The Middle East Digest provides text and audio from the Daily Press Briefing. For the full briefings, please visit daily press briefings.
From the Daily Press Briefing of June 22, 2011
12:48 p.m. EDT
MR. TONER: Welcome to the State Department. Good afternoon. Just briefly at the top on Bahrain, we are concerned about the severity of the sentences handed down yesterday* in Bahrain. We’re also concerned about the use of military courts to try these civilians. As President Obama said in his May 29 – or May 19th speech, such steps are at odds with the universal rights of Bahrain’s citizens. We understand that these cases will now go through an appeals process. We continue to urge the Bahraini Government to abide by its commitment to transparent judicial proceedings conducted in full accordance with Bahrain’s international legal obligations and to create the conditions for a meaningful, inclusive, and credible dialogue. And that’s all I have for the top. I’ll take your questions.
*sentences handed down today
QUESTION: On this topic, are you also doing – imposing sanctions on Bahrain or stop the cooperation with them?
MR. TONER: Well, as you know, Assistant Secretary Posner was in Bahrain I think just last week, and we’re continuing to call on the Government of Bahrain, as the President said in his May 19th speech, to create a dialogue, a national dialogue and create the environment that’s conducive for that dialogue to take place. And again, as the President noted, you can’t do that when members of the opposition, the peaceful opposition are in jail.
QUESTION: Are you confident –
QUESTION: But what kind of steps you can take for –
MR. TONER: Well, I think we continue our engagement with the Bahraini Government. It’s been significant to date, and we’re going to continue to press our concerns, but also to work with them, again, on – creating these kinds of conditions.
QUESTION: And what about sanctions?
MR. TONER: There’s no consideration that I’m aware of.
QUESTION: Are you confident in the appeal process in Bahrain?
MR. TONER: I didn’t hear your question, Said.
QUESTION: In the veracity of the appeal process in Bahrain?
MR. TONER: Well, again, we’re going to continue to keep an eye on it and to monitor events. We have, as a matter of practice, been observing these trials.
QUESTION: So you – I missed the top –
MR. TONER: Yeah. Go –
MR. TONER: I know. Do you want me to give it again?
QUESTION: Well, no. If you could just synopsize it, I mean, the trial and the verdict, what –
MR. TONER: Sure. Well, I just said we’re concerned about the severity –
QUESTION: You are?
MR. TONER: -- of sentences that were handed down yesterday in Bahrain, as well as the –
QUESTION: So why are you –
MR. TONER: -- use of military courts. I’m synopsizing.
QUESTION: Okay. Actually, that’s all I needed to know.
MR. TONER: (Laughter.) Okay.
QUESTION: I wanted the expression of concern because I wanted to ask you about why you had no opinion yesterday about the trial in absentia of the Tunisian president – ex-Tunisian president.
MR. TONER: It was in absentia. It is a – it was a – you’re talking about the sentencing of former President Ben Ali. Well, the credibility of this trial is ultimately for the Tunisian citizens to decide on or to judge, but again, this was a trial that took place in absentia. We refer you to them to for additional information on it.
QUESTION: Why would you express concern about the trial in Bahrain, but not of the trial in Tunisia? You think the trial in Tunisia was okay?
MR. TONER: Again, it was – first of all, it was a – it’s a different camp*.
QUESTION: I realize that.
MR. TONER: This is some – this is an effort by the Tunisian people –
QUESTION: I realize that they are two separate trials.
MR. TONER: Thanks, Matt. This was an effort by the Tunisian people to hold their former leader accountable for his actions. Again, ultimately, that’s a decision for the Tunisian people to decide whether this was free or fair. What we’re seeing in Bahrain, what causes us concern are a number of things about the trial – first of all, that it was held in a military court, and secondly, that the sentences for these individuals was, in our view, quite severe.
QUESTION: So then I just want to make sure that – so that means that your lack of – you are following these trials throughout the Middle East, throughout the Arab uprising, you’re watching them closely, and the fact that you didn’t have much to say or didn’t – had virtually nothing to say yesterday about the trial in Tunisia means that you don’t have any problem with it. Is that correct?
MR. TONER: I’ll just reiterate that we view it as a matter for the Tunisian people.
QUESTION: On the Tunisian trial, you keep saying the citizen, citizen. So you’re suggesting that a citizen’s trial is not a judicial trial (inaudible)?
MR. TONER: No. I’m saying that this is – look, Tunisia is obviously in the process of navigating this difficult transition from Ben Ali’s departure to a democratic process and ultimately elections. Part of that is holding previous leaders accountable for their actions. We view it as an effort in that regard.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: In the eyes of these developments, do you see –
MR. TONER: In the eyes of –
QUESTION: In light of these developments about foreign troops that went through the GCC cooperation, some of the other Gulf countries and troops, how do you –
MR. TONER: You’re talking about Bahrain right now?
QUESTION: Talking about Bahrain, yes. How do you view those troops’ role in the Bahrain?
MR. TONER: Well, two points. One is that it’s a sovereign decision for Bahrain as a member of the Gulf Cooperation Council to have invited these troops into their country. However, we’ve been consistent and clear in our message that there’s no security solution, there’s no – the only real solution to what’s going on in Bahrain is what we said is what we said. And what I just said previously is a process that leads to a national dialogue towards reconciliation.
Yeah. Go ahead, Michel.
QUESTION: Mark, do you consider that the discussions with the Bahraini Crown Prince have failed to convince Bahrain to change course?
MR. TONER: I would just say that we continue to discuss and make clear our views on the situation in Bahrain to a wide variety of interlocutors within the government.
QUESTION: I have a question on China. Do you have a reaction to –
QUESTION: Can I stay on GCC?
MR. TONER: We can finish with GCC, sure.
QUESTION: Follow-up. Yesterday, GCC – Saudis invited Jordan and Morocco to join the GCC –
MR. TONER: Yeah. I’m aware that I owe you a response. I mean, look, I would just say that obviously they’re a – we’re not a member of the GCC; it’s up to them to decide who they would invite to join their organization. If we have anything to add beyond that, I’ll get that out. We’ll put that out as a TQ.
QUESTION: Could you – on the trial, could you just clarify something for us? Now, you said you expressed your concern. What would be the next step?
MR. TONER: What would be the next step?
QUESTION: Yeah. What would be the next step –
MR. TONER: Well, there’s an appeals process.
MR. TONER: Their – we understand that they’ve – the cases will now go to an appeals process.
QUESTION: Okay. But do you have, like, sort of a yardstick that you measure this appeal process was proper or improper? And what will you do if it’s not proper (inaudible)?
MR. TONER: Well, we do observe these trials, as I said, as a matter of course. And we’ll withhold judgment. Let’s let the process play itself out.
Yeah. Go ahead. Oh, you were asking me about –
QUESTION: Ai Weiwei.
MR. TONER: Right. We’ve obviously seen the reports, as you have. We’re looking into them. We’re unable to confirm anything at this time, but we’ve long called for his release and we continue to urge for the – urge the release of all persons who’ve been detained for exercising their internationally recognized human rights.
QUESTION: So is it a –
MR. TONER: We don’t know, is the bottom line.
QUESTION: You don’t know if it’s a good thing or –
MR. TONER: We don’t know if it’s – we don’t know if it took place. We’re looking to confirm it.
QUESTION: All right. Well, assuming that every news agency in the world isn’t wrong and that he has been released –
MR. TONER: We wait and we confirm these things through our own –
QUESTION: Well, would you –
MR. TONER: -- mission.
QUESTION: Would you – if these reports are correct, would this be – would you be happy?
MR. TONER: Look, it would always be – it’s always a good thing when such an individual, as we said, who’s only in prison for exercising their – his internationally recognized human rights is released. But there’s obviously more individuals who’ve – who are being held, so we want to see and urge – we want to see a release of all these people.
QUESTION: So his release would be a good thing but you’d like to see more?
MR. TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: There are reports that Pakistan plans to send Usama bin Ladin’s three wives back to their countries – one to Yemen, obviously, and two to Saudi. Do you have any confirmation of that? Have you heard of that? And what do you think about that?
MR. TONER: I honestly --
QUESTION: And what efforts have you made to tell the Pakistanis that you would like that or would not like it to happen?
MR. TONER: On the first point, we have not – I have not seen anything that indicates that they’re going to – what did you say – send them back to their countries of origin?
QUESTION: Yeah. Correct.
MR. TONER: I know we’ve asked for access to these wives, and I believe we’ve received access to them. I’m unaware what follow-up we may or may not request. We can take the question and see if we have anything more to say about it.
QUESTION: Can you say whether – or what the U.S. requested of the Pakistanis with regard to their future? I mean, did they ask them to be held? Did you ask for repeated access? Did you at least --
MR. TONER: I don’t know and I --
QUESTION: -- say they should not be released?
MR. TONER: I think ultimately it would be a decision for the Pakistani authorities. But as I said, we’ll take the question and see if we have any more details.
QUESTION: More on that?
MR. TONER: I just don’t know, Kirit.
QUESTION: A follow-up on al-Qaida. At least 62 al-Qaida prisoners escaped from a south Yemen jail. Any reaction to – what kind of concerns do you have about that?
MR. TONER: Right. Again, it’s – we’re reaching out through our Embassy in Sanaa and we’ve seen conflicting reports, to be frank, about this escape. So we’re trying to get the facts on the ground, so it’s very preliminary. Obviously, the U.S. and Yemen continue to cooperate closely on counterterrorism efforts, and we’re continuing to work with the government under Acting President Hadi.
QUESTION: Well --
QUESTION: When you say conflicting reports on the escape, do you mean in reference to --
MR. TONER: In reference to the actual prison break. Again, we’re reaching out --
QUESTION: You’re not sure that they – in which case --
MR. TONER: Again, we’ve seen conflicting reports. That’s all I’m going to say --
QUESTION: I’m sorry --
QUESTION: -- because, apparently, some people, including a dissident Yemeni officer, said that the authorities allowed them to escape. And that would be concerning, wouldn’t it?
MR. TONER: Again, we’re going to wait till we ascertain all the facts of this before we respond. But what I can say more broadly is that there is – during President Saleh’s absence from the country, we’re working with the government under Acting President Hadi. Our counterterrorism cooperation continues. Obviously, the instability in Yemen is the kind that al-Qaida feeds on throughout the – or tries to take advantage, exploit, throughout the world. It’s concerning, but our cooperation continues.
QUESTION: So when you say conflicting reports, you mean there are conflicting reports about whether this actually happened, or the number, or the circumstances?
MR. TONER: All three. So we’re just trying to --
QUESTION: You’ve seen a report that says there was no prison break?
MR. TONER: We’re just trying to nail down what actually happened and how many people and the facts.
QUESTION: What – so you’re not convinced at the moment or you have no confirmation that anyone --
MR. TONER: We have no confirmation.
QUESTION: -- that anyone escaped from --
MR. TONER: We have no confirmation.
QUESTION: Sorry. Is Jeff Feltman going to be in Yemen?
MR. TONER: He is going to be in Yemen.
QUESTION: Do you have any details of his visit there?
MR. TONER: I’ll get them for you.
MR. TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: On Yemen? Are there any developments on the front of Mr. Saleh going back or not going back?
MR. TONER: I don’t have any updates for you. I’d refer you to the Government of Saudi Arabia as well as President Saleh. We said yesterday, what’s important here is not whether he comes or stays or goes or – but it’s that Yemen move forward and Acting President Hadi move forward in implementing the GCC agreement.
QUESTION: You’ve seen the comments of the Syrian foreign minister?
MR. TONER: What specifically?
QUESTION: Well, first of all, have you seen them? Can you confirm that he actually made them, you’re convinced that he actually gave a press conference, maybe? Yes?
MR. TONER: (Laughter.) Go ahead, Matt.
QUESTION: I’m wondering what you think about what he had to say about – well, first of all, dismissing Europe but also talking about how the – that President Asad is going to usher in a great era of reform – democracy the likes of which has never been seen.
MR. TONER: You did that quite well, Matt. No, it’s just – again, I’ve only seen his – some of his remarks in press reports. I would just say that what we said in the aftermath of President Asad’s speech the other day, which is that words are not enough and we need to see action. And they’ve been very short on any action whatsoever towards any reform, not even meaningful reform. They’ve thrown around a lot of rhetoric, and meanwhile they’ve used unremitting violence against innocent civilians.
QUESTION: But he also suggested that a three-month period would be enough time to introduce these reforms. Would that be acceptable to you? Do you think that they can – they will --
MR. TONER: Today, tomorrow would be acceptable to us. I mean, there’s – what they’ve – what’s – the status quo is unacceptable, carrying out repression and violence against their own citizens.
QUESTION: Asad pronounced general amnesty. Is this a kind of a step?
MR. TONER: Again, there’s lots of announcements out of Asad’s mouth, but very little in the way of action.
Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Do you see any change --
MR. TONER: Oh, I’m sorry, Jill. You did have a question. Can we --
QUESTION: Well, it’s another subject.
MR. TONER: Oh. Samir.
QUESTION: Do you see any change --
MR. TONER: We’ll stay on Syria.
QUESTION: Do you see any change in Russia’s position regarding the draft resolution --
MR. TONER: I don’t have an update.
QUESTION: -- on Syria?
MR. TONER: Yeah. You’re talking about the – we don’t have an update on that. We continue to believe that a resolution would be helpful and we continue to work within the Security Council to that end.
QUESTION: Apparently, a no-fly zone was discussed between the President Obama and Prime Minister Erdogan. Would you confirm that – no-fly zone on Syria?
MR. TONER: I won’t. Okay. The White House issued a readout of the call, and that’s – we’re not going to get into the substance of their exchange. That’s the readout, and I refer you to the White House.
QUESTION: Would you tell us that the no-fly zone under the consideration at any level?
MR. TONER: No. I’m not going to talk about it.
QUESTION: So first step is the UN Security Council toward this solution?
MR. TONER: Again, I’m not going to speculate about it.
Go ahead, Jill.
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Secretary Clinton will be on the Hill on Thursday.
MR. TONER: She will.
QUESTION: Can you give us some idea of what her message is? I know she didn’t want to say much, but if you can give us an overall message. And also, more a technical question, right now – an update, actually, on the civilian surge. I understand there are 1,300 people there at this point. And how is it phased in terms of pulling them out eventually? I understand that they will continue in there and kind of ramp up slightly, but then --
MR. TONER: Right. Some of this was --
QUESTION: -- by 2015 they go off --
MR. TONER: Some of this was talked about in a background call that we did a couple weeks ago and --
QUESTION: Yeah. But can you today, since she’s speaking tomorrow?
MR. TONER: Jill – but when my Secretary of State doesn’t want to disclose too much information about her testimony tomorrow, especially in light of the President’s speech tonight, I think I’m going to respect that and --
QUESTION: That’s a good career move.
MR. TONER: And – thank you, Matt. Appreciate the advice. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Okay. But on the peace – sorry, the --
MR. TONER: That’s okay.
QUESTION: -- the civilian surge, the numbers and how --
MR. TONER: The numbers, we’ll try to get – we can take that question. In terms of ramping down or --
QUESTION: Eventually, yes.
MR. TONER: -- the glide path, if you will?
MR. TONER: I’ll look into that. Right now, clearly, we’re committed to a robust civilian presence on the ground. It’s part of the components that the Secretary laid out in the – her Asia Society speech, talking about a diplomatic and a civilian surge in Afghanistan. But in terms of long range, we’ll try to get more information for you on that.
QUESTION: Sorry, the figure is 1,300.
MR. TONER: I think that’s accurate. It was cited in a background call a couple weeks ago.
QUESTION: Is there concern here in the building that in this – when you hear the debate going on on Capitol Hill that the U.S. should be building bridges in the U.S. and not in Kabul, doesn’t it make your job a lot more difficult? I mean, how are – how is the Secretary and how is the Department going to defend some of these programs when there is an enormous domestic opposition to spending money on anything?
MR. TONER: Well, again, the President’s laid out our goals for Afghanistan in 2009. It’s to disrupt and dismantle and destroy al-Qaida and reverse the momentum of the Taliban, and then to stabilize Afghanistan so that the Afghan Government has space to grow, to become more stable, and to increase its governance. And that’s really – and then with that comes growing institutions, the security, creating the economic space so that Afghanistan can become a stable place. And that’s where we come into this, obviously, and we’re committed to carrying out the President’s vision.
MR. TONER: Is that it?
QUESTION: No. Yesterday, I asked about this Palestinian activist --
MR. TONER: Yes.
QUESTION: -- who was detained by the Israelis.
MR. TONER: And we will try to get you an update. I don’t think we have an update on that now.
QUESTION: Well, no, I wasn’t asking --
MR. TONER: Oh, okay.
QUESTION: The question was that the EU had issued a statement expressing concern about his arrest and continued detention, and I’m wondering if the U.S. was prepared to --
MR. TONER: Echo the --
QUESTION: -- make a similar statement.
MR. TONER: Again, I’ll get you an update on his situation as well as – this is --
QUESTION: Bassem Tamimi.
MR. TONER: Yeah. I apologize, because we promised you that yesterday.
QUESTION: And the readout of Madam Secretary and Foreign Minister Davutoglu phone call last Saturday?
MR. TONER: We’ll get that out as well.
QUESTION: And then the other one, the American citizen --
MR. TONER: I know. That’s what I thought you were talking ---
QUESTION: So you have – so you’ve got nothing for me on either? Is that what you’re saying?
MR. TONER: I’m sorry to disappoint you, Matt. We’ll get something to you.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. TONER: Thanks, guys.