A leathal “non-leathal” weapon
With tear gas a prominent weapon used to repress the recent uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, the multi-billion global market has been expanding. Reported incidents of tear gas-related deaths and injuries have prompted critique of its classification as ‘non-lethal’ and renewed calls for a ban on its use.
The use of tear gas as an indiscriminate crowd dispersal weapon is nothing new. A Google map created by an anonymous activist last year lists over 75 locations across the world where, since December 2012, tear gas has been used by police against large crowds of protesters. From the Middle Eastern uprisings to anti-capitalist protests in various European countries; from India to South Africa to Brazil: scattered protesters gasping for air amid thick, white clouds has become a familiar scene on news reports.
Although described by manufacturers and police as ‘non-lethal’ or ‘less lethal’, numerous cases from Palestine, Bahrain, Turkey and elsewhere have shown that tear gas can cause serious injury, even death, especially when used in large quantities, in closed spaces or fired directly at people at close range and high velocity, rather than at a 45 degree angle and from a 120 yard distance.
Many scientific studies have raised doubts about its classification as ‘non-lethal’. A famous study from 2000 on the use of CS gas by the FBI concluded that, if no gas masks were used and people exposed to the gas were trapped in a closed space, “there is a distinct possibility that this kind of CS exposure can significantly contribute to or even cause lethal effects.”
Defenders of the technology – that is, manufacturers, police forces and the academics and writers on their payroll – often argue that the ‘tragedies’ are simply a result of ‘misuse’, contrary to the manufacturers’ instructions. But the history of tear gas suggests that such weapons are routinely ‘misused’ by police and security forces when mass protests ‘get out of control’.
Turkey: gases, tears and home-made masks
Tear gas features in many of the iconic images emerging from Turkey’s ongoing mass protests. From the woman in a red dress being sprayed in the face with tear gas by a cop in Istanbul to a dervish wearing a gas mask doing a Sufi dance on the street and people wearing funny-looking masks made of plastic bottles cut in half. The reason: in the first 15 days of the protests, which began on 28 May, Turkish police fired over 150,000 tear gas canisters.
According to the Turkish Medical Association, which helped organise many of the field clinics in Istanbul, over 12,000 people required medical care in that same period after being exposed to CS gas, CR gas, pepper spray and other types of tear gas. Hundreds were admitted to hospital, though many others avoided going as police were following and arresting people there. About 53 per cent of those treated said they had been exposed to the toxic gases for between one and eight hours; 11 per cent for more than 20 hours. Around 20 per cent of the injuries were open sores and fractures to the head, face, eyes, thorax and abdomen, resulting from being struck directly by tear gas canisters.
The use of tear gas by the Turkish police has been on such a scale that one of the protesters’ five demands is: “Teargas bombs and other similar materials must be prohibited.” Tara O’Grady, an expert on tear gas who has just returned from Turkey, says:
“Tear gas has been used to suppress protesters and as a form of collective punishment in Turkey over the last few weeks. The many different types of gas that they are using means that there is no one common response to the medical problems and complications. Some of them burn your skin…your eyes, nose, ears, throat, and lungs, you are just really overwhelmed with an almost convulsive reaction to it. People have suffered from palpitations for days afterwards. People can’t eat, they are vomiting blood, urinating blood. The water cannons they are using also have some form of chemical in them, with a similar effect to the tear gas canisters. And this is indiscriminate. There are children who are suffering with this.”
While the dramatic use of tear gas in Turkey has gripped international attention, it is by no means a unique case.
Bahrain: tear gas as a weapon of mass repression
Since the early 1990s, Bahrain has hosted an important US military naval base. Currently being upgraded, it was instrumental in the Second Gulf War, the invasion of Iraq and other US adventures in the region. The tiny island in the Arabian (or Persian) Gulf also provides easy access to the Indian Ocean and is a stone’s throw away from Iran. Its vast reserves of natural gas, aluminium and other natural resources entrench its position as a ‘strategic ally’ of the US and Saudi Arabia in the region.
This may partly explain why the Bahraini uprising, which started in February 2011, has received relatively little attention in both Arab and Western mainstream media compared to other uprisings in the region. Al-Jazeera is a case in point.
Yet the level of repression there has not been less than that seen in other neighbouring countries, save for Libya and Syria, perhaps, where the popular revolutions were quickly militarised. The heavy use of US-manufactured tear gas has been instrumental in enabling this repression to continue.
Bahraini – and Saudi – police and security forces have been systematically using tear gas against the popular protests on an unprecedented scale. Countless reports, pictures and videos posted on the internet show riot police firing volleys of tear gas at crowds, sometimes at close range, as well as into people’s homes and vehicles (see, for example, the 2013 documentary ‘Bahrain: The Clouds of Death’). The use of tear gas has been so widespread and excessive that people are reportedly “shoving wet towels under the doors and the nooks and crannies of windows and ventilators to stop tear gas from entering.”
In their 2012 report ‘Weaponizing Tear Gas’, Physicians for Human Rights documented tens of cases of “maiming, blinding, and even killing of civilian protesters” in Bahrain as a result of tear gas attacks. Based on witness statements, medical records and forensic evidence, the report describes repeated instances of miscarriage and grievous wounds suffered by civilians who had been exposed to tear gas or struck directly by canisters fired from a few feet away. An earlier report documented 34 tear gas related deaths, including women and children. That is approximately one in every three deaths since the Bahraini uprising began.
“The unprecedented use of tear gas in Bahrain proves that it is a lethal chemical weapon,” says John Horne from Bahrain Watch, an activist group that has been documenting the Bahraini regime’s use of arms against protesters. “Large parts of the population have had to suffer collective punishment through the excessive, indiscriminate use of tear gas fired into residential areas. Individuals have also been directly targeted and killed from the blunt trauma of metallic canisters shot at high velocity. The security forces are operating far beyond the boundaries of existing international frameworks and even the manufactures own guidelines.”
Egypt: still a major importer of tear gas
Shortly after the Egyptian revolution broke out in January 2011, the US State Department approved a number of export licenses for the shipment of US-manufactured crowd control weapons, including tear gas, to Egypt. According to Amnesty International, one US company shipped 21 tons of tear gas grenades and canisters – enough for 40,000 rounds – in addition to a separate shipment of 17.9 tons. At least three people are known to have died in Cairo’s Tahrir Square from tear gas inhalation. Many cases of unconsciousness and epileptic-like convulsions were also reported.
Ironically, earlier this year, well after the fall of Egypt’s former dictator Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian Interior Ministry reportedly ordered 140,000 tear gas canisters from the US, worth USD 2.5 million. To understand this apparent irony, one must understand how the Egyptian revolution was co-opted – or ‘hijacked’, as an increasing number of Egyptians put it – by the Muslim Brothers leadership, as well as Egypt’s strategic importance to the US.
The US continues to give Egypt some $2 billion a year in ‘aid’, making it the second-largest recipient of US money after Israel. Most of this goes to the military and security forces. The price is ‘peace’ with Israel and privileged US military access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace.
Another place in the region where tear gas is heavily used is the Occupied Palestinian Territories, where the Israeli military routinely uses different types of tear gas against Palestinian demonstrators. The West Bank and Gaza have been described as a “testing ground” for the global security industry, where the strength of gas used varies and evidence suggests that gas with a higher propensity to incapacitate has been used (for more on this, see this Corporate Watch article).
A growing market
The North African and Middle Eastern uprisings and revolutions over the past two and a half years have certainly contributed to a new boom in the global tear gas market. According to industry sources, the Middle East’s internal state security market grew 18 per cent in 2012, reaching an estimated value of USD 5.8 billion.
Soon after the start of their revolution, Egyptian protesters and bloggers were posting pictures of tear gas canisters recovered from the streets of Cairo bearing the name of Combined Systems International (CSI) or ‘Made in USA’. Other cartridges carried the markings of Defense Technology/Federal Laboratories (part of British arms and aerospace giant BAE Systems) and British defence contractor Chemring Defence (formerly known as PW Defence). Similar CSI canisters – a few inches long, blue and silver – had been found on Tunisia’s streets during the first weeks of its own revolution the month before. Other Western-manufactured tear gas canisters and grenades have also been found in Syria.
Tear gas canisters and grenades recovered from the streets of Bahrain suggest that most came from the US, bearing the names of NonLethal Technologies and Defense Technology/Federal Laboratories. Other canisters spotted in Bahrain belonged to France’s SAE Alsetex and Brazil’s Condor Non-Lethal Technologies (which have recently also been used against anti-World Cup protesters in Brazil).
The US has now withheld licenses for tear gas exports to Bahrain, which means American tear gas still being used by the Bahraini authorities may have been stockpiled from before or obtained through a third country such as Saudi Arabia. The Brazilian government denies that any Brazilian tear gas has been directly sold to Bahrain, suggesting it may have been imported from another Gulf country, most probably the United Arab Emirates.
According to Bahrain Watch, security forces have recently started using unmarked tear gas canisters that release yellow smoke. This is presumably to obscure the manufacturer and country of origin, following the bad publicity that these have received. However, the group says the canisters “of unknown origin” appear to be manufactured by German/South African company Rheinmetall Denel Munitions, while the unmarked canisters are “almost certainly” from Korean company CNO Tech, which is known to have supplied “non-lethal arms” to Bahrain.
Most tear gas canisters and grenades recovered from Gezi Park, the streets of Istanbul and other Turkish cities where mass demonstrations have been taking place were also made by three US companies: NonLethal Technologies, Defense Technology and Combined Tactical Systems, as well as the Brazilian company Condor Non-Lethal Technologies. According to media reports, between 2000 and 2012 Turkey imported 628 tons of tear gas and pepper spray, worth USD 21 million, mainly from the US and Brazil.
Facing tear gas
Many observers are now calling for a total ban on the use of tear gas against demonstrators due to its lethal consequences, disputing claims by manufacturers and police forces that it is a benign ‘non-lethal’ or ‘less lethal’ crowd control method. The rhetoric asserting tear gas as ‘non-lethal’ (except when ‘misused’) operates within the reality of tear gas as a profitable commodity, manufactured and traded with state complicity, in the context of systematic state repression trying to stifle growing popular resentment and anger.
The misuse, or actual use, of tear gas in Bahrain and Turkey has prompted three members of the US Congress to propose new legislation on tear gas and other crowd control weapons “used to violate the human rights of protesters.” Other new initiatives include the Facing Tear Gas project. Spearheaded by the War Resisters League, the campaign brings together activists and organisations from across the US, Bahrain, Egypt, Greece, Canada, Chile and Palestine to “form a global initiative to ban tear gas.” These calls echo many others made over the years, for example 25 years ago when tear gas was used indiscriminately in South Korea against civilian protesters.
The use of tear gases such as CS gas in war is prohibited under the 1997 Chemical Weapons Convention, but is permitted for use against civilians. The reasoning behind the prohibition is that it may trigger retaliation by the opponent with more toxic chemical weapons. Only five countries in the world have not signed the Convention, including Angola, Egypt, North Korea, Somalia and Syria. Under the UK Firearm Law, CS and other incapacitating sprays are classed as ‘prohibited weapons’, making it unlawful for a member of the public to possess them.
Demonstrators worldwide continue to invent novel ways to face tear gas and confront its intended use of making protest physically impossible. From drenching the canisters in sand, wrapping them in wet towels, or placing them in pre-prepared water butts, to home-made gas masks using plastic bottles and treatment with lemon, vinegar, soda and other widely available substances. People know that tear gas kills. Despite the ‘clouds of death’ they still take to the streets.
By Yorgos Karahalis
Some say that to come in contact with “God” is a spiritual matter that has nothing to do with the particular spot or place where such contact takes place. Well, if it were that simple then there would be no need to build churches or mosques.
In the Greek capital Athens, where almost half the country’s 11 million people live, there is a 500,000-strong Muslim community, mostly immigrants from Asia, Africa and eastern Europe. Many of those are faithful and want to express their faith by praying in an appropriate place. Well, there is no such place – there isn’t a single “official” mosque in the wider area of the Greek capital.
Instead, they have to rent flats, basements, old garages and all kinds of warehouses and transform them into makeshift mosques to cover their need for a place to hold religious ceremonies. There are lots of these types of “mosques” around town but they’re not easy to spot and whenever I arrived at one of those addresses I had to double-check it was correct as there was no way to identify these flats or warehouses from the outside. I could not say that they’re miserable places but I could better describe them as hidden places, places that do not want to get noticed. During most of my visits people have been very welcoming and very keen to express their concerns about the lack of a recognizable place of worship as well as their fears about the threats they get from some locals.
“Soon there won’t be a single Muslim in Athens,” joked Egyptian Rabab Hasan when I asked her to comment on the lack of a mosque in Athens, obviously pointing to the rise of extreme-right ideas, mostly expressed by the Golden Dawn party, which won 18 seats in the 300-seat Greek parliament in the second of two thrilling elections last year.
The Greek government recently cleared the funds needed to build a mosque in Athens, even though it will not have a minaret. They have also finally found the place to erect it – in an old naval base, next to a church. But the story of the construction of a mosque in Athens dates back decades and is full of postponements and many changes of location.
Greece is a country where the vast majority of people are Orthodox Christian and a country that has lived under Turkish Ottoman rule for approximately four centuries. Today it’s a European Union country bordering the “successor” of the Ottoman empire, Turkey. But Turkey is still considered by many Greeks as its major arch-rival in the region. For many locals, Muslims represent a Turkish presence in Greece so it’s not an easy reality for them to accept that a mosque will be built in the capital. The financial crisis, when human relations become more polarized, has only made things worse.
“Do you think that one mosque which can host about 400 people will be enough to serve the thousands of Muslims living in Athens? Of course not. But it would be a strong message to the rest of the world,” says President of the Pakistani community in Athens, Javed Aslam, during a chat I had with him.
Places of worship around the world are part of the local culture and an indication of the degree to which society allows its members to express their religious beliefs equally. So, let’s all wait to see what is going to happen this time and if the mosque saga is coming to an end.
A Saudi court convicted two Saudi women’s rights activists on June 15, 2013, for inciting a woman against her husband. Wajeha al-Huwaider and Fawzia al-Oyouni were each sentenced to 10 months in prison and two-year travel bans.
Al-Huwaider, a member of the Human Rights Watch Middle East advisory committee, told Human Rights Watch that she believes authorities pursued this case to punish her for unrelated women’s rights activism over the last 10 years. Al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni said they intend to appeal their convictions.
“Saudi authorities are using the courts to send a message that they won’t tolerate any attempt to alleviate the dismal status of women’s rights in the kingdom,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Saudi authorities should immediately drop this case and stop harassing Saudi women who call for reform.”
Al-Huwaider told Human Rights Watch that her and al-Oyouni’s involvement with the Canadian woman began in 2009, when she received messages from Johanne Durocher, the woman’s mother, who is in Canada, pleading for activists to help her daughter, Natalie Morin. Morin is married to a Saudi citizen, Sa’eed al-Shahrani, and lives with him and their three children in the Eastern Province city of Dammam.
Durocher told them that al-Shahrani, a former police officer, was abusing Morin by locking her in their house and denying her adequate food and water. Durocher had helped draw international media attention to the case in 2009 by lobbying Canadian government officials to intervene and organizing protests over the case in Canada.
Al-Huwaider said that she and al-Oyouni organized several trips by other activists to deliver food and supplies to the woman, but that they did not attempt to visit Morin until the afternoon of June 6, 2011, when they received distressed messages from Morin herself. The messages said that Morin’s husband had left for a week-long visit to see relatives in another town and that her supplies of food and water were running out. When al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni approached the house to offer assistance they were confronted by police who were apparently waiting for them to arrive. The officers immediately arrested them and took them to a Damman police station for questioning.
The police told al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni that they believed they had gone to Morin’s home to help her and her three children, all Canadian citizens, to escape to Canada.
Police released al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni after midnight on June 7, after they signed a statement pledging to cease all involvement with the case and to allow the government-affiliated Human Rights Commission and Canadian Embassy to investigate. The Damman branch of the Human Righs Commission declined to intervene, stating that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that al-Shahrani was mistreating Morin and their children. Canadian government officials have maintained since 2009 that this case is a private matter that must be resolved by Saudi authorities.
Morin remains in Saudi Arabia with her husband and children, but describes herself as a “hostage” and complains of neglect. On her personal blog she regularly pleads for the Canadian government to help get passports for her children so that they can leave the country. On June 17 she wrote a blog entry condemning the convictions of al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni, stating there is no evidence for the charges against them.
Al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni assumed that authorities would not pursue charges against them, but in July 2012, more than a year later, authorities called them in for questioning and informed them that they would refer the case to court.
Al-Huwaider said that during her 2012 questioning sessions investigators did not ask her about Morin’s case but rather about her involvement with the Women2Drive campaign and her relationship with Manal al-Sharif, who defied Saudi law and gained international media attention in May 2011 by driving a car. Al-Huwaider was in the car with al-Sharif and filmed the YouTube video of the incident that was widely viewed. Al-Huwaider said that Saudi authorities also asked her about a 2006 women’s rights protest she organized on the King Fahd causeway, which connects Saudi Arabia with Bahrain, as well as her 2009 attempt to cross to Bahrain without the approval of a male guardian.
Al-Huwaider told Human Rights Watch that during her trial, which began in late 2012, the presiding judge denied her and al-Oyouni the right to adequately defend themselves by refusing to allow Morin to testify. The judge also declined to allow a Canadian Embassy official to attend the second trial session, in December.
In Saudi Arabia, which has no written penal code, judges and prosecutors have wide latitude to arbitrarily define certain acts as criminal behavior and then argue that defendants committed these “crimes.” The charge against al-Huwaider and al-Oyouni is “inciting a woman against her husband.”
Saudi Arabia’s “guardianship system” and strict gender segregation rules severely limit women’s ability to take part in public life. Under this discriminatory system, girls and women are forbidden from traveling, conducting official business, or undergoing certain medical procedures without permission from their male guardians. All women remain banned from driving in Saudi Arabia.
Under the United Nations General Assembly’s Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, Resolution A/RES/53/144 of 1998, Saudi Arabia has the responsibility to “conduct prompt and impartial investigations of alleged violations of human rights” and to protect human rights defenders from “threats, retaliation, adverse discrimination, pressure or any other arbitrary action” as a result of their rights advocacy.
“Rather than persecute two human rights defenders for trying to help a woman in distress, Saudi Arabia should investigate Morin’s allegations and uphold women’s right to freedom of movement,” Stork said.