ROME — Way back in 1998, Bill Clinton bet on the young Assad. He was to be his father’s successor, and the United States believed that the young Bashar al-Assad, once he reached power, would be the person to bring Syria back into the fold among the civilized nations of the world.
And so Clinton’s government, despite the controversy it provoked, took some very significant decisions: Syria was removed from the black list of narcotic-producing countries, sanctions were lifted, and the arms embargo was eased. America’s allies quickly followed suit, and Italy was the quickest to reestablish links with Damascus. The result: a massive order of what was then a payday of 400 billion lira (206 million euros) for the Italian military industry.
The Italian government authorized this monster-order as can be seen in the weapons report presented to Parliament on March 31, 1999 by the government of then Prime Minister Massimo D’Alema: “In 1998, the considerable export total came mainly from a single destination country, and in practice, from a single order. Among the main countries, Syria was the top destination with 21.79% of weapons exports, equivalent to 400.64 billion lira with a single authorization." With just one purchase, that year Damascus far outspent both France and the U.S. in its military shopping spree in Italy.
What that order actually involved would become clear during the following years: night-vision viewfinders for tanks with thermal and laser capacities, called “Turms,” produced by a company from within the Italian conglomerate Finmeccanica. It would allow the Syrians to modernize old T72 Soviet tanks that were equipped with rather rudimentary viewfinders.
The company, Galileo Avionica, pocketed $229 million in return for 500 Turms pieces. As is normal procedure, the order was drawn up by the companies, and then authorized by the government. The provision was spread over several years; this sort of equipment is not held in a warehouse ready to go, but produced and delivered in batches.
It is no surprise that European statistics show an impressive flood of exports from Italy to Syria throughout the first decade of the new millennium. The rate was so high that Italy became the European leader in weapons sales. But it wasn’t alone. Still in 1998, a merchant ship set sail from Denmark with 12 T72 tanks on board and 186 tons of munitions. And in Germany a scandal had recently broken surrounding Telemit Electronics, suspected of having bribed foreign minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher’s liberal party in exchange for government authorizations to export to Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Iraq.
Without losing a sense of proportion, however, it must be remembered that for the last 10 years Vladimir Putin’s Russia has Syria’s arms dealer of reference: 78% of weapons in Assad’s army come from Moscow.
“And we are only talking about official sales here,” vice-president of Italy’s disarmament archive Maurizio Simoncelli warns, “not the gray or black markets. The statistics, as is to be expected, only record registered contracts. Then there is all the rest.”
“All the rest” is everything transported undercover. Otherwise, it would be impossible to explain how there are still so many weapons in Syria when an arms embargo has been in place on the regime for two years and almost no one will admit to supplying the rebels. According to the Permanent Observatory on "Light Weaponry" (a vague definition usually comprising pistols, rifles, cartridges, and even hand bombs, machine guns and missile launchers) and Italy’s Disarmament Network, the sharp rise in light weapons exports to Turkey is very suspicious.
According to a recent inquiry on the website Wired, the orders from Galileo Avionica continued for 10 years, peaking in 2002 and 2003. And given that 500 tank viewfinders is a huge number, even for Assad’s extensive army, it is believed that a certain number of those pieces were passed on to Saddam Hussein ‘under the counter.’
This was the eve of the Second Gulf War after all. US Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld accused Assad’s regime of providing Saddam with arms and thus bypassing the embargo then in place. What’s more, this is the same period in which the Iraqi regime relocated its chemical arsenal to Syria. Those were some of the same chemical weapons that Saddam had used against Kurdish rebels, and which Assad is using today. An exchange of favors from one dictator to another.
Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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