Mauritania: Hot Heads and Cold Shoulders

Tasiast Workers Sit-in
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As the wealthy upper management of Canada’s Kinross Gold were celebrating Christmas, a large group of almost 300 members of its workforce at the Tasiast operation in Mauritania received the unwelcome news that they were being laid off. The official line is that this was all part of a necessary strategy to cut costs and reduce operational capacity, and is also related to a fall in the price of gold.

The workers in Mauritania say they have not been treated fairly, that collective redundancies are not legal, and that they have a raft of additional issues which need to be addressed. One worker told a local reporter that he received his notice while taking his first vacation from work in six years. Another got the news while still undergoing medical treatment for an industrial injury. Several of those laid off had been encouraged to take out large bank loans, the status of which is now a major problem.

Frustrated by the lack of reaction, a group of workers began an open-ended sit-in outside the Presidential Palace in Nouakchott on December 25 to demand a hearing and request fair treatment under the prevailing law. As usual, a representative from the office of President Aziz came out to receive the demands of the delegation, but returned to say Aziz would not grant them an audience. The protesters remained in place, throughout the bitterly cold nights.

After the sit-in continued for some days without redress from the company or action by the authorities, local activists and concerned members of civil society went to sit with them and show solidarity, and returned on January 5 to take part in a human chain of protest, as shown in the video above, and the photo gallery below.

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The media responded with a blanket of silence – the mining companies in Mauritania are big spenders when it comes to advertising contracts. The parties of the political opposition likewise had little to say.

Then, late on Thursday 9 January, the sit-in had a visit from the police. The mining workers were told they must leave the area because President Keita of Mali was coming to pay an official visit and they were making the place look untidy. Naturally, they refused to budge. Another group of unrelated protesters who were in the same location that evening did comply with police orders to vacate the area.

At around 02:55, the riot squads arrived in eight vehicles and, after talking quietly with the workers for about 15 minutes, launched a sudden violent attack, using batons and tear gas. After two brutal hours of police repression against the workers from Tasiast, and the activists who rushed to their side in support, there were about a dozen people injured. Four men with more with serious injuries were refused treatment, through the combined obstruction of medical staff at the National Hospital and the police. Several protesters were robbed of cash and mobile phones by the police while being searched; an amount of 400,000 MRO has been reported. The police also confiscated blankets, rugs, clothes and cooking gear from the sit-in.

Police released about 10 workers arrested during the raid and the running battle in the streets of Nouakchott which ensued; the rest were released later. There was no media presence the entire time, only activists from Mouvement du 25 Février (m25fev) and La Jeunesse de RFD trying to document events. One of the m25fev activists was injured quite seriously in the shoulder and was detained by police for about 2 hours.

The protests in the capital continued on Saturday 11 January, despite the previous day’s violence.

Protesting mine workers outside Tasiast HQ Nouakchott

Protesting mine workers outside Tasiast HQ Nouakchott

The protesters switched location to stand outside the Kinross office in Nouakchott, but an activist reported to a local journalist that the management there called the police, claiming the protesters were throwing stones – which the activist strenuously denied. Police cordoned off the area and there was an unconfirmed report that tear gas was used again.

This issue is being systematically ignored, while far larger “Islamic” protests are being orchestrated in Nouakchott and Nouadhibou to demand the application of Sharia law against the author of a recent blog post which was critical of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH).

Massive protest march after Friday prayers descended on the presidential palace

Massive protest march after Friday prayers descended on the presidential palace

These protests are growing in size and turning violent. On Saturday 11 January in Nouadhibou, three injuries – including one police officer – were reported after clashes with police. The previous day, that town saw large protests with tyres being burned, cars and shops vandalised, as police used tear gas to disperse the protesters. Local journalist Ahmed Salem was beaten and arrested by police. In Nouakchott, hundreds marched to the palace and the president came down to address the crowd, and remind them that Mauritania is an Islamic Republic which already uses Sharia.

10Jan Aziz outside the palace

Aziz dons his turban to address people outside the palace

Deeply reminiscent of the book burning incident of May 2012, this Aziz PR stunt has drawn immediate censure across the board, including from some highly influential commentators. Although the worst of the criticism was reserved for Aziz, there was some remaining for an obviously false claim by one (barely legitimate) news site that Al Qaeda flags had been spotted in the Nouadhibou protests, which is being resoundingly refuted. There is also mounting concern about the decidedly un-Islamic behaviour of robberies and violence being reported.

As for the alleged reason for these massive, repeated protests – the offensive article – this is a most unusual situation and one which is perhaps too easily exploited.  The supposed author of the article was arrested over a week ago, and was sent to the High Court for arraignment a few days later, after admitting to writing the item in question. He is said to have been charged with apostasy, which is covered in Article 306 of the current penal code. He can be fined and sentenced to prison if he makes a public apology, or he can refuse and be sentenced to death. He has already issued a written retraction and apology before being arrested (or taken into protective custody, depending on the source). No one has been executed in Mauritania for decades.

These twinned sagas will continue, the redundant Tasiast workers will be ignored, while demanding redress under a law which exists but probably doesn’t apply to their specific situation; and the devout Muslims will be showered with attention, demanding introduction of a law that would be redundant because one already exists and is being applied. By Tuesday, 14 January, the day assigned as the anniversary of the birth of Mohammed (PBUH), this particular powder keg could be set to explode.

Digital Activism Tactics: TweetStorms Reviewed

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In late 2010, digital activists on Twitter began experimenting with a new form of protest, the “TweetStorm.” I updated this from my old post because there have been a few changes to Twitter, and both Facebook and Google+ have now adopted hashtags, making this an even more attractive concept. Where you read “tweet” below, take that to include status updates on FaceBook, Twitter, and elsewhere.

What is a TweetStorm?

It’s a coordinated action by many users to tweet about a single issue at the same time, generating a “storm” of tweets.

How does it work?

Anyone can call for a TweetStorm, you just need to decide:

  1. What will be in the tweet[s] (the text and what hashtags, any special user to target, eg @whitehouse – but use extreme restraint, or risk alienating* a user who can help!

    TIP: Choose a new, unique hashtag, but everyone has to keep it secret until right before the event

  2. What time it has to be sent (essential to choose a time you know lots of supporters are usually online)

    TIP: Create an online event that people can sign up for, or make a one-off campaign on thunderclap.it

What next?

  • You have to tell people about the TweetStorm, and ask them to get involved by supporting it by sending out a tweet or setting up a scheduled tweet (see below) and by spreading the idea to their followers!

    TIP:  Contact your most active followers  privately, to ask if they will take part and help to recruit others

  • Then, you all either keep the TweetStorm text somewhere handy (Facebook event, blog post, pastebin, etc) and tweet at the appointed time, or schedule the tweets to go out at the set time.

How do I schedule a tweet?

TweetDeck includes a schedule tweet feature, and there are some scheduling services available through mobile or online applications, such as Buffer or Hootsuite.

How do I know what time to send the tweet if I am in a different time zone?

Check times in various time zones here: http://www.worldtimeserver.com/ or here: http://www.worldtimezones.com/

And that is about all there is to it.

TIP: If you plan to use TweetStorms as an ongoing tactic, keep some stats, give people feedback, and THANK THEM for taking part

Summary

  1. Write the tweet(s) and/or choose a unique hashtag and pick some optional @username(s) to target
  2. Recruit your friends using DM, email, FaceBook, Twitter, Google+ etc. Coach them if necessary
  3. Remember to set up your schedule if you need to
  4. Pass the information along – you may want to warn your followers
  5. Post increasingly frequent reminders as the time approaches, but keep the new hashtag secret

Are TweetStorms Effective?

tweet-in-a-bottleEarly analysis indicated that TweetStorms were highly effective. Whether that was the result of serendipity or serious effort remained to be proven in those early days. With the benefit of hindsight we can see that Twitter changed their Terms of Service so that sending “unsolicited” tweets, or using certain hashtags, could get your account suspended. Added to that, as Twitter grew and the user interface changed, many people found it increasingly difficult to maintain the level of close, co-operative contact with their network, which a TweetStorm depends on to be successful.

However, we can say:

  1. TweetStorms do work, and only thanks to the coordinated actions of concerned individuals.
  2. TweetStorms are not necessarily successful in isolation; they are an important adjunct to the conversations, petitions, emails, letters and postcards and other campaign actions.
  3. On Twitter, it is now very difficult to target Trending Topics, so targeted TweetStorms are a good alternative to trending.
  4. They the draw attention of other users, which can help strengthen a cause.
  5. TweetStorms are NOT spam. Spam is useless or irrelevant information sent to random or unrelated targets.
  6. TweetStorms are not meant as entertainment, rather as serious activism for spreading awareness, but you can make them fun, too. They are designed to attract attention from all corners, not only “@UN” or “@StateDept” for example.
  7. TweetStorms show allies the cause remains strong.
  8. They also show potential enemies that supporters of the cause are united. Maintaining secrecy of the tag and targets to the last minute also catches opponents by surprise, robbing them of the chance to spoil your plan.
  9. TweetStorms are democratic in nature: anyone can choose the message, who it targets, and when.
  10. TweetStorms are relatively easy – with potential high returns for minimal effort and zero outlay

Last Word

As activists, it is important to not only take part in TweetStorms, but to actively encourage others to join. Activism doesn’t stop at the ‘send’ button.

* Aside: When I started TweetStorms, to draw attention to human rights issues in Iran, Amnesty International was a target for more than one campaign. They were not at all happy to see their timeline flooded with our messages (there was no “mentions” column on Twitter back then) and blocked my account. Later, they began using the TweetStorm tactic themselves! And no, they didn’t unblock my account.

The original guides to the TweetStorm idea in several languages are available on these links:

TweetStorm-Arabic

TweetStorm-China

TweetStorm-Deutsch

TweetStorm-English

TweetStorm-Español

TweetStorm-Française

TweetStorm-Farsi

TweetStorm-Italia

TweetStorm-Japan

TweetStorm-Nederland

TweetStorm-Portugal

Related articles

Online Security: Verification and Validation

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An overview of key points for activists to bear in mind for online security, or tactics to bring into play in case of an online incursion by members of anyone’s so-called “Cyber Army” – updated version of my December 2011 post “Battle Hardening Against Cyber Soldiers” for Cyber Security Awareness Month.

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When it comes to online security, your first responsibility is to yourself, and that has never been more clear than now, with the daily diet of revelations about the allegedly massive scale of global government spying and surveillance finally raising awareness. Of at least equal importance, is the need to stay alert to the risks your actions might create for others in your online network. Every time you share, tag, mention or otherwise connect someone else to your content, you are highlighting your relationship in the context of that content. A simple typing error, a hastily copied story, or unbridled haste to share without fact-checking, can alter that context dramatically, and potentially with rather more serious consequences that any of us previously imagined. Increase your personal security first, using the same logic as those flight safety rules about oxygen masks. Here’s a handy article from the New Scientist, about how to try and evade the NSA dragnet, to help you get started.

Being part of an online network means you need to be able to justify each of your online relationships, and pay attention to any unexpected changes. Harsh as it might seem, treat all former contacts, who reappear after an absence, with neutral (not hostile) caution. Accounts do get hacked, and occasionally, people do get recruited to “the other team” or put under pressure to reveal passwords. If you didn’t put a challenge/response protocol* in place with your trusted contact before they dropped off the grid, so you could verify their identity when they reappear at some future point, then you have to assume there is a 50% chance they are not the person you once knew until they can prove themselves to your satisfaction. Similarly, do not feel obliged to “follow back” or accept every friend request unless you feel confident about doing so. Set some standards for yourself about why and how you plan to grow your network. If you are simply feeling insecure, ego-driven, or lonely, be honest with yourself about your motivations, and try to keep them in check so that they don’t compromise your security.

*Establish a challenge/response protocol with your trusted contacts. This is an agreed question you can ask the other person and an agreed response they must give. Like a password reminder.

Tip: Do NOT use any of your existing password reminder Q&A’s

New accounts, especially breathlessly dramatic ones, should also be treated with measured caution. Wait for verification of all news, especially any that will have serious or long-term repercussions. We learned this the hard way when a very plausible fraud appeared on Twitter in the middle of protest and declared that bit.ly shortened links were blocked in Iran. The ensuing panic and last-minute changes caused a lot of people a great deal of unnecessary extra effort, and some of the suggested alternative link shortening sites are no longer operational, meaning that archived content which includes links using these now defunct services are effectively dead.

Breaking News” reports always seem to demand an urgent response, where in fact they should be treated as “unconfirmed news“. As we all know, a lie is halfway around the social network world before the truth has got its pants on. So, as always, wait and verify, verify, verify. Remember that even the most experienced social media users and big name mass media outlets like the BBC, MBC, CNN etc have all been fooled by fake news, or been too quick to rush to headlines without checking facts; at times, they are even revealed to be responsible for it . If you do happen to post a report in good faith, which later turns out to be false, you should be willing to spend at least as much time retracting it and letting everyone know, than the time you spent sharing it.

Mark unconfirmed status updates as UNCONFIRMED or UNCONF. Do not remove text that identifies news as unconfirmed when re-tweeting or re-posting.

did-the-world-s-nastiest-virus-try-to-self-destruct--49a5bfa353Be cautious with private message requests or emails containing sensational news, documents, image, videos etc. asking you to share news. Suggest to whoever sent it that they post it themselves and you (might) share their update. If they claim to be unable to use or create a social network account, suggest they use liveleak.com, where you can share images, documents, videos and post text updated using an alias. Run a search for the information being privately shared with you, to see if it can be verified, or if anyone is posting warnings about it.

Watch out for people re-using images from unrelated events. Use Google or Tin Eye to search for images by url or by uploading them. Try using Storyful’s Multisearch tool to help you verify news and look for more sources. What other tools do you know of? Add the best to your favorites, and share them often.

Check for images having been altered using special analysis tools like Image Metadata Manager or JPEGSnoop or the fotoforensics.com website.

As far as possible, try to stay transparent in your methods and analysis, and let your network help you by reaching out for help verifying reports, checking facts, or translating content.

ISERI Protests 12 Jan 2011 AlJAzeera cameraman hassledFake videos seem to be all the rage these days, while innocent cameramen are being murderedkidnapped or harassed, and citizen journalists – or indeed, anyone carrying a smart phone or camera – face increasing pressure from police and authorities. 

Here is my current list of suggestions, ideas and wishes for video checking and verification:

  1. Time and Date – video camera clocks can be changed of course, but we used to encourage activists in Iran or elsewhere to show us that day’s newspaper, social media status updates on a screen, or a live TV broadcast in the background of their video.
  2. Incentifying crowdsourced verification by rewarding the crowd. Not necessarily restricted to financial rewards, there are many different ways to motivate using more humanitarian methods, media coverage, thanking helpers with mentions, gamified social media decals etc – see this video for an example (at 10m42s) : 
    Digital Humanitarians: Patrick Meier at TEDxTraverseCity 2013
  3. Patience. There is often no good reason for the rush to post unverified news. This sense of urgency was more relevant four or five years ago, when mainstream media was thumbing its nose at “irrelevant, pointless” social media and users felt driven to prove their worth and expose the slow-footed traditional press. Now social media has gained almost universal acceptance, we should adjust the idea of competition to be first to break “all” news – at the cost of validity – and only apply it where it adds value, such as disaster relief.
  4. Details. We need to encourage those posting video to take the time to add important details – names, dates, locations, background facts, and tagging – for example, while also blurring faces of vulnerable subjects.
  5. Communication – it’s a 2-way street. We need to understand the importance of leaving comments of encouragement, feedback, guidance. At present, too much video is being posted and consumed in a communication vacuum.
  6. Archiving. Too many videos get pulled offline, and any video exposing serious abuse by authorities is at risk of being censored either formally or informally. There are sites that will save text or image content, but I don’t know of any reliable, consistent, centralised effort to preserve video or audio. It’s left to quick-thinking people to save these items privately.
  7. Translation. Really, this should be first on the list. The lack of organised, consistent volunteer efforts to crowdsource translation beggars belief. If you know anyone who can build an app for this, I have a rough design outline that’s been gathering dust for the past 4 years.
  8. Gratuitous violence and shock tactics are on the increase (and being pushed by Facebook and major news outlets when it suits them) and little good has come of it, if any.  People are being traumatised, becoming immune to it, or turning away. This is very damaging to the prospects of crowdsourced verification, because the gore factor is a deterrent to many potential helpers. I resist sharing the 18+ content being posted as relevant to human rights abuse, in the hope that, if we don’t encourage the trend by reacting, rewarding, or promoting, it will fall out of favour.
  9. We need an open source tool for video that works like JPEG Snoop, to extract information about the video, camera, settings, GPS etc.

Your comments and suggestions are very welcome on these subjects – drop me an email through the contact form or leave a comment below.

Take responsibility for your online safety and security

  • Change to a strong password and keep changing it, if not daily then as often as you can.
  • Scan your computer to check for intrusions, keyloggers, rootkits, malware, and trojans and keep your security software up to date.
  • Make sure that your recovery details for websites like Twitter, FaceBook & blogs etc are accurate and up to date.
  • Protect the email accounts you use to register with websites and services.
  • Use https to access websites and services, so that when you do connect, the information you send is encrypted.
  • Copy and paste login names and passwords rather than type them.
  • Do not store unencrypted user names and passwords on your computer.
  • Protect files on your computer or on external storage devices or removable storage like flash drives, SD cards or USB sticks using encryption, such as TrueCrypt.
  • Use a password on all your devices.

Be alert for apparently innocent requests for information about your own or anyone else’s details, such as location, online activity, other connections, friends or contacts.

Slavery: Ancient and Modern

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A new 2013 Global Slavery Index has been published by the Walk Free Foundation, in which we read that Mauritania tops the list of countries where slavery is an issue, when ranked in proportion to population size. Many media outlets were quick to transform this into a headline, which has already blazed its trail through social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

There are some important observations to consider when reading these headlines, which I want to highlight:

  • The index uses a broad definition of “modern slavery” which includes child marriage and human trafficking, including illegal immigration. In the case of Mauritania, what exists there, and is still being witnessed today, is descendant slavery, as found in several countries in the index, and which is anything BUT modern. The number of Mauritanian citizens being trafficked is so tiny it defies measurement, and while child marriage is legal under Sharia law, marriage itself is so popular that once again, the numbers are going to be incredibly difficult to determine with any measure of accuracy. Those cases of child marriage we do hear of are mostly in more remote, rural areas with scant statistical records.
  • The population of Mauritania has not been reported using an official census since 2000, and even then, the numbers were deliberately under-reported, as noted by the World Bank and the UN, the secondary sources used by this new index. All numbers for population for the past 13 years have been estimated and extrapolated from other data sources. These sources are studies which will also determine the scope of aid programs, a major source of income for successive, corrupt, governments of Mauritania. Therefore we must assume the numbers reported for those studies is impacted by the opportunistic greed of the ruling administration.
  • The percentage arrived at by the index is 4%. This is in stark contrast to the figure of 10% to 20% usually reported by NGOs and human rights organisations. No explanation is offered for this apparent discrepancy. Clearly, the government, which remains sternly in denial of the continued existence or practice of slavery in Mauritania, will consider this a major PR coup in its favour.
  • Hillary Clinton has noted that the new index is “not perfect” and therefore, we should expect to see changes to it as it develops over time.
Freed into homelessness and unemployment, former slaves in Mauritania build makeshift villages from found materials. But they are often made homeless again, their shanty-towns bulldozed in land-grabs, as happened in Leimghetty, outside the capital, Nouakchott, in May 2013

Freed into homelessness and unemployment, former slaves in Mauritania build makeshift villages from found materials. But they are often made homeless again, their shanty-towns bulldozed under order of state officials, as happened in Leimghetty, outside the capital, Nouakchott, in May 2013

We must take the issue of slavery seriously, because it is widespread and damaging and goes against everything decent human beings hold dear. But we don’t need glossy reports or “world leaders” (see video below) moralising about the subject as much as we need to see real concrete plans about how this scourge is going to be eradicated, and sensible actions which offer practical help for the victims to regain a dignified independence as well as their liberty.

At the moment, it looks like the main concern about slavery as far as many states are concerned, is that the proceeds are part of the “grey economy,” and therefore those doing the enslaving are also avoiding paying tax. It would seem that governments are more comfortable with the notion of fostering the sprawling mass of aid and development organisations, and collecting income tax from their often very highly-paid executives, while the rest of the agencies’ funds are able to legitimately avoid standard company tax because they are registered charities.

With new, harsher penalties being announced by the UK for anyone found guilty of trafficking, there is a great deal of justifiable public concern for the fate of the victims in all this, which is not clear from the statements being issued. These concerns are echoed in every country where trafficking or slavery is a problem. In Mauritania, for example, “international pressure” has led to a succession of rules, laws and proclamations from the government of the time, paying lip-service to the exhortations of donor organisations and countries willing to invest or otherwise bring revenue into the state coffers, with humanitarian strings attached. Yet each time the regime has banned or outlawed the practice of slavery, it has led to groups of people being “freed” by their former owners out of panic and fear, rather than concern. This has created a group of socially isolated former slaves, cast out of a bad but familiar situation, into an even more extreme state of insecurity, with no food, shelter, or work, and lacking even a basic education.

How extreme? Bad enough that some of them were forced to seek shelter in the refugee camp built to house those displaced from the conflict in neighbouring Mali. What happened when they were supposedly discovered? The UNHCR refused to feed them, and stopped issuing food rations to the entire camp, provoking a riot during which the food stores were broken into and rations seized by angry, humiliated, hungry, people with nowhere else to go and no other choices. That camp has been open since January 2012, and those Mauritanians were there almost from the start, but they were initially useful in boosting numbers for fund-raising appeals and supplying dramatic subtext to help justify the deployment of French and other military forces in Mali. Now, they’re surplus to requirements. Ironically, it is against the law to be homeless in Mauritania, land of the nomad. Expelling these Mauritanians from the refugee camp will subject them to risk of arrest and possible imprisonment, and certainly to harassment.

Such groups are likely to be found in every country where slavery is a current issue, and several where it has supposedly been eliminated, although their situations will vary. They all need support, and it should be delivered with as much publicity and enthusiasm as the speeches and statements and statistics, if not more.

RELATED STORIES

Iran in Syria: Death buys chocolate

Shrine of Syeda Zainab
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Hezbollah convoy in Syria

Hezbollah convoy in Syria

Dutch TV reporter Roozbeh Kaboly and the Nieuwsuur team have put together this report, with English subtitles, based on a video said to show Iranian troops training militia in Syria, using a village school as a base.  The man being interviewed has been identified as Revolutionary Guards Commander Esmail Heydari, who reportedly died in Syria a few weeks ago, and was later given a public funeral in his hometown of Amol, about 180km north of Iran’s capital, Tehran. He describes the mission, working with teams which are on 25-day rotation, adding that some were previously trained in Iran. Part of the mission’s objective appears to be securing access for Hezbollah to deliver weapons and supplies.

Esmail Heydari| Photo: http://fajrenoor.blogfa.com/

Esmail Heydari| Photo: http://fajrenoor.blogfa.com/

Followers of human rights abuses in Iran, used to reading about the indescribable torture and cruelty dispensed to prisoners in the “special” IRGC detention centres and isolation wards, may be surprised by the smiling, relaxed, countenance of this commander. Heydari reveals the secret of his team’s success on their training mission is that they treat fighters with respect, “We haven’t paid them or anything,” he comments. Respect is a sentiment Heydari claims to extend to the local people: for example, by driving military vehicles slowly in civilian areas to avoid raising dust. While driving through a village Heydari says was deserted until his unit came to the area and cleaned up, he greets children warmly, offering candy. “When we came, there was no human being,” says Heydari. One of his team responds, “There are still no humans now, just Arabs.” The Nieuwsuur translation then relates the cameraman suggesting the Iranians also offer candy to the women they are passing on the road, but misses what I consider to be an implied threat in the reply: “We’ll give them some(thing), and you can film.” This is more typical of the IRGC behaviour I am familiar with.

The regime in Iran celebrated his death by burying Commander Heydari with honor, as a martyr who died defending the Shrine of Syeda Zainab, granddaughter of the prophet Mohammed.

At least 6 more videos were posted to YouTube by the admin of a rebel group’s Facebook page, and were later verified by France24 journalists working with translators, who helped to produce a detailed analysis. The links to the original videos were shared on Twitter, but were either shared only with selected contacts, or the settings were later changed to prevent public access. Copies of the videos, which seem to show Iranian military officers working with soldiers from Syria’s regular army, giving them advice and instructions for combat, can be seen here.

The film appears to have been recorded by Hadi Baghbani, a young Iranian documentary maker, who reportedly died during an incident on the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, where he is said to have been on a 10-day assignment, his second such visit. A second group of Iranians reportedly died while on the road in Syria, either because of a traffic accident or because their driver was killed by a sniper. The rebels believed to have found Baghbani’s video camera, the Idblib-based Dawood Brigade, which released the video, claimed responsibility for “most” of the deaths in an interview with al-Aan TV. The group’s spokesperson, Hosam Alsermene, told Al-Jazeera that they killed about 15-20 members of an Iranian team after hearing about their Syrian operations. Their identities and operational details were confirmed after taking possession of mobile phones and the video camera of an independent journalist who just happened to be there. The 30-year-old filmmaker received a burial ceremony in his hometown of Babolsar, Iran.

Hadi Baghbani

Hadi Baghbani

It’s not completely clear, from the available accounts, how the bodies were returned to Iran. Can we assume that this happened with the help of Syrian authorities or the militia which were being trained? Alternatively, other Iranians still present in Syria might have been able to repatriate the dead themselves.

Defending the Shrine of Syeda Zainab

In July 2012, it was reported that about 5,000 Shiite Muslims were living in the neighbourhood of the shrine, including some who fled there to seek refuge from sectarian violence. Local youths armed with sticks were said to be defending the site, with Iran alleging clerics in Saudi Arabia had issued a fatwa demanding its destruction. A group of 48 Iranians, including members of the IRGC who claimed they were in retirement and making a pilgrimage to the shrine, was taken hostage in August 2012, before being traded in exchange for 2,130 prisoners of the Syrian regime in January 2013. Abdel Nasser Shmeir, interviewed by Al Arabiya and presented as the commander of Al-Baraa Brigade, claimed the hostages, plus their Afghan interpreter, were members of a 150-strong group sent to Syria by Iran for reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering. Shia news organisations claim that the shrine is now being protected by hundreds of Shia militants from Iraq and the Lebanese Hezbollah group. Recent reports say a custodian of the site, Anas Romani, was killed, and the building damaged, when it was attacked by mortar shells in July 2013.  The Syrian government accused militants of the attacks.