Iran state TV airs footage of French couple accused of spying

Iran has been roiled by weeks of protests over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini. Above, a video grab of Allameh Tabataba’i University students during a mass action. (UGC/AFP)
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Updated 06 October 2022

Iran state TV airs footage of French couple accused of spying

  • Iran’s intelligence ministry said in May it had arrested two Europeans for allegedly fomenting “insecurity” in Iran
  • France has condemned and demanded immediate release of Cecile Kohler and her partner Jacques Paris

DUBAI: Iranian state television aired a video on Thursday in which two French citizens detained for “spying” in Iran in May appeared to confess to acting on behalf of a French security service, amid weeks of unrest that Tehran has linked to foreign foes.
France’s Foreign Ministry accused Iran of the practices of the “worst dictatorial regimes” over the video confessions and categorically denied that the two were members of the French intelligence services.
Iran’s intelligence ministry said in May it had arrested two Europeans for allegedly fomenting “insecurity” in Iran. France has condemned and demanded immediate release of Cecile Kohler and her partner Jacques Paris.
“I am Cecile Kohler, I am an intelligence and operations agent at the DGSE (Directorate General for External Security) ... We were in Iran to prepare the ground for the revolution and the overthrow of the regime of Islamic Iran,” Kohler said in the video, while wearing a headscarf.
State TV said the two French citizens had entered Iran with “chunks of money ... which was meant to fund strikes and demonstrations.”
“Our goal at the French security service is to pressure the government of Iran,” said Paris in the video.
In May, state TV aired a video of the couple saying they traveled to Iran as tourists “but they took part in anti-government protests and met members of the so-called Teachers’ Association,” referring to protests by Iranian teachers across the country demanding better wages and working conditions.
The “confession” coincides with weeks of anti-government protests in Iran over the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody last month.
The nationwide protests have received wide international support, prompting Tehran to lash out at its critics by accusing the United States and Israel of exploiting the unrest to try to destabilize the Islamic Republic.

Syrian refugees under pressure to return face an uncertain future tinged with fear

Updated 6 sec ago

Syrian refugees under pressure to return face an uncertain future tinged with fear

  • Countries that had offered sanctuary are devising plans to return displaced households, either voluntarily or by force
  • Human rights monitors say returnees are often harassed, detained without charge, tortured, and even disappeared

DUBAI: When Amir left his war-ravaged hometown of Homs, western Syria, in 2013, he believed he was heading somewhere that would offer him and his family lasting security and sanctuary from his nation’s grinding civil war.

Packing what few belongings were left unscathed by the regime’s incessant barrel bombing, Amir boarded a bus bound for Lebanon with his sister, Alia, and her toddler, Omar, where the trio settled in a camp in Arsal, Baalbek.

“My brother is a proud man,” Alia told Arab News from her adopted home in Lebanon. “After our parents died under rubble, he took it upon himself to fend for us and to raise my son, Omar.”

In doing so, Amir and his family joined the ranks of millions of Syrians displaced by the civil war — the majority of whom have settled in neighboring Turkiye, Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq, while others have struck out for Europe and beyond.

What started in 2011 as a peaceful protest movement demanding greater civic freedoms quickly escalated into one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts, with a death toll now numbering in the hundreds of thousands.

Around 13 million people have been displaced by the war. (AFP)

Another 100,000 people have disappeared, likely abducted by security service agents to be tortured and killed in Bashar Assad’s prisons. To date, around 13 million people have been displaced by the war — 5.6 million of them fleeing abroad.

Now, many of those countries that had offered sanctuary have devised plans to return their Syrian guests, either voluntarily or by force, despite warnings from aid agencies and refugees themselves that Syria remains unsafe and blighted by poverty.

Syrian refugees are viewed by the Assad regime and its loyalists as traitors and dissidents. Human rights monitors have identified cases of returnees being harassed, detained without charge, tortured, and even disappeared.

Nevertheless, countries like Lebanon, Turkiye and Denmark, grappling with their own economic pressures and rising anti-immigrant sentiments, have been upping the ante on Syrians to return home, claiming the civil war is now over.

In 2021, Denmark adopted a “zero asylum-seekers” policy, resulting in many Syrians who had been based there since 2015 having their residency status revoked, while others were removed to deportation facilities.

Struggling to take care of its own native population, the caretaker government of crisis-wracked Lebanon announced its own repatriation plan in October this year, with the aim of sending back 15,000 refugees per month.

The situation in Turkiye is no different, according to reports. Stories have emerged on social media of refugees being forced to sign voluntary return forms.

According to reports from the France-based advocacy group Syrians for Truth and Justice, Syrians dropped off at the Bab Al-Salama border crossing by Turkish authorities are classified as “voluntary returnees,” despite this being a regime-controlled crossing.

Returnees — voluntarily or otherwise — often face harassment, extortion, forced recruitment, torture and arbitrary arrest upon arrival on the regime side, irrespective of their age or gender.

Mazen Hamada, a high-profile activist and torture survivor who has testified about the horrors of Syrian regime prisons, mystified the world when he decided to return to Damascus in 2020.

Hamada, who long spoke of his mental torment following his release and his loneliness in exile, returned to Syria from the Netherlands under an amnesty agreement supposedly guaranteeing his freedom.

However, upon arrival in Damascus in February 2020, Hamada was arrested and has not been seen or heard from since.

Last year, human rights monitor Amnesty International released a report, titled “You’re returning to your death,” which documented serious violations committed by regime intelligence officers against 66 returnees, 13 of whom were children.

Around 100,000 people have disappeared, likely abducted by security service agents to be tortured and killed in Bashar Assad’s prisons. (AFP)

Five returnees had died while in custody, while the fate of 17 remains unknown. Fourteen cases of sexual assault were also recorded — seven of which included rape — perpetrated against five women, a teenage boy, and a five-year-old girl.

Voices for Displaced Syrians, another advocacy group based in Istanbul, published a study in February this year, titled “Is Syria safe for return? Returnees’ perspective,” based on interviews with 300 returnees and internally displaced persons across four governorates.

Their accounts outlined extreme human rights violations, physical and psychological abuses, and a lack of legal protections. Some 41 percent of respondents had returned to Syria voluntarily, while 42 percent said they had returned out of necessity, as a result of poor living conditions in their host country and a longing to reunify with family.

Concerning their treatment upon arrival, 17 percent reported they or a loved one had been arbitrarily arrested, 11 percent spoke of harassment and physical violence inflicted upon them or a family member, and 7 percent chose not to answer.

As for internally displaced persons, 46 percent reported they or a relative had been arrested, 30 percent recounted bodily harm, and 27 percent said they had faced persecution owing to their origins and hometowns. Many also reported difficulties reclaiming private property.

Concerning their treatment upon arrival, 17 percent reported they or a loved one had been arbitrarily arrested, 11 percent spoke of harassment and physical violence inflicted upon them or a family member. (AFP)

Despite the mounting body of evidence suggesting the regime is continuing to target civilians it considers dissidents, several countries are choosing to pursue normalization with Assad, lobbying for his rehabilitation into the Arab fold and reopening their embassies in Damascus.

For the relatives of returnees who have since gone missing, these developments smack of betrayal.

Amir, who eventually returned to Syria voluntarily, appears to have suffered the same fate as the activist Hamada. Tired of living in poverty in Lebanon, far from his extended family, he went back in Oct. 2021. He has not been heard from since.

“Life in Lebanon has become rather unbearable. Amir would return humiliated every time he left the house,” his sister Alia told Arab News.

Having initially lived in a UNHCR-provided tent in Arsal, Amir and his family finally managed to acquire a small one bedroom house near the camps. Alia said it was a constant struggle to scrimp together enough money to pay the rent.

Most refugees are unable to secure consistent employment due to their lack of official papers, which, under normal circumstances, would grant them residency and facilitate a stable income. Amir, like many working age men around him, resorted to hard manual labor.

Those who try to find work in the big cities risk being arrested at Lebanese checkpoints, imprisoned, and deported for staying in the country illegally.

Since Amir’s disappearance, Alia has been forced to make do on a single income cleaning houses.

What started in 2011 as a peaceful protest movement demanding greater civic freedoms quickly turned into a brutal crackdown by the Bashar Assad regime, and one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts. (AFP)

“He couldn’t take it anymore, being spoken to like a little boy by some of his employers and the degrading comments he’d hear at times,” said Alia.

“It happens to me too, but I hold back my tongue. I cannot afford to stand up for myself. He thought he would take his chances and return to Syria in the hope of finding us a place, back to familiarity.”

She says she begged her brother not to leave, aware of the many refugees they knew personally who had been mistreated upon their return to Syria. Some had been held in prison until they made bail, while others had gone missing.

“But he didn’t listen,” said Alia. “It’s been over a year since he left and I haven’t heard from him.”

World Cup frenzy puts strain on Qatar’s camels

Updated 53 min 20 sec ago

World Cup frenzy puts strain on Qatar’s camels

  • World Cup fans coming in droves want perfect Instagram moment, riding a camel in the desert
  • Since the World Cup started, the animals are taken for 15 to 20, even 40 rides, without a break

MESAIEED, Qatar: Shaheen stretched out on the sand and closed his eyes, but there was little time to rest for the camel. World Cup fans coming in droves to the desert outside Doha were ready for their perfect Instagram moment: riding a camel on the rolling dunes.

As Qatar welcomes more than a million fans for the monthlong World Cup, even its camels are working overtime. Visitors in numbers the tiny emirate has never before seen are rushing to finish a bucket list of Gulf tourist experiences between games: ride on a camel’s back, take pictures with falcons and wander through the alleyways of traditional markets.

On a recent Friday afternoon, hundreds of visitors in soccer uniforms or draped in flags waited for their turn to mount the humpbacked animals. Camels that did not rise were forced up by their handlers. When one camel let out a loud grunt, a woman from Australia shrieked, “it sounds like they’re being violated!” Nearby, a group of men from Mexico dressed in white Qatari thobes and headdresses took selfies.

“It’s really an amazing feeling because you feel so tall,” 28-year-old Juan Gaul said after his ride. The Argentine fan was visiting Qatar for a week from Australia.

A man takes a selfie while riding camels in Mesaieed, Qatar on November 26, 2022. (AP)

Cashing in on the opportunity are the animals’ handlers who, thanks to the World Cup, are making several times more than they normally would.

“There’s a lot of money coming in,” said Ali Jaber al Ali, a 49 year-old Bedouin camel herder from Sudan. “Thank god, but it’s a lot of pressure.”

Al Ali came to Qatar 15 years ago but has worked with camels since he was a child. On an average weekday before the World Cup, Al Ali said his company would offer around 20 rides per day and 50 on weekends. Since the World Cup started, Al Ali and the men he works with are providing 500 rides in the morning and another 500 in the evening. The company went from having 15 camels to 60, he said.

“Tour guides want to move things fast,” Al Ali said, “so they add pressure on us.”

As crowds formed around them, many camels sat statue-like with cloth muzzles covering their mouths and bright saddles on their bodies. The smell of dung filled the air.

Like other Gulf cultures, camels once provided Qataris a vital form of transport and helped in the exploration and development of trade routes. Today, the ungulates figure into cultural pastimes: camel racing is a popular sport that takes place on old-school tracks outside the city.

Al Ali said he knows when an animal is tired — usually if it refuses to get up or sits back down after rising to its feet. He can identify each camel by its facial features.

“I am a Bedouin. I come from a family of Bedouins who care for camels. I grew up loving them,” Al Ali said.

But the sudden rise in tourists means there’s less time to rest between rides, he said. A short ride lasts just 10 minutes while longer ones run 20 to 30 minutes long.

Normally, Al Ali said a camel can rest after five rides. “Now, people are saying we can’t wait ... because they have other plans they need to go to in the middle of the desert,” he said.

A woman looks at her photo while riding a camel in Mesaieed, Qatar, Nov. 26, 2022. (AP)

Since the World Cup started, the animals are taken for 15 to 20 — sometimes even 40 rides — without a break.

Al Ali’s day starts around 4:30 a.m., when he feeds the animals and gets them ready for customers. Some tourists have been arriving at dawn, he said, hoping to get the perfect sunrise shot, “so we have to work with them and take photos for them.”

From midday until 2 p.m, both handlers and camels rest, he said. “Then we start getting ready for the afternoon battle.”

But not every visitor has been taken by the experience.

Pablo Corigliano, a 47 year-old real estate agent from Buenos Aires, said he was hoping for something more authentic. The excursions start on a stretch of desert by the side of a highway, not far from the industrial city of Mesaieed and its vast oil refineries.

“I was expecting something more wild,” said Corigliano. “I thought I would be crossing the desert, but when I arrived, I saw a typical tourist point.”

Soon after, Corigliano and a group of friends looked for a dune buggy to race into the desert.

Iran frees hundreds after World Cup win over Wales

Updated 28 November 2022

Iran frees hundreds after World Cup win over Wales

  • 709 detainees were freed from different prisons in the country
  • Prominent Iranian actor Hengameh Ghaziani had also been released on bail

TEHRAN: Iran has released more than 700 prisoners after the national team’s World Cup football victory over Wales, the judiciary’s Mizan Online website said Monday.
It announced that “709 detainees were freed from different prisons in the country” following the 2-0 victory on Friday.
Among those are “some arrested during the recent events,” Mizan Online said, making indirect reference to demonstrations which have shaken Iran for more than two months.
It gave no further detail.
The ongoing protests were triggered by the September 16 death in custody of Mahsa Amini, 22, after her arrest by morality police for an alleged breach of Iran’s strict dress rules for women.
Other Iranian media separately reported that prominent Iranian actor Hengameh Ghaziani had been released on bail after her arrest for having supported the protests.
Two of the most prominent figures detained over the demonstrations — former international footballer Voria Ghafouri and dissident Hossein Ronaghi — were also let out on bail, reports said.
State news agency IRNA reported on Monday that former state television host Mahmoud Shahriari, 63, had been released after two months in prison for “encouraging riots.”
Iran on Friday scored twice deep into stoppage time to stun Wales and breathe new life into its World Cup campaign ahead of a politically charged showdown Tuesday against the United States.
Iran lost its first World Cup match to England, 6-2.
Iran’s judiciary says more than 2,000 people have been charged since the start of the protests.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk last week said around 14,000 people have been arrested.

Niece of Iran’s Supreme Leader urges world to cut ties with Tehran over unrest

Updated 28 November 2022

Niece of Iran’s Supreme Leader urges world to cut ties with Tehran over unrest

  • Farideh Moradkhani is an engineer whose late father was a prominent opposition figure married to Khamenei’s sister
  • “This regime is not loyal to any of its religious principles, no rules except maintaining power," Moradkhani says

DUBAI: Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s niece, a well known rights activist, has called on foreign governments to cut all ties with Tehran over its violent crackdown on popular unrest kindled by the death in police custody of a young woman.
A video of a statement by Farideh Moradkhani, an engineer whose late father was a prominent opposition figure married to Khamenei’s sister, was being widely shared online after what activist news agency HRANA said was her arrest on Nov. 23.
“O free people, be with us and tell your governments to stop supporting this murderous and child-killing regime,” Moradkhani said in the video. “This regime is not loyal to any of its religious principles and does not know any rules except force and maintaining power.”
Khamenei’s office did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.
HRANA said 450 protesters had been killed in more than two months of nationwide unrest as of Nov. 26, including 63 minors. It said 60 members of the security forces had been killed, and 18,173 protesters detained.
The protests, sparked by the death of 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman Mahsa Amini after her arrest for “inappropriate attire,” pose one of the strongest challenges to the country’s clerical establishment since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Jalal Mahmoudzadeh, a member of parliament from the mainly Kurdish city of Mahabad, said on Sunday that as many as 105 people had been killed in Kurdish-populated areas during the protests. He was speaking in a debate in parliament as quoted by the Entekhan website.
Widespread opposition 
Challenging the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy, protesters from all walks of life have burned pictures of Khamenei and called for the downfall of Iran’s Shiite Muslim theocracy.
The video was shared on YouTube on Friday by her brother, France-based Mahmoud Moradkhani, who presents himself as “an opponent of the Islamic Republic” on his Twitter account, and then by prominent Iranian rights activists.
On Nov. 23, Mahmoud Moradkhani reported her sister’s arrest as she was heeding a court order to appear at the Tehran prosecutor’s office. Farideh had been arrested earlier this year by Iran’s Intelligence Ministry and later released on bail.
HRANA said she was in Tehran’s Evin security prison. Moradkhani, it said, had earlier faced a 15-year prison sentence on unspecified charges.
Her father, Ali Moradkhani Arangeh, was a Shiite cleric married to Khamenei’s sister and recently passed away in Tehran following years of isolation due to his stance against the Islamic Republic, according to his website.
Farideh Moradkhani added in her video: “Now is the time for all free and democratic countries to recall their representatives from Iran as a symbolic gesture and to expel the representatives of this brutal regime from their countries.”
On Thursday, the United Nations’ top human rights body decided by a comfortable margin to establish a new investigative mission to look into Tehran’s violent security crackdown on the anti-government protests.
Criticism of the Islamic Republic by relatives of top officials is not unprecedented. In 2012, Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, the daughter of late former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, was sentenced to jail for “anti-state propaganda.”
Iranian authorities released on bail the activist and blogger Hossein Ronaghi on Nov. 26 to undergo medical treatment, according to his brother writing on Twitter.
Concerns had been growing about Ronaghi’s health after he went on a hunger strike last month. 

Turkish forces nearly ready for a Syria ground operation – officials

Updated 28 November 2022

Turkish forces nearly ready for a Syria ground operation – officials

  • Eescalation comes after a deadly bomb attack in Istanbul two weeks ago that Ankara blamed on the YPG militia

ONCUPINAR, Turkiye: Turkiye’s army needs just a few days to be ready for a ground incursion into northern Syria and such a decision may come at a cabinet meeting on Monday, Turkish officials said, as Turkish forces bombarded a Kurdish militia across the border.
Howitzers fired daily from Turkiye have struck Kurdish YPG targets for a week, while warplanes have carried out airstrikes.
The escalation comes after a deadly bomb attack in Istanbul two weeks ago that Ankara blamed on the YPG militia. The YPG has denied involvement in the bombing and has responded at times to the cross-border attacks with mortar shelling.
“The Turkish Armed Forces needs just a few days to become almost fully ready,” one senior official said, adding that Turkiye-allied Syrian rebel fighters were ready for such an operation just a few days after the Nov. 13 Istanbul bomb.
“It won’t take long for the operation to begin,” he said. “It depends only on the president giving the word.”
Turkiye has previously launched military incursions in Syria against the YPG, regarding it as a wing of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which Turkiye, the United States and European Union designate a terrorist group.
The PKK has also denied carrying out the Istanbul attack, in which six people were killed on a busy pedestrian avenue.
President Tayyip Erdogan has said Turkiye would launch a land operation when convenient to secure its southern border. He will chair a cabinet meeting at 3:30 p.m. (1230 GMT).
“All the preparations are complete. It’s now a political decision,” another Turkish official told Reuters, also requesting anonymity ahead of the meeting.
Erdogan said back in May that Turkiye would soon launch a military operation against the YPG in Syria, but such an operation did not materialize at that time.
The first Turkish official said a ground operation, targeting the areas of Manbij, Kobani and Tel Rifat, was inevitable to link up the areas brought under the control of Turkiye and its Syrian allies with incursions since 2016.
Ankara had been in contact with Moscow and Washington about its military activities, the person added.
The United States has told NATO member Turkiye it has serious concerns that an escalation would affect the goal of fighting Daesh militants in Syria.
Russia asked Turkiye to refrain from a full-scale ground offensive. It has supported Syrian President Bashar Assad in the country’s 11-year war, while Ankara has backed rebels fighting to topple him.
On Monday, the defense ministry said Turkiye’s army had “neutralized” 14 YPG militants preparing to carry out attacks in Syrian areas under Turkiye’s control. It typically uses the term to describe casualties.
The defense ministry said on Saturday three Turkish soldiers had been killed in northern Iraq, where the military has been conducting an operation against the PKK since April.
Defense Minister Hulusi Akar, having traveled to the Iraqi border area, was quoted as telling military commanders on Sunday that Turkiye will “complete the tasks” of the mission.