Saturday, January 9, 2016

Britain under fire over arms sales to Saudi Arabia

 Ali Kheradpir

A Saudi-led coalition has been bombing Houthi rebels in Yemen since March.
Today, lawyers representing Campaign Against Arms Trade claimed the coalition’s air-strikes were targeting civilians.
Law firm Leigh Day has threatened the UK government with legal action unless it suspends all licenses permitting UK produced arms to be sent to Saudi Arabia.
Although the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen has the backing of the UN Security Council, on November 12, Leigh Day wrote to the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills saying ‘in light of alleged grave breaches of international humanitarian law’ that it was concerned about arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
In August Stephen O’Brien, UN under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs, told the UN Security Council that the Saudi Arabian attacks ‘on civilian areas had clearly broken international law’.
The UK’s Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, confirmed last month that weapons manufactured in the UK are being used by Saudi Arabia.
The opponents of exporting weapons to Saudi Arabia said almost 6,000 people have been killed since the military campaign began and according to the UN estimates, 60 per cent of those who have been killed or wounded have been civilians.
“The conflict in Yemen has turned the country into one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises,” Amnesty International said in a statement. “Civilian targets including hospitals, schools, markets, grain warehouses, ports and a displaced persons camp have been hit in airstrikes by Saudi-led coalition forces.
“All sides in the conflict are responsible for causing the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. The UK is not alone in sending arms to and supporting parties to the conflict. Several other countries, including France, Germany, Iran, Italy, Russia and the US have reportedly also supplied arms to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition now fighting in Yemen, with supplies to the Houthis clouded in secrecy.”
Saudi Arabia says Shia-armed rebels have taken control of most of Yemen and they are not the country’s legitimate government.
The UK’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office said in a statement to parliament in November: “The UK takes its arms export responsibilities very seriously and operates one of the most robust arms export control regimes in the world. We rigorously examine every application on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria.”


At least five Yemeni civilians have lost their lives in fresh Saudi Arabia airstrikes on Yemen, including one killed by a cluster bomb in the capital, Sana’a.

According to Yemen’s al-Masirah news channel, Saudi jets pounded various districts of Sana’a, using cluster bombs early on Thursday.

A civilian was killed and a number of others were injured during the raids. Witnesses said some of the bombs were left unexploded.

Saudi warplanes also bombarded residential buildings in the al-Marzaq district of Hajjah Province, killing four people and injuring two others.
Saudi Arabia began the military campaign against Yemen in late March 2015. The strikes are supposedly meant to undermine the Ansarullah movement and restore power to fugitive former Yemeni president, Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi.

Rights groups had earlier exposed Saudi Arabia’s use of cluster bombs in the war on Yemen. The Human Rights Watch said in late May 2015 Saudi warplanes had targeted civilians and residential areas with cluster bombs in the northern province of Sa’ada.

More than 7,500 people have been killed and over 14,000 others injured since the strikes began. The Saudi war has also taken a heavy toll on the impoverished country’s facilities and infrastructure.

Yemenis have responded with attacks against Saudi forces deployed in the country as well as targets inside Saudi Arabia, Press TV reported.

Canada under pressure over $15bn arms deal with Saudi Arabia

Canada has no plans to review a $15bn weapons contract with Saudi Arabia, the foreign minister has said, despite calls from Canadians and human rights groups to cancel the deal after the kingdom executed dozens of people last weekend.
Stephane Dion told the national public broadcaster this week “what is done is done".
“We have said during the campaign, the prime minister has been very clear, that we would not cancel this contract or contracts that have been done under the previous government in general,” Dion said on CBC’s Power & Politics.
“We will review the process by which these contracts are assessed in the future. But what is done is done, and the contract is not something that we’ll revisit.”
The comments come amid growing pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s new government to look into the multi-billion-dollar deal that will see Ontario-based company General Dynamics Land Systems’ export light armoured vehicles (LAVs) to Saudi Arabia.
About 500 people protested at the Canadian parliament building on Wednesday calling on Ottawa to cancel the trade deal. Protesters also condemned the killing of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was among 47 prisoners executed in Saudi Arabia on 2 January.

A deal ‘contingent on secrecy’

Canada’s then minister of trade, Ed Fast, first revealed details of the agreement – the largest weapons export contract in Canadian history – in 2014. Fast said at the time that the deal would bring 3,000 jobs to southern Ontario.
A federal crown corporation, Canadian Commercial Corp, which also acts as the main contractor supplying the LAVs, brokered the agreement.
“The money flows through Canadian Commercial Corporation. It is by no means a private contract in the usual sense, and the government is very much involved,” said Ken Epps, an arms trade treaty policy advisor at anti-war group Project Ploughshares.
Epps told Middle East Eye the contract is expected to span 10 years and equipment shipments may begin later in 2016. The exact number of vehicles being manufactured remains unconfirmed, he said, but the size of the contract leads him to estimate “it’s going to be in the hundreds, if not thousands”.
A recently reported side deal General Dynamics Land Systems holds with a Belgian company that makes turrets and cannons also signals that “a tank on wheels” will be among the LAVs being sent overseas, Epps said.
The Globe and Mail reported last year that the deal was “contingent on secrecy".
Stephen Harper, Canada’s former prime minister, personally promised the Saudi government to keep the details of the sale under wraps, the newspaper said.
Ottawa had also reportedly not conducted a review of the Saudi human rights record prior to the 2014 announcement, a requirement under federal export laws when military equipment is being shipped to countries “with a persistent record of serious violations of the human rights of their citizens”.
Those regulations oblige Canada to demonstrate “that there is no reasonable risk that the goods might be used against the civilian population” in the importing country.
“The risk of course that [the Canadian government is] taking by closing off any revisiting of the contract is that this equipment will be used either in Yemen or internally in Saudi Arabia,” Epps said, “and it’ll come back to haunt the government.”

Saudi Arabia an ‘important partner’ for Canada

Dion, the foreign minister, “decried” the recent executions in Saudi Arabia and said in a statement that Ottawa “raises concerns over human rights and due process” with Saudi officials regularly.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is an important partner for Canada in efforts to counter terrorism, in contributions to the international coalition combating ISIL [Islamic State] militants and in international efforts to find a political solution in Syria,” Dion said in another release after he met Saudi Minister of Foreign Affairs Adel Al Jubeir in Ottawa in mid-December.
The strategic importance of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Cooperation Council countries was mentioned again in a government-briefing book obtained by The Canadian Press through an Access to Information Request.
Federal officials reportedly advised Trudeau to strengthen ties Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, CP reported on Thursday, as this “would serve Canadian commercial and possibly security interests".

“Current bilateral engagement includes a particular focus on Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” the memo states. “Saudi Arabia is a regional power, the only Arab country in the G20. It is a key contributor to global energy security and Canada's largest trading partner in the region.”
Anthony Fenton, a PhD candidate at York University in Toronto researching the political economy of Canada-GCC relations, said Canada and Saudi Arabia have had 50 years of strong diplomatic and economic ties.
Strengthening ties with Saudi Arabia today gives Canada "a seat at the table" and so long as the U.S. backs the Kingdom, so too will Ottawa. "Cultivating closer ties with the Saudis helps bolster Canada's standing as a emerging, secondary imperialist power," he told Middle East Eye in an e-mail interview.
Fenton said it's not only the arms deal that ties Canada to Saudi Arabia; Canadian engineering firm SNC-Lavalin has 7,000 employees in the Kingdom, a US-Saudi firm recently bought the former Canadian Wheat Board, and GCC countries - Saudi Arabia and the UAE in particular - are categorized as a "priority" market for Canada, among other examples.
And there has been no indication that this will change under the Trudeau government, Fenton said.

"The same state functionaries who worked so hard to cultivate these ties under Harper will see no reason to take the wind out of the Canada-GCC sails, and appear to have advised the new government accordingly," he said.

"I see no reason to expect this to change, so long as the petrodollars are flowing, and the GCC states are at war (be it against other states, IS, etc., or against their own people)."
A recent review of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is being kept confidential in Ottawa, The Globe and Mail reported. A request for comment from MEE to Global Affairs Canada was not immediately returned on Friday.
But Alex Neve, head of Amnesty International Canada, told the newspaper that the results of any assessment need to be shared publicly. He also raised concerns about how the LAVs might be used by Saudi forces if protests erupt again in the Shia community in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces.
“How will Saudi authorities react to that? What equipment and weaponry will they resort to? Is there a potential that armoured vehicles of this sort could be used in ways that cause or contribute to human rights violations?” said Neve, who has been using the hashtag #ExplainTheDeal on Twitter.
Epps, meanwhile, called on Canada to implement existing regulations “to ensure that the Canadian equipment doesn’t get into the wrong hands".
“They called for transparency,” he said, referring to the Liberal party’s federal election campaign comments last year. “Well, this would be an opportunity for them to be more transparent by opening up and even potentially [holding] public hearings on what’s happening in Saudi Arabia.”
- See more at:

Iran-Saudi Arabia stand-off: Saudi Arabia accused of stoking tension

Iran’s deputy foreign minister says Saudi Arabia’s decision to severe diplomatic relations cannot cover up Riyadh’s “strategic mistake” in killing a prominent Shiite cleric.
Hossein Amir Abdollahian has also accused Saudi Arabia of promoting terrorism and extremism in the Middle East. His comments were broadcast today on Iranian state television.
Saudi Arabia earlier cut diplomatic relations with Iran, hours after protesters stormed and set fire to the Saudi Embassy in Tehran. It also followed harsh criticism by Iran’s top leader of the Saudis’ execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr.
Al-Nimr’s execution has opened a new chapter in the ongoing Sunni-Shiite power struggle playing out across the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia and Iran as primary antagonists.
Tehran's police chief Hossein Sajedinia (C) asks protesters to end their rally against the execution of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr by Saudi authorities, and leave the area outside the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Credit: AFP
Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir announced the cut in relations late on Sunday and gave Iranian diplomatic personnel 48 hours to leave his country. All Saudi diplomatic personnel in Iran have been called home after an attack on the kingdoms embassy in Tehran and a consulate.
The decision came after the mass execution of Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr and 46 others — the largest carried out by Saudi Arabia in three and a half decades — laid bare the sectarian divisions gripping the region. Shiite protesters took to the streets from Bahrain to Pakistan while Arab allies of Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia quickly lined up behind the kingdom.
The standoff illustrates the kingdom’s new aggressiveness under King Salman. During his reign, Saudi Arabia has led a coalition fighting Shiite rebels in Yemen and staunchly opposed regional Shiite power Iran, even as Tehran struck a nuclear deal with world powers.
It also represents just the latest turmoil in the two countries’ long-rocky relationship, which saw diplomatic ties between them severed from 1988 to 1991.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned Saudi Arabia on Sunday of “divine revenge” over al-Nimr’s death, while Riyadh accused Tehran of supporting “terrorism” in a war of words that threatened to escalate even as the U.S. and the European Union sought to calm the region.
Al-Jubeir told a news conference in Riyadh that the Iranian regime has “a long record of violations of foreign diplomatic missions,” dating back to the occupation of the U.S. Embassy in 1979, and such incidents constitute “a flagrant violation of all international agreements,” according to the official Saudi Press Agency.
He said Iran’s “hostile policy” was aimed “at destabilizing the region’s security,” accusing Tehran of smuggling weapons and explosives and planting terrorist cells in the kingdom and other countries in the region. He vowed that Saudi Arabia will not allow Iran “to undermine our security.”
An Iraqi man holds a portrait of prominent Shiite Muslim cleric Nimr al-Nimr during a demonstration against his execution by Saudi authorities. Credit: AFP
Central figure
Al-Nimr was a central figure in Arab Spring-inspired protests by Saudi Arabia’s Shiite minority until his arrest in 2012. He was convicted of terrorism charges but denied advocating violence.
While the split between Sunnis and Shiites dates back to the early days of Islam and disagreements over the successor to the Prophet Muhammad, those divisions have only grown as they intertwine with regional politics, with both Iran and Saudi Arabia vying to be the Mideast’s top power.
Iran accuses Saudi Arabia of supporting terrorism in part because it backs Syrian rebel groups fighting to oust its embattled ally, President Bashar Assad. Riyadh points to Iran’s backing of the Lebanese Hezbollah and other Shiite militant groups in the region as a sign of its support for terrorism. Iran also has backed Shiite rebels in Yemen known as Houthis.
In Tehran, a protest outside the Saudi Embassy early Sunday quickly grew violent as protesters threw stones and gasoline bombs at the embassy, setting part of the building ablaze, according to Gen. Hossein Sajedinia, the country’s top police official, the semi-official Tasnim news agency reported.
Forty people were arrested and investigators were pursuing other suspects, Tehran prosecutor Abbas Jafari Dowlatabadi said, according to the semi-official ISNA news agency.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani condemned Saudi Arabia’s execution of al-Nimr, but also branded those who attacked the Saudi Embassy as “extremists.”
“It is unjustifiable,” he said in a statement. Another Saudi diplomatic mission also was attacked in Mashhad.
Australian government ‘deeply disturbed’ by Saudi killing
Foreign Minister Julie Bishop says the Australian government is deeply disturbed by Saudi Arabia’s mass execution of 47 people.
Ms Bishop has called on Iranian authorities to ensure proper protection of diplomatic facilities.
“We call on all parties to look for ways to calm the recent tension and to exercise restraint in their actions and comments,” she said on Monday.
“The Australian government supports the universal abolition of the death penalty and we are deeply disturbed by the recent executions carried out in Saudi Arabia.”

Iran is dangerous—but Saudi Arabia is even worse

Danish Ismail

Saudi Arabia’s decision to execute Shia cleric Sheikh Nimr Al-Nimr was designed to provoke Iran into an expansion of military engagement. That’s an unsettling strategy–but true nonetheless.

The initial reaction to the kingdom’s decision was relatively minor—a few Molotov cocktails were lobbed at its embassy in Tehran. But a chain reaction of diplomatic fallout has unfolded over the past few days. Saudi Arabia severed all diplomatic relations with Iran; oil allies Bahrain, Sudan and Djibouti quickly followed suit. Perhaps more surprisingly, other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies like Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates opted for the less drastic measure of recalling their ambassadors.

Each act of incitement, however, including Saudi Arabia’s allegedly deliberate targeting of the Iranian embassy in Sana’a, Yemen, is further indication of Riyadh’s desperation to demonize Tehran in the court of world opinion. It is an exercise in futility, and one that casts doubt over the kingdom’s own stability and sensibility. The United States’ longtime ally is losing its iron-fisted grip over both its people and the region. This fact, coupled with Saudi Arabia’s staggering arsenal and unprincipled ruling ideology, makes the kingdom incredibly dangerous–arguably more so than infamous Axis of Evil member Iran.
Saudi Arabia contends that its provocations of Iran are a principled and urgent rejoinder to a dangerous sectarian rival. But the reality is that the kingdom seeks to distract the international community from its own significant internal weaknesses.

Saudi Arabia is in dire economic straits. In 2015, it ran a budget deficit approaching $100 billion, and it is on track for an $80 billion dollar shortfall this year. Riyadh’s decision to boost oil production to enervate competitors like Iran and shale oil producers has driven the price of crude oil down sharply, wrecking its own financial profile. (Last year at this time, a barrel of oil sold for $78; today it sells for roughly half the price.) For a country with an oil sector that comprises 75% of its budget revenues, this loss of income has a serious impact. The kingdom has announced unprecedented austerity measures, including a value-added tax, and has raised the price of gas in the country by 50%.

During the precarious negotiations of the P5+1 nuclear deal, Saudi Arabia told anyone who would listen that Iran was unreliable, untrustworthy, and inherently bellicose. Much to Riyadh’s chagrin, however, Iran has complied with major provisions of the agreement, as with its recent shipment of 25,000 pounds of enriched uranium to Russia. Last month, the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) 12-year investigation ended with the conclusion that Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program, if it existed at all, ended in 2009, expediting the lifting of sanctions on Tehran.

While Saudi Arabia persists in its campaign to paint Iran as an aggressive, expansionist regional force, the kingdom has increased its own military expenditure considerably: $11 billion in ships, $1.3 billion in bombs and munitions last year. Riyadh’s defense budget is in fact five times that of Iran, and the GCC as a whole maintains a 10:1 ratio of military expenditure over its Persian counterpart. The accumulation of such a large arsenal in a tinderbox locale raises serious questions about who, exactly, is the main destabilizing force in the region.
Stability is the last excuse of the autocrat. The Saudis have expended tremendous resources persuading their Western allies that the steadiness of an authoritarian monarchy trumps democracy, let alone civil liberties and human rights. Yet current changes to the line of succession are challenging that narrative. A paradigm shift of leadership beckons as King Salman, the son of the kingdom’s founder, Abdulaziz Al-Saud, looks to incorporate a next generation of Saudi royalty. The king’s nephew, Mohammed bin Nayef, is the crown prince and presumptive heir to the throne. But it is Salman’s own son, Mohammed, deputy crown prince and the world’s youngest defense minister at age 30, who is seen as the country’seminence grise and successor to his father’s title.

However, Mohammed bin Salman is widely regarded as impulsive and woefully inexperienced. The failure of Saudi policy against the Iranian-supported Houthi rebellion in Yemen lies at his feet. It is hardly a coincidence that on the same day Riyadh executed Sheik Al-Nimr, it unilaterally withdrew from a fragile ceasefire in Yemen. Western allies and regional acolytes alike nervously consider whether Saudi Arabia will be vulnerable to more campaigns of folly or even a palace coup, depending on who next ascends the leadership hierarchy.

If stability is something the Saudis market to its Western allies, it is religious access that the country promotes to the Muslim world. The House of Saud has enjoyed and exploited its moniker of Guardian of the Holy Sites. This status has tamped down criticism by many who fear being denied entry to Mecca for the annual religious obligation of the Hajj.
This is not to say discontent has been quashed in the Muslim world. Increasingly, dissenters have argued that Saudi Arabia has become a 

liability to Islam. Without the presumption of legitimacy from the Muslim world, the credibility of the Saudi regime stands on shifting sands.
The “Vegasization” of Mecca, with its tall, garish buildings and luxury hotels dwarfing the Grand Mosque; the demolition of historically and religiously important sites in the city; and the debacle surrounding yet another stampede during the Hajj have all caused many Muslims to question whether staying silent on Saudi misfeasance is worth the consequences. Without the presumption of legitimacy from the Muslim world, the credibility of the Saudi regime stands on shifting sands.
Needless to say, the kingdom’s not-so-subtle implosion has important ramifications for the region. Interestingly, it may have even overplayed its hand with the Obama Administration. In response to the execution of Sheikh Al-Nimr and the ensuing diplomatic downward spiral, the White House has called for both sides to exercise restraint—an interestingly neutral tack when dealing with America’s professed central strategic ally and another it does not have diplomatic relations with.
This balanced response indicates a potentially major recalibration in American thinking regarding the Persian Gulf and the two major countries that straddle a geostrategic waterway. It also suggests that after 36 years, Washington is no longer interested in placing all of its regional strategic eggs in one basket, especially when stronger, more stable alternatives are readily available. The erosion of reliability and judgment displayed of late by the House of Saud exposes it as a royal family either unwilling or unable to put its house in order. And in one of the world’s most volatile regions, that is the most provocative act of all.

Video - $900M Powerball Jackpot: What you can and can't buy

Oregon militia stand their ground but local residents want 'these thugs' gone

Sam Levin

As the armed militia – many traveling from out of the state – flock to and transform the Malheur wildlife refuge into a tight-knit community, on the outside a growing chorus of locals grow wary.
Melissa Cooper doesn’t know when she will see her three children again. The 37-year-old Arizona warehouse worker said goodbye to her kids 10 days ago and for the last week has been stationed full-time inside a federal building in a remote part of the high desert of south-eastern Oregon – hundreds of miles from home. Cooper is one of the few female members of an armed militia that forced their way into the headquarters of a national wildlife refuge last Saturday, taking over a number of government buildings for an indefinite occupation.
“It’s hard being away from the children. They want mom and dad,” said Cooper, whose husband Blaine is a high-profile member of the militia. But as she sorted piles of donated food and supplies on Friday, Cooper, who was unarmed, admitted that it could be awhile before she reunites with her 17-year-old son and two daughters, ages eight and nine. “We will be here as long as it takes.”
Cooper and several dozen other protesters say they are standing up for land-use rights and fighting the federal government over oppressive regulations that hurt ranchers. The militia has trespassed on a number of federal properties at the Malheur national wildlife refuge – sleeping in US Fish and Wildlife Service staff dorms, cooking large meals in on-site kitchens, hosting strategy meetings inside a quaint bird museum and even driving around a government truck that they found with keys left inside. With each passing day, the occupiers have further transformed the public property into their private living space – allowing them to form a group that they describe as a tight-knit residential community of patriots. “The spirit is really high here,” said Debra Carter Pope, a 61-year-old Fallon, Nevada, resident and the militia’s main cook alongside Cooper. “These are gonna be lifelong friends.”
But outside the refuge, the sentiment is much less cheerful. The week that began with defiant promises that the occupation would last for “several years” ended with a growing chorus of local Harney County residents demanding that the militia, most of whom are from out of state, leave the refuge. Despite the highly publicized outcry in Burns, the closest town to the refuge located 30 miles away, leaders of the militia, who claim they have the support of county families, are not backing down. As a result, rightwing extremists, constitutionalists, conspiracy theorists, armed militia groups, Tea Party activists and anti-government radicals from across the country continue to flock to the refuge to join the increasingly tense battle.

The occupation is rooted in the prosecution of Harney County cattle ranchers Dwight Hammond, 73, and his son, Steven, 46. The Hammonds, whose ranch is located near public lands under the jurisdiction of the federal Bureau of Land Management, were convicted of arson charges stemming from a fire they started that consumed 139 acres of federal lands. Last Saturday, two days before the men went to prison for a five-year sentence, residents of Burns held a peaceful rally to protest against what many saw as a harsh and unjust conviction that symbolized the federal government’s mistreatment of local ranchers and its wasteful use of public lands.
But a small armed contingent eventually broke away from the rally and seized the wildlife refuge, making vague threats of violence and spouting much broader grievances about government overreach. Within a day, a huge media circus landed in the small rural town in Oregon.
Leading the occupation is Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy who made headlines in 2014 when he led a similar armed standoff with the federal government over cattle grazing rights. Many of Cliven’s supporters came to Oregon with Ammon and his brother Ryan this week, armed and ready for another fight in the national spotlight. But in an effort to prevent bloodshed and avoid a repeat of the rightwing standoffs of the 1990s that ended in horrific violence, local and federal law enforcement officials have adopted a wait-and-see approach, choosing not to ambush the compound.
Harney County judge Steve Grasty told the Guardian on Saturday that the passive tactics of law enforcement were unlikely to change, even as the backlash grows: “All I hear over and over is, ‘We are not going out there.’” There is genuine fear, he added: “These thugs, criminals, militia … I don’t know what they’re capable of. No one does. People are afraid in this town.”
With no police presence or threats of arrest and a growing number of anti-government activists visiting the refuge, the occupation by the end of the week had devolved into something of a chaotic free-for-all. Reporters and curious residents and ranchers mingled with armed militiamen – some of whom had their wives, children and grandchildren visit them on Friday. For the most part, there was little order or organization – other than Jon Ritzheimer, an anti-Islam activistand de facto guard occasionally blocking media from entering. People walked freely into government administrative offices, a wildlife museum and other federal buildings. Militia members and media could leave and return to the refuge at any time, making it clear that the occupation won’t end due to a lack of food. Cooper showed the Guardian that the group on Friday afternoon had four freezers filled with meat and so many piles of donated goods from supporters that it was a daunting task to organize.
Though they have not been a presence at the Bundys’ colorful daily press conferences, a small group of women in the militia appeared to play an important role in coordinating meals, supplies and other logistics. In interviews, they were also quick to push back against the media portrayal of the protesters as a group of unhinged, violent men – especially considering that many women have come to visit the occupation in recent days. “We are not bad people. We are patriots and we love our country,” said Pope, an air force veteran who is unarmed and has been at the occupation since it began.
After a week of exhaustive news coverage, many lamented that the media and local townspeople were misinformed and were unfairly demonizing the protesters.
“These guys are just normal everyday people,” added Duane Ehmer, a 45-year-old occupier from Irrigon, Oregon. He frequently wandered around the refuge on his horse, Hellboy, while carrying a large American flag and wearing a USA jacket –making him a popular subject for the many photographers stationed at the refuge. He said there’s nothing newsworthy or violent about people carrying firearms here: “Everyone in this part of Oregon has a gun.”
Occupiers were also defensive about the widespread criticisms on social media that the militia is benefiting from white privilege and that if Black Lives Matter or Muslim protesters organized an armed siege of government property, police would respond with violence and arrests. “I don’t see anyone here going to the streets and breaking down windows,” said Jimi O’Hagan, a 61-year-old farmer from Westport, Washington, who wore a baseball hat that said “Don’t Buck With My Rights”. He added: “I don’t see anyone here talking about discharging a weapon.”
Quinn Alexander, a 22-year-old from Bend, Oregon, who showed up on Friday morning, said that it makes sense for police to stop disruptive protests in busy city streets – but that it was obvious the Malheur militia was peaceful. “If violent people are rioting, we need action,” said Alexander, who was warming up by a small fire near the entrance to the headquarters. “There’s a push to portray this as domestic terrorism. But that’s not what I saw.”
Leaders of the militia have said they intend to maintain peace and that they have families back home eager to reunite with them. But they’ve also made clear that they would stay put until their vague and seemingly fluid list of demands were met. That includes the release of the Hammonds from prison and the return of federally owned lands to the control of local people – both highly unlikely outcomes, especially in the short term.
“We are not in the least bit ashamed of the actions we have taken,” a teary-eyed Ammon told a sea of news reporters huddled together in the cold on the side of the road by the refuge on Friday morning. “We understand them to be correct. We understand them to be lawful. And we understand them to be necessary.”
Ammon’s speech came after two days of loud calls for him to retreat and an in-person offer by Harney County sheriff Dave Ward to peacefully escort the occupiers out of state – an invitation he boldly declined. And in packed, emotionally charged community meetings in Burns on Wednesday and Friday nights, the majority of residents said the Bundys had made their point and it was time for them to call it quits.
Most residents have expressed outrage over the Hammonds’ prison sentence and gratitude that the world finally seemed to be paying attention to the plight of local ranchers. For years, they have complained that the federal government, which manages about 73% of Harney County land, has adopted laws and regulations that they say unjustly prioritize conservation and protecting endangered species and take away their livelihoods. But Bundy’s gang, they said, went too far.
“As a community, we would support anyone in trouble,” said Sue Kovar, a 64-year-old Burns resident who owns two historic buildings in town. “But when they took over the refuge, that’s a line in the sand. That refuge is beloved by many.” As the militia of outsiders contend that the government has stolen land from local ranchers – and while leaders of the federally recognized Burns Paiute Indian tribehave tried to remind people that their ancestors were the original landowners – Kovar said she wanted the refuge to remain a protected wilderness sanctuary with public access for all. “The militia are the land grabbers, because they want to privatize it and cut off universal appreciation.”
As the occupation entered its second week with no end in sight, both sides were pondering what would happen when the media go home and whether the standoff could conclude in a non-violent manner that positively affects ranchers. Crowded into a standing-room-only meeting at a Burns senior center Friday night, some residents offered their solution: they publicly demanded that Bundy end the occupation, but vowed to carry on his agenda with the objective of establishing local control of federal lands through a newly formed committee. “We need food consumers to band with us on government overreach and extreme environmentalism,” Erin Maupin, a Harney County rancher in attendance, told the Guardian. “We see this as a platform.”
But on Saturday morning, Grasty, the local judge who has worked for years to push back against excessive federal regulations, said he feared the Malheur takeover could severely impede the very efforts the militiamen say they support. “Bundy just put us back a decade or two,” he said. “The message weeks, months, years from now – everybody will see this as a dangerous place to come. That just makes me sick.”
On the refuge, even some Bundy supporters were expressing doubts by the end of the week. “I hope to see them lay down their firearms,” said Melvin Lee, a 45-year-old protester from Tucson, Arizona, who has been a regular presence at the occupation and has recently encouraged friends to leave with him. “We need to put the story back on the corruption and the federal government.” He admitted that he also fears bloodshed if this lasts much longer: “I’m trying to keep them from getting killed.”

Hillary Clinton Campaign Says Bernie Sanders At Odds With Barack Obama On Guns

Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign jumped at a chance to portray Democratic rival Sen. Bernie Sanders as being at odds with President Barack Obama on gun control after the president denounced legislation protecting gun-makers from lawsuits.

Sanders aides said there was "zero daylight" between Obama and Sanders and have argued that he was re-evaluating his position on the gun manufacturer liability law he voted for in 2005.

"Maybe it's time for Sen. Sanders to stand up and say, 'I got this one wrong,'" Clinton told MSNBC's "Hardball" on Friday. "When it really mattered, Sen. Sanders voted with the gun lobby, and I voted against the gun lobby."

In turn, the Sanders campaign cited a 2008 mail ad in which the Clinton campaign that year said Obama had once favored a ban on handguns but later said he supported the Second Amendment, then spoke of "bitter" people who "cling to their guns."

"Maybe Secretary Clinton should apologize for attacking the president in 2008 because he was too strong on gun control," Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said in a statement.

Clinton's attack comes less than a month before the first round of primary voting and mark an effort by her team to cast their candidate as the natural heir to Obama, who remains a beloved figure among Democratic primary voters. Obama has sought to avoid showing favoritism in the Democratic primary, in which Clinton and Sanders have both portrayed themselves as the best protector of Obama's legacy.

Clinton has spent months going after Sanders' record on gun control. A fresh opening came with the op-ed penned by Obama in Friday's New York Times in which he referred to the "virtual immunity from lawsuits" that he said gun manufacturers enjoy.

"I will not campaign for, vote for or support any candidate, even in my own party, who does not support common-sense gun reform," Obama wrote.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama had intentionally raised the issue of liability for gun manufacturers, adding that if Sanders became the Democratic nominee, the White House would have to examine his record to determine whether Obama can support him.

Earnest said Obama hadn't intended to send any "secret or subtle signal" about his preferred candidate in the Democratic primary. And he pointed out that Sanders had recently said he was open to reconsidering his opposition to liability legislation, perhaps in response to Obama's executive actions.

"That's exactly the goal here, right?" Earnest told reporters at the White House. "We want people to change their minds. We want members of Congress to start taking different positions."

In Iowa, Sanders criticized the former secretary of state over a proposal to provide workers with three months of paid family and medical leave. The senator supports Senate legislation that would pay for the more generous benefits by raising the payroll tax on a typical worker by $1.61 per week.

Clinton supports providing three months of paid leave but opposes the Senate bill because she has said she won't raise taxes on families earning $250,000 a year or less. Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver said the gun dispute was an effort to turn the focus away from other issues.

"The conversation that they don't want to have is about why Secretary Clinton doesn't support the family medical leave bill, her record on Wall Street and a host of other issues," Weaver said.

After the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in Connecticut, Sanders backed all the Democratic gun bills brought up in Congress. But in 1993, he voted against the landmark Brady handgun bill, which imposed a five-day waiting period for gun purchases.

Sanders now says he supports banning assault weapons and closing the so-called gun show loophole that exempts private, unlicensed gun sales from background check requirements.

Bernie Sanders' Record on Gun Control in Crosshair After President Obama's Op-Ed

  • After President Obama wrote an op-ed in the New York Times, many campaign observers began to question whether the president had intentionally called out Sen. Bernie Sanders’ record on gun control.

    "I will not campaign for, vote for or support any candidate, even in my own party, who does not support common-sense gun reform,” Obama wrote. The president then commented on gun manufacturer liability, an issue on which Sanders had notably voted with Republicans.

    Though Sanders now claims he is open to revisiting his support for liability legislation that benefits gun manufacturers, Obama’s comment that he will be a single-issue voter in 2016 was widely perceived as many as a warning to the Democratic presidential contender.

    “Today, the gun industry is almost entirely unaccountable,” Obama noted in his op-ed. “Thanks to the gun lobby’s decades of efforts, Congress has blocked our consumer products safety experts from being able to require that firearms have even the most basic safety measures … they’ve guaranteed that manufacturers enjoy virtual immunity from lawsuits, which means that they can sell lethal products and rarely face consequences.”

    Did the president’s statement intentionally target Sanders? Not the case, according to White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest.

    “The president was quite intentional about raising this issue as it relates to gun manufacturers and how they have essentially abdicated their responsibility to ensure that their business practices and that their products are safe, but that was not any sort of secret or subtle signal to demonstrate a preference in the presidential primary,” Earnest said during today press briefing. “But the president takes this seriously, and any candidate running for any office is going to have to demonstrate their commitment to these common sense measures before they can expect to get the support of the President of the United States.”

    Asked whether read Obama’s words as a “warning shot,” Sanders, I-Vermont, said he does not identify the comment as directed at him.

    “No, I don't. I truly don't,” Sanders told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell during an interview today. “There are a lot of candidates running in the House and the Senate who may be opposed to sensible gun control legislation. I happen not to be one of them. I strongly support the executive order that the president is working on right now.”

    Sanders continued to explain his campaign’s proposals for expanded background checks and a ban on assault weapons.

    “My views on these issues are very, very strong and I support what the president is doing,” he stressed.

    When Earnest was pressed on whether Obama’s op-ed meant the president would not campaign for Sanders if he ultimately secured the Democratic nomination for president, Earnest stressed Sanders has indicated he is “willing to revisit” his position, which was “exactly the goal” of the president’s op-ed.

    “We want people to change their minds. We want members of Congress to start taking different positions,” Earnest said.

    Earnest acknowledged it is possible that Sanders had previously expressed a willingness to revisit the issue following the president’s announcement on executive actions on Tuesday, but admitted he’s “not intimately familiar with the ins and outs” of Sanders’ record.

    “If that represents a genuine change in his position as a result of the president's announcement, that's great,” he said. “If Democratic voters across the country confirm that he is the Democratic nominee, then I'm confident that we're going to spend some time here learning about this record and learning about what is on his agenda to make that decision.”