Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Iraqi Parliament Holds 1st Working Session

LCHR applauds the Iraqi Parliament for holding its first working session today. Wednesday marks the first time the Parliament has convened since it was elected in December, 2005. While violence continued to plague Baghdad, parliamentarians met, and were "expected to discuss forming a committee to suggest changes to Iraq's constitution," Voice of America News reported. Click here for the full story.

Iraq's Missing Girls

The following article appeared in Time magazine.

Stolen Away

As criminal gangs run amuck in Iraq, hundreds of girls have gone missing. Are they being sold for sex?

May 1, 2006

The man on the phone with the 14-year-old Iraqi girl called himself Sa'ad. He was calling long distance from Dubai and telling her wonderful things about the place. He was also about to buy her. Safah, the teenager, was well aware of the impending transaction. In the weeks after she was kidnapped and imprisoned in a dark house in Baghdad's middle-class Karada district, Safah heard her captors haggling with Sa'ad over her price. It was finally settled at $10,000. Staring at a floor strewn with empty whiskey bottles, the orphan listened as Sa'ad described the life awaiting her: a beautiful home, expensive clothes, parties with pop stars. Why, she'd be joining two other very happy teenage Iraqi girls living with Sa'ad in his harem. Safah knew that she was running out of time. A fake passport with her photo and assumed name had already been forged for her. But even if she escaped, she had no family who would take her in. She was even likely to end up in prison. What was she to do?

Safah is part of a seldom-discussed aspect of the epidemic of kidnappings in Iraq: sex trafficking. No one knows how many young women have been kidnapped and sold since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The Organization for Women's Freedom in Iraq, based in Baghdad, estimates from anecdotal evidence that more than 2,000 Iraqi women have gone missing in that period. A Western official in Baghdad who monitors the status of women in Iraq thinks that figure may be inflated but admits that sex trafficking, virtually nonexistent under Saddam, has become a serious issue. The collapse of law and order and the absence of a stable government have allowed criminal gangs, alongside terrorists, to run amuck. Meanwhile, some aid workers say, bureaucrats in the ministries have either paralyzed with red tape or frozen the assets of charities that might have provided refuge for these girls. As a result, sex trafficking has been allowed to fester unchecked.

"It is a problem, definitely," says the official, who has heard specific reports from Iraqi aid workers about girls being kidnapped and sold to brothels. "Unfortunately, the security situation doesn't allow us to follow up on this." The U.S. State Department's June 2005 trafficking report says the extent of the problem in Iraq is "difficult to appropriately gauge" but cites an unknown number of Iraqi women and girls being sent to Yemen, Syria, Jordan and Persian Gulf countries for sexual exploitation. Statistics are further made murky by tribal tradition. Families are usually so shamed by the disappearance of a daughter that they do not report kidnappings. And the resulting stigma of compromised chastity is such that even if the girl should resurface, she may never be taken back by her relations.

A visit to the Khadamiyah Women's Prison in the northern part of Baghdad immediately produces several tales of abduction and abandonment. A stunning 18-year-old nicknamed Amna, her black hair pulled back in a ponytail, says she was taken from an orphanage by an armed gang just after the U.S. invasion and sent to brothels in Samarra, al-Qaim on the border with Syria, and Mosul in the north before she was taken back to Baghdad, drugged with pills, dressed in a suicide belt and sent to bomb a cleric's office in Khadamiyah, where she turned herself in to the police. A judge gave her a seven-year jail sentence "for her sake" to protect her from the gang, according to the prison director.

Two other girls, Asmah, 14, and Shadah, 15, were taken all the way to the United Arab Emirates before they could escape their kidnappers and report them to a Dubai police station. The sisters were then sent back to Iraq but, like many other girls who have escaped their kidnappers and buyers, were sent to prison because they carried fake passports. There, they wait for the bureaucracy to sort out their innocence. What happened to the gang that took them? The sisters hear rumors that the men paid their way out of jail and are back on the streets. "I don't know what to do if the prison administration decides to release me," says Asmah, pushing back her gray head scarf to adjust her black hair. "We have no one to protect us."

Women's advocates are trying to set up halfway houses for kidnap survivors. The locations are secret to keep the women safe from both trafficking gangs trying to cover their tracks and outraged relatives who may try to kill the women to restore their clans' reputation. But the new Iraqi government has set up several bureaucratic roadblocks. Even organizations that do not receive government money have to secure permission from four ministries and the Baghdad city council for every shelter they hope to operate. Wringing her hands in exasperation, activist Yanar Mohammed says, "They want to close our women's shelter and deny our ability to open more."

That means that for girls like Safah, there are few havens left in Baghdad. In 2003, after Safah's father died, her grandmother took her to House of Children No. 2 orphanage in Adhamiya without the knowledge of most of her family. At the orphanage, she was befriended by an affable nurse who spent hours chatting up Safah, a fresh-faced girl whose fingers are still pudgy with baby fat. The nurse's modest hijab framed a sweet face that made Safah feel that the nurse was a good, spiritual woman, one she could trust. The nurse convinced Safah that she could be killed over the shame her disappearance had brought to her family. The nurse offered to adopt her. But official channels would have taken too long, so the nurse told Safah to hold her lower-right abdomen, scream and writhe on the carpet of the orphanage director's office, pretending to have appendicitis and requiring emergency medical assistance. Once at the hospital, the nurse whisked Safah into a waiting car.

The next three weeks were the worst in Safah's life. "I was tortured and beaten and insulted a lot in that house," Safah says. She wouldn't provide many details about what happened in the whiskey-soaked den in Karada. But she says that when it became apparent to her that she was about to be sold to Sa'ad, the man on the phone from Dubai, she became desperate. She passed word of her confinement to a neighborhood boy, who reported it to the local police station. Officers raided the place and arrested the nurse. Bureaucratic red tape somehow kept Safah and the nurse in the same prison for six months before Safah was finally released back into the custody of the orphanage a month ago.

At the orphanage, nestled behind a 10-ft. wall on the breezy banks of the Tigris, Safah can take computer classes, practice sewing and paint portraits of the family she wishes she had. But she doesn't feel as safe as she used to there. A social worker tells her that the nurse wasn't at the Khadamiyah Women's Prison during her last visit. Suddenly Safah rushes out of the room, crying and beating her head with her hands in the hallway. "If she is released," says Safah, her eyes darting back and forth in a panic, "I'm not staying here." But deep down she knows she has nowhere else to go.

—With reporting by With reporting by Yousif Basil/ Baghdad, Assad Majeed/ Baghdad

BBC on Afghan women in business

A Kabul soccer ball factory is one example of Afghan women entrepreneurship: all 60 employees are women. Although many Afghan families still prevent wives and daughters from leaving home unescorted, BBC reports that "more and more Afghan women have gone back to work.

According to the story:

"We want to show the world that Afghan women can achieve something," explained Aziza Mohmad, whose charity Humanitarian Assistance for Women is behind the football factory.

To read the full story, click here.

USCIRF Announces Countries of Particular Concern Recommendations for 2006

May 3, 2006

Washington, D.C. – The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its “Countries of Particular Concern” recommendations today for Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s review. Eleven countries are on USCIRF’s list: Burma, North Korea, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, People’s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Vietnam. Pakistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan were not designated CPCs last year; USCIRF recommends that the other countries listed remain CPCs. On the Commission’s “watch list” are Afghanistan and Egypt, along with Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Indonesia and Nigeria. In addition to these countries, USCIRF Commissioner Richard Land spoke about growing religious freedom concerns in Iraq tied to sectarian violence.

Chair of the Commission Michael Cromartie said there is a “growing strategic importance of protecting religious freedom” around the world. Vice-chair Nina Shea added that the CPC designation “lays the groundwork for U.S. relations with these countries.”

On Afghanistan, Commissioner Preeta Bansal called the country’s religious freedom status “increasingly problematic,” pointing to the highly publicized conversion case of Abdul Rahman. Bansal said Rahman’s ordeal is not an isolated incident because of a failure to protect individuals’ religious freedom in the Afghan constitution. According to Bansal, Afghan Supreme Court Chief Justice Shinwari has told the Commission that while he supports most of the provisions of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, he does not support freedom of religion, freedom of speech or gender equality.

Egypt, while not discussed during the USCIRF press conference, is cited as a violator of religious freedom in the group’s report. According to the report, “Serious problems of discrimination, intolerance, and other human rights violations against members of religious minorities, as well as non-conforming Muslims, remain widespread in Egypt.”

Land described a “grave escalation” of religious motivated violence in Iraq, which is afflicting not just Shi’a and Sunnis, but also secular Muslims, Christians, and others. “The U.S. has a special responsibility” to remedy these problems, Land said, calling for a senior foreign service officer to be appointed as the lead human rights official in Iraq. An independent National Human Rights Commission is also needed.

While Shea described some improvements for religious freedom in Vietnam, including the release of prisoners of conscience, she also cited “credible reports of forced renunciation” and said “we should not reward Vietnam too quickly by removing the CPC designation.”

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

United Nations Reform at Impasse

May 2, 2006
United Nations- According to a Washington Post article, some of the reforms, which were proposed by Secretary-General Kofi Annan, have been delayed by the Group of 77. On Friday, the main budgetary committee of the General Assembly voted on the delay with 108 voting for it, 50 against, and three abstentions. This is the latest setback to the reformation process at the United Nations, which may lead to a funding cut from the United States government to the organization. The Group of 77, which is made up of 132 relatively poorer nations, was joined by China in this quest to delay the major reforms that Annan has proposed. These major reforms would act to streamline the United Nations budgetary process and lead to less corruption. The nations against this plan feel that it will restrict their power within the UN, especially their power of helping to figure out and settle the budget for the intergovernmental organization. If the reform had gone through, much of the budgetary process would be conducted through the office of the Secretary-General, rather than through the committees of the General Assembly. This worries the poorer nations, because they believe that what little power within the organization they do wield will be stripped away because of this plan.
According to the article:
“’We should always remember that we are all equal partners in this organization, regardless of our level of development and regardless of how much we contribute to the budget of the organization,’ said Egypt's ambassador, Maged A. Abdelaziz.”

“Republicans in Congress have recently pressured the administration to withhold financing for the United Nations if it does not overhaul its management.”

To read the entire article, click here.

Monday, May 01, 2006

MEMRI reports "worsening situation of Christians in Muslim world"

The following article has been reprinted from the Middle East Media Research Institute.

April 28, 2006

Arab intellectual of Palestinian origin George Catan discusses the discrimination against Christians in the Arab countries today, describing their deteriorating status and diminishing numbers in comparison with previous eras in the region's history. He warns that the Christian population of the region may vanish as Christians emigrate to the West rather than tolerate the backwardness and tyranny of their home countries. Further, he calls upon the Christian communities to stay put and fight for democracy and human rights in their own countries. [1]

The following are excerpts from the article:

The Spread of the Islamic Movement and Extremist Salafi Views Led to Copts' Removal From Prominent Positions in Egypt
"Christians played a key role during the Umayyad, Abbasid and Fatimid periods by [facilitating] mutual enrichment between the civilizations and introducing the thought and science of the [ancient] civilizations into the Arab world.

"During the [Arab] Renaissance, many Christians played a prominent role in introducing concepts from the Enlightenment [into the Arab world], reexamining the Arabic language, highlighting the uniqueness of Arab culture, challenging Ottoman backwardness and tyranny, and calling for the establishment of a modern state based on national, rather than religious, affiliation...

"Their unique participation [in public life] reached its peak in the 'liberal period,' during the second half of the previous century, when there were prominent [Christian] philosophers, intellectuals, ministers, parliament members and party members.

"With the ascent of the semi-secular military regimes, with their pan-Arab and socialist slogans - especially in Egypt, Iraq and Syria - there was a decrease in the participation of Christians in the political arena. Though these regimes did not persecute the Christians, their absolute tyranny was the main reason for the advent of extremist fundamentalist Islamism, which calls for [the establishment of] an Islamic state that would discriminate against religious minorities, marginalize them and encourage them to emigrate...

"The spreading of the Islamic movement and extremist Salafi views throughout Egyptian society led to the removal of Copts from the Parliament, municipalities, labor unions and [other] prominent positions, and limitations began to be imposed on the building and renovation of churches. Some [churches] were [even] attacked and burned down, and Christians were accused of heresy...

"It should also be noted that the curricula [in Egyptian schools] ignored the 600 years of Coptic history in Egypt. [Furthermore], the former supreme leader of the Egyptian [Muslim] Brotherhood called to ban [Christians] from the army and from the bureaucracy, to apply to them the Islamic law concerning dhimmis [Christians and Jews living under Islamic rule], and thus to reinstate the jizya [poll tax], turning [the Christians] into second-rate citizens."

"Are We Moving Towards Exclusively Muslim Societies?"
"During its last years in power, Saddam's regime in Iraq gave the Salafi movements freedom of action, and after its fall [these movements] led the terrorist activity along with the remnants of the old regime... Among their most conspicuous actions was the bombing of six churches on a single Sunday, resulting in massive Christian emigration. Since the Gulf War, at least a third of Iraq's Christian population has emigrated [to other countries]...

"In the West Bank and Gaza, armed Islamic movements regard Palestine as a Muslim waqf [religious endowment], and call to defend the places holy to the Muslims while disregarding places holy to the Christians... The few Christian women living in Gaza have to wear a veil out of fear of the extremists. A few weeks ago, the last shop selling wines in Gaza was bombed, even though it belonged to international organizations...

"The Christians of Saudi Arabia were rooted out centuries ago. The hundreds of thousands of Christians who now work in Saudi Arabia, arriving from the neighboring countries or from far-away lands, are not allowed to build churches there. [Moreover], they risk beatings, imprisonment, and deportation, [even] if they hold their ceremonies in secret, in their own homes. At the same time, the Saudi regime uses its oil profits to build grandiose mosques all over 'heretical' Europe.

"The Christians in Lebanon have diminished from 50% before the civil war to 35% today. Christians comprise 3.5 million out of the 5 million Lebanese emigrants living in the West...

"While in ancient times, discrimination, marginalization, accusations of heresy, and persecution drove many [Christians] to convert to Islam, today they are driven to emigrate, as long as the gates remain open. This may cause Christianity to decline in its original home in the East...

"Are we moving towards exclusively Muslim societies? Will this deterioration stop here, or will it lead, after the Eastern countries are emptied of Christians, to [a state] of sectarian purity in each country? Are there solutions that will allow coexistence without the majority hating [the minorities] that differ in their religion and ethnicity? Will we progress towards integrated humanist and democratic societies that accept political, religious, and ethnic pluralism, or slide back into the darkness of old concepts out of religious, nationalist and pan-Arab narcissism?..."

"The Fundamentalists Have Defined Their Adversaries: Modern Society, Women, and Non-Muslims"
"The pan-Arab solution is no longer feasible now that the pan-Arab movements have embraced Islamism, and most of them agree that the term 'Arab' is synonymous with 'Muslim.' This excludes Christians almost completely from the dominant Islamic Arabism - to the point where, in some countries, Christian teachers have been banned from teaching Arabic, since it is the language of the Koran...

"The Christians have no political plan to [establish] a local or regional entity. The renewal of their cultural and humanist role depends on the completion of the [cultural] renaissance... which will ensure [people's] freedom to build places of worship, hold religious ceremonies, engage in peaceful religious preaching, change their religion without coercion, interpret their religious texts without accusing others of religious or sectarian heresy... [and will also allow us to] end the discrimination in the constitutions which turns the presidency into a Muslim monopoly... and the Islamic Shari'a into the basis for legislation...

"The [only] option left to the Christians is to stay put and promote [the development of] modern democratic states that guarantee human rights by [guaranteeing] full and equal citizenship to all sectors of society, and [by establishing] national unity which accepts social diversity and turns it into a factor that enriches the shared [social] fabric... In [this] interim stage, there may be liberal democratic Christian parties that will prevent religion from interfering with state affairs, and will protect freedom of worship and religious education [based on] tolerance for others...

"The fundamentalists have defined their adversaries: modern society, women, and non-Muslims. Therefore, the coalition opposing them may include secular democratic political forces, women's empowerment organizations, minorities, and global human rights organizations which promote freedoms and fight discrimination against minorities."