Thousands marched in Cairo on April 15 to protest President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's decision to turn two disputed islands over to Saudi Arabia. Crowds chanted slogans such as "Sisi – Mubarak," "We don't want you, leave," and "The people want the downfall of the regime"—the iconic slogan of the Arab Revolution. Security forces responded with tear-gas; at least 25 were detained and are being held on charges of violating Egypt's controversial anti-protest law. More protests are planned for this weekend, and on April 22 security forces carried out pre-emptive arrests of noted activists in an apparent effort to head them off. Cafes in downtown Cairo were raided and activists seized from their homes, prisoners' rights group Freedom for the Brave said in a statement on Facebook. Pre-emptive arrests were also reported in Alexandria and in Gharbeyyia governorate.
For a third year running, Amnesty International's annual report on the death penalty notes an alarming surge in the number of executions worldwide—now reaching the highest total since 1989. At least 1,634 people were executed in 2015, a rise of more than 50% over the previous year. Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia were leading the field, responsible for 89% of the executions. Iran executed at least 977 in 2015—the vast majority for drug-related crimes—compared with 743 in 2014. Those put to death included at least four who were under 18 at the time of the crime—which Amnesty called a violation of international law. Pakistan continued what Amnesty called as a "state-sanctioned killing spree" that began when a moratorium on civilian executions was lifted in December 2014. Pakistan sent at least 326 to the gallows last year, the highest annual total Amnesty has recorded for that country. Executions in Saudi Arabia rose by 76%, with at least 158 people put to death, Amnesty said. Most were beheaded, with the bodies often displayed in public.
The US Department of Defense (DoD) announced the transfer of nine Yemeni Guantánamo Bay detainees to Saudi Arabia on April 16 as it continues efforts to close the facility. The prisoners would have been sent back to their home country but were instead transfer to Saudi Arabia due to the instability in Yemen. Eight of the detainees had been cleared for release since 2009, after an extensive review, and 26 more are also cleared and expected to be released this summer. At the end of March, a US government official said the DoD told Congress that it plans to transfer as many as 12 prisoners from Guantánamo in the coming weeks. Eighty detainees remain at the facility.
Amnesty International on March 25 expressed concern over the conviction of journalist Alaa Brinji by the Saudi Arabian Specialized Criminal Court. Alaa Brinji has been in detention since May 2014 and has not been allowed access to a lawyer. He was convicted this week on charges of insulting the rulers of the country, inciting public opinion, accusing security officers of killing protestors, ridiculing Islamic religious figures and violating the Anti-Cyber Crime Law. All of the charges are based on tweets by Alaa Brinji expressing oppositional views. Some of of the tweets expressed support for women's rights, human rights defenders, and prisoners of conscience. The sentence includes five years in prison, an eight-year travel ban, and a heavy fine. The court also ordered that his Twitter account be closed. In its press release, Amnesty called Alaa Brinji "a prisoner of conscience, imprisoned solely for peacefully expressing his views." AI has called for his release, and urged Saudi Arabia to take accountability for "its gross and systematic violations of human rights."
The US military killed "dozens" of AQAP fighters in an air-strike that targeted a training camp in western Yemen March 22. The Pentagon claims that the strike—on a camp in Hajr, in mountains west of the port city of Mukallah—will deny AQAP "safe haven," but the air campaign waged by the US against the al-Qaeda franchise since 2009 has done little to halt its advance. Since launching an offensive last year, AQAP has gained control of at least eight cities and towns in Yemen, including the provincial capitals of Hadramout (Mukallah), Abyan (Zinjibar) and Lahj (Houta). (See map.) (Long War Journal, BBC News, March 23)
On Feb. 12, the International Syria Support Group (ISSG)—made up of the US, Russia, EU, Arab League, Iran and other powers—reached an agreement in (oh, the irony!) Munich for a "cessation of hostilities," to take effect in one week. You can bet that this signals a major escalation in the war. Already diplomats are saying "It's not worth the paper it's printed on." The Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov made clear the loophole big enough for a fleet of MIGs to pass through. "The truce does not go for terrorists… The military operation against them will be continued." Given the Russian propaganda trick of calling whoever they want to bomb "terrorists," this makes the whole deal utterly meaningless. Specifically, air-strikes on ISIS and the Nusra Front are excluded from the deal, but we shall see if there is any let-up at all in the horrific aerial bombardment of FSA-held territory. Russian and regime air-strikes have already cut off water supplies to the remaining inhabitants in besieged Aleppo. Bashar Assad has wasted no time in announcing that he intends to retake "the whole country" from rebel forces. We hate to agree with John McCain, but he called it when he said the Munich agreement is "diplomacy in the service of military aggression." The deal was arrived at without the participation of the Free Syrian Army, much less any voices of Syria's civil resistance. This "ceasefire" will not result in the ceasing of a single shot from being fired. As with previous bogus "peace" breakthroughts, the result will be much to the contrary. You read it here first. (Daily Sabah, Feb. 14; The Telegraph, EA WorldView, BBC News, BBC News, Feb. 12; Daily Sabah, Feb. 10)
Some 70,000 civilians from Aleppo are fleeing to the Turkish border, as Syrian regime troops backed by Russian warplanes advance on the city. They will join some 30,000 already amassed at the border and hoping Turkish authorities will allow them to cross. (Al Jazeera) Independent journalists have posted grim video footage and photos of the exodus to Facebook. French journalist Natalie Nougayrède writes in a commentary for The Guardian that "What happens next in Aleppo will shape Europe's future."
Just 24 hours into 2016, Saudi Arabia made world headlines with the execution of a dissident Shi'ite cleric—sparking violent protests in Iran, and a breaking off of diplomatic relations. But this just punctuated a very busy year for the Saudi execution state, with most of the victims receiving little international attention, and many sent to the chopping block for victimless crimes—prominently including drug possession.