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Archive for June, 2014

Syrian parliament approves new election law

March 13, 2014

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Syria’s state TV says the parliament has unanimously approved a new election law allowing multiple candidates for president, opening doors to other potential candidates besides President Bashar Assad.

The vote comes nearly four months before Assad’s seven-year term as president officially expires. Syrian officials say the presidential elections will be held on time and Assad has suggested he would run again.

The bill adopted Thursday says only candidates who lived in Syria for 10 years prior to nomination can run. The TV didn’t say how many lawmakers voted for the bill. Syria has been ruled by the Baath party since it seized power in a 1963 coup.

Past presidential elections under Assad and his late father, Hafez Assad, were de-facto referendums with one of the Assads being the sole candidate.

Ottoman history flows back into Gaza

04 Jun 2014

Turkish government pays to restore centuries-old public fountain after learning of its link to the Ottoman Empire.

Gaza – To many Palestinians in Gaza City, it just looked like a hole in an abandoned wall, surrounded by splatters of concrete and spray paint.

In fact, this was all that remained of a public fountain dating back to the 16th century. This month, restoration work on the al-Rifa’yia fountain was completed, and cold, purified water once again runs from its taps.

The Turkish government offered to pay for the renovation after learning the fountain was linked to Sultan Abd al-Hamid II, the 34th sultan of the Ottoman Empire, said Mohammed Mourtaga, director of the Turkish Cooperation and Development Agency (TIKA) in Gaza. After discussions with the Hamas-run tourism ministry, TIKA paid about $30,000 to restore the fountain, Mourtaga told Al Jazeera.

“This will be the second time that it is revamped and the third time water is coming out from it,” Deputy Tourism Minister Mohammed Khela told Al Jazeera.

As Gaza was a commerce hub and a route linking Asia and Africa during the Ottoman Empire, the al-Rifa’yia fountain was built around 1570 to provide people and traders with water. The water came from a nearby well, Khela said.

The fountain was repaired in 1900 during the era of al-Hamid II, but fell back into disuse during World War I. Although the Ottomans built three other fountains in Gaza, al-Rifa’yia is the only one that remains standing. It overlooks a vibrant street in the old district of Gaza City.

The renovated fountain now rests atop a short staircase, with three water taps. The structure has been restored to its original beige color, and the Arabic carvings are once again legible.

“We have restored it to its normal scenes,” worker Mohammed Nabhan told Al Jazeera. “This is going to be a great project that anybody passing by can stop to drink cold water.”

Contractor Emad al-Bayya said the rehabilitation process was difficult “because the place was abandoned and neglected for a very long time”. He told Al Jazeera that a French archaeologist was supposed to be in Gaza to oversee the restoration process, but he could not come due to restrictions on access and movement. These restrictions also limited the flow of construction materials, “but we managed to complete the project with the minimum amount of cement and other materials”.

TIKA, which has been funding the construction of a hospital and the digging of wells in Gaza, is also in discussions with the ruling Hamas movement to open a museum for Islamic manuscripts from the Ottoman era, Mourtaga said. Khela said Turkey also offered to pay for the renovation of a number of Turkish baths, mosques and other sites dating back to the Ottoman era.

“This is mainly to protect the Palestinian heritage and to emphasize the depth of Palestine’s connection to the Islamic culture that flourished during the Ottoman state,” Khela said. “This also strengthens the Palestinian-Turkish relations.”

Jawdat al-Khoudary, an antiques collector who owns a private museum in Gaza, criticized the Palestinian government for failing to prioritize archaeological sites in Gaza.

“This is a neglected sector for the governments,” he told Al Jazeera, citing tens of sites that need to be rehabilitated or preserved, including the minaret of the al-Omari great mosque in Gaza City, built in the seventh century.

Khela said his ministry often tries to protect the remnants of churches, temples and graves by providing guards, but the ministry lacks funds for expensive rehabilitation projects. The restoration of the al-Rifa’yia fountain was a bright spot, al-Khoudary added.

“This is a symbolic rehabilitation of a simple site,” he said, “but it is great to see people interested in renovating it.”

Source: al-Jazeera.

Link: http://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/05/ottoman-history-flows-back-into-gaza-201451272838753893.html.

Gaza’s Hamas government says ready to step aside

May 27, 2014

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip (AP) — The government installed by the Islamic militant group Hamas after its takeover of the Gaza Strip seven years ago said it held its last meeting Tuesday and is ready to hand “full responsibility” to a Palestinian unity government.

Tuesday’s Cabinet statement was the latest sign that rival factions Hamas and Fatah are close to a deal on a unity government that is to end a crippling political rift and prepare for elections in 2015.

The longstanding conflict between the opponents peaked in 2007, when the Islamic militant Hamas drove the Fatah movement of Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas out of Gaza, leaving his forces confined to the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Since then, both sides have run separate governments in their respective territories on the opposite ends of Israel. Abbas seeks both the West Bank and Gaza as parts of a future Palestinian state, and the internal rift is a major impediment to any potential peace deal.

Repeated reconciliation attempts have failed, but the rivals appear more flexible this time because both are struggling with crises. Hamas faces severe money problems and has been unable to cover the government payroll because of a tightening border blockade of Gaza by neighboring Egypt over the past year. Israel continues to enforce its border blockade of Gaza, in place since 2007.

Abbas, meanwhile, needs a new political strategy after the latest attempt to negotiate the terms of Palestinian statehood with Israel collapsed in April. Abbas is skeptical about reaching a deal with Israel’s hardline prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

In April, reconciliation efforts resumed. Negotiators said Tuesday they are close to agreement on the new Cabinet lineup. A formal announcement is expected as early as Thursday. Meanwhile, the Hamas Cabinet said it held its 343rd and final weekly meeting Tuesday. Deputy Prime Minister Ziad al-Zaza said the government “is ready to hand over its full responsibilities to the unity government,” the statement said.

Court acquits radical cleric of conspiracy

Jun 26, 2014

Reuters

AMMAN — The State Security Court on Thursday acquitted radical Muslim cleric Abu Qatada, who was extradited from Britain last year, of charges of conspiring to commit acts of terrorism.

But authorities will continue to detain the preacher because of separate charges related to a plot to attack tourists during New Year celebrations in Jordan in 2000.

“The court announces the acquittal of the defendant for lack of evidence,” said Ahmad Qatarneh, the judge presiding over the three-man tribunal.

Abu Qatada, sitting on a bench in an enclosed iron dock, smiled and looked relaxed during the half-hour court session. Dressed in brown prison fatigues, he was flanked by black-clad security officers.

Members of his family cried out of joy when the verdict was read and his wife and her relatives burst into tears.

“Thanks and praise to God!” they shouted.

Abu Qatada had previously been sentenced in absentia by a Jordanian court to life imprisonment for conspiracy to carry out Al Qaeda-style attacks against US and other targets inside Jordan.

Thursday’s session was a retrial in which the prosecution had argued Abu Qatada was a mentor to militant cells in Jordan while he was in Britain, providing spiritual and material support to a campaign of violence during the late 1990s.

But the court quashed the conspiracy charges and postponed another hearing on the New Year plot charges until September 7.

Abu Qatada’s defense lawyer Ghazi Thunaibat said he hoped the second trial would bring a similar sentence.

“My client has spent too long in prison unfairly and we hope the next verdict will finally end his plight and allow him to resume a normal life with his family,” he told Reuters.

Disputed confession

In December, Thunaibat called for his client’s release, saying his rights had been violated by the presence of the military judge in court and reliance on hearings of evidence extracted under torture from other defendants.

Despite the acquittal, the court upheld a confession which had convicted Abu Qatada in absentia in the earlier trial. The defense said the confession had been extracted under torture.

European and British courts used the confession to delay his deportation until he agreed to return to Jordan for a retrial.

“Human Rights Watch is troubled by the verdict that made it permissible to include allegations of a confession made under coercion that was held in doubt by British courts and the European Court of Human Rights,” said Adam Coogle, a Human Rights Watch researcher who attended the session.

Abu Qatada’s return to Jordan was made possible by an extradition treaty adopted by Jordan and Britain that satisfied the concerns of British judges about the use of evidence obtained through torture.

Linked by a Spanish judge to the late Al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, Abu Qatada has been in and out of jail in Britain since 2001. He was extradited to Jordan in July last year.

Jordanian security officials and experts on Islamist radical groups say Abu Qatada’s ideological writings have influenced many youths involved with Al Qaeda.

“This is a man who the British courts have deemed a risk to national security. He is not coming back,” British Prime Minister David Cameron’s spokesman told reporters on Thursday.

“He will not be granted permission to enter the UK, end of story. He was deported on an indefinite deportation order.”

Abu Qatada has used some hearings to lend support to global Al Qaeda chief Ayman Zawahiri in a row with a splinter group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which took control of swathes of land in Iraq this month and is in Syria.

Source: The Jordan Times.

Link: http://jordantimes.com/court-acquits-radical-cleric-of-conspiracy.

Refugees of 44 nationalities currently residing in Jordan should not be ignored — UNHCR

Jun 21, 2014

by Gaelle Sundelin

AMMAN — World Refugee Day is not a day to celebrate but a day to “pay tribute” to both refugees and the Jordanians hosting them and raise awareness, UNHCR staff said as they marked the occasion on Thursday in their Khalda headquarters in the capital.

The event, which gathered UN agencies and NGO representatives, alongside ambassadors and other officials, was an occasion to display artwork, music and poetry created and performed by refugees themselves.

“We know refugees as a big number but when you look at these hopes and dreams they have, it reminds you that there are individuals behind these numbers just like anyone else,” Hannah Rose Thomas, a UNHCR intern who developed the arts projects, told The Jordan Times at the ceremony.

Since April 2014, the artist said she had been working together with refugees to paint three colorful tents around the themes of hopes, dreams and memories, where they could express themselves freely and regain self-confidence.

From filling front pages of magazines and newspapers for the past two years to becoming colorful expressions of refugees’ identity, the infamous UNHCR tents were also an occasion for the guests to concretely grasp the limited living space many refugees live in.

“We wanted to convey the impact of war on families and the displacement, and fragmented lives being pieced back together again, so we used tents because they are a powerful symbol of displacement… and decided to turn them into pieces of beauty,” said Thomas, who studied art in London.

Within each tent, creative projects by the Norwegian Refugee Council, the International Relief and Development and Relief International were displayed, such as clothes and bags made out of unusable UNHCR tents or letters from refugee children calling on the world not to forget them.

“I love doing creative projects involving arts, dance, music… that enables [people] to convey messages to the world in an unusual way, and here we used the canvas of the tent as the medium for that,” said Frauke Riller, UNHCR external relations officer and focal point for World Refugee Day.

Noting that participating in the artistic experience has helped her combat some of her own prejudices, Riller pointed out that showing the artistic skills of refugees is a way to help people overcome their prejudice about refugees being mere aid recipients with little skills and education.

“The project reflects what the refugees have to say… especially the ‘hope’ tent shows their feelings, aspirations and questions, and we realize they are the same as any other [people] living anywhere in the world,” she said.

Despite sharing common dreams with the rest of the world, there is a deepening divide among refugees themselves in terms of attention paid and services granted to the different nationalities of displaced people in Jordan.

Iraqis, Sudanese and Somalis are among the 44 nationalities of refugees in the Kingdom, according to UNHCR Representative to Jordan Andrew Harper.

These refugees suffer from a decrease or absence of budgets earmarked to support them, leaving them in severe impoverishment, Harper warned.

“It is very easy with the Syrian crisis being in the limelight to forget that there are [other nationalities]… they are in dire straits and increasingly so,” Riller said.

While the art was realized by Syrian refugees, the event also brought together Iraqi oud player Waseem Somari and guitarist Ali Khalid as well as Sudanese poet Amal Mohamed, thereby shedding light on these often overlooked communities.

Mohamed, who arrived in Jordan eight months ago, read a piece of hers entitled “Feelings of a refugee woman”, where she not only expressed the hardship she is facing as a refugee, but also conveyed her gratitude to her host country.

“Despite all that, we shall not lose hope as Jordan, our second home and loving cradle, has bestowed great generosity upon us,” Mohamed said in the poem.

Although World Refugee Day was an occasion to recognize and salute Jordan’s generosity in welcoming refugees from various crisis areas, the worsening situation in neighboring Iraq does not bode well, and a new refugee influx could be expected, according to the UNHCR.

“Unfortunately, the situation in the region is becoming increasingly unstable… and, if anything, we need to be prepared to accept more people coming from Syria but also from Iraq,” Harper said in his welcoming address, calling upon the international community to increase support to Jordan.

According to UNHCR figures, there are almost 1.3 million refugees and asylum seekers from all nationalities in Jordan, a figure projected to increase by 100,000 by the end of 2014.

World Refugee Day, first celebrated in 2001, is observed around the world on June 20.

Source: The Jordan Times.

Link: http://jordantimes.com/refugees-of-44-nationalities-currently-residing–in-jordan-should-not-be-ignored—-unhcr.

Mauritania expected to re-elect Aziz as president

June 21, 2014

NOUAKCHOTT, Mauritania (AP) — Mauritanians voted Saturday to choose their next president, but the incumbent seems certain to retain power because of a boycott by major opposition parties.

Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who assumed power in a coup in 2008 and won elections a year later, has been a staunch ally of the West in facing the growing terror threat in West Africa. The National Forum for Democracy and Unity, a coalition of main opposition parties, decided to exclude themselves from the contest when the election date was chosen without their input. They complained that Aziz’s control of state institutions would ensure his victory and described the vote as “grotesque theater.”

Security forces guarded polling stations as voters cast their ballots amid mixed turnout. But in the capital city’s poorer outskirts, which are Aziz strongholds, long lines formed. In some areas, so many people were still in line when polling stations were supposed to close that voting was extended.

Aziz faces four candidates, one of whom is the descendant of slaves. Provisional results are expected overnight and official results Monday. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff vote will be held July 5.

Aziz is from the country’s ethnic Arab elite that long has dominated the ruling class, but his policies have made him popular among the poor black majority. “The important thing is to keep the state strong where citizens can freely express themselves and vote freely,” said Mariam Mint Abdallah, a shopkeeper who was voting in an area north of the capital where Aziz himself voted Saturday.

The next president will face huge challenges. Insecurity is growing in the Sahel, a band of countries including Mauritania south of the Sahara Desert. Islamic militants roam in its vast ungoverned spaces. Mauritania’s neighbor Mali was overrun by al-Qaida-linked fighters in 2012, until a French-led intervention pushed them back.

But the economy may pose an even greater hurdle. Mauritania is one of the world’s poorest countries featuring great economic inequality with Arabs on top, blacks on the bottom. Even though illegal, slavery persists.

“There are not going to be a big fixes to Mauritania’s democratic process any time soon. And the much bigger challenges are those of economic growth, employment and youth employment,” said Jennifer Cooke, director of the Africa program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Rebels agree to abide by cease-fire in Ukraine

June 23, 2014

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) — Pro-Russian insurgents in eastern Ukraine agreed Monday to respect a cease-fire declared by the Ukrainian president, raising hopes for an end to months of fighting that have killed hundreds and ravaged the country’s industrial heartland.

The announcement came as the Russian and U.S. presidents traded demands over the conflict. Russian President Vladimir Putin urged direct talks between the government and the rebels. President Barack Obama warned Putin that Moscow will face additional costs if it does not help ease the crisis.

The insurgents’ pledge to respect the cease-fire came on the first day of talks between a former Ukrainian president, the Russian ambassador, European officials and the eastern separatists who have declared independence. While the government side was nominally not represented, ex-President Leonid Kuchma attended the discussions at the request of the sitting president.

The negotiations were launched in line with President Petro Poroshenko’s peace plan, which started Friday with a weeklong unilateral cease-fire in the fighting that has killed more than 350 people and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes.

Alexander Borodai, one of the rebel leaders who took part in Monday’s talks in Donetsk, said rebels would respect Poroshenko’s cease-fire, which lasts through 0700 GMT (2 a.m. EDT) Friday. The insurgents had previously demanded the Ukrainian military withdraw its troops from the east as a condition for any talks, so Borodai’s statement represented a softened stance that raised expectations that the cease-fire could hold. Even before the insurgents made their pledge, the government said that there had been no fighting in the east since Monday morning.

Since the cease-fire was declared Friday, the Ukrainian government has accused the rebels of firing at government positions, while insurgents blamed Ukrainian forces for failing to honor the promise to halt hostilities. Poroshenko has said government troops will fire back if attacked.

The rebels, who have declared regions on border with Russia independent and fought government troops for two months, also promised to release observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who have been held hostage.

“This will be one of the steps that will improve the mutual understanding of both sides,” said Alexei Karyakin, a representative of the insurgents in the Luhansk region. In Moscow, the Kremlin said Putin underlined in his conversation with Obama that to normalize the situation in eastern Ukraine, it’s necessary to “effectively end fighting and start direct talks between the conflicting parties.”

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama urged Putin to use his personal influence with the separatists to promote peace and stability in Ukraine, stop backing the insurgents and halt the flow of arms across the border. Earnest said that while the U.S. believes a diplomatic solution to the crisis is still possible, “Russia will face additional costs if we do not see concrete actions to de-escalate the situation.”

Ukraine and the West have accused Russia of fomenting the rebellion in the east by sending troops and weapons across the border. Moscow has denied that and insisted that Russian citizens who joined the insurgents were volunteers.

Poroshenko’s office said Monday that he has offered Russia a chance to send its own observers to join the OSCE mission in Ukraine to see that government troops were observing the cease-fire. Monday’s talks involved Ukraine’s ex-President Leonid Kuchma, the Russian ambassador to Ukraine and an envoy from the OSCE. Poroshenko has ruled out talks with those he calls “terrorists,” so inviting Kuchma to mediate offered a way to conduct talks without the government’s formal engagement.

Kuchma, who served as president from 1994 to 2005, comes from the east and is an astute political player respected by both sides. His ex-chief of staff, Viktor Medvedchuk, has lived in Russia and reportedly has close ties to Putin, was also at the talks.

If both sides observe the cease-fire, “then a normal peace process could start,” Kuchma told reporters after Monday’s talks. Poroshenko’s deputy chief of staff, Valeryi Chalyi, said in televised remarks that Monday’s talks were a “move in the right direction.”

Russian Ambassador to Ukraine, Mikhail Zurabov, voiced hope that the talks would ensure a “lasting truce” and the “launch of an inclusive negotiation process.” Putin publicly expressed support Sunday for Ukraine’s declaration of a cease-fire and urged both sides to negotiate a compromise, which, he said, must guarantee the rights of the Russian-speaking residents of eastern Ukraine.

Putin clearly intends to maintain pressure on the Ukrainian government in Kiev to give the country’s eastern industrial regions more powers, which would allow them to keep close ties with Russia and serve the Kremlin’s main goal of preventing Ukraine from joining NATO.

But the Russian leader also wants to avoid more crippling sanctions from the U.S. and particularly from the European Union, whose leaders will meet Friday in Brussels, and therefore needs to be seen as cooperating with efforts to de-escalate the conflict.

Isachenkov reported from Moscow.

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