Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, February 01, 2008

Large numbers of Afghan women widowed and impoverished

Out of the 26.6 million people living in Afghanistan, over 1.5 million are widows, Integrated Regional Information Networks reported Wednesday.

After over more than two decades of armed conflicts, “Afghanistan has one of the highest numbers of widows (proportionate to the total population) in the world,” the article notes. In Kabul alone there are between 50,000 and 70,000 widows.

“The average age of an Afghan widow is just 35 years, and 94 percent of them are unable to read and write,” said Deborah Zalesne, a board member of the Beyond 9/11 and a law professor at the City University of New York. She added: About 90 percent of Afghan widows have children, and the average widow has more than four.”

With such large families and lack of educational opportunities, Afghan widow often find themselves in dire financial straights. “To survive many Afghan widows weave carpets, do tailoring, beg or even engage in prostitution,” according to the article. In rural areas, where employment opportunities are in short supply, circumstances are even worse.

Afghan widows also suffer psychologically. According to the article: “Widowed women are also at greater risk of emotional problems and impaired psychosocial functioning than either married women or men, typically because of social exclusion, forced marriages, gender-based violence and lack of economic and educational opportunities.”

Afghan widows, and Afghan women in general, are not well represented in government institutions and women’s rights activists have criticized the Afghan government and international donors for not doing enough to help ease their burden. However the interim-Afghanistan National Development Strategy (i-ANDS) has set a goal for 2010 to, according to the article, “reduce poverty among women by at least 20 percent and ensure that women make up at least 20 percent of all public bodies.”

For the full article, click here.

Afghan parliament endorses court decision on journalist’s death sentence

The Afghan Meshrano Jirga (Council of the Elders) has announced their endorsement of the recent court sentence condemning a journalism student to death, Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty reported Thursday.

Sayed Perwiz Kambakhsh, a 23-year-old journalism student, was recently sentenced to death for blasphemy for distributing an article that questioned the Koran’s verses on the rights of women. The Meshrano Jirga endorsed the court’s decision to condemn Kambakhsh for, “insulting Islam and misinterpretation of Holy Koran verses.” The endorsement was reportedly signed by the chairman of the upper house, Sibghatullah Mujaddedi, a religious scholar and former mujahedeen leader.

The Meshrano Jirga also criticized the international community for, “pressuring Afghanistan’s government and legal authorities when pursuing such people.” International journalists and civil societies groups have deplored the verdict as unjust.

For the full article, click here.

Vietnamese dissident jailed for ‘disturbing public order’

Tran Khai Thanh Thuy, a Vietnamese journalist and novelist who received a human rights award for courage, has been convicted of “disturbing the public order,” The Associated Press reported Thursday. She was sentenced to nine months in jail but released due to previously served time, a court official said.

Thuy had previously been accused of organizing an independent trade union, supporting a dissident human rights commission, and being a member of a pro-democracy group that circulates human rights petitions.

According to the article, “she was originally charged with violating Article 88 of Vietnam’s criminal code, which broadly prohibits distributing information harmful to the state. It was unclear why the court changed the charge.”

Vietnam’s government, which does not tolerate challenges to its one-party rule, has been cracking down on dissidents,” the article added.

For the full article, click here.

Indigenous Peruvians sue U.S. oil company

Peruvians are fighting back against the damage oil companies are doing to the Amazon Rainforest, The Washington Post reported Thursday.

With the support of U.S. lawyers, a group of 25 indigenous Peruvians are suing Occidental Petroleum, a California based company that made huge profits from the rainforest between 1972 and 2000.

They accuse Occidental of illegally dumping toxic wastewater, generating acid rain with gas flares, failing to warn locals of health dangers and improperly storing chemical wastes in unlined pits.

These “irresponsible, reckless, immoral and illegal practices” left the country’s Achuar Indians with poisoned blood, polluted streams and empty hunting grounds, the suit says.

According to the article, “Plaintiffs want damages, declaratory and injunctive relief, restitution and disgorgement of profits. One woman is suing on behalf of her child, whose death she alleges is related to environmental contamination.”

For the full article, click here.

U.S. and Europe undermine own efforts to spread democracy

The West risks undermining its own efforts to promote human rights by accepting flawed and unfair elections, Human Rights Watch asserted on Thursday in the release of its World Report 2008.

According to the press release, the U.S., Europe and other influential democracies are “allowing autocrats to pose as democrats, without demanding they uphold the civil and political rights that make democracy meaningful.”

Kenya, Pakistan, Bahrain, Nigeria, Russia and Thailand are among the nations HRW accuses of failing to live up to the standards required to be considered a true democracy.

“It’s now too easy for autocrats to get away with mounting a sham democracy,” said Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch. “That’s because too many Western governments insist on elections and leave it at that. They don’t press governments on the key human rights issues that make democracy function – a free press, peaceful assembly, and a functioning civil society that can really challenge power.”

The report surveys the human rights situation in more than 75 countries, and draws particular attention to atrocities in Chad, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia’s Ogaden region, Iraq, Somalia, Sri Lanka, and Sudan’s Darfur region.

For the full press release, and to read the report, click here

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Mosul desperate for aid after recent bombing

The city of Mosul in northern Iraq finds itself in desperate need of relief aid after a massive blast rocketed through the city last week, Integrated Regional Information Networks reported Monday.

With over 60 people dead and 280 wounded from the attack, essential relief items are needed to sustain relief operations and maintain an emergency stockpile. The Iraq Red Crescent Society (IRCS) reported on its website that the most needed relief items include food, blankets, medical supplies, milk for infants, and bottled water.

“The attack led to the destruction of at least 100 houses,” the IRCS said, adding that there were probably further dead bodies to be found beneath the rubble.

For the full article, click here.

Egypt's Sudanese Refugees Continue to Suffer

Egypt’s Sudanese Refugees Continue to Suffer
The large Sudanese refugee population in Egypt continues to face a number of obstacles, according to Integrated Regional Information Networks. It is believed that some 25,000 registered Sudanese refugees now live in the country, with another one to four million unregistered individuals residing there.

According to the article: “While registered refugees have access to basic healthcare and education many say they are discriminated against because of the color of their skin.” The refugees are also seen as a burden in a nation where almost half the population already survives on less than two U.S. dollars a day

For the full article, click here.

Viet Nam pledges to improve human rights

Viet Nam has pledged to strengthen ties with the United States and to improve its human rights record, Agence France -Presse reported on Saturday.

“We have differences, but for the sake of future development of relations, we have to tackle the differences, try to find a good solution with wisdom,” said the new Vietnamese envoy to Washington, Le Cong Phung, speaking at a press conference following his meeting with President Bush.

As the article notes, the U.S. House of Representatives was “angered by what it sees as a breach of promise by Hanoi to embrace reforms when it joined the World Trade Organization more than a year ago,” and has passed binding legislation that will tie U.S. foreign aid to Viet Nam to its human rights record.

Vietnamese Americans and human rights groups, including LCHR, continue to campaign for lawmakers to exert greater pressure on Viet Nam to improve its human rights situation.

For the full article, click here.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Iraqi IDPs forced to evacuate former military compound in Babil

In Iraq’s Babil Province, some 300 internally displaced persons (IDPs) are being given one week to evacuate a former military base, Integrated Regional Information Networks reported

A group of 45 representatives of the IDPs have appealed to the Iraqi Parliament to reverse the decision. Abdul-Khaleq Zankana, head of parliament’s displacement committee, has been in discussion with the Iraqi Defense Ministry, US-led forces, and the Iraqi Red Crescent Society (IRCS) in hopes of postponing the decision.

“Nothing yet has been achieved to solve this problem but we are against displacing these families again and increasing their daily suffering,” Zankana said.

The families affected by the displacement are among 12,000 displaced families residing near the provincial capital, Hilla.

After the 2003 invasion, the Babil military compound, al-Hashemite, was looted and left abandoned. In 2005, IDPs began using it as a shelter.

A provincial committee has been formed to seek relocation alternatives, according to Qais al-Zubaidi, the provincial director of the Iraqi Red Crescent Society in Babil. He said that the committee will most likely “get a piece of land in the suburbs [of Hilla] from the city’s municipality to erect more than 100 tents for them and supply them with food and non-food items.”

Meeting the needs of IDPs has been a huge challenge for the Iraqi government, as over 2 million people have been forced to flee their homes.

For the full article, click here.

Christian convert’s ID card request denied by Egyptian court

A Christian convert from Islam was denied the right to switch the religion on his identity card by a Cairo court on Tuesday, Agence France-Presse reported the same day.

Mohammed Higazi, a convert to Christianity, had requested to have his new religion marked on his identity card because he no longer practiced Islam. However the court ruled that Higazi had not followed the proper procedures. In addition, the judgment said that the granting of the ID card was not possible because Higazi converted “to an older religion.”

“Monotheistic religions were sent by God in chronological order... As a result, it is unusual to go from the latest religion to the one that preceded it,” the court said. Because Higazi converted from Islam to Christianity, the judgment said that he is “threatening the principles of Egyptian tradition.”

This Higazi judgment came on the same day as a ruling that allows Egyptian Baha’is to leave their religion blank on their identity cards. Prior to the ruling, Baha’is were forced to label themselves as other religions that were more acceptable in Egypt.

In Egypt, a person must carry ID cards at all times. It is the only way to apply for a job, open a bank account, buy property, and register children for schools. A citizen can be arrested for not carrying proper identification.

For the full article, click here.

Armenian Genocide to be taught in Canadian schools

In a move aimed at widening education about genocide, the Toronto District School Board has created a history course in which the Armenian Genocide is studied alongside the Holocaust and Rwandan Genocide, The Turkish Daily News reported on January 11.

The announcement has been strongly criticized by both Turkey and the Turkish community in Canada. According to the article, Ankara is communicating uneasiness both to the Canadian government and the Education Ministry via the Turkish Embassy in Ottawa.

A petition by the Council of Turkish Canadians, which asserts that “our schools and curricula cannot and should not be used for one-sided propaganda,” has collected more than 8,000 signatures. Turkey continues to deny that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians around the time of World War 1 constituted genocide.

For the full article, click here.

Burmese refugees held in ‘human zoo’

The Kayan hill tribe women are famous for the gold rings they wear from childhood, pushing down their shoulders to present the appearance of elongated necks. Now, in northern Thailand, twenty of these women are being held in what is essentially a “human zoo,” BBC News reported Wednesday.

In a practice that has been developing for several years, foreign tourists can pay to visit and photograph traditional hill-tribe villages. In this case all of the women are refugees from Burma, and the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) says that Thai authorities are refusing to let them leave.

It is suspected that this is due to the central role the women play in the region’s tourist industry. Twenty thousand other Burmese refugees have been granted permission to move to new countries.

One of the women has removed her rings in protest.

“It’s absolutely a human zoo,” said the UNHCR’s regional spokeswoman, Kitty McKinsey. “One solution is for tourists to stop going.”

For the full article, click here.

Women crucial for change in upcoming Iranian elections

The votes of women could be crucial in defeating hard-line supporters of President Ahmadinejad in the next election, BBC News asserted on Wednesday.

Many claim that the current government has drastically increased the level of institutionalized discrimination against women. In response, reformists are gearing their policies and campaigns to attract women voters.

“They have vowed to change family laws, Islamic punishment laws and labor laws to ensure more equal treatment of women,” said Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, an outspoken former MP.

According to the article, women hold considerable sway in deciding the results of elections. “Iranian women played a huge role in bringing to power the reformist former President, Mohammad Khatami, for two consecutive terms,” the article says. “There are more than 46 million eligible voters in Iran, of which at least half are women.”

Numbers of women activists, bloggers and journalists have increased over recent years, running high profile campaigns to abolish the practice of stoning and to change discriminatory law. Many of them have been arrested, but the government has not been successful in crushing the protests.

However, there are still considerable barriers in place. Thousands of candidates have been barred from running in upcoming elections, and the factional nature of Iranian politics threatens to divide and confuse voters.

Yet Haghighatjoo claims that progress is being made. “The women’s movement in Iran is gaining momentum and these elections may be the first step towards having Ahmadinejad pushed out,” she said.

For the full article, click here.

Pro-democracy Syrian dissident arrested

Former Syrian Member of Parliament Riad Seif has been arrested and charged with harming the image of the country, BBC News reported Tuesday. He was also charged with “stoking ethnic and sectarian division,” “disseminating false information” and “belonging to a secret organization seeking to alter the social and economic base of the state.”

Seif was detained after participating in a pro-democracy reform group meeting in December. A further ten attendees have also been arrested.

According to the article, Seif had already been banned from leaving Syria to seek treatment for prostate cancer, and described the restriction as “a slow death sentence.”

The Syrian government is regularly criticized by international human rights groups for its record of arresting and detaining people for political reasons.

For the full article, click here.

Baha’is detained in Iran

Three Iranian Baha’is have been jailed for four years, charged with spreading propaganda and proselytizing under pretence of charity work, BBC News reported Tuesday.

According to the article, fifty-one others were sentenced to suspended prison terms on the condition that they attend courses by state propaganda officials.

Iran does not recognize the Baha’i faith, which is a branch of Islam that began in the mid-nineteenth century. Baha’is are barred from public sector jobs and can only attend public schools and universities if they hide their faith.

For the full article, click here.

Al-Jazeera journalist arrested on dubious charges released

An Egyptian journalist arrested in Cairo Monday on charges of filming a documentary without a proper license was released after 15 hours in custody, Media with Conscience (MWC) reported Tuesday.

Howaida Taha, a journalist for Al-Jazeera, had already appealed one jail sentence prior to her arrest on Monday. Taha was filming in a low- income area of Cairo when police detained her for questioning. Taha’s lawyer, Ahmed Helmi told The Associated Press that: “She is under a constant police watch, they want to ban her from working in Egypt.” He added that Taha had all the needed permissions issued from the Egyptian press center.

Taha has made a documentary about police torture in Egypt and, according to the article, “is known for her criticism of the Egyptian regime.” Human rights groups confirm the tales of Taha’s documentary. As the article notes, they say that “torture, including sexual abuse, is routinely conducted in Egyptian police stations.” The article adds: “the government denies systematic torture but has investigated several officers on allegations of abuse. Some were convicted and sentenced to prison.”

In May, Taha was sentenced to six months in jail for “harming the country’s interests” by “fabricating” the torture scenes in her documentary.

For the AP article, click here.
For the MWC article, click here.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Afghan women demonstrate for release of abducted American aid worker

In response to the kidnapping of American aid worker Cyd Mizell on January 26, over 500 Afghan women gathered in protest Tuesday in Kandahar, The New York Times reported today.

Afghan women’s associations called on officials, elders, and citizens to work for the release of Mizell.

“This is against Islam, this is against Afghan culture, particularly against Kandahari custom, a women’s abduction,” said the director of women’s affairs in Kandahar, Runa Tareen. “Cydney Mizell was here to help Afghan women. She was living here and was proud and confident that Afghans have a nice culture that does not harm women.”

Soraya Barna, a member of Kandahar’s provincial council, had this to add: “We are so sad and we want her to be released as soon as possible. We want officials and others to multiply their struggle to find her soon and hope she will be back safely.”

For the full article, click here.

American woman kidnapped in southern Afghanistan

Cyd Mizell, an American aid worker, was kidnapped on January 26 on her way to work in a residential neighborhood in Southern Afghanistan, The Associated Press reported Monday.

Mizell and her cab driver, Abdul Hadi, were kidnapped in the southern city of Kandahar. Mizell works for the Asian Rural Life Development Foundation and has been with the organization for 3 years. She taught English at Kandahar University and embroidery lessons to a local girl’s school.

A spokesman for the Taliban said he could neither confirm nor deny that Taliban militants were involved. To date, the captor has not contacted officials or the foundation that Mizell works for and has yet to demand anything.
Mizell, who speaks the local Pashtu language, was wearing the native burqa that many Afghan women wear. Kandahar, where Mizell was seized, has become increasingly dangerous as the Taliban has gained a stronger foothold there.
For the full article, click here.

Afghan-Canadian activist awarded Order of Ontario

Adeena Niazi, a native of Afghanistan, received the Order of Ontario on Wednesday, the National Post reported the same day.

Lieutenant Governor David Onley presented Niazi the award for “her tireless efforts” to help Afghan women who emigrate to Canada. In 1990, Niazi established the Afghan Women’s Organization in Toronto to help women adjust and settle in to their new country. The organization provides workshops, counseling, and advocacy programs and helps over 6,000 women each year.

A native of Kabul, Niazi taught at a university there before leaving in 1977 for India. She remembers the Soviet invasion and how quickly she became a refugee. In 1988 she moved to Canada and soon recognized the need for an organization that addressed the needs of Afghan women.

“Afghan women were not involved in decision making, in community work, they were separated from their families,” Niazi said.

Niazi is one of 27 individuals who were awarded the Order of Ontario on Wednesday. Recipients are chosen for their excellence and achievement.

For the full article, click here.

Egyptian lawmakers divided over European Parliament resolution

A large portion of Egypt’s People’s Assembly has been up in arms over the European Parliament’s draft resolution condemning Egypt’s human rights record, according to Al-Ahram Weekly.

Speaker Fathi Sorour and several members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) were infuriated at the accusations posed by the resolution. Sorour said that if the resolution passed, he would cut all ties with the European Parliament.

Last summer in Indonesia, the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) passed an agreement that, the article says, rejected “interference in the internal affairs of members under the guise of advancing democracy and human rights.” Sorour believes the European Parliament resolution contradicts the IPU agreement. Sorour and Safwat El-Sherif, chairman of the consultative Shura Council, have decided to boycott meetings of the Euro- Mediterranean parliament’s Political and Economic Sub-committees in protest of the resolution. Sorour warned that if the resolution becomes final, “it will seriously damage relations with Egypt.”

President of the European Parliament Hans Gert-Poettering urged Sorour and other NDP members to abandon the boycott, in hopes of keeping lines of communication open between the European Parliament and Egypt.

NDP members have linked the resolution to both urgings from Israel, which they see as eager to shift attention from the situation in Gaza, and the fallout from the imprisonment of Ayman Nour, the former leader of the Ghad Party and runner up to Hosni Mubarak in Egypt’s 2005 presidential elections. The resolution calls on Egypt to immediately release Nour from prison.

Some Egyptian lawmakers such as Gamal, Zahran, an independent MP, disagree with Sorour’s reaction. “I would hope that Sorour will accept the resolution not as interference in internal affairs, but as a warning that the state of human rights in Egypt is becoming an international issue,” Zahran said.

For the full article, click

United Nations human rights expert to assess status of women in Saudi Arabia

A human rights expert from the United Nations is to travel to Saudi Arabia to gather first-hand information on the status of women there, Reuters reported Monday.

According to the article, Yakin Erturk, a Turkish sociology professor and the Human Rights Council’s special rapporteur on violence against women, has been invited by Saudi Arabia to visit from February 4-13. During her trip she will meet government officials, rights advocates and women who have been victims of violence.

Eight years ago Saudi Arabia ratified a 1979 international bill of rights for women, but it added the proviso that any contradictions with Islamic law would result in the latter being observed. Currently, women in Saudi Arabia face harassment from police if they appear in public unaccompanied by a male relative, they are barred from driving, and the testimony of two women is equal to that of one man in court.

For the full article, click here.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Iraq improving while Afghanistan falters, State Department official says

According to David Satterfield, the U.S. State Department’s pointman on Iraq, the war in Iraq has turned out to be the “good war” while the war in Afghanistan has turned “bad,” The Times reported on January 24.

Between the two conflict-riven countries, Afghanistan has typically been viewed as the more stable and controlled. However, Afghanistan has taken a marked downturn, with the Taliban’s support growing among Pakistan militants, and, as the article notes, divisions “deepening between key NATO allies.”

“Afghanistan has many deficits not present in Iraq,” Satterfield said. “Iraq is a wealthy country, it has resources, badly used, but it has resources.”

For the full article, click here.

Barriers to change ingrained in Iran’s electoral system

Farideh Fahri, independent researcher and Professor at the University of Hawaii, spoke about the electoral system in Iran and issues related to the upcoming elections at a forum held at the Woodrow Wilson Center on Friday.

In response to the volumes of recent press concerning the huge turnouts of people wishing to stand in the elections, and the correspondingly large numbers being disqualified, Fahri spoke about factors that are not often mentioned.

The reasons for many of the disqualifications are legitimate, she said. A new rule has recently been introduced that those standing in elections must be at least thirty years old, and those with prior criminal convictions are also excluded. Many of those who stand are not qualified for the job, nor do they actually expect to be elected. Fahri pointed out the gains to be made from qualifying to stand in an election, from a rise in social standing to the right to take out loans to finance the campaign.

However, many of those barred face less solid accusations. She said that many candidates are disqualified on the basis of accusations that they are spies for other countries, raising the question of why they haven’t been convicted of such an offense, and why they have remained free up to the point that they tried to stand in an election.

Other barriers to qualification for new candidates and those wishing to challenge those currently in power include a new rule that candidates must have at least a Master’s degree, with current members of the parliament being allowed to claim each term they have been elected as equivalent to one degree.

What the Guardian Council tries to do, she said, is disqualify as many opponents to the regime as possible without disenchanting those who currently support the government. She emphasized the importance of making sure a high percentage of the population votes in elections – at least, a higher percentage of the population than votes in elections in the United States – so that, when challenged, it can be argued that the elections were fair and legitimate.

Fahri also spoke about the difficulties that come with having so many candidates – namely, an extremely high degree of factionalism, resulting in confusion for voters as to who is in which political group. This, she said, may actually mean that reformists and centrists benefit from having many of their candidates disqualified. It will allow them to present a united front while conservatives fight amongst themselves for the coveted spaces at the top of the list of candidates.

According to Fahri, the past few years have seen Iran move so far to the right that candidates who would previously have been seen as extreme – such as Ali Larijani – are now considered moderate. Levels of dissatisfaction with the current government, particularly in the economic arena, are such that we may see some changes in elections over the next few years. However, she emphasized the fact that foreign policy is one area in which the current regime has been extremely popular, and thus any change in government is unlikely to produce dramatic changes in Iran’s relations with other states.