US presses Iran on ‘intolerable mistreatment’ of Nasrin Sotoudeh

The Obama administration today expressed concern over the rapidly deteriorating condition of a prominent Iranian rights advocate.

Imprisoned human rights attorney Nasrin Sotoudeh, the winner of the 2012 Sakharov Prize, has reportedly dwindled down to 95 pounds as her hunger strike enters its 42nd day.

“Iranian officials have denied Sotoudeh, a leading women’s rights champion, medical care during her more than six-week hunger strike and have kept her in solitary confinement,” said Victoria Nuland, a State Department spokesperson,

“We remain concerned for Sotoudeh’s well-being given Iran’s history of withholding treatment from prisoners and allowing them to die from hunger strikes,” she said. “We demand the Iranian Government cease its intolerable mistreatment of Sotoudeh and immediately release her and the more than 30 other female political prisoners detained in Evin Prison.”

A founding member of the Defenders of Human Rights Center, the lawyers’ association led by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi, Sotoudeh represented many activists detained in the wake of the Green movement upsurge following the contested presidential elections in 2009.

Sentenced to 11 years in jail for “activities against national security” and “propaganda against the regime,” she was also banned from practicing law or traveling for 20 years. The sentencing provoked a chorus of international condemnation.

Before her arrest, Sotoudeh had spoken out against the unannounced execution of one of her clients.  While jailed at Evin Prison, Sotoudeh has protested the restrictions placed on her husband and 12-year-old daughter, who are barred from leaving the country. Her family has also agitated against not being allowed to hug their mother on visits. In October she went on hunger strike.

In an interview with the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, her husband Reza Khandan said, “The most visible thing was her severe weight loss, her gaunt face, and her hollowed eyes.” Sotoudeh has been on hunger strike for more than 40 days.

China convicts nephew of Chen Guangcheng

“A nephew of the dissident Chen Guangcheng was sentenced to more than three years in prison on Friday for assaulting and injuring a government official who broke into the family’s home in April during a frenzied search for Mr. Chen,” the New York Times reports.

The nephew, Chen Kegui (left), 33, was convicted after a brief closed-door trial in Shandong Province, not far from the farmhouse where paid thugs kept his uncle, a self-taught human rights lawyer who is blind, illegally confined for 18 months along with his wife, and at times, their young daughter.

Details of their detention, which included round-the-clock surveillance and violence, drew international condemnation and ultimately proved embarrassing to China after Mr. Chen eluded his captors and found sanctuary inside the United States Embassy in Beijing. After a tense diplomatic standoff in May, Chinese officials allowed Mr. Chen and his family to move to the United States.

“This is a case that tramples on the rule of law. It is a declaration of war against fairness and justice in the world. I absolutely cannot accept this and am very, very angry,’’ said Chen Guangcheng in an interview from his home in New York where he has been studying English and law. “There is no doubt that this is a kind of retaliation against me.’’

“This verdict is absolutely unjust. His behavior was completely reasonable self-defense. When it came out (the verdict), I lost hope in the law,” Chen Guangfu, Chen Kegui’s father, told Reuters.

He said the verdict meant China has no rule of law….Chen said he was told his son would not appeal but he did not know why because he was not allowed in to witness the trial.Court officials did not answer telephone calls seeking comment.

“It’s worse than we had expected,” veteran activist and family friend Hu Jia told Reuters.

Chen’s nephew was facing charges of intentional homicide after wounding several intruders into his home in the course of self-defense, said Human Rights in China. The incident took place on April 27, 2012, several days after his uncle escaped unlawful house arrest by Shandong authorities.

“What an incredible farce,” said Jerome A. Cohen, a law professor at New York University who helped arrange a fellowship at the university for Chen Guangcheng.

Chen Guangcheng was a recipient in absentia of the National Endowment for Democracy‘s 2008 Democracy Award.

Egypt’s polarizing crisis ‘fuelling worries of descent into violence’

The protests over Egypt’s new constitution and the Muslim Brotherhood’s monopolizing of political institutions are threatening to spiral into openly violent conflict.

“In every scenario, Egypt’s most polarizing and volatile crisis since Mubarak’s ouster is likely to deepen,” reports suggest:

The past week, clashes between Morsi’s supporters and opponents left two dead and hundreds wounded and raised fears of further chaos. The Brotherhood and other Islamists plan their own massive rally backing Morsi on Saturday. Already on Friday, Brotherhood activists were passing out fliers calling for the public to come out and ‘‘support Islamic law.’’ A number of Muslim clerics in Friday sermons in the southern city of Assiut called the president’s opponents ‘‘thugs’’ and ‘‘enemies of God and Islam.’’

The draft constitution will spawn “all kinds of controversy — political, legal and dueling confrontations on the streets,” said Nathan Brown, a Middle East scholar at George Washington University. “At this point, things seem to be escalating in all ways, and there are no real attempts to contain them. It raises concern about the stability of the political system.”

The growing polarization of Islamists and secular Egyptians, exacerbated by Morsi’s self-empowering edict, could even escalate into civil war, analysts suggest.

“The build-up of opposition to Morsi is fuelling worries of a possible descent into violence,” writes Heba Saleh:

The president’s Muslim Brotherhood organisation and hardline Salafi Islamist groups are planning a huge rally in Cairo on Saturday under the slogan “Legitimacy and Islamic Law”.

In his weekly letter to Brotherhood members, Mohamed Badie, the group’s Supreme Leader…. described the opposition as misguided, mercenaries and traitors: “Many of them have been misled by the tendentious media and some have been bought and their needs have been exploited by people with vested interests who are remnants of the old regime. There is also a minority who sold their consciences and betrayed their country and sought to strengthen themselves by resorting to enemies abroad.”

“The way out of this blockade is unclear,” says Hisham Kassem, a publisher and veteran democracy advocate. “If Morsi refuses to compromise, it could lead to a civil war.”

Many ordinary citizens were already outraged by Morsi’s contentious decree, he said. “People are furious all over……people who are normally not politicized, but see what is coming,” said Kassem.

The Islamist leader “misread the strength of opposition and the depth of attachment to the rule of law,” say Roula Khalaf and Heba Saleh

Morsi, moreover, did nothing to build consensus before issuing his decree – even his advisers and his justice minister appeared surprised….Most damning for him – and dangerous for Egypt – the Islamist who was developing into a national leader has been reduced to a controversial partisan figure, squandering much of the goodwill he had won in recent months.

Other analysts take a more charitable view of Morsi’s actions.

“He took short-term extremely dictatorial steps and said it was necessary to do because the judiciary was poised to disrupt the entire process, a process that was designed to build a democratic system,” said Nathan Brown, political science professor at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.

Brown said concerns that Morsi is becoming or has become a dictator are “exaggerated for now.” But he also said that while Morsi’s fears about the judiciary were well grounded, they, too, were most likely exaggerated since Morsi could have just appointed a new constituent assembly.

Yet other observers insist that the president’s actions reveal that the authoritarian impulse, if not totalitarian tendencies, of Islamist politics. 

“Certainly the powers that he’s asserted for himself are total,” Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told CBC News.

“He has not only put himself above any judicial oversight but actually declared the authority to pass any law that would advance the revolution, which is such a vague term that it implies unchecked extensive powers.”

“So, is he Egypt’s dictator? At the moment, yes, on paper the most powerful Egyptian leader since the pharaoh,” said Trager who has extensively studied Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood

“As shocking as Morsi’s actions are, they do not prove that Islamists cannot be democrats,” writes Tarek Masoud:

Morsi’s decision to grant himself unquestioned authority was not the final, spectacularly public phase in some hitherto clandestine Muslim Brotherhood plan to erect a holy autocracy. Instead, the Egyptian president simply did what Egyptian presidents have been doing for more than 60 years — that is, loosening institutional restraints on their authority in order to more easily fulfill their agendas.

“That Morsi is an Islamist is largely irrelevant,” says Masoud, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. “It’s likely that the autocratic temptation would have seized Egypt’s president regardless of his party or ideological orientation.”

Whatever the Brotherhood’s intentions, the reaction to Morsi’s controversial decree and to the disputed new constitution may have demonstrated the resilience of Egypt’s democratic forces.

“Morsi did not intend to restore a dictatorship,” writes the FT’s Khalaf. “The objective of the constitutional declaration was to speed up political transition – though with results that would suit him and his Muslim Brotherhood party, the country’s largest political organisation.”

Nevertheless, she writes:

The message from Tahrir this week was simple, however much Egyptians long for stability and for an end to the rollercoaster ride of political transition, they will not stand for a return to autocratic rule. Even if the uproar subsides as the president rushes to offer concessions, Mr Morsi has been warned. …Egyptians have drawn a line under their authoritarian past. No leader, whether Islamist or non-Islamist, should dare to rule them unchallenged.

“There is no doubt that Morsi has over-reached,” said Shadi Hamid, director of Middle East Studies at Brookings Doha. “If his role was to promote stability, he has led Egypt in the opposite direction. He could have achieved some of what he wanted through a less inflammatory decree. This was a real miscalculation of the mandate that he has.”

Does Mo Yan really deserve the Nobel Prize?

The award of this year’s Nobel Prize for literature to the Chinese writer Mo Yan (near right) is “a slap in the face for all those working for democracy and human rights,” a fellow laureate recently complained.

The decision was a “catastrophe” and “extremely upsetting”, said fellow author Herta Müller (far right), who won the Nobel in 2009 for her own, often-censored novels drawing on experience of life under Ceausescu’s Securitate.

Mo “celebrates censorship,” she said. “The Chinese themselves say that Mo Yan is an official of the same rung as a (government) minister.”

So it’s no surprise that observers like Perry Link are asking: “should a prize of this magnitude go to a writer who is ‘inside the system’ of an authoritarian government that imprisons other writers—of whom Liu Xiaobo, winner of the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize (a ‘convicted criminal,’ in the Chinese government’s view) is only the most famous example? “

He cites satirist Wang Xiaohong who tweeted her concern for the deceased Mr. Nobel, squirming in his grave:

Two years ago my people gave a prize to a Chinese, and in doing so offended the Chinese government. Today they gave another prize to a Chinese, and in doing so offended the Chinese people. My goodness. The whole of China offended in only two years.

Link continues: In December 2009, after the announcement of Liu Xiaobo’s unexpectedly harsh prison sentence of eleven years, Cui Weiping, a film scholar, conducted a telephone survey of more than a hundred prominent Chinese intellectuals to get their responses. Many, at personal risk, expressed disgust and told Cui she could publish what they said. Mo Yan, who also gave permission to publish what he said, said, “I’m not clear on the details, and would rather not comment. I have guests at home right now and am busy.”

When it was China’s turn to be the “guest of honor” at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009, Mo joined the official delegation in walking out of a symposium that featured two dissident writers.

“We did not come here for a lesson in democracy. Those times are over,” said the head of the delegation.

But, Link continues: most galling to Mo Yan’s critics was his agreement, in June 2012, to join in a state-sponsored project to get famous authors to hand-copy Mao Zedong’s 1942 “Talks at the Yan’an Forum on Literature and Art” in celebration of their seventieth anniversary. These “Talks”—which were the intellectual handcuffs of Chinese writers throughout the Mao era and were almost universally reviled by writers during the years between Mao’s death in 1976 and the Beijing massacre in 1989—were now again being held up for adulation.

Two more writers who speak sonorously about truth and the judgment of history, both personal friends of Liu Xiaobo, were also honored, the National Endowment for Democracy’s Louisa Greve recently observed.

Liao Yiwu, a highly respected poet and chronicler of the downtrodden, received the Peace Prize of the German Book Trade on October 14. He spent four years in prison for his poem “Massacre,” which he wrote hours before the killings on Tiananmen Square in 1989. In his acceptance speech, Liao dared to touch what is probably the most lethal third rail in the long list of neuralgic topics for the ruling Communist Party – China’s “territorial integrity” and the “unity of the motherland.”

Yu Jie, became the third Chinese writer to be honored this autumn when he received the Train Foundation’s 2012 Civil Courage Prize on October 17 in New York. Now in exile like Liao, Yu held firm to his faith that history seeks truth as a source of hope even after he was threatened, kidnapped, and tortured for his writings.

Yu said he can’t keep quiet because “there are far too many truths waiting to be revealed,” including “the inevitability of the collapse of Chinese Communist Tyranny.”

“Mo Yan writes about people at the bottom of society, and in The Garlic Ballads (1988) he clearly sides with poor farmers who are bullied and bankrupted by predatory local officials,” Link observes:

Sympathy for the downtrodden has had a considerable market in the world of Chinese letters in recent times, mainly because the society does include a lot of downtrodden and they do invite sympathy. But it is crucial to note the difference between the way Mo Yan writes about the fate of the downtrodden and the way writers like Liu Xiaobo, Zheng Yi, and other dissidents do. Liu and Zheng denounce the entire authoritarian system, including the people at the highest levels. Mo Yan and other inside-the-system writers blame local bullies and leave the top out of the picture.

It is, however, a standard tactic of the people at the top in China to attribute the ordeals of the populace to misbehavior by lower officials and to put out the message that “here at the top we hear you, and sympathize; don’t worry that there is anything wrong with our system as a whole.” Twenty years ago, when Chinese people had access only to state-sponsored news sources, most of them believed in such assurances; today, with the Internet, fewer do, but the message is still very effective. Writers like Mo Yan are clear about the regime’s strategy, and may not like it, but they accept compromises in how to put things. It is the price of writing inside the system.

Another leading dissident, Chen Guangcheng, was recently honored (right) for his work and “courageous action to promote or protect freedom and democracy.

“He began by defending his right as a blind person under Chinese law to be exempt from taxes, a right his local government did not respect,” said the NED’s Carl Gershman, paying tribute to Chen at the award ceremony.

“He then helped others defend their rights by knowing the law and explaining their case, and helping them file the case in court. He helped disabled people and orphans claim their right to a small state stipend,” he said, “and peasants to defend their land against confiscation by the state. He also exposed the massive use by the Chinese state of forced abortion and involuntary sterilization to implement its cruel and inhuman One-Child Policy.”

The dissident artist Ai Weiwei said that Mo Yan “has been very clearly pursuing the party’s line and in several cases he has shown no respect for the independence of intellectuals”.

Defenders of Mo Yan credit him with “black humor,” writes Link,

Perhaps. But others, including descendants of the victims of these outrages, might be excused for wondering what is so funny. From the regime’s point of view, this mode of writing is useful not just because it diverts a square look at history but because of its function as a safety valve. These are sensitive topics, and they are potentially explosive, even today. …..

Chinese writers today, whether “inside the system” or not, all must choose how they will relate to their country’s authoritarian government. This inevitably involves calculations, trade-offs, and the playing of cards in various ways. Liu Xiaobo’s choices have been highly unusual. Mo Yan’s responses are more “normal,” closer to the center of a bell curve. It would be wrong for spectators like you and me, who enjoy the comfort of distance, to demand that Mo Yan risk all and be another Liu Xiaobo. But it would be even more wrong to mistake the clear difference between the two.


Chen Guangcheng was a recipient in absentia of the National Endowment for Democracy‘s 2008 Democracy Award.

Egypt’s ‘Islamist’ draft constitution sparks mass protest

Tens of thousands of Egyptians protested against President Mohamed Morsi, Reuters reports, after an Islamist-led assembly raced through approval of a new constitution in a bid to end a crisis over the Islamist leader’s newly expanded powers.

Many liberal and secular Egyptians fear that the constitution, which independent observers suggest has a pronounced Islamist bent, will allow the Muslim Brotherhood to consolidate power while threatening freedom of expression and the rights of women and minorities.

“This is a sad day in the history of Egyptian law and a big setback to the dream of establishing a state based on law and justice,” said Ziad Bahha, an official of the opposition Egyptian Social Democratic party. “We are faced by a constitution drafted by an invalid constitutional assembly protected by an illegal immunity given to its decisions amidst a dangerous split in society. …. It takes us back many years and dismantles many of the foundations of the modern Egyptian state.”

The constitution raises questions about Morsi’s commitment to adopt an inclusive approach to governing.

“Egypt needs a president who shows statesmanship, not seeks sectarian advantage,” notes one observer.

“The draft constitution has an Islamist bent,” AP reports:

It strengthens provisions that set Islamic law as the basis of legislation, gives clerics a still undefined role in ensuring laws meet Shariah and commits the state to enforce morals and ‘‘the traditional family’’ in broad language that rights activists fear could be used to severely limit many civil liberties.

But Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood defended the document.

“This constitution represents the diversity of the Egyptian people. All Egyptians, male and female, will find themselves in this constitution,” said Essam el-Erian, a Brotherhood representative. “We will implement the work of this constitution to hold in high esteem God’s law, which was only ink on paper before, and to protect freedoms that were not previously respected,” he said.

The Brotherhood’s stance found some support from independent analysts.

“The draft constitution will end the state of political division, because it will cancel the constitutional decrees that the president issued,” said Dawood Basil, a Cairo University constitutional law expert. “I feel overwhelming joy after hearing the final wording of the articles.”

But others fear the new constitution would push Egypt in the direction of an Islamic Republic rather than a civil state.

The preceding 1971 constitution was “more open and protective of individual rights,” said Mustapha Kamel Sayed, a professor of political science at Cairo University.

One clause insists that sharia should be interpreted in accordance with orthodox schools of Sunni Muslim doctrine, limiting judicial discretion in applying a modernist interpretation. Another article stipulates that scholars of Al Azhar, the theological center of Sunni research and scholarship, be consulted on issues of sharia interpretation.

Both articles are dangerous, says Michael Hanna, a fellow at The Century Foundation.

“What that does is begins to shift all the terms of discourse away from the civil law system and toward religiously-based strictures,” he says. “Al Azhar is enshrined in the text. Sunni jurisprudence is enshrined in the text. It begins to shift the terms of reference and privileges a certain discourse that is religiously based.”

Protesters said they would press for a ‘no’ vote in a constitutional referendum, which could take place in mid-December.

“If the declaration is not withdrawn we will call for civil disobedience,” said Adel Rabie, a leading member of the Social Democratic Party. “How can we pass a constitution written in the absence of representatives of 80 per cent of Egyptians – workers and farmers?” he asked.

“We fundamentally reject the referendum and constituent assembly because the assembly does not represent all sections of society,” said Sayed el-Erian, 43, a member of a party set up by Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who predicted the constitution would be short-lived.

“I am saddened to see this come out while Egypt is so divided,” Peace laureate Mohammed ElBaradei told Al-Nahar TV. “It will be part of political folklore and will go to the garbage bin of history.”

But several independent analysts said the hasty way in which it was prepared led to more problems than any ideological agenda, The New York Times reports:

Instead of starting from scratch and drawing on the lessons of other countries, the deadline-conscious drafters tinkered with Egypt’s existing Constitution, without trying to radically remake Egyptian law in any particular direction, said Ziad Al-Ali, who has tracked the assembly for the International Institute for Democratic and Electoral Assistance, an intergovernmental organization in Sweden.

In some places, the charter also provides for “society” as well as the state to play a role in upholding family values or moral standards, which critics said could open the door to vigilante pressure from self-appointed moral guardians. “Is ‘society’ me and my friends in my neighborhood?” asked Ali.

“This constitution that is being written …. under the protection of the interior ministry and the legitimacy of the Brotherhood and dictatorial immunity does not and will not represent me,” wrote Rasha Azb, a prominent activist.

But constitutional expert Zaid Ali said charges that the new constitution gave Morsi the powers of a pharaoh were exaggerated.

“Limitations on the president’s and the government’s power come from a stronger parliament which now has far more authority than it did under the previous constitution of 1971,” he said. “He still, though, has a lot of power. For instance he nominates the head of the [monitoring] authority which audits him and the government. He should not have that power.”

Nevertheless, “a major opportunity was missed to really study what went wrong under the previous system” and try to address those problems, said Ali, a Cairo-based adviser on constitution building for the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance:

While focusing on disagreements between Islamists and secularists, the drafters missed an opportunity to address issues like decentralization of power, effectiveness of governance, and corruption. Others had hoped the constitution would do more to achieve social justice and alter what they say is a state structure that contributes to the growing gap between rich and poor.

Heba Morayef, the Egypt researcher of Human Rights Watch, highlighted an article that bans “insulting or showing contempt to any individual” as a limitation in free speech.

“Under this will one for instance be able to say that the president is a failure or a dictator?” said Heba Morayef, the Egypt researcher of Human Rights Watch. “I see this as a deterioration in freedom of expression over previous drafts. Also there is no ban on custodial sentences in cases against the press.”

“Women, who were barely represented in the assembly, have the most to lose from a constitution which ignores their aspirations, and blocks the path to equality between men and women. It is appalling that virtually the only references to women relate to the home and family,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty’s deputy director for the region:

The draft also preserves much of military’s immunity from parliamentary scrutiny, putting its budget in the hands of the National Defence Council, which includes the president, the heads of the two houses of parliament and top generals.

The text fails to offer guidance on how to balance its clauses protecting freedom of expression against other provisions protecting people or religions from insults, said Morayef

“These contradictions were either intentional or based on ignorance of how rights should be protected, or both,” she said.

The proposed constitution only promises freedom to practice the Abrahamic religions – Islam, Christianity, and Judaism – denying other religious sects, such as Egypt’s Bahai’is, the right to publicly practice their faith.

“To say that they can’t even practice their religious rights is terrifying,” says Morayef.