In Libya, the Cellphone as Weapon

August 25, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Nick Carey

2011-08-22T105041Z_1400415706_GM1E78M1GGG01_RTRMADP_3_LIBYA-REACTION

Libyans living in Turkey wave a flag of the Kingdom of Libya during a protest against Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi outside the Libyan embassy in Ankara August 22, 2011. Libyan rebel fighters poured into Tripoli and on Monday morning controlled most of the capital, though fighting persisted in a few districts. The whereabouts of Muammar Gaddafi were unknown but the rebels held two of his sons, Saif Al-Islam and Mohammed.

REUTERS/Umit Bektas

MISRATA, Libya (Reuters) – When Muammar Gaddafi’s government shut off the cellphone network in Misrata in the early days of Libya’s uprising, it wanted to stop rebel forces communicating with each other. But the power of a modern phone goes beyond its network.

Both rebels and government soldiers have used their phones to take pictures and videos of the conflict, a digital record of fighting from both sides. With the rebels now in Tripoli, the capital, and Gaddafi’s whereabouts unknown, those gigabytes of potential evidence may play a role in any war crimes cases.

The International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo made an appeal in February for “footage and images to confirm the alleged crimes”, after the United Nations Security Council referred the Libyan uprising to the court. A court filing applying for arrest warrants listed video evidence, mainly from media, but also from unspecified sources, in support of its claim.

In the Mediterranean city of Misrata, in particular, a group of rebel-allied lawyers has worked to gather evidence of what it calls war crimes committed by Gaddafi forces.

“In the beginning when there were snipers we had to move around carefully,” said Omar Abulifa, a former prosecutor and head of the Misrata-based Human Rights Activists Association. “It was hard to get the evidence, but we did what we could.”

As the rebels gained control of more of the city in April and May, the association set up a system to gather evidence after every incident, especially the continued bombardment of the city with Grad rockets by Gaddafi loyalists, which killed and injured many civilians. The footage they gathered includes videos taken from the cellphones of rebel fighters and from those of government troops captured or killed during the fighting. Other video and photographs came from citizens of the town.

Some of that film can be used as evidence, Abulifa says. “But not all of it because to be used as evidence it has to be from a trusted source and it has to be clear what is happening.”

Around 150 gigabytes of video gathered by the city’s media committee, which was set up after the uprising, has been provided to the association. A member of the committee gave a Reuters reporter who was in Misrata in July a large volume of that material.

“Everyone has stuff like this,” said Ali, 21, an off-duty rebel fighter, as he showed a Reuters reporter videos on his touch-screen phone, including one of government tanks entering Misrata and one showing a man he says was an unarmed doctor who had been shot by Gaddafi troops and bled to death in the street.

Hair slicked back, and impeccably turned out in western jeans, shirt and shoes, Ali speaks in the weary tone of a young man explaining modern technology to someone older.

“Just ask anyone and they’ll show you,” he said.

Grilled Fish

Technology has been vital to Misrata’s uprising since the beginning.

When his closest childhood friend invited him to a dinner in a fisherman’s hut on the beach last December, Ayman Al Sahli was puzzled. As the 31-year-old lawyer and six other men tucked into grilled fish, their friend, Mohammed Al Madani, explained why he had called the group together.

The accountant brought out a photograph of the old Libyan flag, which predates Muammar Gaddafi’s seizure of power in a 1969 coup. The red-black-and-green flag with its white crescent moon and star is now ubiquitous in the rebel-held city and other parts of Libya. But in December it was forbidden so a small, easily hidden photograph had to do.

Al Madani then used his mobile phone to play Libya’s old national anthem. The song dates back to the country’s independence in 1951 and was banned after Gaddafi seized power. None of the men present had ever heard it before.

“We spent the rest of the evening talking about the unrest in Tunisia,” al Sahli says, “and about what Libya would be like without Gaddafi.”

In the six months since they rose against Gaddafi, the 500,000 or so residents of Libya’s third largest city have remained close to one of the fiercest frontlines of the Arab Spring. The rebels seized Misrata in May after a bloody, three-month long battle against well-armed government militia and in the past few weeks forced the government troops west toward Tripoli.

With the rebels on the verge of victory, much is likely to be made of the NATO bombing raids, which have hammered Gaddafi’s forces since March, and the role of Qatar, which has financed the rebels. But just as important have been two things on show that night in the Misrata beach hut: a low-tech, make-do resourcefulness and mobile phones.

Facebook “Event”

A few days before Misrata’s first street protest on February 17, Mohammed Agila, 32, a bespectacled bank employee, took his heavily pregnant wife and two children to her parents’ house. He withdrew all the money from his bank account and gave it to his father-in-law.

“I did not know exactly what would happen when we went out in the street,” said Agila, one of 70 or so participants in that initial demonstration. “But I knew I could be arrested.”

In the preceding months, Agila and Jamal Sibai, who also took part in the first protest, joined small group meetings like the one at the fisherman’s hut.

“People met in groups of 10, 11, 12 and talked about going into the streets to demonstrate,” said Sibai, 25, a slender, bearded art student and now a writer for a new newspaper called Free Libya. “We talked about freedom and the need for a constitution. We talked about how we wanted a president who could only serve for four or eight years and then, ‘Thank you, goodbye.’

“We didn’t talk about fighting,” he added. “We just wanted the things a normal country should have.”

In January, two Facebook pages — “Amal Libya” or Hope Libya, and another calling for a “day of anger” on February 17 — helped protesters like Sibai and Agila realize they were not alone.

“Before the Facebook pages, we did not know exactly when or where we should go out into the streets,” Agila said. “But they told us when and where to do it. We didn’t create the revolution in Misrata,” added Agila, now a radio announcer as well as working at a bank. “Everyone here wanted to do what we did. We just happened to do it first.”

By this time Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak had already been toppled and protests were underway in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain and other countries. Protests began in Benghazi on February 15, because of fears Gaddafi was preparing to send in his militia.

When protesters, most of them strangers to each other, showed up in the parking lot of Misrata’s technological college on February 17, they noticed cars carrying Gaddafi’s secret police and militia waiting for them. All the protesters were arrested.

“I was afraid,” Sibai said. “But I knew I had to do this anyway.”

Taking It In Turns

The first protests sparked off a series of increasingly large demonstrations in the city, Libya’s commercial and industrial heart some 200 km (124 miles) east of Tripoli. Government forces opened fire on protesters on February 19. Rebels armed with Molotov cocktails, hunting rifles and crude, home-made blades, took control of the city within a few days, but barely.

On March 17, the same day a United Nations resolution ushered in a NATO bombing campaign, Gaddafi forces began an artillery bombardment. Within a few days government tanks backed by snipers firing from tall buildings on Tripoli Street, the city’s main thoroughfare, had forced the rebels to hole up in the city’s seaport.

“We had no weapons, so we fought with what we could find,” says Abu Youssef, 55, a former caterer who recalls his amazement when he saw a teenager take out a tank in the early days of the uprising with just a Molotov cocktail.

On the ground, men like Youssef, 37, a former truck driver on the city’s southern front, joined small groups of men. The group Youssef joined had just one gun between them, a common situation in the opening days of the war before the city’s entrepreneurs, and mass fundraising efforts, brought weapons and ammunition.

Some weapons came from the temporary rebel capital of Benghazi in the east, but the fact that most were bought by locals is both a source of pride and a bone of contention with Benghazi.

“We would take it in turns to fire the gun,” Youssef says while taking shade from the fierce late July sun with his comrades. “The rest of us would help the man with the gun.”

Another fighter called Alim, 21, said rocket-propelled grenade launchers, a much-needed weapon against Gaddafi’s more heavily armed forces, were in particularly short supply. When a group without a launcher needed one for an attack they would ask other groups in the neighborhood to borrow theirs.

“Once we fired it, we returned it as promised,” Alim said as he sped toward the front line last month in a Chinese-made pickup, one of several thousand commandeered from the city’s port during the uprising.

Imported by the government a few years ago to sell to Libyans, the Toyota-lookalikes were rejected by consumers as too shoddy and sat idle at the port. Now they are a hot commodity. The trucks have to be hotwired to start, because no one knows where the keys are, and have a notoriously loose tailgate that pops open at inopportune moments.

“I’d rather have a Toyota,” Alim says, as he hotwires the truck. “Or any other half-decent truck. But I’ll make do with this.”

Dog Fight

The citizens of Misrata made do with whatever came to hand in a battle where, perhaps surprisingly, tanks were not the biggest threat the rebel fighters faced. “In the city, we could use the houses and buildings to get close to tanks,” says Ali, 29, a dentist on the western front line. “We found out that we could take out a tank at 80 meters.”

Far worse were the snipers.

On a tour around the damaged University of Misrata’s Faculty of Medical Technology, medical management lecturer Mahmoud Attaweil pointed to the holes knocked by government snipers in the roof of a five-storey building. Holes along the side of the building were caused by rebels trying to dislodge the snipers, said Attaweil.

“You can’t get a sniper out of a building with small arms,” he said. “The only way to persuade him to leave is to make him believe you will bring the whole building down if you have to.”

One group of rebel fighters attached flashlights to the heads of dogs at night then released them near buildings where they suspected a sniper was hiding. The sniper would open fire, almost invariably missing the fast-moving target presented by the running dog. Once the sniper had given away his position, the rebels would open fire with rocket-propelled grenades.

Gigabytes of Evidence

Mobile phones also became a weapon.

Much of the footage of fighting and its aftermath held by the rebels is too graphic for Reuters to show.

In one sequence, people run toward a car and open the door. The vehicle’s driver slumps out of the door, shot through the head by a sniper, his brains spilling out of a hole in his forehead. Many others, from the city’s hospitals and clinics — a trusted source of information — show injured children. One clip shows a bombed incubator room for infants where nurses pull glass out of the bloodied bodies of crying babies.

Another video, purportedly taken from the phone of a captured government soldier, shows what appear to be uniformed Gaddafi loyalists in the back of a truck trying to force a group of men mainly in civilian clothes to “Say Muammar!” and “Say something!”. Two of the civilians are assaulted — the first, a bearded man, is repeatedly slapped in the face, and pushed against the side of the truck by a man in a black coat. The second is slapped in the face. The men then all begin to chant “Long Live Muammar’s lions!”

The Misrata group says it has already started work on 150 war crimes cases against the Gaddafi regime, and Abulifa says it will add many more.

Gaddafi’s government has denied anything beyond firing at the “armed gangs” and mercenaries, and in June angrily rejected charges of crimes against humanity filed by the International Criminal Court against the Libyan leader, his son Saif al-Islam and intelligence chief Abdullah al-Senussi.

While Abulifa says he welcomes the ICC’s war crimes charges, if the country’s longtime ruler is captured he says he wants him to stand trial in Libya. When asked why, he pauses, then leans forward in his chair and speaks slowly.

“The ICC does not have the death penalty,” he says. “Libya does. We want Gaddafi brought to trial. We want the world to see what he has done. And then we want him brought to justice.”

The ICC said the possible admissibility of mobile phone footage as evidence would be decided on a case-by-case basis. “If there is a conversation from the defense about certain evidence it is up to the judges to decide the admissibility of that evidence,” ICC official Fadi el-Abdallah said.

“The Revolution Did Not Kill Him”

The rebel flag flies everywhere in Misrata now. It is painted on lamp posts, empty oil drums and even the old cargo containers that serve at increasingly irrelevant checkpoints in the city. The people of Misrata boast of how quickly law and order has been restored to the streets — a feat more elusive for Benghazi, Libya’s second city and home to the National Transitional Council, the ruling body for the parts of the country under rebel control.

Today, too, everyone knows Libya’s old national anthem.

But while Ayman Al Sahli, who first heard that anthem on the mobile phone of his friend Mohammed Al Madani last December, says he still backs the revolution, he mourns the loss of his friend, who was killed near the frontline on April 27.

When the fighting began, the accountant who had arranged the beach hut dinner began working for the rebel-run radio station in Misrata, making frequent trips to the station to report on the latest events at the frontline. Al Sahli was sitting with him and other friends when a mortar fired by Gaddafi loyalists struck, killing Al Madani instantly.

“The revolution did not kill Al Madani, Gaddafi did,” Al Sahli said. “More than anything, I want Libya to be free. But I lost my joy the day my friend died.”

(Nick Carey reported from Misrata in July; additional reporting by Aaron Gray-Block in Amsterdam; Edited by Simon Robinson and Sara Ledwith)

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A Successful Fundraiser for Carlos Montes

August 11, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Susan Schwartz, TMO

The fight for justice never stops nor does it seem to ever be able to rest. Human rights activists are under siege for their work, and funds for defense and publicity for their cause are a constant need.

A successful fundraiser was held this past Sunday in Los Angeles to raise money for the defense of human rights activist and Palestinian supporter, Carlos Montes. The Los Angeles Committee to Stop FBI Repression was the sponsor. Beautiful artwork was sold as part of the plan to raise funds.

Mr. Montes was arrested in his home on May 17th by agents of the FBI and a Los Angeles SWAT team. The use of trumped up fire arms charges – the pretext for the arrest – was not merely an excuse to arrest Mr. Montes; it was an attempt to harass and intimidate anti war and Palestinian activists across the nation. Mr. Montes was simply the target in Los Angeles.

In a Muslim Observer article posted March 10 of this year, Mr. Montes and Chicago Palestinian activist, Hatem Abudayyeh, detailed the plight of 23 activists in the mid west who were at the time under subpoena for their work against the wars and for Palestinian independence. Mr. Abudayyeh was on tour in Southern California to present the case to the media and concerned organizations.

In response to this miscarriage of justice, the Committee to Stop FBI Repression was formed, and local committees have grown out of it. Mr. Montes is active in the Los Angeles branch.

Mr. Montes is the Los Angeles target for his outspoken and dedicated work not only against the wars and against the repression of Palestinians, but also for his work with the Immigrant Solidarity Network. He has also spoken out against the policy of the United States vis a vis Columbia.

The Los Angeles Committee to Stop FBI Repression has made three demands: 1) Drop the trumped up charges against Mr. Montes; 2) return all confiscated material obtained during his arrest; 3) Stop the FBI harassment of antiwar and human rights activists throughout the country.

Mr. Montes’ next court date is August 12.

For more information about Mr. Montes and the work of the Committee to Stop FBI Repression, please access: www.fightbacknews.org.

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Unity in Diversity

July 21, 2011 by · Leave a Comment 

By Aqeela Naqvi

TMO Editor’s Note:  This is the first-place essay, by Aqeela Naqvi.

COLOR Aqeela NaqviThe date is December 5, 2000, my birthday. I walk through the hallways to my third grade classroom, trying not to notice the butterflies in my stomach. People turn to say “Hi” and do a double-take. I walk into my classroom; even my teacher gives me a funny look. “Aqeela?” I look up at her and try to control the nervousness in my voice as I say “Good morning.” Throughout the day, some of my classmates shoot indiscreet glances in my direction, while others stare shamelessly. Today is the first day I began wearing the Hijab, a head-covering that is required to be worn in my religion for all girls at the age of nine. Today, I walked into school with palms sweating, ears burning, and a heartbeat so loud it could be heard a mile away.

It has been nearly nine years since that day – nine years in which I have received stares for looking different, been called “towel-head” and “terrorist,” been judged based on first impressions, and was once, after September 11th, a ten-year old scared to walk out her front door simply because of a cloth on her head. Throughout my life, I had always assumed that prejudice against people of other backgrounds was something that existed in the past: something that had been buried long ago by the dreams of people such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who believed in a day where all people would be judged solely on the content of their character. It was not until I began to wear a hijab, however, and began to experience blatant discrimination, that I realized that the works of past human rights activists had not completely healed the defects in society–they had simply covered its wounds with bandages that were slowly beginning to peel away.

From the day I wrapped a scarf around my head, “diverse” became my middle name. The more I was told that I couldn’t participate in certain activities, the more involved in them I became. I strove to prove that no matter how different I looked, I was still the same as everyone else. I could still participate in athletic activities; I could still be involved in public speaking; I could still perform community service activities; I could still be me. I began to understand that Society was a machine that attempted to create perfect porcelain dolls: the chipped, the flawed, the ones that were the wrong shade or the wrong size, the ones that were different, were all regarded as useless and thrown aside. I understood that I was seen as one of those throwaway dolls, but I refused to let society’s definition of me as such rule my life.

When I first began wearing a hijab, that cold December day in third grade, I did not fully understand its symbolism. I took it simply as something I had to do for my religion. As the years passed, I slowly became involved in my local community, donating my time and energy to volunteer at places such as my local soup kitchen, and getting involved in interfaith dialogue and charitable opportunities, and I began to realize that the hijab I wore on my head was not just a cloth; it was a mark of my strength.

It forced the people I encountered to get to know and understand me on a mental level before they judged me on a physical level. To me, everything that the hijab entails, the long sleeves and pants, the piece of cloth I wrap around my head, the aura of modesty – is all a sign of inner beauty. I have come to believe that all of us, regardless of our race or religion, have our own “hijabs” that set us apart from the crowd. All of us come from different backgrounds and have different experiences that cause the canvas of our lives to hold colors unique from everyone else. We all have a hijab that allows each and every one of us, down to the most fragile and faded porcelain doll, to have something that makes us absolutely and irreplaceably beautiful.

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Thailand Accused of Mistreating Muslim Refugees

January 29, 2009 by · Leave a Comment 

Courtesy Simon Montlake, The Christian Science Monitor

2008-05-06-Rohingya_1
The Rohingya Muslim people, subject to horrible state persecution  in Burma, have sought refuge in Bangladesh; recently hundreds were refused entry into Thailand.

BANGKOK, THAILAND – Hundreds of Muslim refugees from Burma (Myanmar) are feared missing or dead after Thai troops forced them onto boats without engines and cut them adrift in international waters, according to human rights activists and authorities in India who rescued survivors. The revelations have shone a spotlight on the Thai military’s expulsion policy toward Muslims it sees as a security threat.

Nearly 1,000 refugees were detained on a remote island in December before being towed out to sea in two batches and abandoned with little food or water, according to a tally by a migrant-rights group based on survivors’ accounts and media reports. The detainees, mostly members of Burma’s oppressed Rohingya minority, then drifted for weeks. One group was rescued by Indonesia’s Navy, and two others made landfall in India’s Andaman Islands.

Photos of refugees on a Thai island show rows of bedraggled men stripped to the waist as soldiers stand guard. In a separate incident, foreign tourists snapped pictures of detainees trussed on a beach. Thailand’s Andaman coastline, where the abuses took place, is a popular vacation spot.

PM Abhisit Vejjajiva has launched an investigation. Military officials have denied any ill treatment of refugees, while offering conflicting accounts of how they ended up lost at sea. The military has accused the Rohingya, who often travel via Thailand to Malaysia to work or seek asylum, of assisting a Muslim-led insurgency in southern Thailand.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is pressing Thailand for access to 126 Rohingya that it says are in Thai custody. These include 46 boat people reportedly detained on Jan. 16 and handed over to military custody. It said a second group of 80 Rohingya, which reportedly had previously been pushed out to sea and drifted back, had been transferred to the tiny detention island.

There was no sign Thursday of any detainees there, said a Western source in the area. Villagers said boat people had been held there by local guards under military command, before being towed out to sea by fishing vessels. Rickety vessels said to have carried the refugees were beached on the island, the source said.

Amid accusations of a military cover-up, the Thai government has promised a full accounting. “The military has agreed to a fact-finding investigation … [but] we’re not dependent on their input alone,” says Panitan Wattanyagorn, a spokesman.

That probe will expose Mr. Abhisit’s weak command of the military, which sees the Rohingya and other undocumented Muslims as a threat, says Paul Quaglia, director of PSA Asia, a security consultancy in Bangkok. He says there’s no evidence that the Rohingya, who speak a Bengali dialect, have joined insurgents in the Malay-speaking south, where more than 3,500 people have died since 2004.

“Abhisit is … beholden to the military for getting his job – and keeping his job,” he says.

Thailand has long been a magnet for millions of economic migrants as well as refugees escaping persecution in Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. Human traffickers often play a role moving both groups, exposing those on the run to egregious abuses. Thailand has a mixed record on hosting refugees.

Most Rohingya, who are denied legal rights in Burma, begin their journey in Bangladesh, where more than 200,000 live in unofficial camps. A further 28,000 are registered with the UNHCR. From there, men pay smugglers for passage across the Indian Ocean to Thailand, usually as a transit stop to reach Malaysia, a Muslim country with a sizable Rohingya population. Some Bangladeshis also travel there.

In recent years, boats crossing during winter months have increased. Between 2004 and 2008, the number of Rohingya detained by police rose to 4,866, up from 2,763, says Kraisak Choonhavan, a government lawmaker.

Some of these Rohingya have been repatriated to Burma. Others have paid smugglers to complete their journey to Malaysia, or become victims of traffickers, say rights activists. That appears to have changed as the military has got involved.

In security briefings, military officials repeatedly draw a link between Rohingya refugees and separatist violence in the south, says Sunai Pasuk, with Human Rights Watch, which has received reports of sea “pushbacks” since 2007. “This is not just an isolated incident. There must be a policy behind it,” he says.

Mr. Kraisak, a deputy leader of the ruling Democrat party, criticized the violation of human rights. But he said the outflow of refugees from Burma was a problem that Thailand can’t handle alone. “We have to confer on the international stage. Thais have been too tolerant,” he says.

In interviews with Indian security officials, survivors said uniformed Thai personnel shot four refugees and tossed another into the sea before forcing their group to board a wooden barge. Some 400 crowded onto the barge, which was towed to sea for about 18 hours with armed soldiers aboard. They shared two bags of rice and two gallons of water, according to a transcript in the South China Post.

The barge drifted for more than a week. Of 300 people who tried to swim to shore, only 11 survived. An additional 88 were rescued by the Coast Guard.

The Rohingya people are very oppressed in Burma.  The people, from western Burma’s Arakan State, are forbidden from marrying or travelling without permission and have no legal right to own land or property.

Not only that but even though groups of them have been living in Burma for hundreds of years, they are also denied citizenship by the country’s military government.

For decades this Muslim group of ethnic-Indo origins have been considered the lowest of the low in this mainly Buddhist country. In 1992, 250,000 Rohingyas, a third of their population, fled over Burma’s border into Bangladesh to escape the persecution. Years later more than 20,000 of them are still in the same refugee camps and around 100,000 more are living illegally in the surrounding area.

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