From Venezuela to McCain, Big Media and Human Rights Industry in Lockstep

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Joe Emersberger / FAIR.

On August 20, the Economist ran an article on Venezuela saying that “forced migration from the country might surpass the Syria crisis.” The magazine reported:

The UN’s International Organization for Migration estimates that at the end of 2017 approximately 1.6 million Venezuelans were living outside their country. Today that number is likely to be far higher: as of June 2018 there were nearly 1 million Venezuelan migrants in Colombia alone. The UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, has recorded 135,000 asylum applications from Venezuelans during the first seven months of 2018, already 20 percent more than for the whole of 2017. The total number of displaced Venezuelans may already have reached 4 million, out of a population of some 30 million. The outflow could eventually surpass the 6 million people who have fled the Syrian civil war.

The UN’s International Organization for Migration estimates that, by July of 2018, 2.3 million Venezuelans were living abroad (which includes hundreds of thousands who have spent decades abroad).  Why does the Economist say it “may already” be 4 million? A good guess is that they are relying on the estimates of Tomas Paez, a vehemently anti-government Venezuelan academic who has long been a favorite source for corporate journalists (, 2/18/18). Paez has estimated that 1.6 million people left Venezuela from 1999–2015, about five times more than UN Population Division estimates for that period.

Economist: The exodus from Venezuela threatens to descend into chaos

The Economist‘s claim (8/20/18) that migration from Venezuela “might surpass the Syrian crisis” is off by a factor of seven.

No doubt as Venezuela’s economy entered what could fairly be called a “collapse” starting in 2015, migration began to skyrocket, and it is indeed likely to get worse, thanks to illegal economic sanctions that Trump enacted in August 2017.

What about the Economist‘s Syria comparison? First of all, Syria’s civil war has not just created a massive “outflow” of refugees. It also created an enormous population of internally displaced people, as wars typically do. As of 2017, Syria had 6 million people forcibly displaced within its borders. Another 5 million refugees were still living in three bordering countries (Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey). That brings the total of those forcibly displaced by Syria’s civil war to nearly 11 million—almost seven times larger than the most credible estimate of the numbers displaced (so far) by Venezuela’s economic crisis.

Syria had a population of about 21 million in 2011 when the civil war began. It has now been estimated to be about 18 million. So more than half of Syria’s 2011 population are now refugees, either internally or externally—a far cry from the 13 percent of the Venezuelan population claimed by Paez (and hinted at by the Economist), or the 5 percent (1.6 million) estimated by the UN’s International Organization for Migration to have left since 2015.

In absolute terms, Colombia’s population of internally displaced is even larger than Syria’s. As of March 2018, the UNHCR estimated it at 7.7 million out of total population of about 50 million, or more than one in seven. Of course, relative to population, Syria’s internally displaced population is vastly larger than Colombia’s. Still, 7.7 million internally displaced is a hell of a disaster to sweep under the rug, but those are the benefits of being a government in the good graces of the US and its allies.

The Economist doesn’t mention that US policy (backed by the entire Western establishment) is to use harsh and illegal economic sanctions to deliberately make Venezuela’s economic crisis worse, which will help drive more people to leave the country. US economist Mark Weisbrot, who was recently given a very rare bit of space to state this fact, noted afterwards that

Brian Ellsworth, a journalist for Reuters who reports from Venezuela, has joined the latest avalanche of trolls, bots and blowhards who swarmed me because I dared to mention on BBC World TV, on Friday night, that Trump’s financial embargo against Venezuela makes it more difficult for any government to stabilize the economy—a fact that no economist would dispute. Indeed, that is the purpose of the embargo.

The Western establishment includes prominent human rights groups, who often express the same imperial perspective one finds in the Economist.  By citing these outfits, corporate media seem to provide critical assessments that are independent of Western officialdom. Don’t buy it. Amnesty International has refused to oppose US economic sanctions on Venezuela, and has also refused to denounce flagrant efforts by US officials to incite a military coup. Amnesty’s Americas director Erika Guevara-Rosas tweeted the dubious Economist article comparing Venezuela to Syria.

Kenneth Roth praises John McCain on Twitter

Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth (Twitter, 8/26/18) praised John McCain’s not-so-principled stance on torture.

Guevara-Rosas also tweeted out an article praising John McCain. McCain’s death has been a real “teachable moment,” showing how tiny the ideological differences are between corporate media and the human rights industry. Four different Human Rights Watch (HRW) officials used their Twitter accounts to spread praise for McCain. In 2011, McCain tried to have Venezuela placed on the US “sponsors of terrorism” list—not scary at all, coming from a man who joked about bombing Iran. McCain dutifully echoed the Venezuelan opposition’s line (also the Western media line, and HRW’s line) that the country is a “dictatorship.”

Ken Roth (HRW’s executive director) said McCain “will be remembered for his firm, principled opposition to torture, especially by Bush, a member of his own party.” Jose Miguel Vivanco said McCain was “a giant in North America politics and an ally in the defense of human rights.” Sarah Margon, HRW’s Washington director, said that McCain’s death ”feels exceptionally tough for those of us who have fought for human decency and basic rights alongside and with him.” Dinah PoKempner, HRW’s general counsel, spread an article that called McCain a “war hero.”

HRW followed up with an official statement saying McCain “was for decades a compassionate voice for US foreign and national security policy.”

And, of course, the Economist’s obituary (8/30/18) similarly laid the praise on thick, casting McCain as part of a heroic Republican “resistance” to Donald Trump: “The talk was never straighter, the stance never more upright, than when he called on his fellow Republicans not just to endure, but to resist.” McCain voted with Trump 83 percent of the time, according to the FiveThirtyEight website.

The victims of empire are never more invisible than when it is time to whitewash a departed warmonger. McCain’s “war hero” credibility stems from being a direct perpetrator of, and not simply a cheerleader for, the mass slaughter in Vietnam that took the lives of millions of people—or “gooks,” as McCain unapologetically preferred to call them. It is left to independent voices like Max Blumenthal (Consortium News, 8/27/18), to review McCain’s bloodthirsty record:

McCain did not simply thunder for every major intervention of the post-Cold War era from the Senate floor, while pushing for sanctions and assorted campaigns of subterfuge on the side. He was uniquely ruthless when it came to advancing imperial goals, barnstorming from one conflict zone to another to personally recruit far-right fanatics as American proxies.

In Libya and Syria, he cultivated affiliates of Al Qaeda as allies, and in Ukraine, McCain courted actual, sig-heiling neo-Nazis.

While McCain’s Senate office functioned as a clubhouse for arms industry lobbyists and neocon operatives, his fascistic allies waged a campaign of human devastation that will continue until long after the flowers dry up on his grave.

Unless there is radical change—real “resistance”—that transforms the organizations that people rely on to be ”informed” (media and NGOs included), Donald Trump, like Nixon, Reagan and George W. Bush, will eventually be whitewashed as well.

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U.S. Planning to Train Saudi Pilots on American Soil, Report Finds

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Jake Johnson / Common Dreams.

Just 48 hours after Defense Secretary James Mattis attempted to obscure America’s direct role in Saudi Arabia’s ongoing massacre of Yemeni civilians by proclaiming that the U.S. is merely “watching” the deadly conflict, journalist Ken Klippenstein reported for The Young Turks (TYT) on Thursday that the Pentagon is currently preparing to train Saudi military pilots on U.S. soil.

“Federal procurement documents reviewed by TYT show that the U.S. Air Force is actively soliciting private contractors for training of Royal Saudi Air Force (RSAF) personnel to be ‘conducted in the U.S. at contractor’s facility,'” Klippenstein reported.

Klippenstein noted that if the training of Saudi pilots to fly F-15 fighter jets takes place, it would appear to be the first such activity on American soil since the U.S.-Saudi coalition intervened in Yemen’s civil war in 2015.

Despite the Pentagon’s threat on Tuesday to withhold military support and intelligence from Saudi Arabia after the kingdom killed 29 children in an airstrike on a Yemeni school bus—an attack carried out with a U.S.-made bomb—Klippenstein notes that the “Pentagon’s solicitation for training Saudi pilots… was posted on August 23, two weeks after the school bus bombing, the procurement records show. What’s more, the training will be for warplanes including the F-15 fighter jet, which the Saudis are using in Yemen.”

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director for Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division, called the Pentagon’s reported plans to train Saudi fighter pilots on U.S. soil “disturbing.”

“Saudi pilots have shown a reckless disregard for human life in the countless atrocities they’ve caused in Yemen; at this point, we need accountability for war crimes, not more training,” Whitson told TYT.

Independent journalist Walker Bragman—who helped start a social media campaign to pressure America’s corporate media outlets to cover the U.S. role in Saudi Arabia’s assault on Yemen—argued that Klippenstein’s reporting provides further evidence that the “U.S. is a willing participant in the Yemen genocide despite claims to the contrary.”

Other progressive commentators echoed Bragman, noting that despite its feigned concerns for Saudi atrocities, “U.S. complicity in the most brutal human rights abuses in the world is increasing.”

Alluding to the fact that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudi citizens, some of whom trained at U.S. flight schools in preparation for their attackm, writer Karen Geier declared sardonically, “training Saudi pilots has never been a problem for America.”

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U.N. Report: Myanmar Generals Should Be Prosecuted for Genocide

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Jessica Corbett / Common Dreams.

Following a United Nations Human Rights Council fact-finding mission on Myanmar, a damning U.N. report published Monday concludes that the nation’s military leaders, including its top commander, should be further investigated and prosecuted for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes committed against Rohingya Muslims in the wake of a violent crackdown last August that forced more than half a million refugees to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.

“The gross human rights violations and abuses committed in Kachin, Rakhine, and Shan states,” which “stem from deep fractures in society and structural problems that have been apparent and unaddressed for decades,” the report asserts, “undoubtedly amount to the gravest crimes under international law.”

The report (pdf) comes from a yearlong investigation conducted by a three-member panel, which relied on 875 in-depth interviews with victims and eyewitnesses, satellite images, and verified documents, photographs, and videos. It documents crimes including murder, enforced disappearance, enslavement, imprisonment, torture, rape, and sexual slavery.

While the report determines that six leaders of the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw—most notably Commander-in-Chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing—bear the greatest responsibility for such crimes, it also charges that State Counsellor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, “has not used her de facto position as head of government, nor her moral authority, to stem or prevent the unfolding events in Rakhine State.”

Among the report’s key recommendations, it declares, “The international community, through the United Nations, should use all diplomatic, humanitarian, and other peaceful means to assist Myanmar in meeting its responsibility to protect its people from genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.”

It also urges the U.N. Security Council to “ensure accountability for crimes under international law committed in Myanmar, preferably by referring the situation to the International Criminal Court or alternatively by creating an ad hoc international criminal tribunal,” as well as to “adopt targeted individual sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, against those who appear most responsible for serious crimes under international law” and to “impose an arms embargo on Myanmar.”

Human rights advocates responded to the findings, which bolster previous reports from U.N. officials and international news agencies, with immediate calls for actions.

Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said that the “powerful report and clear recommendations demonstrate the obvious need for concrete steps to advance criminal justice for atrocious crimes, instead of more hollow condemnations and expressions of concern,” especially considering that “so far, condemnations without action by U.N. member states have only emboldened a culture of violence and oppression in Myanmar.”

Tirana Hassan, director of crisis response at Amnesty International, said the report makes “clear that the Myanmar authorities are incapable of bringing to justice those responsible,” which means that “the international community has the responsibility to act to ensure justice and accountability. Failing to do so sends a dangerous message that Myanmar’s military will not only enjoy impunity but is free to commit such atrocities again.”

The report will “have a big impact internationally, coming from the main U.N.-mandated body investigating the violence against the Rohingya, and also covering armed conflict in Shan, and Kachin states,” Richard Horsey, a former U.N. diplomat in Myanmar and longtime Yangon-based analyst, told the Washington Post. “Its specific finding that there is sufficient grounds for investigation and prosecution of military commanders for genocide is likely to have particularly serious diplomatic, not only legal, consequences.”

After the report’s release, Facebook—according to a company blog post—removed “18 Facebook accounts, one Instagram account, and 52 Facebook Pages, followed by almost 12 million people,” specifically banning  20 individuals and organizations, including the commander-in-chief and the military’s Myawady television network, “to prevent the spread of hate and misinformation.” Reuters noted that the “action means an essential blackout of the military’s main channel of public communication.”

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Rights Group: Israeli Lethal Force in Gaza May Be War Crime

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by ILAN BEN ZION / The Associated Press.

JERUSALEM — Human Rights Watch said Wednesday that Israel’s use of lethal force against Palestinian demonstrators in the Gaza Strip in recent weeks may constitute war crimes.

The statement was issued Wednesday ahead of an emergency U.N. General Assembly meeting to vote on a resolution condemning Israel’s “excessive use of force.” A similar Security Council resolution was vetoed earlier this month by the United States for being “fundamentally imbalanced” and “grossly one-sided,” U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said.

Palestinians have held near-weekly protests since March 30, calling for a “right of return” to ancestral homes now in Israel. At least 120 Palestinians have been killed and more than 3,800 wounded by Israeli fire in protests along the border. The overwhelming majority of the dead and wounded have been unarmed, according to Gaza health officials.

The Israeli military has said its soldiers adhere to the rules of engagement to defend Israeli civilians and security infrastructure from attacks cloaked by the protests.

Human Rights Watch contended in its statement that the mostly unarmed protesters didn’t pose an imminent threat to Israeli troops or civilians, and therefore the use of live fire suggests a violation of international law. The organization said eyewitnesses recounted Palestinians were shot from a great distance from the fence, and others who “had not thrown stones or otherwise tried to harm Israeli soldiers” were shot from a closer range.

Israel has been accused of committing war crimes in its three wars in the Gaza Strip in the last decade. Last month the Palestinians urged the International Criminal Court in The Hague to launch an investigation into Israeli policies and actions in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip, accusing Israel of systemic crimes.

Israel has called the Palestinian move “legally invalid.” Israel is not a member of the ICC and argues the court does not have jurisdiction.

The ICC has conducted a preliminary investigation since 2015 into alleged crimes in the Palestinian territories, including West Bank settlement construction and war crimes by Israel and Hamas in the 2014 war in Gaza.

Human Rights Watch’s Mideast director called on the international community to “impose real costs for such blatant disregard for Palestinian lives.”

“The U.N. Human Rights Council inquiry should identify and call for sanctions against officials implicated in ongoing serious human rights violations,” Sarah Leah Whitson said.

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Asylum Seeker’s Death in ICE Custody Exposes Systemic Neglect and Abuse

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by Julia Conley / Common Dreams.

Immigrant rights groups are blaming ICE for the death of a transgender woman who died last Friday after seeking asylum at the U.S.-Mexico border and being held in the agency’s custody for two weeks. The woman’s death calls attention to the brutal treatment faced by immigrants held in ICE facilities, advocates say—cruelty that existed under the Obama administration and has worsened under President Donald Trump.

Thirty-three year old Roxsana Hernandez had arrived in the U.S. on May 9 with the migrant caravan of hundreds of people who had traveled through Mexico from Central America earlier this spring.

Hernandez was HIV-positive, and according to the group Pueblo Sin Frontera, which had organized the caravan, she died after having been held for several days in a cold cell known as an “ice box” at the San Ysidro port of entry.

Diversidad Sin Fronteras and Al Otro Lado joined the group in asserting that ICE was to blame for Hernandez’s death, saying that she was given inadequate food and medical care and was held in a cell where the lights were on 24 hours a day.

“Roxy died due to medical negligence by U.S. immigration authorities,” the groups said in a statement. “Why incarcerate and torture her like this? She had a home waiting for her in the United States. They could have let her go there. If they had, she would still be with us.”

Hernandez had been taken to Cibola County Correctional Facility, which contracts with ICE, on May 16, then airlifted to the intensive care unit at a hospital in Albuquerque where she remained until she died on May 25 of cardiac arrest. She had also been found to suffer from pneumonia and dehydration.

According to Sarah Sherman-Stokes of Boston University’s Immigrants’ Rights and Human Trafficking Program, Hernandez was the sixth immigrant to die in ICE custody since October 2017, the beginning of this fiscal year.

Last year, Human Rights Watch highlighted the “dangerous and substandard” medical care offered to detainees in facilities run by ICE.

Immigrants’ requests for care routinely go ignored, according to the group’s report, entitled “Systemic Indifference,” and facilities were found to disregard appropriate HIV screening guidelines and care for HIV-positive patients.

Significant lapses in medical care in immigration detention facilities “are not new problems,” read the report, but HRW expressed concern that treating immigrants properly was being prioritized less and less under the Trump administration.

“ICE has been receiving reports of such substandard medical care for years but has failed to take meaningful action,” wrote the group. “The Obama administration implemented several new programs meant to improve oversight, but these monitoring procedures remain inadequate, and the Trump administration has already announced plans to reverse many of these reforms.”

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Palestinians Seek World Court Investigation of Israel

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by MIKE CORDER / The Associated Press.

THE HAGUE, Netherlands — Calling it a “historic step” toward justice, the Palestinian foreign minister asked the International Criminal Court on Tuesday to open an “immediate investigation” into alleged Israeli crimes committed against the Palestinian people.

The development was sure to worsen the already troubled relations between the internationally backed Palestinian Authority and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government. Peace talks have been frozen for over four years, and contacts between the two sides are minimal.

Speaking to reporters at the ICC in The Hague, Netherlands, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki said he submitted the “referral” to the court during a meeting with the ICC’s chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda.

The referral sought an investigation into Israeli policies in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip since the state of Palestine accepted the ICC’s jurisdiction in 2014, he said.

This includes Israeli settlement policies in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, as well as the recent round of bloodshed in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli fire killed over 100 Palestinians during mass protests along the Gaza border, Malki added.

“There is a culture of impunity in Israel for crimes against Palestinians,” Malki said. “This referral is Palestine’s test to the international mechanism of accountability and respect for international law.”

The ICC has been conducting a preliminary probe since 2015 into alleged crimes in the Palestinian territories, including Israel’s settlement policy and crimes allegedly committed by both sides in the 2014 Gaza conflict. Tuesday’s referral could speed up a decision on whether to open a full-blown investigation that could ultimately lead to the indictment of high-ranking Israelis.

The move comes with Israeli-Palestinian relations at their lowest point in years in the aftermath of the U.S. Embassy move to Jerusalem and the recent bloodshed on the Gaza border.

“This is a conduct that requires that we take action and this is why we moved in this regard,” said Palestinian Assistant Minister for Multilateral Affairs Ammar Hijazi, referring to recent Gaza violence.

Israel has said it was defending its border and accused Gaza’s ruling Hamas militant group of using the unrest to carry out attempted attacks and of using civilians as human shields.

In new violence, the Israeli army said it targeted a Hamas observation post in Gaza with tank fire after a group of militants briefly entered Israel and set fire to an Israeli military post. The army said there were no injuries on the Israeli side, and no additional details were immediately available.

In response to Tuesday’s move at the ICC, Israel said it took a “severe view” of the Palestinian request, calling it a “cynical” and “absurd” step. It accused the Palestinians of violent incitement against Israel and exploiting women and children as human shields. It also said the ICC had no jurisdiction in the case because Israel is not a member of the court.

“Israel expects the ICC and its prosecutor not to yield to Palestinian pressure, and stand firm against continued Palestinian efforts to politicize the court and to derail it from its mandate,” the Israeli statement said.

Israel is not a member of the ICC, but its citizens can be charged by the court if they are suspected of committing grave crimes on the territory or against a national of a country that is a member. The ICC has recognized “Palestine” as a member state.

The ICC is a court of last resort — it is authorized to take on cases where national authorities cannot or will not launch prosecutions.

Israel says it has investigated actions by its forces during the Gaza conflict, and says it has opened a number of investigations into the latest Gaza violence as well. But critics say the investigations rarely lead anywhere.

“Israel acts in accordance with independent and thorough judicial review mechanisms, befitting a democratic state, and in accordance with international law,” the Israeli statement said.

While the ICC can indict suspects, it has no police force and has to rely on cooperation from member states to enforce arrest warrants.

Richard Dicker, director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch, said Bensouda, the chief ICC prosecutor, should now “take steps to open a formal probe aimed at holding perpetrators of serious crimes to account and ensuring impartial and comprehensive justice consistent with the court’s statute.”

The Palestinians appear to have an especially strong case in the matter of settlements. In 2004, the United Nations’ highest judicial organ, the International Court of Justice, ruled in an advisory opinion that the settlements breached international law.

In late 2016, the U.N. Security Council also declared the settlements to be illegal.

Over 600,000 Israelis now live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem — territories sought by the Palestinians as parts of their future state. Israel captured both territories from Jordan in the 1967 Mideast war.

Under international law it is illegal to transfer populations out of or into occupied territory.

Israel claims east Jerusalem as an inseparable part of its capital — though its annexation is not international recognized.

Israel claims the West Bank is not occupied because it was captured from Jordan, not the Palestinians, and Jordan does not make a claim to the territory.

Since the Palestinians never ruled the West Bank, Israel says this territory is disputed and its final status should be resolved in negotiations. It also claims that settlements can be torn down and therefore do not prejudice the final status of the territory. It notes that in the case of Gaza, for instance, it uprooted all settlements there when it withdrew in 2005. Israel also captured Gaza in the 1967 war.

While the Gaza withdrawal removed some 8,000 settlers, the much larger population in the West Bank and east Jerusalem would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to move.


Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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UAE Detains Campaigners for Women’s Right to Drive

Read more of this story here from Truthdig RSS by AYA BATRAWY / The Associated Press.

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates—Just weeks before Saudi Arabia is set to lift its ban on women driving, the kingdom’s state security said Saturday it had detained seven people who are being accused of working with “foreign entities.” Rights activists say all those detained had worked in some capacity on women’s rights issues, with five of those detained among the most prominent and outspoken women’s rights campaigners in the country.

Pro-government media outlets have splashed their photos online and in newspapers, accusing them of betrayal and of being traitors.

The female activists had persistently called for the right to drive, but stressed that this was only the first step toward full rights. For years, they also called for an end to less visible forms of discrimination, such as lifting guardianship laws that give male relatives final say on whether a woman can travel abroad, obtain a passport or marry.

Their movement was seen as part of a larger democratic and civil rights push in the kingdom, which remains an absolute monarchy where protests are illegal and where all major decision-making rests with the king and his son, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Some state-linked media outlets published the names of those detained, which include Loujain al-Hathloul, Aziza al-Yousef and Eman al-Najfan.

Rights activists who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity for fear of repercussion say Madeha al-Ajroush and Aisha al-Manae are also among the seven detained. Both took part in the first women’s protest movement for the right to drive in 1990, in which 50 women were arrested for driving and lost their passports and their jobs.

All five women are well-known activists who agitated for greater women’s rights. Several of the women were professors at state-run universities and are mothers or grandmothers.

The Interior Ministry on Saturday did not name those arrested, but said the group is being investigated for communicating with “foreign entities,” working to recruit people in sensitive government positions and providing money to foreign circles with the aim of destabilizing and harming the kingdom.

The stunning arrests come just six weeks before Saudi Arabia is set to lift the world’s only ban on women driving next month.

When the kingdom issued its royal decree last year announcing that women would be allowed to drive in 2018, women’s rights activists were contacted by the royal court and warned against giving interviews to the media or speaking out on social media.

Following the warnings, some women left the country for a period of time and others stopped voicing their opinions on Twitter.

As activists were pressured into silence, Saudi Arabia’s 32-year-old heir to the throne stepped forth, positioning himself as the force behind the kingdom’s reforms.

Human Rights Watch says, however, the crown prince’s so-called reform campaign “has been a frenzy of fear for genuine Saudi reformers who dare to advocate publicly for human rights or women’s empowerment.”

“The message is clear that anyone expressing skepticism about the crown prince’s rights agenda faces time in jail,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director at Human Rights Watch.

Last year, Prince Mohammed oversaw the arrests of dozens of writers, intellectuals and moderate clerics who were perceived as critics of his foreign policies. He also led an unprecedented shakedown of top princes and businessmen, forcing them to hand over significant portions of their wealth in exchange for their freedom as part of a purported anti-corruption campaign.

In an interview with CBS in March, he said that he was “absolutely” sending a message through these arrests that there was a new sheriff in town.

Activists say writer Mohammed al-Rabea and lawyer Ibrahim al-Mudaimigh, two men who worked to support women’s rights campaigners, are also among the seven detained. Al-Mudaimigh defended al-Hathloul in court when she was arrested in late 2014 for more than 70 days for her online criticism of the government and for attempting to bring attention to the driving ban by driving from neighboring United Arab Emirates into Saudi Arabia.

Those familiar with the arrests say al-Hathloul was forcibly taken by security forces earlier this year from the UAE, where she was residing, and forced back to the kingdom.

In recent weeks, activists say several women’s rights campaigners were also banned from traveling abroad.

Immediately after news of the arrests broke, pro-government Twitter accounts were branding the group as treasonous under an Arabic hashtag describing them as traitors for foreign embassies.

The pro-government SaudiNews50 Twitter account, with its 11.5 million followers, splashed images of those arrested with red stamps over their face that read “traitor” and saying that “history spits in the face of the country’s traitors.”

The state-linked Al-Jazirah newspaper published on its front-page a photo of al-Hathloul and al-Yousef under a headline describing them as citizens who betrayed the nation.

Activists told the AP that some in the group were arrested on Tuesday and at least one person was arrested Thursday. They say the detainees were transferred from the capital, Riyadh, to the city of Jiddah for interrogations where the royal court has relocated for the month of Ramadan.

Activists say it’s not clear why the seven have been arrested now.

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Martyrs in Gaza: The Plight of Palestinians (Audio)

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Editor’s note: Thousands of Palestinians staged a mass protest along Gaza’s sealed border with Israel, some burning Israeli flags. Israeli soldiers fired tear gas and live bullets from across the border fence.

In this week’s episode of “Scheer Intelligence,” host and Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer welcomes controversial author Norman Finkelstein, a longtime critic of the “Holocaust Industry” and an outspoken commentator on the Arab-Israeli conflict. His most recent book, “Gaza: An Inquest into Its Martyrdom,” delves into the struggles of Palestinians in the region.

From the book description:

The Gaza Strip is among the most densely populated places in the world. More than two-thirds of its inhabitants are refugees, and more than half are under eighteen years of age. Since 2004, Israel has launched eight devastating “operations” against Gaza’s largely defenseless population. Thousands have perished, and tens of thousands have been left homeless. In the meantime, Israel has subjected Gaza to a merciless illegal blockade.

What has befallen Gaza is a man-made humanitarian disaster.

Based on scores of human rights reports, Norman G. Finkelstein’s new book presents a meticulously researched inquest into Gaza’s martyrdom. He shows that although Israel has justified its assaults in the name of self-defense, in fact these actions constituted flagrant violations of international law.

But Finkelstein also documents that the guardians of international law—from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch to the UN Human Rights Council—ultimately failed Gaza. One of his most disturbing conclusions is that, after Judge Richard Goldstone’s humiliating retraction of his UN report, human rights organizations succumbed to the Israeli juggernaut.

Finkelstein’s magnum opus is both a monument to Gaza’s martyrs and an act of resistance against the forgetfulness of history.

Finkelstein, whose parents were Holocaust survivors, tells Scheer during their conversation that he purposely used “martyrdom” in his new book’s title, as his parents invoked the same term when discussing their own suffering during the Holocaust.

Finkelstein believes the younger generation of American Jews is growing estranged from Israel because of its treatment of Palestinians and will move toward disassociating itself from Israel’s policies.

And he says the human rights community has largely abandoned Gaza, where living conditions are extremely poor for its residents, half of whom are children.

Norman Finkelstein in 2013 at the Solidarity Youth Movement 10th anniversary conference in Calicut, India. (Zuhairali / Wikimedia)

Listen to the interview in the player above. Find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.

—Posted by Eric Ortiz

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Israel: Gaza Killings Unlawful, Calculated

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(Jerusalem) – Senior Israeli officials who unlawfully called for use of live ammunition against Palestinian demonstrations who posed no imminent threat to life bear responsibility for the killings of 14 demonstrators in Gaza and the injuring of hundreds on March 30, 2018, Human Rights Watch said today.

Both before and after the confrontations, senior officials publicly said that soldiers stationed along the barrier that separates Gaza and Israel had orders to target “instigators” and those who approach the border. However, the Israeli government presented no evidence that rock-throwing and other violence by some demonstrators seriously threatened Israeli soldiers across the border fence. The high number of deaths and injuries was the foreseeable consequence of granting soldiers leeway to use lethal force outside of life-threatening situations in violation of international norms, coupled with the longstanding culture of impunity within the Israeli army for serious abuses.

“Israeli soldiers were not merely using excessive force, but were apparently acting on orders that all but ensured a bloody military response to the Palestinian demonstrations,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “The result was foreseeable deaths and injuries of demonstrators on the other side of a border who posed no imminent threat to life.”

The killings highlight the importance of the International Criminal Court prosecutor opening a formal investigation into serious international crimes in Palestine, Human Rights Watch said.

Israel and Egypt maintain a heavily secured border around the 40-kilometer-long, 11-kilometer-wide Gaza Strip. Since Israel withdrew its permanent ground troop presence and civilian settlements from the Gaza Strip in 2005, it has maintained a “no-go zone” on the border. Nearly 2 million Palestinians, including 1.3 million refugees, live in Gaza. The vast majority are unable to leave, including to the West Bank, due to sweeping Israeli and Egyptian restrictions on movement. Israel’s closure policy also heavily restricts the flow of goods into and out of Gaza.

In the days ahead of planned demonstrations to mark Land Day, held annually on March 30 to highlight the dispossession of Palestinians over the years, Israeli officials repeatedly proclaimed their intent to fire on “instigators” and those approaching the border fence. In interviews given on March 28, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot, announced that he would deploy 100 snipersto the Gaza border area to block “mass infiltration” or damage to the border fence, saying that, “The orders are to use a lot of force.” On March 29, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Arabic spokesman posted a video of a man shot in the leg, stating, “This is the least that anyone who tries to cross the security fence between Gaza and Israel will face.” On the morning of March 30, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman tweeted in Arabic that, “Anyone who approaches the border puts his life in jeopardy.”

Organizers of this year’s Land Day demonstrations said they would also affirm Palestinians’ internationally recognized right of return. Most of the thousands who participated in Gaza stayed in tent encampments, due to remain in place until May 15, the 70th anniversary of the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), the displacement of Palestinians that accompanied the founding of the Israeli state. The tent villages were pitched at various points about 500 meters inside the border.

While most of the people in the tent villages did not approach the border, groups of mostly young men did so, some throwing stones, and, according to the IDF, “Molotov cocktails” (improvised gasoline bombs). Israeli forces directed fire at these men, killing 14 and injuring 1,415—758 of them with live ammunition—according to Gaza’s Health Ministry. Rubber bullets and teargas injured others. The Israeli army disputes these figures, contending that the number of Palestinians injured by live ammunition was likely in the dozens.

Gaza’s Health Ministry noted it had received the bodies of two other men killed in unknown circumstances near Beit Hanoun in northern Gaza. Israeli authorities also announced they are holding the bodies of two additional men killed on March 30, who it claims were armed and aiming to carry out a “terrorist operation in Israel.”

Human Rights Watch spoke to doctors who treated patients at Shifa Hospital in Gaza City who said they had received 294 injured demonstrators on March 30, most with injuries to the lower limbs from live ammunition, and five who died, all with head and chest injuries.

As events unfolded in the afternoon, both the IDF spokesperson and Israel’s coordinator of government activities in the territories, Maj. Gen. Yoav Mordechai, tweeted that the army was firing on “main instigators.” The spokesperson added that, “Whenever there has been an attempt to damage the fence, we fired with precision, intensity and determination, exercising judgment.” Gen. Ronen Manelis, the chief army spokesman, told the New York Times that the operation aimed “not to allow the sabotage of military infrastructure and not to allow any mass crossing of the fence.”

While some protesters near the border fence burned tires and threw rocks, Human Rights Watch could find no evidence of any protester using firearms or any IDF claim of threatened firearm use at the demonstrations. The IDF spokesperson, in a tweet posted in the early morning of March 31, “Everything you need to know about the riots in Gaza today,” accused demonstrators of “hurling burning tires, throwing Molotov cocktails, and attempting to harm or destroy Israel’s security infrastructure.” It made no mention of Palestinians using firearms at the protests.

Footage of demonstrations published by the army includes no evidence of firearms. The army published a video purporting to show two men firing at Israeli troops on March 30, but noted that this took place in northern Gaza Strip, not on the eastern border where the Land Day demonstrations took place. No demonstrators can be seen in the video. To Human Rights Watch’s knowledge, the army did not report any injuries to soldiers.

In the absence of armed hostilities, in which international humanitarian law applies, the use of force in Gaza is governed by international human rights law. While security forces may use force under applicable international law to prevent unauthorized crossing of borders, Israel has presented no information that any threat at the border required a response in which the use of military force was necessary, such as an attack by armed combatants. The United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials hold that security forces shall “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms,” and that “whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall: (a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved; (b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life.” Furthermore, “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

The Israeli government has not shown that the demonstrators throwing rocks or Molotov cocktails posed a grave threat to the well-protected soldiers deployed on the other side of the border fence, nor has Israel claimed that any Palestinian crossed the border on March 30.

Human Rights Watch reviewed footage it believes authentic based on an interview with the videographer that appears to show a demonstrator shot in the leg while praying and another video showing a man shot while throwing a rock. Other videos reviewed appear to show demonstrators shot while slowly walking toward the border empty-handed or holding only a Palestinian flag or retreating from the border. Interviews with six witnesses, including three journalists, indicated that soldiers shot at men who were in the area between the encampments and the fence but who posed no grave threat to anyone across the fence.

Entering a zone declared off limits should not be a crime considered punishable by death, Human Rights Watch said.

The Israeli army also has alleged that those killed included “10 known terrorists with track records of terror activity.” By making such claims, the military appears to be trying to justify otherwise unlawful killings in a law enforcement situation based on alleged past activity.

In 2017, Human Rights Watch documented that some senior Israeli officials encouraged soldiers and police to kill Palestinians in the West Bank they suspect of attacking Israelis even when they are no longer a threat.

On April 1, Lieberman said there will be no official inquiry into the March 30 killings and that the Israeli government will not cooperate with any international investigation. Both the UN Secretary General and the European Union have called for “independent and transparent investigation.” Both he and Netanyahu have commended the soldiers’ handling of the protests.

But under the UN Basic Principles, “[i]n cases of death and serious injury or other grave consequences, a detailed report shall be sent promptly to the competent authorities responsible for administrative review and judicial control.” Israeli authorities have for decades failed to credibly investigate potentially unlawful killings by security forces and to hold violators to account for wrongdoing.

An army source told Haaretz on April 2 that, “We will continue to act against the demonstrators in Gaza as we acted last Friday.” With more demonstrations planned in coming weeks, the Israeli government should recognize that, even in the absence of serious domestic oversight, officials who order unlawful lethal force may become subject to prosecution abroad as a matter of universal jurisdiction or in international judicial forums.

“Praising the army’s handling of the March 30 events and saying there shall be no inquiry into how Israeli soldiers gunned down 14 protesters across a fence says much about how cheaply Israeli authorities view the lives of Palestinians in Gaza,” Goldstein said.

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