31 March 2012

Cuba frees ‘Ladies in White’ after arrests

Cubahas released dissidents from the Ladies in White activist group, after detaining more than 50 of them ahead of a visit by Pope Benedict the XVI.

Magaly Norvis Otero Suarez, a member of the outlawed human rights group – which won the European Union’s 2005 Sakharov Prize to honour those committed to the struggle for human rights, and has long pressed for the release of political prisoners – said that its leader Berta Soler, and ‘almost’ all of the other detained activists jailed on March 18 had been set free overnight and returned to their homes in various parts of the island.

On March 18, police rounded up activists with the group in operations carried out acrossHavana. In one operation, police broke up a protest march by wives and mothers of political prisoners and arrested about 20 dissidents after they strayed off their usual march route.

That came just hours after an activist with the Ladies in White said another 33 women, including Soler, were detained as they were leaving the group’s headquarters to attend Sunday mass at a Roman Catholic church.

‘They were going to leave the headquarters to take part in the mass held every Sunday but when they went out they were all detained,’ said Odalys Sanabria, a member of the group.

Only hours earlier, Soler and a group of about 20 women had gone out to march but were intercepted by authorities, and packed off to a police station in the Cerro neighbourhood where they were booked and held for hours before they were released.

In yet another public demonstration, dissidents were recently expelled by police from a Havana Catholic church after an extended protest for greater political freedom.

Protests by dissidents inCubawere also recently held in the cities ofHolguinand Las Tunas but there were no reports of arrests.

Toulouse gunman arrested at siege

A man suspected of murdering seven people inFrancehas been killed by police as he jumped from a window still firing wildly at the end of a 32-hour siege.

Mohammed Merah, a 24-year-old Frenchman of Algerian origin who was believed to be responsible for killing four people at a Jewish school on March 19, had been detained inside a block of flats in the Croix-Daurade district of the city. Merah spoke to police through the door and declared he was a ‘mujahideen’ with links to al-Qaeda who wanted to avenge the deaths of Palestinian children inIsrael.

Speaking in Toulouse two days after the killings, French president Nicolas Sarkozy told how he had spoken with representatives of France’s Muslim and Jewish communities, telling them that ‘terrorism cannot break our community’.

Merah, known to French intelligence services, had made trips toAfghanistanandPakistanin the past and had links with people involved in jihadism.

The killings at the school have been linked to the shootings of three French soldiers in two separate incidents earlier in March.

A 30-year-old non-commissioned officer of North African Arab descent was shot at point blank range on March 11 in Montauban by a man using a 9mm weapon. Then, on March 15, two more soldiers of North African Arab origin were killed and another wounded near their barracks in Montauban.

Arab soldiers are prized targets for groups like al-Qaeda, which regards Muslims who fight for Western armies as traitors.

Rocky road ahead for Tunisia’s newly liberated media

First there was the Islamist attack on Nessma television station last October – for airing an Iranian animated film that depicted God – and the subsequent trial of Nessma’s boss for violating ‘sacred values’.

Then, in February, Nassredine Ben Saida, the publisher of a tabloid newspaper set up after the revolution, was jailed for eight days and fined after he plastered a picture of a German-Tunisian footballer and his naked girlfriend on the front page.

Tunisian journalists and secularists fear these and other incidents are signs that the interim government wants to roll back gains in freedom of expression after the uprising that ousted Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011.

What concerns many is that legal action has tended to focus on issues of public morality and ignore important issues such as the poor sourcing and libel that plague the profession. With the ban on criticism of the government only recently lifted, Tunisian journalists worry that they are tripping over new red lines.

The standoff between the media, dominated by secularists, and the government, now led by Islamist moderates Ennahda, reflects a broader struggle over identity in what has for decades been among the Arab world’s most secular countries.

Secularists accuse Ennahda of pandering to conservatives, who have become more assertive since the uprising. But the government denies that it is clamping down on freedom of the press.

In December, an Islamist preacher forced the new chief of Zaitouna radio, which mainly airs Koran recitals, out of her job. The preacher, Adel al-Ilmi, later won government approval to set up an NGO that seeks to promote Muslim values.

Ilmi called it respect for religion. Securalists and journalists call it an attack on freedom of expression.

US exempts 11 states from Iran sanctions

The United States has exempted Japan and ten EU nations from financial sanctions because they have significantly cut purchases of Iranian oil, but left Iran’s top customers China and India exposed to the possibility of such steps.

The decision means banks in these countries have been given a six-month reprieve from the threat of being cut off from theUSfinancial system under new sanctions designed to pressureIranover its nuclear programme.

The list did not includeChinaandIndia,Iran’s top two crude oil importers, nor US alliesSouth KoreaandTurkey, which are among the top-ten consumers of Iranian oil.

Japan,ChinaandIndiacombined buy close to half ofIran’s crude exports of 2.6 million barrels a day, providing crucial foreign exchange for the OPEC member.

But theUSsanctions and an EU oil embargo have cutIranout of financial networks, making it difficult to transfer funds to pay for trade and disrupting some oil shipments because of the difficulty of securing shipping insurance. Domestic prices inIranhave spiralled higher and the rial has slumped in value.

Japanese Finance Minister Jun Azumi welcomed theUSdecision, saying thatJapanwould continue to cut its imports of Iranian oil at a set rate in the future.

AUSofficial held upJapan’s estimated 15-22 per cent cut in oil purchases fromIranin the second half of last year – even after the country had suffered an earthquake that caused a civil nuclear disaster – as an example for other nations.

Underlining US efforts to tighten the financial noose around Iran, a state department official said 12 other countries may eventually be subject to US sanctions unless they cut Iran crude purchases, though he did not list them.

Iraq tightens security as al-Qaeda claims deadly blasts

Key routes inBaghdadhave been locked down as al-Qaeda’s front group inIraqclaimed responsibility for a wave of deadly blasts targeting security for an upcoming landmark Arab summit.

The tightened measures came a day after nationwide gun and bomb attacks killed 50 people and wounded 255 on the ninth anniversary of the start of the US-led invasion ofIraq.

The country was struck with more unrest on March 21, with five people, including three young children, killed.

In a statement posted on jihadist forum Honein, the Islamic State of Iraq declared it was behind the attacks against several ‘official posts, and security and military posts’ in the country.

The spate of attacks bore the hallmarks of al-Qaeda, which typically tries to launch coordinated nationwide mass-casualty bombing campaigns. They struck despite unprecedented levels of security inBaghdadas part of preparations for the March 27-29 summit of the Arab League, the first of the 22-member bloc to be held in the Iraqi capital in more than 20 years.

Swift condemnation followed from around the world, with United Nations envoy Martin Kobler describing the attacks as ‘atrocious’.

Iraqi parliament speaker Osama al-Nujaifi denounced the ‘brutal criminal’ attacks, and said they were part of efforts by al-Qaeda to derail the Arab summit.

Pakistan calls for unconditional apology over NATO strikes

Pakistani lawmakers have opened a debate in Parliament on the terms of the nation’s re-engagement with the United States after ties were all but severed following deadly American air-strikes on Pakistani troops last November.

The session, attended by both the upper and lower houses, could help determine whether the country reopens US and Nato supply lines toAfghanistan.

Raza Rabbani, chairman of a parliamentary commission on national security, outlined the commission’s recommendations, saying that those responsible for the attack should be brought to justice and that any use of Pakistani bases or airspace by foreign forces would require parliament’s approval. The commission has also demanded an end to American drone strikes inside the country and is seeking an ‘unconditional apology’ for the Nato attack that killed 24 soldiers inPakistan.

“TheUSmust review its footprints inPakistan,” Rabbani said. “This means the cessation of drone strikes insidePakistan.”

The commission said that the re-opening of the US/Nato supply route must be based on a thorough revision of the terms of conditions of the agreement, which should be subject to strict monitoring within Pakistan on anti-entry, transit and exit points; furthermore, no overt or covert operation inside Pakistan should be tolerated. It also suggested that there should be prior permission and transparency on the number and presence of foreign intelligence operatives inPakistan.

Foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar told reporters: ‘Pakistanwants to pursue good relations with every country butPakistanalso wants to pursue its own national interest.’

Afghan massacre suspect meets lawyer

The defence lawyer for US soldier Staff Sgt. Robert Bales, accused of killing 16 Afghan civilians in their homes, has met the suspect at a US army prison for the first time, in a meeting he described as ‘emotional’.

The killings have undermined US relations withKabuland called into question the Nato timetable for pulling troops out ofAfghanistan.

Sgt Bales arrived at the Fort Leavenworth military detention centre in Kansas after being flown from Kuwait and is being held in solitary confinement pending charges. Sgt Bales is the only known suspect in the killings – despite repeated Afghan assertions that more than one American was involved.

Defence lawyer John Henry Browne, who has represented a number of high-profile clients, has said through a statement made by his team that ‘it is too early to determine what factors may have played into this incident’.

Mr Browne has suggested his client was not fit to serve because of injuries he had suffered on previous tours of duty, while The Pentagon has previously said that Sgt Bales could face charges that carry a possible death penalty.

Such a trial could take years, contrasting with Afghan demands for swift and decisive justice. The Taliban called off peace talks in the wake of the deadly rampage – in which men, women and children were shot and killed at close range.

Rights group accuses Burma of ‘serious abuses’

Burmahas been accused of ‘serious abuses’ against the ethnic Kachin people in a report by the UScampaign group Human Rights Watch (HRW). The 83-page report – Untold Miseries: Wartime Abuses and Forced Displacement in Burma’s Kachin State – came as Western nations consider the lifting of sanctions following recent moves towards reform inBurma.

The government has blocked humanitarian aid to those displaced by fighting in the northern Kachin state since June 2011, the group said. It stated that 75,000 civilians and refugees need food, shelter and medicine

Burma’s government has not yet commented on the accusations, but there have been several significant steps toward reforms since 30 March 2011, the date on which military leaders formally handed power to the civilian government led by President Thein Sein, which is nonetheless backed by the military.

The HRW report, based on interviews with more than 100 victims and refugees, Kachin rebels, aid workers and deserters from the Burmese army, describes attacks on the ethnic Kachins, in which Burmese soldiers pillaged and burnt homes, tortured civilians and raped women in villages.

Fighting between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) broke out last June 2011, ending nearly two decades of ceasefire.

Conflicts betweenBurma’s central government and rebels from the various ethnic minority groups have flared sporadically over the decades since the country gained independence. The government is attempting to sign ceasefires with rebel groups in preparation for further political discussions.

Correspondents say that attempts to end the fighting in Kachin state have proved difficult. The Kachin have so far refused to sign any agreement before political issues are resolved, but are now entering into talks.

‘Both the army and Kachin rebels need to act to prevent a bad situation for civilians from getting worse,’ said Elaine Pearson, HRW’s deputyAsiadirector.

Indiakidnapping: Maoists say two Italians are safe

Maoist rebels in easternIndiahave said that the two Italians they kidnapped recently are safe and in good condition. The Maoists have a strong presence in many eastern states, but this is the first time Westerners have been kidnapped in Orissa state.

Paulo Bosusco, who ran an adventure tourism agency, and Claudio Colangelo, visting fromItaly, were seized while trekking in a tribal area of Orissa state, where the local government had recently imposed severe restrictions on the movement of tourists.

Amongst their list of 13 demands to be met, the rebels, who say they are fighting for a communist state and for the rights of tribal people and the rural poor, have demanded an end to military operations against them and the release of jailed Maoists. This includes senior Maoist leader Narayan Sanyal, who is currently in prison in neighbouring Jharkhand.

In an earlier recording, Mr Panda proposed that Sanyal be one of the mediators holding talks with the state government. Asked what would happen if the government did not agree to Mr Sanyal’s participation, Mr Panda said talks would then be ‘doomed’.

The abduction comes at a time of strained relations betweenItalyandIndia. They have been involved in a diplomatic dispute since Indian police arrested two Italian marines – accused of killing two Indian fishermen – a month ago in the southernportofKochi. Italian Consul General Joel Melchiori has told reporters he is working with Orissa officials to find a solution.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said ‘the abduction of two foreign nationals recently is a reminder of the challenge to our internal security by Naxal (Maoist) and left-wing extremism.’

Rebel soldiers take over in Mali

Rebel troops have seized control of the West African country ofMali, enforcing a nationwide curfew and suspending the constitution. The troops are upset with the government’s handling of a rebellion by ethnic Tuaregs in the north of the country, saying the government is not giving them enough arms to tackle the rebellion and are also reportedly opposed to any potential talks with the rebels.

They announced the takeover on national TV following an attack on the presidential palace and a staged mutiny in which rebel troops traded gunfire with soldiers loyal to the government. A group of soldiers appeared on television with a caption identifying them as the “Committee for the Re-establishment of Democracy and the Restoration of the State”.

A source has said that the foreign minister and a number of other ministers have been arrested, but the exact whereabouts of President Amadou Toumani Toure were not known. An elite force, known as the Red Berets, could still be loyal to the President.

The leader of the mutiny is Captain Amadou Sanogo, who announced the imposition of a national curfew. A spokesman for the rebels, Lt Amadou Konare, said they had ended the ‘incompetent regime’ of President Toure. He condemned the ‘inability’ of the government to ‘fight terrorism’, and said the soldiers would look to hand over to a democratically elected government.

Malihas had democratic rule for the last 20 years, during which it has come to be seen as a model which other emerging democracies can look to. A presidential election was due to take place in the country at the end of April.

The West African regional body Ecowas has condemned the actions of the troops, describing the behaviour of the mutinous soldiers as ‘reprehensible’ and ‘misguided’. And both theUSandFrancehave urged the soldiers and government to resolve their dispute through peaceful means.

Russia:  court dismisses appeal on Bhagavad Gita ban

A Russian court has dismissed an appeal to ban an edition of the Hindu holy book Bhagavad Gita, in a case that triggered protests in India. The edition – titled Bhagavad Gita As It Is – is used by the Hare Krishna movement.

In December, a court in the Siberian city of Tomskhad rejected a plea by prosecutors to rule the edition ‘extremist’, which would put it in the same category as Hitler’s Mein Kampf. Prosecutors then filed an appeal in the higher court of Tomsk against the decision.

‘The court in the Siberian city ofTomskhas dismissed the plea,’ Sadhu Priya Das of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) told the Press Trust of India news agency. The higher court ‘kept the verdict of the lower court intact,’ he added.

The Russian foreign ministry had said it was the commentary on the text, not the text itself, that was under scrutiny. The controversial commentary was written by A C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder of the movement. Hare Krishna followers inRussiasaw the case as part of efforts by the Russian Orthodox Church to restrict their activities.

The Bhagavad Gita, one of the most popular texts for Hindus, takes the form of a conversation between the godKrishna and Prince Arjuna.

Last year Indian MPs demanded the government protect Hindu rights inRussia, shouting: ‘We will not tolerate an insult to Lord Krishna.’