Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, April 07, 2006

Anti-Conversion Laws and Religious Freedom in South Asia and the Middle East: The Case of Abdul Rahman

April 7, 2006
Washington, D.C. –

Congressional Human Rights Caucus member Rep. Todd Akin hosted a briefing this morning to discuss the case of Abdul Rahman, the Christian convert who could have the death penalty under Shari’a law. Ambassador John Hanford from the State Department’s Office of International Freedom; Felice Gaer, Vice-Chair of Freedom House’s United States Commission on Religious Freedom; J. Alexander Their, a Senior Rule of Law Advisor with the Rule of Law Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace; Nina Shea, the Director of Freedom House’s Center for Religious Freedom; Angela Wu, Director of International Advocacy for the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty; and Imam Yahya Hendi, the Muslim Chaplain at Georgetown University, all spoke.

Afghanistan is still in the midst of a “slow and painful recovery” following two decades of warfare, Hanford said. The U.S. has “rehabilitated 27 judiciaries” so far, he continued, but much work is ahead to establish a completely democratic court system. Hanford said he has never been more impressed with the U.S. than in the way it handled Rahman’s case, expressing appreciation for all of President Bush and Condoleezza Rice’s effective efforts to prevent Rahman from receiving a death sentence. “The case turned out much better than it would have in the past,” he declared, adding, “We see things moving in the right direction.”

“Clearly the Abdul Rahman case points to the weak state of human rights in Afghanistan,” Gaer said. She suggested encouraging President Karzai to appoint independent human rights leaders and said judges and prosecutors ought to be trained in human rights law. She said that without these steps there will continue to be “abusive interpretations” of religious laws, such as anti-conversion laws.

Their said he believes that the Rahman case “was not about Islam, it was about power.” The good news is that change is possible, he said. The ambiguity of laws can be set to protect rights up to the judiciary system.

Shea said the Rahman case is not the only one of its kind. She says it is best to work with the judicial system on less extreme cases. “Democracy evolves overtime,” she said, but to start a democracy needs to establish basic freedoms such as freedom of religion.

Wu suggested some ways that the U.S. can support religious freedom, including the following: support rule of law and fundamental freedoms, support indigenous workers who are already committed to such cases, and train domestic activists to develop think tanks. She said it is best to “separate culture from truth- which endures and cannot die.”

Along similar lines, Hendi said the world must safeguard the rights of freedom, the rights of the internet and freedom of religion, adding the need to safeguard wealth, dignity, and land under the laws of Islam. He said he also believes U.S. Muslims should become more active in the process. “Shari’a law should not and must not be used by politicians” to create tensions with citizens of Muslim nations, he concluded.

Rep. Akin said Afghanistan’s constitution was contradictory to begin with in terms of civil versus religious law. He also said believes we can define ‘freedom’ a little bit more precisely, adding that the government is to protect the God-given rights of people. “Fight for the right for someone else to be wrong,” he declared.

Vietnam News Update

Vietnam Allegedly Denies Visa to Congresswoman Sanchez

April 7, 2006

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, co-founder of the bipartisan Congressional Vietnam Caucus, is outspoken on human rights issues in Vietnam. Her criticism of the country, which is under consideration for membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO) but has been told by the international community that it must clean up its human rights record to be accepted, may be tied to her inability to get a visa to visit Vietnam.

Ms. Sanchez has been reportedly been denied a visa for the fourth time by the Vietnamese government, according to an article on CNSNews.com.

House Speaker Hastert is visiting Vietnam with a Congressional delegation this month.

To read the whole story, click here.

3.9 Million Households below Poverty Line under New Standard

April 7, 2006

According to VietNamNet, 3.9 million households within Vietnam will fall “below the poverty line under new international standards. The statistic of nearly 4 million, or 22 percent, of poor households was released by the Minister of Labor, War Invalids and Social Affairs, Nguyen Thi Hang.

VietNamNet reported:

“The mountainous north-western region of the country currently has the most poor families at 42%, followed by the Central Highlands, with 28%. The south-eastern region has the lowest rate, at 9%.”

“Hang said that Vietnam reduced the percentage of number of poor families from 30% in 1992 to 8.2% in 2004, and to less than 7% in 2005 (under the old standards), adding that provinces and cities still need more programmes to help the poor.”

Click here for the report.

Vietnam at 83 Million and Growing Despite Limits

April 6, 2006

Vietnam’s population is growing faster than predicted; in 2005 the country’s population hit 83.13 million, outpacing by 700,000 the 82.49 million people predicted by the year 2010.

There are special concerns for the Central Highlands, since the indigenous people there have found themselves pushed onto ever smaller pieces of land due to an influx of ethnic Vietnamese, leading to poverty, malnutrition and other health problems among the tribal groups.

“The data was released yesterday in Hanoi at a conference reviewing population controls for 2001-05,” VietNamNet reported.

“According to the Committee for Population, Family and Children, births will grow by 1.13mil annually at the current rate and population growth increased for the past five years consistently.”

“Of eight regions in the country, three have a 2.1-child limit per family, including the Red River Delta, the southeastern region and the Mekong Delta. In the Central Highlands, the recommended rate is three children.”

“At the conference, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai requested local governments promote the importance of population planning.”

To read the article, click here.

US Asks Vietnam to Free Key Prisoners before the President’s Visit

March 29, 2006

President George W. Bush will travel to Vietnam in November for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit, and the U.S. is pushing the Vietnamese government to release political prisoners before he arrives.

The U.S. has asked Vietnam to release some of the key prisoners including journalist Nguyen Vu Binh, Phan Van Ban, a 69-year-old ex-police officer and Do Van My, a grassroots-activist. They were imprisoned for reporting on human rights issues within the country and also for joining religious groups.

According to Agence France Presse:

“‘I bluntly told the (government) officials that the American people will not understand why a country that wants to have better relations with us would imprison someone for translating an article on democracy,’ [Assistant Secretary Barry] Lowenkron said.”

“Lowenkron said he told Vietnamese officials that ‘dialogue without concrete progress would not just be an empty exercise, it would be counterproductive.’”

“‘I told Vietnamese officials that they must decide which Vietnam they will showcase to the international community: an open Vietnam, or a Vietnam that closes off its people from a world of ideas, information and opportunity,’ he said.”

To read the whole article, click here.

Central Highlands Gong Culture Recognized by UNESCO

March 29, 2006

Central Highlanders received a UNESCO certificate “recognizing Gong Culture as a world intangible cultural heritage” on March 28, Nhan Dan reported. This distinction emphasizes the need within Vietnam to protect valuable cultural assets and preserve them for future generations. Thousands of ethnic minorities from the Central Highlands attended the extravagant ceremony.

According to Nhan Dan:

“The ceremony was attended by President Tran Duc Luong, Politburo member and Head of the Party Commission for Ideology and Culture, Head of the Vietnam Fatherland Front Central Committee Pham The Duyet and other high ranking officials.”

“Gongs were first used in Vietnam in the Bronze Age (Đông Sơn culture from 2,000 to 3,500 years ago). Ancient gongs were sometimes cast in gold or silver, but nowadays, most are made from an alloy of copper, zinc and lead.”

“Ede and M'nong ethnic minorities alone have preserved 3,375 sets of gongs. Many classes to teach children how to play gongs have been opened, and over 300 teams of gong players have been set up.”
“The cultural space of the gongs in Vietnam covers the five Central Highlands provinces of Dac Lac, Dac Nong, Kon Tum, Gia Lai and Lam Dong.”

Click here to read the whole article.

Journalist Beaten after Covering a Corruption Case

March 28, 2006

Reporters without Borders reported that a journalist working for the daily newspaper Thanh Nien was beaten up while taking photos of the arrest of Nguyen Mau Thon, an officer in the dummy company, Viet Hoa, which was managing embezzled money.

According to Reporters without Borders:

“The company head allegedly embezzled more than seven million dollars (nearly six million euros) of foreign aid from Official Development Assistance (ODA) to bet on European football matches. "We note the authorities' promise to boost security for journalists and we ask them to ensure that police identify those responsible for this violence," the press freedom organisation said.”

“His attackers - young men suspected of being in the pay of the company head - repeatedly elbowed the journalist in the stomach and smashed his head on the ground. They stopped him from taking pictures of the arrival of the deputy transport minister, Nguyen Viet Tien, also accused of having covered up the fraud.”

Wednesday, April 05, 2006


Egypt’s Poor Turn to Organ Trafficking
April 4, 2006

Cairo – Experts call organ trafficking the ‘new mafia,’ and the barbaric practice has happened to many Egyptians, Middle East Online reported. This human organ trade is a last resort for the country’s poor who have no other means of survival. Tragically, many do not survive the dangerous ordeal.

According to the report, “The large scars slicing the sides of many Egyptians in impoverished Cairo neighborhoods most probably testify to an illegal kidney sale to a rich fellow countryman or a Gulf Arab who could not find a donor.”

Hamdi al-Sayyed, the head of Egypt's doctors' union explains how easily it happens, “A Jordanian or a Saudi who needs a transplant comes to Egypt accompanied by a relative as an official cover and then looks for an Egyptian or a Sudanese who is ready to sell his organ.” The thousands of dollars obtained through the organ sale are split between the doctor, the donor, and the middle-man.

Aside from the impoverished Egyptians who volunteer to sell their organs, there have also been incidents of organ pilfering. Victims, looking for jobs in the Gulf, are tricked by traffickers into getting a medical examination, only to wake up in a hospital with no kidney.

"This mafia should be busted and the only way to do it is to pass legislation, regulating organ donation,” Sayyed told Middle East Online. As a lawmaker, he has been asking parliament to adopt new legislation implementing serious fines and prison sentences on people found guilty of involvement in illegal organ trafficking.

Click here for the full story.

New Patriarch for Egypt’s Catholic Copts

April 4, 2006

Alexandria – AllAfrica reported this week that Cardinal Stephanos II Ghattas presented his resignation to Pope Benedict XVI at age 86. Retired Bishop Antonios Naguib of Minya has been elected the new Patriarch of Alexandria of the Catholic Coptic Church. On March 20, he was elected by the Synod of Bishops of the Coptic Church at the St. Joseph’s Convent of the Egyptian Sisters of the Sacred Heart.

This election is a significant event for the 250, 000 Catholic Copts living in Egypt.

Click here for the full story.

Cathedral Restoration Has Significance for Egypt’s Christians

March 22, 2006

Alexandria - After being the centerpiece for the Greek community of Alexandria, Egypt for 150 years, this Greek Orthodox cathedral is once again open for service following an extensive restoration by the Aristotle Onassis Foundation. According to Middle East Times, the Church of the Annunciation underwent a $600,000 two-year restoration process, which began in 2002. The restoration marks an accomplishment for Christians living in Egypt, as it is an arduous process to do any type of church construction under regulations set by the government of Egypt.

Click here for the full story.

Iraq News Update

New Genocide Charges against Saddam Hussein “Sweeping in Scope”

April 5, 2006

Following yesterday’s reports that Saddam Hussein would be charged with genocide, media reports indicate that these new charges are of great significance to the former Iraqi dictator’s trial.

According to the Boston Globe:

“The trial could prove far more complex and sweeping in scope than the ongoing Dujail case, which involves the massacre of at least 148 Shi'ite townspeople in 1982. That trial is scheduled to resume today with further testimony from Hussein.”

“The Anfal campaign was launched, in part, as retribution for an alliance between Kurdish Peshmerga soldiers and Iranian troops during the Iran-Iraq war, according to a 1993 Human Rights Watch Report on Anfal. But investigators also say the campaign, which destroyed 2,000 villages, was part of a widespread ethnic cleansing effort, to rid swaths of the northern province of Kurds.”

“Still pained by muted global outrage during the Anfal campaign, many Kurds have eagerly anticipated the exposure the genocide case would generate. But it was unclear yesterday whether the trial would have to be delayed until the conclusion of the Dujail case.”

“Hussein has a right, under Iraqi law, to attend both trials.”

Click here to read the whole story.

Iraqi Democracy Not a High Priority in U.S Budget

April 5, 2006

President George W. Bush has pledged to “transform Iraq into a beacon of democracy in the Middle East.” At the same time, Washington Post staff writer Peter Baker wrote today, his administration is cutting back funding for major organizations that are trying to carry out his vision by building democratic institutions such as political parties and civil society groups.

According to the Washington Post article:

“The administration has included limited new money for traditional democracy promotion in budget requests to Congress. Some organizations face funding cutoffs this month, while others struggle to stretch resources through the summer. The shortfall threatens projects that teach Iraqis how to create and sustain political parties, think tanks, human rights groups, independent media outlets, trade unions and other elements of democratic society.”

“"The commitment to what the president of the United States will say every single day of the week is his number one priority in Iraq, when it's translated into action, looks very tiny," said Les Campbell, who runs programs in the Middle East for the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, known as NDI.”

“The president's supplemental Iraq spending request includes just $10 million for democracy promotion, and his proposed budget for fiscal 2007 asks for $63 million, a fraction of the tens of billions of dollars spent each year on Iraq. But officials argue that other funds in effect further the same goal. For instance, the administration targeted $254 million for enhancing the rule of law by creating a fair judiciary and a humane prison system.”

Click here to read the whole article

Massive Exodus of Iraqi Civilians from Mixed Sunni-Shiite Areas a Troubling Sign
April 2, 2006

The war in Iraq has shifted in scope and now tens of thousands of civilians are fleeing from mixed Sunni-Shiite areas in and around Baghdad. According to American commanders and Iraqi officials the divide between the two sects is constantly growing.

According to the New York Times:

“The nature of the Iraq war has been changing since at least the late autumn, when political friction between Sunni Arabs and Shiite Arabs rose even as American troops began implementing a long-term plan to decrease their street presence. But the killing accelerated after the bombing on Feb. 22 of a revered Shiite shrine, which unleashed a wave of sectarian bloodletting.”

“The Iraqi public's reaction to the violence has been dramatic. Since the shrine bombing, 30,000 to 36,000 Iraqis have fled their homes because of sectarian violence or fear of reprisals, say officials at the International Organization for Migration, based in Geneva. The Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration estimated that at least5,500 families have moved, with the biggest group being 1,250 families settling in the Shiite holy city of Najaf after leaving Baghdad and Sunni-dominated towns in central Iraq. The families are living with relatives or in abandoned buildings, and a crisis of food and water shortages is starting to build, officials say.”

To read the full story, click here.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Cambodia’s Human Rights Situation: An Update

April 4, 2006

Washington D.C. - The Congressional Human Rights Caucus held a briefing today on current human rights issues facing Cambodia. Witnesses included Kem Sokha of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR); Ngoun Teang of Voice of Democracy, CCHR; Raissa Tatad of the National Democratic Institute (NDI); Cynthia Burton of the International Republican Institute (IRI); and T. Kumar of Amnesty International.

Sokha focused his remarks on freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. He said that the lack of these rights in Cambodia is major problem within the overall human rights situation there. He said there is only one independent Cambodian TV station, and its creator has been arrested twice already. He added that it is the job of human rights organizations to “give homework to the prime minister,” encouraging him to take steps to follow through on his human rights promises. After handing a notice to Prime Minister Hun Sen on land reform, Sokha said he plans to hand him another on judiciary reform, and a later one on corruption. He said the prime minister has incentive to improve the country’s human rights record because he has expressed a desire for Cambodia to do better Singapore and Malaysia.

Teang reiterated Sokha’s call for a “fight of freedom of expression.” In working with the Cambodian government on the issue, he said he could see a compromise happening before a total shift.

For structures vital for human rights to be present in Cambodia, the country must create a rule of law free from political interference, Kumar said. “The laws are still in place to lock people up for things that are unfair.” He said the citizens of Cambodia should have had a say in the past border exchange. He spoke of the political leaders and human rights activists that have been killed or jailed, and to Sokha and Teang he said, “You are not only fighting for human rights in Cambodia; you are fighting for human rights around the world.”

Tatad-Hazell remarked on the ironic ‘coincidence’ of how many imprisoned opponents of the Cambodian government were released just before a donor meeting, in which Cambodia asked for over $2 million. There is “an enormous centralization of power,” she said, quoting the UN. NDI feels there should be a strong and wider urge for the Cambodian government to uphold the rights of the peace agreement of 1999.

Bunton also spoke of the freedom of assembly law. He said NRI fully supports SRP Party in Cambodia, and views it as a democratic party. “Bottom line,” said Bunton, “If we can cash in all of Hun Sen’s promises, than Cambodia would be a perfect place.”

Saddam Hussein Charged for Anfal Campaign

April 4, 2006
Baghdad, Iraq- CNN reported that Saddam Hussein was charged with genocide today, stemming from the Anfal Campaign that Hussein and his government undertook in the late 1980s. This is the first charge of genocide for Hussein, who is currently on trial for crimes against humanity, after a failed assassination attempt in Dujail, a village north of Baghdad. The charge of genocide comes after years of investigation into the campaign against the Kurds in the northern territories of Iraq. Along with Hussein, there are six other men named in the indictment, including Ali Hassan Al-Majeed, known as “Chemical Ali.” The numbers of Kurds killed during Anfal is staggering and ranges from 50,000 to 200,000, many of whom died from gas attacks. One such example was an attack on the city of Halabja, where an estimated 5,000 people died due to gassing. There is no date set for the start of the trial, but it could possibly start as early as next month.

According to CNN, “Hussein could face up to 20 trials on various charges, including the 1991 suppression of the Shiite uprising in southern Iraq.”
To read the entire article, click here.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Afghan School Girls’ Safety in Jeopardy

March 24, 2006

Kabul – Around half of all Afghan girls are not attending primary school because of the recent Taliban attacks on schools throughout the country, Reuters reported. When the Taliban ruled, girls banned from attending school studied in secret locations. Now some think they may have to resort to this secretive method again.

"The most important thing now is to have all children in school, that's very important for the development of the country," Rima Salah, deputy executive director of the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF), told Reuters.

There have been 30 serious attacks on schools in the past six months that have resulted in the death of six people, including five staff and one student. USAID fears the closure of an estimated 200 schools in southern Afghanistan.

UNICEF suggests creating small community schools to protect female students.

Click here for the full story.

Afghanistan’s Female Warlord

March 16, 2006

Bibi Ayesha, known to Afghanistan as “The Pigeon,” has fought the Russians, the Taliban, and other local rivals. As a warlord, she is a rarity in a country that is far from achieving gender equality. BBC News featured Ayesha’s story in a recent report. The Afghan government and its international backers, such as the U.N., are requiring Ayesha to hand over her weapons.

According to the report:

“While the neon lights, internet cafes and mobile phone shops in Kabul point to a rush towards modernity in Afghanistan's cities, in remote rural Afghanistan the old feudal order persists; an often violent culture of blood feud and local justice where the reach of central government is weak or non-existent.”

"I am still wishing for a fight," she told BBC News, dismissing any notion that women's roles in Afghan society would preclude front-line battle service, "It makes no difference if you are a man or a woman when you have the heart of a fighter."

She claims to have 150 men under her command, and has weapons for about 50. Though the UN Disbandment of Illegal Armed Groups program (DIAG) plans to disarm her soon, she will most likely resist.

Click here for BBC News full story.