Samar Yazbek: My Journey to the Shattered Heart of Syria (2015)

Samar Yazbek was a well-known journalist, a presenter on Syrian television and a celebrated novelist when she fell foul of the Assad regime, leaving her no choice but to flee. She was forced to watch from afar as a peaceful uprising turned into violent conflict and her country burned. This is from 2015.

Julian Assange Reveals: Holocaust Denier Is a Trusted ‘Friend’

Julian Assange barely even knows the far-right, Holocaust-denying Russian kook with six different names, the latest being “Israel Shamir.” That was the line in March 2011, per a statement from WikiLeaks, released amid what the head of the former transparency organization reportedly claimed was a Jewish-orchestrated campaign to smear him.

Israel Shamir has never worked or volunteered for WikiLeaks, in any manner, whatsoever. He has never written for WikiLeaks or any associated organization, under any name and we have no plan that he do so. He is not an ‘agent’ of WikiLeaks. He has never been an employee of WikiLeaks and has never received monies from WikiLeaks or given monies to WikiLeaks or any related organization or individual. However, he has worked for the BBC, Haaretz, and many other reputable organizations.

It is false that Shamir is ‘an Assange intimate’.

Months before, Julian Assange himself disputed this. In a letter from November 2010, just obtained by the Associated Press, the WikiLeaks founder wrote:

I, Julian Assange, hereby grant full authority to my friend, Israel Shamir, to both drop off and collect my passport, in order to get a visa, at the Russian Consulate, London.

A month later, Shamir would travel to Belarus, handing the pro-Russian dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, U.S. diplomatic cables, obtained by WikiLeaks detailing America, interactions with Belarusian opposition figures, some of whom would end up arrested, or dead.

But we already knew Assange was intimately familiar with the odious Shamir; all one needed to do was read what those slandered as MSM smear-artists were reporting, credibly, at the time. For example, as former WikiLeaks staffer James Ball noted in a piece for The Guardian back in November 2011:

Shamir has a years-long friendship with Assange, and was privy to the contents of tens of thousands of US diplomatic cables months before WikiLeaks made public the full cache. Such was Shamir’s controversial nature that Assange introduced him to WikiLeaks staffers under a false name. Known for views held by many to be antisemitic, Shamir aroused the suspicion of several WikiLeaks staffers – myself included – when he asked for access to all cable material concerning “the Jews”, a request which was refused.

When questions were asked about Shamir’s involvement with WikiLeaks, given his controversial background and unorthodox requests, we were told in no uncertain terms that Assange would not condone criticism of his friend.

Assange would subsequently accuse his former colleague of making “libelous” accusations about him. But, despite electing to reside in Britain, rather than defend himself in Sweden from allegations of sexual assault, Assange did not take advantage of the country’s liberal defamation laws.

Thanks to a leak, we have a better idea why and further evidence that one should not blindly trust the public statements of political celebrities. The question now is not whether Assange is a serial liar prone to bouts of defamatory projection, but whether his friend, Israel Shamir, had an ulterior motive for providing U.S. cables to an ally of the Kremlin just weeks after the WikiLeaks founder had used him to request assistance from Russian officials.

Despite the Violence, Trump Keeps on Deporting Nicaraguans

More than 200 Nicaraguans are in U.S. custody and facing imminent deportation back to a country where the White House, the United Nations and human rights organizations say the government of President Daniel Ortega is killing its own people. The Ortega government, in fact, will be assisting in the process as one of a handful of formal, authorized partners of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

More than 300 Nicaraguans have been killed, a large majority at the hands of the state and pro-government paramilitaries, since anti-Ortega protests began in April. The Trump administration has responded to the violence by recently demanding the return of vehicles it had donated to the Nicaraguan police, claiming they were used to put down protests. It has not stopped deporting Nicaraguan nationals back to the violence, however, and despite casting protesters as tools of the U.S. government, Managua continues to assist in expediting the removal of its citizens.

Between October 2017 and August 2018, the U.S. deported at least 719 Nicaraguan nationals, according to ICE spokesperson Brendan Raedy. The agency deported 832 Nicaraguans in the prior fiscal year, and 795 the year before.

“With approximately a month left in the current fiscal year,” Raedy said, “you can clearly see removal numbers are very much in line with years prior.”

That is indeed true. However, other officials claims regarding the deportation of Nicaraguans have proven misleading.

“As you may be aware,” Raedy told me, “the most common manner in which illegal aliens come to the attention of ICE is when they break another law in addition to being in the United States without lawful status.”

But the statistics he provided show that the majority of Nicaraguans deported by ICE are not what the agency refers to as “convicted criminals” — a term that can conjure up images of murderers and rapists but which encompasses those guilty of no more than traffic violations. Of the 219 Nicaraguans in ICE detention with a final order of removal, just 97 had convictions on their record.

Charles Davis is a journalist in Los Angeles. His work has aired on public radio and been published by The Daily Beast, The Guardian and The New Republic.

Woodward’s Book Should Kill the Myth of a Pro-War Coup Against an Antiwar President

The unhinged, racist demagogue with a non-interventionist mindset is being undermined by the liberal-neoconservative Deep State because he refuses to to let the CIA kill Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator with a massive body count that is none of our business.

It’s a popular notion among those with a soft spot for reactionary isolationists, the notion, popularized by a founding editor of The Intercept, that Donald J. Trump is engaged in an internal war with the U.S. empire. The U.S. president, of course, campaigned on escalating every conflict he would inherit, but he had nice things to say about a once and future CIA partner and his bloody war on terror; confusingly, this meant he was — relative to those looking to start WWIII by saying Russian imperialism is bad — an antiwar lesser evil

In power, Trump has bombed a couple empty Syrian regime targets, sure, but as his ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, recently suggested, those strikes were, in effect, an effort to make U.S. condonation, if not de facto U.S. support, of the Assad regime’s scorched-earth total war more palatable. “If they want to continue to go the route of taking over Syria, they can do that,” Haley remarked, “but they can not do it with chemical weapons.”

Trump’s unwillingness to deep-six Bashar purportedly stood in stark contrast to Hillary Clinton, who campaigned, let us suppose, on bunker-busting Damascus and Moscow in order to achieve regime change for Syrian al-Qaeda. As The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald explained on Democracy Now! a few weeks after Trump took office:

The CIA and the intelligence community were vehemently in support of Clinton and vehemently opposed to Trump, from the beginning. And the reason was, was because they liked Hillary Clinton’s policies better than they liked Donald Trump’s. One of the main priorities of the CIA for the last five years has been a proxy war in Syria, designed to achieve regime change with the Assad regime. Hillary Clinton was not only for that, she was critical of Obama for not allowing it to go further, and wanted to impose a no-fly zone in Syria and confront the Russians. Donald Trump took exactly the opposite view. He said we shouldn’t care who rules Syria; we should allow the Russians, and even help the Russians, kill ISIS and al-Qaeda and other people in Syria. So, Trump’s agenda that he ran on was completely antithetical to what the CIA wanted. Clinton’s was exactly what the CIA wanted, and so they were behind her. And so, they’ve been trying to undermine Trump for many months throughout the election. And now that he won, they are not just undermining him with leaks, but actively subverting him.

That Trump’s “agenda” was a) coherent, and b) “completely antithetical to what the CIA wanted” was, at the time, a bizarre thing to argue. Some CIA officials, like many others, have surely recognized that the president of the United States is a reckless buffoon, but it is not because he is at war with the agenda of an intelligence community that he has gifted a record-high budget and a blessing to largely do as it pleases. In Syria, the alleged inspiration for an unprecedented deep-state coup d’état, Trump has been killing loads of Syrians — has been bombing mosques — with about as many objections from the deep state as from the anti-imperialists who learned to love the war on terror, which is to say: none at all.

When U.S. munitions have fallen on the regime of Bashar al-Assad (popularly shortened to “Syria”), the strikes have been, from the perspective of those who don’t support Assad or Trump but hate their critics more, blessedly cosmetic. But that is not, according to a new book from veteran journalist Bob Woodward, because Trump is instinctively opposed to Iraq 2.0 (not to be confused with the ongoing U.S. air war, in Iraq).

Per The Washington Post:

After Syrian President Bashar al-Assad launched a chemical attack on civilians in April 2017, Trump called Mattis and said he wanted to assassinate the dictator. “Let’s fucking kill him! Let’s go in. Let’s kill the fucking lot of them,” Trump said, according to Woodward.

Mattis told the president that he would get right on it. But after hanging up the phone, he told a senior aide: “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.” The national security team developed options for the more conventional airstrike that Trump ultimately ordered.

The takeaway here is not that Trump is committed to regime change, but rather that he is constitutionally militaristic, impulsive and, as recognized by everyone around him, an idiot child — one who would soon forget why he wanted to kill the fellow head of a pathetic but deadly personality cult, likely by the time of his next Fox News-induced, white nationalist temper tantrum.

The U.S. president, an adult man, is no doubt aware that Bashar al-Assad is still alive, having just sent a delegation of U.S. intelligence officials, who purportedly want to overthrow them both, to meet with their regime counterparts in Damascus. General Mattis, it seems, correctly gauged that the president was simply mad and raving on the toilet, as is his wont.

It is not the first time, however, that generals have undermined a whimsical urge to steal the day’s headlines by starting another war: the U.S. president earlier floated the idea of invading Venezuela, to the chagrin of all the beribboned figures with whom he has chosen to surround himself. These are neither heroes nor coup-plotters, those natsec establishment types who challenge or on occasion ignore a mentally unfit president’s impulsive desire to kill, but people who have freely chosen to associate with Trump because they are generally pleased by his agenda, including a willingness to let the military and intelligence community manage their own affair; his outbursts are an unpleasant cost of what is by and large business as usual.

Deranged, it always was, to believe a U.S. “deep state” would seek to regime-change such a compliant U.S. president as Donald J. Trump because he wouldn’t given them Assad’s head on a platter. It is poetic justice, if not all that funny, for it to be revealed that it was Trump himself who wanted to knock off, however briefly, Clinton’s “reformer.”

Those who have spent years now arguing for the existence of a deep divide between Trump and the military-industrial complex, so large as to spur a coup — over Syria, incredibly, where the preservation of the regime in Damascus has long been the establishment consensus, with varying degrees of transparency — ought to be seen as no less dangerously clownish than the president they compulsively defend, from enemies real and imagined.

Charles Davis is a journalist in Los Angeles whose work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets such as The Daily Beast, The Guardian and The New Republic.

Left-Wing Orientalism: The Curious Case of Patrick Cockburn

The following is an excerpt from an interview with me and my collaborator Nader Hashemi that will be published soon by the excellent online magazine The interviewer is Emran Feroz, a journalist based in Germany, founder of the Drone Memorial, a virtual memorial for civilian drone strike victims, and author of a book on drone warfare. The interview revolves around our recent book Sectarianization: Mapping the New Politics of the Middle East, in which we challenge the new conventional wisdom in Western media and policy circles that attributes the violence engulfing the Middle East today to “ancient hatreds”. We call this sectarian essentialism a new form of Orientalism. In this section of the interview we’re responding to a question about the pervasiveness of this sectarian narrative across the ideological spectrum.


Versions of the sectarian narrative can be found on the right, in the center, and on the left. The New York Times columnist and establishment sage Thomas Friedman, for instance, claims that in Yemen today “the main issue is the 7th century struggle over who is the rightful heir to the Prophet Muhammad — Shiites or Sunnis”. Barack Obama asserted that the issues plaguing the Middle East today are “rooted in conflicts that date back millennia”. A more vulgar version of this view prevails among right-wing commentators. The former cable television host Bill O’Reilly has remarked that “the Sunni and Shia want to kill each other. They want to blow each other up. They want to torture each other. They have fun. … This is what Allah tells them to do, and that’s what they do”.


This is hardly surprising, given the anti-Muslim prejudice so pervasive on the right. What is surprising is to find people on the left trafficking in the sectarian narrative. Take the case of Patrick Cockburn, the influential Middle East reporter for The Independent. Cockburn has consistently framed the Syrian conflict in sectarian terms — using language like “sectarian blood-letting” and “demons” — and even criticized others for downplaying sectarianism. He did this from very early on, seeing sectarianism as immanent even during the nonviolent popular demonstrations of 2011, which were notably devoid of sectarian slogans and involved Syrians of multiple religious backgrounds/identities. The Syrian conflict became sectarian, but it didn’t start that way and, contra Cockburn, its sectarianization was by no means inevitable. In his chapter in our book, the anthropologist Paulo Gabriel Hilu Pinto demonstrates how the Assad regime pursued a deliberate strategy of sectarianizing the conflict through the use of sectarian pro-regime militias and the “selective distribution of violence” to punish specific sub-groups of protesters; and by releasing various jihadis from Syria’s prisons, to poison the well and produce a “preferred enemy”. Continue reading “Left-Wing Orientalism: The Curious Case of Patrick Cockburn”

Eulogy for a Formative Influence

Sara and Eugene Zucker

Twenty years ago today, on August 9, 1998, I delivered this eulogy at the dedication ceremony, or unveiling, of Eugene Zucker, my next-door neighbor growing up and a formative influence on my life. I was, and remain, deeply honored that the Zucker family asked me to deliver these reflections on that profound occasion. It has never been published or appeared anywhere until now. 


Growing up next door to the Zuckers, Eugene (or Professor Zucker, as I preferred to call him) was my lifeline to another world. The world I inhabited as a child and as a young man in the Chicago suburb of Skokie in the 1970s and 1980s was light years removed from the one I discovered in Professor Zucker’s study, listening to him talk about his days as a young radical in New York in the heady 1930s and 1940s.


It was in that study that I first learned about Marx and Engels, and about Lenin and Trotsky. It wasn’t through books or documentaries that I came to understand these figures and their ideas and their roles in shaping history. Rather, it was through hearing the first-person accounts of my next-door neighbor, a man who participated in struggles begun by these revolutionaries. Professor Zucker actually knew the leaders of the radical movement and witnessed the historic discussions in which the fate of the movement was decided. He listened as the insurgents of the era debated whether their faction of the Left had the correct interpretation of Lenin’s formulation of this, that, or the other question. As bizarre as it seems to us now — and as bizarre as it seemed to me hearing about it then — Professor Zucker came from a world in which ideas mattered a great deal. It literally felt to the radicals of his time like the future of mankind depended on how you made sense of the world and, given that worldview, how you planned to act on it.

Continue reading “Eulogy for a Formative Influence”

A Massacre, Not a Coup: A Response to Misinformation on Nicaragua


Guest post by Dr. Mary Ellsberg, a Professor of Global Health and International Studies, and Founding Director of the Global Women’s Institute of the George Washington University in Washington, DC.

For the past 3 months, progressive websites and journals have run articles that paint a picture of the crisis in Nicaragua that is dangerously misleading.  Many of these articles have been circulated among people on the left who were in solidarity with Nicaragua and the FSLN during the 1970s and 1980s but haven’t kept up with what has happened over the last 30 years—particularly since 2007, when Daniel Ortega returned to the Presidency and has been there since. I’d like to take a moment to correct some misconceptions about the current crisis in Nicaragua.

I will first say that I consider myself a Sandinista, as do many of my friends and colleagues who are currently resisting the Ortega/Murillo regime, and I have spent most of my life working for peace and social justice in Nicaragua.

I went to Nicaragua in 1979 and lived there for 20 years after the Sandinista victory. I participated in the Literacy Crusade in Native Languages. During the war, I worked for the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health on the Caribbean Coast. I have been involved with the women’s movement in Nicaragua for almost 30 years, and launched research on domestic violence that was used to pass the first domestic violence law in 1996. I have been an outspoken critic of US intervention in Central America, and other unjust policies, both abroad and at home.

Since moving back to the US, I travel to Nicaragua several times a year and recently carried out a two-year study on domestic violence, interviewing 1,500 community women, women’s rights activists, and dozens of government officials, including police, judges and health providers.

Many articles on the current crisis that have been published on leftist websites such as or Grayzone Project reproduce the talking points of the Ortega/Murillo government: they insist that the opposition is almost already defeated; they are all “coup mongers” (golpistas) made up of US-funded oligarchs and have no popular backing; the majority of the violence is carried out by opposition protesters; and the dozens of young men were killed by snipers who were either mysterious “third party provocateurs,” or “neighborhood self-defense groups” – with no ties to the police or the army. They have referred to the current crisis as an “upside down class war.”nica 2

In fact, what is happening in Nicaragua is a massacre.

The first claim, that the opposition has been defeated and consists of exclusively right-wing oligarchs is patently false. This photo shows gigantic peaceful demonstrations in Managua, which make the FSLN demonstration two days prior (which state employees were required to attend) look like Trump’s inauguration crowd compared to Obama’s. The next day Managua was emptied out in support of the national strike called by the opposition. This hardly looks like the work of a tiny group of bloodsucking parasites, as Rosario Murillo has called them. Indeed, it would take much more than $700,000, which, Grayzone states is the amount the NED has channeled into Nicaraguan non-governmental organizations to mobilize hundreds of thousands of protesters onto the streets, and get them to stop their economic activities and stay home the next day. There is no other plausible motive other than their belief that Ortega and Murillo are behind the repression and must go.

The next idea floated by the government, that masked men and snipers appearing all over the country, and by all accounts, responsible for a huge proportion of the murders, are a mysterious third party, is ridiculous. It might have been plausible, if Nicaraguans didn’t all have cell phones, weren’t filming everything and posting it onto social media (the government insists the photos are fake).

Last week, social media has filmed huge caravans with dozens of state and police-owned trucks with masked men, including police, waving guns and shooting into the air. Jacinto Suarez, the External Relations Secretary of the FSLN acknowledged that many of these men are retired Sandinista combatants that were recruited to help repress the demonstration. Even Daniel Ortega, after countless denials of the existence of para-police forces, recently admitted that they were “voluntary police.”

paro nacionalThe Popular Resistance Article links to a video clip that supposedly shows a weapon cache found in a church. In fact, it is actually part of a Univision news story showing the masked thugs beating the Cardinal and Bishops of Managua, including the Papal Nuncio in the Basilica of Diriamba, outside of Managua. Since this could potentially result in an international incident, they also stole many of the cameras of journalists filming. Fortunately, several still got through.

The police were outside the church and hundreds more masked men were crowding around the outside: although no weapons were found, the church was desecrated and first aid materials and church benches were burned.

At the insistence of Nicaraguan civil society, the government allowed the Inter-American Human Rights Commission (IACHR) to investigate the situation in Nicaragua. The report was presented at the OAS Assembly on June 30.  It’s worth pausing for a moment on the IACHR Report because it is a truly extraordinary document. The Commission interviewed over 1000 individuals, including family members of those killed, released prisoners, government officials, and other witnesses, and it reviewed hundreds of hours of video recordings, and documents, as well as forensic reports. The report found:

“The repression on the part of the Government of Nicaragua in response to the protests has resulted in a serious human rights crisis. In particular, the IACHR finds excessive use of force by the police, para-police forces, and groups of armed third persons. This is reflected in more than 212 persons losing their lives as of June 20, as well as in the number of persons wounded and detained arbitrarily, which as of June 6 came to 1,337 and 507 persons respectively, according to the records of the IACHR. Despite the Commission’s call for an immediate cessation of the state repression, it has not stopped. To the contrary, the repressive response has worsened in recent weeks, further accentuating the crisis.”

The Ortega government’s accusation that investigors did not interview pro-government forces,is simply false. The government was given a draft of the report before it was presented, and all of their comments and denials were incorporated.  It details all of the government’s accusations of violence towards state actors:

“It has come to the attention of the IACHR that private individuals and groups of civilians have attacked the public security forces, strike groups and individuals and media outlets sympathetic to the government. According to figures provided by the State, from April 18 to June 6, 2018, at least 5 police officers have lost their lives and 65 have been injured in the context of the protests.”

It also acknowledged the government’s report of 100 acts of violence by non-state actors, including 40 burning incidents or damages to property; 29 kidnappings; 33 robberies of government property (mostly vehicles); 17 violent deaths of individuals linked to the government and the FSLN; and 13 attacks on public officials.

The problem is that these claims by the government, which tries to present itself as a victim, pale next to the hundreds of complaints lodged and investigated by the IACHR that involved excessive use of force by the police and paramilitary forces. During the first four days of the demonstrations, 49 young men were killed by gun-shot wounds. Of these, 32 were shot in the eyes, heads, neck and chest, all lethal spots indicating an intention to kill. The downward trajectory of the bullet wounds indicated the use of snipers. During the same period 9 young men were wounded by rubber bullets shot directly into their eyes. During the same period 2 policemen died as a result of attacks using firearms.

There was also ample evidence of refusal to provide medical attention, by police stationed inside the hospitals either preventing the wounded from entering or threatening doctors who tried to treat the wounded. The first documented instance of this was a 15-year-old boy named Álvaro Manuel Conrado Dávila, who was shot in the neck while carrying water to help the students. He was denied medical care at the Cruz Azul (public) hospital and was taken to a second hospital where he subsequently died. In the hospital of Leon, medical students who tried to treat wounded demonstrators were evicted from the hospital; they set up makeshift field hospitals in private homes. Therefore the actual number of wounded is likely much higher; the figures in the report were compiled by hospital records and do not include those who were denied care, or who were afraid to go to the hospital.

One of the more nefarious acts that has not received much attention is that family members of the victims were required to sign a document waving their right to file a complaint to be able to withdraw the corpse or obtain a death certificate. Some of the documents were actually drafted at Police Stations and specifically state that the relatives release the police from any responsibility in the death. No autopsy was performed in most cases, and death certificates were signed based on documents without a personal inspection by the Institute of Forensic Medicine. In other complaints the medical certificates were falsified, noting causes of death such as suicide, heart attacks or traffic accidents, even in the case of gunshot wounds. These false documents have been subsequently used by the government to accuse the IACHR of inflating their numbers by including deaths that had nothing to do with the conflict.

While they haven’t been given full access to many sites, including the jails, much of the violence has happened while the Commission, and the OAS-sponsored Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI), were in Nicaragua,  witnessing it first-hand.

GIEI members are distinguished human rights experts, including Claudia Paz y Paz, the Guatemalan Attorney General who prosecuted Efraín Rios Montt, and who can hardly be considered an imperialist tool.

At the OAS special sessions held last week to present the second report of the IACHR, Executive Secretary Paulo Abrao noted that the violence has escalated in the month since the first report was presented in June, and there are now close to 300 verified deaths, most of whom are civilians killed in state-sponsored violence by the police or paramilitary forces. Nicaraguan Chancellor Denis Moncada denounced the report’s findings and although he admitted that “it is hard to say how many deaths there have been,” he pointed out that many of civilians killed were Sandinistas – including Angel Gahona, the journalist shot by a sniper in Bluefields while reporting on the protests. This may be true, but it doesn’t mean they were killed by the opposition. A huge number of the protesters are people who historically identified with the FSLN and who were horrified by the government’s brutal response. Although two young men have been arrested for the murder, Gahona’s family is convinced he was killed by the police. It even appears that some police among the dead were having second thoughts about participating in the repression. The mother of policeman Faber Lopez, said that her son had tried to leave the police and was told that if he did, the whole family would be killed. One week later he was killed during an attack on protesters.


The government has attempted to blame some of the most horrendous crimes on the protesters, such as an entire family that was burned alive in Managua. Multiple witnesses and the only surviving family members say that armed masked men connected to the police tried to get onto the roof of the three-story building to set up a sniper’s nest. When the family refused to let them in, they set the house ablaze.

The economic and social progress in the last years by the Ortega regime is being lauded, but again, it needs to be clarified. Although poverty was reduced overall, a study showed that income inequality actually increased from 2009 to 2014, indicating that the wealthy oligarchs are the ones who most benefited from the government’s economic policies. Most of the funds for social programs (the part that did not go into funding FSLN electoral campaigns, and wasn’t funneled into party members’ bank accounts) was funded through more than 3.5 billion dollars in soft loans from Venezuela with petroleum money. Although the loans were made to a mixed business venture called Albanisa and never accounted for in the national budget, the economic crisis in Venezuela has meant the end of subsidies to the social programs in Nicaragua.

These articles also imply that the U.S. is a major funder of the women’s movement, which is false. In fact, the Global Gag Rule prohibits US funding to any international organizations that promote safe abortions. And, while the Sandinista-led Parliament abolished therapeutic abortions in 2006, even in the case of rape or a risk to the mother’s life, the women’s movement has continued to demand that safe procedures be restored.

Nicaragua has the largest, most diverse women’s movement in the world. Although it was started by Sandinista women, it has not been linked to any political party since the 1990s, particularly after Daniel Ortega’s stepdaughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez, disclosed that he had been raping her since she was a child. Her case was ignored in the country because as an ex-president and member of Parliament, Ortega had immunity from prosecution—although it was looked into by the Inter-American Human Rights Commission in 2000 (the case was eventually closed in 2002, when the Nicaraguan government accepted the IACHR’s recommendation to reach an amicable agreement with Narvaez). She had a very credible claim, which was an open secret among high-level Sandinistas, who swept the accusations under the carpet in order to regain power. No wonder Ortega doesn’t like the IACHR. Many experts consider that a combination of impunity for sexual offenders (starting with Ortega),and the abortion ban has contributed to Nicaragua’s soaring rates of adolescent pregnancy, among the highest in Latin America.

Increasing women’s access to justice and services for gender-based violence has long been a key goal for the women’s movement in Nicaragua. I carried out a prevalence study of domestic violence in Nicaragua in 1995, which was used as the basis for the first domestic violence law in 1996. We found that 50% of women had been beaten or raped by their partner, one of the highest figures in Latin America, despite the apparently progressive discourse of the Sandinista revolution. During the 90s and the beginning of the 2000s, the women’s movement achieved enormous progress in raising awareness around domestic violence, and improving laws and services for survivors of violence. Once Ortega and Murillo took over the government, programs such as the specialized police stations for women and children were systematically dismantled. Rosario Murillo has explicitly promoted “family values” over women’s rights and put new processes in place that make it more difficult for survivors to report violence or obtain justice. The recent follow-up study we just completed in Nicaragua shows that, although there was a decline in levels of domestic violence over a twenty-year period, there is almost nothing left of the original programs that were set up through the efforts of the women’s movement. As a result, women human rights defenders were already concerned that domestic violence and femicides were on the rise again, even before the current crisis.

This brings us to the issue of U.S. support for the opposition. The only evidence of US support to opposition groups was reported by the Grayzone project, estimating that $700,000 in 2017 had been granted through the National Endowment for Democracy to a handful of Nicaragua NGOs, totaling $4.4 million over 4 years. Since this relatively paltry sum does not fit the Ortega propaganda machine’s narrative of massive US funding for a right-wing coup, the amount was adjusted upwards to $500 million dollars, with absolutely no evidence to back it up.

It is true that the opposition is extremely diverse, which reflects many different agendas—including the business community. But this is not unique in Nicaraguan history. When the FSLN overthrew Somoza in 1979, they benefited from a broad-based coalition that included business interests and oligarchs in the Reconstruction Government, a strategy that validated Ortega’s Tercerista branch of the party.  The fact that today’s opposition is so diverse and includes social movements from all political ideologies should tell us about Ortega’s and Murillo’s lack of support: a recent Cid Gallup poll found that nearly 70% of the Nicaragua people thinks Ortega and Murillo should go. After the repression of the last three months, the current regime has zero credibility.

On July 13th, police and paramilitary forces attacked UNAN, the national public university, which students have occupied for the last few months. When some left the university to find refuge in a nearby church, government forces surrounded it and shot at them in a 15-hour siege. The police closed all the roads to UNAN and refused to let ambulances evacuate the wounded. During this time, the students were sending messages via Facebook, begging for help and saying goodbye to their parents. Hundreds of people came by foot and cars in the middle of the night to hold a peaceful vigil for the students in front of the police roadblocks. Coincidentally, Joshua Partlow, a Washington Post reporter, was trapped in the church with the wounded students and wrote a harrowing account of the experience.  UNAN student

As a result of the UNAN attacks and multiple brutal “clean up” operations carried out by the police and paramilitaries to clear the roadblocks in time for the 39th anniversary of Liberation Day, the Ortega regime is becoming increasingly isolated internationally.  Currently 49 countries, including the European Union and the Organization of American States, have condemned the state-sponsored violence in Nicaragua. Rupert Colville, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), criticised the new anti-terrorism law approved by the Parliament on July 9, for using “a very broad definition of terrorism, which raises concerns that it could be used against people taking part in protests.” In fact, this is exactly what is happening now, as the crisis enters a new phase where protesters are being tracked down and arrested under the charge of terrorism.

Significantly, some of Ortega’s closest allies, such as Jose Mujica, the former President of Uruguay, have also finally turned their backs on him.  Only three weeks ago, on July 5 Mujica called for international leftists to stand with Ortega against right wing forces. One week later, he admitted he had been wrong, and that it was now time for Ortega to leave. Similarly, Noam Chomsky, who had been silent until recently, has also advised Ortega to call for early elections.

Ortega’s claims to have vanquished the opposition notwithstanding, this crisis is far from over. Ultimately, Ortega’s insistence on retaining power, even if elections were moved up to next year (which he refuses to do), means more bloodshed for Nicaraguans. This is why progressives need to show solidarity with the authentic resistance movement, which includes the women’s movement, most student groups, environmentalists, and the anti-canal farmers movement.

It is monstrous and heartbreaking to think that Ortega and Murillo could be murdering their own people just to stay in power. Having worked for the Ministry of Health during the 80s, I would never have believed a few months ago that protesters could die because the public hospitals refused to admit them, or that doctors could be dismissed or jailed for treating them. But that is exactly the point.

What is happening right now is monstrous.

Ortega and Murillo could end the massacre immediately by disarming the paramilitary forces, bringing those guilty of crimes against humanity to justice, and engaging in good faith national dialogue. Those of us on the left should be able to be to adapt to changed realities: none of us wants a return to a right-wing government in Nicaragua, and we should continue to oppose U.S. intervention. But that doesn’t mean we must accept the status quo or the ruthless abuse of power. Our solidarity should be with the Nicaraguan people, who are being killed, not with a political party. Otherwise, this bloodbath can only get worse.



Arab Revolution: It happened before, it’ll happen again

Palestinian intellectual Iyad el-Baghdadi spoke at the first Oslo Freedom Forum in Johannesburg on why the Arab Spring failed to produce tangible results, but also how Arab youth are the most educated and informed age group in the history of the Middle East, and his hope for future democratic movements in the region.

Are there really “no good guys” in Syria?

A version of this article first appeared in The New Arab

Following the Syrian regime’s recent chemical attack on Douma, US, Britain and France took swift but symbolic action to destroy three chemical weapons facilities. The action was not universally lauded. For Syrians it was too little too late; for isolationists and “anti-imperialists”, the 15,201st US airstrike on Syria since September 2014 was a “dangerous escalation” in a war where there were “no good guys”.

“There are no good guys”—or “everyone is equally bad”—has become a trope used by many otherwise decent people to absolve themselves of moral guilt for being bystanders to injustice. (The indecent on the other hand pronounce Assad the “lesser evil”, if not outright supporting him). The trope relies on a disciplined will to ignorance, unreasonable doubt, and manufactured uncertainty. It has been aided by a post-truth paranoia where cynicism passes for scepticism and all inconvenient facts expire into a haze of competing claims. “We can’t really know”!

But are facts really that elusive? And is it really impossible to tell good from bad?

Syria in fact is the most closely observed conflict in history, every aspect of which has been investigated, researched, filmed, documented, and reported on. The picture that emerges is not equivocal. In the judgment of the UN Commission of Inquiry on the war in Syria the regime is responsible for “the crimes against humanity of extermination; murder; rape or other forms of sexual violence; torture; imprisonment; enforced disappearance and other inhuman acts”.

Let us now look at the balance of atrocities.

Continue reading “Are there really “no good guys” in Syria?”

Disagreeing on the Internet: The New McCarthyism?

Originally published at Muftah on December 19, 2016.
What if the United States carried out daily bombing raids in a foreign country for over two years, killing hundreds of innocent men, women, and children as part of its ever expanding, never ending War on Terror? And what if those most performatively opposed to U.S. intervention had little or nothing to say about it?

These questions, alas, are not hypothetical: they accurately describe the position of much of the ostensibly anti-imperialist left on Syria today. These leftists present themselves as the most righteously anti-war—their critics are all described as warmongers—while they foolishly run cover for actual imperialism, as typified by writer Fredrik deBoer in his November 2016 piece for Current Affairs.

DeBoer’s article, entitled “1953—2002—2016: Syria and the Reemergence of McCarthyism,” would have us believe that the new new McCarthyism is defined by social media attacks from an irrationally interventionist left (“do they not remember Iraq?”) on dissident journalists like AlterNet’s Max Blumenthal and Twitter’s Rania Khalek. Their sin, according to deBoer, is not apologism for President Bashar Al-Assad’s regime, which has killed hundreds of thousands of people and displaced millions of others, but simply opposing “a coming conflict in Syria.”

Continue reading “Disagreeing on the Internet: The New McCarthyism?”

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