Bangladesh: war crimes tribunal defers verdict on Nizami

A Bangladeshi war crimes tribunal deferred its verdict on an Islamist party chief on June 24 because he is sick, lawyers said. Motiur Rahman Nizami, head of the Jamaat-e-Islami party, has been charged with 16 crimes including genocide, rape, arson and the killing of intellectuals during the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. Nizami, a minister during former premier Begum Khaleda Zia’s last term in 2001-2006, has been in jail since 2010 when he was charged with war crimes.

He was sentenced to death in January in a separate, unrelated case in the country’s biggest arms smuggling case. This will be the first verdict on war crimes charges since Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came to power for a second consecutive term in an election in January boycotted by the main opposition.

Islamist politician Abdul Quader Molla was hanged in December last year, the first war crimes execution in Bangladesh. The war crimes tribunals have so far handed down ten verdicts, including eight death sentences and two life imprisonments.

Violent protests over the war crimes trials are one of the main challenges facing Hasina, who opened an inquiry into abuses committed during the war in 2010. More than 200 people were killed in clashes last year, most of them Islamist party activists and members of the security forces.

The tribunals have angered Islamists, who say they are a politically motivated attempt to persecute the leadership of Jamaat-e-Islami, the main Islamist party in Bangladesh and a key part of the opposition coalition.

Police and Qadri supporters clash in Pakistan’s capital

Police in Pakistan have fired tear gas to disperse hundreds of supporters of a prominent anti-government cleric in the capital, Islamabad.

Crowds had gathered at the city’s airport on June 23 to welcome Tahirul Qadri from Canada where he lives, but his flight was diverted to Lahore.
The cleric says he plans to lead a peaceful revolt against PM Nawaz Sharif.

At least eight people were killed during the previous week when police in Lahore used live ammunition against Qadri followers.

Police had sealed off roads to Islamabad airport but some of the cleric’s supporters — chanting ‘Islamic revolution’ and ‘long live the army’ — managed to break through the security cordon. Television footage showed Qadri followers armed with sticks and stones fighting running battles with police wielding batons.

Mr Qadri’s flight was rerouted to Lahore ‘to ensure the safety of the passengers and aircraft’, a spokesman for Pakistan’s Civil Aviation Authority announced. The cleric accused the government of hijacking the aircraft and refused to get off for several hours, but later agreed to leave in the presence of Punjab governor Mohammad Sarwar.

Qadri has stated that he wants ‘democratic reforms’. The government, he said, had been elected through ‘a rigged electoral process’.

Kerry seeks support of Kurds in Iraq crisis

US Secretary of State John Kerry held crisis talks with leaders of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region on June 24, urging them to stand with Baghdad in the face of a Sunni insurgent onslaught that threatens to dismember the country.

Kerry flew to the Kurdish region on an emergency trip through the Middle East to rescue Iraq after a lightning advance by Sunni fighters led by al-Qaeda offshoot, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

The five million Kurds, who have ruled themselves within Iraq in relative peace since the US invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003, have seized on this month’s chaos to expand their own territory, taking control of rich oil deposits. The Kurds’ capture of Kirkuk, a city they consider their historic capital just outside the boundary of their autonomous zone, eliminates their main incentive to remain part of Iraq: its oil deposits could generate more revenue than the Kurds now receive from Baghdad as part of the settlement that has kept them from declaring independence.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government forces have abandoned the entire western frontier with Jordan and Syria, leaving Sunni fighters in control of some of the most important trade routes in the Middle East. For the insurgents, capturing the frontier is a dramatic step towards the goal of erasing the modern border altogether and building a caliphate across swathes of Iraq and Syria.

US President Barack Obama has offered up to 300 American advisers to Iraq but held off granting a request by Maliki’s Shi’ite Muslim-led government for air strikes. Kerry hopes to convince Kurdish leaders to be part of a new government in Baghdad, where they can assume senior positions and have a say in the oil wealth.

But Kurdish leaders have made clear that the settlement keeping Iraq together as a state is now in jeopardy. Kurdish President Massoud Barzani said at the start of his meeting with Kerry, ‘We are facing a new reality and a new Iraq.’

Egypt: Sisi ‘will not interfere’ in court verdicts

Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has said that he will not interfere with judicial verdicts, following an international outcry over lengthy prison sentences given to three Al Jazeera journalists on June 23.

Sisi said Egypt’s authorities would respect the independence of the judiciary, stating in a televised speech on June 24 at a military graduation ceremony, ‘We must respect judicial rulings and not criticise them even if others do not understand this.’

The guilty verdicts were announced by a Cairo judge against Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed. The journalists — an Australian, a Canadian-Egyptian and an Egyptian — were convicted of spreading false news and aiding a ‘terrorist organisation’, a reference to the banned Muslim Brotherhood. Greste and Fahmy were sentenced to seven years in prison, while Baher Mohamed was sentenced to an additional three years for possession of ammunition because of a spent bullet casing he had found on the ground during a protest. Another eight Al Jazeera journalists were tried in absentia, including British journalists Sue Turton and Dominic Kane, and were sentenced to ten years.

The sentences were widely criticised by rights groups and Western governments, with US Secretary of State John Kerry calling them ‘chilling and draconian’ and British foreign minister William Hague summoning the Egyptian ambassador for a meeting about the case in London.

The UN warned of ‘a risk that miscarriage of justice is becoming the norm in Egypt’.

Egypt’s foreign ministry said in a statement on June 23 that it ‘rejects any comment from a foreign party that casts doubt on the independence of the Egyptian judiciary and the justice of its verdicts.’

China indicts activist for backing press freedom

A prominent Chinese activist who pushed for human rights and democracy has been charged with gathering crowds to disrupt public order, more than 10 months after he was taken into police custody, his lawyer said on June 24.

The indictment of Yang Maodong, better known by the pen name Guo Feixiong, is the latest in a string of prosecutions of activists who have criticized the policies and practices of China’s government and championed democracy and the rule of law.

Chinese authorities this year convicted legal scholar Xu Zhiyong, founder of the loosely knit New Citizens Movement, on the same charge and sentenced him to four years in prison. Several followers of that movement were also imprisoned.

Yang is a dissident writer and a leading political activist in southern China. He served a five-year jail sentence between 2006 and 2011, and the writer’s advocacy group International PEN said he was targeted for a book that exposed official corruption in a northeastern Chinese city.

Yang’s lawyer, Zhang Xuezhong, said the latest charge stems largely from an incident in early 2013 in which he joined crowds which rallied outside a Chinese newspaper to support press freedom during a dispute over censorship at the paper. Zhang said Yang, rather than stirring up the crowds, urged fellow demonstrators to be orderly.

Commenting on the likely outcome of the case when Yang is tried later this summer, Zhang predicted a guilty verdict and said, ‘Judging from how the authorities have handled other cases involving activists, I don’t think Yang would be freed, even if what he has done constitutes no crime.’

France’s National Front lacks support for EU parliamentary group

Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front has admitted defeat after failing to win wide enough support to form a political group in the European Parliament by the June 24 deadline, dousing her ambition to lead an alliance of nationalists against Brussels.

Le Pen’s anti-EU, anti-immigrant party caused a sensation in EU-wide elections in May when it topped the poll in France with 24.95 per cent, beating both President Francois Hollande’s Socialists and the centre-right UMP opposition.

Before the latest vote, Le Pen said a major objective was to form a group in parliament, which would have secured at least 20 million euros in funds, staff and speaking time. Le Pen said after the vote that she had ‘no doubt’ the National Front would soon be able to do so. But hours before the June 24 deadline, she was two countries short of the required representation from seven nations — highlighting the far-right populists’ difficulties in agreeing among themselves.

Compounding Le Pen’s embarrassment, she was outmanoeuvred by the UK Independence Party’s Nigel Farage, who had refused to enter an alliance with her due to what he called the National Front’s legacy of anti-Semitism. Farage had formed a Eurosceptic parliamentary group the previous week with 48 law-makers after poaching a National Front defector whom Le Pen had tried to unseat after she advocated giving non-EU foreigners the right to vote in local elections.

The Front said in a statement it had missed the deadline due to its refusal to join forces with parties whose members had ‘incompatible’ values, but it still saw a chance of forming a group before parliament’s inaugural session on July 1.

Expectations at home and abroad for India’s new leader

In the wake of Narendra Modi’s recent landslide election win, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) hosted a talk on 19 June by its Senior Fellow for South Asia, Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, entitled ‘India’s new Modi government: What to expect on foreign and security policies’.

Roy-Chaudhury considered the implications of the BJP gaining an absolute majority for the first time in 30 years, most notably that Modi can have a more decisive electoral mandate, and is unlikely to be swayed by domestic regional considerations weighing on India’s neighbourhood .This, said Roy-Chaudhury, provides the basis for a bold and confident foreign policy.

With India’s new external affairs minister expected to be an influential member of the decision-making Cabinet Committee on Security (unlike previous external affairs ministers over the last ten years) and the new national security advisor a retired chief of India’s domestic intelligence agency with expertise in counter-terrorism and South Asia, Roy-Chaudhury pondered what such developments might mean for India’s foreign and security policies, including building better relations with its neighbours, especially Pakistan, China, and post-2014 Afghanistan, ensuring autonomy of thought on multilateral issues, and a changing relationship with the US and the UK.

For Modi, there will be fewer constraints on foreign than domestic issues, and India needs to show ‘ruthless pragmatism’ towards its neighbours, concluded Roy-Chaudhury. ‘We should expect surprises tactically, but not strategically.’

US government memo on Awlaki killing released by NY court

A New York court has released the Obama administration’s legal justification for the killing of a US citizen and suspected al-Qaeda leader in Yemen.
The previously secret justice department memo was published on June 23 after a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and The New York Times.

Anwar al Awlaki was killed by a US drone attack in Yemen in 2011. Critics have said he was killed without being given his right to legal due process as an American citizen. The memo argues the killing was legal because he was an ‘operational leader’ of an ‘enemy force’ at war with the US. The document also says the killing of Awlaki by US military forces would be legal under an authorisation for the use of US force after the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington DC. It is dated July 2010, more than a year before Awlaki was killed.

Awlaki, a radical American Muslim cleric of Yemeni descent, was linked to a series of attacks and plots across the world — including the 9/11 attacks and the shootings at Fort Hood in November 2009. He was born in 1971 in the southern US state of New Mexico and lived in the US until the age of seven, when his family returned to Yemen. He returned again for more than a decade to study and work, but left in 2002.

Jameel Jaffer, an ACLU lawyer who argued the case for release of the secret memo, said it ‘represents an overdue but nonetheless crucial step towards transparency. There are few questions more important than the question of when the government has the authority to kill its own citizens.’

Abe’s good intentions not enough, says Japan’s heckled law-maker

A Japanese lawmaker whose sexist heckling by a male colleague has become a cause célèbre in Japan said on June 24 that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s promises to boost the role of working women were welcome, but not enough.

Measures to make it easier for women to work and raise children are a key plank of Abe’s strategy, but Ayaka Shiomura, an opposition member of the Tokyo Metropolitan Assembly, said: ‘I agree with (Abe’s) words. But the reality is that even in Tokyo alone, it’s difficult for women to work.
There is no climate that invigorates women. There is no substance.’

Shiomura had been speaking about steps to support infertile and working women in a Tokyo city assembly session recently when male law-makers shouted, ‘Hurry up and get married’ and ‘Can’t you give birth?’ Akihiro Suzuki, a member of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), first denied making such remarks but later publicly apologised.

The sexist jeers have outraged many people in Japan. On the night of June 23, people threw eggs at Suzuki’s office building.

Abe apologised to Keiichiro Asao, representative of Your Party to which Shiomura belongs, for the sexist heckling. Shiomura said she was glad the prime minister had publicly commented on the issue.

News in Brief

Sudan: Christian woman facing death sentence is freed
A woman sentenced to death in Sudan for allegedly converting from Islam to Christianity was freed from jail on June 23. Meriam Ibrahim was forced to give birth to her daughter Maya while chained to her cell floor following her conviction for apostasy and adultery after her marriage to American Daniel Wani. However, appeal court judges in Khartoum overturned the ruling and she is now in a safehouse.

Thai ex-minister forms opposition in exile
A cabinet minister in Thailand’s former elected government has established a group in exile to oppose the military regime. Former Interior Minister Charupong Reuangsuwan, who led the Pheu Thai Party that won the 2011 election, said in an open letter on June 24 that the Organization of Free Thais for Human Rights and Democracy rejects the junta’s legitimacy. The army ousted the elected government in a coup on May 22, following protests by opponents of the government demanding reform. Charupong defied its order to surrender, apparently fleeing to neighbouring Cambodia.

Ukraine’s President and German foreign minister set to meet
German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier was set to meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on June 24 to discuss bringing an end to the fighting in eastern Ukraine, it was reported by Germany’s Deutsche Welle. Steinmeier’s visit comes after leaders of the self-declared Donetsk People’s Republic reportedly announced they would comply with Ukraine’s cease-fire. EU foreign ministers on June 23 urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to support Poroshenko’s peace plan.

Malaysian court upholds ban use of ‘Allah’ by non-Muslims
Malaysia’s highest court has upheld a government ban on non-Muslims using the word ‘Allah’ to refer to God. It rejected a challenge from Christians who argued they have used the word, which entered Malay from Arabic, for centuries and that the ruling violates their rights. A Human Rights Watch spokesman called the decision ‘a sad state of affairs that shows how far and fast religious tolerance is falling’.