The National  Memo Logo

Smart. Sharp. Funny. Fearless.

Monday, December 09, 2019 {{ new Date().getDay() }}

Hajj Stampede Kills 717 In Saudi Arabia

By Amro Hassan and Laura King, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

CAIRO — At least 717 pilgrims were killed Thursday in a crowd crush outside the holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia’s civil defense directorate said.

More than 700 others were reported hurt in the stampede, which occurred in Mena, close to Mecca, during the last major rite of the annual hajj, or pilgrimage, according to the official Saudi press agency.

It was the worst disaster in years involving the pilgrimage, which drew about 2 million Muslim faithful this year. The hajj, which began earlier this week, culminates in the Eid al-Adha, or Feast of Sacrifice, beginning Thursday.

Civil defense officials said in a statement that rescue teams were at work treating the injured and collecting and identifying the dead.

The cause of Thursday’s disaster was not immediately clear, but in the past such stampedes have taken place when some of those in a tightly packed crowd begin fainting or suffocating in the crush, and the ensuing panic then causes more casualties from trampling and asphyxiation.

Thousands had gathered Thursday for the rite of “stoning the devil,” in which the faithful hurl pebbles at a wall symbolizing Satan. In 2006, more than 360 pilgrims died in a crowd crush during the ritual, and safety improvements were implemented in the wake of that episode.

The pilgrimage is designated as one of the five pillars of Islam, and the devout believe that all Muslims who are physically able should perform the hajj at least once in their lives.

This year’s hajj had already been marked by one deadly accident, when a construction crane collapsed at Mecca’s Grand Mosque this month during preparations for the pilgrimage, killing 109 people.

(Special correspondent Hassan reported from Cairo and Times staff writer King from Istanbul.)

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Photo: Health workers help the injured in Mina, near Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Sept. 24, 2015. Saudi authorities said the total number of pilgrims killed in the stampede Thursday in Mecca has risen to 453. (Sabaq Website/Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)

Tight Security In Cairo On Anniversary Of Egyptian President’s Ouster

By Amro Hassan and Laura King, Los Angeles Times

CAIRO — Police and soldiers clamped a tight security lid on sensitive sites in the capital and elsewhere on Thursday, the one-year anniversary of the overthrow of Islamist president Mohammed Morsi. Scattered clashes between protesters and security forces left at least one demonstrator dead, state media reported.

Two other people were reported to have been killed in the town of Kerdasa, a few miles outside Cairo, near the Pyramids. Both were suspected militants who were apparently preparing a homemade bomb that went off prematurely, officials said.

Several other crude explosive devices went off or were defused in and around the capital and the coastal city of Alexandria, but no injuries or deaths were reported.

Supporters of Morsi had hoped to challenge security forces with a show of strength, calling on followers to take to the streets en masse on the anniversary. But the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi’s movement, has been decimated by a months-long crackdown that has left thousands of its backers in jail or dead. Morsi himself is on trial for a number of capital offenses.

Armored personnel carriers sealed off sites including Tahrir Square, which was ground zero for the 2011 uprising that toppled longtime autocratic President Hosni Mubarak and the venue for many mass gatherings since then.

Access was also blocked to the scene of what was the worst violence in the wake of Morsi’s ouster — Rabaa al-Adawiya Square, where hundreds were killed in mid-August of last year when security forces moved in and broke up a pro-Morsi protest camp.

AFP Photo/Ahmed Gamel

Interested in world news? Sign up for our daily email newsletter!

Egypt Sentences Three Al Jazeera Journalists To Seven To Ten Years In Prison

By Amro Hassan and Laura King, Los Angeles Times

CAIRO — An Egyptian judge on Monday sentenced three journalists for the Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera to between seven and 10 years in prison on terrorism-related charges, stunning their supporters and raising an immediate outcry from human rights advocates.

The harsh sentence came only a day after U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry visited Cairo and told Egyptian officials that the Obama administration would like to see the men freed. The charges against the journalists are widely viewed as politicized, stemming from Egypt’s anger over Qatari criticism of the Egyptian military’s deposing of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi last summer.

The three — Australian Peter Greste, Canadian-Egyptian Mohammed Fahmy and Baher Mohammed — all work for Al Jazeera’s English-language service. All have strongly denied any wrongdoing.

In addition to a seven-year sentence on charges that included spreading false news and harming Egypt’s security, Mohammed, an Egyptian national, received an additional three-year term on a charge of possessing ammunition.

The judge also handed down 10-year sentences against three foreign journalists — two Britons and a Dutch national — who were tried in absentia. Two work for Al Jazeera, but the Dutch journalist, who has left Egypt, had no connection to the broadcaster.

Among other defendants in the case, two were acquitted and four others received seven-year sentences.

AFP Photo/Aris Messinis

Egypt, International Groups Weigh Value Of Observers For Election

By Amro Hassan and Laura King, Los Angeles Times

CAIRO — Egypt’s presidential election next week presents a quandary for both international observer groups and the military-backed interim government.

To Egyptian authorities, the presence of prestigious outside observers gives the election a stamp of legitimacy, even in the face of the government’s harsh crackdown on political dissent.

But international election monitors’ reports will probably include yet more criticism of the repressive political climate that has prevailed in the more than 10 months since the government — whose de facto head, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, is expected to be elected president — took power.

For the observer groups, the dilemma is whether to risk appearing to support what human rights groups describe as a deeply undemocratic administration by being here at all for the vote — or to stay away and perhaps let their voices go unheard.

Previous prosecutions of foreign organizations seeking to promote democracy in Egypt — including some court convictions that still stand — have kept away some authoritative groups that would normally try to assess the fairness of a major election.

Some strongly worded reservations in advance of the vote came from the U.S.-based Carter Center, which expressed concern last week about the “restrictive political and legal context” surrounding the vote.

In the past 10 months, the interim government has cracked down on Islamist opponents, and also has targeted some secular democrats. More than 1,400 supporters of deposed President Mohamed Morsi have been killed, and by conservative estimates, more than 16,000 have been arrested. Morsi, an Islamist, is imprisoned and on trial for various charges.

“I am gravely concerned that Egypt’s democratic transition has faltered,” former U.S. President Jimmy Carter said in a statement last week. “Egypt’s next president should take immediate steps to foster dialogue and political accommodation to ensure the full spectrum of Egyptian society can participate meaningfully in politics.”

The Carter Center chose to deploy what it called a “small expert mission” to assess conditions surrounding the election.

The European Union said Monday that its observers — after reporting initial technical problems that could have seriously hampered their work — would fully participate in assessing the fairness of the balloting, deploying across Egypt.

Mario David, a member of the European Parliament and the chief observer, said Monday that the mission would go ahead despite observers not getting into the field throughout Egypt well ahead of time as intended.

Many of the international organizations that monitored the 2012 election that brought Morsi to power are sitting out this election, as they did the January referendum on Egypt’s new constitution. Morsi was the country’s first democratically elected president, though his rule was considered profoundly authoritarian and not politically inclusive.

January’s referendum was the interim government’s first foray into a promised democratic transition. The new national charter won about 98 percent approval — a lopsided margin reminiscent of sham elections that were a hallmark of the three-decade rule of dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was toppled in the Arab Spring uprising of 2011.

Morsi was ousted by the military in July after popular protests demanding his removal. In the interim, the government that supplanted him has alternated between harsh demands that the international community back off and appeals for understanding of the political circumstances that led to the coup.