Recent developments in the region

Saudi Arabia airs videotape showing secret organization leader calling for return to jihadist ideology

13 killed in Syria’s Homs confrontations between security forces, protesters

Egypt’s Tantawi reviews developments with U.S. CENTCOM chief

Tunisia says sit-in planned to scupper polls

SAUDI ARABIA:

A man on trial in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, is accused of plotting to overthrow the government and coordinating with al-Qaeda, a court said.

A special criminal court is trying the case of 16 members of an alleged secret organization tied to al-Qaeda. The group is accused by the court of plotting against the government.

A video depicting the group's alleged leader shows him calling for political change in Saudi Arabia through a return to jihadist ideology, London's pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat reports.

The alleged ringleader was accused of collaborating with al-Qaeda and working with Iraqi militants, the court said.

The man, whom the newspaper said was a well-known academic identified only as defendant No. 1, accused investigators of using "distortion and fabrication" in their charges. Many of his statements, he claimed, were taken under pressure.

The case in Jeddah includes 75 charges against the 16 defendants. Home to many of the hijackers in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States, Saudi Arabia has taken steps to counter national security threats.

More than 100 people were arrested last year on charges they were part of an al-Qaeda plot to attack key oil installations in the country.

SYRIA:

Syrian security forces shot dead 13 civilians on Monday and Tuesday in the central protest hub city of Homs, rights activist Rami Abdel Rahman said.

"Thirteen civilians were killed in several parts of Homs when the army opened fire as it carried out an operation in the city" to quash dissent, said the head of the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reached by telephone from Nicosia.

Late on Monday another activist had said that security forces swept into the flashpoint central city and shot dead a civilian and wounded four others.

Several coaches packed with security force personnel entered the Khalidiyeh neighborhood of Homs and afterwards gunfire was heard, said Abdel Karim Rihawi.

The wounded were taken to the Al-Bir Hospital, said Rihawi, who heads the Syrian League for the Defense of Human Rights. "The shooting continued in more than one area of Homs. The atmosphere is tense. Security and pro-regime militias are invading the neighborhood, shooting indiscriminately to terrorize people," pro-democracy activists wrote on Tuesday on their Facebook page "Syrian Revolution 2011", which has been the driving force behind protests.

A Homs resident, declining to be identified, said: "Pro-regime (forces) attacked areas where the opposition lives. They sacked and looted shops."

Fierce fighting rocked Homs at the weekend, with activists reporting that more than 30 people were killed in clashes between Christians, Sunni Muslims and Alawites from President Bashar al-Assad's minority community.

Activists have said the violence in Homs could spark a new and dangerous turning point in more than four months of pro-democracy protests, with Rihawi describing it as a "dangerous signal of the break-up of Syrian society."

Ammar Qorabi, head of the National Organization for Human Rights, said: "Residents of Homs have denounced the rumors, spread by parties close to the regime, about sectarian clashes. In fact, it is plain-clothed agents of the security services and army who are attacking civilians."

Abdel Rahman said at the weekend the fighting in Homs erupted after three regime supporters kidnapped last week were killed and their dismembered bodies returned to their relatives.

"These clashes are a dangerous development that undermines the revolution and serves the interests of its enemies who want it to turn into a civil war," he said.

On Tuesday he told AFP the intervention in Homs was part of a bid by the authorities to create sectarian strife in the city.

"The Syrian authorities are carrying out military operations in Homs after having failed in their attempts to sow sectarian divisions in the city due to the foresight of the people of all faiths," Abdel Rahman said.

He also accused the regime of previous attempts to inflame sectarian tensions in other parts of the country, including Latakia, Jableh and Banias.

"The authorities' plan failed (in Homs) just as it failed in Banias last April," when pro-regime militias opened fire on a mosque in the coastal city with the aim of inciting sectarian tensions, he said.

Regime-friendly daily Al-Watan led its Tuesday edition with the headline "Nightmare in Homs."

"Since the outset, everybody has been guarding against a slide towards a sectarian war ... which does not distinguish between Christians and Muslims. But disagreements can only be resolved through dialogue," the paper said.

Members of Syria's two million-strong Alawite community have held key positions within the regime since 1970, when Assad's late father, Hafez, led the ruling Baath Party to power.

Alawites, a breakaway branch of the Shiite branch of Islam, make up 10 per cent of the 22 million population, while Christians represent also around 10 per cent.

Activists say the Syrian government's crackdown on pro-democracy and anti-regime protests has left more than 1,400 civilians dead. Thousands more have been jailed.

EGYPT:

Egypt’s interim military rulers established a system on Wednesday for what is promised to be the first free and open elections in the country’s history, laying out a complicated plan evidently designed as a compromise between the competing demands of liberal and Islamist groups.

The parliamentary elections, which will follow the popular revolution that ousted President Hosni Mubarak in February, are being watched closely around the region as a test of the Arab democracy movement.

Rejecting the suggestions of American officials and many human rights groups, the military said that for reasons of national sovereignty it would not invite international monitors to oversee the elections. But it said that independent Egyptian human rights organizations and other groups would be free to do so.

Maj. Gen. Mamdouh Shaheen, speaking on behalf of the military’s ruling council, said “the electoral process” would begin in September in compliance with a referendum held in the spring. But for logistical reasons the final vote will take place in three stages over a month later in the fall.

Half the seats will be chosen by voters in each district picking individual candidates running in winner-take-all races, as in the American system. To fill the other seats, each voter will also choose a political party, and each party will receive a number of seats proportional to its share of the total vote, a system used in many countries to ensure the representation of minority views.

The defense minister, acting as interim president, will retain Mr. Mubarak’s power to name 10 of the 514 members of the lower house.

The military said it was abandoning a quota for the number of women in Parliament that Mr. Mubarak had imposed. But the military said it would retain an anachronistic requirement — widely ignored or abused under Mr. Mubarak — that half the seats go to workers or farmers. In a nod to the youth who led the revolution, the military lowered the minimum age of lawmakers to 25 from 30.

Egypt's ruling generals are seeking to enshrine a future role for themselves with considerable independence from civilian leaders and possibly an authority to intervene in politics.

The push appears to be driven by the military's fear of losing the near-autonomous power it has enjoyed for nearly 60 years, but activists worry it will open the door for the army to dictate politics in a democratic Egypt.

"We want the military's role restricted to protecting our borders," said Khaled Abdel-Hamid, who was among the young activists who organized the 18-day wave of protests that forced Hosni Mubarak's ouster. "We have had enough of the military. We want it back in the barracks."

Last week, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the body of generals that has ruled the country since Mubarak's Feb. 11 fall, announced it would put together a set of guidelines for a new constitution that is to be written after elections planned for later this year.

That in part was in response to demands by some protesters who worry about the potential influence of Islamists over the writing of the constitution.

But it also raised concerns because of the military's domination over the process of setting the guidelines, combined with signals by generals on the council that they want to carve out an exclusive, untouchable role for the military.

Maj. Gen. Mamdouh Shaheen, a key member of the military council who is leading the process for drawing up the guidelines, said in comments published recently that the country's next constitution should safeguard the armed forces against the "whims" of any future president, practically asking for the armed forces to be given virtually complete independence.

One of the legal experts that the military is consulting in the process, Hisham Bastawisi, has gone further, proposing that the military in the future have the role of "guaranteeing supra-constitutional principles." In his formulation, that would appear to mean powers to intervene to protect basic democratic rights.

But some fear that could give the generals a tool for imposing its will at a time when the country is trying to move toward democratic rule with civilians at the helm. Bastawisi, who has announced his intention to run for president, also proposed extensive independence for the military, including immunity from parliamentary scrutiny of its budgets and prohibitions on passing laws affecting the military without the generals' approval.

The "protector" idea would appear to give the military a role similar to that in Turkey, where the army has carried out several coups or otherwise intervened in the elected government over past decades to enforce the secular nature of the state. It did this even without a mandate in the Turkish constitution, instead relying on its own internal law that empowers it to defend the nation against "external and internal threats."

"Any political role for the military will hurt democracy," said Mustafa el-Naggar, an activist and founding member of Egypt's new Justice Party. "The only guarantor of democracy should be the people not anyone else."

Bastawisi's is one of several proposals being considered by the council. The generals are to distill the proposals and arrive at a declaration that would supersede the next constitution or serve as the introduction of that charter.

The military's moves appear to be an attempt to wrest back its place as the ultimate source of power, which is deeply threatened by the uprising against Mubarak.

The generals took power after Mubarak's fall, but they also lost much of the legitimacy they long had to justify their behind-the-scenes domination of the country. The military has been the most powerful institution in Egypt since army officers toppled the monarchy in a 1952 coup, giving the country its four presidents since and wielding significant influence and economic power since.

The military has over the years enjoyed perks and privileges that no other institution in Egypt had. It has ventured into business in recent years, winning lucrative government contracts for the construction of dams, roads and even seaside resorts. Retired generals are routinely given well paid government jobs.

Reflecting the army's importance, the head of U.S. Central Command, Marine Gen. James Mattis, met Tuesday with the council's head, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, and its chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Sami Hafiz Anan, to discuss military co-operation and other issues, Egyptian state media reported. The U.S. Embassy in Cairo confirmed the visit but gave no further details.

But the army's so-called "1952 legitimacy" has been taken over by the "January Revolution" which was launched on the principle of government by the will of the people and which, unlike the officers' coup 59 years ago, was a popular uprising in which millions of Egyptians took part.

The military, sour over its loss of prestige, is fighting back. Increasingly, generals on the council have tried to present themselves as a key part of the uprising, rather than subordinate to it.

"The military council is a full partner in the January revolution and not a representative of the people in the revolution," Maj. Gen. Hassan al-Rueini said on a TV talk show last week.

The generals have been pushing that same message on Egypt's rapidly multiplying TV talk shows, phoning in to defend their record in handling the nation's bumpy transition to civilian rule.

They often drum up the notion that they had stood up to the wealthy businessmen associated with the regime, when their interests clashed with those of the nation, and that they had protected the protesters of the January and February uprising from the brutality of Mubarak's security forces.

The military's direct involvement in politics began on Jan. 28 when Mubarak called out troops to restore law and order in Cairo and across much of the nation following deadly clashes between protesters and security forces earlier that day.

The troops were warmly greeted by the protesters as saviors and allies in the campaign to force Mubarak out. The military, on its part, won the protesters' support by declaring that it would not open fire at any of them. Chants of "the army and the people are one hand" rang out for days at Tahrir Square — though there were also occasions when the military stood by while Mubarak supporters attacked protesters.

Lately, the ruling generals have come under heavy criticism by the protesters.

"Down with the junta," several banners declare at Tahrir Square, birthplace of the uprising and now home to a nearly two-week-old, sit-in to press the generals to speed up reforms, bringing Mubarak and stalwarts of his regime to justice as well as weed out loyalists of the former president from the police force, the judiciary and the civil service.

"The junta is not different from Mubarak," says another Tahrir banner.

PALESTINIAN TERRITORIES:

New B'Tselem report reveals for the first time official data on treatment of Palestinian minors in Israeli military court system in the West Bank: 93% of all minors convicted of stone throwing were given jail sentences. This includes 19 children under age 14, who under domestic Israeli law could not be held in detention.

The rights of Palestinian minors who are suspected of stone-throwing in the West Bank are violated severely throughout the criminal justice process. These are the finding of No Minor Matter, a new B’Tselem report, published Monday, 18 July.

The report brings, for the first time, full official data on Palestinian minors tried for stone-throwing in the past six years, and is based on dozens of court cases, and on interviews with 50 Palestinian minors who had been arrested on suspicion of stone throwing, and with defense attorneys.

Here are some statistics presented in the report dealing with Palestinian minors charged with stone throwing between 2005-2010:

A total 835 Palestinian minors were tried in military courts in the West Bank on charges of stone throwing. Thirty-four of them were aged 12-13; 255 were 14-15; 546 were 16-17.

Only one minor was acquitted during that time (0.11 percent of the total), a conviction rate far higher than the extremely high conviction rate in Israel.

Of the 642 files where B'Tselem received details about the conclusion, 624 (97 percent) ended with a plea bargain; in only five of the cases (0.77%) was a full trial held. In Israel, about half of criminal cases are resolved in a plea bargain.

Some 19 minors aged 12-13 who were convicted of stone-throwing served a jail sentence ranging from a few days to two months. In Israel, it is forbidden to impose any prison sentence on a child under age 14.

Twenty-six percent of the minors aged 14-15 and about 59% of minors between 16-17 served a jail sentence of four months or more.

Meanwhile, the European Union has denounced Israeli plans to build hundreds of new apartments in two Jewish West Bank settlements, saying it is "deeply disappointed" in a move that threatens regional peace efforts.

The EU said Tuesday that such actions run counter to repeated efforts by the international community to achieve a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Israel announced Monday that it would soon issue tenders for the construction of 336 apartments in the West Bank settlements of Karnei Shomron and Betar Illit. They are part of a plan to build 6,900 housing units throughout Israel.

The German news agency (Deutsche Presse-Agentur) says bidding for the contracts will begin within 60 days, and the units are expected to be completed in three years.

Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem - areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War - are considered illegal under international law. A spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton reiterated that contention on Tuesday.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed last year after the Palestinian Authority pulled out of negotiations because of Israel's refusal to extend a moratorium on settlement activity.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has rejected efforts to restart the talks unless Israel completely freezes all settlement-building. He has instead focused his attention on a unilateral bid for statehood recognition from the United Nations in September.

Norway on Monday called the Palestinians' statehood plans "legitimate," but said negotiations with Israel must continue. Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere said his government will "carefully consider" the Palestinian proposal, and would decide how to vote after seeing the full text.

Israel says settlements and the borders of a Palestinian state should be negotiated, and that the Palestinian bid would shatter efforts for an agreement.

The United States and some European Union nations have maintained that negotiations are the only way to reach a two-state solution to the conflict.

YEMEN:

A senior leader of Yemen's al-Qaeda branch has been killed in fighting in the nearly lawless south of the country, the Defense Ministry said on Thursday.

A ministry statement said Ayed al-Shabwani was killed in fighting on Tuesday near the town of Zinjibar, a provincial capital that has been held by al-Qaeda-linked militants since May.

The statement said one of the leader's cousins, Awad al-Shabwani, was also killed in the fighting, but it gave no further details.

Ayed al-Shabwani has been on the government's list of most-wanted al-Qaeda linked militants. He escaped death in January when Yemeni warplanes bombed the Wadi Adeeda area, 115 miles (185 kilometers) east of Sana’a, Yemen's capital, in Marib province.

The government then claimed the airstrike killed al-Shabwani along with al-Qaeda's military chief, Qassim al-Raimi, and four other operatives of the group. But al-Qaeda released a statement shortly afterward denying any of its men were killed in the raid.

Al-Shabwani is from the al-Shabwani tribe in the province of Shabwa and is believed to have his tribe's protection. He is accused of providing sanctuary for top al-Qaeda figures in the country and was implicated in several fatal attacks on security troops and police officers.

Al-Qaeda in Yemen has been taking advantage of the turmoil arising from months of anti-regime protests across much of the poor Arab nation, seizing and holding territory in the south.

Al-Qaeda’s growing presence in Yemen has been a source of serious concern to the United States and Yemen's rich Arab Gulf neighbors.

In its attempt to dislodge the militants from the towns of Zinjibar and Jaar — both in Abyan province — warplanes and heavy artillery pounded their positions throughout Wednesday night and early Thursday, killing more than 20 militants, military officials said.

They said at least 13 soldiers were killed and more than 60 wounded in fighting against militants at al-Code area, near Zinjibar, over the past 24 hours.

Soldiers reported seeing the bodies of dozens of militants killed in government shelling of the area, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

As many as 90,000 people are thought to have fled Abyan province to the port city of Aden and other nearby cities after the militants seized Zinjibar and Jaar.

Elsewhere, government troops opened fire on a large anti-government demonstration in the city of Taiz, killing one protester, activist Mahmoud Taha said.

JORDAN:

Minister of Foreign Affairs Nasser Judeh called for intensifying international efforts to reach a political solution over Libya, the Jordanian news agency Petra said.

During his participation in the fourth meeting of the Libya Contact Group in Istanbul last week, Judeh stressed the need for a ceasefire in accordance with the UN Security Council resolution 1973, which authorizes all measures to protect Libyan civilians.

The Libya Contact Group was set up by the international community to find a solution to the Libyan crisis, following fighting between forces loyal to the Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi, and rebels opposed to his four-decade rule.

Judeh also called for providing all means necessary to assist the war-torn country to broker a transitional period that would lead to democratic elections.

He stressed the importance of providing protection as well as medical and humanitarian assistance for the Libyans, highlighting Jordan’s efforts in this domain.

The meeting was co-chaired by Turkey and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Meanwhile, Jordan's interior minister accused protesters Monday of planning to topple the government during a protest that turned violent last week, a Jordanian lawmaker said.

Interior Minister Mazen Saket made the accusation during a closed-door meeting with parliament's Human Rights Committee, lawmaker Jamil Nimri said.

Inspired by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, Jordanians have taken to the streets regularly in recent months to demand a greater say in politics.

On Friday, at least 15 people were injured when police swinging clubs clashed with dozens of demonstrators trying to set up an open-ended protest camp in the capital, Amman.

It was the most violent confrontation with protesters since the demonstrations began in March.

"Mr. Saket said there were security fears that Friday's protest could lead to an open-ended sit-in that would disturb public order and lead to toppling the regime," said Nimri, who attended the meeting with the interior minister.

He said Saket did not elaborate, but said that authorities were tipped off that some protesters had "premeditated ill-intentions to dramatically escalate violence in such a way where civilians would be killed in clashes with police."

Saket and government spokesmen did not answer repeated calls by the Associated Press.

There have been no open calls to oust Jordan's King Abdullah II, viewed as a progressive leader with pro-Western policies. But they are demanding the ouster of Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit, a former military general accused of dragging his feet on promised political reforms.

Protesters also want greater political freedoms, reduced food prices, more job opportunities and an end to government corruption.

TUNISIA:

Tunisia's prime minister on Monday warned against attempts to derail October elections, as a surge in violence fueled fears that the country's democratic revolution was being rolled back.

Against a backdrop of confusion and mounting discontent over the pace of change, Beji Caid Essebsi attempted to reassure the population and outlined his government's roadmap for the next three months.

"There were disturbances aimed at preventing elections," he said during an address to the nation. "These elections will be held on October 23 as scheduled."

He said that "some parties and marginal groups are not ready for the elections", pointing to the "strange" timing of the violent incidents that occurred across the country over the past few days.

A 14-year-old boy was killed by a ricocheting bullet when police opened fire to break up a protest that lasted deep into the night in Sidi Bouzid, the town where Tunisia's uprising erupted in December.

The violence came after weekend attacks on police stations across Tunisia that heightened fears that some forces were bent on destabilizing the country and undoing the democratic achievements of the past few months.

The official TAP news agency Monday quoted Sidi Bouzid police chief Samir Al Meliti as saying police opened fire in response to Molotov cocktails hurled at them by demonstrators.

"We want to see all political parties condemning these events," the prime minister said.

Two other people were wounded in the clashes, one of them seriously, a local medic told AFP.

"There was major fighting late into the night in Sidi Bouzid and in Regueb," local unionist Ali Zarai told AFP.

Six months after an unprecedented uprising led to the shock ouster of longtime dictator Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, many Tunisians feared that the revolution's achievements were being rolled back.

"The people of Sidi Bouzid are angry. Six months after the revolution, they still haven't seen any change and they are demonstrating against the government of Beji Caid Essebsi," Zarai explained.

Sidi Bouzid is the town where street vendor Mohammed Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 17 in protest at police harassment, touching off the uprising that unhinged one of the world's most entrenched dictators.

Demonstrations have continued however with many Tunisians not satisfied that the new government is doing what it takes to give jobs to the country's 700,000 unemployed and to rescue a shrinking economy.

The country's first post-elections polls are to be held on October 23 for a constituent assembly meant to write a new constitution that would pave the way for parliamentary and presidential elections.

"There are many parties resorting to double talk and we know who they are," Essebsi said without elaborating.

Arms and ammunition were stolen from a police station attacked over the weekend in Menzel Bourguiba, north of the capital Tunis and Essebsi accused groups of seeking to topple his government.

Following the attack of a police station in a Tunis neighborhood, police and residents blamed everybody from Islamists to Ben Ali loyalists, as well as drunkards and vandals.

"We're in a transitional period, the state is weak and other forces are taking advantage. Nobody knows where we're going and this climate is prone to manipulation," said Dora Jaafar, a young marketing director.

Like many Tunisians, Radhia Nasraoui sees the growing chaos as a sign that Ben Ali's henchmen are still pulling many strings and creeping back into the country's political life.

"They're still here, we shouldn't be surprised that horrible things are happening in Tunisia," she told AFP. "The counter-revolutionaries have had time to regroup and they are doing everything they can to sabotage the democratic process."