The Middle East Channel

Bahrain’s Formula One Grand Prix runs despite mass protest

The Formula One Grand Prix ran as scheduled on Sunday in Bahrain despite mass protests against the race. Demonstrators criticized the Bahraini regime for attempting to portray stability while continuing human rights abuses and repression. The racetrack was highly guarded, preventing demonstrators from gathering en masse. However, protesters assembled in the majority Shiite villages surrounding the capital of Manama. Sports journalists were granted access to cover the F1, but many news outlets, including The Times, were denied visas to limit coverage of the demonstrations. A group of British-based Channel 4 journalists were arrested and subsequently deported from Bahrain for filming a demonstration on Sunday. The media team's driver, Ali, was reportedly beaten and also detained along with prominent human rights activist, Dr. Ala'a Shehabi. Both were later released. One demand of protesters is the release of rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, who has undertaken an over 11-week hunger strike while incarcerated. The verdict from Bahrain's appeals court on his case was set to be delivered on Monday but the decision has been postponed to April 30.

Syria

Violence continues across Syria after the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution on Saturday extending the observer mission from 30 to 300 members, with an up to three month mandate. There are currently eight monitors on the ground touring Syria, trying to preserve a truce brokered by U.N. and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan that has been challenged by regular violent attacks. The monitors sought access to the beleaguered city of Hama, and while Syrian state television, SANA, reported the mission visited the city on Sunday, opposition activists say the observers were brought to Rastan, a rebel held city to the south. Neither report has been confirmed, however an activist attested to the U.N. visit, saying that the city has been quieter. "We don't see the tanks anymore, they just hide them in government installations. But the troops are still around. The truce has had an effect but not to the extent that we can demonstrate freely." Two monitors have been stationed in Homs, after the team visited the restive city over the weekend and attacks have appeared to have subsided. Clashes were reported in the Damascus suburb of Douma. According to the Damascus Revolutionary Council, "Regime forces backed by tanks stormed Douma under heavy gunfire." Adding an additional layer to the conflict, the Washington Post reported that there has been an influx of Islamist extremists into Syria attempting to take advantage of the insecurity to broaden their influence. Saturday's Security Council resolution meanwhile expressed concern that the cessation of violence between the regime and the opposition is "clearly incomplete" and threatened "further steps" if there is not full compliance, which according to the United States, France, and Britain would mean increased sanctions. The European Union announced new sanctions on Syria on Monday, an act which was condemned by Russia. 

Headlines  

Arguments & Analysis

Bahrain's Formula 1 is an insult to country's democratic reformers (Maran Turner, CNN)

"Unified: One nation in celebration" is the jubilant slogan of this year's Formula 1 Grand Prix in Bahrain. The irony could not be harsher: while sports fans look forward to this glamorous race, one of the country's most prominent human rights activists is close to death in protest of his ongoing unlawful detention. Solidarity protests in the streets continue to be brutally suppressed. From the perspective of a majority of Bahrain's population, it is not one nation. And it is certainly not celebrating... It is time for the international community, sports fans or not, to call on the small kingdom to set things right, release peaceful human rights advocates like Mr. al-Khawaja and others, and start the reform process. The government should never have imprisoned Mr. al-Khawaja, who had only been exercising his internationally-protected rights of free expression; releasing him now is not only the humane thing to do -- it is a crucial step towards real unity and celebration.

Militants and Politics Bedevil Yemen's New Leaders, (Kareem Fahim, New York Times)

"Two months after a new president took office, Yemen's fledgling interim government has found itself overwhelmed by a set of dangerous new challenges to the country's stability, including a series of a bold attacks by a resurgent militant movement in the south and a festering political standoff in the capital. In the last few weeks, the new president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, has faced open defiance after he tried to dismiss or reassign officials loyal to his predecessor, Ali Abdullah Saleh, who ruled Yemen for 33 years. In the south, hundreds of people have been killed in clashes that intensified after insurgents attacked an army base and seized heavy weapons, including tanks."

A game changer for Syria? (Randa Slim, CNN)

"The future leaders of Syria will not come from the Syrian National Council or the National Coordination Committee for Change; they will emerge from the ranks of the revolutionary councils that are forming in different parts of the country. These councils bring together an eclectic mix of the most active local coordinating committees, independent activists, community and business leaders and military defectors. They are putting in place an administrative infrastructure that is akin to a local provincial council, handling everything from media affairs to helping families who lost their homes to providing legal aid to jailed activists. They are also coordinating with each other to protect relief supply lines that cross their respective territories. In the process, the leaders in these councils, who hail from Syria's different religious and ethnic groups, are developing political skills, cultivating local constituencies and learning through trial and error the business of governing. In a country that is increasingly polarized along sectarian and ethnic lines, these councils can perhaps provide the glue that keeps the country stitched together."

--Mary Casey & Jennifer Parker

AFP/Getty images

The Middle East Channel

How to help Yemen come unstuck

Last week's shutdown of Sanaa's airport by security forces seeking to reverse President Abed Rabbo Mansour al-Hadi's dismissal of top brass loyal to the ancien regime exemplified exactly where Yemen is stuck.

After three decades under former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, elements within the transitional civilian government are eager to move forward, with ambitious plans to reform the country's legal and security infrastructure. But they lack the muscle to rein in the security forces, implicated in many of the worst human rights abuses during last year's uprising yet still operating their fiefdoms. Restoring law and order requires a major restructuring of those security forces and a strong dose of accountability for the killings of hundreds of peaceful protesters and indiscriminate attacks on civilian areas.

The blighted record of Yemen's security forces is well documented. The Central Security Forces, headed by Saleh's nephew, Yahya Saleh, stood by while armed pro-government thugs attacked and killed 45 demonstrators on March 18, 2011. The Republican Guards, headed by Saleh's son, Ahmed Ali Saleh, indiscriminately shelled residential neighborhoods in Taiz last year, killing dozens of civilians. There is little contention that these security forces participated in or failed to prevent several similar attacks. Yet when I visited Yemen in late March, the country's general prosecutor could not confirm that a single senior officer in either of these forces had been questioned, much less prosecuted.

In the name of "moving forward," the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and the United States worked out a deal offering Saleh a blanket amnesty and all his aides immunity from prosecution for "political crimes" in exchange for Saleh's agreement to leave office -- immunity that Yemen's Parliament enshrined in law this year. The GCC deal included a provision for a draft Transitional Justice Law that would establish a truth commission, leaving open the hope that Yemenis will at least be able to establish a record of the gross abuses carried out by political and military leaders and compensate people who suffered at their hands. But the current draft doesn't give the commission subpoena powers, so even this small remedial measure will prove limited.

Sanaa, Yemen's capital, remains a city divided, with neighborhoods under the control of various warlords, and none under President Hadi's control. The Republican Guard refuses to fully remove its troops and checkpoints because, its commanders argue, the renegade First Armored Division and militias of the powerful al-Ahmar family won't pull theirs back.

While Hadi and Interior Minister Qader Qahtan have made clear their plans to bring the security services under civilian control and remove officials implicated in abuses, it's also clear they are currently powerless to do so. Yahya Saleh's appearance at my meeting with Qahtan was a surprise, and effectively preempted any discussion of the interior minister's relationship with Central Security.

Despite this standoff, the U.S. government has pledged to resume counterterrorism assistance to fight Yemen's thriving al Qaeda branch, most likely to some of these same military units, to the tune of $75 million this year. If the United States is serious about supporting democratic transition and the rule of law in Yemen, it needs to enforce counterterrorism czar John Brennan's promise that no aid will go to units involved in "political shenanigans" such as the airport shutdown. The United States should start with rigorous Leahy Law-style vetting of all security units being considered for funding. It also should help ensure that those units are accountable to Yemen's civilian government, and that the government conducts serious investigations into their abuses.

The international community should also lend technical and financial support to the legal affairs ministry, which has set itself the ambitious task of rewriting the country's major laws to make them comply with international human rights standards, including laws on nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), labor rights, political parties, and the media.

Minister Ahmed al-Mikhlafi, a former human rights activist, recognizes that this is an opportunity to lay a legal foundation that will protect rights for generations to come. Mikhlafi's offices, unlike the plush, expansive offices of the National Security Agency and Republican Guard, are in a small, dilapidated building. He works with a skeletal staff, sometimes without electricity -- as we discovered during our meeting in the dark. The United States also can support the new human rights minister, Huriyeh Mashour, who has boldly challenged security force abuses, but bemoaned the lack of skills, training, and funding for her underpaid staff.

The United States, the European Union, and the Gulf states were key to persuading Saleh to leave office. Now, they should make an equally concerted effort to help Yemen's new government build rights-respecting security institutions and establish the rule of law. Without these elements, al Qaeda is likely to flourish and rival security factions won't accept civilian rule. Donor countries need to ensure that their assistance moves Yemen forward, and doesn't reward elements holding it back.

Sarah Leah Whitson is Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

 

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images