30 September 2012

Division of J & K ‘disastrous for South Asia’

Kashmir National Party (KNP) leaders Abbas Butt, Zubair Ansari and Dr Shabir Choudhry in a joint statement reiterated the KNP stance that Gilgit Baltistan is a legal and constitutional part of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, and the entire State is forcibly divided and occupied.

The KNP leaders stressed that Jammu and Kashmir is one political entity and must not be divided. Any attempts to do so would be opposed, as division would be disastrous for the State and for the entire region of South Asia.

Gilgit Baltistan has been practically controlled and annexed by Pakistan, said the leaders, a move opposed by all freedom-loving people in Gilgit Baltistan, Azad Kashmir and Jammu and Kashmir. It was disturbing to note, they said, that those forces who wanted to divide the State of Jammu and Kashmir are once again active, determined to pass a resolution through the Gilgit Baltistan Assembly to provide some legal cover for annexation of the region.

Those presenting this resolution or supporting it, warned the KNP leaders, do not have the best interests of the people of Gilgit Baltistan at heart. The resolution is perceived as treacherous by the people of Jammu and Kashmir State, and no Assembly of the divided State of Jammu and Kashmir has the right to decide the future of the region; that must be decided only by the people of Jammu and Kashmir.

Abbas Butt and Dr Shabir Choudhry spoke about ways to activate the UN mechanism to highlight this move of the Pakistani-controlled Assembly, as it is, they said, clearly a violation of the UNCIP Resolutions on the Kashmir dispute.

Five militants killed in Pakistan by US drone attack

A US drone strike on September 24 killed at least five Islamic militants in Pakistan’s restive tribal region near the Afghan border, security officials said. The strike targeted a compound in the Mir Ali area of North Waziristan, known as a bastion for the Taliban and al Qaeda. The drone fired two missiles, they said.

A security official in Miranshah told the AFP news agency: ‘The compound was located in Khaderkhail village, some 40 kilometres (25 miles) east of Miranshah, which is the headquarters of the North Waziristan tribal district. This area has sanctuaries for all groups of Taliban and foreign militants.’  Another security official in Peshawar confirmed the death toll.

There has been a dramatic increase in US drone strikes in Pakistan since May, when a NATO summit in Chicago failed to strike a deal to end a six-month blockade on convoys transporting supplies to coalition forces in Afghanistan.

Islamabad and Washington have been seeking to patch up their fractious relationship in recent months, with the supply route reopening, after a series of crises in 2011 saw ties between the ‘war on terror’ allies plunge.

Attacks by unmanned US aircraft remain contentious and are deeply unpopular in Pakistan, which says they violate its sovereignty and fan anti-US sentiment. But American officials are said to believe they are too important to halt.

Washington considers Pakistan’s semi-autonomous north-western tribal belt as the main hub of Taliban and al Qaeda militants plotting attacks on the West and in Afghanistan.

French cartoons inflame Muslim tensions

A French magazine has ridiculed the Prophet Mohammad by portraying him naked in cartoons, threatening to further fuel the anger of Muslims around the world who are already incensed by a film depiction of him as a womanizing buffoon, which has sparked protests in many countries, some of them deadly.

The French government, which had urged the magazine not to print the images, said it was temporarily shutting down premises including embassies and schools on Friday September 21, as protests sometimes break out after Muslim Friday prayers.

Riot police were deployed to protect the Paris offices of satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo after it hit the newsstands with a cover showing an Orthodox Jew pushing the turbaned figure of Mohammad in a wheelchair.

On the inside pages, several caricatures of the Prophet showed him naked. One, entitled ‘Mohammad: a star is born’, depicted a bearded figure crouching over to display his buttocks and genitals.

Initial reaction from Muslim countries was critical. ‘Of course it will anger people further. It will raise tensions that were already dangerously high,’ said Sheikh Nabil Rahim, a leading Salafist cleric in Lebanon.

‘We will try to keep things managed and peaceful, but these things easily get out of hand. I fear there could be more targeting of foreigners, and this is why I wish they would not persist with these provocations.’

In Egypt, Essam Erian, acting head of the powerful Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, said: ‘We reject and condemn the French cartoons that dishonour the Prophet and we condemn any action that defames the sacred according to people’s beliefs.’

The furore has emerged as an issue in the US presidential election campaign and sparked a wider international debate over free speech, religion and the right to offend.

Vietnam jails bloggers in crackdown on dissent

A Vietnamese court has sentenced three high-profile bloggers to jail terms ranging from four to 12 years in the latest crackdown on dissent as booming Internet usage threatens to undermine the Communist government’s authority.

Bloggers in Vietnam, which has one of the world’s fastest growing Internet populations, have grown bolder in criticising the government over issues ranging from land rights to corruption, and China’s growing regional influence.

That comes as Vietnam’s economy, not long ago a star of Southeast Asia, faces a slowdown in the wake of debt scandals at its huge state enterprises that have undermined investor confidence and exposed divisions in the Communist leadership.

The government has responded to the growing dissent with a crackdown that has earned it the title of ‘Enemy of the Internet’ from media freedom group Reporters Without Borders, which says only China and Iran jail more journalists.

Nguyen Van Hai, who criticised government policies under his blogging name Dieu Cay, was jailed for 12 years for ‘anti-state propaganda’, according to a lawyer for the bloggers who attended the brief trial in southern Ho Chi Minh City on September 24.

Fellow bloggers Ta Phong Tan and Phan Thanh Hai got ten years and four years respectively, said the lawyer, Ha Huy Son. All three were founding members of the Free Journalists Club, a website set up for bloggers to post their writing.

‘These harsh sentences against bloggers are absolutely outrageous, and show the depth of the Vietnam government’s intolerance of views that oppose its own,’ said Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director for Human Rights Watch.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she raised concerns over human rights and the three bloggers during a visit to Vietnam in July this year, but Washington and Europe have stopped short of sanctioning the country over its worsening rights record.

Cleric Hamza to face US justice after appeal fails

Radical Muslim cleric Abu Hamza and terror suspect Babar Ahmed will be extradited to the US after Europe’s human rights judges rejected their appeal bids on September 24.

Three other terror suspects will also be extradited ‘within weeks’, the Home Office confirmed.

All five claimed they would face inhumane treatment in an American ‘supermax’ prison if they were sent there.

Hamza is accused of 11 counts, including planning a terror training camp in the state of Oregon and assisting the taking of 16 hostages in Yemen. He was jailed for seven years for soliciting to murder and inciting racial hatred in Britain.

Computer expert Ahmad, who has been held in a British prison without trial for eight years, is accused of raising funds for terrorism. The US says he ran a jihadist website in London with co-accused Syed Talha Ahsan. ‘The Home Secretary welcomes today’s decision not to refer the cases of Abu Hamza and four others to the grand chamber,’ said a Home Office spokesman.

‘This follows the judgement of the European Court of Human Rights on April 10 to allow the extradition of these five terrorism suspects to the US. We will work to ensure that the individuals are handed over to the US authorities as quickly as possible.’

The other cases involve Adel Abdul Bary and Khaled Al-Fawwaz, who are accused of being aides to Osama bin Laden.

The unanimous ruling from the judges said there would be no violation of Article 3 of the Human Rights Code as a result of their detention at the ADX Florence ‘supermax’ prison in the US.

Fears for deported Tamils who may face torture

A group of 25 Tamils and other Sri Lankans deported from the UK have arrived in Sri Lanka amid warnings they may face torture on their return. Human rights groups say that some of those sent back are in danger of being tortured because of their alleged links to separatist Tamil Tigers. Sri Lanka’s civil war came to an end in 2009, after 26 years of conflict and up to 100,000 casualties as the rebels fought for self-rule.

The International Organisation of Migration says that while its officials are in no way involved in the deportation process, it will provide financial help for the returnees to be reunited with their families.

The Sri Lankan government denies the allegations of torture and both it and the UK have insisted that those being sent back are not in danger of being mistreated. Most of those deported were economic migrants and Britain says that unless a Sri Lankan Tamil was a high-level activist with the separatist Tamil Tiger rebel group, he or she is unlikely to be targeted on returning to Sri Lanka.

But human rights groups such as Freedom from Torture and Human Rights Watch argue that Tamil people either linked or perceived to be linked to the Tigers – at any level – are at risk if they return. Both Freedom from Torture and Human Rights Watch say that they have interviewed nearly 40 people who subsequently escaped back to Britain and gave accounts of alleged torture by the Sri Lankan authorities, which the groups say is medically verified.

Nigeria: military crackdown on Boko Haram kills 35

At least 35 suspected Islamists have been killed in a sweep against the Boko Haram group in north-eastern Nigeria, the army has said. The army said it detained more than 60 others during operations in Adamawa and Yobe states.

A military spokesman said that the operation took place overnight between September 23 and September 24 and a curfew had been imposed in Damaturu, capital of Yobe state, ahead of the crackdown. Damaturu has been one of the worst affected by the activities of the group, which wants to impose Sharia law across Nigeria.

Soldiers went door-to-door in three of the town’s neighbourhoods and exchanged fire with militants throughout the night. Two soldiers were injured in the fighting. Dozens of guns and explosive devices, and hundreds of rounds of ammunition, as well as 32 arrows and two swords, were among items found in Boko Haram hideouts.

The Islamist group opposes Western influence in Nigeria and has carried out a string of attacks. On September 23, an attack on a Catholic church in the north left two people dead and 46 people injured, according to a police report. Attacks in central and northern Nigeria blamed on Boko Haram have killed some 1,400 people since 2010.

The military crackdown appears to have weakened Boko Haram, whose militants have not reproduced the kind of large-scale, co-ordinated attacks they carried out earlier this year, but Nigeria’s military has been accused of using heavy-handed tactics in the past and previous operations targeting Boko Haram have resulted in civilian deaths.

Uruguay’s UN peacekeepers charged over Haiti abuse

Four Uruguayan marines have been detained on suspicion that they abused a young man while serving as United Nations peacekeepers in Haiti.

The four men were charged with ‘private violence’ against 18-year-old Johnny Jean, who says he was raped last year. Private violence is defined by the country’s law as using ‘violence or threats to force someone to do, tolerate or allow something to be done’. The four men have denied wrongdoing and called the incident a ‘prank’.

The four have avoided charges of sexual assault, but could still be sentenced to up to three years in prison. They are currently being detained pending a trial, while a fifth Uruguayan peacekeeper has been acquitted.

The scandal first emerged a year ago, when mobile phone footage began circulating on the internet. The footage appeared to show the marines abusing the young man last September at a UN base in the southern Haitian city of Port Salut.

Uruguay is one of the main contributors to the 12,000-strong UN force (Minustah), which first arrived in Haiti in 2004. The peacekeepers were brought in to restore order following the overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and its mandate was extended after the devastating earthquake in January 2010.

The case has caused public outrage in Haiti, fuelling resentment and protests against Minustah, which has drawn controversy, including allegations of excessive force.

Aung San Suu Kyi receives Congressional Medal honour

September 2012 has seen Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi finally receive in person the US Congressional Gold Medal she was awarded in 2008 while under a 15-year house arrest for her peaceful struggle against military rule. She described it as ‘one of the most moving days of my life’.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former first lady Laura Bush were present at the medal ceremony in Washington, where leading US figures paid glowing tributes to Aung Suu Kyi. Previous recipients of the medal include George Washington, Tibetan Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama and Pope John Paul II.

The 67-year-old Nobel Laureate also met fellow Nobel Peace Prize winner President Obama at the White House, shortly after the US Treasury said it had lifted sanctions on Burma’s President Thein Sein.

The White House said the US president ‘reaffirmed the determination of the United States to support their sustained efforts to promote political and economic reforms and to ensure full protection of the fundamental rights of the Burmese people.’ Burma’s reformist president Thein Sein, attending the September UN General Assembly in New York, still faces opposition to political reform from Burma’s military.

The US administration is now considering easing a ban on imports from Burma, with Suu Kyi voicing support for that step. Some of her supporters oppose the move, saying reforms have not taken root and Washington will lose leverage with Burma, which still faces serious human rights issues.

However, Aung Suu Kyi affirmed that, despite its inherent imperfections, democracy remained a ‘beacon of hope for all of us’.