The Saudi Military Officer Who Became a Dogged Human Rights Activist

Meet Yahya Assiri, a Saudi military officer-turned-activist who runs an underground human rights group against one of the most oppressive states in the world.

Courtesy of Middle East Eye

Born in a region of Saudi Arabia that fiercely resisted the al-Saud family and its fundamentalist Wahhabi allies, he grew up in a polarized family environment: his grandmother despised the government and its ultraconservative brand of Islam, while his father, like most in his generation, was more favorable to the royal family because of the wealth and security it provided.

Exposure to these opposing views instilled in Assiri a penchant for asking questions, even while he was climbing the ranks of the military. After failing to fulfill his lifelong dream to be a pilot, he joined the administrative side of the Royal Saudi Air Force, where he often worked on international arms deals (Saudi Arabia is one of the largest importers of military equipment). He regularly heard colleagues complain about their meager salaries and struggles with debt and poverty, which sat uncomfortably with the sheer wealth of the royal family and the claims that it brought prosperity to Arabia.

At 24-years-old he began to ask questions internally about these issues, describing himself as a sensitive person who could not ignore the suffering around him, even as he progressed swiftly through the air force and earned good money. Initially resisting the desire to speak out — knowing full well the risks — he began exploring the internet, finding a series of websites and forums in Arabic where people were debating politics. Thus began a double life in which Assiri worked for the government by day but spoke against it online through a pseudonym by night.

Eventually, his online activities gave way to participating in actual public forums, namely at the home of a prominent Saudi human rights activist, Saud al-Hashimi, who Assiri credited as a pivotal figure in his life. In 2011, Hashimi was arrested and jailed in for 30 years on the false charges of “supporting terrorism”, which galvanized Assiri further. Why didn’t regular Saudis have a voice? Why was the regime so afraid? And why was it so wealthy while average Saudis around him struggled?

As more activists got arrested around him, and the government began asking questions about his online activities, Assiri, who by now had a wife and two kids, made the difficult choice of leaving behind his otherwise prosperous life to seek asylum in the U.K. There he founded his own human rights group in August 2014 to keep the fight going.

Knowing that authorities usually dismiss international human rights groups as foreign agents trying to impose Western values, he cleverly chose the name Al Qst, which is a Quranic term meaning justice.

“I used this name to speak to the people. The name comes from our religion, so no one could say my human rights organisation is an attack on the culture of our people.”

The organisation is voluntarily run, relying on a vast underground activist network to keep tabs on everything going on at home. As of 2015, Assiri has eight groups on the messaging application Telegram — which is popular among activists in repressive countries — covering different topics including women’s rights, poverty, the fate of activists, and specific regional issues. The group also has an active Twitter account with over 45,000 followers (@ALQST_ORG)

Assiri wishes to keep the group exclusively Saudi-run so that it cannot be easily dismissed by the authorities nor skeptics. The ultimate goal is to grow Al Qst into a strong civil society organization, since civil society is very much lacking in the country’s stifling sociopolitical environment.

“I believe Al Qst will become the most important organisation dealing with human rights in Saudi Arabia. This is because we – the Saudis – are the best people to understand the complicated problems facing our country.”

Assiri is a reminder that even in the most blighted places, there is some flicker of hope, and not everyone who lives under an odious government is spoken for by that government (something a lot of Americans who otherwise hate one administration or another ironically forget).

Read more about him in this 2015 article (there was not much else out there that I could find).

The Anniversary of Porajmos

On this day in 1943, Heinrich Himmler—one of the most powerful Nazi leaders, and the main architect of the Holocaust—ordered that people of full or part Romani ancestry (a.k.a. gypsies) were to be put “on the same level as Jews and placed in concentration camps”.

Thus began the systematic extermination of Romani people all over Europe, resulting in 220,000 to 500,000 deaths—a quarter to nearly half the total population—though some figures put the death toll as high as 1.5 million. This event is sometimes known as the “Porajmos”, meaning “the Devouring”.

Himmler’s order was the culmination of the racist Nuremberg Laws of 1935, which classified Gypsies, like Jews, as “enemies of the race-based state”, ripping away their German citizenship accordingly. It also reflected centuries of hatred and antipathy towards the Romani.

Better known as Gypsies—after Egypt, which was believed to be their origin—the Romani or Roma people (to use their proper name) actually arrived in Europe and the Middle East from northern India over a millennium ago; many still retain some Hindu beliefs, customs, and symbolism, and speak a language related to Hindi. (Moreover, tens of millions of Indians maintain a similar nomadic lifestyle.)

Like the Jews, the Romani were regarded as an alien race, inherently strange, untrustworthy, degenerate, and devious. In some of the earliest records, they are described as satanically inspired wizards—hence the trope of the Gypsy curse or fortune teller. Depending on the time and place—or whether people needed a scapegoat—the Romani were either grudgingly tolerated, or chased out and killed. They were often subject to similar discriminatory laws and treatment, including enslavement, forced assimilation, separation from their children, and pogroms. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S., Argentina, and other settler countries. There is even a term for hatred towards them that is equivalent to anti-Semitism: Antiziganism.

Thus, as with the Jews, the Nazis simply tapped into a long-existing prejudice that was widespread and deeply rooted throughout Europe, which is why so many Europeans collaborated in rounding up, imprisoning, and killing them. It is believed part of the impetus for their mass targeting was the heavy resistance they posed to Nazi occupiers, especially as nomadic peoples who were often not well documented in national census data.

Unfortunately, it was their widespread invisibility that partly explains why Romani remain relatively forgotten, despite being one of the Nazi’s biggest targets. Overall records of their population before the Holocaust are sparse or unreliable, and after the war few gave them any mind; West Germany did not recognize them as victims of the Holocaust until 1982. Some scholars also attribute this to Romani culture, which is “traditionally not disposed to keeping alive the terrible memories from their history—nostalgia is a luxury for others”. Others blame the effects of pervasive illiteracy, the lack of social institutions, and rampant discrimination to this day, which has deprived the Romani of “national consciousness” and historical memory.

Pictured are Romani people being round up by German police in 1940; most were likely still detained, and thus later killed, following Himmler’s order.

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Olympe de Gouges

On this day in 1793, French playwright, journalist, and outspoken feminist Olympe de Gouges was guillotined during the early stages of the Reign of Terror for her revolutionary ideas.

45302282_10161165779455472_6445264199118487552_nWell ahead of her time both ideologically and professionally, she dared to write plays and publish political pamphlets at a time when women were denied public and political space. Following the publication of a play critical of slavery, she was widely denounced and even threatened for both her anti-slavery stance and her very involvement in the male profession of theatre. Gouges remained defiant, writing “I’m determined to be a success, and I’ll do it in spite of my enemies”. Unfortunately, pressure and outright sabotage from the slavery lobby forced the theatre to abandon her play after just three days. Continue reading

China’s “Rice Bunny” Campaign

Once again, the resourcefulness and tenacity of human rights activists in authoritarian regimes never ceases to amaze me. The Los Angeles Times highlights the efforts of Chinese feminists to begin their own #MeToo movement despite the government’s opposition to independent civil society, and subsequent censorship of the hashtag itself.

Employers, universities and even police are generally reluctant to get involved in sexual harassment cases in China and assailants are rarely charged and often never punished, leaving few women bold enough to speak out. When five women tried to organize multi-city protests in 2015 to focus attention on unwanted groping on buses and trains, they were arrested and jailed for more than five weeks for “picking quarrels and stirring up trouble.”

Yet there is evidence of progress. A prominent Buddhist monk, a university professor, the founder of a well-known charity, an environmental activist, a famous state television host, two badminton coaches and several journalists have all been accused of sexual harassment in recent months, with the accusations spreading rapidly on Chinese social media, though state censors usually quash the messages quickly.

When censors in China banned the #MeToo hashtag, activists came up with imaginative ways to get around the ban, using the characters “rice bunny,” pronounced “mi tu,” to tag posts or by using the emojis for a bowl of rice and a rabbit.

Though victims are often pressured to remain silent, Wan believes public awareness of sexual harassment is growing and pressure is building in China to finally create a clear criminal law banning sexual harassment. In a 2016 online survey of 6,592 university students, 70% reported being sexually harassed. A survey of female factory workers three years earlier by a labor rights group, the Sunflower Women Workers Center in Guangzhou, found the same thing.

[…]

One thing slowing the #MeToo movement in China is the lack of a clear legal definition of sexual harassment. Of the more than 50 million legal cases that were filed between 2010 and 2017, only two were brought by women alleging they were victims of sexual harassment.

The Beijing Yuanzhong Gender Development Center, which supports victims of sexual harassment and domestic violence, is now pushing for a national law to define and ban sexual harassment and discrimination against women and, for the first time, the government is actually drafting a measure that would require employers to take steps to discourage harassment in any form. Activists, though, say that doesn’t go far enough and want perpetrators to face the risk of criminal charges.

China’s intolerance for activism has also likely slowed the #MeToo movement.

Not if the Chinese can help it. To quote one Chinese lawyer featured in the article who handles these cases, when it comes to “the history of setting up laws and regulations against sexual harassment around the world, there was always blood and lives lost in the process, and that is the cost.”

 

 

How Iranians Use New Media to Empower Civil Society

The tenacity and resourcefulness of the Iranian people–and indeed of oppressed people the world over–is incredible.

One of the latest apps is Hafez, which translates as “to protect”. Named after the famous Persian poet whose words frequently targeted religious hypocrisy, the app offers users a collection of human rights-related information.

Foremost, it is a virtual rolodex of human rights lawyers in Iran, which allows users to access legal information regarding human rights.

However, Hafez is more than just a list of telephone numbers, Keyvan Rafiee, an Iranian human rights activist, told Al Jazeera.

“Users receive daily human rights news; [it] allows them to send news of human rights violations securely; [it] disseminates important legal information to users if they are arrested, and provides the contact information for attorneys who can assist,” said Rafiee, the founder of Human Rights Activists Iran (HRAI).

Rafiee, who has been arrested for his activism six times, said having a record of human rights violations is instrumental for protesters in Iran.

“Monitoring violations that take place on a daily basis can improve human rights conditions since independent organisations are not permitted to work in Iran,” Rafiee said.

Source: Al Jazeera

Houston, Texas: America’s Refugee Haven

The title may seem incongruous, but despite Texas’ reputation for toughness and natavism, one of its largest cities, at least, is a national leader in giving refugees from around the world a second chance in life. As the Houston Chronicle reported:

Though all 50 states have accepted some refugees, Texas typically takes about 10.5 percent of the national total, according to U.S. State Department numbers. More of them come to the Houston area than to anywhere else in Texas. In fiscal year 2014, the state health services department reported, nearly 30 percent of Texas’ refugees landed in Harris County.

Taken together, this data means that Harris County alone welcomes about 25 of every 1,000 refugees that the U.N. resettles anywhere in the world — more than any other American city, and more than most other nations. If Greater Houston were a country, it would rank fourth in the world for refugee resettlement.

Perhaps just as surprising is that the U.S. as a whole took the vast majority of refugees (71%) referred by the U.N. for permanent resettlement between 2010 and 2014. In fact, this had been the case since 1980, when the country adopted the Refugee Act, which administrations of both parties have honored. In total, the U.S. has accounted for 3 million out of the 4 million refugees resettled worldwide.

Not surprising, however, is that the U.S. has since reversed this policy: as of 2017, only 33,000 refugees were resettled in America, the lowest in three decades; other countries also saw historic declines, although the U.S. experienced the steepest drop. Though it still takes in the most refugees numerically, in per capita terms Canada, Australia, and Norway resettle the most refugees for their size.

Meanwhile, the refugee crisis is at its worst on recorded, with close to 20 million people internationally displaced (and double that number displaced within their countries).

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Human Rights in Everyday Language

The following chart from Our World in Data tracks the frequency of the phrases ‘civil rights’, ‘women’s rights’, ‘children’s rights’, ‘gay rights’ and ‘animal rights’ in English-language books from 1900 to 2008. 

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We take for granted that these words and ideas exist, but for the vast majority of human history, the very notion of human rights, especially for children and women, let alone rights for animals — was almost completely alien to virtually every culture. That these words have become so common in our books, media, and everyday language is a huge sign of progress in itself — even if we have a very long way to go.

 

Democracy in Retreat?

Democracy Index 2017

The above map shows the state of democracy in the world as of 2017, according to the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index. The results are based on 60 indicators that span five categories: electoral process and pluralism; civil liberties; the functioning of government; political participation; and political culture. Each country is classified as one of four types of regime: Continue reading

The Swiss Diplomat Who Saved Half of Budapest’s Jews

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Photo: Yad Vashem

Carl Lutz was a Swiss diplomat who, as Vice Consul in Budapest, Hungary, saved over 62,000 Jews – nearly half the Jewish population of the city – in one of the largest rescue operations of Jews in the Second World War.
Shortly after being appointed Vice Consul in the Hungarian capital in 1942, Lutz wasted no time in trying to save as many Jews as he could. Taking full advantage of his country’s famously neutral diplomatic status, he issued safe-conduct documents that allowed nearly 10,000 Jewish children to leave Axis-aligned Hungary.

Continue reading

Human Rights Day And Our Movement Across the Moral Arc

Today is Human Rights Day, which commemorates the adoption in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the first document of its kind to enshrine a global standard of moral principles and norms for all humanity. It is predicated on the simple but important notion set forth in Article One: “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” Continue reading