Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, August 03, 2007

Taliban spokesman says hostage talks a possibility

A purported Taliban spokesman today broached the possibility of hostage talks with South Korean officials, provided the United Nations mission in Afghanistan gives the militant group security guarantees, The Associated Press reported.

“The Taliban are ready to meet them in Kabul, other cities or other country, but only under one condition and that is that the U.N. guarantees their safety,” Qari Yousef Ahmadi said, speaking from an undisclosed location.

Twenty one hostages – 16 women and five men – remain from the group of 23 South Korean volunteer health workers that were captured by the Taliban on July 19 in Ghazni Province en route to Kandahar. Two of the hostages from the initial group have been shot dead.

Amnesty International on Thursday pleaded for the release of the hostages in a phone call to Ahmadi, whose response was: “we are trying to resolve this issue…acceptably.”

Ahmadi failed to provide assurances on the hostages’ safety, according to Amnesty.

For the full article, click here.

Young Egyptian Christians refuse 'conversion' test

Two young boys ordered to take a school test that would result in their conversion to Islam wrote, “I am Christian,” on their exam papers, according to the World Net Daily.

Mario Medhat Ramses, 11, and Andrew Medhat Ramses, 13, are now facing a future in which their educational opportunities could be limited, said Sam Grace, a spokesman for Coptic News.

“What brought the case to the public attention is the categorical refusal of the two kids to pass the Islamic exams and convert to Islam, stating, ‘they will not deny their Christianity and convert to Islam no matter what it would cost them,’” Grace said.

For the full article, click here.

Egyptian Christian surgeon held in Saudi Arabia after passport confiscated by police

An Egyptian Christian working as a surgeon in Saudi Arabia has been prevented from returning to Egypt for two years, according to ASSIST News Service.

Dr. Mamdooh Fahmy said that a group of his Muslim colleagues targeted him as soon as he began working at Albyaan Menfhoh Medical Center in Riyadh in 2004. After he told them he was a Christian and would not change his religion, they accused him of being a missionary.

In a letter to the Washington, D.C.-based International Christian Concern, Fahmy wrote:
“On April 12, 2005, I had a surprise visit from three Saudi officials at work. Two were in civilian attire and one was a police officer. They informed me that they were from the morals policing organization [Muttawa]. They proceeded to insult me publicly before the staff and patients of the medical center. They confiscated my wallet, cell phone and keys. They handcuffed me, shacked [sic] my legs and dragged me to a waiting car, then proceeded to my residence.

“While the police officer and I remained in the vehicle, the two civilians raided my house, confiscating all written and published materials (books, notes, etc). I was then taken to the police station on where I was formally accused of being a Christian missionary and of consuming alcoholic beverages at work. I was placed in solitary confinement for five days. After my confinement they began the interrogation process. Each time I was questioned, I was cursed and insulted. The interrogator referred to me as 'Infidel.'"

Immediately after his release from interrogation, Dr. Fahmy attempted to obtain his passport back from his employment sponsor, but the sponsor told him his passport is now in police custody.

For the full article, click here.

More journalists arrested and an activist sentenced in Iran

Two journalists, Masud Bastani and Farshad Qorbanpur, were arrested on Tuesday, but charges against them and their whereabouts are not immediately known, according to Radio Farda.

Also on Tuesday, rights activist Emaddin Baghi was sentenced to three years in prison for his activism and public statements on behalf of civil and prisoners’ rights. Baghi’s wife and daughter were also given three-year sentences, suspended for five years.

For the full article on Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, click here.

Kurdish journalists sentenced to death amid calls for international pressure on Iran

Kurdish human rights and political groups have launched an internet campaign to save the lives of two Kurdish journalists who were sentenced to death in the Iranian Kurdish city of Marivan on July 16, according to IPS.

Adnan Hasanpoor was found guilty of “moharebe”, or taking up arms against the Islamic state, and espionage—the result of phone interviews with foreign media, including the Voice of America. Abdolvahed (Hiva) Bootimar was also charged with moharebe.

Reporters Without Borders (Reporters sans frontieres, RSF) has voiced concern over the sentences of the two journalists and appealed to the international community to ask Iran to refrain from executing the two men “who only exercised their right to inform their fellow citizens.”

Iran is on its way to becoming on of the world’s biggest prisons for journalists, RSF said.

Three other Kurdish journalists, Aku Kordnasab, Eilal Qavami and Mohammad Sadiq Kaboudvand, were arrested during the past month, and Kaveh Javanmard was arrested in May and sentenced to two years in prison.

For the full article, click here.

Afghan refugee agreement extended for another three years

Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) agreed on Thursday to the three-year extension of a program designed to facilitate the voluntary return of Afghan refugees, Reuters reported the same day.

Speaking from Islamabad, Afghan Minister for Refugees Mohammad Akbar Akbar called on Pakistan and Iran to show patience in the repatriation process. “Pakistan and Iran are hosting millions of Afghan refugees for three decades, so we hope that they show their patience,” Akbar said. “Also…the repatriation should be gradual and voluntary.”

Representing UNHCR, Assistant High Commissioner for Refugees Judy Cheng-Hopkins spoke of the need for a gradual influx. “After decades of war and neglect, infrastructure has gone down and there is a very little chance for people to make a livelihood,” Hopkins said.

Iran currently hosts an estimated 2 million Afghan refugees. In April, the Iranian government deported over 100,000 Afghan refugees.

Pakistan currently hosts some three million Afghan refugees. However, an additional three million have returned to Afghanistan since the institution of the program in 2002. Pakistan has closed one of its four refugee camps amid concerns that the Taliban militants was using the camp as a prime recruitment site, and has announced plans to close the others by the end of this year.

For the full article, click here.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Insurgencies and political crises in South Asia

Two representatives of the U.S. Department of State, former Ambassador Steven Mann and John A. Gastright, Jr., described the political crises and U.S. role in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal on Wednesday before a House subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia.

A central concern was the policy of ousting terrorists and its effectiveness in northern Pakistan tribal areas.

“Pakistan is an indispensable ally in the global war on terror; a stable, prosperous and democratic Pakistan is important for the stability of the entire region,” Gastright said.

The government of Pakistan “recently increased pressure on extremists,” increasing troops and re-arming them, Gastright said. But Gastright still acknowledged that “extremists have developed a safe haven in tribal areas… they have found the ability to operate, but they’re not flourishing.”

“They [in the government of Pakistan] are taking actions [to eliminate extremists],” Gastright said. “Are they effective?” asked Chairman Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.). “They are having effects,” Gastright said.

“Do they want to be effective?” asked Ackerman.

“They need to be effective,” Gastright said.

“Should the U.S. go to Pakistan?” asked Representative Steve Chabot (R-Ohio). “The tribal area is about the size of New Jersey, with 3.5 million people,” Gastright said. “The government of Pakistan wants to address this, and the U.S. would have no more information about these people than Pakistan has. Pakistan’s long-term strategy is not just killing extremists, but producing an environment that’s inhospitable to extremists.”

Regarding Nepal and Sri Lanka, “both countries hold great promise, but struggle with internal insurgencies,” Mann said.

Nepal is in a “decisive phase”—the run-up to constituent elections, scheduled to take place November 22, Mann said. The U.S. should “promote inclusion” and ensure that Maoists—an “indigenous movement” that arose violently in the mid 1990s and have recently entered the political process as members of Parliament—“remain peaceful.”

In Sri Lanka, Mann said the decades-long conflict between the government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, commonly known as the Tamil Tigers, “has taken a toll” on the country and its people. The Tamil Tigers are “one of the most well-funded insurgency groups,” garnering $200 to $300 million per year from Tamil businesses and families abroad, mostly in southern India, Mann said.

“Tigers have little interest in a peaceful settlement—they insist that the government abide by the 2002 cease fire agreement, requiring the government to give up the east—which is not likely,” Mann said. The U.S. has tried to convey that negotiations are needed, that there is “no lasting military solution.”

In Bangladesh, a caretaker government—that Transparency International has listed as the most corrupt government in the world for a number of years—has altered its timeline, moving elections from early 2007 to late 2008. “What is our government doing to make sure elections do take place?” said Representative Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.).

“They have taken steps to combat corruption, and we expect them to adhere to the roadmap they outlined toward elections,” Gastright said.

Vietnam issues strike ban for certain businesses

Workers employed at enterprises that supply services or products vital to the public are not allowed to strike, the Vietnamese government said Tuesday, according to The Associated Press.

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung issues a list of businesses, including power stations, transmission grids, railway stations, key airport, post offices, forestry enterprises, telecommunications and irrigation facilities, whose workers can’t strike.

For the full article, click here.

Bedouins escalate protests after teenager's death

Protesting for the third day, Bedouins near Egypt’s border with Gaza hurled stones, destroyed a police checkpoint and set a police truck on fire Wednesday, police and eyewitnesses said, according to the International Herald Tribune.

The violence was initially sparked by a government plan to demolish homes along the border in an attempt to curb smuggling. Egypt is under pressure from the U.S. and Israel to stop the flow of weapons, especially since Hamas seized control of Gaza in June.

Wednesday’s escalation was in revenge for 15-year-old Auda Mohammed Arafat’s death. Arafat died Tuesday as a result of his injuries from Monday’s clash with police, according to police officials who spoke on condition of anonymity.

For the full article, click here.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

United Nations to send peacekeepers to Darfur

In a unanimous vote Tuesday, the United Nations authorized the deployment of 26,000 troops to Sudan in an effort to quell the unrest in Darfur, The New York Times reported today. Both African Union and U.N. forces would be used in the operation.

The resolution was passed after much debate in the Security Council.

“But we must be clear that if any party blocks progress and the killings continue, I and others will redouble our efforts to impose further sanctions,” said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in his speech before the General Assembly.. “The message for Darfur is that it is a time for change.”

According to the resolution, troops are set to be deployed no later than October of this year.

For the article, click here.


Internally displaced Iraqis running out of options

Najaf’s al-Manathera camp for internally displaced persons has closed to new arrivals, IRIN reported today. Hundreds of fleeing Iraqis were turned away because the camp is already full.

“It is hard for us to see people getting full assistance inside the camps while we are outside hungry, tired and dirty,” said Um Abir, a displaced mother with four children. “Someone should look after us before we get shot, or die in this terrible hot weather, because we don’t have anywhere to shelter and have to cover our heads with newspaper,” she added.

Authorities running the camp say that they do not have the resources to help any more families and permitting more to enter would just siphon off the resources currently going to the families already residing in the camp. Additionally, they contend that allowing more people into the camp, especially with deteriorating sanitation and health care, would likely increase the rate of disease. A new security fence is being built to ensure that no additional families can enter.

The Iraqi Ministry of Displacement and Migration said that it is looking to establish new camps to help ease the burden on the displaced population. However, securing land for the camps is proving difficult, and officials have been unsuccessful in persuading land owners to allow camps to be set up on their property.

For the full article, click here


Egyptian opposition leader to remain in jail

A Cairo court on Tuesday rejected a petition to secure the release of jailed politician Ayman Nour, saying Nour’s health is not in danger, according to Reuters.

The court said 42-year-old Nour, who suffers from diabetes, is not at risk as long as he continues receiving medical treatment while serving a five-year sentence.

Nour, founder of the liberal Ghad party, was the main challenger to President Hosni Mubarak in the country’s first multi-candidate presidential election in 2005. He came in a distant second with about 8 percent of the vote.

“We will appeal against the ruling, however it’s obvious now that however strong the medical reports are, it doesn’t have anything to do with the decision,” Gameela Ismail, Nour’s wife, said. “There is no medical treatment because there is no hospital inside the prison.”

For the full article, click here.

U.S. government aid targets Iranian activists, panelists say

Panelists from nonprofits, academia, journalism and Congress discussed the human rights situation in Iran and U.S. policy options on July 26 during a conference organized by the National Iranian American Council (NIAC). There was resounding agreement that, because U.S. dollars stoke Iranian paranoia, the U.S. must stop directly aiding Iranian activists.

“The human rights situation has deteriorated in recent time,” said Alex Arriaga, director of government relations for Amnesty International USA. She cited as evidence abuse against political prisoners, increasingly targeted women’s movements, continued detainment of ethnic and religious minorities and the instances of the death penalty by stoning and death for child offenders.

But “what to do?” asked Joe Stork, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch. “Speaking out is a positive thing… talking does establish solidarity,” Stork said. But our first principle should be: “do no harm” – so “there may be times when we can’t do anything… and giving $15 million to empower local activists is like painting a target on their backs,” Stork said, referring to a portion of the recent $75 million aid package to Iran.

Similarly, Laura Secor, a New-York based journalist who is writing a book about the Iranian opposition, said that the Iranian activists say to the U.S.: “stop declaring your alignment with us.” Activists want no material or logistical support from the U.S., as “we are in a position now where even the most innocent relationships are suspect,” Secor said.

“The Iranians are amidst an epic struggle,” Secor said. “But that struggle and its heroes are not ours, they belong to the Iranians.”

“Iran sees itself as repeatedly victimized by the U.S., so the tendency is to raise the drawbridge and round up the usual suspects,” said John Tirman, executive director of the MIT Center for International Studies.

But the U.S. notion of Iran’s capabilities that is fueling our fear and policy decisions is misled, Tirman said. “Nukes are respect on the cheap… Iran has little military capacity. The NYPD has more firepower,” Tirman said. Both the U.S. and Iran need to see that the other doesn’t represent a “mortal threat,” Tirman said, suggesting that the next step for the U.S. should be negotiations with Iran and Europe – and, even in a post-nuclear Iran, the U.S. has lots of options.

“We need to marginalize the president, and reach out to the Iranian people through a third party,” said Congressman James Moran (D-Va.). “Iran will play a role on the world stage because of its oil, potential wealth and primarily young people” with an outward-looking stance – the third most used language, beyond English and Spanish, to access the Library of Congress is Persian.

“There are so many back channels we could employ to help,” Moran said. “We just need to get rid of the lone ranger cowboy image.”

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bedouins wounded in demonstrations near Gaza Strip border

Dozens of demonstrators were wounded Monday when about 3,000 Bedouins clashed with Egyptian police in the Sinai Peninsula near the Gaza Strip border, according to the International Herald Tribune. Bedouins demanded that the government rescind its reported plan to demolish houses in the 150 meter band of land nearest the border.

Police said they initially fired tear gas and used water cannons to clear demonstrators from the street. An Associated Press reporter then saw police firing live ammunition in the air and rubber bullets at the protestors. As many as 50 were wounded, the reporter said.

The government’s plan intends to prevent traffickers from digging tunnels used to smuggle weapons and people into Gaza. Protestors said the government is offering financial compensation for their houses, but not for trees and farmland.

“We will not leave our land, we will make it our graves,” Bedouins chanted.

For the full article, click here.

Water crisis continues throughout Egypt

Despite protests in Cairo and more than a half-dozen other areas across the country, water shortages have continued since mid-July, leaving many hospitalized and farmers without irrigation water, according to AHN.

In Kafr Ghannam and Dakahliya, 12 days of protests have not yielded a government response. Governor Ahmed Said Sawan of Dakahliya has refused to meet the demonstrators “because they were not on his agenda for the week.”

In El Roda and Manial El Roda, residents threatened to sue the government for collecting water consumption bills when they had not yet received water.

For the full article, click here.

Environmental catastrophe looms in Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s Ministry of Agriculture and Food has released a report, Sustainable Land Management 2007, that details the potential environmental crisis that the country may be facing soon if the government and other organizations do not take action, IRIN reported Monday.

The chairman of the Afghan Organization for Human Rights and Environmental Protection (AOHREP), Abdul Rahman Hotaky, pointed to several reasons for worsening problem. The article notes that he cited “more than 26 years of armed conflict, population displacement and extended drought; the misuse of natural resources; the lack of a law enforcement authority; and the lack of appropriate policies for the environment.”

Agriculture and animal husbandry are the major components of Afghanistan’s economy, but nearly 50 percent of the country’s farmland has not been cultivated for the past two decades. This, in combination with deforestation and desertification, has left more than 80 percent of Afghanistan vulnerable to soil erosion. All of these factors leave the country susceptible to poverty and natural crisis.

For the full article, click here.


Monday, July 30, 2007

ASEAN to create human rights body

The 10-member Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) agreed on Monday to create a regional human rights body, but the group stuck to its traditionally subdued criticism of Myanmar’s military junta, according to Reuters.

The Philippines’ foreign secretary, Alberto Romulo, said no country could opt out of joining the rights body, which would be established once leaders ratified a mini-constitution for ASEAN in November.

Southeast Asia is hoping a charter will transform ASEAN, whose members include an absolute monarchy and communist states, so it can better compete against China and Japan. But the mandate and scope of the rights body are already up for debate.

For the full article, click here.

Deforestation and forced removal amidst development projects in Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia

A massive economic development project adopted by the prime ministers of Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia in 2004 has resulted in deforestation and removal of indigenous groups from the ancestral lands, according to the Democracy Project.

The government of Viet Nam has already destroyed its ancient forests of the Central Highlands, and deforestation continues at unprecedented levels in Cambodia and Laos. Throughout the region indigenous peoples, such as the Degar Montagnards and Hmong, are being forcibly removed from their lands.

Politicos, their cronies and international businesses are “cozily profiteering” while indigenous peoples are “suffering the loss of their way of life and resources to live,” writes the Democracy Project.

According to Human Rights Watch, the Cambodian government has made virtually no progress on key pledges to donors on human rights, the rule of law or judicial independence. The Montagnard Foundation has called for international donors to withdraw funding and review their overall aid commitments to Laos, Cambodia and Viet Nam.

For the full article, click here.

One third of Iraqis in desperate need of emergency aid

According to a report released today by Oxfam International and NCCI, a network of aid organizations in Iraq, nearly a third of Iraqi citizens are in need of emergency assistance. Other staggering statistics include the fact that 15 percent of Iraqis cannot afford adequate food, 70 percent lack water supplies, 28 percent of children are malnourished, and 92 percent of children suffer from learning problems – often due to trauma.

“The terrible violence in Iraq has masked the ongoing humanitarian crisis…Millions of Iraqis have been forced to flee the violence, either to another part of Iraq or abroad. Many of those are living in dire poverty,” said Oxfam International Director Jeremy Hobbs.

One of the best solutions to this crisis, the report suggested, is to provide as much support to the local institutions and non-governmental organizations in Iraq as possible. Many international aid groups have been forced to leave due to a lack of security, but the local groups remain, and are the best chance for assisting the populations most in need.

An Oxfam survey done in April 2007 found that more than 80 percent of Iraqi aid agencies felt they could help those in need and extend their humanitarian work if they had more funding. Unfortunately, many of these organizations will not accept money from governments with troops in Iraq for security purposes. Consequently, it is crucial that international donors that do not have troops in Iraq provide as much support as possible, the release suggests.

For the full article, click here.

For the full Oxfam International report, “Rising to the humanitarian challenge in Iraq,” click here.


The life of an Iraqi fixer

In an article in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Ayub Nuri tells his story of life as an Iraqi “fixer.” A fixer in a war zone, according to Nuri, “is a journalist’s interpreter, guide, source finder and occasional lifesaver.” Fixers are the eyes and ears of the media and are often the only ones that can venture out into the streets, collect information, or function at all without being detected by opposition. Without the fixers, much of the coverage in Iraq would not even be possible.

Nuri’s story begins when he was a small boy growing up in the city of Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan. Attacks authorized by Saddam Hussein left over 5,000 Halabja residents dead, and left Nuri without part of his right knee. Years of war forced him to become a refugee in Turkey, but he returned to Iraq in 2003 when he got word that the U.S. was set to invade to oust Hussein. Upon his arrival, he was hired as a fixer because of his knowledge of English, which he acquired during his training as a teacher.

During his time as a fixer for various journalists, Nuri learned how to conduct interviews, record radio broadcasts and write newspaper stories. Time passed, and the situation in Iraq went from bad to worse. Western journalists were forced to leave the area, and many fixers were being threatened or murdered. Despite their invaluable service to the media, news agencies could offer little or no protection for the fixers, not even so much as providing rushed visas for entry into another country.

Near the end of 2004, an American reporter for the BBC, Quil Lawrence, told Nuri that it was time for him to start reporting his own pieces. Nuri had been working with Lawrence for over a year at the time. Nuri took the advice and became a BBC reporter doing stories for the radio, but wanted to improve his writing in order to become a print journalist. With some help from his American friends, he applied to Columbia University and after much waiting and negotiating, finally arrived in the U.S. to begin his studies this past fall.

“When I interviewed people there, I did not understand many of the things they said” explained Nuri. “In class, I would sit with a dozen American students, and the professor would be talking about something, and suddenly everyone was laughing – but I had no idea why.”

Nuri is here now. Like many other fixers that left Iraq, he cannot follow through on his plan to return because it is too unsafe. He was lucky, however, as many of the fixers that remain in Iraq must do so in order to provide for their families. Others simply refuse to leave and are committed to reporting the stories that no one else will.

For the full article, click here.

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