Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, May 09, 2008

Burmese government still blocking aid, relief workers

United Nations food shipments that could have fed 95,000 survivors of Cyclone Nargis have been seized at Rangoon airport by Burma’s military junta, Australia’s Sunday Times reported Friday.

The seizure sparked outrage among U.N. officials. “We’re going to have to shut down our very small airlift operation until we get guarantees from the authorities,” a furious World Food Program regional director Tony Branbury told CNN, adding, “It should be on trucks headed to the victims…That food is now sitting on a tarmac doing no good.”

Burma’s military government has insisted on being the sole distributor of aid to the 1.5 million victims of the storm, saying that it is “not in a position to receive rescue and information teams from foreign countries at the moment.”

With Burma’s embassy in Thailand taking a local holiday Friday, Western aid officials have received word that their visa applications cannot be processed until next Monday or Tuesday at the earliest.

The U.S. said Friday it would seek Burma’s permission to begin helicopter food drops.

Burma has put the number of people dead or missing from the cyclone at 62,000, but other estimates have put the death toll alone at 100,000.

Burmese citizens vote Friday on a referendum for a new, junta-drafted constitution.

For the full article, click here.

Survey to gauge Afghans’ vulnerability to rising food prices

With United Nations support, the Afghan Ministry of Public Health (MoPH) is planning to carry out an urgent nutrition needs assessment in areas particularly affected by the rising food prices, the United Nations IRIN news agency reported Monday.

As food becomes increasingly unaffordable for millions of destitute Afghans, malnourishment and micronutrient deficiency are quickly becoming major health threats for children under five and pregnant and lactating women, public health experts have warned. To counter the rising number of these cases, the Ministry of Public Health and several U.N. agencies will provide health facilities with therapeutic feeding and micronutrient supplies once they are able to assess which portions of the country are most vulnerable.

“The assessment will be launched in the very near future and will be completed in 10 days,” said Mohammad Qasem Shams, food and nutrition expert at the MoPH. “We’re only waiting to receive funds from UNICEF [the U.N. Children’s Fund] and WHO [the U.N. World Health Organization] to execute the rapid assessment.”

For the full article, click here.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Mobile phones contributing to violence against women and honor killings in Iraq

Mobile phones have become a new threat to young women’s safety in Iraq’s northern region of Kurdistan, where members of parliament and women’s rights advocates are pushing for legislation that would protect victims and punish perpetrators of this new type of abuse, the Institute for War & Peace Reporting said Wednesday.

Beginning in 2004, cases began to emerge where women were being recorded – in photos and audio and video clips – with cell phones by their boyfriends during intimate situations. When these clips were released to the public or to relatives, assaults against the women sometimes followed. By 2006, 170 cases were reported. In 2007, nearly 350 women were the victims of mobile phone related violence.

The fact that a large number of cases have been reported in Iraqi Kurdistan is at odds with progressive reputation the region enjoys. But according to rights activists, the rise in mobile phone abuse is simply part of a larger pattern of honor crimes against women in the north.

“Women and girls in Kurdistan live in a dangerous situation because they are attacked on a daily basis in the name of honor,” said Najiba Mahmood, a women’s activist and head of Civilization Development Organization, a local NGO in the region. “No one is defending them.”

The video, audio, and photos of women being distributed via mobile phones “is the worst problem for women and girls,” she added. “If it is not solved, many more crimes will be carried out under the name of protecting honor.”

For the full article, click here.

Afghan Agricultural Ministry calls for $2.5 billion to ensure food security

Officials from the Afghan Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock have claimed that if given $2.5 billion in aid by 2011, the government’s agriculture sector could ensure nationwide food security and eliminate poppy cultivation, the United Nations’ IRIN news agency reported Wednesday.

To that end, the Afghan government is ambitiously seeking $100 million in aid during the next several weeks to boost 2008 crop yields. Afghanistan produced 5.6 million metric tons of cereals (primarily wheat, corn, beans, and rice) in 2007, but officials want to increase that sum by another 1.2 million metric tons in two years.

The country already produces about 90 percent of the national requirements, but much of it gets either smuggled abroad, wasted due to poor quality milling, or hoarded. With up to 70 percent of Afghanistan’s 26 million people considered food-insecure, improving the nation’s agriculture sector remains one of the central government’s greatest challenges.

For the full article, click here.

Report documents systematic repression in Iran

“Iranian authorities have systematically thwarted peaceful and legal civil society efforts to advocate for women’s rights in Iran,” according to a report released by the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran.

The report documents the numerous hardships experienced by activists in Iran, including beatings, harassment, and persecution for exercising their rights to assembly, association and expression. It specifically mentions the mistreatment of those involved in the Change for Equality campaign, which aims to collect one million signatures in support of greater women’s rights.

Women have seen their rights deteriorate significantly since President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad took office, coinciding with a widespread crackdown on dissent.

To read the full report, click here.

Iran blames blast on ‘Western-backed monarchists’

Iranian authorities have blamed a mosque explosion on Western-backed monarchists opposed to the Islamic Republic, Agence France-Presse reported Thursday.

Interior Minister Mostafa Pour Mohammadi said the blast, which killed 13 and wounded more than 200 in the southern city of Shiraz, “was an act of sabotage and a plot by the enemies of the Iranian people in the name of monarchism.”

“Their headquarters are in countries which claim (to support) human rights, defend their nations and be anti-terrorist,” he added.

Recent years have seen several deadly attacks in border provinces with significant ethnic minority populations, but the strike in Shiraz was the first in decades in Iran’s Persian heartland.

For the full article, click here.

Muslim Brotherhood member blocked from seeking Egyptian parliament seat

Mustafa Diab, 39-year-old doctor and Muslim Brotherhood member, has been repeatedly blocked by Egyptian authorities from submitting papers to contest a parliament seat left vacant by the death of his father-in-law, a Brotherhood politician, Reuters reported Wednesday.

Diab twice tried to register as an independent candidate for the May 28 by-election. However, on both attempts he was physically barred from doing so.

“We decided yesterday to go submit the papers, and we had a group of lawyers with us, but they blocked us from turning in the papers,” Diab told reporters. “They said come tomorrow. And then again today they completely blocked it off. They brought double the security of yesterday and closed the place completely.”

For the full article, click here.

Pro-democracy activists to be tried for terrorism in Viet Nam

Three men are to be tried on charges of terrorism six months after being arrested with leaflets promoting peaceful democratic change, Reuters reported Thursday.

The three – one U.S., one Thai, and one Vietnamese citizen – are members of the Viet Tan, an exiled pro-democracy reform party operating from the U.S.

According to the article, “The ruling Communist Party rejects calls for a multi-party system and last year it arrested more than 30 political activists, diplomats and human rights groups said. Some were put on trial for ‘spreading propaganda against the state,’ a criminal offense in Vietnam and handed prison sentences of between three years and eight years.”

For the full article, click here.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Armenian opposition claims political onslaught persists

A spokesman for defeated presidential candidate Levon Ter-Petrossian said Monday that the Armenian government has failed to release the 100 opposition leaders detained after the March 1-2 riots, and in fact continues to arrest and detain more, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported Tuesday.

The Prosecutor-General’s Office insists that none of the arrests were made for political reasons.
For the full article, click here.

UNICEF warns of grave health risks for those trapped in Sadr City

Fighting between Shia militia and U.S.-backed Iraqi government forces has made the Sadr City area of Baghdad largely inaccessible to aid workers and has put over 150,000 residents of the capital at risk of losing access to clean water, food, and medical aid, BBC News reported Tuesday, citing the United Nations children’s agency (UNCIEF).

Iraqi government forces backed by US troops having been trying to disarm Shia militiamen loyal to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr for the past seven weeks. The fighting has severely damaged water and sewage pipes, exposing residents to serious health risks.

Meanwhile, hospitals are reporting shortages of medical supplies while many health clinics are closing because they are in areas too dangerous to use.

UNICEF wants improved access to be able to help those in need and address unconfirmed reports that children are being recruited into Shia militias.

For the full article, click here.

Civilian casualties from Taliban strikes up this year, NATO says

Citing the BBC, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported Tuesday that NATO troops and local organizations believe that Taliban attacks this year to date have resulted in a higher civilian death toll than in the same period of 2007.

Senior NATO officials said that 240 civilians had been killed by Taliban forces between January and mid-April of this year. According to the article, this figure represents a six-fold increase over the same period in 2007.

NATO officials also said that the number of civilian deaths due to NATO operations had fallen dramatically. Local organizations, however, disputed those findings.

For the full article, click here.

Price hikes to cover cost of government pay raises anger Egyptians

The Egyptian parliament voted Monday to increase fuel prices by 35 percent – along with similarly steep hikes in cigarette prices and vehicle license fees – in order to cover the cost of the public sector pay raises President Hosni Mubarak promised last week, Reuters reported Tuesday.

In what an opposition politician called a “conspiracy against the poor,” the price hikes are also making public transportation more expensive, affecting people’s ability to get to work.

While the price hikes were intended to reverse a long-standing energy subsidy that may generate 12 billion pounds, many members of the Egyptian working poor said the increases negate any of the benefits of the government pay raises. Many more have condemned the decision because they do not work for the government and will have to bear the brunt of the fuel increase with no benefits at all.

For the full article, click here.

Maternal mortality rates still dangerously high in Afghanistan

Some 1,600 Afghan women die in childbirth out of every 100,000 live births, giving Afghanistan one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, Reuters reported on April 30.

With few proper roads, even fewer cars, and no clinics for miles around, pregnant women in remote areas of Afghanistan are dying preventable deaths at an alarming rate. With a 1.6 percent national maternal mortality rate already an issue of concern, some rural areas in Afghanistan have rates as high as 6.5 percent.

Underfed and malnourished, these women are severely anemic, and would have complicated births in the best of circumstances. But the tradition of marrying young women apparently further complicates the situation. According to the article, when an expectant mother is as young as 13, immature pelvic bone development can lead to hypertension and obstructed labor, which will kill both mother and child if unattended to by trained medical personnel.

“One woman dies every 27 minutes in Afghanistan due to complications in childbirth…and the tragedy doesn’t stop with the mother’s death” said Karima Mayar, a family planning team leader at the Ministry of Public Health. “When the mother of a newborn dies, 75 percent of theses babies die.”

For the full article, click here.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Influx of foreign aid workers brings wealth to Darfur town

Amid the suffering engulfing much of Sudan, The Los Angeles Times reported on April 30 that one town, El Fasher, is seeing a rapid growth in prosperity.

“In stark contrast to the burned-out villages and squalid displacement camps that characterize much of Darfur,” says the article, “this dust-choked city is booming, thanks largely to an influx of scores of United Nations agencies and private charities, as well as the newly deployed U.N.-African Union peacekeeping mission.”

The presence of foreign workers and companies provides life-changing opportunities for a lucky few. Muna Idriss, a 27-year-old who graduated from college five years ago, said that she would have been lucky to find a job scrubbing floors. Now she’s earning $750 a month as a U.N. security guard – enough to support her entire family, including siblings still in school and other family members living in displacement camps.

Yet ironically, the development of El Fasher is largely due to the fact that the region is suffering one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises.

Fadul, a rural planning engineer, says that the influx of foreign workers is creating a strain on water supplies, and worries about the long term effects. “I just wonder what will happen in 10 years,” he said. “Once the crisis in Darfur ends, this boom will end. So what’s the legacy of all this?”

For the full article, click here.

Prominent Iranian activist receives suspended sentence

Parvin Ardalan, who was recently barred from leaving Iran to collect a Swedish human rights award for her work promoting women’s rights, has received a two-year suspended jail sentence, Reuters reported Monday. The sentence was announced last week by a branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Court for her role in a gathering by activists in 2007.

It is thought that the detention of female activists in Iran is part of a large-scale crackdown on dissent.

Ardalan has been actively involved in the Change for Equality campaign, which aims to collect one million signatures in support of greater women’s rights. More than 50 activists associated with the campaign have been arrested or threatened over the past 18 months.

For the full article, click here.

China convicts 30 for Lhasa rioting

A Chinese court on Tuesday sentenced 30 individuals for participation in rioting in Lhasa’s March 14 riots. Sentences ranged from three years to life in prison, The Washington Post reported Wednesday.

The rioting in Lhasa resulted in 22 deaths, according to government reports. Hospitals, schools, and homes were also set on fire and stores were looted.

Foreign journalists are banned from entering Tibet, and so there is confusion as to whether the accused were fairly represented at the “open trial” in Lhasa. One Beijing lawyer, Cheng Hai, expressed his concern on this matter. “It’s impossible to say whether these are fair trials or not,” Cheng said. “I don’t know if they received enough legal assistance.”

Cheng, along with 17 other lawyers, signed an open letter on April 2, stating that he was willing to defend the accused individuals.

Another lawyer who also signed the letter, Teng Biao, was told by the Justice and Public Security bureaus in Beijing that: “The Tibet issue is very sensitive. Don’t get involved.”

Human Rights Watch released a report Tuesday maintaining that Chinese lawyers who participate in sensitive cases are sometimes harassed, assaulted, or have their licenses seized.

For the full article, click here.

Kurdish Jews holding on to culture

The Jerusalem Post recently reconnected with Rabbi Haim Yeshurun, 89. Yeshurun had fled from Kurdistan with his wife and children in 1950. As he was boarding an outgoing plane to Israel, a Jewish Agency representative made him give up a cherished signed family tree that dates back 12 generations.

The article notes that 1812 marks the modern-day arrival of Kurdish Jews in Jerusalem.

Yeshurun, one of five children, was born in Turkey, and was constantly moving with his parents and siblings in Kurdistan because Jews were prohibited from owning land. The family eventually came upon a small village of 23 other Jewish families.

Due to difficult topography and oppressive leaders, the Jews of Kurdistan were long separated from other Jews around the world.

Yeshurun committed the entire Bible to memory at an early age, and has mastered biblical Hebrew grammar, along with other languages. He is also a skilled ritual scribe and parchment maker. Yeshurun is a “testament to the tenacity with which the Kurdish Jewish community preserved our laws,” the article says.

For the full article, click here.

Government-owned Abu Dhabi paper promises independent reporting

The New York Times reported Tuesday on the publication of the first issue of The National, an Abu Dhabi-based newspaper billed as a government-owned, but independent, English-language daily with Western standards.

Hassan M. Fattah, the deputy editor of The National, said that the newspaper is not government-run and will set a new standard for other publications in the region to aspire to.

According to Lionel Barber, editor of The Financial Times, there is “a strong and growing demand for high-quality global independent news and analysis across the gulf region.”

The staff of The National includes individuals from newspapers such as The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and the Telegraph of Britain. The paper has published articles criticizing some aspects of the region, along with controversial opinion pieces. The articles are apparently not censored, which is noteworthy considering that the press is often severely restricted in the Middle East.

For the full article, click here.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Iraqi first lady survives bomb attack

First Lady Hero Ibrahim Ahmed, wife of Iraq President Jalal Talabani, escaped unscathed from a roadside bombing near her motorcade in Baghdad on Sunday, BBC News reported the same day.

The convoy carrying Ibrahim was traveling to a cultural festival at Baghdad’s National Theater when one of its vehicles hit an improvised explosive device. Four of her bodyguards were injured in the attack.

The first lady is the daughter of Ibrahim Ahmed, one of the founders of the Kurdish Democratic Party, and married Talabani in 1970. The First Lady also owns a media group and is a committed children’s rights activist.

For the full article, click here.

Enterprising Iraqi mother among Time’s 100 most influential people

Four years ago Madeeha Hasan Odhaib was a struggling mother of two and a seamstress with three sewing machines. Today, she is a district council member and a proud business owner who employs 100 women, writes Queen Rania of Jordan for Time Magazine as she celebrates Odhaib’s accomplishments in the publication’s fifth annual listing of the world’s 100 most influential people.

Odhaib was eventually able to leverage her original sewing machines into 60 machines and has built a full-fledged company that handles orders from flags to hospital sheets. Now empowering 100 women and providing them with much-needed income, Odhaib has accomplished an extraordinary feat in a country plagued by unrelenting violence and a 60 percent unemployment rate.

Odhaib has used her success and local prominence to give back to her community. She coordinates food distribution efforts with the Red Crescent, Red Cross, and other organizations working in Iraq.

For the full article, click here.

Protests on Mubarak’s birthday amount to little in Egypt

There was little turnout or passion for the nationwide strike planned to coincide with Egyptian President Mubarak’s 80th birthday on Sunday, the Los Angeles Times reported the same day.

The strike had called for Egyptians to protest the government’s inability to address the food crisis, rising inflation, political oppression, and growing economic disparity. People could show their support for the event by not going to work or wearing black clothing. However, according to the article, “Few took to the streets, few boycotted work, and few wore black.”

Despite almost a month of organization and planning, the loose coalition of intellectual leftists, cyber-dissidents, and members of the weakened Muslim Brotherhood was presented with another disappointing outcome, beaten by Mubarak’s carrot-and-stick tactics of offering pay raises while deploying massive police forces.

For the full article, click here.

Commission on International Religious Freedom names countries of particular concern

The United States Commission on International Religious freedom released its 2008 annual report on May 2, presenting policy recommendations for the President, Secretary of State and Congress with regard to “countries of particular concern” (CPCs).

The Commission’s recommendations for CPC designation in 2008 are Burma, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan, People’s Republic of China, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Vietnam.

While most of these recommendations are in line with current policy, the inclusion of Vietnam contradicts the State Department’s removal of its official CPC status in 2006. While recognizing that there have been some significant improvements, the Commission asserts that “the ongoing and serious problems faced by many of Vietnam’s religious communities, the uneven pace of reforms meant to improve the situation, the continued detention of religious prisoners of concern, and what can only be seen as a deteriorating human rights situation overall” merit the naming of Vietnam as a country of particular concern in 2008.

The report also recommends a Watch List of countries where conditions do not merit CPC status but still require close monitoring. Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Belarus, Cuba, Egypt, Indonesia, and Nigeria are all on the list. Iraq is also mentioned as causing serious concern.

To read the full report, click here.

Banned Vietnamese Buddhist group accused of ‘disturbing public order’

Monks belonging to a banned Buddhist group in Viet Nam have been evicted from a pagoda by authorities, Agence France-Presse reported Sunday. The pagoda is to be used for a United Nations-sponsored international Buddhist meeting.

According to the article, the Unified Buddhist Church of Viet Nam (UBCV) is outlawed but still runs scores of pagodas. The group claims that state officials broke the locks of the Giac Hai pagoda, claimed it for use during the event, and temporarily detained its monks.

“Police interrogated the two monks for over three hours, accusing them of belonging to an ‘illegal organization,’ engaging in ‘political activities’ and ‘disturbing public order’,” said a UBCV statement issued in Paris on May 3.

For the full article, click here.

A secular dentist speaks out for change in Egypt

Dr. Alaa Al Aswany runs a private dentistry practice and has no political career, but he happens to be one of the best-selling authors in Egyptian history and is voicing a call for change that is being noticed across Egypt, wrote Pankaj Mishra in The New York Times Magazine on April 27.

For more than ten years, the gregarious, well educated Al Aswany has hosted his own salon, where those of like mind gather to discuss Egyptian politics and society with one of the country’s experts on the subjects. Since 1993, Al Aswany has written a monthly column for Al Arabi, and he has been a member of various human rights organizations for years. Additionally, Al Aswany wrote The Yacoubian Building, a best selling novel about Egypt’s unequal distribution of wealth and the corruption of power.

Now, in a nation where, as Al Aswany puts it, there is “the freedom to talk, but no freedom of speech,” a stubborn, secular dentist is starting to shake up a nation’s conscience, and beginning a debate that may shape Egypt’s future.

For the full article, click here.