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Babylon & Beyond

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

Category: Roula Hajjar

IRAN: Activist and documentary filmmaker seized; reasons undisclosed

Renowned filmmaker Mahnaz Mohammadi was taken from her Tehran home  Sunday by unidentified security forces for "unknown" reasons, reported the Iranian opposition website Kaleme.

According to the website of former premier Mir-Hossein Mousavi, the prominent women's rights activist may have been seized by intelligence services of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards. 

Her arrest, the second in three years, has not been reported by Iranian state media. 

The widely acclaimed filmmaker was also arrested in August 2009 at Beheshte Zahra cemetery as she was laying a wreath on the grave of Neda Ahga-Soltan, a 26-year-old woman who was fatally shot during security crackdowns on protests against the reelection of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. 

Mohammadi, director of the acclaimed short documentary "Women Without Shadows," also contributed to filmmaker Rakhsan Bani-Etemad's documentary about Iran's disputed presidential election in 2009. 

Screen shot 2011-06-28 at 2.13.37 PMThe new wave of arrests also included Maryam Majd, a passionate women's right campaigner. 

The rights activist, photojournalist and sports reporter was arrested Friday and is being held in Tehran's notorious Evin prison.

"Maryam was arrested on the eve of her flight to Germany to report a sports event," said a close friend who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. 

According to, Majd is being held in  a section of the prison controlled by Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

Mohammadi's arrest came a day before a group of 18 political prisoners announced the end of their 9-day hunger strike on Monday, the opposition site reported. 

The inmates, 15 of whom are in Evin, went on a hunger strike to protest the sudden deaths of Haleh Sahani and Hoda Saber, which occurred only a few days apart. 

The recent purge of reform advocates comes amid preparations for parliamentary elections set to take place in March.

-- Roula Hajjar in Beirut and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran

Photo: Mahnaz Mohammadi. Credit: Kaleme


SYRIA: Mass protests persist amid daunting security crackdown [Video]

Mass protests continued in various Syrian cities over the weekend after security forces imposed large-scale house arrests in the Damascus suburbs of Barzeh, Quswa and Douma as well as in the larger district of Homs, activists reported.   

According to Reuters and legal activist Razan Zeitouneh, five were killed in Barzeh and Homs on Saturday night.

“They were killed by security forces personnel who just barged into their houses,” Zeitouneh said of the deaths in Barzeh. Three hundred protestors have been arrested in Barzeh, which was the scene of bloodshed when protests broke out after prayers on Friday .

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SYRIA: Pro-regime crowds clash with protesters as scale of refugee crisis emerges

A day after Syrian President Bashar Assad promised reforms, gunfire continued to sound in several of the country's cities as pro-and anti-regime forces took to the streets in demonstrations, sometimes clashing.

Meanwhile, international relief organizations on a government-organized trip through northwest Syria found entire cities and towns emptied by the regime's crackdown on the rebellious area around the town of Jisr Shughur, according to a briefing by the United Nations High Commission on Refugees [PDF]

Thousands of Syrians, many of them government employees, joined pro-Assad demonstrations in the capital, Damascus, and other cities, vowing that the leader Assad would remain in power forever. Many said that their blood was cheap if shed as a sacrifice for their president.

The demonstrations came in the wake of Assad's speech promising reforms, dismissed as inadequate by protesters partaking in the three-month-old uprising challenging the Assad family's four-decade rule. 

In one piece of amateur video from the third-largest city of Homs, (above) men, women and children protesting against the regime come under gunfire. They first hide behind buildings but reemerge. Three people were killed in the clashes, Reuters reported, citing statements by residents. 

In the city of Hama, pro-regime crowds were gathered by security forces to attack protesters, said pro-democracy activists. 

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SYRIA: Protests resume in response to Bashar Assad's speech [Videos]

It didn't take long after Syrian President Bashar Assad's speech on Monday before protesters took to the streets of Homs, Hama, Lattakia, Damascus and Idleb, again demanding an end to his regime. 

Syria The video above is said to show residents of Homs holding banners and shouting "Bashar go away, the Syrian people want freedom."

One banner reads, "Homs pharmaceutical company presents, the best vomit-inducing medication: listening to Bashar's speech," in reference to Assad's frequent use of medical analogies during his speech.

At one point, he compared the anti-regime protesters to germs. 

Assad last addressed the nation more than two months ago. His reemergence in a more than hourlong speech on Monday left many in the pro-democracy opposition dissatisfied. For some, nothing less the president's resignation would have placated them.

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SYRIA: Detention and killing of children prompt charges and countercharges


Anti-government protesters in Syria have championed the cases of children detained and killed during the past month, trying to raise awareness and prevent more deaths.

In response, President Bashar Assad’s regime launched a propaganda a campaign of its own, denying that children have been tortured and blaming their deaths on protesters.

Timeline: Uprising in Syria

Thamer Sahri, 15, disappeared April 29 during mass arrests near the embattled southern city of Dara, where the uprising began. His body was returned to his family last Wednesday with an eye and teeth missing, neck and leg broken and multiple bullet wounds, according to a video posted online. (Note: This video contains graphic images.)

The video could not be independently verified due to the Syrian government’s media blackout.

“The violent deaths suffered by Thamer Sahri and other children are utterly shocking, as is the Syrian authorities’ apparent lack of action to rein in the security forces accused of being responsible for them,” said Philip Luther, deputy director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Program in a statement last Friday.

Thamer is the fourth youth reported to have died in custody since March, Amnesty International officials said.

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LEBANON: Former World Bank president shunned by students and faculty, withdraws from ceremony

Picture 6 What has been coined the "Arab Spring" has gained momentum, this time in the region's most well-reputed and prestigious university, the American University of Beirut. The campus has been a scene of protests ever since the university decided to grant Sir John Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank and member of the advisory council for the Israeli Democracy Institute, an honorary degree during this year's graduation ceremony. 

Ninety-five faculty members and hundreds of students have signed a petition in opposition to the university's plans to ask Wolfensohn to deliver the keynote speech to the graduating class of 2011 later this month.

The signatories stated that honoring Wolfensohn "symbolically undermines AUB’s legacy in the struggle for social justice and its historical connection to Beirut, to Palestine and beyond."

In response to the petition, Wolfenson informed the AUB community on Saturday of his intention to skip the ceremony “out of concern that his presence would distract from the celebratory nature of the event."

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SYRIA: Defiant protesters march into the night

"We take death, but never humiliation!" crowds of anti-regime protesters roared in Job Jandali near the Syrian city of Homs during a demonstration Friday evening, according to the amateur footage posted above. 

Despite the brutal crackdown that engulfed Syria on Friday and left dozens dead, protesters proved relentless in their call for democracy and freedom as demonstrations swelled in towns and cities across the country. 

Night demonstrations have been a signature maneuver of the months-long Syrian uprising. In the evenings Syrians from all walks of life gather and march through the streets as part of their cat-and-mouse game with the security apparatus. 

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SYRIA: Nation braces as anti-regime protests erupt and bloodshed continues

Syria plunged deeper into chaos and bloodshed Friday as adamant pro-democracy protesters took to the streets across the country in cities and towns including Homs, Lattakia, Amouda, Izram, Dara, Der Ezzor and Qamishli in mass protests that mark what protestors have called “Friday of Tribes.”

The theme of Friday’s protests means, “The clan is with every rebel,” activists explained. According to reports of eyewitnesses and activists, as well as video footage, harsh security measures have been taken to put a lid on the voice of dissent emanating from the streets Friday.

According to an activist in Homs, throngs of peaceful protesters were met with live ammunition by a security force that has remained by and large loyal to the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad. Tanks began to take position Wednesday night, preparing to stage mass arrests and assaults on thousands of demonstrators Friday, he said.

Photos: Syrians flee to Turkey to escape violence

“It is unacceptable. I ask the Arab army of Syria to take a good look at what’s going on. They want to kill off their own people? Our army is supposed to protect us. Even animals have never been treated this brutally,” he said.

Security forces appear to be growing more brazen. In the video above, Syrian soldiers kick and stomp a blindfolded victim who is crying for help and wailing in pain in Bab Amr in the province of Homs a day earlier. Afterward the soldiers take a group picture standing on the backs of their victims.

“This is for asking for freedom,” said the soldier as he beat the victim. “You want to topple the regime? Here the regime is down. What else do you want? Tell me what freedom means to you?” asked the soldier.

Pan-Arab Qatari news station Al-Jazeera reported the death of two protesters in the southern town of Bousra al Harir, citing Reuters. As many as eight others were injured by live ammunition in the opposition stronghold of Dara, the scene of some of the most widely attended demonstrations on Friday.

The death toll is expected to rise as protests continue throughout the day.


In the video above, hundreds of pro-democracy protesters march through the streets of the northern town of Amouda, carrying banners and large Syrian flags.

“When the day comes and the people demand freedom, then their fate is to be free,” reads one banner, quoting a well-known Arab proverb that has become the motto of an uprising which has sent shockwaves through the region.


In another video, residents of the Damascus suburb of Kiswa huddle under fluttering Syrian flags demanding the end of the four-decade rule of the Assad family.

“We are not afraid anymore. This is our right. We have the right to demand democracy. If we can’t live a life where we can ask for basic human rights then what good is this life?” said an activist in Der Ezzor, who preferred to remain anonymous for fear of retribution.

Despite the lack of restraint Syrian security forces have demonstrated while dealing with protestors -- captured in a series of recent incriminating videos -- these rounds of Friday protests have swept across Syria.

-- Roula Hajjar in Beirut

Videos: Syrian soldiers assault civilian in Bab Amr; protesters take to the street in Amouda to participate in mass demonstrations Friday; anti-regime demonstrators march through the town of Kiswa. Credit: YouTube.

LEBANON: Lady Gaga's newest album seized as potentially offensive to Christians [Video]

Boxfuls of Lady Gaga's newest album "Born this Way" were intercepted and impounded at Beirut's international airport by Lebanese authorities late last week as potentially offensive to the country's Christian population. 

Despite having sold millions of copies worldwide, Lady Gaga's album isn't for sale in Lebanese music stores for now. Instead, cartons of the new release are stacked in police offices. But officials cautioned that no final decision had been made on whether Lady Gaga's sizzling hot second studio release would be formally banned.  

"We collected the CDs on the grounds that the music was offensive to religion," said one official from the office of censorship, which is part of the country's notorious General Security, a powerful branch of the Ministry of Interior. "They are still in our offices. We are still deciding what to do with them."

He refused to give his name without citing any reason for insisting on anonymity.

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SYRIA: Big cities remain ambivalent as regime brutality takes its toll

Syria-violenceWhile the regime of President Bashar Assad has cracked down on smaller cities in Syria, residents of the nation's large cities, including Aleppo and the capital Damascus, seem ambivalent about staging mass protests.

Syrians in some parts of the country have taken part in the uprising, with videos showing apparent brutality in the face of ongoing protests. In this graphic video, soldiers allegedly plant weapons on corpses in Hama near Karak mosque to support the story told by the regime and state news agencies that Islamic fundamentalist terrorists are behind the bloodshed.

But others feel that Assad’s government remains legitimate. Activists say that may be the result of religious pressure: "The regime uses clerics to justify their actions, and religious figures have an immense power to manipulate people in Aleppo and Damascus specifically," said one activist.

Activists say 89 people have been killed over the last three days.

"Military helicopters are shooting randomly on Jisr Alshghour city for half an hour now. There are news of 10 martyrs so far. The army was deployed next to the national hospital, and several tanks are heading to the city from the direction of Al Zawyeh mountain," a report produced by an activist network said.

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SYRIA: Child victim's Facebook page becomes platform for opposition

250341_176058185781414_175737975813435_373985_1140554_n The Facebook page created in memory of Hamza Khatib, a 13-year-old boy who died last week, allegedly tortured and killed in state custody, has become a focal point for opposition to four decades of rule by the Assad family in Syria. 

The teenager, who protesters say was brutally abused before being slain in custody, has become a symbol of the pro-democracy protests, Syrian activists said.

The Syrian government insists that Khatib died from a random buller at a demonstration. And President Bashar Assad has invited Khatib's family to meet with him and has promised an investigation of the youth's death.

But such assurances have done little to diminish Syrian protesters' outrage over the death of the boy, who has been tranformed into an icon for the activists' pro-democracy movement. Although the Facebook page has one creator, administrators now include more than 6,000 people. 

"We will not forget you, Hamza. We will not forget all the martyrs. We will not forget the weakness of Arab regimes. We will not forget the weakness of global regimes. We are all Hamza al Khatib," reads one of the posts on the Facebook page. 

TIMELINE: Uprising in Syria

The profile picture for the page is a photo of the dead Khatib emblazoned with the words "tortured and martyred by Assad's gangs," a reference to the Syrian president. 

The words continue across the bottom of a photo of a smiling Khatib: "We will not be silent. We will not close an eye until Assad's gangs are tried. [The regime] is the killer of innocence." 

Almost 67,000 people have become fans of the Facebook page, where people from all over the world share articles, photos and videos of the youth.

"The Facebook page is meant to target international audiences rather than local Syrian ones. The Syrians know very well what is going on in Syria, but the U.N. Security Council is too afraid to begin an investigation," said the creator of the page, who was reached via email and insisted on anonymity because he feared reprisals.  

One picture shows a vigil in Sacramento for the young resident of the southern Syrian city of Dara. In the background, the words "The regime will be overthrown" can be seen painted on a wall. In a written comment beneath the picture, a young woman from New Zealand swears that she will share the story of Khatib's death with the rest of the world.


Syrian government releases hundreds of detainees, protesters not satisfied

Bahrain's emergency law lifted; human rights activist summoned by military

Amnesty International demands justice for Egypt's victims of 'virginity tests'

-- Roula Hajjar in Beirut 

 Photo: Images of Hamza Khatib dead and alive are accompanied by an inscription vowing to keep alive his memory. Credit: Facebook. 

SYRIA: Government releases hundreds of detainees, protesters not satisfied

The Syrian government freed 500 detainees Wednesday in an attempt to appease protesters who have shaken the regime with weeks of pro-democracy demonstrations. 

The releases followed promises made Tuesday by President Bashar Assad to pardon people detained in the waves of arrest since the protests began in March.

"The amnesty includes all members of Muslim Brotherhood and other detainees belonging to political movements," reported SANA, the official state news agency.

The move came as Human Rights Watch, one of the world’s leading rights watchdogs, issued a report Wednesday declaring that the Syrian government was guilty of committing "crimes against humanity."

Despite the concessions, violent crackdowns continued in and around the town of Rastan, near Homs, resulting in at least 20 confirmed deaths with dozens more injured, according to opposition groups. Tanks fired heavy artillery in four different places of the central town, the sources said. 

More than 31 bodies were taken from Rastan to the national hospital of Homs, said Ahed Hindi, a Syrian dissident now based in the United States. 

Despite Assad's amnesty offer, protesters continued their rallies demanding Assad step down and insisting that the government had lost its legitimacy. 

Residents of Kuswa, a suburb of Damascus, took to the streets Tuesday night chanting "Allahu Akbar on Bashar,"  — a slogan meaning the Syrian president should fear God's wrath.

"I think Assad is the one who needs amnesty now, not the Syrian people," said an activist in Homs, who requested anonymity for security reasons.

"This seems to be more like a hoax designed to confuse and appease Western leaders who still call on Assad to reform. We wont be fooled. But we welcome those who will be released into our ranks and we will go on with the revolution,"  said Ammar Abdulhamid, a Washington-based Syrian dissident. 

Some believe that amnesty was granted by the Syrian government to distract people from a major conference Wednesday in Antalya, Turkey, which brought together several Syrian opposition members. 

Skeptical opposition forces have said Assad's amnesty falls short. 

"Most of the political prisoners are not included in the amnesty. It exludes all those who are sentenced according to the code 306 of Syrian law, but most political activists in Syria are sentenced according to this code," Hindi said.

According to Hindi, who himself has spent time imprisoned in Damascus, one of the most prominent prayer leaders in the capital, Shaker Nabulsi, has been arrested. 

"Assad is now targeting the elite of Imams and sheiks in Damascus. Something that did not happen in the 1980s," Hindi said.

The Human Rights Watch report said the Syrian government had engaged in the "systematic killings of protesters and bystanders" in Dara in March and April, in its crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrations. 

"The nature and scale of abuses committed by the Syrian security forces, the similarities in the apparent unlawful killings and other crimes, and evidence of direct orders given to security forces to ‘shoot-to-kill’ protesters, strongly suggest these abuses qualify as crimes against humanity," the report said. 

Roula Hajjar in Beirut
Video: Protesters march through suburban town of Kuswa in afterhours demonstration on Tuesday night. Credit: YouTube.







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