Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Bahrain court adjourns trial of protest activists

2 stories:
Bahrain court adjourns trial of protest activists
Horrific picture emerges of besieged Syrian town

Bahrain court adjourns trial of protest activists

May 16, 2011 Associated Press

MANAMA, Bahrain – Bahrain's special security court on Monday adjourned
until next week the trial of 21 mostly Shiite opposition leaders and
political activists accused of plotting against the state.

The postponement is meant to give defense lawyers time to examine military
prosecutors' evidence, state media reported.

The suspects — 14 in custody and the others being tried in absentia — are
accused of attempting to overthrow the 200-year-old Sunni dynasty and of
having links to "a terrorist organization abroad." That is an apparent
reference to Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon, which Bahrain's rulers
have claimed was involved in the strategic island kingdom's Shiite-led
protests earlier this year.

Authorities are seeking to prosecute opposition leaders and others after
months of clashes and protests in Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th

They are being tried in a special security court set up under martial law.
The same court last month sentenced four people to death for killing two
policemen during the unrest.

In a separate case, the court on Monday convicted seven defendants on a
range of lesser charges including "assembling at a public area, rioting,
holding political leaflets and calling openly for the hatred of the ruling
system," the Bahrain News Agency reported.

The seven received sentences of one to three years in prison. The
sentences can be appealed.

Among the 21 being tried for trying to overthrow the government are Hassan
Mushaima, the leader of Al Haq movement. He was among the first opposition
leaders arrested after emergency rule was declared in March to quell weeks
of anti-government protests.

Mushaima returned from self-imposed exile in late February and immediately
joined in street protests that were inspired by revolts against autocratic
leaders in Tunisia and Egypt. He and fellow Haq member Abdul Jalil
al-Singace were among 25 Shiite activists on trial last year on charges of
trying to overthrow the nation's Sunni rulers.

Also on trial are Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, the country's most prominent human
rights activist; Ibrahim Sharif, a key Sunni leader in the kingdom's
Shiite-led opposition; and Ali Abdul Emam, a blogger and founder of a
popular discussion forum Bahrain-On-Line.

The defendants have entered not guilty pleas. The trial resumes Sunday.

Bahrain's majority Shiites, who have long demanded a greater political
voice and rights, dominated the protests that began in February. They
comprise about 70 percent of Bahrain's population, but are excluded from
top government and security posts.

Horrific picture emerges of besieged Syrian town

By BASSEM MROUE, Associated Press May 16, 2011

WADI KHALED, Lebanon – Using horses and mules to carry their possessions,
Syrians crossed a shallow river Monday to reach safety in Lebanon with
tales of a "catastrophic" scene back home: sectarian killings, gunmen
carrying out execution-style slayings and the stench of decomposing bodies
in the streets.

The accounts are bound together by a sense of growing desperation as
President Bashar Assad's regime expands its crackdown on an uprising that
has entered a third month with no sign of letting up.

At least 16 people — eight of them members of the same family — have been
killed in recent days in Talkalakh, a town of about 70,000 residents that
has been under siege since Thursday, witnesses and activists say.

The deaths boost an already staggering toll, with more than 850 people
killed nationwide since mid-March, according to the National Organization
for Human Rights in Syria.

"The situation in the city is catastrophic," said a 55-year-old Syrian who
asked to be identified only by his first name, Ahmad. He crossed the
border into Lebanon before dawn Monday.

"If you walk in the streets of Talkalakh you can smell the dead bodies,"
he said.

Residents interviewed by The Associated Press on Monday as they crossed
into Lebanon said their town, which has held weekly anti-government
rallies, came under attack by the army, security forces and shadowy,
pro-regime gunmen known as "shabiha."

Residents recognized the shabiha by their black clothes and red arm bands
— apparently worn so they can recognize each other in the confusion of an

Four residents independently told the AP that shabiha gunmen killed a man
named Adnan al-Kurdi along with his wife, five daughters and a son in
their home — a harrowing story that could not be independently verified.
None of those interviewed knew why the family was killed. But they said
the killings motivated them to leave.

"We did not want to have our throats slit," said Umm Rashid, who fled to
Lebanon with her seven daughters by hopping on a truck that carried dozens
on a short trip across the frontier.

The trip was less than three miles (five kilometers), but it was perilous.
Gunmen fired on the truck as it sped out of town under cover of darkness,
wounding a woman and an 8-year-old girl, witnesses said.

"Bullets buzzed over our heads in a crazy way," said a 50-year-old
resident who gave only his first name, Qassim.

Besides the al-Kurdi family, another eight people were reported killed in
Talkalakh — all of them on Sunday, said Syrian human rights activist
Mustafa Osso.

Tension in the town had spiked on Thursday, when authorities cut
electricity and telephone service and cut off the water supply. Later,
three mosques were struck by rocket-propelled grenades, witnesses said.

The siege apparently was meant to head off protests the next day, when
Syrians across the country have been massing after Friday prayers since
the middle of March. At first, the protesters called for reforms, but now,
enraged over the mounting death toll, many are demanding the downfall of
the regime.

Talkalakh residents have been coming out every week, calling for Assad to
leave, residents said.

"By Friday night, life turned to hell," Qassim said. Intensive shelling by
tanks and heavy machine gun fire pounded the town, he said.

Authorities justified the siege by saying the city was full of Islamic
extremists who wanted to form an Islamic state, residents told The
Associated Press.

"This is all not true," said Ahmad, who did not want to be further
identified for fear of reprisals.

Assad has blamed the unrest on armed thugs and foreign agitators. He also
has played on fears of sectarian strife to persuade people not to
demonstrate, saying chaos will result.

One resident said the conflict in Talkalakh has taken on dangerous
sectarian tones.

Hamid, 45, who asked to be identified only by his first name, said the
shabiha gunmen are targeting Sunnis in the city.

Syria has multiple sectarian divisions, largely kept in check under
Assad's heavy hand and his regime's secular ideology. Most significantly,
the majority of the population is Sunni Muslim, but Assad and the ruling
elite belong to the minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

The shabiha, too, are believed to be mainly Alawites.

Talkalakh is a Sunni city, surrounded by 12 Alawite villages.

"The city of Talkalakh is empty of people. Most of them have fled to
Lebanon," Hamid said.

At the Wadi Khaled crossing point, Syrians crossed a narrow river
separating the countries by hopping along rocks in the narrow water.

Bursts of gunfire could be heard from the Syrian side Monday in Wadi
Khaled, as Syrians continued to arrive, some using horses and mules to
carry their belongings into Lebanon.

Hundreds of Syrian and Lebanese men were standing just steps away from the
border as bullets from the Syrian side buzzed overhead, sending them
running for cover.

Two ambulances were parked nearby to tend to any wounded Syrians.

One paramedic said one man who crossed the border shortly after midnight
had a gunshot wound to his back.

The Lebanese army was fortifying its positions in Wadi Khaled with a
bulldozer, setting up sand dunes and putting up barbed wire to protect
themselves from stray bullets.

More than 5,000 Syrians have fled to Lebanon in recent weeks. Traveling
between the two countries is not difficult; citizens need only their
identification papers to pass through.

Elsewhere in Syria, the National Organization for Human Rights said in a
statement Monday that at least 34 people were killed in the past five days
in the villages of Inkhil and Jassem near the southern city of Daraa.
Ammar Qurabi, the head of the human rights organization, said five bodies
were discovered in Daraa on Monday, raising the overall death toll to 850.

There were also unconfirmed reports that up to 20 bodies were found in a
grave there. Calls to Daraa were not going through Monday to verify the

Like Talkalakh, Daraa was sealed off in recent weeks as the military
unleashed a deadly siege, sending in troops backed by tanks and snipers to
crush the heart of the rebellion. Daraa is the city where the uprising
began, touched off by the arrest of teenagers who scrawled anti-regime
graffiti on a wall.

A resident of Inkhil told the AP on Monday there were more than 70 tanks
in the village and that two hospitals in the area were taken over by
security forces.

A similar tactic was used in another brutal crackdown on protesters in the
region, in Bahrain. International rights groups have said Bahrain targeted
medical professionals who treated injured demonstrators.

"The gunfire never stops," the Inkhil resident said on condition of

Munira Ahmad, who fled Talkalakh with her four daughters, said she had no
choice but to run.

"We fled from death," she said, holding back tears. She worries nonstop
about the family she left behind, including her husband and three sons.

"I don't know what happened to them. My husband has heart problems," she

But she cannot call to check on them — the telephone lines are still cut.

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