Egyptian court acquits 26 in bloody camel attack on Tahrir Square

CAIRO -- An Egyptian criminal court Wednesday acquitted 26 loyalists of deposed President Hosni Mubarak of charges of plotting the notorious attack in which camels and horses charged hundreds of protesters in Tahrir Square during last year's uprising.

Twenty four of the accused were members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, including businessmen, government officials and the speaker of the former parliament. The attack, which played out on television and stunned the world with medieval-like spectacle, marked one of the bloodiest days of the revolt.

The defendants were found not guilty of manslaughter, according to Egypt's state-run news agency. The attack, which became known as the Camel Battle, was regarded by many as Mubarak's last desperate attempt to cling to power before the 18-day uprising forced him to resign in February 2011.

Human rights advocates and protesters who participated in the uprising were outraged by the verdict. Many said it was an expected yet disappointing blow to justice.

"The trial failed to find those responsible or reveal the truth on what is a defining episode of the uprising," said Mohamed Lotfy,  a researcher with Amnesty International.

The decision comes amid public discontent as many Egyptians feel that justice has not yet been served for those who died in anti-government protests before and after the uprising. That sentiment is putting increasing pressure on new President Mohamed Morsi.   

"They weren't even found guilty of plotting the attack. Many of these government officials and party members were responsible for decision-making during the attack, they should be held responsible,” said Heba Mahfouz, an activist. “If they can't find legal evidence against these people, then they should be responsible to find who committed these crimes resulting in the deaths of hundreds of protesters."


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Photo: In this file photo from Feb. 2, 2011, Egyptian government supporters, some riding camels and horses and armed with sticks, clash with demonstrators in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Credit: Ben Curtis / Associated Press

Egypt's Christians, Muslims hold vigil on anniversary of massacre

CAIRO -- Thousands of Egyptians on Tuesday marched to Maspero, the country's television headquarters, to commemorate the killings of 27 people, mostly Coptic Christians,  a year ago by thugs and soldiers during a protest over a church destroyed by arson.

Muslims and Christians marched in solemn procession, carrying flowers and photos of the dead and chanting calls for justice for what has been dubbed the Maspero Massacre.  They called for the death penalty for Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, former head of the military-led government.

"I'm recalling everything that happened last year. I'm remembering how we approached the television building. I can still hear the gunfire and I remember the army tanks as they ruthlessly chased us," said Amir Roshdy, a 30-year-old Copt. "Till now we can still smell the blood of the martyrs, we still feel them here."

Protesters also chanted against Egypt's new Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, a former leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. They accused him of striking deals with the former military rulers to secure power. Morsi was sworn into office in June and none of the nation's commanders have been charged.

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Syria shells long-besieged Homs in extended attack

Homs shelling
BEIRUT -- The Syrian military on Friday bombarded the central city of Homs for more than 12 hours in the  longest sustained government attack on the city in months, opposition activists said.

Homs, once a city of 1 million people, has experienced some of the heaviest fighting and bombardment during the more than 18-month conflict. Most residents are believed to have fled the city.

“Today’s shelling is as if they are preparing to storm” parts of Homs, said Abu Fidaa, the name used by an opposition activist reached Friday in Homs’ Khaldiyeh district, one of the targets of Friday’s bombardment. “It’s worse than Gaza.”

The shelling lasted from about 7 a.m. until after 7 p.m., he said.

Homs was the principal urban battlefield in Syria long before Damascus and Aleppo, the two largest Syrian cities, became major combat zones in recent months. But Homs has remained a heavily contested area and the site of major clashes despite the media focus on fighting in the other cities.

Some neighborhoods of Homs are largely deserted, filled only by rubble and battered buildings, witnesses say. Yet they say life has returned to some sense of normality in other districts where there has been less fighting.

The official Syrian government news service reported Friday that more than 20 terrorists, the government label for opposition fighters, were killed in military attacks on several districts of Homs.

Elsewhere in Syria, opposition forces said they had shot down a helicopter near Damascus. There was no independent corroboration of the report.

Meanwhile, the Turkish media reported that the Turkish military conducted retaliatory fire  into Syria on Friday for the third consecutive day. The Turkish strike followed word that a mortar from the Syrian side had fallen in the southern Turkish province of Hatay. No injuries were reported on the ground in Turkey. Turkey has vowed to retaliate against Syria for any strikes across the nation’s more than 500-mile border with Syria.

 On Wednesday, an apparent mortar shell from Syria struck the Turkish border town of Akcakale, killing five people. That incident drew international outrage and prompted Turkish artillery to fire back at Syrian batteries believed to be involved in the incident.


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Photo: An image taken from video obtained from the Shaam News Network, which has been authenticated based on outside reporting, shows smoke rising from houses after government shelling in Homs, Syria, on Oct. 5, 2012.  Credit: Shaam News Network / Associated Press

Rights watchdog accuses Hamas of torture, abuse of Palestinians

GAZA CITY -- Palestinians in the Gaza Strip are living under a criminal justice system that violates their human rights by using torture, arbitrary arrests and warrantless searches, according to a report released Wednesday by Human Rights Watch.

In a 43-page report, the international watchdog group blames the injustices on Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that controls the Gaza Strip. Officials of the group warned that if Hamas, which Israel and the U.S. label a terrorist organization, does not reform its justice system, it could face popular revolts similar to those that have swept across Egypt, Libya and Syria.

"After five years of Hamas rule in Gaza, its criminal justice system reeks of injustice, routinely violates detainees' rights, and grants impunity to abusive security services," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director of the group. "Hamas should stop the kinds of abuses that Egyptians, Syrians and others in the region have risked their lives to bring to an end."

According to Stork, Hamas is violating international law by subjecting civilians to military courts and denying prisoners their rights. The group accused Hamas of executing three detainees after obtaining forced confessions through torture. In 2011, 147 complaints of torture were filed against Hamas, according to Human Rights Watch.

Hamas officials said they would investigate the allegations, but denied there was widespread use of torture or political arrests.

"Maybe we have some violations from time to time, but it is not a widespread phenomenon," said Hamas Deputy Foreign Minister Ghazi Hamad. "Detention procedures are monitored by local human rights organizations, and we try as much as possible to follow international standards.”

One Gaza resident, who feared being identified, said he was arrested nearly two dozen times during recent protests calling for reforms and reconciliation with the rival Palestinian party, Fatah, which controls the West Bank. The young man said in an interview that he was beaten, shaved, humiliated, prevented from sleeping and burned with cigarettes during his detentions by Hamas.

"Hamas is lying and trying to hide its ugly face from the international community," he said.


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Abu Alouf is a special correspondent.

Tunisia woman accused of indecency after alleged rape by police


Hundreds of protesters thronged to a Tunis courtroom Tuesday as a woman and her fiance who accused police officers of rape and extortion defended themselves against allegations of indecency.

The case has outraged Tunisian feminists and human rights groups, who said the charges are an attempt to humiliate and frighten the couple, discouraging others from reporting police abuse. It has focused new attention on police impunity and the rights of women in the North African country, the birthplace of the "Arab Spring" uprisings, as it tries to set its path after the ouster of autocratic President Zine el Abidine ben Ali.

Last month, the couple said that two police officers stopped them and raped the woman in the back of their car while a third officer took her fiance to an ATM and tried to extort money from him. After the police officers were arrested and charged with rape and extortion, the officers alleged that they found the couple in an “immoral position.” The couple could now face indecency charges punishable with up to six months in prison.

The two were questioned Tuesday at the courthouse to decide whether the woman would be prosecuted for immoral behavior, according to the Associated Press. No decision was immediately announced.

Immorality charges have been used over the last year and a half to quiet government critics, Amnesty International said, arguing  that  the case against the couple should be dropped. Tunisian blogger Lina Ben Mhenni said the Interior Ministry, by holding a news conference to announce the indecency allegations, “tried to manipulate the public opinion and to make them forget the real scandal:  the rape.”

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Amnesty International to Egypt: Stop 'bloody' legacy of repression

CAIRO -- Amnesty International sent a letter Tuesday to Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi urging him to stem the “bloody” legacy of state repression highlighted in two reports that detail killings, torture and sexual assaults that have shaken the nation since last year's uprising.

Egypt's new leader must pave the way for reforms in order to ensure accountability and transparency from the army and police, the group said, blaming security forces for atrocities against demonstrators over the past 20 months.

The first report, "Brutality Unpunished and Unchecked: Egypt’s Military Kills and Tortures Protesters with Impunity," described the killings of protesters by a military acting "above the law" during the army's hold on the government that ended when Morsi forced the resignations of top commanders in August.

The human rights group's research on military abuse examined the deaths of 27 mainly Coptic Christian protesters killed outside Maspero, the state’s television headquarters, in October 2011.  It also focused on the deaths of 17 protesters outside Egypt's Cabinet in December 2011, as well as the May 2012 Abbaseya sit-in near the Defense Ministry in Cairo where 12 people were killed.

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World of woe, little hope of relief, await U.N. General Assembly

General Assembly session on Syria in August
When 120 world leaders and their entourages gather at the United Nations this week, the woes of the world will be onstage in all their tragic detail: a civil war in Syria, the threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, reignited ethnic conflicts in Africa and uphill battles against poverty and global warming.

GlobalFocusWhat is likely to be in short supply at the General Assembly are fresh ideas for resolving the kaleidoscope of crises afflicting the planet. The U.N. Security Council has been hamstrung by internal conflicts among its permanent members in devising effective intervention in the Syrian bloodletting, and a colossal conference on sustainable development hosted by the world body three months ago was widely viewed as unproductive.

The Middle East and its myriad security challenges are expected to dominate the marathon of speeches beginning Tuesday, especially against the backdrop of worldwide Muslim outrage over an amateur video made by U.S.-based Christian zealots depicting the Prophet Muhammad as vile and sadistic.

Violent protests over the 14-minute film clip flared earlier this month after a version of "The Innocence of Muslims" was dubbed into Arabic and posted on YouTube. Conservative Islamists, some backed by Al Qaeda-aligned holy warriors, have attacked U.S. and other Western embassies and businesses across the Islamic crescent spanning the Middle East, Africa and South Asia. In the worst of the violence on Sept. 11, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, was killed along with three other Americans at the consulate in Benghazi. On Friday, the Muslim sabbath, enraged demonstrators clashed with police in Pakistan, killing at least 18 people.

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White House says Libya attack was terrorism

Memorial for U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens
WASHINGTON -- The White House is now describing the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi as a “terrorist attack,” a shift in emphasis after days of describing the lethal assault as a spontaneous eruption of anger over an anti-Islamic film made in California.

“It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Thursday as President Obama traveled to Florida for a campaign event. “Our embassy was attacked violently and the result was four deaths of American officials."

Carney said investigators have “indications of possible involvement” of Al Qaeda in the Magreb, but he said there is no evidence “at this point to suggest that this is a significantly pre-planned attack.”

White House officials have not previously described the attack, which killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, as a terrorist act. The administration, and Obama’s reelection campaign, have been sensitive to allegations that the attack involved a security lapse, or a broader policy failure, in the middle of a presidential race.

When Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the incident an “an act of terror” last weekend, a spokeswoman for the Obama campaign suggested the senator was being political.

Carney’s comments echoed testimony from National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen, who on Wednesday told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security that those involved in the attack were either local militants or foreigners with possible connections to Al Qaeda.

"I would say they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack,” he said of the four Americans.

The White House initially blamed the video, which ridiculed the prophet Muhammad, for anti-American protests and violence that began in Cairo and spread to 20 countries last week.

Carney has gradually calibrated his remarks to say administration officials were waiting on the results of an FBI investigation and that no possible cause had been ruled out.

On Sunday, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said the attack apparently began as a “spontaneous reaction” to the news of the Cairo protest.

But later “there were extremist elements that joined and escalated the violence. Whether they were Al Qaeda affiliates, whether they were Libyan-based extremist or Al Qaeda itself, I think, is one of the things we'll have to determine,” Rice said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”


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Photo: Libyan President Mohammed Megarif speaks Thursday during a memorial service in Tripoli, Libya, for U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three consulate staff killed in Benghazi on Sept. 11. Credit: Abdel Magid al-Fergany / Associated Press




Mideast violence shows 'Arab Spring' still a work in progress

Anti-US protesters in Benghazi Friday
Anti-American violence sweeping the Muslim world has brought a sobering reminder in the West that the heady revolutions of the "Arab Spring" that removed entrenched dictatorships in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya have yet to bring democracy and stability to the region.

GlobalFocusThe United States played an especially important role last year as Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Libya's Moammar Kadafi lost power after decades of autocratic rule. But the leaders who have succeeded them have not yet measured up as reliable Washington allies amid mounting pressures by radical Islamists seeking to stake out a dominant role for their religion.

Muslims angered by a crude anti-Islam video produced in Southern California by a Coptic Christian zealot have poured into the streets of major cities in at least 20 countries. The eruption of unrest and vandalism has been directed against U.S. diplomatic missions, schools and commercial icons such as KFC and McDonald's.

The demonstrations and destruction were instigated by Islamic militants, many linked with Al Qaeda, who are attempting to steer the volatile societies emerging from the Arab Spring toward Islamic law, known as sharia, and their narrative that only violence, not political change, will solve age-old problems of economic disparities and sectarian tensions, several Middle East experts said.

"The Arab Spring is still in motion. It's not over," said Ed Husain, senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, observing that the revolutions have brought both positive and negative changes.

The positives include large numbers of young, liberal-leaning activists struggling for more democratic elections, transparent government, better economic conditions and social equality, Husain said. On the negative side, the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt's new political hierarchy and the rising influence of Islamists in Tunisia and Libya have compromised the rights of women, ethnic minorities and adherents to religions other than Islam, he said.

Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi finds himself caught between "competing constituencies," Husain said. Moderate Egyptians want better relations with the West, while conservative  Islamists are attempting to whip up anti-American fervor by casting the 14-minute online trailer of the obscure movie disparaging the prophet Muhammad as evidence of American disrespect for Islam.

PHOTOS: Protesters attack U.S. embassies, consulate

Kori Schake of Stanford's Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, sees the recent violence as a stumble along the path toward democracy by inexperienced leaders of countries in transition.

"We need to be very careful not to overreact to the incidents of the last couple of days. I think these were incidents that were opportunistically taken advantage of by anti-American forces, and in the case of Libya by jihadists in order to try and discredit the positive path those countries are on," said Schake, a professor of international security studies at West Point and a former National Security Council official under President George W. Bush.

She praised Libya's newly elected leaders for their immediate denunciation of the violence that killed four Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, and the government's concession that it needed help in disarming radical Islamist militias still wreaking havoc in the country.

"We need to be a little patient that countries in transition to democracy can sometimes get it wrong," Schake said of the initial failure by Egypt's Morsi to denounce the Tuesday attack on U.S. missions in Cairo and Benghazi. "We need to weight his score by degree of difficulty. He's new at this. He has no models to follow."

TIMELINE: 'Innocence of Muslims' unrest

Some blame the spate of anti-American violence on Washington's new strategy of redirecting diplomatic energies from the Arab world to the Far East.

"There's a feeling that we've lost our way, that there's not that much support for democratic uprisings in the region now," said Danielle Pletka, vice president for foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. "There's a sense that the pivot from the Middle East to Asia is turning our backs on the Middle East, that we're running on auto-pilot there."

The United States needs to get more engaged in the Middle East, especially in Syria, where about 20,000 people have been killed in the conflict stemming from President Bashar Assad's repression of a rebellion now in its 18th month, said Pletka. She advocates tying U.S. aid to Egypt to progress in building democratic institutions and ensuring security for U.S. diplomatic representations and businesses in the most populous country of the Middle East.

What role the United States should play in guiding the transitioning countries toward their revolutionary objectives is a question of balance, others note.

"A big part of our hesitation, the look-before-you-leap attitude, comes from lessons learned after 9/11," said Brian Katulis, an expert on U.S. national security policy in the Middle East at the Center for American Progress.

The United States was too quick to send troops into Iraq after the terrorist attacks, he said, and deeply disappointed in their expectation "that this democratic tsunami was going to wash across the region."


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Photo: Libyan followers of the Ansar al-Sharia militant group chant anti-U.S. slogans Friday in Benghazi, Libya, one of at least 20 cities where Islamists vented anger over a crude video denigrating the prophet Muhammad. Credit: Mohammad Hannon/Associated Press



Pope arrives in Lebanon, appeals for peace amid regional unrest

Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Lebanon and appealed for peace in the Middle East –- at a time when the region is awash in turmoil, including protests against an anti-Islam film
BEIRUT -- Pope Benedict XVI arrived in Lebanon on Friday and appealed for peace in the Middle East –- at a time when the region is awash in turmoil, including protests against an anti-Islam film.

On the first day of the pope's scheduled three-day visit to the country, which has the Middle East's largest percentage of Christians, he immediately waded into the conflict in neighboring Syria, calling the flow of weapons into the country a "grave sin."

Many of the weapons rebels are using to fight against the regime of President Bashar Assad have been smuggled in from Lebanon.

PHOTOS: Protesters attack U.S. embassies, consulate

"The import of weapons must be stopped, because without the weapons import the war could not continue," he said, according to the Associated Press. "We should import ideas of peace and creativity and find solutions to accept each other with our differences."

Hours before his arrival in Lebanon, one protester was killed in the northern city of Tripoli when an angry crowd clashed with security forces who shot at the demonstrators to disperse them. The protesters had gathered to denounce the controversial anti-Islam film and had tried to storm a government building. They also set fire to a KFC/Hardee's restaurant.

Despite the unrest, the state news agency said security in Beirut was low-key, and even the Shiite militant group Hezbollah hung banners along the airport highway welcoming the pope to the "homeland of coexistence."

But the Associated Press reported that Lebanese authorities had also put strict security measures in place for the visit, including suspending weapons permits except for politicians' bodyguards. 

In addition to his comments about Syria, the pope praised the "Arab Spring" uprisings and said they were a result of a "desire for more democracy, for more freedom, for more cooperation and for a renewed Arab identity."


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Photo: A brass band passes by Pope Benedict XVI during a ceremony welcoming the pontiff to Lebanon at the Beirut airport on Friday. Credit: Nabil Mounzer / EPA


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