Sunday, March 6, 2011

Civil society in Pakistan put at risk by law

Second killing means Zardari must act now
The Calgary Herald
The year's second murder of a Pakistani politician over opposition to the country's notorious blasphemy law requires a forceful response from Pakistan's government if civil society is to be protected from extremists.
Shahbaz Bhatti, Pakistan's Minority Affairs Minister and a member of the country's beleaguered Christian minority was killed Wednesday, allegedly by the Punjabi branch of the Taliban who left a note at the scene threatening further acts against "the world's infidels." Bhatti's murder comes almost exactly two months to the day after Salman Taseer, the Muslim governor of the Pakistani province of Punjab, was shot dead by one of his bodyguards over his opposition to the same law.
These killings represent a grave threat to Pakistan's fragile freedoms, one which the government is illequipped to meet.
Successive Pakistani governments have cosied up to Islamic fundamentalists as a convenient way to muster support, and strengthening the blasphemy law has been part of these deals with the devil. The price for this short-sighted decision is proving steep.Under the tenets of the blasphemy law, slandering Islam or the Prophet Muhammad is formally considered a crime, with penalties ranging from fines to death, although no one charged has ever been executed by the state and the president retains the right of pardon. This remains cold comfort for the accused, many of whom have died at the hands of vigilantes.
The law's vague phrasing also leaves room for abuse by individuals looking to settle scores or take advantage of the vulnerable.
The prominent case of Asia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman facing death for blasphemy, allegedly stems from a property dispute.
President Asif Ali Zardari's government has vacillated between promises to review the law and refusals to do any such thing out of fear of antagonizing fanatics.
Widely seen as corrupt and generally viewed as incompetent, Zardari's attempts to hug the middle ground have merely left him to preside ineffectually over a battle between polarized factions with radically different views as to how Pakistan should be run.Zardari should line up against the terrorists if he is to amount to anything more than another self-serving politician unable to restore calm to the suffering nation.
Pakistan is perpetually frozen with one foot over the abyss and if it is not plunged in, potentially dragging some of its neighbours with it, its extremist enemies will have to be confronted with more than just intermittent military action.
A strong civil society overseen by a tolerant, responsive government is the best antidote to the Taliban's poison. Annulling the blasphemy law is an overdue first step.

Yemen ruler digs deeper; Oman drops 3 officials

Yemen's besieged president defiantly rejected a proposal Saturday to leave office early and possibly end weeks of protests and bloodshed, while Oman's ruler pushed out three more top-level officials in attempts to quell widening demands for economic reforms and justice for the killing of a demonstrator.In Libya, Moammar Gadhafi's forces drove out rebels near the capital, Tripoli, but opposition militias took control of a key oil port amid signs that the country could be staggering toward civil war with neither side able to mount a decisive offensive.
In other parts of the region, there were bursts of anger and warnings in anticipation of unrest.
Hundreds of Egyptians gathered outside Cairo offices of the nation's internal security services — the main enforcers of Hosni Mubarak's former regime — a day after protesters beat officials inside the agency's building in the Mediterranean port of Alexandria. In Saudi Arabia, authorities banned all forms of demonstration as calls grow for protest marches Friday in the Western-allied kingdom.
"The president should leave!" cried Redwan Massoud, a leader of the protesters at Sanaa University in Yemen as tens of thousands of demonstrators streamed through cities across the country in a show of resolve against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power 32 years.
But Saleh — a key U.S. ally in the campaign against al-Qaida — dug in deeper. He rebuffed an offer by an opposition coalition to end the country's political crisis by stepping down by the end of the year. He instead stuck to his pledge to stay in office until elections in 2013 but not seek re-election.
He then suspended classes at the universities in the capital Sanaa and the southern port of Aden, which have been the centers for daily demonstrations inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Dozens have already died in clashes, including four people killed during a Friday protest in the northern town of Harf Sofyan.
There are growing cracks in Saleh's regime in the Arab world's most impoverished nation. Several members of his ruling Congress Party resigned Saturday. But his swift rejection of the early exit proposal suggested he still believes he can ride out the revolt.In neighboring Oman, meanwhile, Sultan Qaboos bin Said, who has led the nation for four decades, is tossing out more concessions to try to bring an end to a rare show of dissent. Protesters — including oil workers in the south — are pressing for more jobs and economic and political reforms. But unlike the other countries they have pledged their loyalty to the hereditary monarch.
The sultan replaced three top government positions Saturday — just a week after dismissing six other Cabinet officials.Oman's unrest remains small compared with Gulf neighbor Bahrain, but it is closely watched because of the country's strategic role as co-guardian of the Strait of Hormuz. Oman and Iran share authority over the crucial waterway at the mouth of the Gulf, which is the route for 40 percent of the world's oil tanker traffic.Saturday's shake-up included the head of the Palace Office, which oversees security affairs, in an apparent attempt to ease calls to hold officials accountable for the killing of a protester last week. Also replaced was a minister who holds the most senior adviser post and another who deals with internal matters within the ruling structure.The measures failed to halt sit-ins in the capital, Muscat, and the northern industrial city of Sohar, where the unrest began, but they were welcomed by many protesters."It was as if a black cloud has lifted. Long live the sultan, long live Oman," said Saeed Hamad, a protester outside the Sultanate's Shura council.In Libya, Gadhaf's forces and rebel units continued their give-and-take battles.Gadhafi loyalists moved back into the outskirts of Zawiya, just 30 miles (50 kilometers) west of Tripoli, with a surprise dawn attack under cover of mortar shells and later with an afternoon offensive. In the east, the pre-Gadhafi flag used by rebels flew over the key oil port of Ras Lanouf after the first major battlefield victory by forces trying to end Gadhafi's four-decade rule."We will fight them on the streets and will never give up so long as Gadhafi is still in power," said one of the rebels in Zawiya, who declined to be identified.International pressure has been building for Gadhafi to step down. There have been no moves for military intervention, but Washington has not ruled out imposing a "no-fly" zone to protect rebel forces.U.S. forces also were boosting their presence off the Libyan coast. Two Navy ships, the amphibious assault vessel USS Kearsarge and the amphibious transport dock USS Ponce, left an American base on the Greek island of Crete. Earlier this week, 400 Marines from the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Unit based at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina arrived in Crete.
The coming week includes calls for protest rallies in Kuwait on Tuesday and Saudi Arabia on Friday as the Arab groundswell for reform presses into new territory.
Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry issued a statement outlawing all forms of demonstrations as contrary to Islamic laws and Saudi values. It warned that security forces were authorized to take action against violators.The statement came a day after about 100 Saudi Shiites demonstrated after Friday prayers in the eastern region demanding the release of detainees and a Shiite cleric, Tawfiq al-Amer, arrested last week for calling for a constitutional monarchy.
Just over the causeway in Bahrain, thousands of Shiite protesters formed a huge human chain around the capital Manama as protests against the Sunni monarchy moved into its third week in the strategic country — the host of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet. Organizers say some members of the Sunni minority joined Saturday's event.
Unlike the other pro-democracy movements, Algeria's demonstrations have yet to get off the ground.On Saturday, police put down three separate march bids in the capital which also drew demonstrators who turned out in favor of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika.A group that had been organizing the protests has split in two, with a political wing, which tried to march Saturday, and a grouping of human rights leaders and unions which has chosen to work more closely with the population.
Many Algerians say they are tired of conflict after being subjected to years of violence because of an Islamist insurgency.


Saudi Regime bans protests, gatherings

Saudi regime has banned all kinds of rallies and gatherings, as anti-government protests demanding democratic change and the release of political prisoners gain momentum in the monarchy.
Saudi Arabia's Interior Ministry described protests as “illegal” in a Saturday statement and declared that security forces were "authorized by law to take all measures needed against those who try to break the law."
"Regulations in the kingdom forbid categorically all sorts of demonstrations, marches and sit-ins... as they contradict Islamic Sharia law and the values and traditions of Saudi society," SPA state news agency quoted the ministry as saying.
The decision came after anti-government demonstrations were held after the Friday prayers in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, and other cities.
Hundreds of Saudi protesters took to the streets in Riyadh, for the first time, to join anti-government protests in other cities in the country, calling for the release of political prisoners.
Protesters gathered in front of Al-Rajhi Mosque in the eastern part of the capital, chanting anti-government and anti-corruption slogans.
Witnesses say Saudi security forces detained at least three people, who had chanted slogans against the Saudi monarchy, in Riyadh.
At the same time, groups of protesters continued their rallies in the towns of al-Hufuf, al-Ahsa, and al-Qatif in the Eastern Province, with demonstrators demanding the release of political prisoners, including a senior Shia cleric.
In al-Hufuf, the peaceful protest rally, which condemned the Saudi government's detention of Sheikh Tawfiq al-Amer, was held following the Friday prayers.
A similar protest, which was held in al-Qatif, was dispersed by Saudi security forces, witnesses said.
The Shia cleric was arrested on February 25 after delivering a sermon, in which he said that Saudi Arabia should become a constitutional monarchy.
In a move to intensify its crackdown on mass protests planned next week, the Saudi government also has decided to deploy thousands of anti-riot police to northeastern Saudi Arabia.
This comes against the backdrop of growing calls on Internet for a massive anti-government protest expected later in March.
A group of Saudi youths has called for a “Saudi Revolution” on March 20, using Facebook, to demand democratic and political reform in the monarchy.
The Facebook group, which has over 17,000 members, also called for a “Day f Rage” to be held on March 11. Tens of thousands of Saudis have already joined the drive.
Protests and public displays of dissent are forbidden in Saudi Arabia. The government has become increasingly nervous about the protests that have taken the Arab world by storm, toppling the Egyptian and Tunisian presidents, and recently reaching Oman, Bahrain, Yemen and Libya.

Heavy machinegun fire rocks Libyan capital Tripoli

Heavy automatic weapons fire erupted in the Libyan capital Tripoli on Sunday, the first such outbreak in Muammar Gaddafi’s main stronghold in a two-week-old insurrection against his 41-year-old rule.

It was unclear who was doing the shooting, which started at 5:45 a.m. (0345 GMT), just before daybreak, or what had caused it. Machine gun volleys, some of them heavy caliber, were reverberating around central Tripoli, along with ambulance sirens, pro-Gaddafi chants, whistling and a cacophony of car horns as vehicles sped through the vicinity.

A government spokesman denied any fighting was under way in Tripoli. “I assure you, I assure you, I assure you, I assure you, there is no fighting going on in Tripoli,” said Mussa Ibrahim, a government spokesman.

“Everything is safe. Tripoli is 100 percent under control. What you are hearing is celebratory fireworks. People are in the streets, dancing in the square.” He warned, however: “I would like to advise not to go there for your safety.

The armed revolt was inspired by generally peaceful uprisings that toppled despots in neighboring Egypt and Tunisia and have spread to other Arab countries with long entrenched leaders and a deficit of democracy, good governance and jobs.

Libyan rebels were also advancing from the east on Gaddafi’s hometown Sirte, around 500 km (300 miles) from Tripoli, and clinging to positions in a western town near the capital after withstanding two armored assaults by government forces.

A tense calm settled over the western town of Zawiyah after nightfall on Saturday, with rifle-toting insurgents on rooftops and manning checkpoints on streets leading into the center.

But the rebels said they were bracing for another tank and artillery attack by government on Sunday.

A doctor in Zawiyah, some 50 km (30 miles) west of Tripoli, said at least 30 people, mostly civilians, were killed during fighting on Saturday that wrecked the town center, raising to at least 60 the death toll from two days of battles.

Almost 600 km (400 miles) to the east along Libya’s Mediterranean coast, insurgents said they took the town of Bin Jawad on Saturday, on the heels of seizing the oil port of Ras Lanuf, and were thrusting westwards toward Sirte.

Exultant after asserting control over much of the east of the vast oil-exporting North African state in a revolt against the flamboyant autocrat Gaddafi, some rebels said an assault on Sirte was imminent.

“We’re going to attack Sirte, now,” rebel fighter Mohamed Salim told Reuters, while another fighter, Mohamed Fathi, said: “Listen, we have no organization and no military plan. We go where we’re needed.”

“If (rebels) can expand down into the Gulf of Sirte … they’ve got a very good shot at independence at the least — or maybe even overturning him at the most,” said Peter Zeihan, analyst with the U.S.-based Stratfor intelligence newsletter.

But others were wary of the limitations of an undisciplined rebel force made up of soldiers who have bolted from Gaddafi’s ranks and volunteers who have more enthusiasm than experience.