Friday 25 April 2014

Life lessons from Costi Zurayk and Rafic Hariri

Constantine "Costi" Zurayk

(The following is the last of three posts Fawaz Najia had ready but did not have time to publish before he lost his battle with cancer on April 20)

The AUB years were the best years in my life. And I owe them to one man: Constantine (“Costi”) K. Zurayk (1909-2000).

He was an intellectual and moral giant whose generosity funded my undergraduate years at the American University of Beirut.

My first concern, after enrolling at AUB in 1954 and managing to settle my first semester tuition, was finding a sponsor to fund the ones after. My parents couldn't possibly have managed three years of university education for me.

My big break for the second semester was winning a scholarship for needy students granted by Zurayk. I held on to the Zurayk Endowed Scholarship for another four semesters leading up to my graduation. The scholarship covered my tuition fees in full -- plus a small allowance.

I was three months into my sophomore year when Zurayk became acting president of AUB following the sudden death of President Stephen B. L. Penrose in December 1954. He kept the position until the July 1, 1957 Commencement ceremony. J. Paul Leonard assumed office as president of AUB and I received my “Bachelor of Arts with Distinction” in economics on that day.

The degree landed me a decent job, which in turn allowed me to fund my postgraduate studies gradually and pick up my Masters in economics in 1962.

When I first applied for the need-based Zurayk Endowed Scholarship, I had to complete a financial aid form showing I could not meet the cost of tuition. My classmate George T. Yacoub, a sheer Ras Beiruti, was looking to fill a similar form for another need-based scholarship. He suggested we turn to the mukhtar (district chief) of Ras Beirut, Jirji Rubeiz. His office was at the joint of Jeanne d’Arc and Mak’hool streets, some 200 meters from AUB’s Main Gate.

An affable and witty man, mukhtar Rubeiz knew the circumstances of every resident family in Ras Beirut. He quickly gave us two signed and sealed documents on his letterhead. Each stated in his handwriting: “I, mukhtar Jirji Rubeiz, by this certify that (name) has no funds or property.” His crisp statement won us the scholarships.

Zurayk was born to a Christian Arab family in Damascus in April 1909. He received his Bachelor of Arts from AUB in 1928, his Doctor of Laws from the University of Chicago in 1929 and his PhD from Princeton University in 1930. In nearly 50 years at AUB, he served as Professor and Distinguished Professor of History and Arab History, as Emeritus Professor of Arab History and Archaeology and as Vice President and Acting President.

His major work was Ma’na an-Nakba (The Meaning of the Disaster). Published in 1948, the book offered the first major intellectual critique of Arab society.

Zurayk’s lifelong concern was the issue of reform and how to move the Arabs from their "backward" state into the modern world. “Our problems in Arab society are… problems of culture and civilization."
His identification of the ills of Arab society and his advocacy of education as the best tool for reform remain enshrined in my mind.

So are the values of liberty, diversity independence, democracy, justice, education, human rights and free enterprise. Zurayk and other faculty members – chiefly Cecil Hourani, Yusuf K. Ibish, James Batal, Yusuf A. Sayegh and Paul J. Klat -- instilled these in me.

Perhaps the best time I could “give back” to Zurayk was at university by:

-- Topping all students in the School of Arts and Sciences in my senior year with a grade average exceeding 90 percent.
-- Serving successively as president of the Economics Society, president of the Civic Welfare League and editor in chief of Outlook, the student weekly.
-- Setting new AUB weightlifting records at the 1957 Field Day (see “Brawn and Brains” posted on ________).

More importantly, he must have felt gratified when he wrote me this letter dated 13 June 1957:

“Dear Mr. Najjiya,
“I am happy to inform you that the Board of Academic Deans has approved the recommendation of the Dean and Faculty of Arts and Sciences that you be granted the Penrose Award for the academic year 1956-1957.
“This award is granted to the outstanding student of each of the four Faculties of the University, on the basis of scholarship, character, leadership and contribution to university life.
“Your name will be engraved on the Plaque which has been donated by Mrs. Penrose in memory of the late President, Dr. Stephen B. L. Penrose Jr.
“In communicating this action to you, I wish to express my sincere congratulations and my best wishes for the future. It is our firm hope that your record after you graduate will reflect credit on yourself, your Alma Mater and your country.

“Sincerely yours,
“C. K. Zurayk
“Acting President”

Growth of the financial aid program at the University over the years is remarkable. For example, 2,765 students -- or 36% of the total enrolled in 2008-2009 – received $11.6 million in financial aid, mostly as need-based grants. That’s an average of $4,195 for each recipient. An extra $4 million funded graduate assistantships and student employment. Credit goes to the generous support of AUB alumni, former students and friends.

Many people choose other ways to “give back.” Mahmoud Z. Malhas, a dear friend and fellow 1957 graduate in economics whose scholarship benefactor was Vice President Archie S. Crawford, “gave back” to AUB through a $600,000 gift to renovate the Common Room. The newly named Mahmoud Malhas Common Room, which serves a multipurpose student area in West Hall, opened in November 2008. Mahmoud had also contributed toward rebuilding College Hall in the 1990s.

My and Mahmoud’s midfifties “rat pack” included engineering graduate Suhail Bat’heesh, among others. Suhail, who passed away in March 2001, “gave back” from the grave.  In his memory, his widow Etaf gave $440,000 to renovate the West Hall Theater. The New Suhail R. Bat’heesh Auditorium launched in February 2003.

Rafic Hariri, Costi Zurak and AUBites
The Arab world’s topmost philanthropist though remains Lebanon’s late prime minister and AUB trustee Rafic Hariri, who was killed in February 2005. He was a generous benefactor to the University for many years.  He provided scholarships that enabled thousands of young men and women to study at the University. AUB President Peter Dorman says Hariri also offered “critical and timely support to the University during the Lebanese civil war, and funded the Hussam-Eddeen Hariri Faculty Apartments on lower campus.”

His son, Prime Minister and Trustee Saad-Eddeen Rafic Hariri, elected “to honor the memory of his late father by naming and endowing the Rafic Hariri School of Nursing at AUB.”  His gift covered costs to renovate and equip the new building, set up a faculty chair in nursing and bankroll Hariri Scholarships for nursing students.

Rafic Hariri has left a legacy of philanthropy through the Hariri Foundation, which he set up in 1979. It testifies to the importance he gave to the quality education of future generations. So far, the Hariri Foundation has helped educate more than 35,000 Lebanese students in the finest universities at home and abroad, including the United States, France, the United Kingdom and Canada.

The late Prime Minister Rafic Hariri
I never met the late Hariri one-on-one. Throughout his tenure as prime minister I lived in London where I founded and edited Mideast Mirror. It was an online publication offering subscribers a daily English-language digest of political and economic news and views from across the Middle East. It was delivered to subscribers worldwide, including foreign and other ministries, government agencies, embassies, think tanks, research centers, lobby groups, major media and international organizations and specialized groups in the United States, Europe and Japan.

On 16 December 1996, the “Friends of Lebanon” conference – co-chaired by the United States and Hariri -- was held at the State Department in Washington. Some 30 nations and eight international financial institutions attended the conference intended to solicit pledges to finance rebuilding Lebanon.

I thought Mideast Mirror, which went out to subscribers in the early afternoon London time, had to cover the Washington event in good time.  The full text of Hariri’s opening speech would be a fitting curtain raiser.

I rang seasoned political writer Khairallah Khairallah (KK to his friends) in London. I asked him if he had a phone number for any Hariri aide in Washington who could give me a copy of the speech. He said he only had one for the hotel where the team was staying.

I waited a couple of hours until it was midday in London and dialed Washington.

I heard “Hello” at the other end of the line from the sleepy voice of the late prime minister just waking up. I hesitated for a second before saying “Sorry Mr. Prime Minister for waking you up.”

He said, “No problem, but who are you? What do you want?”

I explained the reason for my call.

He said, “If I gave you the text of my speech at this hour of day, it means it will be released before delivery.”

I said, “Sir, we shall type the text, proofread it and lay it out. But release of the newsletter will be embargoed until your speech delivery.”

He said, “Fine. Do you know Nouhad Mashnouq (who was his bureau chief at the time)?”

“Yes Mr. Prime Minister, I do.”

“Do you have a fax machine?”

“Yes sir, I do.”

“Then please ring Nouhad on this number (which he gave me), tell him you woke me up and ask him to fax you the speech. He’ll do it right away.” And Mashnouq did.

The “Friends of Lebanon” conferees pledged $1 billion in near term investments for rebuilding Lebanon and another $2.2 billion in long-term investments. Washington’s contribution included development aid, agricultural credits and $2.1 million in grants for AUB.

Good men like Hariri and Zurayk never die.

Thursday 24 April 2014

My journalism mentors before the Internet

The letter from AP's Beirut Bureau Chief Tom Masterson
(The following is the second of three posts Fawaz Najia had ready but did not have time to publish before he lost his battle with cancer on April 20)

The Arabic word for hero is “batal.”
The saga of my journalism and publishing journey began at the American University of Beirut (AUB).
It started long before the revolutions in communication, i.e. with no photocomposition or “cold” type to replace cumbersome and expensive Linotype systems, no digital photocopying, no fax, no mobile phone, no computer, no TV news, no Internet or Google, no email, no electronic publishing technology, no print-on-demand, no social media…
A visiting U.S. Lecturer in Journalism whose forefathers came from Zahlé, Lebanon's "city of wine and poetry" sitting in the Bekaa Valley, launched me into the profession there.
He was James Batal, an Amherst College graduate and a Neiman Fellow in Journalism from Harvard University.
I took all three elective courses in journalism Batal was offering over two academic years. He also served as advisor to Outlook, the student weekly newspaper of which my classmates elected me editor-in-chief.
Batal made it compulsory for me to go with him every week to the printing press. There, he taught me all about the Linotype machine used in printing at the time and the art of picking headline fonts and sizes manually.
He also explained the need to cut stories to fit into layout spaces, the importance of correcting galley proofs and the responsibility of giving an "OK to print."
His focus in the classroom was on such classics as “dog bites man versus man bites dog,” the Five Ws in newsgathering and the difference between objective news and personal opinion.
Editing, investigative journalism and news and human-interest features… were at the core of another of his courses.
His preferred description of a news reporter: the sole watcher of a play whose task is to relay events unfolding on stage to an audience waiting outside the theater.
A student asked Batal in class one day, “Why do Arabs get such a bad press in the U.S.?” Chiefly because most Arab officials are ignorant of the workings of the mass media and the role they play in shaping public opinion, he replied.
For example, he said, when an Arab delegate addresses the United Nations General Assembly, he usually delivers an unending speech in literary Arabic. Reporters in the press gallery are baffled by his tough talk. In contrast, an Israel diplomat’s speech is precise, concise and in English. An aide makes a summary of his address available to reporters in the press gallery immediately. As public opinion shapers, the reporters and the media they represent have their jobs cut out for them. “Arab diplomats should realize this.”
Batal knew I was struggling financially and on the lookout for a scholarship to cover the tuition fees of my junior and senior years at university.
He not only guided me through the search for one, but also encouraged me to apply for a part-time job vacancy with The Associated Press (AP) that could earn me decent pocket money.
I did as told and was called in within days for an interview with AP’s Beirut Bureau Chief Tom Masterson. A taxi fare to AP offices in Kantari was obviously beyond my means, so I made my way there on foot, but armed with a reference letter from Batal.
The interview with Masterson was tough but professional. He quizzed me hard on my reliability and willingness to work six days a week against the clock and at odd hours.
On the six workdays, he explained, the job is to produce in-house by 6:30 in the morning some 80 copies of a 12-page “AP News Bulletin.”
The copies are then sent to Beirut airport, where they are air couriered at 8:00 a.m. by Middle East Airlines (MEA) to ARAMCO (Arabian American Oil Company) headquarters in Dhahran.
My duty is to report to work at 4:00 a.m., pick up the overnight news roll from the ticker, quickly do the “copy tasting” and editing, and ready the news items for sequential typing.
A skilled typist comes in before 5:00 a.m. and keys in the copy on 12 consecutive stencil-typing sheets. I proofread these then turn them over, one sheet at a time, to the office assistant. He uses the stencil duplicator to produce 80 copies of each before stapling, packaging and taking the lot to the airport.
Masterson explained that Bulletin content was aimed at American executives.
The audience, he said, was the top brass of ARAMCO who had little, if any, access to fresh home news.
So when “copy-tasting,” he instructed me, concentrate on U.S. national news (both hard and light), Elvis Presley, American football, basketball and baseball, the Wall Street roundup and closing stock prices.
Oh, and my job title and salary?
Masterson said the monthly salary for “Editor of the AP News Bulletin” is 160 Lebanese pounds, or about $80. I accepted the job offer and the proposed starting date right away.
I was ecstatic at the prospect of serving as editor with The Associated Press for serious pocket money while still an undergraduate.
I swiftly worked out a schedule for getting to work on time, meeting the deadline for producing the bulletin, and then arriving at AUB before the start of my first course.
Our home being in Ras el-Nabeh, I could only walk to work in Kantari. There was no tramway or servees (shared taxi) at 3:00-3:30 in the morning. Making the journey by private taxi six mornings a week was too expensive.
Hence my definitive timetable:
-- Wake up at 3:00 a.m.
-- Set out on foot to Kantari at 3:15
-- Be at my desk around 3:50
-- Finish the day’s job and leave AP’s premises shortly after 6:30
-- Walk to the bakery opposite the AUB Main Gate to pick up a mankoushe (Lebanese pizza topped with thyme, sesame and olive oil) for breakfast at 7:10
-- Enter the classroom at 7:30
I happily kept up this schedule for 14 consecutive months, after which I resigned carrying an admirable reference from Masterson to take up a fulltime journalistic challenge elsewhere.

Wednesday 23 April 2014

Brawn or Brains?

My bodybuilding and weightlifting career at a glance
(The following is the first of three posts Fawaz Najia had ready but did not have time to publish before he lost his battle with cancer on April 20)

Building a chiseled, steely and toned physique and clinching the “Mr. Lebanon” title at 17 took me just under five years of training.

All I did meanwhile was to study at the Collège du Sacré-Coeur, train at the Cercle de la Jeunesse Catholique, eat healthy and sleep. Weekend leisure was rationed. It was a movie outing to Martyrs’ Square in winter or a swimming spell in summer at the Bain Militaire or the Saint Simon. They were Beirut’s answer above all others to Muscle Beach in Santa Monica.

I embarked on my bodybuilding journey at Elie David’s gym at the CJC at age 13. Cycling was the only sport I engaged in earlier. In the years when my parents rented a summerhouse from the Chidiacs in Bikfaya, I used to cycle daily to Dhour el Shouair either direct or through Bhannes.

David provided me with professional expertise, support and motivation. He customized my three weekly workout programs to suit my age. He determined what equipment I used, how many sets I did and the number of repetitions.  He changed these as I grew up, working my way from the beginner phase to the intermediate and the advanced. In each phase, the focus was all-inclusive – neck, shoulders, biceps, triceps, forearms, shoulders, chest, back, waist, abdominals, quadriceps and calves.

"Mr. Lebanon" 1953
David’s coaching and recommendation of specialized magazines on muscle building, healthy eating and dangers of overtraining helped drastically improve my physique.

There were no steroids, vitamin supplements or fat blasting pills to gulp and no muscle T-shirts or special workout shorts to parade. There were no sophisticated gym and fitness equipment to use either.

Healthy eating meant full fat milk, eggs (boiled or poached), fish, pulses and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Personally, I had a great weakness for fresh sugarcane juice, which was more refreshing than nutritious. Three times a week, I would cap my workouts by walking to a juice bar opposite Roxy Cinema at the mouth of Beirut’s commercial center. The 20-25 square meters bar offered the glass of fresh apple, orange, strawberry, grape or sugarcane juice at a standard price of LL 0.25. The biggest piece of equipment at the counter was a sugarcane juicer machine made in Egypt. It worked manually but broke down more often than not.

Gym wear was a swim brief. You carried it back and forth together with a shower towel. Both were rolled into a tubular wet swimming bag. If you carried one it meant you were almost surely a gym member.

Gym equipment was also plain: high and parallel bars, rings, a climbing rope, training benches, dumbbells and barbells, weights and mats (chiefly for abdominals training routines).

I secured the “Mr. Lebanon” title in my height category at a national competition held in April 1953 at the Rivoli Cinema on Martyrs’ Square. (Title winners in the two other categories were Malih Alewan and Mohammed Mortada). Some months later, I joined a bodybuilding exhibition at the Dunia cinema, also on Martyrs’ Square. There I received an honorary medal for sports from Mrs. Salma Bissar, wife of Kamel Mroue, founder of two Beirut dailies, al-Hayat and The Daily Star.

From bodybuilding to weightlifting...

... and breaking records
That’s when I starting wondering where to go from there. Before long, I opted to transition to a new sport, new training grounds and a new coach.

The new sport was obviously weightlifting, the closest you could get to bodybuilding.

The new gym was at the Youth Sports Club co-founded and managed by Mahmoud Kayssi. The club had been newly relocated to near my home in Ras el-Nabeh and was renowned for churning out topflight boxers, wrestlers and weightlifters. Among them, for instance, were Zakariya Shehab, Khalil Taha and Mustafa Lahham. The three starred at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. Shehab and Taha won silver and bronze in Greco-Roman wrestling while weightlifter Lahham ranked fifth in his lightweight category.

The new coach was none other than Mohammed Ameen Makkouk, an extraordinary old hand at weightlifting.

Training – always one-on-one under Makkouk -- turned out to be more stressful and challenging, at times even frustrating. But the progress, the achievements and the public support and acclamation that came with it were exhilarating. I was not even 19 when I won Lebanon’s 1954 weightlifting championship and set four new national records in Press, Snatch, Clean and Jerk and Total in my weight category. Khodr Traboulsi and Najm el-Ra’i shared the previous all-time highs between them.

My new records galvanized local sports editors. I was their new “rookie of the year.” Oddly, that was when I started pondering my exit from competitive sports altogether. As a new student at the American University (AUB), I felt the pressures of competition from thereon would weigh down my studies. I told myself, “You won the topmost titles in two sports disciplines, set national records in one and learned the graces, skills and virtues associated with good sportsmanship. Time you concentrated on getting a university degree then build a career and earn a living.”

My decision to bring down the curtain on weightlifting preceded or followed:

-- Exhibitions at the Farouk Theater (on Martyrs’ Square), in the Bekaa town of Zahle and at the Youth Sports Club’s grounds in Ras el-Nabeh.

I am center, sailing with the Lebanon delegation to Genoa in 1954
Representing Lebanon
Receiving the medal and kudos from Costy Zurayk and Emile Bustani
-- A memorable 1954 trip behind the Iron Curtain with Lebanon’s delegation to the 12th World University Summer Games in Budapest. We boarded ship in Beirut, sailed to Genoa via Port Said and Athens before traveling by train to the Hungarian capital through Austria. The punishing journey did not impede our sharing in the games’ opening ceremony at the 100,000-seat Népstadion. Setting a new AUB record during a Field Day on campus, which earned me a celebratory medal and kudos from AUB’s Acting President Constantine (“Costy”) Zurayk and Member of Parliament Emile Bustani, member of the AUB Board of Trustees and president of the Alumni Association.

-- My Lebanon captaincy in a friendly matchup with visiting Soviet weightlifters led by Arkady Vorobyov as they trained for the Melbourne 1956 Olympics. Henri Pharaon later entertained both teams at his most remarkable two-story stone palace in Beirut where he amassed art and antiquities.  He was the uncontested patron of Lebanese sports with a passion for horses who helped found independent Lebanon and designed the Lebanese flag.

Tuesday 22 April 2014

Farewell Ma’alem, à toute...

Fawaz C. Najia: 1935-2014
Middle East Publisher, Editor and ArabSaga blogger Fawaz C. Najia lost his battle against cancer and passed away peacefully in London early on Sunday morning (April 20).
As one of the greats in the Arab English-language media, he was known to all of us who worked with him and were close as the Ma’alem – the teacher, the master.
Indeed, the Ma’alem was an encyclopedia in the region’s politics since the 1950s. He either participated in or covered the Middle East, especially Palestine, through his various publications -- Monday Morning weekly and Ike daily in Beirut, Lebanon, then Mideast Mirror newsletter in London.
But he was also a Ma’alem in life. Apart from journalism, in the 40 years I was with him he taught me generosity, humility and kindness. He was an avantgardist always ahead of his time, a feminist, an advocate for human rights and the rights of the Palestinian people and a firm supporter and believer in the Syrian people’s current battle.
Although creating a blog was on his mind for some time, he started guest-posting on my blog Mich Café at the start of the Arab Spring, as events began to unfold in Tunisia and then Egypt. Encouraged by the high number of readers, and with the help of Mohammed Kharroubi who set up the blog for him, ArabSaga was launched in January 2012. It was his way of communicating the saga of the Arab world to an English-reading public.
The war in Syria deeply affected the Ma’alem. He could not believe the silence and inaction of the international community. After working on a Syria post, he was left drained. Two weeks ago, when I visited him in hospital in London, I was often not able to understand what he was saying. But one morning, he whispered something about Latakia. Even then, the plight of the Syrian people was on his mind.
ArabSaga kept him going during his eight-month battle with cancer. It is only at the beginning of February, when his eyesight let him down and he was unable to read, that he stopped writing.
The Ma’alem had three personal posts he had not yet published – “Brawn or Brains?” “My journalism mentors before the Internet,” and “Life lessons from Costi Zurayk and Rafic Hariri.” Whenever he was about to post one of them, a more important current event would take precedence.
I will publish these three posts to add to the 625 he produced over two years, the majority of which are still relevant and will most probably be well into the future. They are a record of the events of the past two years, he Lebanon civil war and the Arab saga.
Among his most painful he wrote was the six-part series about “The cost of gagging Beirut.” Those who were “gagged” were personal friends he always remembered. 
There is so much to say, but for now farewell Ma’almi, à toute and May you now rest in peace.

Thursday 30 January 2014

Thousands of homes deliberately razed in Syria

Tadamon neighborhood of Damascus in July (top) and September 2012

Mazzeh area of Damascus in February (top) and July 2013
Satellite imagery, witness statements, and video and photographic evidence show that Syrian authorities deliberately and unlawfully demolished thousands of residential buildings in Damascus and Hama in 2012 and 2013, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.  

The 38-page report, “Razed to the Ground: Syria’s Unlawful Neighborhood Demolitions in 2012-2013,” documents seven cases of large-scale demolitions with explosives and bulldozers that violated the laws of war.
The demolitions either served no necessary military purpose and appeared to intentionally punish the civilian population or caused disproportionate harm to civilians, Human Rights Watch found.

“Wiping entire neighborhoods off the map is not a legitimate tactic of war,” said Ole Solvang, emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These unlawful demolitions are the latest additions to a long list of crimes committed by the Syrian government.” 
The Syrian government, as part of its Geneva-2 negotiations, should make a commitment to immediately end demolitions that violate international law and to compensate and provide alternative housing to the victims, Human Rights Watch said. The United Nations Security Council should refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court (ICC).  
The seven cases Human Rights Watch documented took place between July 2012 and July 2013 in the following areas: the Masha’ al-Arb’een and Wadi al-Joz neighborhoods in Hama, and the Qaboun, Tadamon, Barzeh, Mazzeh military airport, and Harran Al-‘Awamid neighborhoods in and near Damascus.  

The total building area demolished, based on analysis of the satellite imagery, is at least 145 hectares – an area equivalent to about 200 soccer fields. Many of the demolished buildings were apartment blocks several stories high, some as many as eight. Thousands of families have lost their homes as a result of these demolitions.
All of the affected neighborhoods were widely considered by the authorities and by witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch to be opposition strongholds.  
Government officials and pro-government media outlets have claimed that the demolitions were part of urban planning efforts or removal of illegally constructed buildings. However, the demolitions were supervised by military forces and often followed fighting in the areas between government and opposition forces.
As far as Human Rights Watch has been able to determine, there have been no similar demolitions in areas that generally support the government, although many houses in those areas were also allegedly built without the necessary permits. 
These circumstances, as well as witness statements and more candid statements by government officials reported in the media, indicate that the demolitions were related to the armed conflict and either served no necessary military purpose and appeared to intentionally punish the civilian population, or caused disproportionate harm to civilians in violation of the laws of war.   
One woman who lived near Wadi al-Joz, one of the demolished neighborhoods in Hama, told Human Rights Watch: “After the demolition in Wadi al-Joz, the army came to our neighborhood with loudspeakers. They said that they would destroy our neighborhood like they destroyed Wadi al-Joz and Masha’ al-Arb’een should a single bullet be fired from here.”
Several owners of houses that were demolished contended that contrary to the government’s stated pretext for the demolitions, they had all the necessary permits and documents for their houses. 
Commenting on the demolitions in an interview with an international journalist in October 2012, the governor of the Damascus countryside, Hussein Makhlouf, also explicitly stated that the demolitions were essential to drive out opposition fighters. 
Some of the demolitions took place around government military or strategic sites that opposition forces had attacked. While the authorities might have been justified in taking some targeted measures to protect these military or strategic locations, the destruction of hundreds of residential buildings, in some cases kilometers away, appears to have been disproportionate and to have violated international law.     

Local residents told Human Rights Watch government forces gave little or no warning of the demolitions, making it impossible for them to remove most of their belongings. Owners interviewed by Human Rights Watch also said they had received no compensation. 

One local restaurant owner from the Qaboun neighborhood of Damascus told Human Rights Watch security forces arrived one morning unannounced with bulldozers and ordered him to leave the premises: “When I asked why, the soldier said ‘no more questions’ or else I would be detained.” 
He said they denied permission to remove anything from the restaurant and forced him to leave on foot, leaving his motorcycle behind.
“As I was walking I looked back and I saw the bulldozer demolishing my shop,” he said. “The shop was opened by my grandfather many years ago. I personally managed the restaurant for eight years. Before my eyes, all of my family’s hard work was destroyed in one second.”

The report is based on detailed analysis of 15 “very-high resolution” commercial satellite images and interviews with 16 witnesses to the demolitions and owners whose houses were demolished.
In addition, Human Rights Watch reviewed media reports, government decrees, and videos of the destruction and its aftermath posted on YouTube. 

“No one should be fooled by the government’s claim that it is undertaking urban planning in the middle of a bloody conflict,” Solvang said. “This was collective punishment of communities suspected of supporting the rebellion. The UN Security Council should, with an ICC referral, send a clear message that cover-ups and government impunity won’t stand in the way of justice for victims.” 

Tuesday 21 January 2014

55,000 digital images of 11,000 Assad torture victims

By Ian Black, Middle East editor

Report photo
Syrian government officials could face war crimes charges in the light of a huge cache of evidence smuggled out of the country showing the "systematic killing" of about 11,000 detainees, according to three eminent international lawyers.

The three, former prosecutors at the criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Sierra Leone, examined thousands of Syrian government photographs and files recording deaths in the custody of regime security forces from March 2011 to last August.

Most of the victims were young men and many corpses were emaciated, bloodstained and bore signs of torture. Some had no eyes; others showed signs of strangulation or electrocution.

The UN and independent human rights groups have documented abuses by both Bashar al-Assad's government and rebels, but experts say this evidence is more detailed and on a far larger scale than anything else that has yet emerged from the 34-month crisis.

The three lawyers interviewed the source, a military policeman who worked secretly with a Syrian opposition group and later defected and fled the country. In three sessions in the last 10 days they found him credible and truthful and his account "most compelling".

They put all evidence under rigorous scrutiny, says their report, which has been obtained by the Guardian and CNN.

The authors are:

-- Sir Desmond de Silva QC, former chief prosecutor of the special court for Sierra Leone

-- Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, the former lead prosecutor of former Yugoslavian president Slobodan Milosevic, and

-- Professor David Crane, who indicted President Charles Taylor of Liberia at the Sierra Leone court.

The defector, who for security reasons is identified only as Caesar, was a photographer with the Syrian military police. He smuggled the images out of the country on memory sticks to a contact in the Syrian National Movement, which is supported by the Gulf state of Qatar. Qatar, which has financed and armed rebel groups, has called for the overthrow of Assad and demanded his prosecution.

The 31-page report, which was commissioned by a leading firm of London solicitors acting for Qatar, is being made available to the UN, governments and human rights groups. Its publication appears deliberately timed to coincide with this week's UN-organized Geneva II peace conference, which is designed to negotiate a way out of the Syrian crisis by creating a transitional government.

Caesar told the investigators his job was "taking pictures of killed detainees". He did not claim to have witnessed executions or torture. But he did describe a highly bureaucratic system.

"The procedure was that when detainees were killed at their places of detention their bodies would be taken to a military hospital to which he would be sent with a doctor and a member of the judiciary, Caesar's function being to photograph the corpses… There could be as many as 50 bodies a day to photograph which require 15 to 30 minutes of work per corpse," the report says.

"The reason for photographing executed persons was twofold. First to permit a death certificate to be produced without families requiring to see the body, thereby avoiding the authorities having to give a truthful account of their deaths; second to confirm that orders to execute individuals had been carried out."

Families were told that the cause of death was either a "heart attack" or "breathing problems", it added. "The procedure for documentation was that when a detainee was killed each body was given a reference number which related to that branch of the security service responsible for his detention and death.

"When the corpse was taken to the military hospital it was given a further number so as to document, falsely, that death had occurred in the hospital. Once the bodies were photographed, they were taken for burial in a rural area."

Three experienced forensic science experts examined and authenticated samples of 55,000 digital images, comprising about 11,000 victims. "Overall there was evidence that a significant number of the deceased were emaciated and a significant minority had been bound and/or beaten with rod-like objects," the report says.

"In only a minority of the cases … could a convincing injury that would account for death be seen, but any fatal injury to the back of the body would not be represented in the images …

"The forensics team make clear that there are many ways in which an individual may be killed with minimal or even absent external evidence of the mechanism."

The inquiry team said it was satisfied there was "clear evidence, capable of being believed by a tribunal of fact in a court of law, of systematic torture and killing of detained persons by the agents of the Syrian government. It would support findings of crimes against humanity and could also support findings of war crimes against the current Syrian regime."

De Silva told the Guardian the evidence "documented industrial-scale killing". He added: "This is a smoking gun of a kind we didn't have before. It makes a very strong case indeed."

Calls for Assad or others to face justice at the international criminal court in The Hague have foundered on the problems that Syria is not a member of the court, and that the required referral by the UN Security Council might not be supported by the US and UK or would be blocked by Russia, Syria's close ally.

Nice said: "It would not necessarily be possible to track back with any degree of certainty to the head of state. Ultimately, in any war crimes trial you can imagine a prosecutor arguing that the overall quantity of evidence meant that the pattern of behavior would have been approved at a high level.

"But whether you can go beyond that and say it must be head of state-approved is rather more difficult. But 'widespread and systematic' does betoken government control."

Crane said: "Now we have direct evidence of what was happening to people who had disappeared. This is the first provable, direct evidence of what has happened to at least 11,000 human beings who have been tortured and executed and apparently disposed of.

"This is amazing. This is the type of evidence a prosecutor looks for and hopes for. We have pictures, with numbers that marry up with papers with identical numbers – official government documents. We have the person who took those pictures. That's beyond-reasonable-doubt-type evidence."

A US administration official told the Guardian on Monday: "We stand with the rest of the world in horror at these images which have come to light. We condemn in the strongest possible terms the actions of the regime and call on it to adhere to international obligations with respect to the treatment of prisoners.

"We have long spoken out about mistreatment and deteriorating prison conditions in Syria. These latest reports, and the photographs that support them, demonstrate just how far the regime is willing to go to not only deny freedom and dignity to the Syrian people, but to inflict significant emotional and physical pain in the process. To be sure, these reports suggest widespread and apparently systematic violations of international humanitarian law.

"The regime has the ability to improve the atmosphere for negotiations in Geneva by making progress in several areas. However, this latest report of horrific and inhumane prison conditions/actions further underscores that if anything, it is tarnishing the environment for the talks.

"As we have for over two years, and again today, we call on the Syrian government to grant immediate and unfettered access to all their detention facilities by international documentation bodies, including the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria.

"We have long said that those responsible for atrocities in Syria must be held accountable for their gross violations of human rights. The United States continues to support efforts to promote accountability and transitional justice, and we call on the international community to do the same."

William Hague, the UK foreign secretary, said: "This report offers further evidence of the systematic violence and brutality being visited upon the people of Syria by the Assad regime. We will continue to press for action on all human rights violations in Syria, and for accountability for those who perpetrate them."

Nadim Houry of Human Rights Watch said his organization had not had the opportunity to authenticate the images. But he added: "We have documented repeatedly how Syria's security services regularly torture – sometimes to death – detainees in their custody.

"These photos – if authentic – suggest that we may have only scratched the surface of the horrific extent of torture in Syria's notorious dungeons. There is only one way to get to the bottom of this and that is for the negotiating parties at Geneva II to grant unhindered access to Syria's detention facilities to independent monitors."