NS Christmas campaign: Show your support for Anas al-Shogre

The Syrian activist disappeared in May 2011 and hasn't been seen since.

Christmas is nearly upon us and the New Statesman Christmas Campaign is drawing to a close. In the past month, thousands of people have shown their support for Amnesty International’s Write for Rights campaign, sending cards to those at risk of persecution and abuse and letters demanding justice to authorities around the world – from Honduras to Japan.

To those of you who have written a card or sent an email on behalf of one of the groups or individuals, thank you.  

Former prisoner of conscience Chekib el-Khiari – who was serving a three-year prison sentence for speaking out against government corruption in Morocco, before being pardoned by the Moroccan king after great public pressure – has written of the impact each letter and card he received had for him. He told Amnesty, “Every week I was waiting for those letters. I was reading them again and again, thinking of those people who took five minutes, or maybe more, to write or to draw. Five minutes of their time gave me the energy to survive two years of unlawful imprisonment.”

Sometimes, it is about cheering the spirits of the wrongly imprisoned. Sometimes though, it is about demanding justice for them. So as the curtain falls on this year’s Write for Rights Campaign, I would urge you to take action for one more person: Anas al-Shogre.

Anas, 24, was arrested in May 2011 in the Syrian city of Banias, and has not been seen since. Syrian authorities have not said where he is being held. Nor have they given reasons for his arrest. Local activists and Anas’ family believe the young political activist is being held for his involvement in calling for and leading protests in Banias, and for speaking to various media outlets about human rights violations committed by the Syrian authorities.

Since pro-reform protests broke out in February 2011, thousands of suspected opponents of the government have been arrested and many, if not most, are believed to have been tortured or otherwise ill-treated. Amnesty has the names of over 720 people reported to have died in custody during this period. A staggering figure.

To date, Anas al-Shogre is not one of the names on that list.

However Amnesty is concerned that Anas is at real risk of torture and is being held for peacefully exercising his basic right to freedom of expression and assembly and so would be a prisoner of conscience.  

This year so much bloodshed, carnage and devastation has occurred in Syria.

The number of deaths reported since the start of the conflict is huge, reported to be as many as 40,000. Yet there is a real danger that casual observers to this conflict are becoming immune.

Those who can become immune to these atrocities are in a somewhat fortunate position. Thousands of men, women and children both living in Syria and elsewhere – cannot ignore this tragedy. This year the US journalist Marie Colvin’s family will mark their first Christmas without Marie.  The Colvin family is not alone. Thousands of families will be marking their first turn of the year without their loved one. The al-Shogre family will mark their second New Year not knowing where their son, brother, cousin is.

To observers the situation appears dire and beyond hope. But as Amnesty has seen in the past it is incredible the impact that public pressure can have upon a situation.  This is why I would ask you over this Christmas period to take five minutes out to send a letter to the Syrian authorities calling for the release of Anas al-Shogre immediately and unconditionally.

It may seem like an impossible feat. But as we’ve seen at Amnesty in the past, the seemingly impossible can become a reality.

To help free Anas, click here.

For more information about Write for Rights visit www.amnesty.org.uk/write
 

Syrian activist Anas al-Shogre hasn't been seen since May 2011.

Eulette Ewart is a press officer for Amnesty International UK.  Follow Amnesty's media team on Twitter @newsfromamnesty.

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Qatar is determined to stand up to its Gulf neighbours – but at what price?

The tensions date back to the maverick rule of Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani.

For much of the two decades plus since Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani deposed his father to become emir of Qatar, the tiny gas-rich emirate’s foreign policy has been built around two guiding principles: differentiating itself from its Gulf neighbours, particularly the regional Arab hegemon Saudi Arabia, and insulating itself from Saudi influence. Over the past two months, Hamad’s strategy has been put to the test. From a Qatari perspective it has paid off. But at what cost?

When Hamad became emir in 1995, he instantly ruffled feathers. He walked out of a meeting of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) because, he believed, Saudi Arabia had jumped the queue to take on the council’s rotating presidency. Hamad also spurned the offer of mediation from the then-President of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. This further angered his neighbours, who began making public overtures towards Khalifa, the deposed emir, who was soon in Abu Dhabi and promising a swift return to power in Doha. In 1996, Hamad accused Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the UAE of sponsoring a coup attempt against Hamad, bringing GCC relations to a then-all-time low.

Read more: How to end the stand off in the Gulf

The spat was ultimately resolved, as were a series of border and territory disputes between Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, but mistrust of Hamad - and vice versa - has lingered ever since. As crown prince, Hamad and his key ally Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani had pushed for Qatar to throw off what they saw as the yoke of Saudi dominance in the Gulf, in part by developing the country’s huge gas reserves and exporting liquefied gas on ships, rather than through pipelines that ran through neighbouring states. Doing so freed Qatar from the influence of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries, the Saudi-dominated oil cartel which sets oil output levels and tries to set oil market prices, but does not have a say on gas production. It also helped the country avoid entering into a mooted GCC-wide gas network that would have seen its neighbours control transport links or dictate the – likely low - price for its main natural resource.

Qatar has since become the richest per-capita country in the world. Hamad invested the windfall in soft power, building the Al Jazeera media network and spending freely in developing and conflict-afflicted countries. By developing its gas resources in joint venture with Western firms including the US’s Exxon Mobil and France’s Total, it has created important relationships with senior officials in those countries. Its decision to house a major US military base – the Al Udeid facility is the largest American base in the Middle East, and is crucial to US military efforts in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan – Qatar has made itself an important partner to a major Western power. Turkey, a regional ally, has also built a military base in Qatar.

Hamad and Hamad bin Jassem also worked to place themselves as mediators in a range of conflicts in Sudan, Somalia and Yemen and beyond, and as a base for exiled dissidents. They sold Qatar as a promoter of dialogue and tolerance, although there is an open question as to whether this attitude extends to Qatar itself. The country, much like its neighbours, is still an absolute monarchy in which there is little in the way of real free speech or space for dissent. Qatar’s critics, meanwhile, argue that its claims to promote human rights and free speech really boil down to an attempt to empower the Muslim Brotherhood. Doha funded Muslim Brotherhood-linked groups during and after the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011, while Al Jazeera cheerleaded protest movements, much to the chagrin of Qatar's neighbours. They see the group as a powerful threat to their dynastic rule and argue that the Brotherhood is a “gateway drug” to jihadism. In 2013,  after Western allies became concerned that Qatar had inadvertently funded jihadist groups in Libya and Syria, Hamad was forced to step down in favour of his son Tamim. Soon, Tamim came under pressure from Qatar’s neighbours to rein in his father’s maverick policies.

Today, Qatar has a high degree of economic independence from its neighbours and powerful friends abroad. Officials in Doha reckon that this should be enough to stave off the advances of the “Quad” of countries – Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - that have been trying to isolate the emirate since June. They have been doing this by cutting off diplomatic and trade ties, and labelling Qatar a state sponsor of terror groups. For the Quad, the aim is to end what it sees as Qatar’s disruptive presence in the region. For officials in Doha, it is an attempt to impinge on the country’s sovereignty and turn Qatar into a vassal state. So far, the strategies put in place by Hamad to insure Qatar from regional pressure have paid off. But how long can this last?

Qatar’s Western allies are also Saudi Arabia and the UAE’s. Thus far, they have been paralysed by indecision over the standoff, and after failed mediation attempts have decided to leave the task of resolving what they see as a “family affair” to the Emir of Kuwait, Sabah al-Sabah. As long as the Quad limits itself to economic and diplomatic attacks, they are unlikely to pick a side. It is by no means clear they would side with Doha in a pinch (President Trump, in defiance of the US foreign policy establishment, has made his feelings clear on the issue). Although accusations that Qatar sponsors extremists are no more true than similar charges made against Saudi Arabia or Kuwait – sympathetic local populations and lax banking regulations tend to be the major issue – few Western politicians want to be seen backing an ally, that in turn many diplomats see as backing multiple horses.

Meanwhile, although Qatar is a rich country, the standoff is hurting its economy. Reuters reports that there are concerns that the country’s massive $300bn in foreign assets might not be as liquid as many assume. This means that although it has plenty of money abroad, it could face a cash crunch if the crisis rolls on.

Qatar might not like its neighbours, but it can’t simply cut itself off from the Gulf and float on to a new location. At some point, there will need to be a resolution. But with the Quad seemingly happy with the current status quo, and Hamad’s insurance policies paying off, a solution looks some way off.