Leadership Council for Human Rights

~ Feet in the mud, head in the sky ~

Friday, May 30, 2008

Iraqi PM pleads for debt forgiveness to no avail at U.N. conference

Thursday’s United Nations conference on Iraq included a plea from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki for Arab nations to forgive Iraq’s mountain of foreign dept, saying it is hindering the country’s recovery, The New York Times reported Friday.

Iraq has at least $67 billion in foreign debt, most of it from loans by Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, and Qatar during Saddam Hussein’s rule. Iraq also owes a separate $28 billion to Kuwait for damages incurred in the 1990 invasion.

While Iraq is expected to make tens of billions of dollars in oil revenue this year, Maliki maintained that his government should not be obliged to repay the loans incurred under Saddam’s dictatorship, as the denial of Iraqi citizens’ basic rights prevented them from having any say over government policy.

While the request for debt forgiveness was included in the meeting’s declaration, no promises to do so were provided by Arab nations.

For the full article, click here.

Iraqi PM appeals to refugees to return home

At a press conference on Friday with Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told reporters that he hopes Iraqi refugees living abroad, “especially the experts,” would begin returning home to Iraq, Agence France-Presse reported the same day.

A day after a large international conference on Iraq in Stockholm which he co-hosted, Maliki acknowledged the “positive attitude” of Sweden, which has taken in the most Iraqi refugees in Europe, while he did his best to entice the large population of Iraqis living abroad to come home.

“We have statistics that say tens of thousands of refugees wish to return. We welcome them, we will give them privileges,” said Maliki. He asserted that the Iraqi government has a “clear strategy” and has earmarked funds “so as to take the necessary preparations for a voluntary return” of refugees.

For the full article, click here.

OSCE mixed on Armenian election’s adherence to international standards

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe’s (OSCE) Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) issued a press release Friday to announce the publishing of its final assessment on the contentious Armenian presidential election in February.

The ODIHR compiled the report from the findings of the 294 observers who monitored the contest.

Ultimately, the assessment found the election to meet most OSCE and international standards in the pre-election period and during the casting of votes. However, it noted that serious problems arose when the votes were being counted, citing “insufficient regard for standards essential to democratic elections” and saying that the problems “devalued the overall election process.”

“There is a sound legal basis for holding democratic elections in Armenia – the deficiencies noted in our report resulted primarily from a lack of determination to apply existing laws and rules effectively and impartially,” said Ambassador Christian Strohal, Director of the ODIHR.

The reports recommendations to improve Armenia’s electoral process included steps to: address the lack of public confidence in the electoral process, ensure that all votes are cast free of coercion or intimidation, and enforce the clear separation of State structures from the governing political party.

For the full press release, click here.

Human rights report critical of U.S.

Amnesty International’s newly-released annual report on the state of human rights in the world asserted that, six decades after the United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, scores of countries, including the U.S., still torture or mistreat their citizens, The New York Times reported Thursday.

The report cited several “flashpoints” of severe human rights violations that “demand immediate action,” in Darfur, Zimbabwe, Gaza, Iraq, and Myanmar. The report also urged the United States to close down the notorious Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba.

The U.S. State Department had no comment on the Amnesty International report, but the government has staunchly defended its interrogation tactics, military tribunals, and policies of extraordinary rendition in Guantanamo in the past.

The annual report said that people “are still tortured or ill-treated in at least 81 countries, face unfair trials in at least 54 countries and are not allowed to speak freely in at least 77 countries.”

For the full article, click here.
For Amnesty International Report 2008: State of the World’s Human Rights, click here.

U.S. envoy to Viet Nam discusses issue of jailed journalists

A U.S. human rights envoy to Viet Nam said Friday he had spoken to Vietnamese officials about the arrests of two journalists investigating a corruption scandal, urging the nation’s communist leaders to respect freedom of the press, Agence France-Presse reported the same day.

Nguyen Van Hai of the Tuoi Tre newspaper and Nguyen Viet Chien of the Thanh Nien daily were arrested for “abuse of power” earlier this month. Their arrests incited an outcry from other media outlets in a rare display of solidarity and defiance from Viet Nam’s tightly censored media.

David Kramer, U.S. assistant secretary of state from human rights, democracy and labor, told a Hanoi media briefing that he brought up the arrests when speaking with Vietnamese officials at the annual bilateral human rights dialogue session on Thursday.

“We did raise the case of the two journalists,” Kramer said. “And we urge that proper consideration be given in this matter and also stress the importance of freedom of the press in this connection.”

He added: “We stress that journalists need to be able to report and write or broadcast without concern for their safety and without concern for being arrested every time they may report on a sensitive matter.”

For the full article, click here.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Bush and Mubarak spar over human rights and democracy

At the World Economic Forum in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, President Bush and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak both made public critiques of the other’s policies on democracy and human rights, BBC News reported on May 20.

In his address, Bush remarked that “too often in the Middle East, politics has consisted of one leader in power, and the opposition in jail.”

Mubarak has served as president for almost thirty years, and a sizable number of Egypt’s political dissidents are in prison.

Mubarak made similarly critical comments, declaring that the imposition of democracy from abroad only leads to chaos and instability – an obvious reference to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Adding to the air of animosity between the two, neither president was in the audience when the other gave his address.

For the full article, click here

111 nations agree to ban cluster-bombs while U.S. abstains from treaty

One-hundred eleven countries agreed Wednesday to ban the use of cluster-bombs and begin destroying their respective arsenals of the dangerous weapon. However, the accomplishment was overshadowed by the absence of several world powers from the agreement, including China, Russia, and the United States, The Washington Post reported Thursday.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose personal support helped seal the final agreement, said the ban was a “big step forward to make the world a safer place.”

U.S. military spokesmen said the nation would not be removing the weapon from its arsenal, citing technological advancements that would mitigate its threat to civilian populations, and the need to protect American soldiers.

In addition to the U.S., China, Russia, Israel, India, and Pakistan also abstained from participating in the Dublin conference.

Despite the absences, advocates of the ban, supported by wealthy and poor nations around the world, said they hope it will have the same effect as the landmine ban of 1997, which reduced usage even among non-signatory nations.

Cluster-bombs have ignited such controversy because of the threat they pose to civilian populations after their intended use. While dropped from a plane or fired from the ground, the bombs disperse smaller “bomblets” that spread over a large area, often failing to explode on impact as they are designed to. Farmers, women and children are often maimed or killed when they touch the unexploded munitions, sometimes years after the conflict has ended.

For the full article, click here.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Authorities suppress and arrest Christian converts in Iran

Police in southern Iran are arresting Muslim converts to Christianity as they crack down on house churches across the region, AsiaNews reported on May 22, citing the Compass Direct news agency.

The series of arrests began on May 11 when two couples were arrested at the Shiraz International airport. Since then, six more converts have been detained, including a family of four who had their house raided and belongings confiscated. Four of the ten individuals detained in all still remain behind bars.

Iran considers apostasy a capital crime for anyone who leaves Islam. According to the article, Iran’s Islamic regime has viewed the spread of Christianity and other “foreign religions” as a threat to national security. It notes that “many Muslim converts to Christianity have been executed on ‘espionage’ charges” in the last few years.

For the full article, click here.

Iraqi father seeks Blackwater admission of guilt for death of his son

Mohammed Hafidh Abdul-Razzaq has called for an official apology and admission of guilt from the U.S. security firm Blackwater for the death of his young son, Ali, BBC News reported Wednesday.

Nine-year-old Ali was killed while traveling with his father, aunt, and cousins in his Abdul-Razzaq’s car. It was then that Blackwater employees opened fire on the tiny vehicle and surrounding cars in Nisoor Square, a bullet striking Ali in the head.

“They just kept shooting, although no-one was moving, they were just combing the whole road, tat tat tat, like that, there was nothing in the road,” said a distraught Abdul-Razzaq, still in disbelief that his car filled with family members could be considered a threat to the heavily armed guards.

On two separate occasions Abdul-Razzaq has been offered compensation by Blackwater and U.S. government officials in Baghdad. On both occasions he has turned them down. Instead, Abdual-Razzaq wants a complete admission of guilt and an official apology for the incident. For that, he is willing to sign away any legal claims he would have against the U.S. firm. Blackwater representative have told him, however, that they cannot offer him such an agreement “for legal reasons.”

On Tuesday, Abdual-Razzaq was one of three Iraqis testifying before a closed-door session of a federal grand jury in Washington investigating the September 16, 2007 shooting in which Ali and 16 other innocent civilians were killed.

For the full article, click here.

U.S. disappointed by Egypt’s extension of emergency law

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Tuesday that the U.S. government was troubled by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s decision to extend the country’s emergency law for another two years, Reuters reported the same day.

Citing a promise Mubarak made in his 2005 re-election campaign, McCormack told reporters: “It’s disappointing that they did decide to extend the state of emergency.”

He advised the Egyptian parliament to pass a new counter-terrorism law that would replace the 27-year-old state of emergency.

“We would urge them… to pass a law that, while protecting the Egyptian people, which is an important function of any government, it also allows the ability of people to freely express themselves in public and in private, even if those views are contrary or inconsistent with the policies of the government,” he said.

For the full article, click here.

Whereabouts of seven arrested Baha’i leaders now unknown

The six Baha’i leaders arrested two weeks ago, along with a seventh arrested in March, were believed to be in Evin Prison in Tehran, however, after repeated failed attempts by their family members to receive confirmation of this, it appears the seven Baha’i leaders are being held incommunicado in a unknown location, Baha’i World News Service reported Tuesday.

“Although initial reports indicated they were taken to Evin prison, in fact we don’t know where they are, and we are extremely concerned,” said Bani Dugal, the principal representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations. “What is clear is that none of their fundamental rights are being upheld. They have no access to family members or counsel. We don’t even know if they have been before a judge or whether they have been formally charged. All we know is what a government spokesperson said last week, which is that they were arrested for ‘security reasons’ a charge that is utterly baseless."

The Leadership Council for Human Rights, along with other concerned colleagues in the international human rights community, recently submitted an appeal letter to the leaders of the Iranian government calling for the expeditious release of the seven individuals.

For the full article, click here.

Afghanistan’s bread shortage nears crisis proportions

Already saddled with extensive rural poverty and unremitting armed conflict, Afghanistan is experiencing increased suffering from a sharp inflation of bread prices stemming from domestic drought and the global food crisis, The Washington Post reported Sunday.

Generations of Afghans have depended on cheap, readily-available bread as the staple of their diet. Such a supply was maintained through ample wheat harvests in Afghanistan and accessible wheat sold in Pakistan. However, since February, a combination of local drought and regional wheat and grain shortages has limited the amount produced in Afghanistan or accessible in Pakistan and other neighboring countries. The soaring bread prices that have resulted are a major blow to the already fragile nation.

The wheat shortage has only been kept from reaching crisis proportions through massive international charitable efforts and smuggling of flour through the closed Pakistani border.

Crisis or not, the rising prices have deepened public frustration with the Afghan government, which many see as weak and unprepared.

“Now our government is a beggar, just like we are,” said Wahidullah, 34, a carpenter trying to buy bread for his family in Kabul. “It is their duty to provide bread for the people and to be prepared for difficult situations. Even though it is a shame for us, we thank God they started buying flour from the Russians, or people would be eating each other.”

For the full article, click here.

Cultural practices leading to opium addiction crisis in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, the growing practice of giving opium to children as sedatives or in place of medicine is creating a large population of drug addicts that the Afghan government cannot adequately care for, Rosie DiManno writes in Tuesday’s Toronto Star.

Instructed by their families, tribal leaders, and locals purporting to have knowledge of medicine, mothers in Afghanistan will administer in place of medicine, and often as a sedative to quiet unruly children. While it has been a cultural practice for generations, the increasing use of the drug is now creating hundreds of thousands of addicts.

With the nation’s healthcare system crippled by decades of warfare, mothers are increasingly forced to use opium in place of medicine when access to medical care becomes too difficult. The lagging economy and job market, also plagued by years of war, has left many young men and women idle and depressed and consequently very vulnerable to drug addiction and dependency.

Once a nation that merely produced and exported narcotics, Afghanistan is now becoming internally consumed by drugs. A study by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission documented 920,000 addicts, out of which 120,000 are women. The province of Balkh, which according to the article did not cultivate any poppies in 2007, alone accounted for 110,000 addicts.

Dr. Mobien Sultani runs the Counter-Narcotics Recovery program in Balkh, which offers drug education and is one of only two such detox centers in the country. The program has served 376 men, women, and children (some as young as 6 months old) since its inception in 2006 and is part of a larger network of drug education clinics in the province. But with only 20 beds and five social workers, his team can accomplish only so much in the face of a national problem.

“It’s not much but we do the best we can,” says Sultani. “The most important thing, though, is education, getting into the communities and making people understand about the dangers of opium, about harm reduction. We go into the schools, talk to the elders, at the shuras and in the mosques.” He adds: “It is a very big job, a major challenge. But on our side, we also have Islam, which forbids the use of narcotics. Our faith is our strongest weapon.”

For the full article, click here.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Egyptian government extends state of emergency law for two more years

The Egyptian parliament on Monday extended its controversial 27-year-old state of emergency by two years, in a move condemned by rights groups and the political opposition, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported the same day.

The law was passed after a brief debate following a decision by President Hosni Mubarak to extend the state of emergency, originally imposed in 1981 after the assassination of then President Anwar Sadat – Mubarak’s predecessor.

The decision has been met with such vocal and impassioned criticism in part because in 2005, during his re-election campaign, Mubarak promised the state of emergency would soon end. Additionally, Judicial and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Mufid Shehab said last year the state of emergency would end in 2008.

Since its inception, Egypt’s authorities have used the state of emergency to clamp down on political opponents such as the banned Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood.

“We reject the extension of the state of emergency because there is no constitutional justification,” Brotherhood political bureau member Essam al-Aryan told AFP. “We have been living under a state of emergency ever since Mubarak came to power. It’s been a part of our daily life since the assassination of Sadat despite the fact it’s an emergency law.”

He said the Brotherhood would begin a public awareness campaign about the law.

Secular organizations have also denounced the extension. “The sate of emergency has for decades been one of the main causes of human rights violations in Egypt,” Hafez Abu Sada of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights told reporters. “The state of emergency is by definition put in place when the country is going through a period of danger such as war or a natural disaster, which is not the case now.”

The government-supported National Council of Human Rights also declared there was no basis for renewing the controversial law. “Nothing any longer justifies the extension of the state of emergency, all the more so as Egypt is experiencing a period of stability,” said the organization, which is headed by former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali.

For the full article, click here.

Burma extends Noble laureate’s detention

Burma’s military junta has extended opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest by one year, The Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Government officials extended the sentence despite worldwide appeals for the release of the Nobel laureate and democracy advocate who has been detained for 12 of the last 18 years.

The extension of the arrest, which has gone on uninterrupted since May 2003, also flies in the face of Burmese law, which stipulates that no one can be held longer than five years without being released or put on trail.

“Their failure to abide by their own law by refusing to release [Suu Kyi] . . . is a clear slap in the face to [U.N. Secretary-General] Ban Ki-moon and the ASEAN diplomats,” said U.S. lawyer Jared Genser, hired by the Suu Kyi family. “They are out of time to hold her under their own law.”

Burma has been controlled by military juntas since 1962. As the article notes, “The current junta seized power in 1988 and refused to honor the results of 1990 general elections that were won by Suu Kyi’s party.”

For the full article, click here.

Egypt uses new law to crack down on independent satellite TV company

The Egyptian government is using a recent law adopted by the majority of Arab League states to prosecute the owner of a satellite TV company for his role in broadcasting violent anti-government protests, the Los Angeles Times reported Sunday.

Charges of broadcasting without permission have been brought against Nader Gohar, owner of Cairo News Co. According to the article, Cairo News, “provides links and equipment to Al Jazeera, BBC, and other international networks.” Authorities raided Gohar’s office in April after Al Jazeera broadcast images of Egyptian riot police battling with striking textile workers in Mahalla.

Gohar will likely be tired later this month. The article adds: “His company has been shut down and he faces fines and up to one year in prison if convicted.”

Egypt and Saudi Arabia sponsored the Arab League law in question, which pressures channels from producing broadcasts that “negatively affect social peace, national unity, public order and public morals,” or “defame leaders, or national and religious symbols [of other Arab states].”

With the implementation of this new law, human rights and press freedom advocates worry Arab governments will have a free hand to silence public opposition. Human Rights Watch has called the charges against Gohar part of a drive by President Mubarak's government to “stifle freedom of the press.”

For the full article, click here.