Archive for November 24, 2017


July 09, 2017

MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi troops are celebrating the clearing of Islamic State militants from some of their last strongholds in Mosul, but heavy fighting is still underway. Lt. Gen. Jassim Nizal of the army’s 9th Division said Sunday his forces have achieved “victory” in the sector allotted to them, after a similar announcement by the militarized Federal Police. Iraqi special forces are still fighting a few hundred meters (yards) away.

Nizal’s soldiers danced to patriotic music atop tanks even as airstrikes sent plumes of smoke into the air nearby. Iraq launched the operation to retake Mosul in October. IS now controls less than a square kilometer (mile) of territory in Mosul’s Old City, but is using human shields, suicide bombers and snipers in a fight to the death.

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June 30, 2017

MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — With anti-Islamic State group forces on the offensive in both the Iraqi city of Mosul and the Syrian city of Raqqa, Iraq’s prime minister on Thursday declared an end to the extremist group’s self-proclaimed caliphate.

But even as Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi made the bold assertion, deadly fighting continued in Mosul — filling field hospitals and forcing hundreds to flee. “We are seeing the end of the fake Daesh state. The liberation of Mosul proves that,” al-Abadi said on Twitter, using the Arabic acronym for IS. “We will not relent. Our brave forces will bring victory.”

Across the border in in Raqqa, coalition officials predicted a long, bloody battle ahead for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, whose fighters succeeded in completely encircling the militants’ de-facto capital Thursday. U.S.-led coalition officials estimated that as many as 2,500 IS fighters remained in the city.

Beginning at dawn, Iraqi forces began a push deeper into Mosul’s Old City, where IS fighters were making their last stand. The Iraqi troops moved slowly along foot paths strewn with rubble, twisted metal and downed power lines. Many front-line positions were only reachable by climbing in and out of homes, across roof tops and through holes blasted into concrete walls.

By early afternoon they had reached al-Nuri Mosque, at once a hugely symbolic win and a ruined prize. The site is where IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi made his only public appearance in July 2014, declaring the self-styled Islamic “caliphate” encompassing territories then-held by the extremists in Syria and Iraq.

But IS destroyed the mosque and its iconic leaning minaret last week, Iraqi and coalition officials said. The Islamic State group blamed a U.S. airstrike for the blasts, a claim rejected by a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition who said coalition planes “did not conduct strikes in that area at that time.”

The fight for the Old City has seen some of the most difficult urban combat yet for Iraqi forces in the campaign against IS. Eight months into the Mosul offensive, IS now holds less than two square kilometers (0.8 square miles) of the city, but the advances have come at considerable cost.

Damaged and destroyed houses dot the Old City neighborhoods retaken by Iraqi forces and the stench of rotting bodies rises from beneath collapsed buildings. “There are hundreds of bodies under the rubble,” said special forces Maj. Dhia Thamir. “But they are all Daesh.”

Special forces Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aridi acknowledged that civilians have been killed by airstrikes and artillery in the recent fighting. “Of course there is collateral damage, it is always this way in war,” he said. “The houses are very old, so any bombardment causes them to collapse completely.”

U.S.-led coalition spokesman Col. Ryan Dillon told reporters at the Pentagon that “the Old City still remains a difficult, dense, suffocating fight — tight alley ways with booby traps, civilians, and (IS) fighters around every corner.”

Still, he said he expected victory to be “imminent,” predicting it would come “in days rather than weeks.” Even after Mosul is retaken, however, IS still controls significant pockets of territory in Iraq that Iraqi forces say will require many more months of fighting to liberate.

Some 300 IS fighters remain holed up inside the last Mosul districts the militants hold, along with an estimated 50,000 civilians, according to the United Nations. The civilians who managed to escape Thursday fled on foot in waves. Soldiers shouted at men to lift their shirts to show they were not wearing explosives and rummaged through the few possessions people carried with them: identify papers, family photos, baby formula, diapers and clothing.

Nearly 1,000 civilians fled the Old City on Thursday, according to Col. Ali al-Kenani, an Iraqi intelligence officer at a west Mosul screening center. Families covered in dust huddled in the shade of half-destroyed storefronts waiting for flat-bed trucks to move them to camps.

“We saw so many bodies stuck under the rubble as we fled,” said Muhammed Hamoud who escaped the Old City with his wife and two children. “One man was still alive. He yelled for us to help him. We were able to dig him out, but he was so badly injured we had to leave him. We couldn’t carry him with us.”

While Iraqi forces have had periods of swift gains during the Mosul operation, combat has largely been grueling and deadly for both security forces and civilians. Clashes have also displaced more than 850,000 people according to the International Organization for Migration.

At a small field clinic not far from the front, medics were treating casualties in waves. An entire family suffering from shrapnel wounds from a mortar round was brought in a military vehicle as another Humvee rushed up to the clinic’s doors with a body on the hood.

“What do we have?” a doctor yelled as a team scrambled to pull on plastic gloves and ready a cot. “A martyr,” the driver said. The medics stopped prepping bandages and began removing their gloves. The solider was already dead.

Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad, Balint Szlanko and Salar Salim in Mosul, and Robert Burns in Washington contributed to this report.

June 29, 2017

MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — Iraqi forces on Thursday captured the compound of a landmark mosque in Mosul that was blown up last week by the Islamic State group — a hugely symbolic site from where the top IS leader declared an Islamic “caliphate” nearly three years ago.

The advance comes as the Iraqi troops are pushing deeper into the Old City, a densely populated neighborhood west of the Tigris River where the al-Nouri Mosque with its 12th century al-Hadba minaret once stood and where the IS militants are now making their last stand in what are expected to be the final days of the battle for Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city.

Iraqi special forces reached the al-Nuri Mosque compound and took control of the surrounding streets on Thursday afternoon, following a dawn push into the area, Lt. Gen. Abdul Wahab al-Saadi of the elite force told The Associated Press.

Damaged and destroyed houses dot the route Iraqi forces have carved into the congested district — along a landscape of destruction where the stench of rotting bodies rises from under the rubble. Thursday’s push comes more than a week after Iraqi forces launched the operation to retake Mosul’s last IS-held parts of the Old City neighborhood, with its narrow alleyways and dense clusters of homes.

Taking the mosque is a symbolic victory — from its pulpit, IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in July 2014 declared a self-styled Islamic “caliphate,” encompassing territories then-held by the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq.

Iraqi and coalition officials said IS blew up the mosque complex last week. The Islamic State group has blamed a U.S. airstrike for the destruction, a claim rejected by a spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition. U.S.

Army Col. Ryan Dillon told the AP that coalition planes “did not conduct strikes in that area at that time.” IS had initially tried to destroy the al-Nouri Mosque in July 2014, saying the structure contradicted their fundamentalist interpretation of Islam. Mosul residents converged on the area, however, and formed a human chain to protect it.

Last week’s destruction was only the latest in a long series of priceless archaeological and cultural sites that the militants have ravaged across Iraq and Syria. In addition to pillaging hundreds of treasures and artifacts, IS fighters have damaged or destroyed dozens of historic places, including the town of Palmyra in Syria, home to one of the Middle East’s most spectacular archaeological sites; the 2,000-year-old city of Hatra; and the nearly 3,000-year-old city of Nimrud in Iraq’s Euphrates River valley.

After months of fighting, the IS hold in Mosul has now shrunk to less than 2 square kilometers (0.8 square miles) of territory but the advances have come at considerable cost. “There are hundreds of bodies under the rubble,” said special forces Maj. Dhia Thamir, deployed inside the Old City. He added that all the dead bodies along the special forces’ route were of IS fighters.

Special forces Maj. Gen. Sami al-Aridi acknowledged that some civilians have been killed by airstrikes and artillery in the fight for the Old City. “Of course there is collateral damage, it is always this way in war,” he said.

“The houses are very old,” he said, referring to the Old City, “so any bombardment causes them to collapse completely.” Al-Aridi said the clearing of the mosque will likely require specialized engineering teams since the militants have likely rigged the site with explosives.

The campaign to retake Mosul — formally launched in October — is in its final stages though the progress has been slow as the last militants there are holed up with an estimated 100,000 civilians, according to the United Nations.

The fight for the city has also displaced more than 850,000 people and while Iraqi forces have had periods of swift gains, combat inside Mosul has largely been grueling and deadly for both security forces and civilians.

In Baghdad, state TV declared the capture the al-Nuri Mosque with an urgent text scroll that said: “The State of Myth Has Fallen.”

Associated Press writers Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad and Balint Szlanko in Mosul, Iraq, contributed to this report.

May 22, 2017

ABU JARBUAH, Iraq (AP) — As Omar Rashad’s combine clutters down the barley field in northern Iraq, the farmer shields his eyes from the scorching sun and points at the tall berm at the end of his land, just past a cluster of agricultural buildings.

The berm he points to marks the de facto border between federal Iraq and its self-governing Kurdish region in the north. It was built in November after Kurdish Peshmerga forces pushed about 5 kilometers (3 miles) into the Nineveh plains outside Mosul with the support of the U.S.-led coalition, retaking a cluster of towns and villages from the Islamic State group.

Now, more than half of Rashad’s land, some 20 hectares (50 acres), is on the other side of the line in Iraqi federal territory. Crossing over to it is so complicated — requiring daily approval from both Iraqi and Kurdish authorities — that he has given up.

“This is our village and here is the berm. The berm divides our land into two halves,” said Rashad, an Iraqi who fled to Kurdish territory when IS militants came to his town. “It’s our land and we want to plant and harvest there. But now we can’t. You can say that we lost that half.”

Since 2014, Iraq’s Kurds have expanded the territory they control by about half at the expense of Iraq. The status of some of these areas, such as the city of Kirkuk, is supposed to be decided by plebiscite under Iraq’s constitution. Others, including most of the governorate of Nineveh, technically belong to Iraq.

The berm, with fortified positions every half kilometer (half mile) or so, cuts through the land in a fairly straight line, but it separates some communities from their land, from their administrative centers and from each other.

“If you want to do anything on the other side, you can’t. The berm has paralyzed everything,” Rashad said. “This is my land, my father’s and grandfather’s land, how can they divide our land like this?”

On the Iraqi side of the berm, in the village of Darawish, farmer Raad Khalil is faced with an additional problem. He, too, has lost access to land — about 8 hectares (20 acres) — leaving him dependent on aid. But he has also in effect been left without a government.

“All government functions are in Bashiqa,” he said, referring to the biggest town in the area that is now on the Kurdish side of the line. “Health care, education, electricity. Now you have to go to Mosul for everything but then they tell you that we belong to Bashiqa and I must go there.”

Crossing from Iraq into the Kurdish region is even more complicated than the other way around because the Peshmerga demand a Kurdish residency permit or a sponsor. The berm separates these some small communities from themselves, though for now not everybody seems to mind. Arriving in Abu Jarbuah on the Iraqi side of the berm, Shamsaddeen Nouraddeen, a Kurd, said he had been given a day permit to come over for a relative’s funeral.

He said he hoped the berm would eventually be removed but added that for now it made him feel safer because he was worried there were still IS sleeper cells in some of the villages on the Iraq side. The situation is made more delicate by the fact that the inhabitants of these villages are a mix of Sunni and Shiite Shabaks, a Kurdish-speaking minority in northern Iraq. While most Shiite residents fled IS, many of the Sunnis stayed, and that sowed mistrust among the Shabaks.

Back on the Kurdish side of the berm, Omar Rashad, a Sunni Muslim, said he has gone back to his village once but some of his Shiite neighbors made it clear that he wasn’t welcome. He was now wearing a pistol and two spare clips on his hip for personal security, he said.

“It’s like cutting a person in half and that’s exactly what happened to us,” he said. “The Shabaks are a minority who have been damaged by all these rivalries. They have been divided into two as well.”

Associated Press writer Salar Salim contributed to this report from Darawish.

May 06, 2017

MOSUL, Iraq (AP) — Aliyah Hussein and the 25 family members sheltering with her in Mosul’s western Mahatta neighborhood are surviving by picking wild greens growing in a park near their home. Hussein mixes the vegetables with small amounts of rice and tomato paste to make a thin soup that is often her family’s only meal.

Her cousin Zuhair Abdul Karim said on a recent day that even with the wild greens, the food ran out. “I swear to God, we are hungry. (The Islamic State group) made us hungry. They didn’t leave anything for us, they even stole our food,” Hussein said. Her home sits just a few hundred yards (meters) from the front line in the battle for western Mosul.

As Iraqi forces continue to make slow progress in the fight against IS in the city, clawing back territory house by house and block by block, food supplies are running dangerously low for civilians trapped inside militant-held territory and those inside recently retaken neighborhoods. For families like Hussein’s, safety concerns make them unreachable for most humanitarian groups.

Although Hussein has technically been liberated, her neighborhood is still too dangerous for most humanitarian groups to reach. In the past week she said she received only one box of food consisting of rice, oil and tomato paste, barely enough to feed her entire family even for a single day.

“The women didn’t have lunch. Only the children and men have eaten,” Abdul Karim said, explaining that he and his family are now living meal to meal. “We don’t know if we’ll have dinner,” he said, “maybe or maybe not.”

Some families walk several kilometers (miles) to markets that have sprung up in neighborhoods that have been under Iraqi military control longer. But prices there are high. Most families have exhausted their savings and work is almost non-existent in Mosul, a city now been ripped apart by war.

“The humanitarian world needs to realize that there is a huge gap between people who are in the safe zone and people who are actually trapped in the no man’s land between the Iraqi controlled areas and … Daesh controlled areas,” said Alto Labetubun with Norwegian People Aid, one of the few groups operating in neighborhoods close to the front line. Daesh is the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

Some 300,000 to 500,000 people remain beyond anyone’s reach, trapped in IS-held Mosul neighborhoods, according to the United Nations. For those civilians, siege-like conditions have prevented food supplies from reaching them for more than six months.

Most of those civilians are estimated to be in Mosul’s old city, where the final battles of the operation are expected to play out. If the fighting there lasts many more weeks, the U.N. warns the consequences for civilians will be “catastrophic.”

“We know we have a problem because when people reach our camps the first thing they ask for is food,” said Lise Grande, the U.N. humanitarian coordinator for Iraq. She said it’s impossible to measure exactly how many families are facing what she described as “serious hunger” inside Mosul, but the conditions of the people fleeing the city paint a grim picture of those who remain trapped.

Hundreds of infants and young children who recently fled Mosul are being treated for malnutrition, Grande said. Separately, she added that the U.N. had received reports that even baby formula in IS-held neighborhoods is now no longer available,

“If the battle goes beyond (the next few weeks), then we have a catastrophic problem,” she said. In the Wadi al-Hajar neighborhood hundreds of people queue for food boxes delivered by Norwegian People Aid. But most of them are turned around as there aren’t enough supplies to go around. A small crowd of women begged the aid workers for food after the last boxes were handed out.

Ibrahim Khalil, also turned away, said his hunger was so intense, he felt like he was starving. “Didn’t they claim they’d liberate us from Daesh?!” he said referring to the Iraqi government, “and they’d change our lives from misery to happiness?”

2017-04-26

HATRA – Iraqi pro-government forces said Wednesday they had seized the UNESCO-listed ancient site of Hatra from the Islamic State group, the latest archaeological jewel to be wrested from the jihadists’ grip.

Hashed al-Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) paramilitary forces fighting IS around Iraq’s second city Mosul said they had “liberated the ancient city of Hatra… after fierce clashes with the enemy”.

The Hashed forces launched their offensive at dawn on Tuesday and swiftly retook villages in nearby desert areas and the Hatra archaeological site. They had advanced to the edge of the adjacent town of Hatra itself.

A reporter with the forces said the advance was quick, supported by army helicopters and met by limited resistance from the jihadists.

Lying 120 kilometers (80 miles) southwest of Mosul, the jihadists’ last urban Iraqi stronghold, Hatra is one of a string of archaeological sites recaptured from IS in recent months.

Known as Al-Hadhr in Arabic, it was established in the 3rd or 2nd century BC and became a religious and trading center under the Parthian empire.

Its imposing fortifications helped it withstand sieges by the forces of two Roman emperors.

Although Hatra finally succumbed to Ardashir I, founder of the Sassanid dynasty, it was well-preserved over the centuries that followed.

But after IS jihadists seized swathes of Iraq and Syria in a lightning 2014 offensive, they vandalized sculptures there as part of a campaign of destruction against archaeological sites they had captured.

The jihadists see such destruction as a religiously mandated elimination of idols — but they have no qualms about selling smaller artifacts to fund their operations.

– Damage unclear –

The full extent of the damage to Hatra remains unclear.

IS has lost much of the territory it once controlled amid twin offensives in Syria and Iraq, including several ancient sites.

In November, less than a month into a vast operation to oust the jihadists from Mosul, Iraq said it had recaptured Nimrud, a jewel of the Assyrian empire founded in the 13th century BC.

Journalists who visited immediately afterwards found shattered statues, wrecked ancient palaces and bulldozed structures in one of the region’s most important archaeological sites.

IS had smashed stone carvings and detonated explosives at the site.

Last month Syrian regime forces recaptured the famed desert city of Palmyra from the jihadists, who had destroyed priceless objects there too.

Also in March, Iraqi security forces recaptured Mosul’s museum, where IS militants infamously filmed themselves smashing priceless artifacts.

The five-minute video from 2015 shows militants at the museum in Mosul knocking statues off their plinths and smashing them to pieces.

In another scene, jihadists used a jackhammer to deface an imposing granite Assyrian winged bull at the Nergal Gate in Mosul.

The destruction at the museum and the archaeological sites drew widespread condemnation internationally and inside Iraq.

Iraqi pro-government forces backed by a US-led coalition have been fighting since October to oust IS from Mosul.

The Hashed al-Shaabi, an umbrella group for militias that mobilized to fight IS, have focused their efforts on a front southwest of Mosul, aiming to seize the town of Tal Afar as well as desert areas stretching to the border with Syria.

Iraqi forces advanced in west Mosul this week, closing in on the Old City as the jihadists executed civilians in a desperate bid to hold on to the last major Iraqi bastion of their crumbling “caliphate”.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: http://middle-east-online.com/english/?id=82797.

by Mohamed Mostafa

Apr 9, 2017

(Reuters) Iraq’s influential Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr called on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to “take a historic heroic decision” and step down, to spare his country further bloodshed.

Sadr, who commands a large following among the urban poor of Baghdad and the southern cities, is the first Iraqi Shi’ite political leader to urge Assad to step down.

But his call was wrapped in kind words about the Syrian president and condemnation of the U.S. strikes carried out on a Syrian airbase on Friday, in retaliation for a chemical attack on civilians in a rebel-held area of Syria.

Sadr said the U.S. strikes would “drag the region to war” and could help “the expansion of Daesh,” the militant Islamic State group, which controls parts of Iraq and Syria.

Iraq’s Shi’ite-led governments have maintained good relations with the Syrian government throughout the six-year Syrian civil war. Sadr is the only Iraqi Shi’ite leader to keep some distance from Iran, a main backer of Assad along with Russia.

“I think it would be fair for President Bashar al-Assad to offer his resignation and step down in love for Syria, to spare it the woes of war and terrorism …and take a historic, heroic decision before it is too late,” Sadr said in a statement.

The Shi’ite-led Iraqi government issued a statement on Friday that reflected the difficult balancing act it maintains between its alliance with the United States and with Shi’ite Iran. It condemned the chemical attack, without naming Assad, calling instead for an international investigation to identify the perpetrator.

The statement also criticized “the hasty interventions” that followed the chemical attack, in an apparent reference to the U.S. strikes.

A U.S.-led coalition has been providing air and ground support to Iraqi forces battling Islamic State, allowing them to recapture most of the cities they had overrun in 2014 in Sunni areas of northern and western Iraq.

Source: Iraqi News.

Link: http://www.iraqinews.com/iraq-war/sadr-becomes-first-iraqi-shiite-leader-urge-assad-step/.

by Nehal Mustafa

Apr 5, 2017

Kirkuk (IraqiNews.com) Turkmen members of the Iraqi parliament have collected signatures from more than 200 MPs who represent several political factions on a petition to demand dismissal of Kirkuk governor Najmuddin Karim and the dissolution of its provincial council, according to MP Niazi Oghlo.

Oghlo said the move came after the council’s decision to raise the Kurdish flag above official buildings in the province and its plans to run a referendum on joining Kurdistan Region.

“Turkmen MPs collected more than 200 signatures from several political groups’ representatives to dismiss Kirkuk governor and disband its provincial council,” Oghlo stated on Wednesday. “The signatures will be attached to a request that will be submitted to parliament next week when sessions resume.”

“We will head to the Federal Court to challenge the illegal and unconstitutional decisions of the Kirkuk provincial council. We will also urge the cabinet to take swift and clear action against violations of Kirkuk governor, to dismiss him and disband the council,” Oghlo said.

On Tuesday, the provincial council of Kirkuk voted yes on running a referendum on the province’s secession from Iraq and joining the Kurdistan Region, which triggered a dispute of sovereignty between Erbil and Baghdad, which deemed the measure a breach of national unity.

Kurdistan disputes sovereignty with Iraq on the oil-rich province, located in the south of the region. Its population comprises Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen ethnicities.

The provincial council voted on March 28 in favour of the decision by the governor to hoist the Kurdistan flag alongside the Iraqi flag on the state buildings in the city.

Source: Iraqi News.

Link: http://www.iraqinews.com/features/turkmen-mps-collect-signatures-dismiss-kirkuk-governor-disband-provincial-council/.

Thursday 12 October 2017

CAIRO: Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi extended for the second time a state of emergency first declared following deadly church bombings in April, in a decree issued in the official gazette on Thursday.

The renewed three-month state of emergency will start on Friday, according to the decree.

“The armed forces and the police will take the necessary measures to confront the dangers of terrorism,” it said.

Parliament approved the initial state of emergency in April after the two church bombings claimed by Daesh that killed at least 45 people.

The state of emergency was then renewed on July 10.

The terrorist group said it was behind the bombings in the cities of Tanta and Alexandria, and it threatened further attacks against Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority.

Terrorists also claimed a Cairo church bombing in December that killed 29 people.

The emergency law expands police powers of arrest, surveillance and seizures and can limit freedom of movement.

Egypt had been ruled for decades under a state of emergency, which was canceled a month before Mohammed Mursi took over as the president in 2012.

Following Mursi’s overthrow by El-Sisi, then an army chief, in 2013, a state of emergency was declared for a month after clashes between police and Islamist protesters that killed hundreds and after extremist mobs attacked Christian properties.

Source: Arab News.

Link: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1176496/middle-east.

October 11, 2017

CAIRO (AP) — An Egyptian has been honored with one of the most prestigious awards granted to human rights defenders but was unable to accept the prize in person because his government has banned him from travel over his work documenting abuses.

Mohamed Zaree is one of several prominent Egyptian activists and human rights workers who are banned from travel over allegations of harming national security, part of a wide-scale crackdown on dissent that has stamped out much of the country’s once-vibrant civil society.

The Martin Ennals award is given out by 10 of the world’s leading human rights organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, to recognize outstanding work done at great personal risk. Zaree’s wife and daughters accepted it on his behalf at the ceremony in Geneva.

Zaree said he hopes the award will offer some protection to him and other members of Egypt’s dwindling human rights community, nearly all of whom face prosecution under sweeping laws targeting those accused of “undermining national unity.”

“We are all banned from travelling, and some have had their bank accounts frozen,” he told The Associated Press. “There is a danger for myself and my colleagues, but I believe the biggest danger is when the victims of human rights violations are denied their last hope.”

The 37-year-old Zaree leads activities in Egypt for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, which focuses on the Arab world. The group moved its base to Tunisia in 2014 after Egypt unleashed a wave of repression against such organizations following the military overthrow of an elected Islamist president the previous year.

The group has handled high-profile cases, including that of Egyptian-American charity worker Aya Hijazi, who had established a foundation to aid street children in 2013 and was jailed on charges of child abuse that were dismissed as bogus by human rights groups and U.S. officials. She was released and allowed to return to the U.S. earlier this year after nearly three years in prison.

The award, named after a former head of Britain-based Amnesty, is among the most prestigious in the field. The other finalists were El Salvador transgender woman and activist Karla Avelar, and the FreeThe5KH group — five human rights defenders who were recently released after more than a year in pre-trial detention in Cambodia.

In Geneva, award founder Hans Thoolen celebrated Zaree’s “heroic” behavior in “holding the fort” nearly alone amid the crackdown on human rights organizations. “There was a very clear understanding that the Egyptian regime seems to be emboldened by the lack of action in the U.N. and by major states,” he said.

Local human rights organizations and other civil society groups played a major role in documenting abuses under President Hosni Mubarak, who resigned in the face of a popular uprising in 2011 after nearly three decades in power. Such groups continued to operate until the military overthrew his successor, the freely elected but divisive Mohammed Morsi, two years later.

But Egypt’s current president, Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, who led Morsi’s overthrow, has presided over the heaviest crackdown in decades. Authorities have jailed tens of thousands, mainly Islamist supporters of Morsi but also several prominent secular activists.

The government has also pressed ahead with a law that would place heavy restrictions on civil society groups, which pro-government media outlets routinely portray as part of a foreign plot to destabilize the country.

“There is no comparison — it’s the darkest time Egypt has ever seen for human rights,” Zaree said. He said that under Mubarak “it was a fight to defend the space we had.” “Now it’s a fight for our very existence — the current regime doesn’t want to deal with any human rights organizations, political parties, activists or journalists,” he said.

Last month Ibrahim Metwally, a prominent rights lawyer who focused on the issue of forced disappearances, was himself arrested in secret, with authorities only acknowledging his detention days later. He remains in custody on charges of “spreading false news.” Metwally’s son went missing during clashes at an Islamist protest in 2013 and has not been seen since.

Police have also launched a crackdown targeting gay men after a rainbow flag was waved at a concert last month, charging over two dozen individuals with violating laws on public decency. The United States, which provides Egypt with $1.3 billion a year in mainly military aid, moved to halt or delay the transfer of nearly $300 million earlier this year, citing the country’s poor human rights record. But President Donald Trump has also praised el-Sissi as an ally against terrorism, and European countries still offer Egypt generous financing for advanced weapons systems.

As the award ceremony began in Geneva, Zaree, who was stuck in Cairo, called on Egypt’s foreign backers to do more to press for change, saying “security and human rights cannot be separated.” “It is the basis of stability — countries with economic and military relations with Egypt should make sure that the weapons they sell it are not used in human rights violations,” he said. “There must be oversight that ensures these weapons are not used against peaceful civilians.”

Associated Press writer Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.