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Babylon & Beyond

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

Category: Weblogs

SYRIA: Another blogger jailed as social media fuels protests in Arab world

Picture 24At a time when online activism can be risky, as it is credited with -- or blamed for -- fanning the flames of activism sweeping the region, a veteran Syrian blogger has been arrested.

Ahmad Abu Khair was pulled over and arrested early Sunday morning while driving from the coastal town of Banias to Damascus, according to the advocacy group Global Voices and a Facebook group calling for his release (link in Arabic). The charges against him are still unknown, but Khair was enthusiastic in his online support of the ouster of former Tunisian President Zine al Abadine Ben Ali.

In a recent post on his blog titled "Inspired by the revolution" (Arabic link), Khair compared the conditions that led to the uprising in Tunisia with the situation in Syria and other Arab countries, concluding: "Change is possible ... but by revolution!"

But others have said that Khair's comments were not seen as particularly controversial and were echoed by many in the blogosphere.

"All Syrian bloggers praised the revolution and talked generally about why change is important," a source in Syria with knowledge of social media told Babylon & Beyond. "If his blog was the reason" for his arrest, "then this is surely a change of policy: If you support a revolution you'll be detained."

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LIBYA: Videos show violent and chaotic scenes at protests- activists call for "Day of Rage"


Videos are trickling in from the anti-government protests that were ramping up to a "Day of Rage" Thursday in Libya. Demonstrations a day earlier reportedly resulted in the death of at least one person and more than a dozen injuries when security forces clashed with protesters.

The amateur footage above claims to show a fire truck menacing demonstrators in the city of Benghazi in the early hours of Wednesday morning. 

 According to US-based rights group Human Rights Watch (HRW), 14 people were arrested ahead of the planned protests Thursday and media reports said hundreds of supporters of Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi had taken to the streets of the Libyan capital in a bid to counteract activist calls for an anti-government rally. The Libyan opposition site "Enough Ghaddafi" appears to have been hacked and is currently inaccessible.

Below, more amateur video footage purportedly shows a demonstration outside a police station in Libya on Tuesday. As crowds appear to try to approach the station, shots are fired and tumult break out.


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EGYPT: Blogger who recently revealed his identity reflects on future political hopes [Video]


Recent video footage from the anti-government demonstrators' headquarters in Tahrir Square shows Egyptian blogger and activist Sandmonkey (who recently revealed his identity after an alleged police beating) reflecting on the revolution and his future political hopes.

Asked whether he thinks President Hosni Mubarak will resign anytime soon he stresses that, above all, Egyptians want to elect their own president and leaders. He expresses careful skepticism about the Egypt-related political twists and turns that are currently unfolding in the country and in the State Department.

"I have no idea...there is a big difference between whether Mubarak's days are counted and whether the regime's days are counted. Because the Americans have called for a peaceful transition of power which is very specific language. It doesn't entail democracy, democratic elections anywhere in that sentence." 

The video was filmed last week on the day of the million-day march, which drew huge crowds to Tahrir Square. The blogger says Egyptian authorities were doing their best to stop people, including himself, from descending on Cairo and the square by shutting down major roads around the country. Desperate efforts done in vain.

"The regime has tried its hardest to prevent us all from coming here today. They have shut down all major roads going into the country ... they almost prevented me from coming in ... now they're boxing people in, but it's not working. People are ... showing up. People are not afraid," he said.

--Alexandra Sandels in Beirut

Video credit: YouTube/Zero Silence Project

EGYPT: Videos taunt President Hosni Mubarak, defy media crackdown

Despite the Egyptian government's attempts to control the flow of information out of Egypt by intermittently cutting off Internet access, blocking phone lines and cracking down on media outlets, protesters on the ground and supporters abroad are combining efforts online to provide a ground's-eye view of the unfolding protest movement.

The above video of a group of protesters in Cairo was posted without comment Saturday. Within hours, a commenter had provided an accurate translation of the slogans being chanted:

"Leave, leave, Mubarak! Tel Aviv is waiting for you! Gamal, tell your father, the Egyptian people hate you! We've had enough! They've raised the price of sugar and oil; they've wrecked our homes. Raise your voice, people of Egypt! We can't even find beans!"

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BAHRAIN: Activists' torture allegations shadow elections

Bahrain protest

Pro-government groups may have retained control of Bahrain's legislature in last weekend's parliamentary runoff, but the victory continues to be shadowed by allegations that security forces brutally tortured at least 25 opposition activists arrested in the run-up to the election.

Last Thursday, members of the group -- bloggers, government critics, political activists and religious leaders -- made their first appearances in court, where they testified to having endured threats and abuse at the hands of authorities.

Abduljalil Al Singace, from the opposition Shiite political society Haq, told the court he was beaten severely for weeks on end and that interrogators threatened to rape his wife, daughters and sister.

"I was beaten on my ears, my crutches were taken away and I was forced to stand for long periods of time in a basement under the National Security Apparatus building," he said, according to a transcript provided by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. "They opened the door so I could hear the others being tortured, and this went on every night after midnight and until sunrise."

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IRAN: Crackdown on bloggers targets hardline cleric's son

Picture 2 When an Iranian court sentenced "blogfather" Hossein Derakhshan to nearly 20 years in jail, many observers assumed the punishment was exceptional and intended to make an example of the former democracy activist.

If so, it appears the government is looking to make a few more examples.

Mehdi Khazali, an opthamologist, blogger and the son of a well-known hardline cleric, was arrested in Iran on Oct. 13, local press reported. Khazali had been especially vocal in his criticism of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad since the disputed 2009 presidential election and already had spent several short stints in jail.

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IRAN: Persian 'blogfather' Hossein Derakhshan sentenced to 19 years

Hossein-Derakhshan 2 Hossein Derakhshan, known as the Iranian "blogfather" for starting one of the first Persian-language blogs, has been sentenced to 19 1/2 years in prison on charges related to his writing and his visit to Israel, according to the Iranian website Mashreq News. He was also banned from joining any political or journalistic organization and fined over $40,000.

Derakhshan was arrested two years ago when he returned to Iran after receiving assurances from the High Council of Iranian Affairs Abroad that he would not face any penalties apart from questioning, his family has said.

The report comes on the heels of rumors that prosecutors had been seeking the death penalty on charges of espionage. If true, the Mashreq News report indicates that the charges against Derakhshan may have been downgraded from spying to "cooperation with hostile governments." In 2006, Derakhshan blogged about traveling to Israel using his Canadian passport.

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LEBANON: Arrests over alleged Facebook slander of president

ALeqM5j6sjJKjHc0Q5JJPg2JKsm_SMPcIQ When it comes to tolerating free speech and outspoken media, Lebanon's track record is often quite better than many other countries in the region where reporters are thrown in prison and bloggers are tortured for their dissenting opinions.

However, the recent arrests of four people for allegedly defaming Lebanese President Michel Suleiman in comments on Facebook have sparked controversy and raised concerns among some over whether the country is becoming intolerant of free expression.

Earlier this week, Ahmad Ali Shuman was arrested at Beirut airport by security forces upon returning to the country from Ukraine. A warrant for his arrest had been issued last month on charges of defaming the president on the popular social networking site. Local media reports say Shuman was immediately transferred from the airport to Lebanon's Roumieh prison for further interrogation.

He was the fourth in a group of men suspected of recently insulting the president online. Last month, authorities arrested 27-year-old Naim George Hanna, Antoine Youssef Ramia, 29, and Shebel Rajeh Qasab, 27, and charged them with libel, defamation, and insulting the president, according to a news  release issued by the U.S.-based rights group Human Rights Watch.

They were released on bail a few days later pending further investigation.

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LEBANON: First Muslim Miss USA winner derided as 'Miss Hezbollah USA' by conservatives

100516-missusa-hmed-7p.hmedium Is she Miss USA or "Miss Hezbollah USA"?

Some right-wing American bloggers are convinced Rima Fakih is the latter.

When the sparkling tiara was placed atop the Lebanese-born Shiite Muslim's long, dark tresses on Sunday night, making the 24-year-old marketing executive from Dearborn, Mich., the first Muslim woman to win the Miss USA contest, it was just much for some conservative commentators. 

Fakih happens to have the same last name as some officials in the militant Lebanese Shiite political party Hezbollah, causing right-wing blogger Debbie Schlussel to dub the beauty queen "Miss Hezbollah USA" and accuse Fakih of being a radical Muslim financed by "Islamic terrorists."

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IRAN: Intelligence officer alleges link between Germany and opposition


First it was "Death to America."

Then "Death to Israel" and "Death to England."

Next up as a rallying cry for Iran's hardliners: "Death to Germany"?

A high-ranking Iranian intelligence officer told reporters in Tehran today of a link between Iran's opposition movement and European intelligence services, especially those of Germany, the western European state that is one of Iran's main foreign trade partners.

State media quoted the unnamed deputy intelligence minister as saying two German diplomats, nicknamed "Yogi" and "Ingo," had been arrested in connection with recent demonstrations in the capital.

"These agents used to exchange confidential information with German diplomats in the parties held by the [German] Embassy," state television quoted him as saying. 

Iranian news agencies and state television also cited the official as saying an aide to opposition leader Mir-Hossein Mousavi had admitted to "connections with intelligence services of a European country," the Iranian Labor News Agency, or ILNA, reported.

"This advisor to Mousavi had confessed intelligence services of European countries were getting [secret] information from him by providing him with bugging devices," the unnamed official said at the news conference, according to ILNA.

Few but the most die-hard pro-government Iranian pundits believe that Germany or any other country could have whipped up the unprecedented anti-government fervor that has shaken Iran and its political establishment for the nearly eight months since allegations of widespread vote-rigging marred the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

But the latest disclosures show what some describe as the paranoia of Iranian officials and the methods of an ongoing campaign aimed at quelling a popular revolt against Iran's current hard-line establishment by painting the opposition as foreign dupes. 

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SAUDI ARABIA: 'Polygamy for women' article sparks public row in Egypt, Muslim world


"Allow me to choose four, five or even nine men, just as my wildest imagination shall choose. I’ll pick them with different shapes and sizes, one of them will be dark and the other will be blond. ... [T]hey will be chosen from different backgrounds, religions, races and nations.”

So reads the first paragraph of Saudi journalist Nadine Bedair’s controversial article, recently published in the Egyptian independent daily Al Masry Al Youm, that raised the question of why only men are allowed to practice polygamy in Islam but not women.

As expected, the daring article, entitled "My Four Husbands and I," has stirred the pot among various groups.

Comments and criticism on the article continue to trickle in at a steady pace nearly a month after its publication, especially in Egypt, from where it originated. There, some Muslim authorities and lawmakers have attacked Bedair, condemning her writings as inflammatory and sexually provocative.

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MIDDLE EAST: Will Arabic domain names help censorship, create 'cyber-ghettos'?

Egypt internetBack in October, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers, or ICANN, began processing requests for domain names in non-Latin scripts such as Arabic.

In theory, this lowers the barrier for lower-income Arabic-speakers who are unfamiliar with the Latin alphabet to get online.

But for now, at least, registration is limited to official government domains, sparking fears of increased censorship and online "ghettoization."

Egypt, which was among the first Arab countries to apply for a domain names with Arabic letters, is ranked by Global Voices as one of the most repressive countries for bloggers.

Most experts agree that Arabic domain names will not enhance the government's ability to block specific websites. 

But once Egypt is granted its own domain name, local sites that wish to register with the official domain must approach the government authority, which could reject an application from say, an opposition newspaper.

"It's likely that Tunisia, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain will strictly limit which sites can be registered in their domain," Jillian York, the project coordinator of the OpenNet Initiative at Harvard University, wrote in an e-mail to The Times.

"Other countries, such as Libya, ... could see it as a financial opportunity," she added.

The popular URL shortening sites and are registered in Libya.

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