Thursday, December 29, 2011
Syria: Human Rights Groups Challenge Leadership Of Arab League Mission.
The Chair, 1955.
Doubts raised after Sudanese general says situation in Homs is 'reassuring' despite footage of monitors witnessing casualties
Julian Borger, diplomatic editor
The Guardian, Thursday 29 December
A Syrian tank moves through Homs where the Arab League observer mission began on Tuesday. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images
The judgment of an Arab League observer mission in Syria has been called into question after its leader, the Sudanese general Mustafa al-Dabi, described the situation in the opposition stronghold of Homs as "reassuring", despite video footage of his monitors witnessing heavy gunfire and being shown civilian casualties.
Syrian opposition groups reported more deaths on Wednesday in Hama, where security forces allegedly used live ammunition against protesters attempting to stage a sit-in in the city centre before a scheduled Arab League mission on Thursday. Estimates of casualties range from seven wounded to six killed.
Al-Jazeera television footage from Hama showed gunfire, rising black smoke and men marching through the streets chanting "Where are the Arab monitors?" One man appeared to be bleeding from the neck.
The appointment of Dabi as the head of the observer mission was criticised on Wednesday by international human rights groups, who point to his past as a military intelligence chief and long-serving loyalist of President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the international criminal court for genocide and crimes against humanity in the Darfur region.
Dabi was a military commander in Darfur in 1999, when Arab Janjaweed militias, later accused of killing many of the local population, were co-opted by the army in a counterinsurgency against rebel groups.
Nearly 3 million people were forced to flee their homes in Darfur and the UN says about 300,000 have died, mostly from disease.
Amnesty International said Sudan's military intelligence under Dabi's command "was responsible for the arbitrary arrest and detention, enforced disappearance, and torture or other ill-treatment of numerous people in Sudan".
Alex de Waal, co-author on a book on the Darfur conflict who now runs the World Peace Foundation at Tufts University, said of Dabi's time in the region: "Many were arrested during his tenure and the Darfur rebels say that his stint in the area was "the beginning of the organisation of the Janjaweed". Dabi argues that he was even-handed and that it was "necessary to show a firm hand in the face of dissent that threatened to spiral out of control".
The Arab League has defended its choice of Dabi to lead the monitoring team. Observers speculated that his selection represented a reward to the Sudanese government for its support of Qatar in opposing the Gaddafi regime in Libya and in taking a tough line on Syria.
The mission, currently 60-strong but eventually intended to comprise 150 observers, began its work on Tuesday in Homs, a city of 1 million people and stronghold of the rebel Free Syrian Army, where the government reportedly used tanks and armoured cars on Monday against the restive district of Baba Amr.
"Some places looked a bit of a mess but there was nothing frightening," Dabi told Reuters on Wednesdayby phone from Damascus. "The situation seemed reassuring so far … Yesterday was quiet and there were no clashes. We did not see tanks but we did see some armoured vehicles. But remember this was only the first day and it will need investigation. We have 20 people who will be there for a long time."
The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights claimed security forces killed 15 people across the country on Tuesday, six of them in Homs. It said 34 were killed the day before.
A video distributed by activists in Homs showed Arab League monitors in a battle-scarred area of the city on Wednesday, taking cover when heavy fire rang out. Another showed the body of a little boy, purportedly killed in this week's fighting in Homs, being laid on the bonnet of an Arab League monitors' vehicle.
Omar, a Baba Amr resident and activist, told Reuters: "I felt they didn't really acknowledge what they'd seen – maybe they had orders not to show sympathy. But they didn't seem enthusiastic about hearing people tell their stories.
"We felt like we were shouting into a void. We placed our hopes in the entire Arab League. But these monitors don't seem to understand how the regime works, they don't seem interested in the suffering and death people have faced."
The Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad said it was fighting a terrorist insurgency, which has killed 2,000 soldiers and police. The regime claimed to have freed 755 detainees "whose hands were not stained with Syrian blood", but according to Amnesty International 15,000 Syrians remain in detention.