31 August 2012

Arrest marks Pak independence day

On the eve ofPakistan’s independence day on August 14, Ghulam Shehzad Agha, an emerging political leader in Gilgit Baltistan, was arrested in Skardo. Agha is the general secretary of the Gilgit Baltistan United Movement (GBUM), and has been very vocal in promoting the right to self determination for the occupied region. 

Agha, who had recently met US embassy staff in Gilgit to discuss the political situation in the region, is the second person to be arrested after meeting with US officials. Earlier, the Lady Inspector of police, Madam Tahira, was suspended from her job and arrested after she offered a meal to visiting US officials at her home in Gilgit.

The Chairperson of GBUM, Manzoor Parwana, has said in a recent press release that Agha has been detained because he was emerging as a joint candidate in the opposition parties for the next general election. Mr Parwana said, ‘While the Shia killers and other terrorists roam free in Gilgit Baltistan under state patronage, peaceful political activists like Agha are forced to spend their lives behind bars for talking about the rights of the natives.’

In the wake of this new arrest, Gilgit Baltistan’s opposition parties decided to commemoratePakistan’s independence as a ‘black’ day. Political parties including PML-N, BNF, GBUM, KNM, PYF and GBNC have roundly condemned the arrest.

Mass Shia shooting by militants

The Gilgit Baltistan National Congress has condemned a mass Shia killing that took place in mid-August. The assailants, wearing military uniforms, gunned down bus passengers at point blank range after identifying them as Shias from their documents.

The incident is said to have occurred when three buses, heading from Islamabad to Astore, and a van heading to Gilgit, were attacked by about 30-40 assailants wearing military commando uniforms. After the ambush, the assailants allowed Sunni passengers to leave the scene without resistance. The dead numbered 25, and many of the injured are in a serious condition so the number of deaths could increase.

Gilgit Baltistan’s political parties, including BNF, GBUM and PYF, have condemned the incident and accused the Pakistani intelligence services of providing patronage to anti-Shia militants. It is feared that Shia killings will continue until the strategic region of Gilgit Baltistan has a Shia majority population. The region connectsPakistanwithChinaandCentral Asiaand intelligence agencies see a Shia majority as a threat to their control over this strategic corridor.

Similar attacks by pro-Pakistan militants on Shia majority populations in the strategicvalleyofParachinarhave forced tens of thousands of Shias to abandon their homes, converting Parachinar into a Sunni region. Parachinar provides direct access to Pakistani troops to Ghazni, Gardez and central Afghanistan. It is feared that similar strategies are being implemented inQuetta, which neighbours theAfghanistanprovinces ofKandaharandHelmand, and where Hazaras make up almost one-third of the capital’s population.

Pakistan’s anti minority policy has compelled the GBNC and other organizations to demand that the state department grant CPC status (country of particular concern) toPakistanand impose restrictions on the activities ofPakistan’s secret service agencies and their militant allies.

At the same time, they are requesting the UN and US to pressure Pakistan into opening travel and trade routes towards Tajikistan, Afghanistan and Indian Ladakh so that Shias are not forced to travel on roads that have become killing fields, virtually controlled by ISI-led militants such as Lashkar-e-Taiba and Sipah-e-Sahaba.

Taliban threaten attacks on military

The Taliban have warned that they have set up a ‘suicide bombers squad’ to hit government troops if an offensive is launched in North Waziristan.

In an email message sent to the media, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) said it had received ‘an exclusive intelligence report’ about the planned offensive in North Waziristan from its ‘sources’ in army headquarters.

TTP spokesman Ehsanullah Ehsan outlined details about the regiments and units and the possible commander for the campaign, said to be launched on August 26 for one month.

‘TTP has also prepared itself for resistance, we have set up a suicide bombers squad to welcome (the) army. We will defeat our enemy who is defending the secular system ofPakistanby punching them back hard,’ Ehsan said.

Military officials were not immediately available to comment on the claim. On August 3, The Wall Street Journal reported that Pakistani and US officials were considering joint counter-terrorism campaigns inAfghanistanandPakistanagainst the Haqqanis and Taliban. The report said the campaigns would mark an upturn in cooperation between the two countries after more than a year of rancorous relations, since theUSraid that killed Osama bin Laden.

Pakistani officials later denied any agreement withWashingtonfor a joint operation inNorth Waziristan, and said ‘routine’ actions on each side of the border ‘should not be mistaken for “joint operations”.’

Tamils demand change in Sri Lanka

The Global Tamil Forum has condemned the Sri Lankan government’s indefinite closure of 13 of the 15 state-run universities on the island, in response to strikes over the privatisation of the higher education system, politicisation of key appointments in the sector and military training of all university entrants.

This latest act to undermine academic freedom and institutional autonomy is a continuation of heavy militarisation of the island to maintain social control and curb any democratic opposition. Denial of university places for qualified Tamil entrants through a discriminatory education policy in the 1970s was a major trigger of the Tamil youth rebellion.

The Rajapaksa regime’s use of force and intimidation to rule Sri Lanka’s population threatens all forms of freedom of expression. Attacks on journalists, media establishments and human rights activists, aimed at censoring any criticism of the government, continue with widespread impunity. Centralising powers to the President has already severely compromised the independence of the judicial system on the island and consequently there is breakdown in the rule of law. The UK foreign office has issued a travel advisory warning British citizens of an upsurge in nationalism, sexual offences and anti-Western (particularly anti-British) rhetoric in Sri Lanka.

Tamil people have clearly demonstrated to the world that there need to be significant changes to the current constitution to resolve their genuine political grievances. Tamils do not consider that the 13th Amendment to the constitution forms a lasting political settlement, and it has become common practice for the Sri Lankan regime to avoid addressing the Tamils’ genuine political grievances by silencing dissent.

Two killed in Muslim mob attack in Indonesia 

A mob attack on Shiites in Indonesia left two men dead and dozens of homes torched, in the latest sign of rising intolerance in the world’s largest Muslim country.

Around 500 villagers, mostly Sunnis and many armed with machetes, attacked a group of Shiite students in the town of Sampang in East Java province on August 26.

‘Our sources on the ground said it was an attack by Sunnis on Shiites. There were similar incidents before,’ said Ismail Hasani, a researcher at the Setara Institute for Democracy and Peace. ‘There is rising religious intolerance as there was never strong law enforcement in handling violence, which encouraged militancy among the ordinary citizens.’

East Java provincial police spokesman Hilman Thayib said nearly 2,000 police and security forces had been deployed to guard the area. ‘We also arrested eight people over the incident,’ he said, but refused to say whether it was a clash between Sunnis and Shiites, apparently due to the sensitivity of the issue in the Sunni-majority nation of 240 million people.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ordered law enforcers and ministers to take firm action against the perpetrators to prevent further violence, but also made no mention of Shiites or Sunnis.

‘It’s a complex issue, on the one hand it has to do with faith and on the other on an internal family conflict… which resulted in this regrettable violence,’ he told a press conference.

Egypt bars entry to Bahraini dissident

A leading Bahraini opposition activist says she has been refused entry to Egypt at Cairo airport, accusing Arab governments of continuing repressive security cooperation despite political change in the region.

Maryam al-Khawaja, the Denmark-based international spokesperson for the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, said she had hoped to enter Egypt for a few hours to see friends on a stopover while flying to South Africa.

She said officials at Cairo airport first stamped her passport but then cancelled her visa after realising she was a Bahraini activist. ‘They said I wouldn’t be allowed in but wouldn’t tell me why,’ she said by telephone shortly before flying out of Cairo.

An Egyptian airport official and a security source, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue, said Khawaja’s name was on a list of people to be denied entry at the airport.

‘The ban is based on a memorandum from the national security authorities,’ the security source said.

Khawaja, who has Danish nationality, left Bahrain in March last year during an uprising for democratic reforms that was put down by the Sunni ruling Al Khalifa family. Street protests led by majority Shi’ites, in part inspired by last year’s democratic revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, continue in Bahrain.

Before the revolutions, Arab governments often cooperated to monitor and restrict the movements of opposition politicians. Khawaja’s case suggested at least some of that cooperation continues even with newly democratic governments.

Myanmar president promotes reformers in cabinet shake-up

Myanmar President Thein Sein has announced a long-awaited reshuffle of his cabinet, which sees his top reformers moved into key ministerial posts and reassignments for remnants of the former military junta.

Ministers of Industry Minister Soe Thein, Minister of National Planning and Economic Development Tin Naing Thein and Rail Transportation Minister Aung Min – Thein Sein’s closest allies – were given posts in the Office of the President, moves seen as efforts to bolster the fast-moving reforms in the post-military era.

The reshuffle of nine ministers, announced on state television, has been anticipated for months and is seen as a strong message of intent by Thein Sein, the former military heavyweight who has surprised the world by freeing more than 650 political prisoners, scrapping media censorship and introducing broad economic liberalisation.

Two ministers believed to be close to retired junta strongman Than Shwe were assigned to less prominent ministries.

Aung Min’s shift into the president’s office frees him up to pursue complex political negotiations with at least ten ethnic minority rebel groups with which the government has agreed ceasefires after decades of conflict during five decades of military rule.

Man sentenced over terror funding

An Algerian national who was found guilty of funding terrorism following a suicide bombing in Stockholm is due to be sentenced at the High Court in Glasgow.

Nasserdine Menni was convicted of transferring money to Taimour Abdulwahab, who later blew himself up in the Swedish capital on December 11 2010. He sent a total of £5,725 to a bank account in Abdulwahab’s name in the knowledge that it could be used for terrorism purposes.

Menni, whose age is not known, was also convicted of immigration and benefit fraud. However, he was cleared of a charge which alleged he conspired to murder members of the Swedish public when a jury found it not proven after a 12-week trial at the High Court in Glasgow.

Abdulwahab rigged an Audi car with explosives in the hope it would drive people to Drottninggatan, a busy shopping street about 200 yards away, where he was waiting to set off two more devices strapped to his chest and back.

The car bomb never went off and, after setting fire to the Audi, he was unable to detonate the other two explosives as planned. He made his way down a side street off Drottninggatan and, in an apparent attempt to fix the faulty trigger up his sleeve, set off the bomb on the front of his body, killing only himself.

Nigeria in talks with Islamists via ‘back channels’

Nigeria’s government is reaching out to radical Islamist sect Boko Haram, talking with some of its members via ‘back room channels’ as it seeks a peaceful way out of the north’s conflict.

The militants ruled out peace talks in a recent statement, unless the government accepts their demand to turn the roughly evenly mixed Muslim-Christian country of 160 million people into an Islamic state.

But Reuben Abati, spokesman for President Goodluck Jonathan, told journalists that talks were going on with some members. ‘The form of the dialogue is back room channels… to reach across with the objective of understanding what exactly the grievances of these persons are, what exactly can be done to resolve the crises,’ he told press at the presidential villa.

The Taliban-style movement has killed hundreds in gun and bomb attacks since launching an insurrection in 2009, making it the biggest security threat to Africa’s top energy producer.

As the insurgency raged towards the end of last year, Jonathan was accused of focusing too narrowly on security.

Senior US diplomats have on a few occasions urged Nigeria to address the grievances of the population in its semi-arid north, such as massive unemployment and deepening poverty, and to seek a broader political solution to the crisis.

A group of governors from Nigeria’s largely Muslim north have set up a committee tasked with trying to talk to the Islamists, but Boko Haram’s resentment of a northern elite they regard as corrupt and un-Islamic may limit its success.

Rein in security forces, rights watchdog tells Palestinians

Human Rights Watch has rebuked the Palestinian Authority (PA) for failing to prosecute members of the security forces over years of alleged beatings and abuse of protesters, journalists and detainees.

The New York-based group called on the United States and European Union, the major donors to the PA, to re-evaluate their security aid, given what it called this ‘record of impunity’.

‘The PA should end its foot-dragging and promptly investigate and prosecute abuse by members of its security forces,’ said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at HRW, in a statement.

‘The EU and US should take a hard look… and condition support for those (security) forces on credible investigations and prosecutions of abuses,’ he added.

The Western-backed Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, rejected the allegations.

A spokesman for the security forces denied HRW’s claim that no personnel had been prosecuted in recent years. Without citing specific cases, he said military courts and the office of the attorney general were pursuing cases of alleged abuse.

‘We don’t believe (HRW) has done a thorough investigation… The PA has greater transparency than Human Rights Watch and the United States,’ the spokesman, Adnan Damiri, said.

Millions of dollars in Western aid and training to PA forces, which coordinate with Israel, have contributed to the relative calm of the West Bank in recent years in what Abbas, the West and Israel regard as a success story.

But critics say the aid props up a government with no electoral mandate or real sovereignty.

Dutch Liberals, Socialists in close race ahead of vote

The Dutch Liberal Party, the pro-business movement led by Prime Minister Mark Rutte, and the far-left Socialists are neck and neck ahead of a September 12 parliamentary election dominated by the eurozone crisis, two recent polls have shown.

The fiscally conservative country is considered a core euro zone member, but the run-up to the ballot has highlighted growing discontent about Europe – in particular over the high cost of bailing out weaker euro zone states and the pressure for belt-tightening at home.

Rutte’s Liberal Party and its coalition partner, the Christian Democrats, have pushed for spending cuts to bring the Netherlands’ budget deficit below 3 per cent of economic output by 2013, in line with European rules.

The Socialist Party opposes austerity measures and wants more time to achieve that target.

A Maurice de Hond poll showed the Socialist Party would win 35 seats in the 150-seat parliament, ahead of the Liberal Party with 32 seats, whereas an Ipsos Synovate poll showed the Liberals winning 34 seats, putting them ahead of the Socialists with 30 seats.

In a televised debate between the heads of the four parties leading in the polls, Rutte reiterated the importance of the European Union and eurozone membership for the Netherlands and its trade-dependent economy.

But when pressed on whether Greece should receive more funds, Rutte said the Netherlands would not pay out any more money to the troubled eurozone member.

‘We have helped out twice. They need to stick to the agreements to show they want to stay in the euro. Not another cent,’ Rutte said.

Europe’s financial crisis dominated the televised debate, showing how the concerns of voters have changed since recent elections, when immigration and radical Islam were key issues.

Jail sentence for ‘sane’ Norway killer Breivik

Norway’s mass killer Anders Behring Breivik has been found sane and sentenced to 21 years in prison, but in a final provocation, he said he was only sorry he had not killed more people.

Breivik, who killed 77 people in a bomb attack and massacre last year that shook the nation to the core, said he wanted to ‘apologise to all militant nationalists in Norway and in Europe for not having killed more people’.

He was cut off mid-sentence as his microphone was silenced by the court.

Breivik’s sentence, the maximum allowed in Norway, can be reviewed and extended indefinitely if the far-right extremist responsible for Europe’s deadliest peacetime gun rampage is deemed a continued threat to society.

After judges read out their verdict in a marathon seven-and-a-half-hour session, Breivik told the court he would not appeal the prison sentence, reiterating that he did not recognise the court’s legitimacy.

He had wished to be found sane so that his Islamophobic and anti-multicultural ideology would not be considered the rantings of a lunatic.

‘In my view this sentence and judgement is illegitimate,’ said the 33-year-old. ‘At the same time I cannot appeal against the judgement because by appealing I would legitimise the court.’