Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, September 07, 2007

Lawmakers meet to examine progress towards Iraqi benchmarks

Iraq was the central issue Wednesday as the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing, “Iraqi Benchmarks: An Objective Assessment,” that was led by Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, and included testimony by Comptroller General David Walker of the Government Accountability Office – which recently released report assessing progress on the benchmarks

In his opening remarks, Lantos said that the goal of the report was to “look at Iraq with the broadest possible lens,” the result of which is “not a pretty picture.” Out of the 18 benchmarks, only three were met, while four were considered partially met, and the remaining not met.

Clarifying how the benchmarks were determined, Walker stated the reason behind the classification of partially met was due to the GAO seeking “to be fair and balanced,” and that the classification of “not met” does not mean there has been no progress made in that area. Furthermore, he said that “not all of the benchmarks are equal” in determining progress in Iraq.

A topic greatly discussed throughout the hearing was the issue of sectarian violence. While General David Petraeus and the White House say that it is decreasing, the GAO has found that not to be the case, due to the different methodology that they used in measuring sectarian violence. Furthermore, Walker asked what should be considered as sectarian violence, and if sectarian violence should be considered over all other forms of violence. Lantos further highlighted this issue by asserting that attacks on civilians remain high.

The committee further discussed what the next steps in Iraq should be. Although many argued that it is clear that the Iraqi government is not ready to run the country on its own, some committee members said that the troops need to come home soon, with Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.) saying the U.S. “[doesn’t] have an unlimited supply of money,” and Walker and other members saying the military is strained. On the other hand, Rep. Ted Poe (R-Tx.) brought up the point that “success never came from withdrawal.” Walker added that it is necessary to determine what future goals and milestones should be for Iraq, and that a new plan “incorporates some things not in the benchmarks.”

The uncertainty about progress made in Iraq was an apparent point of concern throughout the hearing. In order to determine what actions should be taken next, some might say that the government should look to answer the questions posed by Rep. Jim Costa (D-Ca): “What is in America’s best interests? What are realistic goals?”

Viet Nam increases pressure on political dissidents

The Paris-based rights group Reporters Without Borders has voiced concern that the communist government in Viet Nam may arrest Nguyen Khac Toan, a supporter of dispossessed farmers, in the wake of heightened intimidation and media campaigns against him, Agence France Presse reported Wednesday.

A Hanoi court accused Toan of inciting farmers to demonstrate in the capital last month.

Increased government harassment has also been directed towards others, such as leaders of the banned Unified Buddhist Church of Vietnam (UBCV), who allegedly supported the farmers’ protests.

According to the International Buddhist Information Bureau, another Paris-based rights group: “Security police have intensified threats, harassments, controls, surveillance and interrogations against UBCV members in Ho Chi Minh City.” The group also voiced concern that “given the intensity of this mounting pressure…arrests may be imminent.”

For the full article, click here.

Blogging among Vietnamese youth on rise, but threat of crackdown looms

Within the past year, the online phenomenon of blogging has become immensely popular among Vietnamese teenagers as an alternative to state-run media, Agence France Presse reported Thursday.

According the to article: “Bloggers have fought wars over the cultural divide between Vietnam’s north and south, but they have also raised funds for the needy, arranged organ donations and given support to people suffering deadly diseases.”

Writing diaries has held a prominent place in Vietnamese history and the country’s youth culture is pushing this literary heritage to new levels.

The Vietnamese government has noticed the burgeoning trend. Both state and party officials have recently threatened fines and penalties for blogs that contain “black,” or pornographic, material or that post information against the government.

For the full article, click here.

Violence in southern Afghanistan closes hundreds of schools

Afghan children are scheduled to return to classes to begin another school year on September 10. However, IRIN reports that hundreds of schools will remain closed due to violence in the southern provinces, according to Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty.

According to the RFE/RFL article: “The education system in southern Helmand Province, where Taliban militants control several districts, has disintegrated over the past four years as the extremists continue to launch their insurgency campaign against the government from the area.”

Schools for girls in particular have come under repeated attacks because the Taliban believes that females should not be educated.

According to a 2006 report by the U.K.-based charity Oxfam, Afghanistan has made significant progress in rebuilding the education sector since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, but more than half of all Afghan children do not attend school.

For the full article, click here.

Violence in southern Afghanistan closes hundreds of schools

Afghan children are scheduled to return to classes to begin another school year on September 10. However, IRIN reports that hundreds of schools will remain closed due to violence in the southern provinces, according to Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty.

According to the RFE/RFL article: “The education system in southern Helmand Province, where Taliban militants control several districts, has disintegrated over the past four years as the extremists continue to launch their insurgency campaign against the government from the area.”

Schools for girls in particular have come under repeated attacks because the Taliban believes that females should not be educated.

According to a 2006 report by the U.K.-based charity Oxfam, Afghanistan has made significant progress in rebuilding the education sector since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, but more than half of all Afghan children do not attend school.

For the full article, click here.

The plight of Vietnamese Christians

In an opinion piece in The Christian Post Monday, Carl Moeller, the head of the Christian charity Open Doors USA, calls attention to ongoing religious persecution in Viet Nam.

As Moeller notes, The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom recommended last May that Viet Nam be placed back on the 2007 Countries of Particular Concern list. The Commission supported its recommendation by stating: “Since the CPC designation was lifted and Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), positive religious freedom trends have, for the most part, stalled, and Vietnam has initiated a severe crackdown on human rights defenders and advocates for the freedoms of speech, association and assembly, including many religious leaders who previously were the leading advocates for religious freedom in that country.”

Moeller also spotlights the recent death of Vin Y Het, a young Hroi ethnic minority man, who died in June from injuries he received from police after refusing to recant his Christian faith. His death occurred as Vietnamese President Nguyen Minh Triet was visiting President Bush in Washington, D.C. Still, many people throughout the world believe there is little persecution occurring in Viet Nam now that the country has become more fully integrated into the global economy.

Religious freedom is particularly restricted for ethnic minority churches on the border of Laos and China, a remote region where the government often blocks unregistered religious services.

Furthermore, local officials are now dealing with religious violators, making it easier to hide atrocities from the international community.

For the full story, click here.

Coptic Christian fights deportation, fears torture

An Egyptian man who said he fled to the U.S. in 1998 to escape torture and forced conversion to Islam is fighting deportation sought by U.S. officials who say they’ve received assurances he will not be tortured upon his return, according to The Times-Tribune.

Sameh Sami S. Khouzam, 38, was convicted in absentia of murdering a woman before fleeing to the U.S., though information about that alleged murder provided by Egyptian authorities is contradictory and unclear.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed paperwork in Scranton, Pennsylvania’s federal court asking that Khouzam not be deported and claiming that he will probably be tortured upon his return, citing reports from the U.S. Department of State that say torture is “pervasive in Egyptian detention centers.”

Officials with the U.S. Department of State and Department of Homeland Security arrested Khouzam and began deportation procedures in May after receiving “diplomatic assurances” from Egyptian officials that Khouzam will not be tortured.

"When we deal with this country and they make a commitment to us, they do what they say," said Douglas Ginsberg, a U.S. Department of Justice attorney. "Over the years, we know they can be relied upon despite their human rights record."

ACLU attorney Amrit Singh argued that government officials have offered "almost nothing" to prove the diplomatic assurances are reliable and that there is no monitoring mechanism in place to guarantee Khouzam's safety should he be returned to Egypt.

For the full articles, click here and here.

U.S. Congressmen urge Mubarak to release imprisoned blogger

In a bid to pressure the Egyptian government to enhance freedom of expression and religion, Congressmen Trent Franks and Emanuel Cleaver issued an open letter to President Hosni Mubarak, calling for the release of student blogger Kareem Amer, according to Daily News Egypt.

Amer, 22, was sentenced in January of this year to four years in prison for insulting Islam and President Mubarak.

“The ability to discuss and even criticize one’s religious beliefs is an important aspect of freedom of religion and expression. If Egypt is to be a model of democracy in the Middle East, it must first be a country where these rights, which are fundamental in any democracy, are flourishing,” Franks and Cleaver said in the letter.

As co-chairs of the Congressional Task Force on International Religious Freedom (TIRF), Franks and Cleaver also stressed the need for the Egyptian authorities to investigate the alleged rise of Islamic extremism at Al-Azhar University and attacks on Coptic Christian communities in Egypt; topics Amer addressed on his blog.

Furthermore, following several security crackdowns on outspoken Egyptian bloggers in the past year, Franks and Cleaver urged Mubarak to protect freedom of expression for all Egyptian bloggers and “ensure Egypt’s vibrant blogging community continues to thrive without persecution.”

Franks and Cleaver’s letter to Mubarak is not the US Congress’ first attempt to take action in the case. Earlier this year, Franks spoke to the Egyptian Ambassador in Washington Nabil Fahmy, and urged him to “look into the case of Amer.” Members of the US Congress also submitted a bipartisan letter to the ambassador in January, demanding the release of Amer. On March 12, Amer lost his court appeal and began his prison term.

But his supporters still pin hopes on foreign governments and rights groups to take continued action in the case.

For the full article, click here

Appeal by Coptic Christians delayed until November

An appeal by 12 Egyptian converts to Islam who wish to return to the Coptic Christian Church convened briefly on Saturday before being adjourned to November 17, according to Agence-France Presse.

In April, a lower court ruled that reversion to Christianity would amount to apostasy under Islamic law, but in July, a Cairo judge agreed to reconsider the case, a decision celebrated by human rights groups.

To read the full article, click here.

Christian rights workers detention extended by Egyptian government

On August 21, a state prosecutor at New Cairo’s State Security Investigation renewed the detention of two Christian rights workers, held without charge since their arrest on August 8, according to Compass Direct News.

Police detained Adel Fawzy Faltas and Peter Ezzat after they were involved in several controversial human rights cases, including that of Mohammed Hegazy, who made an unprecedented bid to have his conversion to Christianity legally recognized.

Police initially arrested Faltas and Ezzat on suspicion of insulting Islam, degrading Egypt’s reputation and converting Muslims to Christianity. During the investigation, state prosecutor Al-Faisal also considered charging the Christians with causing public agitation and possessing a gun with an expired license.

Al-Faisal refused to give a reason for his decision to hold the two Christians until early September.

For the full article, click here.

Iranian government suppresses social freedoms as country faces economic troubles

In Iran, the inflation rate is around 17 percent, and approximately 10 million people are living below the poverty line. The government, however, has seized upon the economic troubles to limit social freedoms in an attempt to further secure its rule, The New York Times reported Wednesday.

Many prominent Iranian-American scholars have been arrested, while student movements have been suppressed and newspapers closed. The recent arrest of Iranian-American intellectual Haleh Esfandiari is partly a warning to insiders who have expressed concern over the direction in which the country is headed. Furthermore, student and female activists have been encouraged to leave the country.

Although Iran is in economic trouble, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad still has the support of Ayatollah Khamenei because of his conservative policies, which have included rolling back political, social, and economic changes in an attempt to undermine a supposed “velvet revolution.”

Many people believe the economic trouble is due to Ahmadinejad being unable to understand the effects of his policies. For example, when he ordered the reduction of cement prices, he frightened away investors planning to build cement factories. Ali Rashadi, an economist, says that Ahmadinejad “feels the pain of the poor, but doesn’t have any solution,” and that “He is wrecking a system that was patched together over 25 years.”

For the full story, click here.

Amnesty International calls for nationwide mobilization to support treaty on women's rights

Amnesty International is looking to build support in the United States Senate to ratify the Treaty for the Rights of Women. This international treaty is the “most complete international agreement on basic human rights for women,” according to Amnesty, and most countries have agreed to it. The United States, however, still has not.

Senators have heard from many opponents to the treaty, and need to hear from constituents in favor of ratification, according to Amnesty. The rights group is promoting a nationwide mobilization between September 24 and 28 to show the Senate how many people support women’s rights.

Amnesty is encouraging people to participate in or lead a delegation visit to a Senator’s office. The deadline to sign up is Monday, September 10 at noon. Tools, training, and background will be provided by Amnesty.

For more information on the treaty and delegation visits, click here.

Canadian aid money in Afghanistan performs disappearing act

Aid money sent by the Canadian government to help rebuild Afghanistan has gone astray, The Globe and Mail reported on August 30. Due to an absence of oversight, millions in aid has disappeared, and refugees are being left to starve.

The Senlis Council, a group that has been inspecting development work in Afghanistan for the past two years, has seen few results from the aid granted by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA). Norine MacDonald, the council’s president, states that “We were not able to see any substantial impact of CIDA’s work in Kandahar and, as a matter of fact, we saw many instances of the extreme suffering of the Afghan people.” For example, CIDA reportedly gave UNICEF $350,000 to start a maternal waiting home at a Kandahar hospital, however, MacDonald has not seen any progress on this front. The hospital is overcrowded and unable to provide many necessary services, such as blood tests. Doctors have been paying for medications out of their pockets.

In general, MacDonald believes that there are too few CIDA employees on the ground in Afghanistan, and that restricted movement keeps them from seeing how the money is spent. There are currently three CIDA workers in the country with eight local workers.

The CIDA minister, Bev Oda, says that there will be eight CIDA employees in Afghanistan by this fall. She also maintains that the locals are responsible for oversight work, and many trips have been taken to the hospital. According to CIDA, the money is having a tangible impact. The goal of CIDA, says Oda, is “to build the country and the population up so that they are going to be able to sustain the quality of life that we all expect.”

For the full story, click here

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Lawmakers and military experts ask ‘what's next for Iraq?’

U.S. lawmakers met today on Capitol Hill for a joint committee hearing, “Beyond the September Report: What’s next for Iraq?” Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, led the hearing together Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee.

Lantos opened the hearing by saying that he is very interested to hear next week’s testimony by General David Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker. “It would be refreshing if these two capable and dedicated men would outline a new plan that would redeploy our troops and bring them home from Iraq,” Lantos said.

In addition, Lantos said that the highly-anticipated report is not written by military leaders or diplomats, but by political operatives within the administration and he argued that it will be essentially a regurgitation of the same failed Iraq strategy. “I expect this report will be replete with the same litany of requests – more troops, more money, more patience – and all in the unlikely belief that our intervention in a bloody, religiously-based civil war will bear fruit.”

All of the witnesses present at today’s hearing agreed that success cannot be achieved in Iraq through the military alone. Dr. William Perry, a Stanford University professor, said that without a stable government there will never be a safe Iraq. While Retired Generals John Batiste and John M. Keane addressed the failure to reach the eighteen U.S.-established benchmarks.

“They have only met a few of them but we should not look at that as a failure. There has been some great progress. For the first time al-Qaeda are on the defense and the Sunnis are isolating them and helping the U.S. troops that they were fighting before,” Keane said. “The streets of Baghdad have improved tremendously. The number of attacks is down, as are the car bombs. Schools are open. Market places are open; the same with restaurants and pool halls.

He added: “We are planning and hoping to start to bring back troops in 2008, but the question is: ‘Have we established what we were supposed to do?’”

There are obviously still many concerns though, as Lantos made clear in his opening remarks. “There will be no peace and stability as long as key elements in Iraqi society want to continue to fight – Shia to solidify their newfound power and Sunnis to regain it. There will be no peace and stability as long as Iraq’s neighbors – particularly Iran and Syria – actively promote militant groups as a means to counter American troops in Iraq. And I, for one, doubt seriously that we will see any movement in the direction of a political settlement until such time as Prime Minister Maliki is informed that our troop transports have landed in Baghdad, ready to begin bringing home our men and women in uniform,” Lantos said.

NY Times columnist describes visit to Iraq

The following are excerpts from an op-ed by columnist Thomas L. Friedman describing his visit to Iraq that appeared in Wednesday’s New York Times.

“Ameriya is a Sunni neighborhood of Baghdad that had been home to doctors, lawyers and other professionals. Today it is a ghost town. It is chilling to see how much this city has been fragmented into little pieces. What were clearly upper-middle-class homes are almost all abandoned, and the streets are full of litter and rubble. This neighborhood first came under assault from Shiite militias, then from pro-Al Qaeda Iraqi Sunnis, who moved in on the pretext of protecting the Sunnis from the Shiites and then imposed a reign of Islamist terror on them…”

“…At one point we took a walk around the neighborhood, trudging through the powdery dust in 126 degree heat. When I looked up, I saw a surreal scene – former Baathists insurgents, guns pointed in all directions, providing a security cordon around a senior U.S. officer. That is the good news and bad news from Iraq. Good news: the surge is tamping down violence. Bad news: the relative calm stems largely from a Sunni-Sunni war that has pushed mainstream Iraqi Sunnis into our camp to fight the jihadist Sunnis – rather than from any real Sunni-Shiite rapprochement…”

“…Scene 2: On my way into Iraq, I had a private chat with an Arab Gulf leader. He said something that still rings in my ear: ‘Thomas, everyone is keeping you busy in Iraq. The Russians are keeping you busy. The Chinese are keeping you busy. The Iranians are keeping you busy. The Saudis are keeping you busy. Egypt is keeping you busy. The Syrians are keeping you busy...’”

“He’s right. Everyone loves seeing us tied down here. One need only observe how Vladimir Putin is throwing his weight around Europe, how China is growing more influential by the day, how Iran has been emboldened and how all the Arab dictators are relieved that America is mired in Iraq so we can’t push any democracy on them to understand that there’s a huge ‘opportunity cost’ for our staying here without either success or an exit strategy.”

“Scene 3: I’m visiting the new American field hospital in Balad, in central Iraq. The full madness that is Iraq is on display here: U.S. soldiers with blast wounds, insurgents with gunshots to the stomach and a 2-month-old baby with shrapnel wounds from an insurgent-planted I.E.D. scattered over her face. The hospital commander, Brig. Gen. Burt Field, looks at her and says to me: ‘There isn’t a 2-month-old on the planet who knows how to hate anybody. It’s all taught.’”

For the full article, by subscription only, click here.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Selling blood a profitable, but dangerous enterprise in Iraq

The increasing demand for blood in Iraq is driving a niche market in Baghdad, IRIN reported Monday.

Many of those selling their blood are unemployed and need the money to support for their families. “Agents” often stand in front of Iraqi National Center for Blood Donation (INCBD) and offer blood that they charge US$20-30 for every 350 cu. cm of.

Abdallah Farhan Ahmed, a surgeon at Medical City Hospital, told IRIN that at least one in five operations in the hospital require a blood transfusion and that on many occasions they had to postpone operations because the type of blood required was not available.

Since January 2006, there has been a decreasing number of blood donors as violence has increased in the Bab al-Muadham District of Baghdad where INCBD headquarters is located.

“Unfortunately I will stop donating until I feel secure enough to return to the centre,” said Abu Muhammad Farez, who had been giving blood to the center for the past eight years.

For the full article, click here.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Road to U.S. a long one for Iraqi asylum seekers

Thousands of Iraqis are waiting in Egypt and Jordan to go through the long, difficult process of interviews and background checks to try to get one of the slots allotted by the United States for permanent asylum. The process takes time and many Iraqis are frustrated and disappointed.

The head of the State Department’s refugee office, Ellen Sauerbrey, recently announced that there has been a significant jump in accepted claims – from 190 that entered the U.S. before August to 400 who came over the past month.

However, as the article notes: “Overall, though, the sluggish process has left refugees confused and angry – particularly those who risked their lives working for the Americans in Iraq and now feel abandoned by the U.S. at their time of need.”

Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion and ouster of Saddam Hussein more than two million people have fled the chaos in Iraq.

“The road to the U.S. is a long one. Iraqis must first apply to the UNHCR, the U.N. refugee agency — their first round of interviews,” according to the article. Then they must go through a second round of interviews with the U.N. migratory agency to prepare their cases. Finally, they are interviewed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, which decides which Iraqis to bring to America. They must then undergo security and medical checks once accepted by the DHS, which can take weeks.

“Umm Adwar, a Christian Iraqi widow who has been in Amman for the past year, has had her medical check and is still waiting for word on when she will go to the U.S., where she has distant relatives,” according to the article. “Every day that passes, I grow even more anxious and impatient to hear the good news,” Adwar said.

For the full article, click here.

Construction of new women’s jails for transitional housing highlights problems with Afghan justice system

In Afghanistan, new prisons are being built for women. Although there are currently 300 female inmates, the number is expected to grow. One reason for this increase is that jails provide a safe place for women until they are able to be reintegrated into society, as shelters do not have the room for the released women, and are reluctant to house the former prisoners, according to Aljazeera.net.

Many of the women imprisoned are convicted of “moral crimes” and would be considered “victims rather than criminals under any interpretation of international human rights laws, including those to which Afghanistan is a signatory,” according to the article. These women are further victimized by the criminal justice process, and upon being released are left to fend for themselves, making them vulnerable to honor killings.

According to Anou Borrey, a gender and justice consultant with Unifem: “There is a need to increase the awareness of women about their rights so they don’t end up in prison.” Because women can be charged with adultery in rape cases or even after verbally divorcing their husbands, marriage registration would help prevent these charges being brought against them. Furthermore, registering child births could halt child marriages, which may be forced on girls as young as age six.

Improvements need to be made to the justice system in Afghanistan to better serve women. Borrey states that there is a lack of support from the government, non-governmental organizations and the community to reintegrate these women back into society. The chances of women surviving on their own are low, even without honor killings.

According to Dorothea Grieger, a criminal justice program assistant with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “Improvement should be used to help [women] to lead self-supporting lives after release.” This includes literacy, education and vocational training while women are inside prison to give them useful skills, as well as mediation with family, local elders or religious leaders to help increase the woman’s chance of acceptance upon being released. UNODC further recommends legislative reforms, better facilities, and improved legal aid. More harm comes to these women with sudden release, which leaves them in danger on the street.

For the full story, click here.

Danger for foreign nationals in Afghanistan

The Taliban has warned that it will continue to take foreign nationals as hostages, Agence France-Presse reported today.

Seeing abduction as a tool against the Afghan government and forces from other countries, Taliban spokesman Yousef Ahmadi states “The Kabul administration was saying that we do not exist and we are a group based outside Afghanistan. When we held face-to-face talks with the Koreans we showed that we’re here and have control over ground inside the country.”

Last week the Taliban released the remaining 19 South Korean hostages after setting two women free earlier in August. These two women, Kim Gi-Na and Kim Kyung-Ja, have spoken out about their ordeal, saying Taliban guards threatened them with rifles and lied about where they were being moved to, often citing South Korea as their destination. Furthermore, the male hostages have reported being beaten for not converting to Islam. Two South Korean men were killed while being held hostage.

Although the Kabul administration has asked foreign nationals to register with the police and keep authorities informed of their movements, the Taliban intends to continue to abduct people for ransom or exchange of Taliban prisoners. The radical group is currently holding a German engineer and four of his Afghan colleagues.

For the full stories, click here and here.