The first of several likely trials for former Tunisian dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali kicked off today in a Tunis criminal court. He's charged with embezzlement, money laundering, and drug trafficking (police allegedly found about 4.5 pounds of cannabis when they searched his palace). Ben Ali, the first leader to fall during the Arab Spring, fled with his family to Saudi Arabia on Jan. 14. He has not returned to Tunisia and is being tried in absentia on charges that could net him up to 20 years in prison. What have we learned today so far?
1. There's still plenty of anger, six months after the revolution.
Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the courthouse and disrupted the proceeding on several occasions, chanting, "How long will he be allowed to flee?" They want Ben Ali extradited from Saudi Arabia. And the AFP reports that one protester inside the courtroom was escorted out after an outburst. Tunisia's press has welcomed the trial. The Tunis-Hebdo newspaper said, "For the first time in our long history, a president-come bloody and predatory dictator will be judged."
2. The Tunisian press has blossomed since Ben Ali's ouster.
See the previous bit of writing. Needless to say, the press was kept on a much tighter leash under Ben Ali's reign. But now, the Interior Ministry is encouraging reporters to pursue factual journalism. And, according to the Africa Review magazine, more than 70 media companies have applied for licenses in the capital Tunis since the revolution.
3. The rules you help create can sometimes come back to bite you.
Ben Ali was being defended by a team of public defenders and not his French lawyer, Jean-Yves Le Borgne. Tunisian law prohibits a foreign lawyer from defending a client in absentia, Al Jazeera reports. His Tunisian legal team asked the judge for a postponement of the trial. They said they needed more time to prepare a defense.
4. We're learning more about how "The Family" really worked.
The Wall Street Journal examined the court papers filed against Ben Ali and interviewed a number of investigators working on the case. It found that the levels of corruption were far greater than thought. "Administrators who are freezing assets of more than 100 Ben Ali family members say they are uncovering an economic network so vast that untangling it too quickly could disrupt Tunisia further," according to the paper. "Instead of closing down businesses owned by Mr. Ben Ali's relatives, for example, authorities are in most cases allowing them to operate under court-appointed managers."
Meanwhile, the judge today detailed what investigators found when they searched the presidential palace and private residence. In addition to the illegal drugs, there was also 43 million Tunisian dinars ($31 million) in cash, as well as jewelry, arms, and archeological artifacts -- all obtained illegally, according to the judge.
5. Ben Ali thinks he's still president.
In a statement released today, Ben Ali gave his first account of the events that led him to flee. He said he only flew to Saudi Arabia after being persuaded by presidential security that his life and the lives of his family members were in danger, based on information about an assassination attempt supposedly passed along by "friendly" foreign intelligence services. His plan, he said, was to fly his wife and children to safety but then return immediately. The plane, however, returned to Tunisia without him, contrary to his orders, he said. "He did not leave his post as president of the republic and hasn't fled Tunisia as he was falsely accused of doing," the statement said.
This is beginning to follow a pattern. A day after he was arrested in Spain, one of Hosni Mubarak's top aides was taken to a hospital over the weekend, complaining of heart problems, Reuters reports. Hussein Salem had fled Egypt in the waning days of Mubarak's rule, in early February. He was wanted on charges of money laundering, fraud, bribery, and corruption. He's accused of misusing public funds by selling gas to Israel below market value.
Astute readers might recall that this is not the first time an Egyptian official stayed out of jail, claiming heart trouble. Hosni Mubarak was rushed to a hospital after reportedly suffering a heart attack while being questioned by prosecutors back in April.
A month later, his wife Suzanne suffered a "suspected heart attack" after Egyptian authorities ordered her detained and accused her of stealing public money during her husband's tenure. A doctor said she passed out after hearing the news. She was later released, without serving jail time.
The decision by the Associated Press -- the world’s most influential wire service-- to begin calling the conflict in Libya a “civil war” is worth noting since it’s where most newspapers (and websites, and television networks) across the United States and many outlets around the world derive their foreign news.
The move is more than a mere semantics debate, as the Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone explains:
“The White House may find it tougher to sell the public on taking sides in a North African ‘civil war’ rather than getting involved in a NATO-supported, limited military campaign to protect democracy-seeking rebels from a dictator's brutality”.
A recent memo from Tom Kent, the AP’s deputy managing editor for standards, to editors and reporters explained the rationale.
We avoided the term initially because of the short duration of the conflict. But it has gone on now at length, and shows no sign of ending.
It also has become more than an insurrection by a small group or region. The rebels, led by the National Transitional Council, are well in control of nearly a third of the inhabitable part of the country.
The term civil war also implies a conflict in which each side consists of a coherent group with a clear concept of what it’s fighting for; each side has some real military power; the fighting is basically over internal issues; and the conflict is protracted.The conflict in Libya has met those standards. Although the rebels represent a broad base of ideology, they are united in their desire for an end to Gadhafi and the system he established. The rebels have a degree of military power apart from NATO's air assets. They also appear to have the outlines of a coherent military strategy. And armed resistance to the regime is approaching its fifth month.”
Calderone noted that Bloomberg News and the Wall Street Journal already have a similar policy, while the New York Times “has no set policy” on language of the conflict, according to the paper’s standards editor Phil Corbett.
The media had a similar debate over the fighting in Iraq back in 2006. NBC News became the first major outlet to refer to that conflict as a civil war.
Meanwhile it seems that the White House doesn’t even think the United States is at “war” there.
A new congressionally commissioned report has some interesting statistics on the weapons fueling Mexico's ever-bloodier drug war, including this: 70 percent of the firearms recovered in Mexico originated in the United States. Senators Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), Charles Schumer (D-NY), and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) are behind the report.
"Congress has been virtually moribund while powerful Mexican drug trafficking organizations continue to gain unfettered access to military-style firearms coming from the United States," Senator Feinstein said in a statement.
- 20,504 out 29,284 firearms recovered in Mexico in the past two years came from the U.S.
- 15,131 of those weapons were made in the U.S.
- 5,373 were foreign made but came through the U.S. (the remainder were of "undetermined origin").
- The firearms overwhelmingly came from the southwest U.S. The top three states were Texas (39 percent); California (20 percent); and Arizona (10 percent).
- 34,612 people have died in organized crime-related killings since Dec. 2006, when Mexican President Felipe Calderon took office.
- 2010 was the bloodiest year yet in Mexico. Killings jumped 60 percent from the year before, with 15,273 people killed, up from 9,616.
Germany's Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle announced today during a visit to Benghazi that his government would now recognize the Transitional National Council (TNC) as the official representatives of the Libyan people. Here's a breakdown of which major countries have officially recognized the Benghazi-based leadership and which countries haven't.
France was one of the first countries to recognize the rebels on March 10, some nine days before the NATO intervention began. Qaddafi broke off diplomatic relations with Paris the next day.
Qatar was the first Arab country to back the rebels, establishing diplomatic ties on March 28. Kuwait followed in April, Jordan in May, and the United Arab Emirates last week.
Despite a long-standing friendship between Qaddafi and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, Italy backed the rebels as the "only legitimate interlocutor" in April.
In mid-May, Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague recognized the TNC and invited them to open a mission in London. Spain and Australia soon followed.
NOT RECOGNIZED BY:
The United States. Despite playing a leading role in the airstrikes against Qaddafi and his loyalist forces, Washington hasn't officially recognized the Transitional Council. White House spokesman Jay Carney said last month the U.S. is "continuing to assess the capabilities of the TNC," but it was up to the Libyan people to decide their government, not foreign states.
Regional power house Turkey has not completely renounced Qaddafi, despite lobbying efforts by Libyan rebel leader Mustafa Abdul Jalil, who visited Ankara late last month.
Russia and China. Both countries abstained in the Security Council vote authorizing a no-fly zone in Libya and have yet to cut off ties with Qaddafi. A Russian envoy might meet with him again this week in Tripoli.
Neighbor Egypt is allowing aid and medical material to cross its western border to resupply and aid the Libyan rebels, but it hasn't yet renounced Qaddafi's government. In fact, Jalil has alleged that Qaddafi's associates are in Egypt, selling Libyan assets to get around international sanctions and recruiting mercenaries, charges that Cairo denies.
It took a little under a month for Tunisians -- with a vital assist from their military -- to oust Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak went from pillar of stability to disgraced ex-president in just 18 days.
Now, as we enter a seventh day of protests and armed street battles raging across Libya, the unimaginable fall of Muammar al-Qaddafi suddenly seems very imaginable indeed.
So far, ant-government demonstrators have more or less taken over major cities in eastern Libya, including Benghazi, the country's second-largest. The uprising has been bloody: Human Rights Watch reports that as many as 233 people have died, and probably more.
Last night, events seemed to reach a tipping point, as representatives of several large tribes voiced their support for the rebels and several diplomats -- including Libya's envoy to the Arab League and its No. 2 man in China -- resigned in protest.
Then, as protesters reportedly thronged Tripoli's Green Square and marched on Qaddafi's compound, Seif al-Islam Qaddafi, the son of the ruler, appeared on state television, dressed in a black suit and tie and slouching in front of a green map of Africa.
In a bizarre, apparently off-the-cuff speech, Seif accused the protesters of receiving foreign help and seeking to set up "Islamic emirates" in eastern Libya -- that is, when they weren't doing LSD and working with African mercenaries. Warning of a "civil war" in the making, he vowed to fight "until the last man, until the last woman, until the last bullet."
Many things still aren't clear in Libya, where rumors are flying fast and furious and foreign journalists aren't able to operate. Last night, there was a rumor going around Twitter that Qaddafi had fled to Venezuela; Caracas denied it. Another story had it that Seif had been shot by his brother Mutassim, who as the national security advisor theoretically controls large parts of the security apparatus.
Seif's speech was certainly crazy, but he may be right about one thing: There is a nasty internecine conflict on the way in Libya. From all that we've seen, the regime will do anything to stay in power, including shooting people in cold blood with heavy-caliber weapons. It doesn't look like there will be a nice, friendly "let's all hold hands and clean up Tahrir Square" moment. After four decades of unspeakable tyranny, Libyans will be out for vengeance.
For those interested in following events in Libya on Twitter, I've made a list of key sources to follow. Please bear in mind, however, that much of what goes around in hearsay and unconfirmed rumor -- much of it no doubt wrong. Unfortunately, it's the best information we have to go on right now. I'll keep adding good feeds to the list as I find them, and feel free to recommend your own.
On June 29, 1996, the Libyan regime of Moammar al-Qaddafi put down a prison revolt with deadly force, killing as many as 1,200 detainees in cold blood with grenades and machine guns. Their bodies have never been found, and the Libyan government has never fully admitted the massacre at Abu Salim Prison, despite the best efforts of witnesses and human rights organizations to document it in grim detail.
Fifteen years later, relatives of the victims are still demanding justice. On Feb. 15, 2 days ahead of a planned nationwide day of protests, the Libyan regime arrested Fatih Tarbel, an advocate for the Abu Salim families -- sparking outraged demonstrations in the coastal city of Benghazi. The BBC says the crowd was about 2,000 people, and activists on Twitter claim that at least 2 people have died.
It's not easy to report in Libya, and details of the protests remain sketchy and hard to confirm. It hasn't helped that some news organizations, such as the Associated Press, have confused what are doubtless orchestrated pro-Qaddafi protests with the genuine outpouring of anger against one of the world's most odious regimes (at one point, Qaddafi himself even said he might demonstrate against the prime minister).
While it's not clear how far the unrest might spread, the mere fact that people are lifting up their heads in a brutal police state like Libya is an incredible testament to human courage. And the swift fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in next-door Tunisia is a reminder that even the toughest regimes can prove surprisingly brittle once that mantle of fear is lifted.
Events are still moving quickly in Tunisia, where word has just come out that 87-year-old Fouad Mebaza, the speaker of the lower house of parliament, is now the new interim president after someone (we don't know who) determined that yesterday's takeover by the prime minister wasn't strictly legal. Also today, Saudi Arabia announced that it had welcomed Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the ousted president, and his family.
Under Article 57 of the Tunisian Constitution -- invoked today by the Constitutional Council because Ben Ali has fled the country and is therefore incapable of performing his duties -- Mebaza can only be in charge for a maximum of 60 days, after which he must hold a new presidential election (in which he is not allowed to run). Whoever wins may at that point dissolve the parliament and hold new legislative elections.
We'll have some informed anlysis of the particulars in a few hours, but here are a few questions to think about.
Who is actually running the country right now? The military? The security services? Top civilian officials? Where are these decisions coming from?
Is it a good sign that the Tunisian regime, or rather what's left of it, is trying to following constitutional procedure?
Can one of the most repressive governments in the world, where the last presidential contest saw Ben Ali re-elected with 90 percent of the vote, organize and hold a credible election in only 60 days? Does it want to, or will it try to cheat? And are there any opposition figures who have the national stature to win?
How will the protesters, who seem to have largely stayed home again today, react to this new development? Was getting rid of Ben Ali enough to satisfy them? Or will they now fracture, as the regime probably intends?
As I spoke by phone with Taoufik Ben Brik, a Tunisian opposition journalist, just moments ago, the country's president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, got onto a plane and left the country. "There will be a military coup -- we will see. You will see," Ben Brik told me. "The army has just closed down the airspace in Tunisia, and they are arresting members of the family."
If Twitter is to be believed, Ben Ali really is gone.
Ben Brik, one of the (now former?) president's most pronounced critics, described the regime as "the worst kind of tyranny -- [running] a police state, a military state, and a surveillance state." Ben Brik himself has been subject to that as a journalist, having been harassed and imprisoned on numerous occasions. "It wasn't just that I was arrested -- I was harassed, me and my family. Google me and you will see how they arrested my child, just 14 years old." Ben Brik was most recently released last April and remains in Tunis, where he is watching the situation unfold on the streets.
What brought the protesters to the streets in the first place was the drive for democracy, a place where freedom was possible -- and normal. And yes, WikiLeaks helped. "WikiLeaks revealed a truth previously unspeakable about the mafia-like state," Ben Brik said.
With the president gone, maybe this really is the first WikiLeaks revolution.
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
Brown Lloyd James, a PR agency that represents the Libyan government, just sent out a press release about Muammar Qaddafi's speech via satellite to students at the London School of Economics today. (Incidentally, his son Saif is in LSE grad.) Qaddafi has some surprisingly positive things to say about President Obama:
Commenting on Libyan-American relations, Mr. Gaddafi denounced the United States international adventurism in recent years and the war in Iraq, but added that he believes America had changed since the election of Barack Obama as President. "He doesn’t want to maintain American colonialism in Iraq or Afghanistan," the Libyan Leader said. "Now America is wise and reasonable and I support Obama—I hope he stays for 8 years."
Don't think we'll be seeing that one in a 2012 campaign ad. I also wonder if Qaddafi might be trying to do some damage control after a WikiLeaked U.S. cable described his eccentric behavior, particularly a flip-out at this treatment while attending the U.N. General Assembly in New York last month.
In the much-discussed cover story of this weekend's New York Times Magazine, Lynn Hirschberg profiles M.I.A., née Maya Arulpragasam, the British-by-way-of-Sri-Lanka musician whose third album comes out later this summer. It's an interesting piece (even if its subject doesn't think so), not least because it's the first celebrity profile I've read that begins with a thorough parsing of Sri Lankan dissident politics. The subject comes up because a frequent touchstone in M.I.A.'s music is her father's resume: He was as a founder of the Eelam Revolutionary Organization of Students (EROS), a militant group with ties to the Palestine Liberation Organization that helped lay the groundwork for the modern Tamil statehood movement before being superseded by the more violent Tamil Tigers.
Although her father never actually had anything to do with the Tigers, M.I.A. championed the organization's cause (albeit sort of vaguely) throughout its guerrilla war with government forces in northern Sri Lanka, a war with few good guys. (By happenstance, M.I.A.'s own ascent to popularity over the course of her first two records happened mostly between the breakdown of peace talks between the Sri Lankan government and the Tigers in 2006 and the rebels' defeat in 2009.) Her support is a matter of considerable annoyance to activists concerned with bringing about some sort of lasting peace on the island. "It's very unfair when you condemn one side of this conflict," Ahilan Kadirgamar of the Sri Lanka Democracy Forum tells Hirschberg. "The Tigers were killing people, and the government was killing people. It was a brutal war, and M.I.A. had a role in putting the Tigers on the map. She doesn't seem to know the complexity of what these groups do."
Hirschberg mines this vein unsparingly -- you know the knives are out when a writer pulls the old take-a-radical-artist-to-a-fancy-restaurant trick:
Unity holds no allure for Maya - she thrives on conflict, real or imagined. "I kind of want to be an outsider," she said, eating a truffle-flavored French fry. "I don't want to make the same music, sing about the same stuff, talk about the same things. If that makes me a terrorist, then I'm a terrorist."
A whole genre of art is, by association, coming in for a drubbing here: the venerable agitprop tradition in which M.I.A. has positioned herself. In music, the legacy runs back through Public Enemy, who championed Louis Farrakhan, and the Clash, who called their classic 1980 album Sandinista!; elsewhere, you've got Warhol's Mao paintings, of course, and pretty much everything Jean Luc Godard has ever said. It's different from the standard political peregrinations of artists and celebrities in that the art is inextricable from the politics, and from their audaciousness -- the Clash record would have sold somewhat worse if it had been called Social Democrat!
This is the line in the sand between the postmodern chilliness of M.I.A.'s radical politics and, say, the heartfelt socialism of Woody Guthrie -- the aesthetic of conflict, rather than any particular policy ambition, is the point. To Hirschberg, it suggests an unflattering comparison:
Like a trained politician, [M.I.A.] stays on message. It's hard to know if she believes everything she says or if she knows that a loud noise will always attract a crowd.
I think this is a more damning indictment of politics than it is of M.I.A. -- whose music is, all things considered, pretty great, if not quite up to the precedents of London Calling or It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back. Stitching an aesthetic out of politics is at the end of the day pretty harmless; assembling a politics out of aesthetics, not so much.
Kevin Winter/Getty Images
Elton John's slated to perform today in Morocco, and conservative Muslims aren't thrilled with the prospect:
"This singer is famous for his homosexual behavior and for advocating it," said Mustapha Ramid, a leader and spokesman for the PJD, the biggest opposition party with 40 lawmakers in parliament.
Despite the brouhaha, Moroccan gay rights leaders claim that the country is one of the most forward-thinking in the Muslim world:
A sign of Morocco's evolution, Taia said, is the creation of a new local word to describe homosexuality in Arabic: "Mithly," replacing the pejorative usual phrase of "an act against nature."
I fail to see how anyone could object to the harmonious, existential lessons of "Circle of Life." Encouragingly, Moroccan officials have told John to go ahead and claim, "I'm Still Standing."
Claire Greenway/Getty Images
There are a lot of bizarre things in this Der Spiegel intervew with Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, which focuses largely on his ongoing feud with the country of Switzerland, including the hard-to-believe claim that he's only now hearing that his son Hannibal was accused of assault in Geneva in 2008 . But Qaddafi's most over-the-top claim may be that Switzerland's legalized assisted suicide facilities are actually some kind of secret death camp:
SPIEGEL: Don't Libyans also have secret accounts in Switzerland?
Gadhafi: Yes, there are also Libyans who have such accounts, and many of them have also died in unexplained ways. All around the world, the families of these people are going to sue Switzerland. And one more thing: Switzerland is the only country that allows euthanasia. Why does only Switzerland do that?
SPIEGEL: Medical euthanasia is also legal in the Netherlands. And, it cannot go unmentioned that Libya has previously had citizens killed abroad who were said to be disloyal.
Gadhafi: But we are talking now about Switzerland. It is possible that among the Libyans who you are asking about -- and who died abroad -- there were also some who died because they had secret accounts in Switzerland.
SPIEGEL: And you are seriously maintaining that Switzerland as a state ordered the killing of these people?Gadhafi: The investigations will show this. And this brings me back once again to the phenomenon of assisted suicide. A large number of people have been deliberately eliminated under this pretext. Switzerland maintains that these individuals expressed the desire to take their lives. But in reality it was done to get at their money. More than 7,000 people have died like this. I am thus calling for Switzerland to be dissolved as a state. The French part should go to France, the Italian part to Italy and the German part to Germany.
Qaddafi's claims are obviously ridiculous. But it also should be said that the assisted sucicide clinic Dignitas and its megalomaniacal director Ludwig Minelli -- most recently back in the news after police found thousands of cremation urns in Lake Zurich -- have a Kevorkianesque ability to make their own cause look really bad. They haven't really done wonders for their host country's image either.
Seven months after he was released from British prison with supposedly only three months to live, convicted Pan-Am bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi is apparently doing just fine:
The health of the freed Lockerbie bomber has 'greatly improved' now he is home in Libya, Colonel Gaddafi's son boasted yesterday.
He said Abdelbaset Ali Mohamed al-Megrahi was doing much better since being released seven months ago by the Scots on compassionate grounds because he had 'only three months to live'.
In words which will confirm the suspicions of Lockerbie victims' families, Saif Gaddafi - widely tipped to succeed his father as Libyan leader - also finally admitted that the convicted killer's release had dominated trade talks with Britain.
This would have included discussions about lucrative oil deals, despite the fact that Megrahi was officially released purely on compassionate grounds. Five months after the release, Libya announced plans to invest £5billion in the UK. [...]
London-educated Saif Gaddafi told the respected Arab newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat that Megrahi 'was sick and was released for humanitarian reasons, and was soon in better health and in a good condition. His future is now in God's hands'.
More bad news for Gordon Brown.
MAHMUD TURKIA/AFP/Getty Images
Canada's Conservative government says it will fight the EU ban, which was imposed last July on the grounds that the annual seal hunt off the east coast was cruel and inhumane.
A dish of double-smoked bacon-wrapped seal loin in a port reduction will be on the menu on Wednesday, the office of Senator Celine Hervieux-Payette said on Monday.
"All political parties will have the opportunity to demonstrate to the international community the solidarity of the Canadian Parliament behind those who earn a living from the seal hunt," she said in a statement.
Ottawa says the hunt -- which takes place in March and April -- provides valuable income for Atlantic fishing communities. The seals are either shot or hit over the head with a spiked club called a hakapik.
As provocations go, this kind of puts "freedom fries" to shame. Canada's Governor General Michaelle Jean raised some eyebrows by dining on raw seal heart at a visit to an Inuit community last year and seal meat is becoming an increasingly popular delicacy in Montreal.
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