saw him, how obvious his presence was. We were sitting in a room in Budapest talking to a group of academics about something or other, something about activism, and everything they said was wrong, in Alaa’s view. He raised his voice across the table, and I was struck by his boldness.

Sometime a couple of years later, in 2010, we became friends. I know this from the abundance of encrypted chat logs that sit in my email, when we started to talk once or twice a week. This was before the revolution, when he and Manal were living in South Africa. From the snippets I can piece together from memory and those rare unencrypted logs, I recall him admonishing me for not doing enough on X, chiding me gently for not speaking up on Y. One of those blanks was crypto itself. After one of those small but typical annoyances that come from using OTR, he said “OTR is a bit too demanding, but encryption tools typically are.”  I replied, “I need to start getting better about using them.” ”Yep,” was his response, and he was right. He would prove that.

Jillian booking a plane ticket for Alaa and looking exasperated because he didn’t know his passport number. Photo courtesy of Jillian York.

Jillian booking a plane ticket for Alaa and looking exasperated because he didn’t know his passport number. Photo courtesy of Jillian York.

When the revolution started, he was still in South Africa and could still reach his family in Cairo, despite the Internet blackout. I was in freezing Boston, and by virtue of my job at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, I began receiving press calls – the New York Times, NPR, Al Jazeera. I knew how Egyptians had used Facebook and Twitter to organize before, but I couldn’t reach anyone on the ground. Alaa gave me names, including his sister Mona’s, which I in turn gave to press, connecting them with the rare person who still had a means of connecting out. He filled me in, I repeated his analysis to press. He didn’t want to be the center of attention then. He wasn’t there.

And then they went back to Cairo, he and Manal. And a year of requests started pouring in: to speak, to comment on this or that. “I’m going to the Empire,” I remember him telling me about his first visit to New York. And then shortly thereafter, his second trip, where we met amongst friends at Personal Democracy Forum and drank a little too much and plotted. Later that year we saw each other again in Tunis for the second Arabloggers meeting; Manal was quite pregnant and looked beautiful, and at one point I’m pretty sure they both did a session still wearing their swimsuits. It was a happy, optimistic time. And at some point, sitting on a couch in the lobby, I convinced Alaa to come to San Francisco for RightsCon. He would stay on my couch, and they could send anything they wanted to my house.

For nearly a week before he arrived, I would come home each day to find another enormous package from Amazon. There was a stroller (“all-terrain 4WD” as we later joked), countless books, and a few pretty cool toys that we definitely played with before Khaled did. The story of what happens next is known: When Alaa arrived, he already knew what would happen when he went home. He gave an incredible talk, went to the Occupy protests in Oakland, and hung out with my friends.  Then he got on a plane and went straight to prison. Do not collect, do not pass go.

Alaa with Khaled. Photo by Rasha Abdulla, used with permission.

Alaa with Khaled. Photo by Rasha Abdulla, used with permission.

I visited Cairo for the first time not long after Khaled was born. He was tiny, fragile, and I stood helpless while Manal bathed him, already so obviously a mother. This was the height of autotune in Cairo and at some point after midnight, parents delirious from the beautiful lack of sleep that comes with having a newborn, we recorded Khaled’s cries and ran them through autotune, stifling manic laughter so as not to wake the baby.

The last time I saw Alaa was in Cairo. He picked me up across town at my hotel, and we sat in crazy Cairene traffic for three hours, the first time I’d ever seen him drive. I had brought a tricycle for Khaled and a fresh EFF shirt for Alaa at his request, and when we arrived Manal and I caught up while Alaa put the thing together, scrambling for its plastic parts. Later, the three of us went out with some of their friends. I listened quietly while they talked politics and revolution. Manal kept chiding them to speak English, Alaa remarked that by now I should be able to understand. I did, only a few words getting lost here and there. We drank tea until it got cold and they drove me back to Heliopolis.

These friendships come in fragments, but they are sometimes the best we have. And in this case, despite the fact the he is only (and exactly) six months my senior, the friend has also been one of my most important teachers, reminding me to take risks and not being afraid to tell me when I’m not going far enough, not doing enough. Chatting recently with another friend, who suggested that perhaps surrounding myself with perfectionists and radicals has damaged my own thought processes a little, I relented, but when I think about all that I have learned and all that I have been taught, I have no regrets.

I’ve said it to reporters so many times that it’s almost lost its meaning, but I’ll say it again: Alaa is in prison not because he committed a crime, not because he said too much, but because his very existence poses a threat to the state. Those who are bold, those who do not relent, will always threaten the terrified and ultimately weak state which must, to survive, squash its opponents like flies. But Alaa will not allow himself to be crushed like that, I know.

There is little more I can say that hasn’t been or wouldn’t be better said by Egyptians, those who fought these battles on the street while I merely watched, an observer with a few good friends on the ground.  But the one thing I know is that we must not give up.  Alaa hasn’t, and we cannot.

Inspired by Omar Robert Hamilton and Alia MossallamBelal Fadl, and Lina Attalah who have written their own beautiful pieces about our shared friend.

January 06 2014

Minister Offers $2000 Reward To Unmask Zambian Watchdog Editors

A Zambian government minister has offered a US$2000 reward to anyone who can unmask the identity of people behind independent media website Zambian Watchdog for writing stories and printing pictures alleging infidelity against him.

In a counter-offer, the Zambian Watchdog has offered iPads and other tablets to people with what they call “credible information” on an alleged extra-marital romantic affair of Miles Sampa, Zambia's Junior Minister of Commerce, Trade and Industry. Sampa, a senior member of the ruling Patriotic Front (PF), sued the independent social news website Kachepa 360 (which is no longer available online) for defamation and was awarded US$50,000 in damages by a United States court early last year.

The Minister made his offer after the Zambian Watchdog published a story alleging that he recently travelled to the Northern provincial town of Kasama to dish out money to party cadres to stir trouble after local parliamentarian Geoffrey Bwalya Mwamba announced his resignation as Minister of Defense.

The Watchdog quoted Sampa as saying:

I don’t care whether they are hiding in London or wherever they are. I recently won damages in the United States and I have no qualms about pursuing people that spread falsehoods [in reference to the Watchdog]

Sampa continued his commentary on his Facebook page, insinuating that these news items were a form of “cyber crime”:

I am making an appeal to all upright and noble people. If anyone knows the name and address of a man or woman, local or abroad, that writes or is an agent for Publishers of falsehood or are into character assassination on the Internet or Facebook for political expediency or just for fan [fun], please inbox me those details or text to [number given]

A reward of K10,000(rebased) [Zambia recently rebased her currency by removing three zeroes from it] or $2000 if abroad will be availed to Senders of bonafide details sent.

Full confidentiality is guaranteed to all informers and reward will be via Western Union if not in person. My hobby for 2014 and on behalf of all those who feel they are victims of this cyber crime, is to locate the abusers so they can see the inside of a court room nearest to their physical address anywhere on this planet.

Sampa added:

Those who enjoy defaming other people be it politicians, should be brave enough to validate their stories in court.

The Zambian Watchdog reproduced Sampa’s post on its Facebook page and in its response, stated:

We (Zambian Watchdog) are also appealing to anyone who knows any of Miles Sampa’s current concubines to tell us. You can ‘inbox’ us just here or email to editor@zambiawatchdog

If you send us credible data, we shall send you an Ipad or Kindle for you to continue browsing the Watchdog. But make no mistake, a courier will deliver the Ipad or Kindle to you but you will never know from which direction it came from.

And for you Sampa, take notice that we [are] with you.

Commenting on the Zambian Watchdog Facebook post, Kaluku Musumadi advised Sampa to stay away from the fight with the news website:

This hide and seek (Tom & Jerry) between Miles and the ZW Dog will be getting out of hand. Miles must just learn to ignore such because the more he “pulls his sleeves to clinch a fist,” the dog is also jumping for another bite of him. Learn to ignore certain media nonsense and their attention on you will eventually shift to other hotter subjects.

Several Zambian journalists have in the past been arrested on trumped up charges on suspicion of being linked to the Zambian Watchdog.

 

Related stories, all by Gershom Ndhlovu

Minister Ridiculed Over Website Closure Statement

Another Journalist Arrested in Zambia

Journalist Charged With Sedition in Zambia

Zambia: ISP Faces Backlash Over Blocked News Site

Zambia: VP “Would Celebrate” Shutdown of News Site

Zambia: Minister Threatens Editors of Online Watchdog with Treason Charge

Egypt: The Muppets Intelligence Agency

Look into the beady evil eyes of terrorism, via @SooperMexican

Look into the beady evil eyes of terrorism, via @SooperMexican

On one of Egypt's most famous talk shows, the screen was split in two. A Muppet-like character occupied one side of the screen — on the other side, a menacing teenager threatened to throw the puppet in jail. The show's host moderated the debate between the two, Abla Fahita, the puppet, and Ahmed Spider, the teenage-looking conspiracy theorist.

Such a scene would be fine if the show were a satire, but it is not. Last week, Ahmed Spider made an official complaint against Vodafone Egypt and puppet character Abla Fahita, who appeared in one of their advertisements, accusing them of sending hidden messages to terrorists in the ad. The complaint was subsequently referred to state security prosecutors, who deal with cases involving terrorism and security threats. The prosecutors have since brought officials from Vodafone Egypt in for questioning. The list of suspected spies and terrorist allies in Egypt already includes a pigeon, a stork and a shark – now we can add Abla Fahita the puppet and her daugher, Carolina, aka Carcoura, to the list.

In response to the news, Paul Sedra ‏tweeted:

@sedgate: With the Abla Fahita investigation, #Egypt once again challenges North Korea for the title of most paranoid state on earth.

Many Egyptian netizens could only deal with the news through sarcasm.

@Cairo67Unedited: If anyone from TV calls asking 2 use ur Kitten in their next phone ad #Egypt hang up on them:Next thing u know cat is on trial

Abla Fahita portrayed as a revolutionary Che Guevara -  via @khlud_hafeez

Abla Fahita portrayed as Che Guevara – via @khlud_hafeez

Nevine Zaki mocked Abla Fahita calling her the Che Guevara of our generation.

May Sadek and Pakinam Amer tweeted about the puppet, who now has more than 1 million fans on Facebook, and is no less than a revolutionary figure.

@maysadek: ‘F’ for fahita. Not as strong as ‘V’ for vendetta .. But it'll do the job fine..#ablafahita

@pakinamamer: Abla Fahita should lead the next revolution. She'd be our V. The faceless resistance. #3abath #Surrealism

@MohAnis: Rumor has it that #ablafahita is seeking asylum with the muppet show or sesame street.

Satirical comments kept on drawing laughs on social media.

@_amroali: #Egypt has saved the world from a big terrorist threat not seen since the Muppets tried to take Manhattan #AblaFahita

@HoudaBelabd: #Egypt: Ministry of Interior is actually recording phone calls and Facebook conversations between #AblaFahita & Mickey Mouse!

@anasaltikriti: After the Vodafone puppet fiasco, are there any more sensible people out there who respect the coup government?

@AyaYousry: The #AblaFahita story made it to The Economist under “Silly Season in Egypt

Rumors also suggested that SpongeBob SquarePants may be the next suspect. A question was asked on Google Ejabat wondering whether the cartoon character is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood given the fact it is yellow and has four fingers — just like the banners of Rabia.

Rabia banner, via @Rassd_Now

Raba logo, via @Rassd_Now

Out of the fear of getting arrested for using the Rabia logo as their avatar [after Egypt outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood], some social media users created alternative logos.

Alternative Rabia logos via @nsfadala

Alternative Raba logos via @nsfadala

On a more a serious note, Mohamed ElGohary wondered whether the Egyptian government is using the case as a vehicle for blackmailing Vodafone Egypt:

Earlier in November Bloomberg published that “Telecom Egypt May Buy Vodafone Local Division When 4G Is Offered“. Personally I don't want for this acquiring to happen, since it will decrease/eliminate competition in mobile/4G emerging market .. The million dollar question here, as Vodafone actually wants to buy the government stakes, is this BS accusation a dirty step for blackmailing/forcing Vodafone Egypt to comply to what the government wants?

The Facebook page of Kazeboon published the following image that asks which cases prosecutors investigate and which ones they don't.

Kazeboon wondeing about which cases the prosecutors investigate and which ones they ignore

When human rights organizations call for opening investigations with Vodafone [Ar], after illegal recording for activists are being leaked from the state security, but the general prosecutor ignores them, and only wakes up when Spider calls for investigations with the same company because of Abla Fahita, then it is safe to call Egypt The Muppet Show. (via Kazeboon)

Sarah Carr compared Ahmed Spider to Glenn Beck in her blog post about Abla Fahita's case:

Every country has its Glenn Beck type public figures, the difference in Egypt is that they are taken seriously where it suits the political ambitions of those at the reins and serves a useful purpose. Thus we have the Public Prosecutor accepting a complaint about a finger puppet while nobody has been charged for the deaths of nearly 1,000 people at Rab3a, because the current mood is almost fascistic in its reverence for the state and for state hegemony and for state opponents to be eliminated. If there was a page equivalent to We Are All Khaled Said now it would be Turns Out We Are All Adolf Hitler. Comedy and tragedy often overlap.

Finally, Holly Dagres tweeted:

@PoliticallyAff: Although we're getting a good laugh from Abla Fahita, it shouldn't shift our focus from @Repent11 and rest of imprisoned AJE staff #Egypt

Censorship, Prosecution Drive Exodus of Opinion Leaders from China's Sina Weibo

Screen capture of Sina Weibo message when the user click open a deleted page.

Screen capture of Sina Weibo message when a user opens a deleted page.

Famous law professor at Peking University He Weifang greeted his followers in the new year on Sina Weibo, China's most popular social media platform, with a goodbye message. The professor, who has often been attacked online for his support of constitution rights, is one of many opinion leaders who have fled the microblogging website since China has upped its censorship and prosecution efforts.

He wrote:

【祝新年】各位本微博之友:新年来临之际,谨表达真诚的祝福和感谢!三年里,你们给了我很多鼓励,从评论中我也学到不少新知。美好的交流让我在虚拟空间里寻觅到真实的情感。过去一年里,眼看着一个又一个我熟悉的博主从这里消失,心中不免怅然。于我,是将本微博告一段落的时刻了。再见!

[Wish you well in New Year] I express sincere wishes and thanks to Weibo friends with the coming of the new year! You have given me encouragement and I've learned plenty of new knowledge from your comments. Good communication lets me find true feelings in a virtual space. I've felt upset seeing some familiar accounts gradually disappear throughout the past year. So now it’s the time for me to call it quits with Weibo. Goodbye!

Popular citizen lawyer Yuan Yulai pitied He:

2014第一天,贺卫方说要告别微博。但愿只是一时的情绪宣泄。这年头,没微博,就是哑巴。尽量说些真话,是一种社会责任,同时也是一种生理需要。

Professor He said he plans to leave Weibo on the first day in 2014. I wish it’s just a temporary emotional response. Without Weibo, people would be dumber nowadays. Speaking the truth is a social responsibility and a physical need.

Fan Zhongxin, a law teacher, is also considering quitting Weibo:

【是否该休博?】微博敏感词与日俱增,删帖禁言销号日益严重,很多朋友退出微博,微博一片萧条肃杀,温和改良的声音越来越没有人愿意听。我是否也该退出了!新一年了,也许不该再耗时间在微博上费口舌,对国家和社会该做的且实际有益的事情太多了!

[Is it about time to quit Weibo?] Sensitive words are increasing, meanwhile the phenomena of deletion, censorship and banning user accounts are so common. Many friends have quit Weibo and gone silent. The atmosphere on Weibo is so chilling. Meanwhile, moderate voices and discussion of political transformation have received less and less responses. Should I quit Weibo as well? Facing a new year, maybe I shouldn't spend too much time talking on the platform. There are too many more effective things that I should do for the nation and for society.

China's crackdown on online “rumor-mongering”, widely seen as a movement to suppress criticism of the ruling Communist Party (CCP), has effectively silenced Weibo, with high-profile bloggers reining in sensitive posts for fear of detention. Since the launch of the nationwide campaign in August 2013, hundreds of people have been detained across the country on charges of libel or “inciting trouble” for posting unverified or critical information on Weibo.

In addition, China's top court fueled public fear by publishing a judicial interpretation in September that said users can be prosecuted for posting rumors seen by more than 5,000 people, or forwarded more than 500 times. The main target of the crackdown are liberal public opinion leaders, in particular, citizen right lawyers and activists, whose Weibo accounts have been banned or deleted.

Data by Weiboreach, a firm providing social media data analysis, showed the number of posts by influential microbloggers was on average 11.2 percent lower per day in August than it was earlier in the year.

Below is a list of prominent public opinion leaders who have been prosecuted and harassed in the past few months:

- Xu Zhiyong, an anti-corruption campaigner who has called for officials to disclose their wealth, was arrested in August and his account on Weibo was deleted.

- Wang Gongquan, an outspoken venture capitalist, was taken away by police in September on charges of disturbing public order after he helped lead a campaign for the release of another activist.

- Pu Zhiqiang, a citizen right lawyer, has seen his account in Weibo banned and he has to change his account names to publish posts.

Xu, Pu and Wang are all listed on Foreign Policy’s Global 100 Thinkers of 2013.

- Zhu Ruifeng, one of China's most prominent whistleblowers, discovered that authorities had deleted his four microblog accounts in July after he released a video of a district party chief in the southwestern city of Chongqing having sex with a mistress.

- Liu Hu, an investigative journalist who has accused deputy director of the State Administration for Industry and Commerce of dereliction of duty, was arrested on a charge of defamation in September, and his Weibo account removed.

- Zhang Lifan, a prominent scholar of modern Chinese history and outspoken critic of Mao Zedong, found that all of his microblogs and columns were removed simultaneously without warning or any tip-off on the same day the Third Plenum of the Communist Party ended.

- Zhang Xuezhong, a law associate professor in Shanghai critical of Marxism and excessive political infringement on judiciary, was forced to quit his job and lost his Weibo account.

- Zhang Qianfan, a constitutional law expert at Peking University and one of the leaders of the constitutionalist movement, also found that his account was deleted.

While the ruling party certainly gains an upper hand in the ideological battle, it is also slowly killing Sina Weibo, a tool to build trust among people. Chinese venture capitalist Wang Ran lamented the situation:

和微信上的各种爆料比,微博也快成新闻联播了。

In comparison with breaking news in WeChat, Weibo is turning into Central Television's National News Broadcast Program [party propaganda].

Popular online commentator and Sina Weibo administrator Old Xu proclaimed the coming death of Weibo:

微博成为新闻联播,那就离死不远了!

Weibo would be close to death when it becomes [state-owned] CCTV News!

December 13 2013

Syrian Cartoonist Akram Raslan Reportedly Killed by Regime

Uncertainty continues over the fate of Syrian cartoonist Akram Raslan, winner of the Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning for 2013, arrested in October 2012 by the Assad regime. While some report that he was killed by the Assad regime after a show trial, others claim he is still alive.

The cartoonist was was arrested by the Syrian military intelligence, while he was at the government newspaper Al-Fedaa in Hama, on October 2, 2012. Akram, who is the winner of the Cartoonists Rights Network International (CRNI) Award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning for 2013, was reportedly secretly put on trial with no witnesses, no defense attorneys, no appeal, and no hope for justice.

We've learned that on July 26, 2013 Akram Raslan and other prisoners of conscience including journalists, artists, singers and other intellectuals were secretly put on trial with no witnesses, no defense attorneys, no appeal, and no hope for justice.  From unconfirmed and sketchy reports we also learned that they were all condemned to life imprisonment.

StJustAkram

Assembly and demonstration by world cartoonists in support of Akram Raslan
05.10.2013, in St Just Le Martel (France). Source: Cartooning for Peace

Other cartoon blogs like Comic box resources blog, Cartoon for Peace, The CAGLE Post and The Daily Cartoonist also quoted the CRNI news and showed concerns over Akram's destiny. One of the comments reads:

Akram, you and your family are in our prayers….Assad you and your ilk are….. !@#$%^&*

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Source: Facebook page [ar] Detainees and kidnapped are not just numbers in reports. Used under CC BY 2.0

On October 18, 2013, Redac_MM wrote: A Brave Cartoonist is Murdered by the Syrian Regime

I am saddened to write that Cartoonists Rights Network reports that Syrian cartoonist Akram Raslan has been executed by the Syrian regime after a show trial.

While Syrian Observer quoted a stronger message: Here There Be Dragons: in Syria Akram Raslan is slain:

Tyrants might be able to fight off criticism or an insurrection or even assassination attempt with truncheons, bullets and terror.  But where do they turn their guns to stop their people from laughing at them?  Can there be any more efficient, more powerful, and cost-effective way of empowering a people than dispelling their fears with a courageous cartoon on its way to letting them laugh through their fear? 

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One of Akram's cartoons that outraged Assad regime. Source: Blog Cartoon Movement. Used under CC BY 2.0

On Twitter, Rime Allaf writes:

On Facebook, Alisar Iram shows solidarity:

Akram Raslan, dead or alive, we remember and cherish you.

While the Syrian Observer concludes with regret and hope at the same time:

I am sorry I couldn't reach down into the pit and drag you out Akram. Please forgive me. Perhaps your sacrifice will motivate us to look again into the mirror, and ask again where we straddle the line between fear and courage and challenge us, again, to take a new first step.

Non-Violent Activist Razan Zaitouneh Kidnapped in Syria

(photo source: Metro, 2012)

(photo source: Metro, 2012)

Four activists, among them internationally acclaimed non-violent activist Razan Zaitouneh, from Syria's Violations Documentation Center (VDC) were kidnapped by unidentified masked gunmen from the center's Douma office on the outskirts of Damascus, the Syrian capital, reported Activist News Association.

Zaitouneh, along with her team made up of Nazem al-Hamadi, Sameera Alkhalil and Wael Hamadah, were abducted on December 9, with no news of their whereabouts, sparking an international outcry.

Following their abduction, Douma's local committee issued a statement condemning the act, adding that the ransacking of the VDC office too was shameful and likened it to the work of Assad's regime [Arabic]:

(photo source: Douma Local Committee Facebook page)

(Photo source: Douma Local Committee Facebook page)

The statement reads [ar]:

Douma woke up today [Tuesday, December 10, 2013] to the news of an attack on the Violations Documentation Center (VDC) in Syria and the arrest of activist Razan Zaitouneh and her team, who have exerted their efforts in the support of this revolution and who have previously been arrested by the oppressive regime more than once. They have lived with us during our seige, stemming from the belief and true work is conducted from the battle ground and not on the pages of the Internet. We, in the local city council, condemn this cowardly act, which is similar to that of the regime, and call upon all the military groups and revolutionary forces to follow up on this case, which is a stain of shame on Free Douma.

On their behalf, Syria's Local Coordinators Committee, founded by Zaitouneh, demanded the release of all four activists and asked all human rights advocates to join the LCC's campaign. They also said that the abducted activists were highly inspired by Mandela, who recently passed away, adding that:

At a time when the world is mourning the death of Nelson Mandela, we must remember that there are other Mandelas around the world. These activists were inspired and informed by Mr. Mandela’s work, and were promoting concepts of nonviolence and civil resistance in Syria even at a time when the regime has violated every possible tenet of human rights. Failure to call for their release is tantamount to failing in all that Human Rights defenders stand for in the call against tyranny.

According to a decree issued by Eastern Ghouta civic agencies, Zaitouneh received several threats prior to her kidnapping by both the regime and extremist insurgents while working in the Damascene district.

In a Facebook post, writer Yassin Al Haj Saleh, Alkhalil's husband, said their abduction is an insult to Syria and its revolution. He also asked those who can help to do so quickly.

سميرة الخليل (زوجتي) ورزان زيتونة ووائل حمادة وناظم حمادي معتقلين من البارحة بدوما.
الرجاء ممن يستطيع المساعدة أن يتصرف بسرعة.
اعتقال سميرة ورزان ووائل وناظم إهانة للثورة ولسورية.

Sameera Al-Khalil (my wife), along with Razan Zaitouneh, Wael Hamadah and Nazem al-Hamadi have been arrested since last night in Douma. Whoever can help, please take action soon. Arresting Sameera, Razan, Wael and Nazem is an insult to the revolution and to Syria.

Twitter users, too, began mobilizing a virtual campaign demanding the release of Zaitouneh and her colleagues. United States-based Syrian activist Rafif Jouejati marked their abduction as an indicator of humanity's death:

She also urged the global community to act as being silent is harmful to the cause:

Bahraini activist Maryam Alkhawaja remarked that the least the global community can do to help such a remarkable person is to collectively raise awareness on the act:

Executive Director of the Syrian Nonviolence Movement Ibrahim al-Assil added that Zaitouneh is a true revolutionary:

BBC Reporter Kim Ghattas said that Zaitouneh's kidnapping is a terrible blow to what's left of Syria's secular opposition:

Zaitouneh's accomplishments are nothing short of daring and courageous. She was awarded the 2011 Anna Politkovskaya award; the 2011 Sakharov Prize; and the 2013 International Women of Courage Award.

Her most recent work includes being among the first on site in the August 21 chemical weapon's attack on Ghouta, as Foreign Policy Middle East Editor David Kenner noted:

Amnesty International UK Campaigns Manager Kristyan Benedict remarked that their kidnapping happens to coincide with Human Rights Day:

Zaitouneh's work along with her abducted colleagues helped Syrians document their losses and grievances along the country's course of havoc since 2011. The VDC keeps a tremendous track of those abducted and always calls for their immediate release. Their work and contributions are essential not only to the revolution but also Syria's future. Their abduction harms every hopeful and positive aspect in today's misshaped Syria.

December 03 2013

UN Experts Condemn Detention of Vietnamese Blogger Le Quoc Quan

wpid-le_quoc_quanA UN group of human rights experts has found that the detention of Vietnamese blogger and human rights defender Le Quoc Quan stands in violation of his right to freedom of expression and a fair trial. Le Quoc Quan was arrested in December 2012 on trumped-up charges of tax evasion, which were aimed at preventing him from carrying out his legitimate human rights work. Following his arrest, he was held incommunicado and denied permission to see his lawyer for two months. He was also unable to see any of his family members until the day of his trial.

In October of this year, Quan was convicted and sentenced to 30 months imprisonment and a fine of 1.2 billion dong (approximately USD 59,000). Quan appealed this decision, but a trial date has not yet been set.

The UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, which is set up under the UN Human Rights Council, said that Quan’s detention might be “the result of his peaceful exercise of the rights and freedoms guaranteed under international human rights law” and “related to his blog articles on civil and political rights.” The Working Group statement continued:

Given Mr. Quan’s history as a human rights defender and blogger, the real purpose of the detention and prosecution might eventually be to punish him for exercising his rights under article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and to deter others from doing so.

The Working Group called for Mr Quan’s immediate release and also recommended that he be paid damages for his arbitrary detention. The group’s decision follows a petition filed in March 2013 by the Media Legal Defence Initiative and a coalition of human rights NGOs.

Mr Quan has long been persecuted by the Vietnamese government for his activities as a blogger and human rights defender. He has been detained several times, kept under state surveillance and also suffered physical attacks. The UN Working Group’s decision is clear confirmation that Le Quoc Quan’s detention for having merely exercised his rights to freedom expression, freedom of association and his rights as a human rights defender is unjustified and illegitimate. With international pressure on Vietnam mounting, calling for Quan’s release, rights advocates hope that the government of Vietnam will remedy the situation as soon as possible.

November 29 2013

Egyptian Activist Alaa Abd El Fattah Arrested — Again

Alaa Abd El Fattah. Photo by Alaa And El Fattah via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Alaa Abd El Fattah. Photo by Alaa And El Fattah via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 2.5)

Prominent Egyptian activist and blogger Alaa Abd El Fattah was arrested in his home at approximately 10pm on Thursday, November 28. An arrest warrant was issued for Abd El Fattah this past Tuesday, following violent dispersal of protestors in Cairo. The blogger's father told local media he believed the arrest was made under a new law effectively banning street protest in Egypt. At least 51 people were arrested that day, among them several prominent activists. Many were beaten and sexually harrassed.

Alaa was taken by police despite having declared that he'd deliver himself to the police on Saturday, according to a statement he made and that his aunt, renowned Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif, posted on Facebook.

According to his wife, Manal, police used violent force when the arrest took place:

There is no known explanation of why the arrest took place today, given that Alaa had publicly stated that he would turn himself on Saturday.

Human Watch Egypt director Heba Morayef linked his arrest with the anti-protest law, drafted earlier this week:

Hesham Mansour offered his own ironic response:

Don't ask what Egypt has done for us. Ask how many times did Egypt arrest Alaa

Activist Mona Seif, Alaa's sister, informed her followers of her brother's detention location:

We are now sure that Alaa is being held in the CSF barracks in giza, on the Cairo – Alexandria desert road

Alaa Abd El Fattah was jailed under Hosni Mubarak's regime for 45 days and again by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces in 2011, when he remained in jail for almost two months. He also faced charges under Mohamed Morsi's government in 2013, along with popular satirist Bassem Youssef, in what many perceived to be politically motivated charges used as an intimidation tactic. Each time, the #FreeAlaa hashtag has resurfaced to show solidarity. It seems that this is back on track.

November 06 2013

Documenting Violence on Video in Western Sahara

Dakhla, Western Sahara. Photo by Yo TuT via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

Dakhla, Western Sahara. Billboard in foreground features a photograph of Moroccan King Mohammed VI. Photo by Yo TuT via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)

By Madeleine Bair and Sidahmed Tfeil

Recent video footage from Western Sahara has captured the deadly nature of political violence in the region. In a territorial and ethnic conflict that has taken various turns since the former Spanish colony was annexed by neighboring Morocco in 1975, separatist protesters are demanding that Morocco recognize the sovereignty of Western Sahara, which the UN defines as a non-self-governing territory.

Morocco claims that Western Sahara is an integral part of the Moroccan kingdom and accuses the Sahrawi separatist movement of being a puppet used by neighboring Algeria.

The conflict concerning Western Sahara is the last item on the agenda of the UN’s Decolonization Committee. It is largely under the jurisdiction of the Moroccan government, which has been accused by separatists of systematically marginalizing and mistreating people in the region, particularly those involved in the Sahrawi separatist movement. Human Rights Watch has called for human rights monitoring in all areas of Western Sahara — those controlled by Morocco and those under Sahrawi leadership.

In recent years, separatist demonstrators and human rights defenders have documented police abuses during periods of protest. A series of videos that recently emerged from the area tell the story of a young protester who activists say was killed by Moroccan forces while calling for the autonomy of Western Sahara.

The video above shows a September 23 protest in the city of Assa. The figure of 20-year-old activist Shin Rashid is circled so that viewers can see where he stood when a vehicle pulled up to the protest quickly before taking off. When the filmer and others approach Rashid, he is bleeding from a rubber bullet wound. According to the uploader and various reports, Rashid died from a rubber bullet wound. In a video apparently taken later that day, Rashid’s mother tells the cameraman her son had been protesting with friends. In her hands, she holds rubber bullets she says were used to kill her son. She calls on the international community to join her in calling for an independent investigation of the conduct of Moroccan authorities, whom she believes are responsible for her son’s death.

Shin Rashid was killed just weeks before UN envoy Christopher Ross visited Western Sahara in an attempt to resolve its long-disputed status. During Ross's visit, demonstrators surrounded a UN vehicle to draw attention to human rights violations and restrictions on free association and expression. Yet even then, authorities reportedly used violence to break up the demonstrations, resulting in several injured civilians, such as this man filmed in a hospital.

Western Sahara is a dangerous place for those filming protests. In practice, the Moroccan government restricts reports that would support or even document the independence movement or criticize King Mohammed VI of Morocco. Because of that risk, those who film social movements do not dare upload them to their own YouTube accounts, but rather send them to third parties, such as Al Khayma Press, Assa Presse and Equipe Media, which often operate outside of the Western Sahara or Morocco.

UN Envoy Ross presented his report to the Security Council a week ago and announced that he would return to the region soon to conduct separate bilateral talks with Morocco and the Polisario Front (which is recognized by the UN to represent the Sahrawi separatist movement).

 

***

Madeleine Bair is the curator of the Human Rights Channel, a project of the international human rights organization WITNESS. The Human Rights Channel curates and contextualizes verified video by citizens and activists around the world.

A version of this blog post originally appeared on WITNESS’ blog here.

October 16 2013

Ethiopian Journalists Challenge Anti-Terrorism Law

Ethiopian veteran journalist and blogger Eskinder Nega and online journalist Reeyot Alemu have filed a complaint against Ethiopia at the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, challenging the country’s abuse of its anti-terrorism law to suppress free speech. Both were convicted under Ethiopia’s notorious 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation for asking critical questions about government policies — simply put, for doing their job as journalists. Mr. Nega is currently serving an 18-year prison term and Ms. Alemu one of 5 years. Their cases are but two of many more that have been brought under the guise of “combatting terrorism” in the country.

Eskinder Nega and his wife Serkalim Fasil

Eskinder Nega and his wife Serkalim Fasil. Photo used with permission of owner.

Ethiopia is one of many countries that has adopted anti-terrorism laws modeled after expansive legislation that specifically targets United States policy. Hundreds of journalists and other dissenting voices in the country have been prosecuted under the Anti-Terrorism Proclamation since it entered into force in 2009. With its overly broad provisions, which even explicitly make practising journalism a crime, it has been employed as an effective tool of oppression in a context that wasn’t conducive to a free press to begin with.

Reporters Without Borders ranked Ethiopia 137th out of 179 states in its 2013 World Press Freedom Index, 10 places lower than its 2012 ranking. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more journalists fled into exile from Ethiopia in 2011 than from any other country worldwide and between 2008 and 2013, a total of 45 journalists went into exile from the country. Journalists and opposition political party members face frequent harassment, particularly when their coverage is critical of the government. Self-censorship is a routine consequence of the situation.

Two of the journalists prosecuted under the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation are Eskinder Nega and Reeyot Alemu. For Mr. Nega, the founder of many independent publications in Ethiopia, all of which have now been shut down, this is the eighth time authorities are persecuting him because of his work. Together with Ms. Alemu, a political columnist for the now-banned independent newspaper Feteh and a regular contributor to the online news outlet Ethiopian Review, he is now challenging the legislation on which he previously wrote critical opinion pieces where he questioned the way the law was being used to jail journalists.

Reeyot Alemu

Reeyot Alemu. Photo used with permission of owner.

Their petition asks the African Commission to refer the case to the African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights, which could issue a binding ruling against the Ethiopian government. This is necessary, they argue, because their case is merely an example of the many more journalists, activists and political opponents who are being prosecuted as “terrorists”. Under the African Charter, the Commission has the power to refer matters to the Court that concern a “serious or massive violation” of human rights. The complaint of Mr. Nega and Ms. Alemu sets out that the systematic prosecution of those critical of the government constitutes exactly that.

Their decision to challenge the Ethiopian government is a very brave one. Since their imprisonment, both journalists have suffered repercussions for speaking out on their situation and those of others. Mr Nega and Ms. Alemu have both been denied visitation rights on a frequent basis and Ms. Alemu has been threatened with solitary confinement.

Mr. Nega and Ms. Alemu are represented before the African Commission by Nani Jansen of the Media Legal Defence Initiative, Patrick Griffith of Freedom Now and Korieh Duodu of Lincolns Inn. The next upcoming session of the African Commission will take place in Banjul, The Gambia from 22 October – 5 November 2013.

July 09 2013

Advocates Keep Spotlight on Le Quoc Quan

On July 9, 2013, the trial of Le Quoc Quan, one of Vietnam’s most active human rights defenders and an outspoken blogger, was supposed to take place in Hanoi. But Vietnamese authorities at the last minute decided to postpone his trial until further notice. This is the latest in a string of fair trial violations that have been committed towards the activist since his arrest last year.

Quan exposed human rights abuses commonly ignored by Vietnamese state media on his blog. Prior to being disbarred from practising law in 2007, he defended human rights cases in court. Because of his work, Quan has been repeatedly harassed by State authorities. He was detained for 100 days in 2007, kept under State surveillance and attacked by men near his home in August 2012, when he was beaten with a steel baton. His family members have been targeted with legal action as well.

Photo by ASM (thảo luận). (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Photo by ASM (thảo luận). (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Quan was arrested on 27 December 2012 and charged with “tax evasion”, a fabricated charge sometimes used by the Vietnamese government to clamp down on those who oppose them. After his arrest, now more than five months ago, Quan has largely been held incommunicado. He has been denied access to his family and was allowed to see his lawyer only once, briefly, during a police interrogation. During the first 15 days of his detention, Quan was on hunger strike. Quan’s detention was extended without the notification required under Vietnamese law when the initial four-month period allowed for investigation had concluded. While Quan has been allowed the occasional visit from his lawyer since last month, he is still denied visits from family members.

The prosecution of Quan fits into a wider pattern of oppression of free speech in Vietnam. The World Press Freedom Index 2013 ranks Vietnam among the ten worst countries when it comes to respect for press freedom: At least 31 citizen journalists and 2 journalists working for traditional media organizations are currently jailed in the country. Among those imprisoned are bloggers Nguyen Van Hai (popularly known by his pen name “Dieu Cay”), Tạ Phong Tan and Phan Thanh Hai, whose appeal against their conviction for “conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam” was rejected in December last year. Eight of the fourteen young bloggers convicted in January for “carrying out activities aimed at overthrowing the people’s administration” appealed their sentences – their convictions were upheld on 23 May, though Paulus Le Son’s sentence was reduced from 13 to four years in prison.

If Quan’s eventual trial follows the pattern of prosecutions brought against these bloggers and other dissenting voices over the past few years, will last for no more than a day. The court will need very little time to come to its “decision”, on which it is likely to have received instructions beforehand. No independent trial observers will be allowed in the court room and those wanting to show support outside the court house will be kept at a safe distance by the police. Family members and human rights activists will be arrested before they can come near the location of the trial.

Keeping a spotlight on cases such as Quan’s is crucial. In March this year, the Media Legal Defence Initiative led a coalition of human rights NGOs in an appeal to various UN watchdogs to secure the release of Le Quoc Quan. Similar action has been taken by Stanford Law School’s Allan Weiner on behalf of the fourteen bloggers. Formal action is still pending, but in the meantime it is important that a watchful eye is kept on developments on these legal processes as they unfold. Along with civil society, Vietnam's donors should continue holding the government to account for these prosecutions, which are in flagrant violation of Vietnam's obligations under international human rights law.

 

Nani Jansen is Senior Legal Counsel at the Media Legal Defence Initiative (MLDI). 

May 23 2013

14-year-old Citizen Journalist Killed Covering Clashes in Syria

Omar Qatifaan, a 14-year-old media activist, was killed 21 May, 2013 while covering clashes between the Syrian Army and the rebel Free Army in the southern Daraa al-Ballad area of Syria near the border with Jordan.

Youth media project Syrian Documents reported on his death, and Syrian news blog YALLA SOURIYA called him the “Spirit of Syria”.

The conflict in Syria, as well as other Arab Spring uprisings, has seen a rise in citizen journalists reporting from the ground on the ongoing war between the country's pro- and anti-government forces. Many have been detained, tortured, and even killed while trying to bring the story of the revolution to the world.

Children have also paid a terrible price during the conflict, with thousands killed during the violence so far.

Media activist Omar was 14 year when he was killed while covering a battle in Daraa, Syria. Source: Twitter account of ‏@RevolutionSyria

Media activist Omar Qatifaan was 14-years-old when he was killed while covering a battle in Daraa, Syria. Photo from the Twitter account of ‏@RevolutionSyria

Another media activist recorded video of Qatifaan after he was killed. The footage was posted on YouTube by SyrianDaysOfRage [GRAPHIC VIDEO]:

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