British man sentenced to death in Pakistan for blasphemy

A court in Pakistan has sentenced a British man to death for blasphemy for claiming to be a prophet of Islam, a prosecutor and police announced on January 24.

Mohammad Asghar, a British national of Pakistani origin, was arrested in 2010 in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, near Islamabad, for writing letters claiming to be a prophet, police said.

The special court inside Rawalpindi’s Adiala Jail, where Asghar is being held, rejected defence claims that the 65-year-old has mental health problems.

Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive issue in Pakistan, where 97 per cent of the population is Muslim, and insulting the Prophet Mohammed can carry the death penalty. But the country has had a de facto moratorium on civilian hangings since 2008. Only one person has been executed since then, a soldier convicted by court martial.

A medical board examined Asghar after defence lawyers said he was suffering from some mental disorder, but Javed Gul, a government prosecutor said they ‘declared him as a normal person’.

Pakistan’s tough blasphemy laws have attracted criticism from rights groups, who say they are frequently abused to settle personal scores.

In 2012, Rimsha Masih, a young Christian girl, was arrested for alleged blasphemy in Islamabad. The case provoked international concern because of her age, estimated at 14, and because she was variously described as ‘uneducated’ or suffering from Down’s syndrome. The charges against here were eventually thrown out and last June she fled to Canada with her family.

Even unproven allegations of blasphemy can provoke a violent public response. There have been several cases where mobs have attacked mentally ill people who have made supposedly blasphemous claims.

Militant hideouts targeted in Waziristan & Peshawar

At least two people have been killed in a blitz carried out by Pakistan’s military in the Mirali area of the North Waziristan tribal region, while three men, reportedly associated with the Awami National Party (ANP), were gunned down in the Badhbher region of Peshawar.

Military gunship helicopters shelled suspected militant hideouts in several areas of Mirali in North Waziristan, killing two and wounding several others. The identities of the victims and the number of casualties could not be independently verified as media access is restricted in the region.

North Waziristan is one of the seven regions in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata) governed by tribal laws. An extremist insurgency led by the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) plagues the region and the area is known to be infested with militants, including those from al-Qaeda and other armed extremist organisations.

The region, which lies along the Pak-Afghan border, also comes under frequent attacks from US drones, which target militant hideouts in the area.

Four more China activists tried as dissident held

Four members of a high-profile Chinese rights movement have gone on trial in an escalating crackdown, a day after its founder was sentenced to prison and a prominent dissident taken away by police.

The proceedings bring the total number of New Citizens Movement members tried on charges of disrupting public order to ten, seven of them since Wednesday January 22 in Beijing.

Many had held banners in public, urging officials to disclose their assets as a check against corruption, and participated in other small protests and dinner discussions, for which the movement is known.

At least 20 have been detained, largely over the past year.

China’s new leadership under President Xi Jinping has also prioritised tackling graft, but fears any organised movement might undermine the control of the ruling Communist Party.

At the January 27 trials two activists, Ding Jiaxi and Li Wei, dismissed their lawyers, one of the attorneys said, in a move previous activists have used to delay proceedings for 15 days.

The other two, Zhang Baocheng and Yuan Dong, pleaded innocent, said Chen Jiangang, who represents Zhang.

Echoing the advocates for other activists, Chen expressed little hope of a fair trial in China’s politically controlled courts.

‘As lawyers we feel very constrained, there’s nothing we can do,’ he said. ‘Our defence won’t have any use.

On Sunday January 26, Xu Zhiyong, a central New Citizens figure and longtime rights lawyer, became the first member of the group to be jailed when he was sentenced to four years in prison. The maximum for the offence is five.

The news prompted immediate criticism overseas, with the United States saying it was ‘deeply disappointed’ and the human rights group Amnesty International calling the decision ‘shameful’.

Israeli champion of Palestinian and women’s rights dies

Shulamit Aloni, a fiery former left-wing Israeli leader and cabinet minister who championed Palestinian and women’s rights has died. Family and colleagues said she passed away on Friday January 24 at the age of 85.

Aloni founded a civil libertarian faction in the 1970s after quitting then Prime Minister Golda Meir’s Labour party in a dispute over religious influence in government. Her movement evolved into a tiny party that is still in Israel’s parliament.

Born in Tel Aviv, Aloni had advocated the formation of a Palestinian state on land captured by Israel during the 1967 war, long before a Washington-brokered peace process that is still searching for an elusive deal.

A 30-year veteran of Israel’s parliament, Aloni served as education minister and later communications minister in the late Yitzhak Rabin’s government in the early 1990s. Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli ultranationalist protesting a 1993 interim deal with the Palestinians.

Aloni continued her activism long past her retirement from politics in 1996, demanding at a 2011 Tel Aviv peace rally ‘the complete end of occupation.’

She was mourned by political friends and foes alike. In a written statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, said: ‘Despite the deep differences between us over the years, I admired her contribution to Israeli public life and determination to stand up firmly for her beliefs.’

Ukraine protests escalate amid threat of sanctions

Violent protests in Ukraine have spread beyond the capital, Kiev, as President Viktor Yanukovych held crisis talks with three key opposition leaders. Meanwhile the US and Poland have threatened sanctions if the crisis is not resolved.

Protesters stormed the governor’s offices in the western city of Lviv on January 23, and there were rallies in at least five more western cities. Two people died in clashes in Kiev on January 22, the first deaths in two months of protests over EU links.

The anti-government protests flared in late November over Mr Yanukovych’s decision to pull out of a landmark treaty with the European Union.
One opposition leader was upbeat after the crisis talks, saying there was a ‘high chance’ of a solution. Currently, a fragile truce is being observed in Kiev. An opposition ultimatum was set to expire after the talks with Mr Yanukovych.

The White House on January 24 condemned the violence taking place in Kiev, urging all sides to de-escalate, and threatened sanctions against Ukraine if the situation there did not improve. Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski has also intimated that sanctions could be used against the Ukraine if matters are not resolved.

White House spokesman Jay Carney told a briefing that the tensions in the country were a direct result of the government failing to acknowledge the ‘legitimate’ grievances of its people.

Cameron orders probe into UK link to Operation Bluestar

British Prime Minister David Cameron has directed his cabinet secretary to establish the facts behind claims that Margaret Thatcher’s government may have given assistance to Indira Gandhi in planning Operation Blue Star in 1984.

Cameron ordered an inquiry into this matter after newly released documents revealed that Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) officials were supposedly dispatched to help India flush out Sikh militants from the Golden Temple, in which more than 3,000 people were killed. The operation was aimed at removing Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and his armed followers from the Temple in Amritsar city.

A Sikh member of Britain’s Labour Party has claimed that he came across top secret documents that suggest that former United Kingdom prime minister Margaret Thatcher’s government colluded with former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi over Operation Blue Star.

In a guarded response, the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Syed Akbaruddin said that this matter would be taken up with their UK counterparts. ‘At this stage, I have nothing further to say, except these are purely reports in the media, and no factual information has been shared with us so far,’ he added.

Meanwhile, the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee have demanded that the government reveal the truth, while Rajya Sabha MP Mohammad Adeeb said that it is an extremely shameful thing if true and needed to be investigated.

Labour MP Tom Watson and Lord Indarjit Singh have called on the Cameron government for a full probe into this matter.

‘These events led to a tragic loss of life and we understand the very legitimate concerns that these papers will raise,’ said a UK government spokesman..

The attack on Sikhism’s holiest shrine angered Sikhs around the world who accused the army of desecration. The death toll remains disputed, with the Indian authorities putting it in the hundreds and Sikh groups in the thousands.

The assault triggered the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who ordered the attack, when two Sikh bodyguards killed her in revenge several months later.

Syria peace talks on hold as Iran calls for free elections

Peace talks aimed at ending the bloodshed in Syria were put on hold on January 23, as negotiators worked behind the scenes to find common ground between rebels and the government.

The first direct discussions since the rebellion began in 2011 would be scrapped if the bitter enemies were unwilling to sit down together, UN mediator Lakhdar Brahimi admitted.

But he added that the two sides — fighting a war that has claimed at least 130,000 lives — might reach agreement on humanitarian aid, ceasefires and prisoner exchanges.

As Mr Brahimi tried to salvage the summit after angry podium speeches from both sides on Wednesday January 22, Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani called for free elections to be held in Syria. The reformist, who was speaking at the World Economic Forum on the same day, promised to respect the result of a poll even if it meant the end of the government, whose army is being helped by Iranian troops.

The influence of such a powerful ally might help the Syrian regime to agree to elections. But the opposition is unlikely to agree unless an interim government is formed and Mr Assad removed. In a defiant speech opposition leader Ahmed Jarba said the international community had concluded that Assad cannot stay in power.

‘Nobody should have any doubt that the head of the regime is finished. This regime is dead.’

US military concerned over Sino-Japanese tensions

On January 23 the top US military commander in the Asia-Pacific region acknowledged his concern over entrenched tensions between Japan and China, a day after Japan’s prime minister evoked comparisons to Britain and Germany before World War One.

Admiral Samuel Locklear, the head of the US military’s Pacific Command, said the role of the United States was to keep encouraging restraint, professionalism and ‘hope there will be diplomatic dialogue and a solution to this.’

Sino-Japanese ties, long plagued by what Beijing sees as Japan’s failure to atone for its occupation of parts of China in the 1930s and 1940s, have worsened recently due in part to a territorial dispute in the East China Sea, where China declared an air defence zone late last year.

Ties have also suffered because of Tokyo’s mistrust of Beijing’s military buildup and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s December visit to a shrine that critics say glorifies Japan’s wartime past.

Abe said that Japan and China should avoid repeating the past mistakes of Britain and Germany, which fought in World War One despite strong economic ties, according to his main government spokesman in Tokyo.

China and Japan, the world’s second- and third-largest economies respectively, have deep business ties and bilateral trade worth nearly $334 billion in 2012, according to Japanese figures.

The US military’s ability to quickly defuse a crisis in the East China Sea is unclear, but Locklear said the incident had prompted a US demarche — a formal diplomatic statement of concern — to Beijing about the matter.

US targets militant suspect in Somalia

The US military carried out a missile strike in Somalia on Sunday January 26, targeting a suspected militant leader with ties to al-Qaeda and al Shabaab, a US military official has said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The strike took place in southern Somalia, according to the official, who did not offer further information, including the identity of the suspect or whether the strike was believed to have been successful.

Another US official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the operation took place in a remote area near Barawe, Somalia.

Barawe, a militant stronghold on Somalia’s southern coast, was the site of a failed raid by American commandos in October, targeting a militant known as Ikrima.

The US forces pulled out after a gun battle without capturing Ikrima, described as a planner and operator who has relentlessly plotted attacks on neighbouring Kenya.

Al Shabaab has been weakened by African Union troops over the past two years, ushering in some stability in many parts of the Horn of Africa country after a campaign of cross-border raids and kidnappings of Westerners and security forces.

But the rebels, who have waged a seven-year insurgency seeking to impose a strict interpretation of sharia law in Somalia, stunned the world in September when they attacked an upscale shopping mall in Nairobi, killing at least 67 people.

Late last year, the US military deepened its involvement in Somalia, establishing a unit of no fewer than five troops in the capital, Mogadishu, to help advice and support African Union and Somali forces.

SA police face charges over killing of protester

Four South African police officers were arrested and charged on January 24 for the killing of a protester in a slum outside Johannesburg a few days earlier.

‘One officer is charged with murder, the other three who were with him during the incident face charges of defeating the ends of justice,’ said police spokesman Neville Malila. He said the charges of defeating the ends of justice were brought because the officers had failed to report the incident to the authorities. Police authorities said the four officers have been suspended.

A 28-year-old man was killed when police fired shots at a protest march that turned violent in Durban Deep informal settlement west of Johannesburg. Residents of the slum were protesting against eviction notices ordering them to vacate their homes by the end of the month.

The incident followed the fatal shooting with rubber bullets of four other protesters in a separate demonstration over poor municipal services in a town near Pretoria.

The country’s human rights commission criticised apparent police brutality during the protests in a strongly-worded statement and said it would probe the causes of the unrest. A police watchdog is also investigating all the deaths.

South Africa’s police force has come under intense scrutiny since shooting dead 34 striking platinum miners in August 2012. The police are frequently accused of responding to protests with brutality, but prosecutions are rare.