Médecins Sans Frontières Searches for Answers in Hospital Bombings

The global medical charity Médecins Sans Frontières has called for a full investigation of a recent bombing of a Yemen hospital that killed six people and injured seven others.

Médecins Sans Frontières, also known as Doctors Without Borders, said in a statement Monday that it has requested an investigation from the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission, an independent body created by the Geneva Convention in 1991 to handle alleged breaches of international humanitarian law.

The Shiara Hospital, located in the city of Razeh in the Saada province in northern Yemen, was struck by a “projectile” on the morning of January 10, destroying buildings and forcing the hospital to close for several hours.

MSF could not confirm the origin of the attack. The province, which is near the Yemeni border with Saudi Arabia, has been the site of many airstrikes from a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states targeting Iranian-allied Houthi rebels in Yemen.

“The war in Yemen is being fought with total disregard for the rules of war,” MSF said in a statement on its website.

The international commission recognized MSF’s request in a statement on its website, saying it “stands ready to provide its services in this context.”

The attack was the third such bombing of a medical facility run or supported by MSF in Yemen in as many months. In October, an airstrike destroyed a hospital in the Haydan district of the Saada province and slightly injured one person. In December, a mobile clinic in the city of Taiz was hit by airstrikes, leaving one person dead and eight injured. Last week, an MSF ambulance was hit and its driver killed in an airstrike in the town of Dahyan.

In October, a U.S. airstrike destroyed a hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan, killing 30 people in what American officials described as an accidental hit. The group pulled its staff from Kunduz following the strike.

“Increasingly, we are seeing attacks on medical facilities being minimized, being labeled ‘mistakes’ or ‘errors,’” Raquel Ayora, MSF’s director of operations, said Monday.

MSF previously called on the humanitarian commission to investigate the Kunduz attack. The commission requires consent by the U.S. government before it can carry out such investigations. MSF says the commission has not received approval.

MSF currently runs 11 hospitals and health centers and supports 18 more in Yemen. The group says it has treated more than 20,000 people in the country.

What Led American Ships Into Iranian Waters?

The U.S. military has released its first official account of Iran’s capture and release of 10 American sailors whose vessels entered Iranian waters in the Persian Gulf last week.

U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, on Monday provided a timeline of the events, but did not say how the two U.S. Navy boats ended up in foreign waters on their journey from Kuwait to Bahrain in a routine exercise. The sailors are currently in “good health,” CENTCOM said.

CENTCOM said the small boats stopped in the Gulf because of a “mechanical issue in a diesel engine” in one of the vessels. “This stop occurred in Iranian territorial waters, although it’s not clear the crew was aware of their exact location,” the statement said.

The two riverine command boats departed Kuwait at 9:23 a.m. GMT on January 12, the statement said. They were scheduled to stop and refuel alongside the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Monomoy at about 2 p.m. But at approximately 2:10 p.m., Navy command received a report that the sailors were being questioned by Iranians. By 2:45 p.m., the military lost all communication with the boats.

Navy command launched search-and-rescue operations soon after, deploying aircraft from USS Harry S. Truman and nearby Navy vessels. The Navy tried to contact Iranian military units operating near the Gulf’s Farsi Island over marine radio and telephoned Iranian coast guard units. At 6:15 p.m., U.S. Navy cruiser USS Anzio got word from the Iranians that the sailors were in Iranian custody and were “safe and healthy.”

CENTCOM said armed Iranian personnel boarded the U.S. boats and led the sailors at gunpoint to a port facility on Farsi Island. The Americans were held for about 15 hours and were not physically harmed. They were released at 8:43 a.m. GMT the next day to the Navy, and another group of U.S. sailors took over their vessels.

All weapons, ammunition, and communication gear on the boats were untouched, but two SIM cards appeared to have been removed from two handheld satellite phones, CENTCOM said.

The Navy has launched an investigation into the incident, which was seen as a test case for newly improved U.S.-Iranian relations. U.S. and Iranian officials were quick to hail the diplomacy that resulted in the release of the sailors. President Obama said Sunday that increased cooperation between the two nations prevented the capture from escalating into “a major international incident.”

“Some folks here in Washington rushed to declare that it was the start of another hostage crisis,” Obama said. “Instead we worked directly with the Iranian government and secured the release of our sailors in less than 24 hours.”

The incident preceded a couple of breakthroughs in U.S.-Iran relations. Days later, international inspectors formally certified that Tehran had dismantled most of its nuclear program in accordance with the historic deal brokered last year between Iran and six world powers. In exchange, the Obama administration lifted a swatch of economic sanctions that have crippled Iran’s economy for years. The two nations also agreed to a prisoner swap that would release four Americans, including a Washington Post reporter, held prisoner in Iran for months or years. A fifth American was also released, but not as part of the exchange.

The Search for Missing Americans in Iraq

The U.S. State Department is investigating reports by Middle Eastern media that American citizens are missing in Iraq, officials said Sunday.

Al Arabiya, a Saudi-owned Arab news outlet, reported Sunday that three Americans have been kidnapped by “militias” in Baghdad, citing its own sources.

State Department spokesman John Kirby said that the agency is aware of the reports.

“The safety and security of American citizens overseas is our highest priority,” Kirby said in a statement.‎ “We are working with the full cooperation of the Iraqi authorities to locate and recover the individuals.”

The State Department would not say how many Americans are reported missing. The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad told the Associated Press that “several” Americans were kidnapped.

The Americans, all contractors, went missing two days ago, reported CNN, citing a senior security official in Baghdad. Their disappearance was reported by the company where they worked, CNN wrote.

The kidnapping report comes amid a worsening security situation in Baghdad and the surrounding area, and nearly one week after armed attackers stormed a mall in the Iraqi capital and detonated suicide and car bombs, killing at least 18 people and injuring 50 more. Following the assault, which lasted about an hour and a half, authorities shut down the city’s Green Zone, a heavily guarded area that is home to several foreign embassies, including that of the United States, and Western private military contractors.

This is a developing story and we’ll update as we learn more.

Iran’s Two-Deal Day

Updated on January 16 at 7:27 p.m. ET

The United States and the European Union lifted a broad swath of economic sanctions against Iran on Saturday as the International Atomic Energy Agency certified it had dismantled most of its nuclear program, opening a new, cautious chapter in relations between Tehran and the West.

“Today marks the first day of a safer world, one we hope will remain safer for many years to come,” Secretary of State John Kerry told reporters at a press conference in Vienna.

Diplomats gathered Saturday in the Austrian capital for the implementation of last year’s historic nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers—the United States, Russia, China, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom. IAEA inspectors formally certified that Iran had taken concrete steps to scale back its nuclear infrastructure over the past three months—literally, in one case, when the country poured cement into the nuclear reactor core at Arak.

Iran also shipped 98 percent of its nuclear fuel to Russia and dismantled two-thirds of the centrifuges it used to enrich uranium. If the Iranian government renounced the deal and reactivated its program, Kerry estimated that it would take more than a year for the country to race towards a nuclear bomb.

After the certification, President Obama issued executive orders lifting international economic sanctions. Their end marks a major victory for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his allies, who swept into power in the 2013 elections on a platform of reinvigorating the country’s ailing economy and thawing its relations with the West. The timing is also politically fortuitous as Iranian voters go to the polls on February 26 for the country’s legislative elections.

In an effort to force Iran to abandon its nuclear program, the United States, the European Union, and other countries constructed the most complex regime of international economic sanctions in modern history, effectively severing Tehran from most of the world’s major financial institutions and isolating its markets from global commerce. Iran’s economy withered, with the Iranian rial losing over two-thirds of its value and the price of basic goods rising precipitously.

A broad array of direct U.S. sanctions on Iran remain in force, so economic ties between the two countries will be minimal for the foreseeable future. But European and Asian businesses are expected to forge trade relationships with the once-isolated country almost immediately. Iranian Transport Minister Abbas Akhoundi said his country planned to purchase 114 aircraft from Airbus as soon as the sanctions lift to replace Iran’s aging civil-aviation fleet.

Hours before the announcement in Vienna, Iranian news outlets reported that Washington Post journalist Jason Rezaian had been released from Iranian custody on Saturday morning after 543 days in captivity, along with three other American prisoners as part of a prisoner swap with the United States, Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency reported.

Also freed on Saturday were Amir Hekmati, a former U.S. Marine sentenced to death for espionage in 2012; Saeed Abedini, a Christian pastor held by Iran since 2012; and Nosratollah Khosrawi.

As part of the swap, President Obama granted clemency to seven Iranians convicted of or awaiting trial for violating the U.S. sanctions regime against Iran. The U.S. also dropped its cases against 14 other Iranians it sought to extradite from other countries.

Iran also released a fifth American, Matthew Trevithick, on Saturday; CNN reported that U.S. officials claimed his release was not part of the prisoner swap. Trevithick is a student and researcher specializing in the Middle East who was detained while studying at a foreign-language center in Tehran, according to a statement from his family. His 40-day captivity was not publicly known prior to Saturday’s announcement.

Iranian officials arrested Rezaian on July 22, 2014 and charged him with espionage nine months later. An Iranian court found him guilty on October 15 last year and sentenced him to prison for an indeterminate length of time. Marty Baron, the Post’s executive editor, strongly condemned his sentence and treatment.

“The contemptible end to this ‘judicial process’ leaves Iran’s senior leaders with an obligation to right this grievous wrong,” Baron wrote. “Jason is a victim — arrested without cause, held for months in isolation, without access to a lawyer, subjected to physical mistreatment and psychological abuse, and now convicted without basis.”

This is a developing story and we’ll have more information as it becomes available.

China’s Widening Crackdown on Lawyers

The Chinese government escalated its crackdown on the country’s burgeoning community of human-rights lawyers this week, filing subversion charges against some of its most prominent members Tuesday and arresting a Swedish legal-aid activist on Wednesday.

Among those formally arrested were Zhou Shifeng, the director of Beijing’s Fengrui Law Firm, as well as Wang  Quanzhang, a lawyer with the firm, and Li Shuyun, an intern, The New York Times reported. They were charged with “subverting the state order,” a serious crime in the Chinese criminal-justice system that can potentially carry a life sentence.

The full scope of the crackdown is hard to ascertain. Amnesty International estimates that 248 “rights-defense” lawyers and activists have been arrested since the crackdown began July 9. Twenty-three of them are still in custody as of Thursday; nine have been formally charged. China’s opaque criminal-justice system makes verification difficult.

Foremost among the crackdown’s targets are attorneys and employees of the Fengrui Law Firm, one of China’s most well-known rights-defense organizations. The firm rose to prominence by representing high-profile dissidents in court, including artist Ai Weiwei during his 2011 tax-evasion case, and Chen Guancheng, the blind legal activist who fled to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing in 2012.

Those still detained include Wang Yu, China’s most prominent female human-rights lawyer, as well as her husband and their son. Wang previously defended Ilham Tohti, a top Uighur academic in China’s western Xinjiang province who was accused of inciting separatism, as well as women’s rights advocates.

Chinese state-media outlets accused the rights-defense lawyers of undermining the social order by organizing protests outside courthouses.

“Lawyers should safeguard justice in the courtroom with the application of their knowledge, morality and skill, not undermine the law by rabble-rousing in the streets,” an editorial in Xinhua, the state-run news agency, declared last July.

Lawyers beyond the Fengrui Law Firm have also been targeted in the crackdown. In December, a Beijing court found rights-defense lawyer Pu Zhiqiang guilty of “inciting ethnic hatred” and “picking quarrels and provoking troubles” and handed him a three-year suspended sentence. Pu, who also previously represented clients like Ai, lost his ability to practice law as a result of the conviction.

Chinese officials also confirmed Wednesday they had arrested Swedish human-rights activist Peter Dahlin earlier this month. He is believed to be the first foreigner swept up in the crackdown. Dahlin, who cofounded the legal-aid organization Chinese Urgent Action Working Group, disappeared January 3 en route to Beijing International Airport where he was set to travel to Thailand. Chinese officials said he was being detained “on suspicion of endangering state security,” his organization told The New York Times.

Relations between Beijing and the country’s small but dedicated corps of rights-defense lawyers, while never friendly, worsened significantly after President Xi Jinping assumed power in 2013. Xi, one of China’s most powerful leaders in decades, launched major anti-corruption campaigns within the Communist Party, the army, the middle and upper echelons of the bureaucracy, and the country’s state-run enterprises. His administration also imposed stricter censorship measures and tighter controls on Chinese Internet users who criticize the government, including arrests and detention.

“The assault on lawyers reflects the broader trend under President Xi of repressing various elements of civil society across China,” Human Rights Watch wrote earlier this month when it called for the lawyers’ release. “The government has also severely tightened control over freedom of expression, including on the Internet, in the media, and within academia.”

The crackdown comes as China’s leaders try to bolster public and foreign confidence in the country’s legal system. Last January, the party condemned the use of arrest and conviction quotas by police, prosecutors, and judges in an attempt to rein in false convictions. Statistics from the Supreme People’s Court, China’s highest judicial body, reported that only 825 people were found not guilty in the 1.16 million criminal trials that occurred in 2013.