Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, December 07, 2007

Congressional briefing: religious freedom in Viet Nam

The Congressional Human Rights Caucus held a tri-panel briefing Thursday on religious freedom in Viet Nam. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-C.A.) served as briefing chair and, in her opening remarks, said: “During my eleven years working with Viet Nam I would say that the situation only got worse.”

U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for International Religious Freedom John Hanford had another view, though, saying that “there has been significant progress and a significant shift during the last two years” and it is important to recognize the “good things to be able to press on the problems. However, he did acknowledge that some Vietnamese provinces have adapted to the government’s new rules promoting religious freedom better then others. Regarding, recent gains, Hanford said that the Vietnamese government has recognized several religious groups, citing Baha’is as one example. By 2008, Hanford foresees the recognition of forty religious groups. He also mentioned the fact that the Vietnamese government has developed trainings related to religious freedom for its officials, but did say that it sometimes hard for local officials to adapt because the concepts are so new to them. Many in rural areas have never heard of Christianity before, Hanford said. Another success mentioned, was the fact that over one-thousand churches in the Central Highlands that were closed down have now been reopened.

On the matter of Viet Nam’s 2006 removal from the U.S. government’s list of Countries of Particular Concern (CPC) for restrictions on religious freedom, Hanford said that when Viet Nam’s CPC designation was to be lifted, one of the requirements was the release the religious prisoners. According to Hanford, Viet Nam followed suit and released around fifty prisoners.

Hanford said that while work remains to be done, it is important to recognize Viet Nam’s progress, even if it is slow.

Sanchez did not agree with Hanford’s claim that Hanoi was making progress. “They might not be burning churches anymore but then they take their land where the churches are built,” she said.

Leonard Leo of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom also testified, saying: “The zone of toleration for religious worship has greatly expanded for most of Viet Nam’s religious communities. Among ethnic minority Protestants, closed churches have opened and forced renunciations of faith have been greatly reduced. More Vietnamese are practicing religion than ever before, and the Vietnamese government realizes that it can no longer fully repress the demands of its people for the freedom to manifest and express freedom of religion individually or in community with others.”

However, Leo also said that it is clear that in some areas the provincial and local authorities are using their authority to restrict and abuse religious freedom. “The central government either ignores these problems or has not yet done enough to curtail them,” he said.

“We pressed officials in Hanoi to train and, as needed, punish local and provincial officials who restricted or abused religious freedom. We fully expect them to address problems in the provincial areas as they promised. We are taking a wait-and-see attitude,” Leo added.

In closing he remarked: “The U.S. government and its officials must continue to speak with a single, strong voice on human rights, including religious freedom. We must continue to convey to senior Vietnamese leaders that religious freedom is a top priority to us, that it is a critical issue in our bilateral relationship, and that the central government must take concerted action to end abuses and harassment of believers.”

T. Kumar of Amnesty International said that his organization’s reports show that there are at least 250 ethnic Montagnard religious prisoners in Viet Nam today. He also said that many of those detained are reported as political prisoners by the Vietnamese government when they are in fact religious prisoners.

Chris Seiple of the Institute for Global Engagement asserted that he did not agree with Sanchez, saying “a lot has changed for the better in Vietnam today.” He added that “mutual understanding and respect” is needed as the Hanoi does not like to have fingers pointed at them.”

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Amnesty takes on case of detained Vietnamese trade unionists

The imprisonment of five trade unionists in Viet Nam is being highlighted by Amnesty International in their Global Write-A-Thon campaign.

Tran Quoc Hien, who was elected as spokesperson for the United Workers-Farmers Organization (UWFO) in January, was arrested after holding the position for only two days. He has been accused of being a member of the Internet-based pro-democracy movement Bloc 8406.

Authorities claim Hien “joined reactionary organizations over the internet,” and say he and his accomplices incited demonstrations and “distorted” articles on the Internet under “the guise of helping members of the public lodge petitions.” In May, Hien was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment plus two years’ probation.

The four other UWFO leaders, Nguyen Tan Hoanh, Tran Thi Le Hang, Doan Huy Chuong and his father Doan Van Dien, are believed to be held at B5 prison camp in Dong Nai province, although Amnesty International does not know what charges they will be tried for, or when their case will be brought to trial.

Amnesty International invites people to take action by writing letters to Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung calling for the release of these prisoners.

For the Amnesty International release, click here.

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Peaceful candlelight vigil for Ayman Nour

With Wednesday marking the beginning of Ayman Nour’s third year in prison, dozens of the famous dissident’s supporters had gathered at Cairo’s Talaat Harb Square for a candlelight vigil. However, riot police intervened, cordoning off the protest.

According to the article: “No violence was reported at the protest at the downtown Cairo headquarters of Nour’s opposition party, called al-Ghad or Tomorrow. Some 10 police trucks stood parked by the Talaat Harb Square as riot police cordoned off the party offices, while protesters crammed onto the balcony, the hallway and the street outside. Plainclothes policemen hurried passer-by away from the protesters, who held candles and chanted “Long live Ayman Nour” and “Down with state of emergency.”

It added: “Nour is serving a five-year prison sentence for allegedly forging signatures on petitions to register his political party. He complained earlier this year of heart and eye problems, but an Egyptian court in July turned down his request to review whether his jail sentence was endangering his health. A diabetic dependent on insulin, Nour has also undergone cardiovascular surgery while in prison.”

The article also noted that: “Even though the United States has called for greater democratic reform in Egypt, it has lately eased off pressure on Cairo in what is perceived as a U.S. effort to shield its leading Mideast Arab ally.”

For the full article, click here.


Human Rights Watch report says at least 20 killed in Burma crackdown

At least 20 people were killed during a crackdown on protestors by the military junta in Burma, twice as many as the government reported, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today, according to Agence France-Presse.

“The crackdown in Burma is far from over,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Harsh repression continues, and the government is still lying about the extent of the deaths and detentions.”

The group claimed that the actual death toll is probably much higher and said that hundreds of activists remain imprisoned. HRW said its assessment was based on interviews with more than 100 witnesses, but added that it could not establish a definitive death toll because it could not gather any information from outside Yangon.

HRW has accused the government of lying about the number of deaths and people in jail.

“It’s time for the world to impose a UN arms embargo and financial sanctions, to hurt Burma’s leaders until they make real changes,” said Adams. “Countries like China, India and Thailand have the responsibility to take action to help hold the generals accountable and to end this long nightmare of military repression.”

For the AFP article, click here.
For the HRW release, click here.

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Africa-EU summit will sidestep human rights, analysts say

There is agreement that human rights needs to be an issue addressed at the Africa-EU summit being launched in Portugal this weekend, however, analysts and academics from both Europe and Africa doubt that any real progress will be made on the matter, AllAfrica.com reported Thursday, citing Inter Press Service.

“It is an unavoidable truth that human rights and democratic values are one level below strategic interests,” said researcher Manuela Franco at the Portuguese Institute of International Relations.

The summit, being held Saturday and Sunday in Lisbon, will include 52 government delegations from Africa and 27 from EU member states, as well as observers from the African Union, the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Council of Europe and the United Nations.

The official aim of the summit was summed up by Portuguese Foreign Minister Luís Amado, who said that what is important is that “problems are tackled in a multilateral manner, since they are not limited to a single state.”

According to Angolan Ambassador Assunção Afonso de Sousa dos Anjos, cooperation between Africa and Europe “is essential for fomenting development,” but “we must be our own architects.”

The relationship between Europe and Africa is being promoted in large part due to the increasing influence of China in Africa, Franco said.

Pointing to China, political analyst Eugenio Costa Almeida argued that when economic interests are at stake, the EU forgets about human rights.

“It is China that most protects the African countries I mentioned, due to its interest in fossil fuels and minerals, while Europe continues to see Africa as a market for its products, rather than a partner on an equal footing,” he said.

The issue of human rights first came up when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced he would not attend the summit if Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe did.

For the full article, click here.

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Thursday, December 06, 2007

Afghan lawmaker optimistic about country’s prospects in speech at Washington think-tank

Speaking in Washington today, the deputy speaker of Afghanistan’s lower house of parliament gave an upbeat assessment of the state of her country roughly six years after the fall of the Taliban.

Fawzia Koofi, addressing an audience at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), argued that the West has a distorted perception of Afghanistan because the media’s heavy focus on violent attacks obscures emerging gains. Among the underreported successes that she cited: an Afghan parliament that is 27 percent female and increasingly gender-conscious (Koofi noted that the parliament recently established a gender unit within the ministry of finance); a respected national army that is heavily involved in counterrorism; a drastically improved police force; rising school enrollment rates; and widespread health care coverage, which now stands at 85 percent. Still, Koofi acknowledged that major concerns remain, chief among them establishing security and the rule of law, fighting government corruption, and combating opium production.

Speaking alongside Koofi on the CSIS panel, Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ronald E. Neumann, who served from 2005 until early this year, echoed the deputy speaker on the development of both the Afghan army, which he called “incredibly respected” inside the country and particularly among local officials, and the police force, which he praised for, among other things, making formerly crime-ridden Kabul a hospitable environment for foreign businesspersons and consequently foreign investment. He praised the international community for providing sufficient equipment to the army and police, but also said that there are too few foreign troops in Afghanistan, and linked this to a less-than-complete international commitment. “We are resourcing not to lose. We are not resourcing to win,” Neumann said.

Later, during the question and answer session, Neumann would reject the notion that arming tribal leaders to fight the Taliban could be a successful strategy in Afghanistan. He called the concept “dumber than hell,” saying it would reinforce the behavior of those who don’t respect the rule of law, and citing “incredibly fractured” tribes and tribal leaders disenfranchised by the heightened authority of commanders.

Moving away from the security issue to address reconstruction at large, Neumann said that neither Afghan nor American expectations have been managed well, with implementation lagging well beyond policy. As an example, he said that, in the case of a reconstruction project like building a road, the supplemental funds that were originally designated in 2006 by the U.S. government for appropriation in Afghanistan would, because of the bureaucratic pace in both countries, probably not result in actual construction until 2008. To remedy the concerns with implementation, Neumann called for the placement of more senior level policy experts and technicians in order to address local-level problems.

Near the end of the presentation, the third panelist present, Wolfgang Danspeckgruber, the director of Princeton University’s Liechtenstein Institute on Self-Determination (LISD), which has worked to facilitate private diplomacy on Afghanistan since soon after the fall of the Taliban, gave a grimmer assessment. Having recently returned from Afghanistan, he said that the country’s citizens are growing increasingly disenchanted with international efforts and are beginning to, for the first time, use terms like ‘occupier’ to describe the foreign presence. We are running against the clock of public opinion, Danspeckgruber said, and time is running out.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Arrests of U.S. citizens in Viet Nam confirmed by U.S. officials

American officials confirmed reports that Viet Nam has detained four U.S. citizens, Agence France-Presse reported Tuesday.

The statements were made after the officials gained their first consular access to two of the detainees.

Police arrested six pro-democracy activists in Ho Chi Minh City on November 17, two of whom were U.S. citizens. The activists are members of the California-based Viet Tan party, which the Vietnamese government considers a terrorist organization.

Two more Vietnamese-Americans were arrested on November 23 at the city’s airport, according to reports by state-controlled media that labeled the detainees “terrorists.” They were reportedly found carrying a handgun and bullets. Viet Tan has denied any link with these individuals.

Viet Tan has charged that Viet Nam, having arrested peaceful activists, “had to fabricate a link with two individuals who allegedly smuggled a firearm into Vietnam in order to paint Viet Tan as a terrorist organization.”

Speaking about the arrests during a visit to Hanoi Tuesday, U.S. senior diplomat Stephen Mull said: “We do hope that people are not charged with terrorism just for expressing their opinions peacefully.”

For the full story, click here.

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Number of internally displaced Iraqis has declined, Red Crescent says

A report released today by the Iraqi Red Crescent says that the number of internally displaced Iraqis fell by 4.8 percent – or nearly 110,000 people – in October, Agence France-Presse reported.

This is the first significant drop in the Iraqi IDP population in the last two years.

According to the article: “The figures mark the first time the number of displaced families has dipped month on month after a steady rise that began after the Samarra bombing.”

“The Iraqi Red Crescent offered no explanation for the trend but the Iraqi government has said IDPs and refugees in neighboring countries are beginning to return to their homes in numbers in the wake of a drop in violence across the country,” the article says,

The article also states: “The Red Crescent said children under the age of 12 accounted for 58.6 percent of the internally displaced population.”

“In addition to their plight as being displaced, the majority suffer from disease, poverty and malnutrition,” the Red Crescent said.

For the full story, click here.

Afghan women still living in fear

As human rights day (December 10) approaches, the United Nations Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has joined forces with local authorities and the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) to urge the Afghan people to promote the rights of women, ReliefWeb reported Tuesday, citing UNAMA.

Today, many women in Afghanistan and throughout the world live in fear of violence, both in the private and public sphere.

Despite progress over the past six years, violence against Afghan women is widespread.

“Scores of women and girls have been murdered this year by members of their own families and countless others have been beaten or otherwise abused. Many of the victims continue to suffer in silence. This violence is unacceptable regardless of whether it is perpetrated by family or strangers, in the public sphere or behind closed doors, in times of peace or conflict,” said Marguerite Roy, Head of UNAMA’s regional office in Mazar-e-Sharif.

“While the United Nations is playing a vital role in helping to empower Afghan women and build the capacity of Afghanistan’s institutions to support victims, we must recognize that we all have a part to play,” she added. “Within our own families, amongst our friends and in the wider community we must send a strong message that violence against women must end.”

An international campaign to combat violence against women has also been launched by the U.N. Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

For the full article, click here.

For more on UNIFEM’s campaign, click here.

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Activist speaks out against possible attack on Iran

The idea of attacking Iran must be condemned by the international community, Iranian human rights activist and journalist Akbar Ganji said Tuesday, CanWest News Service reported the same day.

“Beating the drum of war, even as a theoretical possibility, places the Iranian people at a crossroads,” he said. “This is exactly what the Islamic republic’s fundamentalist rulers hope to see.”

In 2000, Ganji was arrested in Iran under charges of “propaganda against the regime and its institutions” after writing a series of articles that connected government officials and senior conservative clerics with the killings of scholars and dissidents in 1998.

Ganji condemned the idea of placing economic sanctions on Iran, saying they will only hurt Iranians, not cause any change in the policies of the government.

He also reprimanded the United States on its “double standards” in making agreements with dictators, and for making military threats that are unjustified.

Bombing Iranian infrastructure won’t improve democracy, security or human rights in the country, Ganji says, “But it will certainly enflame fundamentalism both in Iran and the region.”

For the full article, click here.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Woodrow Wilson Center hosts book talk meeting: 'United States versus Iran: Another Cold War'

The Woodrow Wilson Center today welcomed Ray Tayekh, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, to discuss his book Hidden Iran: Paradox and Power in the Islamic Republic.

Tayekh began the discussion by noting how peculiar Iran is in being able to keep its ideology so intact, compared to countries such as China. He explained that Ayatollah Khomeini, in establishing the government after the revolution, cultivated a cadre and created institutions which would ensure the ideology’s survival. Because the government is a variation of political Shi’ism it is difficult to renounce because it crosses into religion, Tayekh said. While it is easy to become an ex-Marxist, he explained, becoming an ex-Shia is apostasy.

Because there are unelected institutions in the government who are supposed to be the realization of God’s will on earth, democracy accountability does not mean much in Iran, Tayekh said.

The U.S. and Iran have “a distinctly emotional relationship,” Tayekh said, which can be seen from the propaganda each country uses against the other. Tayekh believes the turning points in the U.S.-Iran relationship occurred first for Iran in 1953, when a U.S.-endorsed coup established a pro-Western monarchy in the government, and for the U.S. with the hostage situation in 1979. Since then, Tayekh believes there have been two opportunities for the relationship between the countries to change, the first being the arrival of the reform movement in Iran in 1997 and the second being the Afghanistan crisis in 2001.

Tayekh also discussed the relationship between Iran and Iraq. He said that historic tensions have had more to do with domestic ideology than territorial disputes, citing how when both countries had pro-Western monarchies in power, conflicts could be resolved. Tayekh also believes the personalities of the leaders of these countries, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Khomeini in Iran, contributed to the tensions. He also said that the conflicts in the Gulf are a result of Iran-Iraq tensions.

In discussing Israel, Tayekh said that Iran’s stance towards the country is based not only on religious differences, but also strategic national interests. The conflict is an affirmation of Iran’s revolutionary ideology, he said. Even though Iran and Israel are not geographically close to one another, Tayekh said Iran has a strategic reach to Israel through Hezbollah. Iran’s approach to Israel has also changed, Tayekh explained, saying that the country used to believe that whatever was acceptable to the Palestinians was acceptable to Iran. The rejection of the Annapolis conference by Iran shows, however, that the country would rather face isolation, even if the Arabs approve it.

Iran’s nuclear capabilities were also discussed, in light of recent reports that the country has not been developing nuclear weapons. Tayekh, who said he never considered Iran to be an immediate nuclear emergency, said the Islamic Republic did nothing illegal in its nuclear program except to not notify the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of their nuclear facilities. Tayekh believes the reason for Iran’s decision not to declare its nuclear facilities was due to U.S. antagonism. He said that any facility Iran declared would have been subject to retribution. At this point, he said, Iran would not develop weapons because the country would not want to embarrass IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei, who has supported Iran in its nuclear development. As for Iran not giving ElBaradei what he needs, Tayekh attributes it to Iran’s suspicion of foreign countries and international institutions. According to him, Iran has put itself “in a crisis that was largely their own making.”


Prominent Iraqi official speaks at USIP

The U.S Institute of Peace hosted a public event Monday entitled, “Iraq after the surge: The perspective of H.E. Sayyed Abdul Aziz al-Hakim.” Al-Hakim is President of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the leader of the United Iraqi Alliance, the largest political coalition in the Iraqi government.

USIP’s Daniel Serwer opened the event, saying in his introduction that one year ago when al-Hakim last visited, the situation in Iraq was a lot different and, since then, “many things have changed and many things are the same.”

Al-Hakim began his presentation by saying: “Almost a year ago, we were in Washington and we mentioned to officials and think tanks that what we were seeking is to build the foundation for peace in Iraq and to stop the sectarian violence and to combat terrorism.”

He added that a lot has been accomplished and noted that sectarian violence “has been decreasing at a very high rate.” He also proudly mentioned that more than 500 projects are being carried out in each province. The fact that unemployment has declined was also highlighted. Joblessness was as high as 50 percent, but has now dropped to less than 20 percent, al-Hakim said.

One of the Iraqi goals that al-Hakim mentioned was the establishment of better relations with neighboring countries and the international community. On that subject he said: “During the past year, we have witnessed a noticeable development with our Arab and regional neighboring countries. This was highlighted by concluding several agreements and meetings between Iraq and countries around the world, and we also called for a U.S.-Iranian dialogue regarding Iraq.”

On domestic matters, al-Hakim said: “We are working on achieving federalism for all of Iraq through a popular referendum, and to be committed to realize popular opinions and will in unifying the administrative system in all Iraq.”

He acknowledged later that “we are aware of the difficulties we are facing in Iraq,” but stressed that there is great hope for his country. Al-Hakim also expressed hope that “the good countries of the world” will stand with the Iraqi people in the struggle and build an Iraq based on the rule of law.

“We are very confident that Iraqis are capable of establishing a law-abiding democracy over time because in the past four years, Iraqis have created miracles and they are capable of achieving further progress,” al-Hakim said in closing.

During the question and answer session, a human rights activist in the audience commented that many people on the ground in Iraq have another view of the Iraqi government and “do not believe that the government cares about them.” Al-Hakim dismissed this question as “unfair,” asking rhetorically how those who elected the government officials can think that they don’t care about them.

Later, a young woman studying at Georgetown University stood up and told al-Hakim that, since 2004, eight of her family members have died in Iraq and the rest of are now refugees in Syria. Her question concerned the reason for the recent increase in the number of refugees returning to Iraq. She mentioned that the media has linked the development to improved security, but noted that the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and other groups cite different reasons such as border closures by neighboring countries, and refugees’ difficulties securing employment – which have forced many young women into prostitution. Al-Hakim responded by expressing his empathy for the woman and her family and saying that: “We are already trying to help as much as we can.” He added that the refugees fled because of insecurity and said that Iraq will be more secure if they come back. He also noted that the Iraqi government has been sending busses to Syria to give those who want to return a chance to do so. “We hope to see improvement and we hope that people return so that they can live together in peace,” al-Hakim said.


Kurds blamed for terror attacks in Iran

The Iranian government has blamed a bomb explosion on December 1 in the city of Sanandaj – located in Iranian Kurdistan – on guerillas from the Party of Free Life of Iranian Kurdistan, or PJAK, according to Newsmax.com.

Sources in Iran, however, have indicated the bombing was carried out by agent provocateurs under orders from the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence.

Calling the allegations, “an Iranian fabrication,” PJAK denied having any involvement with the explosion.

“PJAK does not carry out operations against civilians,” said Saif Badrakhan, a PJAK liaison representative in Washington, D.C. “Iran is behind this kind of operation to terrorize the Kurdish population.”

Sources in Iran said that Tehran plans to challenge Europe to expel or arrest PJAK leaders in the coming weeks. Iran’s main target is reportedly PJAK President Rahman Haj-Ahmadi, who has lived in Germany for 35 years and has German citizenship. Iran hopes to convince the European Union and United States to crack down on PJAK as part of an anti-terror campaign.

According to Ahmadi, PJAK is considered a threat by the Iranian government because of its plans to overthrow the clerical regime in favor of a secular government, and its support for equality between men and women.

For the full article, click here.

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Egyptian Shiite activist released from jail after two months

Mohammed el-Derini, a well-known representative of Egypt’s small Shiite Muslim community, was released from prison Saturday because of lack of evidence and health reasons, The Associated Press reported Sunday.

El-Derini said his release was ordered by Interior Minister Habib el-Adly. He had been in jail for two months without being charged.

According to the article: “El-Derini, who is also the secretary-general of the Supreme Council for the Care of the Prophet’s Descendants, an unlicensed non-governmental organization, said he was accused of ‘using the Council and its affiliate, the Imam Ali Center for Human Rights, for advocating and propagating Shiites ideologies.’”

“There was no evidence and we refuted these allegations and proved that we have been defending the human rights of every Egyptian of all religions or sects ... It seems that my increased activity in support of all the detainees has angered the government,” el-Derini said in a telephone interview.

After being put in a solitary confinement cell for 40 days without being able to see the sun, el-Derini said his health deteriorated and he began to suffer from heart and stomach problems.

According to the article: “The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights said in a statement on Sunday that the state security court ordered el-Derini’s release on Nov. 13 following an appeal by its lawyers. The interior minister could have appealed the ruling but instead also ordered that he be released.”

El-Derini was taken from his home by security forces in a dawn raid on October 1.

“He was previously detained for 15 months in 2004 and 2005 before being released following an international campaign led by the U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. The U.N. agency considered his arrest as ‘in contravention’ of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Egypt’s obligations in the charter,” the article notes, adding that: “After his release, he said security agents interrogated him about being a Shiite Muslim and about fellow Shiites in Egypt, an overwhelmingly Sunni majority country.”

For the full article, click here.


Another 'one millions signatures' campaign activist arrested in Iran

Women’s rights activist Jelve Javaheri, a member of the One Million Signatures Campaign, was arrested in Iran on Saturday, Payvand News reported Monday.

After spending several hours in interrogation, Javaheri was charged with “inciting public opinion, propaganda against the state, and publication of false information” through the Campaign’s news site, Change for Equality. She has been transferred to Evin Prison, where fellow One Million Signatures Campaign activist Maryam Hosseinkhah has been detained for two weeks.

Javaheri is the fourth campaign activist arrested since October.

The Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development and Peace (WLP) posted a human rights alert Monday condemning the Iranian government’s repression of civil society. WLP is offering support to Iranian women’s rights activists by urging interested parties to write letters to leading Iranian officials protesting the recent arrests.

For the Payvand article, click here.
For the Women’s Learning Partnership news alert, click here.

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The Center for American Progress addresses 'turmoil in Pakstan'

The Center for American Progress held a presentation November 30 on the “Turmoil in Pakistan: Implications for U.S. Security.” Lawrence Korb, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, mediated, and panelists included Senator Tom Daschle, a distinguished senior fellow at the Center for American Progress; Robert Hathaway, the director for the Asia Division at the Woodrow Wilson Center; and Robert Grenier, the managing director at Kroll, Inc. and former CIA chief of station in Islamabad.

Given the current situation in Pakistan, Hathaway said there is no going back to where the United States or Pakistan was at the beginning of the year. Daschle, who visited Pakistan in October before the State of Emergency declaration was made, said that when he was there was “more of a pervasive sense of fear than at any other time,” noting specifically the treatment of the press and the judiciary, as well as the level of activity of intelligence agents at the local level. Circumstances in the country deteriorated across the board between May and October, he explained, adding that extremist elements were taking over, and women’s ability to move freely and participate politically had declined. The situation in Pakistan since then, Daschle said, has become much worse.

The panel focused a great deal on the dismissal of the Supreme Court and the restoration of the judiciary. Daschle described the judiciary as being a political and legal force that provided a counterbalance to Musharraf. According to Hathaway, the U.S. should not call for the restoration of the judges because it will not happen, rather, he said, Washington should call for the formation of a new independent judiciary. Disagreeing with solutions posed by some of the other panelists, Grenier recommended restoring the judiciary in stages, saying that a demand for a complete restoration all at once is unrealistic. The improvement of democracy in Pakistan, he said, is a generational process.

The U.S.’s relationship with Pakistan was discussed in detail, with Grenier saying it is important for the U.S. to be seen as a partner to the people of the country, as well as the military. The panelists agreed that aid should not be suspended, but they added that it should not be unconditional either. Hathaway explained that the U.S. needs to send a message to the people of Pakistan that they can count on the United States. In order to do this, he recommended that the U.S. not support individuals, but a process. As Daschle said: “My real concern is the degree to which the United States is linked to Musharraf.”

The alliance between Pakistan and the United States is largely based on counterterrorism. According to Grenier, however: “To look at counterterrorism in a narrow way in Pakistan is a big mistake.” While senior al-Qaeda cadres have been removed from urban areas in the country, he explained, the tribal areas of Pakistan are much more problematic, with considerable military losses.

According to Daschle, while U.S. involvement in Pakistan has implications, non-involvement does as well. Hathaway expanded on this statement, saying “inaction is not an option” when it comes to Pakistan. He made the recommendation, however, for the U.S. to remain modest in how much of an effect they can have on Pakistan’s politics, due to a lack of leverage on the U.S. side. As Hathaway states, “I doubt there is a ‘made in America’ solution for Pakistan.”

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Sudanese president pardons British teacher for insulting Islam

British schoolteacher Gillian Gibbons, who was arrested in Sudan for allowing her students to name a teddy bear Muhammad, was pardoned by Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir Monday, The New York Times reported the same day.

Gibbons was sentenced to serve 15 days in prison last week for insulting Islam. The sentence was protested on Friday by hundreds of Sudanese who considered it too lenient.

Bashir delivered the pardon after meeting with two Muslim peers from Britain’s House of Lords.

Bashir is currently under pressure from the United Nations and Western countries who are saying Sudan is obstructing an expanded peacekeeping force in the Darfur region of the country.

“This was all political,” said Kamal al-Gizouli, Gibbons’ defense attorney. “The government did this to show they are tolerant. They don’t need any more problems with the world and the international media.”

Gibbons released a statement in which she apologizes for offending Muslims.

“I have been in Sudan for only four months but I have enjoyed myself immensely,” the statement said. “I have encountered nothing but kindness and generosity from the Sudanese people. I have great respect for the Islamic religion and would not knowingly offend anyone and I am sorry if I caused any distress.”

Gibbons was sent home to England Monday.

For the full article, click here.

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Internet in Viet Nam provides platform for dissidents

The Internet has been available for a decade in Viet Nam, and with approximately 20 percent of the population surfing the web, the internet has become a podium for dissidents as well as a source for information about the outside world, Agence France-Presse reported Sunday.

“The Internet has had a great impact on my life... since I know more people, know more about the world, about other countries I have never been to,” said Tran Nguyen Hung, a student in Hanoi, “I cannot imagine how my life would be without logging onto the Internet at least once a week.”

In Viet Nam, the media is heavily controlled, but with Internet access, dissidents have a new way of gathering information and speaking out.

“The Internet has served as a source of information on topics the government deems too sensitive to discuss openly, such as relations with China or a multiparty system,” Viet Nam expert Carl Thayer of the Australian Defence Force Academy said.

The government tries to regulate what material is available on the Internet, although “technically, it is difficult to predict or prevent all the poisonous information on the Internet, even with strict cooperation” among the ministries of culture and information, and the police,” Mai Liem Truc, a former post and telecommunications minister said.

“Censorship hardens on Internet sites dealing with politics and religion, and bloggers suffer the same hardships as journalists,” Reporters Without Borders said in a statement criticizing government controls.

The organization had hoped that Viet Nam’s ascension into the World Trade Organization would help relax government controls over the internet. “But this year Vietnam has seen its worst wave of arrests of cyber-dissidents since 2002,” added the group, which registers eight cyberdissidents currently in jail in Viet Nam.

For the full article, click here.

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Monday, December 03, 2007

Iraqi-American helping women in war-torn nations

Zainab Salbi grew up in harsh conditions in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. With $400, she escaped to the United States, but she never forgot about the constant hardship faced by Iraqi women, and other women throughout the world. Today, Salbi has helped more than 120,000 women worldwide through Women for Women International, the organization she established in 1993. Children’s rights activists Craig and Marc Kielburger tell Salbi’s story in an op-ed in today’s Toronto Star.

They write of Salbi: “She was driven by a simple mission: to give women in war-torn countries like hers the chance to rebuild their shattered lives.”

Salbi comments: “In the news we only hear about security problems, not the economic reality of people.”

As the article notes: “Females are often forced to bear the biggest economic brunt of war. With husbands caught up in fighting, women become their family’s sole provider. Without an education or job - rights often denied to them in male-dominated cultures – many fall into poverty.

Others are even less fortunate and become the target of rape and sexual slavery, as was the case with thousands of women in Bosnia.

So, Women for Women offers war-affected females a one-year rehabilitation program, complete with direct financial aid, human rights awareness training, job skills mentorship, and even micro-credit loans to help them start small businesses and become active members of their communities.

Since 1993, the organization has empowered more than 120,000 women in countries like Rwanda, Kosovo, Sudan and Afghanistan, through a unique sponsorship program that pairs women in countries like Canada with ones suffering the horrors of war.”

“The most important factor of success is not abandoning them,” Salbi says.

For full article, click here


Egyptian anti-torture activist has YouTube account restored

Wael Abbas, the award-winning Egyptian anti-torture activist whose YouTube account was shut down on November 21 over questionable video content, had has account restored on November 30, FOXNews.com reported Saturday.

“We are committed to preserving YouTube as an important platform for expression of all kinds, while also ensuring that the site remains a safe environment for our users,” YouTube said in a statement. “Balancing these interests raises very tough issues. In this case, our general policy against graphic violence led to the removal of videos documenting alleged human rights abuses because the context was not apparent.

“Having reviewed the case, we have restored the account of Egyptian blogger Wael Abbas – and if he chooses to upload the video again with sufficient context so that users can understand his important message we will of course leave it on the site.”

Abbas is a blogger who writes regularly about police brutality, torture and sexual harassment. On YouTube, he has posted more than 100 videos of police brutality and public demonstrations over the past few years to push for human rights in Egypt. Many of the clips have been sent to Abbas by anonymous posters who document the incidents on their cell phones and know that the mainstream Egyptian press will not investigate.

“What is important to me is to have these videos available online for anybody because the anti-torture campaign in Egypt hasn’t stopped,” Abbas told FOXNews.com on Thursday. “There are people being killed in police stations everyday; elections continue to be rigged; there will be interference from the police inside the Egyptian university.

“So these videos are necessary to keep the world informed of what kind of ‘democracy’ that we have in Egypt and what kind of charade that we have here.”

For the full article, click here.