Twenty-six men were convicted on Wednesday of plotting attacks in Egypt and of having ties with the Lebanon-based group Hezbollah. The men have also been charged with spying on ships in the Suez canal, planning attacks against Israelis visiting resorts in the Sinai region and smuggling weapons into Gaza. Four defendants remain on the run and received life sentences in absentia. The remaining 22 in the dock received jail sentences between six months and fifteen years.
The men had been detained between late 2008 and January 2009 by Egyptian authorities. The trial, which began in August 2009, is the first time Egypt has prosecuted suspected Hezbollah members. Hassan Nasrallah had earlier admitted that he he had sent a senior commander to Egypt to support Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, but denied that there was any plot to destabilise or harm Egypt. According to Al-Jazeera, 'no higher appeal is possible for the case, with the only possibility or recourse being a presidential pardon.'
In a separate development, US Defence Secretary Robert Gates warned on Tuesday night that Hezbollah now has 'more rockets and missiles than most governments in the world, and this is obviously destabilising for the whole region.' Gates' remarks were slammed by Hassan Fadlallah, a Hezbollah MP, who said the movement's arms did not compare to the level of armament and 'crimes' committed by the US and Israel. The movement has however vowed to continue amassing 'arms of resistance.'
The openSecurity verdict: The renewed spotlight on Hezbollah has brought the delicate balance in the middle east to the fore once again. Today's developments will likely reignite the war of words between Egypt, Hezbollah and its Iranian backers. Egypt has no formal diplomatic ties with Iran and accuses Tehran of seeking to destabilise the region. Both Hezbollah and Iran say the trial of the 26 men is politically motivated and in revenge for Hezbollah's critical stance on Egypt's support for the Israeli blockade of Gaza. They say the evidence against the men is fabricated.
Earlier this month, tensions were heightened when Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak accused Syria of smuggling Scud ballistic missiles to Hezbollah. Syria and Lebanon contend that these accusations are aimed at finding a pretext for an Israeli military strike. Though the Israelis have played down the prospect of a conflict, the war of words has certainly escalated in recent days, adding to the complex nexus of alliances and enmities surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Analysts say that Syria fears that the new accusations levelled against it will put it on a course of international isolation and bring western overtures to an end. But the reverse may also be true. The new accusations of Syrian complicity in Hezbollah's rearmament campaign will mean that Syria still has a role to play in any negotiated future peace settlement in the region.
Egypt maintains a complicated position. Last week, Egypt struck an aggressive tone against Israel with it's foreign minister calling Israel an 'enemy state' and saying that the claims about Scud transfers between Syria and Hezbollah are a 'big lie.' Yet in spite of this anti-Israeli rhetoric, Egypt's blockade of Gaza and today's verdict will reinforce perceptions that Egypt has sided with Israel. For manoeuvring against Hamas and Hezbollah, Egypt has come under criticism in the Arab and Muslim world. Being one of only two Arab countries with a peace deal with Israel, Egypt has been criticised for its lack of decisive action to stop the fighting and open its border with the Gaza Strip. Today's verdict will once again embarrass and discredit the Mubarak government regionally and domestically. With elections in Egypt scheduled to take place next year, the disgust of some Egyptians at their government’s obstruction of help to Palestinians may well manifest itself in stronger support for Islamist factions.
For its part, Hezbollah will be seeking to shore up domestic grass-roots level support in the upcoming municipal elections in Lebanon. Already, Gates' remarks have rallied a number of Lebanese officials. The Lebanese president, Michel Suleiman, described the reports as 'Israeli fabrications' whilst Prime Minister Saad Hariri said the allegations were concocted and are 'reminiscent of the weapons of mass destruction allegations against Saddam Hussein: they were never found, they did not exist.' Arguably the most popular leader in the Arab and Muslim world, Hassan Nasrallah holds a particularly powerful sway over public perceptions and opinion. Gates' remarks about Hezbollah and the recent summoning of the Syrian ambassador in Washington will do little to improve perceptions of the US in the middle east. The capacity of the US to act as a fair and independent arbiter has become suspect, in part as a result of perceptions of the US as selective in its condemnation.
Human Rights Watch says Iraq torture routine
Routine and systematic torture, including sexual abuse and electric shocks, was inflicted on detainees held in a secret prison in Baghdad, according to Human Rights Watch. The group says it interviewed 42 men held at a secret facility at an airbase in west Baghdad whose stories were both 'credible and consistent.' It says they described horrific acts in which they were deprived of air, beaten, given electric shocks and sodomised.
Human Rights Watch has called on the Iraqi government to prosecute all those involved in the torture of prisoners. The Iraqi government, however, denies that it operates secret detention facilities, or that abuse in its jails is routine. Reports of the abuse have angered Iraq's Sunni minority who see it as another example of persecution by the country's Shia-led government.
Blast in Peshawar kills four policemen
A suicide bomber attacked a police checkpoint in the north-western city of Peshawar in Pakistan, killing four policemen and wounding twelve people. The attack damaged nearby houses and a mosque. The volatile north-western region is at the forefront of Pakistan's war against Islamist militants.
Meanwhile, the prime ministers of Pakistan and India are expected to meet at a two-day regional summit on Wednesday in Bhutan. Ahead of the 16th summit of the eight-nation South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, Indian authorities arrested a junior Indian diplomat on charges of spying for Pakistan. The spy scandal has dented already slim hopes for a resumption in peace talks between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.
Migrants in Mexico face 'human rights crisis'
Amnesty International urged Mexico to take action to halt the abuse of central American migrants in the country on Wednesday. A new report, 'Invisible Victims: Migrants on the Move in Mexico’, issued by the rights group has documented a pattern of abuse faced by thousands of migrants as they attempt to reach the United States by passing through the country. The report provides details of kidnappings, mainly for ransom, and sexual violence against women and girls.
The group says that the ‘persistent failure by the authorities to tackle abuse carried out against irregular migrants has made their journey through Mexico one of the most dangerous in the world.’ It alleges that public officials have turned a 'blind eye' to criminal gangs who prey upon migrants and, in some cases, have played an active part in kidnappings, rapes and murders. Amnesty has called on Mexico to set up a federal task force to protect migrants’ rights and to enact legislative reforms to ensure fair access to justice.
Sahara states to escalate anti-al-Qaeda mission
A joint military effort to coordinate anti-al-Qaeda operations in the Sahara desert will triple the troops at its disposal to 75,000 by 2012, according to reports yesterday. Algeria, Mali, Mauritania and Niger opened a joint military headquarters in the southern Algerian town of Tamanrasset this month in a bid to root out al-Qaeda insurgents operating in the area. Western diplomats say a regional response is key to curbing al-Qaeda's hold in the region as insurgents evade capture by slipping from one country into another.
US begins inquiry into spy network in Pakistan
The New York Times has reported that the US defence secretary, Robert Gates, has opened an inquiry into whether a top defence department official violated Pentagon rules by setting up a private network of contractors to gather intelligence in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The inquiry will determine whether the outsourcing of intelligence-gathering violated official rules and if Michael Furlong, a civilian official working for the air force, improperly diverted money from an overt program to finance a secret spy network.