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Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

Category: Alexandra Sandels

SYRIA: Anti-government activist describes life in Baniyas

Ahmad, a Syrian university student and pro-democracy demonstrator, is optimistic that the regime of President Bashar Assad cannot sustain its ferocious crackdown on protesters for much longer.

“Perhaps one or two months,” he told Babylon & Beyond in an interview in neighboring Lebanon, where he recently arrived with the help of smugglers. “The international sanctions are hitting and the internal situation is very bad. In my area and in other places people are not paying their electricity and water bills anymore -- let alone taxes -- because they started to despise the regime. People are only buying food and necessities."

Ahmad, who did not want to give his last name, is from Baniyas, the Syrian coastal city that became a protest hub before coming under siege by the Syrian army and security forces in May. Large protests haven't been reported there since.

Ahmad says he participated in protests from the start and became involved in a Syrian activist group that documents the uprising against Assad. He often spoke to Arab and international media, including the Los Angeles Times, about the situation on the ground during the upheavals. It didn't take long before his name ended up on the Syrian authorities’ black list of activists.

"They started listening to my phone from the beginning. My family had to flee the city and I haven’t seen them in six months. I can’t talk to them. I have a friend in Damascus whom I spoke to once on the phone. They took him and held him for two months."

Before the army and security forces started cracking down on demonstrators months ago, Ahmad said,  protesters did not call for the downfall of the regime. In the first week, protesters complained about sporadic and expensive electricity and wanted a corrupt local government official fired, he said. Then demonstrators called for prisoners to be freed.

The violence had not begun yet but security forces were trying to impose an economic siege as protests gained strength in Baniyas; the forces banned the entrance of various goods and necessities into the city, according to Ahmad's account. Then phones and electricity were cut late one night, prompting residents to fear that something bad was coming.

Ahmad recalls groups of people standing in the city streets that night, nervously talking to each other.

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SYRIA: Cartoonist beaten, Human Rights Watch disputes Assad pledge

Syrian-cartoonist-Ali-Fer-007-1 Activists say killings and arrests are continuing across Syria despite President Bashar Assad's pledge last week to end military operations against protest strongholds.

At least 12 people were killed across the country between Wednesday afternoon and early Thursday, according to the Local Coordination Committees, a network of Syrian opposition activists. Additionally, Syria's army conducted raids on Thursday in the town of Bokamal on the Iraq border, activists said.

In the capital, Damascus, attackers abducted and beat a prominent Syrian cartoonist, who was found bleeding along the city's airport road. A photo released by activists after the attack showed cartoonist Ali Ferzat, 60, in a hospital bed, with his head and both hands swathed in bandages.

Activists blamed government security forces and pro-regime men known as shabiha.

The cartoonist, one of the best-known in the Middle East, had become increasingly critical of the Syrian regime and had begun addressing the uprising against Assad in his drawings. One of his recent cartoons depicts Assad painting railway tracks to escape from a train approaching him at fast pace.

Several Facebook groups sprang up Thursday in solidarity with the artist.

Also Thursday, U.S.-based Human Rights Watch released a new report on Syria called "Setting the Record Straight.'' The report challenges the Syrian regime's accounts of the current state of the crackdown.

The organization sought to debunk the impression that the Syrian authorities have ended the military crackdown since Aug. 17, when Assad pledged to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon that "military and policing operations had stopped.”

The report claimed that at least 49 people have been killed in operations across Syria since that phone call.

"That same day, and in the days that followed, Syrian forces attacked peaceful protesters in Homs, Latakia, towns in the governorate of Daraa, and suburbs of Damascus," said the report. "On August 19 alone, 31 protesters were killed by Syrian security forces, including 3 children, according to local activists."

The report also explored the "myth" that Syrian troops need to use lethal force to put down armed groups, saying that only a small number of demonstrators have used force and that there is no real organized armed opposition.

The Syrian government has insisted throughout the uprising against Assad, now in its fifth month, that it is fighting obscure armed groups.

A report by Syria's state-run SANA news agency alleged that seven members of the army were killed in ambushes by "armed terrorist groups" in areas near Homs on Wednesday.

The Syrian government says hundreds of army and security personnel have been killed by armed gangs over the last months. Human Rights Watch says "there are credible accounts" that those Syrian troops were killed by other members of the security forces.

"Security force members who defected have told Human Rights Watch of cases in which soldiers who defected or refused to take up arms were shot by officers, for example. The Syrian government has not published a list of dead security forces, while anti-government activists have compiled a list of 394 security members killed," said the report.

-- Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Photo: Prominent Syrian cartoonist Ali Ferzat at his Damascus gallery. Activists say he was kidnapped, beaten up, and dumped on a road by Syrian security forces on Thursday. Credit: Khaled Hariri / Reuters



SYRIA: Spirits (and shoes) high among protesters [Video]

Picture 6

The demonstrators hold their shoes aloft amid loud shouts of "Bye, bye, Bashar!" taunting embattled Syrian ruler Bashar Assad with their footwear in what is considered a grave insult in the Arab world.

Protesters in the Inshaat neighborhood in Syria's central city of Homs were in high spirits during Friday's nationwide "Promise of victory" rallies despite the regime's continued violent crackdown on anti-government protesters, according to the video below purportedly captured on Friday.


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TUNISIA: Court sentences 25 relatives of Ben Ali and his wife to prison

-1 When the 23-year reign of ex-Tunisian President Zine el Abidine ben Ali crumbled this year after nationwide popular protests that forced him into exile on Jan. 14, dozens of his relatives and those of his wife, Leila Trabelsi, rushed to the Tunis airport on the same night to try to flee the country--allegedly with pockets stashed with cash and jewels.

Most of them didn't get far though, partly because one pilot is said to have refused to take off after he found out that members of the group were among the passengers.

Their escape plan had apparently also been foiled by the Tunisian police. Earlier this week, a Tunisian police colonel claimed he and a group of police officers caught 22 of the group on a bus driving them to a private plane on the airport tarmac, reported Agence-France Presse.

Ben Ali and Trabelsi managed to leave, however, and were granted refuge in Saudi Arabia.

On Friday, a Tunis court sentenced 25 relatives of Ben Ali and his wife to prison terms in the so-called "Tunis-Carthage Airport Case" with jail sentences ranging from a couple of months to six years and fines totaling 200 million Tunisian dinars ($140 million) for illegally trying to escape the country with money and jewelry, according to the official Tunisian news agency TAP.

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IRAN: Tehran names street for late U.S. activist Rachel Corrie

Pg-27-rachel-corrie_335079tIran has decided to name a street in honor of Rachel Corrie, an American pro-Palestinian activist who was killed while protesting against the demolition of Palestinian homes in the Gaza strip eight years ago. It's the first time since Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979 that an Iranian street has been named after an American.

On Thursday, an article published in the Iranian newspaper Hamshari, a daily close to the Tehran city council and the mayor of the capital, said the council will name a street in Tehran after Corrie, a 23-year old Olympia, Wash., native who was killed by an Israeli military bulldozer in 2003 when she tried to prevent the Israeli Defense Forces from tearing down a Palestinian home.

The report said the street sign would be put up in central Tehran, but it was not immediately clear when that would happen. 

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SYRIA: Activist killed about every hour over 11 days in crackdown

Picture 4

At least one person has been killed by security forces in Syria about every hour during the first 11 days of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, according to new statistics by an activist group, the Local Coordinating Committees. 

The Syrian regime appears to be sticking to its guns and tanks, hammering away at its opponents across the country during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan in a continued bloody crackdown of anti-government protesters, despite a torrent of regional and international criticism.

On Thursday, Syrian activist reports said Syrian army units along with pro-government enforcers stormed two opposition hot spots in the country ahead of anticipated nationwide anti-government rallies Friday.

They reportedly killed several people. Ramadan has been a bloody month in Syria so far with 257 Syrians killed by the army and security forces across the country, according to the Local Coordinating Committees.

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IRAN: Tehran youths' plan to cool off lands them in hot water


They were just looking to cool off and have a little fun in the middle of Tehran's scorching-hot summer.

Instead, a group of young Iranians got all tangled up with authorities in the Islamic Republic and paraded on Iranian state television for participating in a mass public water pistol fight in a Tehran park, Iranian media reports say.

On Wednesday night, state channel broadcast images of some youth who were arrested at the event on July 29, the Iranian daily Assre-Iran reported.

They said in the program that they had chatted with each other on Facebook and decided to meet at the park -- ironically named Tehran's Water and Fire park -- at that date with water guns, added the report.

The event reportedly attracted about 800 people through a Facebook invitation.

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SYRIA: Video shows armed pro-regime enforcers attacking demonstrators

Picture 4 Dramatic and disturbing video footage from Friday's anti-government protests in Syria against President Bashar Assad, in which Syrian activists say at least 22 people were killed, has emerged on the Internet.

In the clip below, purportedly filmed at a small protest in the southern town of Dara on Friday, a group of people is standing on a road as loud sounds of crackling gunfire are audible in the background.

As the sound of the gunfire intensifies, one young man suddenly falls to ground, apparently hit by a bullet from Assad troops. "He's injured," the cameraman screams as the men in the street hurry to move the wounded person on the ground, apparently bleeding from his head, into safety behind a wall. Then they put him on a motorcycle parked nearby and drive him away.


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JORDAN: Pro-democracy demonstrators show little sign of letup

Story.jordan.prot.feb3.getty After six months of Egypt- and Tunisia-inspired protests, Jordanian pro-democracy demonstrators calling for reforms and a wider public say in politics remain persistent and show little sign of ceding their demands.

Though demonstrations in Jordan have failed to generate the large numbers seen in other Arab countries such as Egypt and Yemen, hundreds and perhaps thousands continue to take to the streets of the Jordanian capital, Amman, in weekly anti-government rallies after Friday prayers to demand reforms.

"It is a consistent peaceful protest that is very stubborn," 29-year old Khaled Kamhawi, a member of the activist group March 24 Youth Movement, told Babylon and Beyond. "There is no compromise. Jordan is a small country suffering from big problems -- all due to political, administrative and financial fraud. The status quo is unsustainable."

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SYRIA: Mass arrests reported ahead of Friday prayers

Syria protester funeral

Troops and militiamen loyal to Syrian leader Bashar Assad appear to be stepping up military operations and mass arrests in a crackdown on anti-regime protesters ahead of Friday prayers, dubbed a day of national unity by organizers.

Syrian activists said Thursday that Assad's troops were shelling neighborhoods in the central city of Homs -- an area where dozens of people reportedly have been killed over the last week-- and that snipers were firing from rooftops.

"The dead and injured inside the houses can still not be reached due to shelling and snipers opening fire on any moving object on the streets," said an activist network, the Local Coordination Committees in Syria.

Mass arrests were also reported in certain neighborhoods of Homs as detentions across the country appear to have intensified.

According to U.S.-based watchdog Human Rights Watch, more than 2,000 people have been arrested in Syria during the past month. They included demonstrators, medical workers who have treated injured protesters, and individuals who allegedly have disseminated information to media organizations, according to new research published by the organization Wednesday.

In total, about 15,000 detainees linked to the four-month-long uprising are in Syrian jails, a representative from the coordination committees told Babylon & Beyond. Tens of thousands more, added the spokesman, have been temporarily detained in the uprising against Assad that began in mid-March.

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SYRIA: More killings reported; artists and intellectuals arrested


Syrian government troops don't appear to be anywhere near halting the crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators.

Only days after a government-sponsored "national dialogue" meeting on reform in Damascus, Syrian security forces killed at least eight people over the course of 24 hours on Wednesday and Thursday and arrested scores, including artists, actors and writers, according to activist accounts.

The Local Coordination Committees in Syria,  a Syrian activist network tracking anti-regime protests, said seven people were killed Wednesday in the nation's  northwestern province of Idlib as Syrian army troops carried out military operations there, while another man was shot dead Thursday in the eastern city of Dair Alzour near the Iraqi border during a protest.

LCCSyria said 7,000 people took to the streets in anti-government rallies in Dair Alzour on Thursday and that shop owners had gone on a general strike in solidarity with the demonstrators.

Meanwhile, the Damascus district of Medan became the scene of violence and chaos on Wednesday night when security forces and pro-regime elements cracked down on a pro-democracy protest by Syrian intellectuals, artists, and actors, arresting several rallygoers, according to eyewitnesses and activist reports.

According to a news alert posted on the website of  the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights,  a London-based group, Syrian security forces arrested 30 of the intellectuals who had signed up for the protest.

Amateur video footage uploaded to the Internet and purportedly filmed at the demonstration showed a prominent presence of security and riot police on the scene. Protesters sang Syria's national anthem, then marched down a street while shouting "the Syrian people is one -- one, one, one."


It didn't take long, however, before security forces intervened and violence erupted.

One eyewitness told The Times that security forces and pro-regime thugs known as Shabiha beat both women and men, some of whom cried out "peaceful, peaceful."

According to LCCSyria, those arrested at the rally include Syrian actress Mai Skaf, the twin movie actors Mohammad and Ahmad Malas, authors Yam Mashhadi and Rima Flaihan, and actor Nidal Hassan.

News of the crackdown on the artists' and intellectuals' demonstration in Damascus soon spread across the country, prompting protesters in some places to take to the streets in solidarity rallies with those arrested.

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LEBANON: Seven Estonian hostages freed after nearly four months in captivity

A case that for months was shrouded in mystery has finally come to an end.

After nearly four months in captivity, seven Estonian cyclists abducted by a group of gunmen as they entered Lebanon from Syria where they had done a bicycle tour were freed in Lebanon's eastern Bekaa Valley on Thursday.

The Estonian foreign ministry said in a statement that the men were all in "good health" and that they were being looked after at the French embassy in Beirut.

Their release, the statement says, came as a result of cooperation by Estonia, Lebanon and others.

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