« Beyond deprivation of liberty: systematic torture and abuses in Egyptian prisons »

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Art. 3 recites.

This appears not to be the case in today’s Egypt, where reinforced security measures have increasingly been constricting Egyptian citizens’ life, liberty and security in the last years.

The government’s reaction to the wave of protests on September 20th, 2019 does not but confirm the presence of a policy of total repression under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule.

Equally, the measures adopted to prevent any popular mobilization on the occasion of the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution on January 25th, 2020 is highly indicative of the imposition of a state of total fear in the country.

A closer look into some everyday life stories of Egyptians cannot leave us indifferent.

Rather, it signals a worrying oppression leading to a deterioration, if not complete neglect, of human rights under what Project on the Middle East Democracy (POMED)’s Deputy Director for Policy, Andrew Miller, has called “the most repressive government in modern Egyptian history”.

Among the several stories that could clearly illustrate this scenario, we chose to present in a series of episodes the example of Hossam, who prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons. His vicissitudes since September 2019 stimulate a number of reflections on the current situation in a country that strongly prioritizes its national security but where citizens can hardly feel secure.

 

Episode 2 – Beyond deprivation of liberty: systematic torture and abuses un Egyptian prisons

The first stage of Hossam’s experience in prison was everything but untroubled. After preliminary control procedures at a police station, Hossam was moved to Tora prison. Tora prison is a familiar name for most Egyptians.

Among prominent figures who suffered from what a multitude of reports describe as cruel and degrading punishments, Mohammed Morsi’s five-year detention in Tora Prison and his successive death in court has become emblematic. Consequently, Tora prison represents in the mind of people a place of ill-treatment, abuse and torture.At the same time of his arrival, a group of detainees started a hunger strike to protest against torture.

As a result, everyone underwent increased ill treatment, including those as Hossam who did not participate in it.“For five entire days, for five entire days”, his brother keeps repeating, “Hossam could not see the light”. Predictably, he was not able to avoid torture. Detainees in Tora prison and he had to bear daily humiliation involving both verbal and physical violence.

Hossam’s experience as a prisoner did not come to an end there. After his first appearance in front of the “Niqab Amn al-Dawla”, the State Security Syndicate, he was charged with accusations of joining “terrorist organizations”. Abu Zaabal prison was therefore waiting for him.

During his 43-day imprisonment in Abu Zaabal Prison, the family could only visit him twice.

Policemen and people walk in front of the main gate of Tora prison in Cairo © HCR

Save Egyptian Detainees

Since President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s presidency, it is no secret that the crackdown on activists, bloggers, journalists, and researchers has reached an alarming peak.

It has become a common practice to silence opposition through enforced disappearance, assault and detention of people challenging the official state discourse. In its biannual report on detention in Egypt, the Detention Watch Project found 932 enforced disappearances, 638 arbitrary detentions, 320 equivocal killings from the first half of 2019. Notably, journalists have been among the most targeted categories. The International Press Institute (IPI) reported in December 2019 that 61 journalists were imprisoned and 25 arrested only during the three preceding months.

© CPJ - statistics - journalists attacked in Egypt since 1992

Furthermore, the September protests triggered a further escalation of governmental repression. The campaign launched on Twitter in November 2019 under the hashtag #SaveEgyptianDetainees confirms a deploring increase in arbitrary detention. As in the case of Hossam, several people were taken from the streets, leading to a registered number of 4321 detainees only in the weeks between September 20th and October 21st, 2019 according to The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms – ECFR.

Data on number of detainees from The Egyptian Commission for Rights and Freedoms © ECRF

Throughout that period, thousands of common citizens had to go through the experience of detention. Only after an exhausting waiting period with little information and extreme uncertainty, some of them were progressively released. As Cairo-based journalist for the Wall Street Journal, Amira el-Fekki, explains on December, 4th, 2019: “While Egyptian authorities have continued to release hundreds of detainees since September 20 events, critics are kept in jail over vague charges”.

The threat of detention has been taking its extreme form, leading to a widespread awareness of the predominance of “Dhulm”, injustice, in the current Egyptian state.

Systematic torture in Egyptian prisons. If “Dhulm” is a recurrent thought in the minds of thousands of Egyptians, “Ta’azib”, torture, has similarly acquired a prominent status in the Egyptian Arabic vocabulary.

Illutsration prison Tora Egypt – © @yssinmhmd

Detention in Egypt does not limit itself to deprivation of liberty. Since President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s times, prisons were associated with ill treatment, abuses and, above all, torture.Yet, under the presidency of Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the State Security’s methods seem becoming exponentially brutal. “This is accurate, but outdated. Prisons today are much worse than this”, an Egyptian activist now living abroad exclaims. He was attending the screening of the movie inspired by true events on torture in Egypt “el Hatk” (The Assault) directed by Mohamed el Bahrawi.

This perceived increase in brutality of the practices adopted to silence opposition is also confirmed by official studies carried out by international organizations. In June 2017, the UN Committee against Torture stated that a study of current situation leads to “the inescapable conclusion that torture is a systematic practice in Egypt”.

The numerous testimonies of former prisoners equally send an alarming message.In the article “Thinking with Alaa” by independent Egyptian online newspaper Mada Masr, prominent human rights activist Alaa Abdel Fattah openly denounces its deploring conditions since the last of his numerous detentions in prison. In addition to the inevitable endurance of torture, during his imprisonment he was denied any basic needs such as access to reading materials, sunlight or clean water.

While the government has recurrently attempted to show a positive image of Egyptian prisons by organizing pre-scheduled visits for journalists and officials such as the open visit to Tora Prison last November, an independent research on the topic suggests a complete different reality.

International reaction On November 14th, 2019, Al Monitor reports that co-founder of April 6th movement and journalist Israa Abdelfattah would start a thirst strike. She was seeking to open an official investigation on complaints about her endurance of torture under custody. In a state where calls for a fair and transparent application of the rule of law are futile, people have been left with no other means but to recur to extreme gestures to make their cause being heard.It is here natural to wonder about the international reaction towards a country that has been manifestly violating fundamental human rights universally protected by international conventions.

In February 2020, six human rights NGOs requested in a joint letter to the European Council “to lead a comprehensive review of the European Union’s relations with Egypt” in reason of the sustained crackdown on human rights in the country.While numerous international organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, Committee to Protect Journalists and much more constantly denounce the alarming reality in current Egypt, states have often turned a blind-eye on the subject.

Even in front of prominent cases that have received extended media coverage and are directly related to other countries, governments have taken little or no action. The most recent case of Egyptian Patrick Zaki George studying in Italy and arrested at his arrival at Cairo Airport on February 7th, sparked a civil society outcry accompanied with some statements by politicians such as president of the European Parliament David Sassoli.However, we cannot observe any concrete steps to effectively re-discuss diplomatic and economic relations with Egypt.

Among others, business between Italy and Egypt is even increasing. Panarab newspaper al-Araby al-Jadid reported few days later that event the possibility of imminent agreement on armament between Cairo and Rome of 9 billiard euros.

Cases where the victims of the Egyptian repressive system are not only Egyptian citizens are recurrent, from the mysterious disappearance, torture and murder of Italian PHD student Giulio Regeni in 2016 to the death in prison of American-Egyptian Mustafa Kassem on January 13.The question is whether the international community will ever actively listen to and not merely pretend to hear the voices of thousands of people suffering from injustice in Egypt. Those voices screaming out loud the inhumanity of prison in Egypt, as expressed in Ramy Essam’s powerful song “Fe segn bel Alwan” (Colourful Prison).“Oh state of forlorn people, shame on your ideasGlory to prisoners as long as you are hypocrites”.

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“Chronicles from Egypt: not only afraid to talk… Total state of fear un today Egypt »

“Everyone has the right to life, liberty and security of person” the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Art. 3 recites.

This appears not to be the case in today’s Egypt, where reinforced security measures have increasingly been constricting Egyptian citizens’ life, liberty and security in the last years.

The government’s reaction to the wave of protests on September 20th, 2019 does not but confirm the presence of a policy of total repression under President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s rule.

Equally, the measures adopted to prevent any popular mobilization on the occasion of the anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution on January 25th, 2020 is highly indicative of the imposition of a state of total fear in the country.

A closer look into some everyday life stories of Egyptians cannot leave us indifferent.

Rather, it signals a worrying oppression leading to a deterioration, if not complete neglect, of human rights under what Project on the Middle East Democracy (POMED)’s Deputy Director for Policy, Andrew Miller, has called “the most repressive government in modern Egyptian history”.

Among the several stories that could clearly illustrate this scenario, we chose to present in a series of episodes the example of Hossam, who prefers to remain anonymous for security reasons. His vicissitudes since September 2019 stimulate a number of reflections on the current situation in a country that strongly prioritizes its national security but where citizens can hardly feel secure.

 

Episode 1 – From a simple walk to detention

On Saturday, September 21, 2019, Hossam was walking in the street, near Tahrir Square. He just traveled all the way from 6th of October in order to deliver delicious home-made food kindly prepared by his 53 year-old mother for a foreign friend living in Cairo. 

He was supposed to be back home soon after that brief meeting. His mother was waiting at home, but the son did not show up. His elder brother now living abroad was trying to reach him, but to not avail. He had two phones, both of them mysteriously unreachable.

This is how the story of most Egyptians who get arrested begins.

Later, the family would know that he was kidnapped near Mohamed Mahmoud Street, one of the centers of the 2011 revolution widely renewed for its collection of graffiti filling the walls of the area at the time.  As the National Security Service brutally took him from the street and conducted him first to a police station and then to prison, Hossam suddenly turned from a free man walking in the street to a potential criminal confined in detention.

In the meanwhile, his family would have no official information on the reasons for his detention.

Talaat Harb Square. Downtown Cairo, December 2019. Photo by Veronica Merlo

Downtown Cairo transforms into a police state

This episode might not be surprising to any person who has recently lived in Cairo.

Visibly, “Wust el-Balad”, the downtown, and its surroundings have become sensitive areas under tight security control.

Plain clothes, police vehicles and soldiers perceptibly dominate the space around main streets, squares and bridges, as if the state would be either at war or ready to fight one. In a tweet from September 27th, 2019, BBC Arabic Correspondent in Egypt and Middle East, Sally Nabil, describes an unprecedented security deployment in the Egyptian capital and concludes: “Tahrir Square looks more like military barracks!”.

As I was living in Cairo at the time, I could myself witness a reality where “Egyptians are treated as criminals simply for peacefully expressing their opinions” in Naja Bounaim’s, Amnesty International North Africa Campaign Director, words.

Not only did people get used to be extremely cautious when speaking, but they equally feel vulnerable while simply walking or even staying in their own homes. In addition to “spot checks” of peoples’ phones, looking for content that might deem political, visits of people’s apartments from the “Mabaheth”, State Security Service Investigations, increased in frequency and degree of intrusion.

On a Sunday morning, I opened the door of my apartment in Mounira neighbourhood and I found myself in front of two people with civilian clothes accompanied by the “Bawab”, the doorman. After asking for the contract of the apartment, they did not hesitate to enter the rooms of my two flatmates and I. After a thorough search through our books, laptops and phones accompanied by precise questions on our identity, they proceeded to the nearby apartment.

Beyond urgent security measures: normalization of intrusion of people’s privacy

Undoubtedly, the September protests sparked by the publication of a series of videos by Egyptian former army contractor Mohamed Ali denouncing the corruption of the government from Spain provided the justification for the regime to take urgent actions. The measures adopted were conceived as part of the higher “battle against terrorism” which has been on the top of Al-Sisi’s agenda since his takeover in 2013.  The words from Al Sisi’s official account on Twitter on September 27th show the adoption of a reinforced discourse on the necessity for the nation to fight terrorism, a battle that, he states, “has not ended yet”.

While we could consider this exponential crackdown as a temporary reaction to the wave of protests on September 20th, 2019, the observation of the reality in Cairo in the following period tells us otherwise.

The aforementioned reinforced measures to preserve the country’s stability have uninterruptedly been in force in the last months, with only slight differences in degree of intensity depending on the week. As Egyptian Human Rights activist Mona Seif explains on a twit on October 13th, 2019 :  “Every week a new activist gets kidnapped from the street, from home, from work”.

Photo by New York Times in Egypt

In January 2020, the very same atmosphere of last September characterized by total control over people’s movements, words and life was re-newly manifest in the capital. On the anniversary of the 25th January revolution -now exclusively referred to as the traditional celebration of  “’Aid al Shurta”, “The Police Day”, in the official government’s discourse- downtown was unsurprisingly shut down. 

Cairo-based journalist for The Wall Street Journal, Amira el-Fekki, reported that day on Twitter: “In what is becoming a normalized assault on privacy, police searching people’s phones around downtown #Cairo, #Tahrir. Some restaurants aren’t delivering to that area today to avoid harassment of their delivery guys”.

In the article “Your guide to surviving downtown during the revolution anniversary crackdown” published by the independent online newspaper Mada Masr on January 21st, the testimonies of people describing their experiences of arbitrary arrests, raids and random searches suggest a repeated scenario of total control to which any Egyptian citizen can be subject.

Downtown between past and present

Without forgetting the extension of similar security measures to numerous cities all around Egypt, the scenario in downtown Cairo from where Hossam was kidnapped last September best exemplifies the current government’s policy of total control over the public and private space.

Paradoxically, a place historically associated with intellectual development, cultural exchange and artistic creativity, looks now like a police state. The principles of “Aysh, Hurriya wa Adala Ijtimaiya”, “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice”, circulating in that same area in 2011 have rapidly been substituted by an atmosphere of constant fear, where any activity, movement and word is under tight control.

The question remains whether the government’s repressive measures in a space that was once the symbol of Egyptian’s fight for freedom will succeed in redefining its past distinguished identity.

Zahrat al-Bustan, Local Cafë in Downtown Cairo with graffiti of prominent Egyptian figures. Photo by Veronica Merlo

For now, we can only silently observe the changing environment and society animating the area. A process of transformation where the concept of “the square” as formulated in the Egyptian revolution has merely become a memory, or rather “a story to tell in narrations”, as Egyptian rock band Cairokee warned in its famous revolutionary song “al Midan”, the Square.


O you the square, where were you long ago? […]

sometimes I am afraid that we become just a memory

we get away from you then the idea dies and fades away

and we go back to forget what happened

and you become a story to tell in narrations

يا يا الميدان كنت فين من زمان

ساعات بخاف نبقي ذكري

نبعد عنك تموت الفكرة

ونرجع تاني ننسي اللي فات

ونحكي عنك في الحكايات


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New balance from collapse of a weakened Iran

New balance from collapse of a weakened Iran The death of Iran’s terror chief, Major General Qassem Soleimani, the second most important figure of the regime, and Abu Mahdi Mohandis, the central figure of the Iran-backed Hashd al-Sha’abi paramilitary force in Iraq, has brought the strategic edifice of the Iranian regime crumbling down. The Iranian regime is facing a resilient uprising at home and in Iraq and Lebanon, countries it once called its “strategic depth.” The uprising in Iraq is expanding further, into more cities and provinces every day.

Over the past 20 years, Soleimani extended the regime’s strategy by building proxy forces all through the region, moved to hollow out state institutions in regional countries, and supplant them with Qods Force-supported terror organizations posing as political factions.

As leader of the Qods Force, he aimed to establish a “Shiite crescent” of Iranian influence extending to the Mediterranean Sea and encircling conservative Arab countries in the Gulf.

With an ideology rooted in medieval Islamic dogma, the Iranian regime is unable to respond to the cultural, economic, and political demands of the Iranian people in the 21st century.

Domestically, the regime has sought to control widespread popular dissatisfaction with brute repression and gross human rights violations. At the same time, it has fanned sectarian conflicts and wars while interfering in the internal affairs of regional countries.

This is how the regime survives – by maintaining the strategic depth that would spare it from fighting on its own streets. For this reason, regime insiders remember Soleimani as the guardian of the regime’s security. Foreign adventurism allowed Soleimani to deploy terror and repression inside Iran as well, creating an illusion of security. Soleimani’s death has put Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in a precarious position as he is fending off intensifying, cyclical uprisings.

Khamenei rationalized his foreign warmongering by saying, « If we do not fight the enemy in the streets of Iraq and Syria, we must fight them in the streets of Kermanshah, Hamedan, Tehran and other cities of Iran.« 

Now, Khamenei’s nightmare has come true, and his war with the Iranian people over their legitimate demand for freedom and prosperity has come to the streets of Iran. Amidst policies of appeasement over the past decade, Western countries have closed their eyes to the terrorism and the militaristic policies of Iran’s religious dictatorship in order to pursue their own economic interests.

But these policies are now over. With the withdrawal of the US from the JCPoA treaty in 2017 and the application of articulated sanctions on Iran, Khamenei was left alone on the battlefield, opposite the Iranian people.

“Hard Revenge”

The recent military confrontation with the United States has shattered the solemnity of the regime both locally and globally, burying it along with the regime’s terrorist power. Early on Wednesday, January 08, 2020, the Iranian regime fired several rockets for ‘tough revenge’ and attacked the al-Assad base near Baghdad, where US troops are stationed.

In contradictory statements, the Revolutionary Guards announced the firing of dozens of missiles at Ein Al-Assad and US military bases in Erbil (Iraqi Kurdistan), which resulted in four Americans being killed and four others injured. Deliberate Error! But what is the reality? The regime’s claims were not backed up by any government, military or news sources.

Reuters news agency, however, said, “Iran is said to have intentionally fired missiles to the US forces in Iraq.

Iraqi Prime Minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, also tweeted that the regime had already contacted him about the missile attacks. Obviously, he revealed this information to the US authorities. Therefore, the regime’s slogans about ‘hard revenge’ and its other threats were suddenly exposed as absurd, followed by the regime’s fear of US counterattacks.

The Iranian regime had thought that the US was without a plan for war. They had the ambition to embarrass Trump by attacking the US embassy and executing other acts of terrorism in advance of the US election.

Their likely goal was to remove him from office, force the lifting of sanctions, or inspire disaffection in his supporters. Instead, they shattered their own fragile body of power by setting the stage for the death of Qassem Soleimani.

Prior to this, the regime wanted to convince European countries that they were a regional power and that they should be considered in setting Middle East policy.

Now, the fragile awe of the regime has collapsed, and a new balance has been established between the Iranian people and the regime.

As a result of this new equilibrium, in a new wave of mid-January demonstrations pioneered by students after the downing of the Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752, slogans targeted the supreme leader himself. Protesters have started asking the commander in chief to resign.

« A little prince in the land of the Mullahs », a denunciation in a Comic Book version

Discover the interview with the author of this article, Raouf Massoumeh, who presents his book « A little prince in the Land of the mullahs ».

The story of his young brother, Ahmad Raouf Bachari Doust, arrested five years before – at the age of 16 – and who will be among the 30,000 political prisoners executed.

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10 journalists and media workers killed in 2019 in Afghanistan

According to NAI – Supporting Open Media in Afghanistan, 10 journalists and media workers killed and 21 injured in 2019. 115 violence cases recorded by NAI against journalists which include: assassination, wound up, beaten up, threats, insult, short-term arrestments, kidnap, attack on media outlets and lack of access to information in 2019 in the country.

At the same time, Reporters without Borders (RSF) in its annual report recognized Afghanistan the third dangerous country for journalists in 2019 in the world by killing of six journalists and media workers.

Taliban and Islamic State (ISIS) who involved in crimes against humanity are the most responsible for the attacks on Journalist and media staff in Afghanistan. they targeted the Journalist aimed at silence press freedom and fearless.

Who are the victims?

The first death of 2019 world wide

The first death of a journalist in 2019 word wide registered in Afghanistan. 27 years old Javid Noori was the first journalist killed by Taliban in 2019 in the world.

Name:Javid Noori

Job: citizen-journalist for Radio Neshat

Type of death: Murdered

By: Taliban

Location: Farah Province

Date: 5 January 2019

Name: Rahimullah Rahmani

Job: Presenter, Hamsada Radio

Type of death: Murdered

By: Unkown

Location: Taliqan, Takhar provine

Date: 5 Feb 2019

Name: Shafiq Aria

Job: reporter, Hamsada Radio

Type of death: Murdered

By: Unknown

Location: Taliqan, Takhar province

Date: 5 Feb 2019

Name: Sultan Mahmoud Khirkhwa

Job: Journalist, Zhman TV channel

Type of death: Murdered

By: ISIS

Location: Khost city

Date: 15 March 2019

Name: Meena Mangal

Job: former TV presenter at Lemar TV

Type of death: Murdered

By: unknown gunmen

Location: Kabul

Date: 11 May 2019

Name: Sakhi Baluch           

Job: Technician, State TV

Type of death: Murdered

By: Unkown

Location: Trinkut, Zabul province

Date: 12 June 2019

Name: Abdul raouf Emalzai

Job: Security guard, Shamshad TV

Type of death: Murdered

By: Taliban

Location: Kabul

Date: 1 July 2019

Name: Nader shah Sahibzada

Job: Presenter/producer, Radio (Voice of Gardiz)

Type of death: Murdered

By: Unkown

Location: Gardiz, Paktia province

Date: 13 July 2019

Name: Abdul Hamid Hotaki

Job: presenter at Hewad Radio

Type of death: mine blast

By: Taliban

Location: Kandahar Province

Date: 25 September 2019

Name:Waheed Mujda

Job:  writer and political analyst 

Type of death: assassination

By: unknown gunmen 

Location: Kabul city

Date: 20 November 2019

berny mugisha

Articles d’Hafiz Ahmad Miakhel

Facebook’s political censorship

Eight whistleblowers prosecuted under the Obama administration: Where are they now?

One month before the U.S midterm elections, Facebook deletes over 800 pages and accounts claiming they consistently displayed “spam and coordinated inauthentic behavior.”

The 559 politically-oriented pages and 251 accounts were all American. Among the blocked pages are Nation in Distress, Right Wing News, Reasonable People Unite, and The Resistance.

Facebook explains this action in their official statement:

People need to be able to trust the connections they make on Facebook. It’s why we have a policy banning coordinated inauthentic behavior — networks of accounts or Pages working to mislead others about who they are, and what they are doing. This year, we’ve enforced this policy against many Pages, Groups and accounts created to stir up political debate, including in the US, the Middle East, Russia and the UK. But the bulk of the inauthentic activity we see on Facebook is spam that’s typically motivated by money, not politics. And the people behind it are adapting their behavior as our enforcement improves.

Although the First Amendment does not apply to private entities such as social media platforms, many of the owners of these pages claim unjust censorship. They contest Facebook’s silencing, claiming they were simply expressing political discourse and not infringing Facebook’s guidelines, according to the Guardian.

The Guidelines on censored hate speech are defined by Facebook as “a direct attack on people based on — race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, caste, sex, gender, gender identity, and serious disease or disability.” They also define attack “as violent or dehumanizing speech, statements of inferiority, or calls for exclusion or segregation.

The Pew Research Center demonstrates that, in the United States most social platform users are well aware of this online censorship linked to political agendas.

72 percent of the public thinks it is likely that social media platforms, such as Facebook, actively censor political views that those companies find objectionable.

« The study demonstrates slightly differing responses on censorship among political parties, with a majority of Republicans and Republican leaners (85%) believing it is likely that social media companies engage in this behavior, with 54 percent indicating they find it very likely. A smaller share of Democrats – though still a majority, at 62 percent – also think it likely that social media companies engage in this behavior.

Nevertheless, users are surprisingly accepting of  this censorship– even those residing in countries where freedom of speech is paramount. However,  the data also suggests that in places such as Europe many users support Facebook monitoring their speech if it for the right cause, such as protecting minorities or monitoring fake content.

Despite a growing mistrust of big institutions including technology companies and media outlets, most Facebook users say it is still benefiting them personally to be on the platform. 74 percent of Americans say tech companies have had a positive impact on their lives, and 65 percent feel they’ve had a positive impact on the nation as a whole.

The constant influx of information, from its’ 2.13 billion users, makes it certainly hard for Facebook to monitor all its content. However, the dilemma extends beyond this technological constraint. In giving a powerful company the power to decide what should be censored can easily silence voices that deserve to be heard.

In April 2018 users gained the ability to file an appeal if they believe their content has been unfairly removed. That appeal is then sent to a new human moderator, who will issue a decision within 24 hours. However, this did not help the 800+ pages claiming injustice this past November.

Eight whistleblowers prosecuted under the Obama administration: Where are they now?

Eight whistleblowers prosecuted under the Obama administration: Where are they now?

Barack Obama is often criticized for waging a war against whistleblowers, but this may not be the entire truth. During the two terms Obama held office, eight whistleblowers were prosecuted, a number greater than those punished by the law under all U.S. presidential administrations combined. It is important to acknowledge that almost all of those whistleblowers were not dissenting against Obama, but rather challenged misconduct during the Bush administration. The Justice Department under Obama either did not stop pending criminal prosecutions, or initiated them. The eight whistleblowers were all accused of leaking or mishandling classified information under the Espionage Act.

The reason for the legal proceedings: a violation of the Espionage Act of 1917. Originally enacted to punish those seeking to interfere with war recruitment and funding, this act persists today in a much different context.

The Sedition Act of 1918, created an amendment and broadened the scope to certain forms of speech, including publications of “any disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language about the form of government in the United States, or the Constitution, or the military or naval forces.”

The Espionage Act was challenged in the courts throughout the decades for limiting freedom of speech, leading to its many revisions. Although rarely resurrected today, presidents such as Obama have utilized it to suppress dissidents they considered a threat to national security.

Tom Devine, the Legal Director at the Government Accountability Project (GAP), the most prominent whistleblower support organization, explains the complexity of the issue. He classifies Obama’s relationship with whistleblowers as “schizophrenic” and says that in his field they often referred to his behavior as a battle of“Obama vs Obama,” because of his contradictory stances regarding informers.

Devine explains that Obama was “American whistleblowers’ best friend, all while seeking to tighten up national security through the Espionage Act.” The Legal Director adds that the former president has an “unusually broad deference to national security community.”

Although Obama took a surprisingly strong stance on national security, prosecuting individuals he deemed threatening to the U.S. government, he also aided in the protection of whistleblowers. He established a restriction of criminal charges for those who leaked classified information as opposed to those who simply released information opposing the government.

With his Presidential Policy Directive (PPD 19) Obama specifically protected whistleblower among intelligence agencies “to ensure that IC employees can effectively report instances of waste, fraud, and abuse.”

Chelsea Manning

The former Army Intelligence Analyst was charged with the largest leak in U.S history, through the famous whistleblower website WikiLeaks, publishing 700,000 diplomatic cables and military reports on both the Afghan and Iraq wars.

In 2013, Manning was sentenced to 35 years in jail but in 2017, President Obama significantly reduced Manning’s sentence to a total of 7 years. Manning was released on May 17, 2017 and remains very politically active.

She is now also a writer on war, gender, and freedom of information as a contributing opinion for The Guardian.

Edward Snowden

Snowden was charged with theft of government property and two counts of violating the Espionage Act. The computer professional and former CIA employee leaked documents revealing the American government was spying on its’ citizens.

Each of the three charges carries a maximum possible prison term of ten years. Snowden currently resides in Russia, in asylum, as he is still wanted by the U.S. government. He lives in a closely guarded location in Moscow.

Despite these limitations to his own free he is often credited for the “Snowden Effect” which started the much-needed conversation around individual privacy and national security.

Thomas Drake

The former senior executive at the National Security Agency violated the Espionage Act for the “willful retention” and “unauthorized disclosure” of classified documents.

Due to a plea agreement all charges were dropped, liberating him from any prison time. Drake was sentenced to one year of probation and 240 hours of community service.

Since his case, he has become an activist against the “surveillance state” arguing that the problems of the NSA are “so chronic and systemic that the only solution would be to completely dismantle and subsequently rebuild the entire organization.”

His location is unknown but he says he is now “devoted to defending life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This year Drake published a book titled Enemy of the State: How the U.S. Government Tried to Turn a Truth-teller Into a Traitor.”

Stephen Jin-Woo Kim

While working at the State Department as an adviser on nuclear proliferation, Jin-Woo Kim allegedly revealed that North Korea would conduct a nuclear bomb test to Fox News reporter James Rosen.

Entering a guilty plea to a single felony count of disclosing classified national defense information to an unauthorized person, he was sentenced to a 13-month prison term.

There have not been any updates on his life post-sentence.

James Hitselberger

A Navy contract linguist, working as an arabic translator in Bahrain, was prosecuted for “unauthorized retention of national defense information.” He allegedly released classified documents off the military base, discussing discrepancies in U.S. intelligence in Bahrain.

As there were no indications of espionage, Hitselberger was proposed a plea deal let off with a $250 fine. There are no available updates on his whereabouts since then.

John Kiriakou

The former CIA official was accused by the U.S. government for leaking classified information to journalists. More specifically he named two former colleagues who used waterboarding to torture detainees.

Originally facing up to 30 years in prison, when Kiriakou pleaded guilty and was only met with two and a half years of prison. As a part of the plea deal, the charges against him under the Espionage Act were annulled.

Now living in Virginia, Kiriakou is a writer and columnist exposing human rights abuses.

Shamai Leibowitz

Working for the FBI as a Hebrew translator, Leibowitz leaked over 200 pages of documents of transcribed wiretaps from conversations between the Israeli embassy in Washington and the blogger Richard Silverstein.

Pleading guilty, in 2010 he was sentenced to 20 months in prison. He now writes about science, music, Judaism and current events through his own blog. He also tutors pupils in mathematics.

Jeffrey Sterling

Former CIA officer Sterling charged with leaking classified information about U.S. efforts to disrupt Iran’s nuclear program to New York Times reporter James Risen.

Although Sterling insists that his communications with Risen did not involve secret information he  convicted of espionage charges in 2015 with three and a half years of prison time.

He now works as a fraud investigator.

Devine explains that if we are comparing Obama with previous presidents, one must know that “more whistleblowers are being prosecuted, because the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act has made it much harder to fire employees, while neither it nor other US laws protect against retaliatory civil and criminal investigations and litigation.

Devine goes on to say that “harassment through a criminal case, especially by opening a criminal investigation, also is easier and less risky because agencies don’t have to deal with all the work of a lawsuit when they open a criminal investigation and give the wber the choice of resigning or risking indictment.

Also because “Opening a retaliatory criminal investigation is risk-free. Agencies can’t lose. The worst that will happen is they close the case, and then can open a new one soon after. I have numerous clients facing serial with-hunts.

Finally “If there is a chilling effect from the specter of unemployment, there is a freezing effect from the prospect of imprisonment.

When asked to predict the whistleblowers and their fate under the Trump administration Devine stated he is “not optimistic on the president’s intolerance for criticism” and believes that whistleblowers who plan on exposing his abuses of power will be met with harsh consequences.  

“I need to rebuild myself. But I need to continue my work for Syria.”