Syrian government ‘ready’ for prisoner swap with rebels

State media says Assad government ‘continuously ready’ for prisoner exchange with rebels before upcoming peace talks.

A report released last week indicated that up to 13,000 prisoners were hanged in one government prison [Reuters]

The Syrian government signalled on Monday that it was ready to agree to prisoner swaps with rebel groups, a confidence-building measure that might help both sides prepare to attend peace talks.

The government is “continuously ready” for such an exchange with rebel groups, “particularly in the framework of efforts being made for the coming meeting in Astana”, a news flash on the state-run Al Ikhbariya TV station said, citing an official source.

Al Jazeera’s Andrew Simmons, reporting from the Turkish city of Gaziantep along the Syrian border, said it was “difficult to know how significant this is because there have been prisoner swaps in the past”.

Russia, Turkey and Iran – who created a trilateral mechanism to enforce the fragile ceasefire in Syria last month in Astana – are set to meet again in the Kazakh capital later this week.

The Kazakh foreign ministry said over the weekend that the Syrian government and rebel delegations had been invited to attend the meetings, set for February 15-16.

The meetings in Astana were originally aimed at consolidating the truce in Syria, a nationwide halt in the fighting established late in December that has steadily fallen apart over the past month.

The Astana talks were also meant to pave the way towards peace negotiations Geneva, tentatively set to begin on February 20.

“Originally, the thought was this was going to be a final attempt to get the ceasefire really tightened up in advance of the Geneva talks, but now there are suggestions that it could be more than that … that there is some sort of peace deal on the table that might have legs for Geneva … [it’s] not clear yet,” said Simmons.

The Syrian government has conducted prisoner exchanges in the past with a wide range of rebel groups under the auspices of the Syrian Red Crescent and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

This month, in a rare move, the Syrian government and rebel groups swapped dozens of female prisoners and hostages, some of them with their children, in Hama province in northwestern Syria.

READ MORE: Syria hanged 13,000 in Saydnaya prison – Amnesty

Syria’s main opposition body approved, on Sunday, a new delegation to take part in Geneva talks later this month, which includes Russian-backed blocs that have been critical of the armed insurrection against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

The High Negotiation Committee (HNC), the main umbrella group, said in a statement after two days of meetings in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, that the new 21-member negotiating team included members of two dissident alliances with which it has previously been at odds.

Those two alliances – the so-called Moscow and Cairo groups – have long disavowed the armed rebellion and insisted that political change can only come through peaceful activism. Their members include a former Syrian government minister with close ties to Moscow.

Mohammad Sabra, who was appointed as chief negotiator, told Saudi-owned Al Hadath news channel that the delegation brought together various groups. He also accused unidentified foreign powers of trying to impose their views on the composition of the delegation, an apparent reference to Russia.

The body also chose a new head of the negotiating team, Nasr al-Hariri, a veteran opposition figure from southern Syria.

The HNC said in the statement the goal of the negotiations was a political transition under UN auspices in which Assad had no role in the future of the country. But it steered away from its previous insistence the Syrian president should leave at the start of a transitional phase.

The HNC also said foreign powers had no right to present a vision of Syria’s future political system without the consent of Syrians.

Russia last month tabled the draft of a proposed new constitution for Syria, though it insisted the document had been circulated for the purposes of discussion only.

The HNC represented the opposition in Geneva talks last year, but it was not invited to recently convened talks in the Kazakh capital, Astana.

The indirect talks between government and rebel delegates in Astana were held with the aim of shoring up a ceasefire brokered by Turkey and Russia.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies


Shot in the eyes: Kashmiri girl tells her story

‘They dragged me by my hair, beat me with their baton, then shot me with a pellet gun,’ says 14-year-old Ifra.

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There are some things about October 31, 2016, that Ifra Shakour says she will never forget. And then there are the hours that she was unconscious.

She remembers hunching over school books, cramming for her eighth-grade exams. She recalls hearing bursts of tear gas shells coming from the local market. And she definitely remembers that feeling of dread when she realised that her little brother wasn’t home.

They caught me by my hair and dragged me. And then they beat me with their baton on my arm. But still they weren’t satisfied so they shot me with a pellet gun

Ifra Shakour

“I asked my mother what was happening outside,” the 14-year-old told Al Jazeera in this 101 East documentary

“I didn’t know what was going on. I closed my books and went out.”

Ifra only made it to her front gate. The last thing she saw were two uniformed policemen running towards her.

“When I saw them, I got scared. That’s why I ran,” she told Al Jazeera.

“They caught me by my hair and dragged me. And then they beat me with their baton on my arm. But still they weren’t satisfied so they shot me with a pellet gun.”

This pump action shotgun has been the weapon of choice for security forces in Indian-administered Kashmir for years. It’s classified as “non-lethal”, used to maim rather than kill its victims.

Each cartridge carries lead pellets the size and shape of mustard seeds. With the pull of a trigger, the gun sprays hundreds of these tiny balls indiscriminately into the air.

Ifra said the policemen shot her at point-blank range.

“After I was hit I couldn’t see anything. Blood was coming out of my eyes,” she said.

“All I could think about was seeing again so I can study, go out with friends, teachers, my family and neighbours. I used to pray to God to make me see again so I can be a doctor.”

OPINION: Kashmir and the myth of indivisible India

Protests triggered by the death of Burhan Wani

The shooting of Ifra came during the worst protests Indian-administered Kashmir has seen in six years. They were triggered by the killing of Burhan Wani, a young rebel commander who had joined an underground network of separatist guerillas.

Wani was an icon and a social media star with thousands of online followers. His death sent shockwaves through India’s only Muslim-majority state. Angry protesters flooded the streets, throwing rocks at security forces and demanding independence.

READ MORE: Kashmiris decry world’s silence over killings

The subsequent crackdown by the government was swift and violent. Hospitals struggled to cope with the dead and injured. Some had been severely beaten, others suffered pellet wounds.

Ophthalmologists in Srinagar’s Shri Maharaja Hari Singh Hospital said they operated day and night, treating at least 1,000 patients with pellets lodged in their eyes.

Some, like Ifra, were completely blind.

“She was screaming,” said her aunt, Rubeena Banu. “There was blood coming out of her eyes, her ears, her nose. I was so stressed. I couldn’t look at her. I thought she would die.”

Ifra had three pellets in her right eye and two in her left.

“She had gone out to bring her brother home because there was firing and fighting going on,” Banu told Al Jazeera. “What did she do wrong? She didn’t have a rock or a gun in her hand. She had just gone to get her brother.”

During protests the hospitals struggled to cope with the dead and injured [Karyshma Vias/Al Jazeera] 

‘No rule of law here’

The Indian government has resisted increasing pressure to ban the use of pellet gunsagainst protesters and civilians.

“Banning it would take us straight to using bullets, so it’s the lesser evil,” said Naeem Akhtar, a senior minister in the state government.

Every time [there is a protest] the reaction is brute force. Kill the Kashmiris, maim them, blind them

Umar Farooq, separatist leader

“Use of disproportionate force is a problem, crowd control is a problem,” he admitted. “We want to create an atmosphere where we should not use it. It should be the last resort because it’s not for human beings.”

But activists and political leaders have accused the government of being disingenuous. For decades, human rights lawyers have been recording a catalogue of complaints against security forces, including cases of extrajudicial killings, torture in custody and rape. They believe abuses in Kashmir are systemic.

“There is absolutely no democracy here, there is no rule of law here, there is no accountability here,” said Umar Farooq, a separatist leader and the religious head of Kashmiri Muslims.

“Every time [there is a protest] the reaction is brute force. Kill the Kashmiris, maim them, blind them.”

Akhtar, the government minister, said the state takes these allegations seriously and is committed to protecting civilians in this 30-year conflict.

“The government is looking into specific cases of it and wherever we find that there has actually been an established case of disproportionate use of force, we will certainly take action,” he told Al Jazeera.

“They will be investigated, compensated.”

But when pressed about when these investigations will take place, he said: “I can’t put a time frame on that … I don’t know.”

IN PICTURES: Pellet guns cause severe eye injuries in Kashmir

Al Jazeera also requested interviews with the police, the military and the federal government, but none agreed to be interviewed.

Ifra’s family does not hold any hope that her case will be investigated. They haven’t lodged a complaint with the police.

“If we complain, who knows? Maybe they’ll pick up my little nephew and put him in jail,” said Ifra’s aunt, Rubeena. “That’s why we’re scared and we won’t complain.

“Today this happened to my niece. Another day it will happen to someone else, and someone else the day after that. That’s why we say we want an independent Kashmir.”

Ifra has had three surgeries to restore her vision, but her sight is still limited. Her relatives say she has stopped studying and barely eats. She spends most of her days sitting alone in the courtyard outside her home.

“My friend used to come to see me every morning but now she doesn’t come,” she said. “I don’t know what has happened. She’s busy studying and going to school. She’ll graduate but what will I do?”

Source: Al Jazeera News


Israel wants settlements, not peace

With each new settlement, the prospect of peace and the formation of a Palestinian state become even more unattainable.

An Israeli soldier aims his weapon at Palestinian protesters during clashes after a protest against the settlement of Qadomem, in the Occupied West Bank [Mohamad Torokman/Reuters]
An Israeli soldier aims his weapon at Palestinian protesters during clashes after a protest against the settlement of Qadomem, in the Occupied West Bank [Mohamad Torokman/Reuters]

by

Rami Hamdallah is the Prime Minister of the State of Palestine.

Israel is above international law, or so it seems. On December 23, the United Nations Security Council passed resolution 2334, re-affirming the illegality of Israeli settlements.

The vote was significant for two reasons: Unlike previous UNSC resolutions targeting Israel, it was not vetoed by the Obama administration, who decided to abstain. Secondly, it demonstrated an international consensus on the illegality and illegitimacy of Israel’s settlement enterprise, and showed that these settlements constitute an obstacle to peace.

These points were reiterated by then-US Secretary of State John Kerry in his December 28 speech, and subsequently in the January peace conference held in Paris, which was one of the largest peace conferences ever held in terms of high-level participation.

The fact that even Israel’s staunchest ally, the US, affirmed the illegality of settlements, did nothing to change the course of the Benjamin Netanyahu government.

On the contrary, since the UN Security Council passed the resolution, Israel hurried to approve the construction of even more houses in illegal settlements on Palestinian land. Within one month, the government gave the green light for the construction of more than 6,000 housing units – a higher number than the total number of settlement housing units approved in all of 2016.

The ‘regularisation bill’

In parallel, the Israeli parliament passed a legislation – dubbed the “regularisation bill”, but essentially a land theft – enabling settlersto “legally” steal Palestinian land, thereby accelerating construction of settlements.

The bill also retroactively “legalised” existing outposts, which are considered illegal even under Israeli law. Yet under international law, both settlements and outposts are illegal. There is no such thing as a legal settlement.

Although the government of Israel and settlers have been building settlements and outposts in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem for nearly half a century, this law crosses a dangerous red line, to the point where even Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit declared that it violated the Fourth Geneva Convention and that he would not defend the bill if it was challenged in an Israeli court.

Make no mistake: soon, thousands of settlers will scramble to establish new settlements – and that is in addition to the thousands of settlement housing units that will be sponsored and built by the Israeli government itself.

The continued Israeli policy of building settlements makes the establishment of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state increasingly impossible and seriously threatens the two-state solution. But settlements are not merely a factor to be dealt with in future negotiations: their presence has serious consequences for Palestinians, even now.

Now more than ever, the international community must take concrete steps, such as economic and diplomatic sanctions, against Israel.

The building and expansion of settlements is pushing Palestinians out of the Area C, which constitutes 60 percent of the West Bank and is under full Israeli control.

Settlers routinely attack or harass Palestinians living close to settlements and they also vandalise Palestinian properties in complete impunity, with the aim of forcing Palestinians to relocate to overcrowded cities outside the Area C.

OPINION: Israel’s never-ending crimes – It’s not just settlements

Moreover, in order to expand or build new settlements, Israeli bulldozers routinely demolish Palestinian homes and other Palestinian infrastructures in the Area C.

Farmers and Bedouins, who need large tracts of land to grow crops and herd cattle, have been hit the hardest and forced to change their traditional lifestyle, losing their means of livelihood in the process.

Taking concrete steps

The international community cannot afford to ignore Israel’s settlement frenzy. Following the announcements for renewed settlement construction and the passing of the so-called “regularisation bill”, world powers, rights-based groups and UN officials, including Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, promptly issued condemnations.

Yet, past experience has shown that these statements are ineffective and have never deterred Israel. The same can be said about UNSC resolution 2334, which was adopted under Chapter VI of the UN Charter, meaning that it doesn’t obligate Security Council members to take concrete steps if Israel violates the resolution.

READ MORE: Palestinians ask Israeli court to reject land grab law

Now more than ever, the international community must take concrete steps, such as economic and diplomatic sanctions, against Israel. This is not simply a moral or legal obligation: it is also in everyone’s interests.

International law and international humanitarian law, much of which has been drafted following the horrors of World War II, is meant to prevent the re-occurrence of such tragedies. Countries that flaunt international law (and are allowed to get away with it) invalidate basic human rights, pushing humanity back towards darker ages, when colonialism and ethnic cleansing were the norm.

Palestinians might be the ones who are most affected by Israel’s settlement enterprise, but in the long term, we will all be affected.

Dr Rami Hamdallah is the Prime Minister of the State of Palestine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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