Bahrain’s highest court on Jan. 28 upheld a life sentence for Shi'ite cleric and opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman, for spying on behalf of neighboring Qatar. According to Amnesty International, the case is based on conversations that Salman had in 2011 with the then-Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani. Salman was initially acquitted, but he was sentenced to life imprisonment in November 2018 by the court of appeals. This term has now been affirmed by the Cassation Court. Amnesty International called the verdict a "bitter blow to freedom of expression." The organization's Middle East director Samah Hadid said it "exposes the country's justice system as a complete farce. The decision to uphold Sheikh Ali Salman's conviction and life prison sentence following an unfair trial highlights the authorities' determination to silence critical voices."
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, on Jan. 17 called on the government of Sudan to protect its people's rights to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression in the face of mounting violence. Since mid-December, anti-government demonstrations have been taking place in multiple cities across Sudan. As of Jan. 6, a total of 816 people had been arrested, including "journalists, opposition leaders, protestors and representatives of civil society." The government has confirmed 24 deaths but other reports place the number at double that. There have also been reports of security forces following protesters into hospitals and firing tear-gas and live ammunition inside.
Talk about strange bedfellows! This week witnessed the surreal spectacle of US National Security Adviser John Bolton, the most bellicose neoconservative in the Trump administration, visiting Turkey to try to forestall an Ankara attack on radical-left, anarchist-leaning Kurdish fighters that the Pentagon has been backing to fight ISIS in Syria. "We don't think the Turks ought to undertake military action that's not fully coordinated with and agreed to by the United States," Bolton told reporters in Jerusalem before leaving for Ankara. Refering to the Kurdish YPG militia, a Turkish presidential spokesman responded: "That a terror organization cannot be allied with the US is self-evident." Bolton left Turkey without meeting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who then publicly dissed the National Security Adviser's stance as a "serious mistake." (Al Jazeera, Politico)
Following the announcement of a US withdrawal of its troops embedded with Kurdish forces in Syria, the Kurds are again making overtures for a separate peace with the Assad regime. Kurdish fighters of the People's Protection Units (YPG) are reported to have turned over the flashpoint town of Manbij to regime forces—marking the first time that the Assad regime's flag has flown over the northern town for more than six years. "The aim is to ward off a Turkish offensive," Ilham Ahmed, an official of the Kurdish autonomous administration, told The Telegraph. "If the Turks' excuse is the [YPG], they will leave their posts to the government." A statement released by the YPG said they had invited regime forces to the town, as they are "obliged to protect the same country, nation and borders."
Protests have been mounting across Sudan in response to the nation’s acute economic crisis. Inflation reached 70% in November and many have been forced to spend significant portions of their income on bread, leading to local media designating the demonstrations as "bread protests." Protesters have repeatedly called for President Omar al-Bashir, who has been in power since 1993, to step down. President Bashir promised reforms on Dec. 25 after police blocked protesters who marched on his presidential palace. The protests have been organized by professional organizations and trade unions as well as Sudan's principal opposition group, the Umma Party. Sudan's government on Dec. 20 shut off internet access to prevent the protesters from organizing via social media. According to an Amnesty International report released Dec. 24, at least 37 protesters have been killed so far as Sudanese authorities attempt to quell the demonstrations by releasing tear-gas and firing live ammunition, sparking international criticism.
In Episode 23 of the CounterVortex podcast, Bill Weinberg notes the assassination of Raed Fares, a courageous voice of the civil resistance in besieged Idlib province, last remaining stronghold of the Syrian Revolution. The resistance in Idlib, which liberated the territory from the Bashar Assad regime in popular uprisings seven years ago, is now also resisting the jihadist forces in the province, expelling them from their self-governing towns and villages. Their hard-won zones of popular democracy face extermination if this last stronghold is invaded by Assad and his Russian backers. As Assad and Putin threaten Idlib, Trump's announced withdrawal of the 2,000 US troops embedded with Kurdish forces in Syria's northeast is a "green light" to Turkey to attack Rojava, the anarchist-inspired Kurdish autonomous zone. The two last pockets of democratic self-rule in Syria are each now gravely threatened. Yet with Turkey posing as protector of Idlib, the Arab revolutionary forces there have been pitted against the Kurds. The Free Syrian Army and Rojava Kurds were briefly allied against ISIS and Assad alike four years ago, before they were played against each other by imperial intrigues. Can this alliance be rebuilt, in repudiation of the foreign powers now seeking to carve up Syria? Or will the US withdrawal merely spark an Arab-Kurdish ethnic war in northern Syria? Weinberg calls for activists in the West to repudiate imperial divide-and-rule stratagems, and demand the survival of liberated Idlib and Rojava alike. Listen on SoundCloud, and support our podcast via Patreon.
The UN Committee against Torture posted a letter online Dec. 11 that calls on Saudi Arabia to release over a dozen imprisoned activists and cites credible claims of improper treatment, sexual assault and torture. The UN group charged with overseeing compliance with the Convention Against Torture claims that seven activists have been held without official charges since May 2018 and subjected to inhumane treatment. The monitoring group also called for another six peaceful activists to be released, including Raif Badawi, a blogger who has been publicly lashed and is currently serving a 10-year sentence for expressing dissenting opinions. The statement calls for a review of cases of corporal punishment to ensure that Saudi Arabia is upholding its obligations under the Convention Against Torture.
Saudi state media reported Oct. 19 that the country's attorney general has confirmed prominent journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi died in the country's Turkey consulate, according to the Associated Press. A statement by the attorney general said that Khashoggi was killed after a fight inside the consulate on Oct. 2, and that 18 Saudis are detained pending an investigation. Turkish officials believe that 15 Saudi agents killed and dismembered Khashoggi, according to reports. His body has not been found.