Iran puts musician on trial for working with a woman (& UAE deal brings 25 years of covert cooperation out of the shadows)

September 04, 2020

IRAN PUTS MUSICIAN ON TRIAL FOR WORKING WITH A WOMAN

[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach a number of articles below, all published in today’s newspapers.

Among them:

* The Washington Post reports: Mehdi Rajabian, a composer and musician, received an urgent message last month from Iran’s domestic security agency: Turn yourself in as quickly as possible. …Tomorrow (Saturday), Rajabian is set to stand trial for the “crime” of working with female artists. His trial comes amid a broader push by Iran to silence voices calling for an end to the repression of women Iran.

 

IRAN PRO-DEMOCRACY PROTESTORS BEATEN WITH CABLE WIRES, SEXUALLY ABUSED, FORCED TO DRINK CHEMICAL SUBSTANCES, GIVEN REPEATED POWERFUL ELECTRIC SHOCKS

* Arab News: A new report by Amnesty International has revealed the gruesome reality of torture in Iranian jails, but survivors of the country’s prison system have told Arab News that this is not a new phenomenon (and wonder why Amnesty has not highlighted this more previously) and say that the authorities have been abusing inmates for decades.

After anti-regime protests swept Iran in November 2019 (TG: I covered this in depth last November and December on this Mideast list and criticized papers like the New York Times for not doing so sufficiently at the time), the resulting crackdown saw “more than 7,000 men, women and children as young as 10 years old” arrested “within a matter of days,” Amnesty said this week. Those detained, the report said, were subject to an array of torture techniques.

They were beaten with cable wires and other weapons, sexually abused, subject to mock executions, waterboarded, forced to drink chemical substances and given repeated powerful electric shocks, Amnesty said.

Iranian dissidents singled out the EU and Britain for their failure to condemn Tehran. (The US administration has been relatively tough on Tehran.)

 

LEBANESE ARMY FIND CACHE OF EXPLOSIVE MATERIAL NEAR BEIRUT PORT

* The Wall Street Journal: The Lebanese army yesterday found a cache of explosive material near Beirut Port, where a large stockpile of ammonium nitrate caused last month’s deadly blast. An engineering team discovered the chemical during a search of a warehouse that was requested by the customs agency at the port, an army official said. (The explosives may well belong to or be connected to the Iranian-controlled Hezbollah militia.)

 

* Haaretz: Israel-UAE deal brings 25 years of covert cooperation out of the shadows. As one diplomat put it, “These foundations were built bottom up, patiently and quietly, over many years, to prepare people’s hearts in advance, unlike what happened in Jordan and Egypt.”

 

FORMER ISRAELI DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR ERAN LERMAN

Tom Gross adds:

Here is another in my series of informal zoom talks “Conversations with friends,” recorded two days ago.

Former Israeli Deputy National Security Advisor Eran Lerman (Modiin)

https://youtu.be/q1n-VZA-6N4


Eran Lerman was Israel’s Deputy National Security Advisor in the governments of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from 2009-15. He previously served more than 20 years in military intelligence. We discuss present issues concerning the Gulf states (including the UAE-Israel peace deal), why many Arab countries prefer Israel keep control of the Jordan Valley, how the Palestinians refused the offer of a Palestinian state by Netanyahu during Barack Obama’s second presidential term, when Saudi Arabia might officially make peace with Israel, and the emerging strategic importance of the eastern Mediterranean.

(Discussion by zoom on September 2, 2020.)


ARTICLES

IRAN’S TORTURE VICTIMS WELCOME THE FACT AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL REPORT ON ‘SHOCKING’ PRISON ABUSE

Iran’s torture victims welcome Amnesty report on ‘shocking’ prison abuse
By Christopher Hamill-Stewart
Arab News
September 4, 2020

Homa Jaberi, told Arab News that she welcomes Amnesty’s report, but that it only scratches the surface of the abuse that is rife in Iran’s prison system.

https://www.arabnews.com/node/1729131/middle-east

LONDON: A new report by Amnesty International has revealed the gruesome reality of torture in Iranian jails, but survivors of the country’s prison system have told Arab News that this is not a new phenomenon – the authorities have been abusing inmates for decades.

After anti-regime protests swept Iran in November 2019, the resulting crackdown saw “more than 7,000 men, women and children as young as 10 years old” arrested “within a matter of days,” Amnesty said. Those detained, the report said, were subject to an array of torture techniques.

They were beaten with various weapons, sexually abused, subject to mock executions, waterboarded, forced to drink chemical substances and given repeated powerful electric shocks. The findings amount to “a catalogue of shocking human rights violations,” Amnesty said.

Kobra Jokar, who fled Iran in the 1980s, told Arab News that she has come to expect this behavior from the regime.

She was detained for sympathizing with the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), an Iranian political group that played a pivotal role in the 1979 revolution, but that was later outlawed.

“I found what Amnesty International has written eerily similar to the kind of torture I experienced,” she said.

Jokar, who was pregnant at the time, was violently abducted by Tehran’s security forces in the middle of the night.

Held in the notorious Evin prison, she said officers brutally and repeatedly flogged her and her husband with cable wires.

Her husband was later executed alongside 75 other prisoners. “The guard said, ‘We executed him so that he’d never see his child’,” Jokar explained.

Another MEK supporter, Homa Jaberi, told Arab News that she welcomes Amnesty’s report, but that it only scratches the surface of the abuse that is rife in Iran’s prison system.

A torture survivor herself, Jaberi said she was arrested at the age of 18 after attending a pro-MEK rally in Tehran. She languished in jail for nearly six years, two of those in solitary confinement.

For most of that time, she was held in a tiny cell alongside nearly 30 other female prisoners. Rape and violence were commonplace.

“A cellmate of mine was a physician. The guards raped her repeatedly,” Jaberi said. “Torturers beat us viciously … They kept us standing for three full days without allowing us to sit down.”

Amnesty’s report highlighted the prevalence of “mental health issues (and) self-harm among prisoners.”

This is a situation that Jaberi can attest to only too well. When one of her cellmates cut her own wrists, “prison guards did nothing to save her and waited until she bled to death.”

Iran’s judiciary, which Jaberi describes as “a mockery of justice,” was singled out in Amnesty’s report for the pivotal role it plays in meting out harsh punishments to defendants who receive little or no due process.

“By bringing national security charges against hundreds of people solely for exercising their rights to freedom of expression, association and peaceful assembly, while judges doled out guilty verdicts on the basis of torture-tainted ‘confessions,’ (the judiciary are) complicit in the campaign of repression,” said Diana Eltahawy, Amnesty’s deputy regional director for the Middle East and North Africa.

Amnesty called on UN human rights bodies to conduct a UN-led enquiry into the human rights situation in Iranian prisons, and urged “accountability” for those responsible for violations.

Jokar said Iran’s leadership “must be held accountable and punished for crimes against humanity.”

She urged the international community, and in particular the EU, to “break their silence” on Tehran’s atrocities.

 

IRANIAN MUSICIAN MEHDI RAJABIAN TO STAND TRIAL FOR COLLABORATING WITH FEMALE ARTISTS

Iranian musician Mehdi Rajabian to stand trial for collaborating with female artists
By Rick Noack
Washington Post
September 4, 2020

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/09/03/iranian-musician-mehdi-rajabian-stand-trial-collaborating-with-female-artists/

Mehdi Rajabian, a composer and musician, received an urgent message last month from Iran’s domestic security agency: Turn yourself in as quickly as possible.

He was soon in handcuffs.

On Saturday, Rajabian is set to stand trial for working with female artists, according to activists who are monitoring his case. One of the performers in question – dancer Helia Bandeh, who performed to his music in a video published online – is based in the Netherlands, beyond the reach of Iran’s justice system.

Even after serving previous prison terms over charges related to his work, Rajabian has approached the upcoming trial with defiance. “I strongly believe in the philosophy and message of music, artistic independence and an uncensored world,” Rajabian said in a text messages from the Iranian city of Sari, after posting bail.

His trial comes amid a broader push by Iran’s ultraconservatives to silence voices calling for an end to rules limiting the behavior and expression of women in the country ahead of next year’s presidential election.

Iran has been hit harder by the novel coronavirus pandemic than most Middle Eastern nations, which has fueled political discontent and worsened the country’s economic crisis. As the death toll continued to rise, conservative hard-liners have in recent months cracked down on progressive critics and announced the arrests of women who refused to cover their hair.

The “hardest of the hard-liners are using this milieu, more so than the prospect of greater international tension, to prepare the ground to capture the presidency in 2021,” Behnam Ben Taleblu, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said in an email.

Under Iran’s vaguely defined laws regulating public performances, dancing and singing – especially by women – can be considered illegal.

Rajabian’s defense of artistic freedoms and women’s rights has come at a high price. He was jailed in 2013 and 2016, both times for violating laws banning artists from producing music without being granted permission, among other charges.

“To go after Mehdi and the whole artistic community in Iran like this, it just showed that Iran has been taking several steps backward,” said Srirak Plipat, the executive director of Freemuse, a nongovernmental organization that advocates artistic freedom and has been in frequent contact with Rajabian.

Iranian authorities have been on high alert in recent months, analysts said.

After protests erupted in November over plans to cut fuel subsidies, authorities used torture “to punish, intimidate and humiliate detainees,” according to a report by Amnesty International.

Why Iranians are rallying online to stop the execution of three protesters

“Instead of investigating allegations of enforced disappearance, torture and other ill-treatment and other crimes against detainees, Iranian prosecutors became complicit in the campaign of repression,” Diana Eltahawy, a regional director for Amnesty International, said in a statement.

Iran’s justice system has been under additional scrutiny in recent months, amid a new wave of arrests.

After coronavirus restrictions drove a growing number of people online earlier this year to post photos of themselves violating the country’s rules on women’s clothing, authorities threatened a harsh response.

By early June, human rights activists said more than 250 women had been arrested for not covering their hair, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“The Iranian state has over the last few months engaged in deepening repression,” said Ali Fathollah-Nejad, an Iran researcher with the University of Tübingen.

He and others analysts said Iranian officials have shown growing concern that discontent exacerbated by the coronavirus crisis may result in new protests.

But relying on crackdowns to preempt new protests carries political risks, as well. In July, Iranian social media was flooded with dissent over plans to execute three young men who were arrested during the November protests last year. Authorities stayed the executions.

Rajabian said he does not know how many years in prison he could face. While his case has triggered criticism from abroad, Iran’s state-run and semiofficial media outlets have refrained from covering his story.

“Even ordinary people are afraid to talk to me,” Rajabian wrote.

Iranian authorities did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the charges.

The artist has faced state scrutiny in Iran since he was first arrested in 2013, along with his brother, Hossein, a filmmaker, with whom he operated a joint record label.

Rajabian said he was held in solitary confinement for several months.

He and his brother were sentenced to prison in 2015 on charges that included the production of music outside of state sanction – the duo did not have a government license.

Rajabian was released early from prison after going on a hunger strike, in which he says he lost 33 pounds and 40 percent of vision in one eye.

He is not afraid of going to prison again, he said in a text message. The repression he has faced, he said, has been “a prison in itself.”

 

LEBANESE ARMY FINDS CACHE OF EXPLOSIVE MATERIAL NEAR BEIRUT PORT

Lebanese Army Finds Cache Of Explosive Material Near Beirut Port
A larger stockpile of ammonium nitrate caused last month’s deadly blast
By Raja Abdulrahim
Wall Street Journal
Sept. 4, 2020

https://www.wsj.com/articles/lebanese-army-finds-cache-of-explosive-material-near-beirut-port-11599161077

BEIRUT – The Lebanese army found more than four tons of ammonium nitrate near Beirut’s port, where a larger cache of the same highly explosive material caused last month’s deadly explosion that ripped through much of the capital’s central districts.

An engineering team discovered the chemical during a search of a warehouse that was requested by the customs agency at the port, an army official said Thursday. The army in a statement said it dealt with the ammonium nitrate but did not specify how.

It wasn’t immediately clear if the chemical was from the same stockpile – which authorities said was about 2,750 tons – that blew up. But it served as a grim reminder of the security lapses that led to the Aug. 4 blast that killed at least 190 people, injured more than 6,000 and left thousands of homes in ruins.

The Lebanese government and ruling elite have come under scathing domestic and international criticism for allowing the highly combustible material to be kept so close to the city center for nearly seven years after it was unloaded from a leaking ship.

Foreign leaders have called for an international investigation into the explosion, but so far the Lebanese government has resisted such demands and is carrying out its own probe.

Former and current customs officials have been called in for questioning, but it was unclear if Thursday’s discovery was related to the investigation or part of the port authority’s attempts to prove its competence.

The latest discovery of explosive chemicals comes days after the judicial investigator in the case issued arrest warrants for Beirut port’s harbor master and the general director of land and maritime transport, according to state media.

Judge Fadi Sawan also interrogated and had arrested a port intelligence official and numerous security officers.

But Lebanese worry that lower-ranking officials will be scapegoated for the explosion while the political elite escape accountability for a catastrophe they say arose from government corruption and ineptitude.

The chemical that blew up was seized in Beirut’s port in 2013 when the ship it was on was found to be unseaworthy and its owner subsequently failed to pay shipping agency fees. It ended up in the port’s warehouse as Lebanese officials, lawyers, judges and a Russian shipper fought over what to do with the toxic cargo.

The blast and the bureaucratic failures that led to it have made jittery and still-wounded residents anxious that other poorly stored chemicals around the country could lead to another explosion. But they have little trust in the government to handle it and instead have been calling on TV stations to investigate unidentified stacks near their homes and neighborhoods.

The country’s prime minister and his cabinet resigned under pressure from protesters who demanded justice for those killed in the blast. But this week’s appointment of the country’s ambassador to Germany as the new prime minister has dismayed many Lebanese and convinced them that the explosion won’t lead to real political change.

 

BAHRAIN TO ALLOW FLIGHTS BETWEEN ISRAEL AND UAE TO CROSS ITS AIRSPACE

Bahrain to Allow Flights Between Israel and UAE to Cross Its Airspace
Reuters
September 4, 2020

Flights between Israel and the United Arab Emirates will be able to fly over Bahrain after the kingdom on Thursday said all services to and from the UAE can cross its airspace.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo held closed-door meetings Wednesday with Bahrain’s royal family and top officials in the United Arab Emirates amid the Trump administration’s push for Arab nations to recognize Israel.

Bahrain, a small island nation just off the coast of Saudi Arabia in the Persian Gulf, has a historic Jewish community. The kingdom has slowly encouraged ties to Israel, with two U.S.-based rabbis in 2017 saying King Hamad himself promoted the idea of ending the boycott of Israel by Arab nations. That boycott had been in place to offer Palestinians support in their efforts to form an independent state.

On Wednesday, Saudi Arabia has agreed to let flights between Israel and the United Arab Emirates through the kingdom’s airspace, Saudi state media and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced.

In Manama, Pompeo tweeted that he met with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa and his son, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, on Wednesday morning. “We discussed the importance of building regional peace and stability, including the importance of Gulf unity and countering Iran’s malign influence in the region,” Pompeo wrote.

Also on Wednesday, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi spoke with Netanyahu over the phone, stressing Cairo’s support for “any effort towards regional peace that would maintain the Palestinian people’s legitimate rights.

In a statement after the meeting, the state-run Bahrain News Agency said King Hamad “stressed the importance of intensifying efforts to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” The king said that includes a two-state solution for an independent Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital – a longtime Arab stance.

On Monday, El Al flight LY971 from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi, carrying an Israeli delegation on its way to hold meetings to finalize the normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates, made the first publicly acknowledged entry of an Israeli plane into Saudi airspace.

 

EL AL TO FLY FIRST CARGO FLIGHT TO DUBAI BY AN ISRAELI CARRIER

El Al to fly first cargo flight to Dubai by an Israeli carrier
Reuters
September 3, 2020

TEL AVIV - El Al Israel Airlines said on Thursday it would operate the first cargo flight to Dubai by an Israeli carrier on Sept. 16.

The first flight, using a Boeing 747 jet, will travel to Belgium and from there to Dubai, carrying agricultural and high tech products. It will later become a weekly flight, leaving Israel every Wednesday and returning to Israel on Fridays.

El Al, Israel’s flag carrier, said the new route will be an “import and export” link to Dubai and further east.
An Israeli delegation visited Abu Dhabi on a historic trip earlier this week to finalize a pact to open up relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

El Al flew the delegation and received permission from Saudi Arabia, which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel, to cross over its territory en route to the UAE’s capital of Abu Dhabi.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israeli airliners will be allowed to fly directly to the UAE, shortly after Saudi Arabia opened its airspace to all flights to and from the UAE.

Israeli officials have played up the economic benefits of the accord, which once formalized would include agreements on tourism, technology, energy, healthcare and security, among other areas.

 

ISRAEL-UAE DEAL BRINGS 25 YEARS OF COVERT COOPERATION OUT OF THE SHADOWS

Israel-UAE Deal Brings 25 Years of Covert Cooperation Out of the Shadows
As one diplomat puts it, ‘These foundations were built bottom up, patiently and quietly, over many years, to prepare people’s hearts in advance, unlike what happened in Jordan and Egypt’

By Noa Landau
Haaretz
September 4, 2020

https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium-israel-uae-deal-brings-25-years-of-covert-cooperation-out-of-the-shadows-1.9127412

ABU DHABI – The normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates came as a complete surprise to many Israelis and is often described as the relevant leaders’ personal achievement.

But as in any diplomatic process, though leaders make the decisions and reap the rewards, many people and processes over years have paved the way to the gala ceremony that will take place at the White House. In the UAE’s case, 25 years of quiet diplomatic efforts helped prepare the ground for the current agreement.

And unlike in the cases of Jordan and Egypt, where largely defense officials manage the relationship while civilian ties are neglected, Israel’s Foreign Ministry slowly and quietly built productive civilian ties with the UAE alongside the security relationship.

Now that bilateral relations have become open, people involved in this effort can speak more freely about the process. One of them is Eliav Benjamin, head of the ministry’s coordination bureau, who is responsible for ties with Arab and Muslim states that don’t have official relations with Israel.

“It all began after Oslo, when Shimon Peres came and told us, ‘Start opening the door to the Arab world,” Benjamin said, referring to the 1993 agreement with the Palestinians and the then-foreign minister. “That’s when the contacts started. We opened a dialogue with them in Washington, New York and Abu Dhabi, with senior officials’ blessing. Slowly and quietly. A dedicated team was built and we were on the phone with them.

“At first, most of the activity was economic, with the goal of it spreading to the diplomatic sphere as well. In 2002, there was a breakthrough when they wanted to establish a diamond exchange in Dubai and saw the Ramat Gan exchange as a model. We held many talks with them about this, and dozens of Israeli traders started working there.

“Today, more than 40 are registered. Every year there’s a big jewelry fair, and you can see quite a few religious Israelis there. That was one of the first anchors. We also invested in helping with agricultural development and water.

“Even after the Mabhouh affair, the end of the crisis became an opportunity,” Benjamin said, referring to Israel’s 2010 assassination of a senior Hamas operative in Dubai. “In 2017, we opened our delegation to the UN’s renewable energy agency in Abu Dhabi. The agreement was that we’d be there under the agency’s auspices, but it included a sign and a flag in front. Everything. This was an important breakthrough.”

RENEWABLE ENERGY AND DIPLOMACY

Dan Shaham Ben-Hayun currently heads Israel’s delegation to the renewable energy agency and serves as its special envoy for applied research. Until now, he rarely spoke to the press, given the sensitivities in building the relationship. His delegation was Israel’s first official foothold in the Persian Gulf.

“Israel supported setting up the agency in the UAE, and when it opened, we received the option of opening an affiliated delegation there,” he said. “It’s a delegation to an international organization based in Abu Dhabi, and I think we acted wisely when we scrupulously adhered over the years to the mandate we were given. We dealt mainly with being able to display Israeli technologies for renewable energy and green construction in the country.

“But our second role, as diplomats, was understanding the country – its culture and priorities, what they talked about and how they talked. In any relationship, it’s important to understand the other side, what’s important to him .... It’s not just what I want, but also what the other side wants.”

The ability to be there openly as Israeli diplomats “contributed to a direct, unmediated familiarity with the social and economic system and decision-making in the country, as observers and people being observed,” Shaham Ben-Hayun said. “When you’re a guest, you respect and accept the conditions set for being a guest and a diplomat.

“Both sides’ ability to understand and respect each other contributed to building mutual trust for the next step. When you’re serious and professional as a diplomat, you send them the message that it’s okay to continue. They saw that they had a serious ally. There was a carefully cultivated Israeli image, and our presence allowed us and them to get acquainted.

“Additionally, our deep understanding of what’s important to them helped build a framework of relations that will enable the embassy-to-be to be more focused. For example, we understand how important areas like food security and desert agriculture are to them. These fields are also now bases for the normalization agreements on the way. This is important to us, and I think it’s also important to them. They’re deeply committed to this.”

500 ISRAELI COMPANIES

Benjamin said the current agreement “is an outgrowth of these efforts and also of a fortuitous combination of circumstances. They wanted further dialogue with us of their own initiative. Their research institutes, for instance, included us in strategic dialogues.

“From economics, it progressed to diplomatic contacts and good, direct personal connects between senior officials and key people. Even secret reciprocal visits. Or a medical consultation. An intimate acquaintance. Thus the announcement three weeks ago wasn’t born in a vacuum.”

Some aspects of the developing relationship were public. Israeli sports teams took part in competitions in the UAE, Israeli ministers visited, and Israel was invited to participate in the 2020 Dubai expo, though it was later postponed by the coronavirus.

The Foreign Ministry also helped some 500 Israeli companies enter the UAE market. Many were defense technology companies, like spyware developer NSO.

Over the past 18 months, the ministry has also worked openly to prepare Emirati public opinion.

“The Foreign Ministry’s digital public diplomacy team opened a Twitter account for the Gulf and worked on it a lot to move public opinion in both countries,” Benjamin said. “The leadership understood that after many years of laying suitable groundwork, public opinion there was ready for this. People there were just waiting for the dam to open.

“Obviously, the U.S. administration also played a role. Throughout the years, we had very good ties with American ambassadors in the UAE and with their ambassador to the United States.

The expo invitation “was another key element in the infrastructure we built,” he said. “We negotiated for two years over that invitation.”

Asked whether the UAE’s desire to buy American F-35 fighters, the upcoming U.S. election and the possibility of another Israeli election played an equally important role, Benjamin replied, “You could say this normalization agreement came together after all the stars aligned.

“True, there’s also their desire for the F-35; that isn’t new. And granted, there was the question of applying sovereignty, yes or no,” he said, referring to Israel’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank. “And there are leaders who want to show an achievement. That’s all true.

“But there was also an accumulation of long-term processes that worked. The economic story, for instance, played a super-important role. The coronavirus also suddenly created a suitable catalyst for open civilian cooperation.

“These foundations were built bottom up, patiently and quietly, over many years, to prepare people’s hearts in advance, unlike what happened in Jordan and Egypt. We were already talking about swapping art exhibits, for instance. You don’t see things like that with Jordan and Egypt.

Benjamin notes the “civilian diplomatic ties with them for years, including public contacts,” and the “economic and business ties and the brand equity of the relationship for both sides.” All this “helped lay the groundwork for the agreement. Very wealthy, well-connected businesspeople there went to the leadership and said, ‘Come on, let’s move forward.’ We saw this more and more, including through the expo; they help us connect to companies there.

“We believe in bottom-up processes and building infrastructure,” Benjamin concluded. “And that’s how the ground became ready.”

 

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