Cables describe suspicions of Syrian government involvement in 2006 anti-Western cartoon protests

Cable 06DAMASCUS404 from the fifth of February 2006 describes how the Syrian regime seemed to have benefited from the rioting with enhanced legitimacy in several ways.

Civil society contacts noted that SMS text messages were sent to cellphones two days before, announcing a demonstration on February 4, in front of the Danish Embassy. These contacts also insisted, and an imam confirmed to Poloff, that the SARG (probably through its security services) had issued a “suggested” sermon for all imams to use in the mosques for the Friday prayers that preceded the Saturday rioting. Some contacts reported buses being sighted bringing in demonstrators from some of the rougher areas of Damascus, including the Palestinian camps at Yarmouk, although this could not be confirmed. One opposition contact said it was ludicrous to think that the SARG could not have prevented this rioting — at least earlier on — if it chose to, noting that when Riyad Seif and several other recently released Damascus Spring detainees attempted late last week to hold a press conference, the government deployed “three hundred security officers” to prevent it. Islamist-oriented human rights activist Haithem Maleh insisted that it was SARG provocateurs affiliated with the security services, rather than Islamists, who had stormed the embassies and egged on the crowds. 

¶13. (C) COMMENT: We concur with contacts that the SARG allowed these demonstrations to occur and almost certainly helped to facilitate them at the beginning. Somewhere along the way, the SARG, true to form, seems to have miscalculated and lost control. The end result left a deeply embarassed SARG to pick up the pieces and trying to explain its incredible security lapses to the disbelieving Europeans and Chileans. Despite any miscalculation, loss of control, or embarrassment, the minority Alawite regime seems to have benefited from the rioting, enhancing its legitimacy in several ways. It offered its religious Sunni population an opportunity to vent on an issue of visceral populist concern and it put itself in the vanguard regionally, demonstrating to the Arab street that Syria can be counted on to defend Islamic dignity. The rioting also helped the SARG in its recurring attempts to convey to the international community  that “we are the only thing standing between you and the Islamist hordes.” Some argue that the riots also serve as useful distraction from recent price hikes and general hard times.

One day later cable 06DAMASCUS427 reports that an “influential Sunni sheikh” provided  details February 6 that seem to confirm the Syrian government’s (SARG) involvement in  escalating the situation that led to the violent rioting in  Damascus two days earlier, including communications between  the PM’s office and the Grand Mufti. He also noted that SARG  authorities now seem intent on identifying a few scapegoats  to be blamed for the incidents.

Two months later an interesting cable puts the actions of the Syrian government in perspective.

Overall, despite some contradictions, it seems evident that the regime is reaching out once again to the Sunni Islamic community with various initiatives and adopting some elements of an Islamic populism to shore up support. According to gadfly economist and former deputy minister of planning Riad Abrash, the regime has calculated now that Arab nationalist interests “are identical” with the Islamic population’s desire, both in Syria and the region, to oppose the U.S. In his view, the regime “is getting closer to the view of people on the street” in order to retain its popularity. The regime recognizes the powerful hold that Islam has on the masses, said Abrash. He acknowledged that the regime “is playing with fire,” but noted “they want to survive. They feel threatened, so it makes sense to take dangerous steps.

While alarmist scenarios about the future rising tide of Islamism may be true, the SARG seems for the time being to be successfully manipulating this Islam issue, occasionally blending in some populist aspects. The regime is well-positioned politically because of its championing of Islamic political causes such as those of Hamas, Hizballah, and Iran, and has adopted a sufficiently nuanced policy on Iraq to immunize it against criticism that it is helping suppress an Islamic insurgency. Nevertheless, some Sunni leaders tell us that the regime’s attempts to manipulate the Islam issue are not credible and that people are not taken in by it. Where the SARG has been effective is in keeping Islamic leaders in Syria under its wing, supported and politically muzzled. The more populist touches seem designed to drown out the unwelcome noise coming from the Brammertz investigation and — in tandem with appeals to Syrian nationalism — to persuade Syrians that it is not the regime (and Asad family) under attack but the country and the Islamic nation.

A cable from September 2006  reveals that the US wanted to influence the decision from “Jyllands-Posten” on how to commemorate the cartoons’ first anniversary September 30 2006. The paper was contemplating to re-publish the original cartoons or running new ones on the subject.

The Ambassador called Prime Minister Rasmussen’s national security advisor, Bo Lidegaard, to ask if this was true and to find out how the government was going to handle the issue. Lidegaard indicated that the government did not want to get directly involved in the matter. So sensitive was the issue, Lidegaard told the Ambassador confidentially, that the prime minister’s office had made a conscious decision not to alert the foreign ministry or the intelligence services. Furthermore, Lidegaard explicitly warned against any attempt by us to openly influence the paper’s decision, which, if made public, the prime minister would have to condemn, he said. Lidegaard agreed, however, that no harm would come from a straightforward query from us to “Jyllands-Posten” about their plans.

With that, the Ambassador telephoned “Jyllands-Posten” editor-in-chief Carsten Juste, and asked straight out about his paper’s intentions for commemorating the anniversary. Juste told the Ambassador that he and his team had been considering re-publication, but concluded that such a move would be unwise, especially so soon after the controversy caused by the Pope’s Regensburg remarks. The Ambassador welcomed this news, noting that none of us wanted a repeat of the crisis earlier this year. Lidegaard was demonstrably relieved when the Ambassador reported this exchange a short time later.

Survey shows that majority of Syrians think emergency should be lifted

According to the first scientific polling of Syrian attitudes, which details the results from a survey of 1,046 Syrians taken over a three-week period, a substantial majority (79,7%) believes that the State of Emergency in Syria should be lifted and that the threat of war is far less crucial than concerns about political freedom, corruption and the cost of living.

Although Syria is, formally, a multiparty republic, continuous one-party control of the government has been justified for nearly half a century by the State of Emergency declared shortly after the Ba’athist seizure of power in 1963.Critics insist that the emergency laws “undercut human rights guarantees,” “[allow] arbitrary detention and arrest of suspects deemed a threat to public security,” “[permit] the unrestricted monitoring and searching of people and places,” and “[allow] the criminalization of acts without vetted and legally developed legislation.”

US opposes “rendition” review

(SCOTUS blog) The Obama Administration on Wednesday afternoon urged the Supreme Court not to hear a major test case challenging the once-secret program of “rendition” — that is, capture of terrorism suspects and transporting them to other countries.  Solicitor General Kagan’s deputy, Neal K. Katyal, signed the new brief as “Acting Solicitor General.” The new brief is here.

The government brief, filed on behalf of former Attorney General John D. Ashcroft and other federal officials, came in the case of Arar v. Ashcroft (09-923), involving Maher Arar, a dual citizen of Canada and Syria.  He claimed that he was seized at JFK Airport in New York after arriving from Tunisia via Switzerland in the fall of 2002. His lawsuit against Ashcroft and other officials contended that he was taken to Jordan and then to Syria, where he was subjected to harsh questioning and torture by Syrian security officials.

Acting SG Katyal, reacting to “factual allegations and the tenor” of Arar’s plea for Supreme Court review, insisted that the case “does not concern the propriety of torture or whether it should be ‘countenanced’ by the courts.”  Torture, the document said, “is flatly illegal and the government has repudiated it in the strongest terms.”  Federal law makes it a crime, Katyal said, and President Obama has “stated unequivocally that the United States does not engage in torture.”

What is at stake in the case, the brief contended, were “three narrow questions” — the failure of lower courts to recognize his constitutional claim against Ashcroft and others in the government, a claim that U.S. officials were actually acting under Syrian law when they ordered his transfer to that country, and a claim of denial of due process by his detention in the U.S. and the denial of access to U.S. courts.   All of those claims, the brief said, were rejected by the Second Circuit Court, en banc. That ruling, it said,  is correct, and does not conflict with any other court ruling, and so further review is “unwarranted.”

The Supreme Court has not yet scheduled Arar’s case for its initial examination.  The Justices are expected to do so, however, before the current Term ends in late June. 

If the Court were to grant review of the case, it would not be heard and decided until the next Term, starting Oct. 4.  

Hariri probe on track at the STL

(Jurist) Following a visit to Lebanon, the President of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL), Judge Antonio Cassese, and the Vice-President, Judge Ralph Riachy, had issued a statement reassuring that the investigation into the death of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri is on track.

The statement underlined the fact that the Tribunal already has in place all the legal and administrative instruments necessary for its work, and is fully operational so that justice may be dispensed with complete independence and impartiality in accordance with the highest international standards.

The STL has also agreed to set up a liaison to assist in communications with Lebanon and also to implement decisions and orders in the state.

In April, a judge for the tribunal ordered the release of four generals who had been held on suspicion of their involvement in the death of Hariri. Earlier this month, STL pre-trial judge Daniel Fransen ordered prosecutor Daniel Bellemare to submit either a reasoned request for the continued detention of the four generals or a declination thereof. A Lebanese judge ordered the transfer of documents relating to Hariri’s assassination to the STL early this month, thereby granting sole jurisdiction over the case against the four accused generals to the tribunal. In March 2008, lead prosecutor Bellamare said he believed a criminal network was behind the assassination. Several reports from the International Independent Investigation Commission (IIIC), also headed by Bellemare, have implicated Syrian officials in Hariri’s death.

US pledges review of air security blacklist

The United States will review soon a list of countries whose air travelers are subject to tighter screening and could remove nations like Nigeria if they are no longer deemed to be security threats.

Nigeria and other key allies such as Saudi Arabia and Algeria have voiced their displeasure at being included in the 14-country list, which Washington unveiled last month after a botched Christmas Day attempt to blow up a U.S. airliner.

The 14 countries on Washington’s list are Cuba, Iran, Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan, Algeria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Nigeria, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia and Yemen.Passengers traveling from or through the 14 countries to the United States are subject to special pre-flight screening under the measure, including body pat-downs and carry-on luggage searches.

UN experts conclude major study into use of secret detention in the fight against terrorism

Despite the fact that international law clearly prohibits secret detention, the practice is widespread and “reinvigorated” by the so-called global war on terror, several independent United Nations experts stated, outlining a series of steps aimed at curbing this human rights violation. In a 222-page study which will be presented to the United Nations Human Rights Council in March, the experts conclude that: “If resorted to in a widespread or systematic manner, secret detention might reach the threshold of a crime against humanity.” Read the unedited advance version here.

The study, which took almost a year to complete, involves responses from 44 States to a detailed questionnaire, as well as interviews with 30 individuals – or their family members or their legal counsel – who were victims of secret detention, and in many cases may also have been subjected to torture.

It provides an historical overview of the use of secret detention, noting that it is not a new phenomenon in the context of counter-terrorism. From the Nazi regime to the former USSR with its Gulag system of forced labour camps, States have often resorted to secret detention to silence opposition, according to the report.

The study goes on to address the use of secret detention in the context of the ‘global war on terror’ following the events of 11 September 2001, describing “the progressive and determined elaboration of a comprehensive and coordinated system of secret detention” of persons suspected of terrorism, involving not only United States authorities, but also other States in almost all regions of the world. The study says, inter alia,

143.Given the prevailing secrecy regarding the CIA’s rendition programme, exact figures regarding the numbers of prisoners transferred to the custody of other governments by the CIA without spending any time in CIA facilities are difficult to ascertain. Equally, little is known about the amount of detainees who have been held at the request of other States such as the United Kingdom and Canada.While several of these allegations cannot be backed up by other sources, the Experts wish to underscore that the consistency of many of the detailed allegations provided separately by the detainees adds weight to the inclusion of Jordan, Egypt, Morocco, the Syrian Arab Republic, Pakistan, Ethiopia and Djibouti as proxy detention facilities where detainees have been held on behalf of the CIA. Serious concerns also exist about the role of Uzbekistan as a proxy detention site.

It also highlights that secret detention in connection with counter-terrorism policies remains a serious problem on a global scale, either through the use of secret detention facilities; through declarations of a state of emergency, which allow prolonged secret detention; or through forms of “administrative detention,” which also allow prolonged secret detention.

The study was issued by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights while countering terrorism, Martin Scheinin; Special Rapporteur on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, Manfred Nowak; the Working Group on Arbitrary Detention (represented by its Vice-Chairperson, Shaheen Sardar Ali); and the Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (represented by its Chairperson, Jeremy Sarkin).

Veteran Syrian human rights lawyer faces up to 15 years in Syrian prison

Al-Maleh, a known human rights defender of people whose rights have been violated by Syria’s state security services, was charged with “conveying false news within Syria that could debilitate the morale of the nation”, “weakening national sentiment” and “slandering” a governmental body. Amnesty International said that it believes these charges have been brought against him simply because he exercised his right to freedom of expression.

The 78-year-old lawyer, one of Syria’s most respected human rights activists, was arrested at his office on 14 October but it was only four days later that the authorities acknowledged holding him. After his arrest, he was held incommunicado in a State Security detention centre in Kafr Sousa, Damascus. He was arrested the day after he told a Political Security, official who telephoned to tell him to report to the Political Security branch in Damascus, that he would not do so.

Internet filtering in the Middle East and North Africa

The Open Net initiative just released it’s 2008-2009 report on filtering trends across the Middle East and North Africa. Overall, there has been an increase in filtering practices since 2007, and further measures to monitor Internet activities, particularly in Internet cafés, have been introduced. Additionally, countries that have been filtering political content continue to add more Web sites to their political blacklists. Many Arab countries have begun blocking explicit and morally objectionable content in the Arabic language that was previously accessible. While many regimes are transparent about social filtering, most continue to disguise political filtering practices by attempting to confuse users with different error messages.

Bahrain, Iran, Syria and Tunisia have the strictest political filtering practices in the region. The majority of ONI-tested countries heavily filtering social content are in the Middle East and North Africa and consist of Bahrain, Iran, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, and Yemen.

More here.

ACLU asks U.N. to investigate case of disappeared Spanish citizen

Human rights groups today asked two U.N. Special Rapporteurs and the U.N. Working Group on Involuntary or Enforced Disappearances to investigate the case of Mustafa Setmariam Nassar, a Spanish citizen who was forcibly disappeared almost four years ago. According to media reports, Nassar, an influential Islamic theorist, was apprehended by Pakistani officials and handed over to U.S. officials in October 2005 and has not been heard from since, although in June Reprieve said it was likely that Nassar was in Syria. Reprieve also says Nassar was held at Diego Garcia.

All info here.

Italy expels Palestinian hijacker to Syria

A lawyer says Italian authorities are set to expel to Syria one of the Palestinians who hijacked the Achille Lauro cruise ship and killed an American passenger in 1985. Attorney Gianfranco Pagano said Youssef Magied al-Molqui was about to be flown from Palermo, Sicily, to Rome and then on to Damascus last Saturday.In April, Al-Molqui was transferred to a holding center for immigrants in Sicily after spending 23 years in prison.

Al-Molqui was a member of the four-man team that hijacked the Achille Lauro off the Egyptian coast. He was convicted of shooting Leon Klinghoffer, an elderly Jewish man from New York, and ordering him to be dumped in the sea while in his wheelchair.