Thursday, March 31, 2011

Young voters have not abandoned Obama: poll

Young voters, who were crucial to President Barack Obama's election in 2008, have not soured on him and now support the Democrat in greater numbers than in the fall, according to a Harvard University poll.

The survey also showed that young voters worry most about the economy, and still turn to traditional news outlets for political coverage.

In the latest iteration of Harvard's Institute of Politics poll of 18 to 29 year olds, 55 percent of the so-called Millenial Generation approve of Obama's job performance, up by six percentage points from the previous poll in October.

Looking forward to 2012, Obama leads a generic Republican candidate by 12 percentage points, results show.

John Della Volpe, polling director at the Institute of Politics, called the numbers "extremely important" for Obama as the presidential race nears.

"He cannot get re-elected without a significant majority of young people," said Della Volpe.

Jobs and the economy are the top worry among the 3,000 Millenials surveyed, with health care a distant concern in comparison.

Many still view their personal financial situation as "very bad" or "fairly bad" with 82 percent of four-year college students saying it will be "difficult" to land permanent jobs after graduation.

With 80 percent of the age group on Facebook and a quarter posting on Twitter, it may not be surprising that social media tools that also include blogs and YouTube are viewed as having a "greater political impact than in-person advocacy" when it comes to campaigns.

This could make a significant difference in upcoming elections.

"Political campaigns which incorporate an effective youth outreach strategy will have a strong advantage in the 2012 cycle," said Della Volpe.

Still, traditional news outlets topped Facebook-friend status updates as the go-to source on political news and information for nearly half of those surveyed.

NY's Little Italy, not so Italian anymore

Saudi Arabia: Let Women Vote, Run for Office

The Saudi government's refusal to let women vote in municipal elections in September 2011 unlawfully deprives women of their rights to full and equal status under the law

Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch called on the election committee to allow women to vote and to run for seats on the municipal councils.

On March 28, 2011, ‘Abd al-Rahman Dahmash, president of the general committee for the election of municipal council members, said, "We are not prepared for the participation of women in the municipal elections now." He promised that women will be allowed to participate in the future.

One woman told Human Rights Watch: "We wish for women to represent us in the Shura council, in ministries...what's the problem with that?...But, I am a minor in the eyes of my government."

In 2005, when Saudi Arabia held its first municipal elections, the kingdom's first and only elections for political office, the government justified the exclusion of women by saying that election workers could not verify women's identity since many did not have an identity card. The government also barred women from running as candidates. The Interior Ministry started issuing identity cards to women ages 22 and over in 2000, with the intention of easing daily activities and averting fraud and forgery.

"The government of Saudi Arabia cannot expect Saudi women to believe that a lack of preparation is behind the denial of their rights to political participation," said Nadya Khalife, Middle East women's rights researcher for Human Rights Watch. "This was a preposterous excuse in 2005, and even more so now. This crude sex discrimination is an insult to millions of Saudi women."

Another female activist told Human Rights Watch: "They had six years to make the necessary preparations, but there is no will to allow women to participate. The decision crushed all our hopes. Some Saudi women have all the qualifications necessary and want to become part of the political process in their country."

The Saudi election committee also announced on March 28 that voter and candidate registration will take place between late April and early June. Voters in the September 22 election will choose members of 219 municipal councils across the nation.

The government has undertaken a number of reforms to Saudi Arabia's election system since 2005, but none have addressed women's participation. Instead, the government has focused on such issues as the number of districts, qualifications for candidates, penalties for election fraud, and the role and membership of municipal councils.

In the rest of the Gulf region, and indeed most countries in the rest of the world, women have the right to vote and run for office, Human Rights Watch said. Women in Bahrain won the right to vote and run for elections in 2002. In 2010, Fatima Salman became the first woman in Bahrain to win a seat on a municipal council. Women in Kuwait voted for the first time in municipal elections in 2005; two women were appointed to municipal councils for the first time, and four women serve in Kuwait's parliament.

"It's appalling that while women in all other countries, including Saudi Arabia's neighboring countries, are able to participate in political life, Saudi women are left out," Khalife said.

Saudi Arabia ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in 2000. The kingdom entered two reservations, neither having any bearing on gender-based discrimination in political participation.

The CEDAW committee, the treaty monitoring body, noted in 2008 its concern about the exclusion of women from the first municipal elections in Saudi Arabia. The committee encouraged the Saudi government to "take sustained measures ... to accelerate the increase in the participation and representation of women in elected and appointed bodies in all areas and at all levels of public and political life." The committee also recommended that the Saudi government should offer training in leadership and negotiation skills for current and future women leaders and carry out activities to raise awareness about the importance of women's participation in their country's decision-making processes.

The Arab Charter for Human Rights, which Saudi Arabia acceded to, states in article 24(3) that, "Every citizen has the right to stand for election and choose his representative in free and fair elections under conditions guaranteeing equality between all citizens." Article 3 of the Charter provides that signatories to the Charter must ensure that all individuals have the right to enjoy all rights and freedoms recognized without distinction to sex.

Women are also sidelined from political participation at other levels in Saudi Arabia. King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz appoints members of the Shura Council, a body with some functions of a national parliament, but has appointed no women, although the Shura Council president in 2006 appointed six women as advisers. In 2009, King Abdullah appointed Nura al-Fayiz deputy minister of education, responsible for girls' education.

Saudi women of all ages live under a male guardianship system, preventing women to work, study, marry, or travel, without the permission of a male guardian - a father, husband, or brother.

BAHRAIN: Crackdown continues, opposition and human rights groups say

While regional attention is riveted by the ongoing unrest in Libya, Syria and Yemen, the government of Bahrain has been left in relative peace by the international community to continue its crackdown against the anti-government protest movement there, human rights groups say.

"The last few nights they been raiding houses and beating and arresting people," Nabeel Rajab, the president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told Babylon & Beyond, adding that approximately 400 people are either missing or in custody.

"Some people were also arrested at checkpoints controlled by thugs brought in from other Arab and Asian countries -- they wear black masks in the streets," Ragab said.

Saudi and other Gulf Arab security forces entered Bahrain at the invitation of the government two weeks ago, and activists claim additional muscle has been brought in from Pakistan and possibly other Asian countries.
Ragab accused security forces and the army of targeting Bahraini Shiites, who constitute a majority in the country and have made up the bulk of the opposition movement. The Sunni-dominated government and ruling family are backed by the United States, whose Fifth Fleet is stationed in Bahrain. Twenty-four people have been killed in clashes between police and demonstrators since the protest movement erupted on Feb. 14, the government said Tuesday.

The video featured above was posted on YouTube and claims to show a masked Saudi soldier destroying a Shiite religious banner in Bahrain.Another video posted by the same user claims to show a Bahraini demonstrator being arrested. Neither video could be verified.

"The government says it is taking steps to ensure stability and security, but what's happening is the exact opposite. We're in one of the most dangerous stages, where citizens have no security," Mattar Ibrahim Mattar, a member of the country's largest Shiite opposition group Wefaq, told Reuters.

The New York-based advocacy group Human Rights Watch released a report on Wednesday in which it accused Bahraini security forces of beating and detaining wounded protesters, and even of denying some live-saving treatment.

"Since the Bahraini Defense Force (BDF) took over the country's largest public medical facility on March 16, 2011, security and military forces have sought out and threatened, beaten and detained patients injured by teargas, rubber bullets, birdshot pellets, and live ammunition," the report said. "These patients also have been removed from hospitals or forcibly transferred to other medical facilities, often against medical advice."

Syrian pres. orders probe into deaths

Syrian president has ordered to form a committee to probe the deaths of a number of civilians and security forces in the cities of Dara'a and Latakia, a report says.

Bashar al-Assad has ordered the Head of the High Judiciary Council on Thursday to form a committee to investigate the deaths of over 60 people during two weeks of unrest in the two cities.

The committee will conduct its work according to the valid laws and is entitled to turn to whoever it deems fit for help in the mission assigned to it, he said.

It also has the right to demand whatever information or documents from the bodies concerned, SANA -- the Syrian Arab news agency -- reported.

Minister of Justice Ahmad Younes, deputy chairman of the Higher Judiciary Council, issued resolution No. 905 dated March 31, 2011 on forming a special committee headed by General Prosecutor Taysir Awad.

The committee will immediately investigate all the events that claimed the lives of a number of civilian and military personnel in Dara'a and Latakia provinces.

The committee will also look into ways to lift the emergency law that has been effective in the country for the last 48 years and is expected to complete the study before April 25.

On Wednesday, Assad warned that Syria is the target of a big plot from outside. He said enemies have taken advantage of the people's legitimate demands to create division and undermine the country's stability.

Hillary Clinton's top score

By:CNN Associate Producer Gabriella Schwarz
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

hit a milestone Thursday, receiving her highest favorable rating since assuming her role in the Obama administration, according to a new poll.
The Gallup survey showed her favorable rating at 66 percent, up from 61 percent in July - a number that beat President Barack Obama, Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Vice President Joe Biden. The new figure was her highest rating to date since serving as chief diplomat and just one point below her all-time high of 67 percent in December 1998.

The former Democratic New York senator received a 65 percent favorability rating in the most recent CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey released March 16, which showed a partisan divide. Nine out of ten Democrats and nearly two-thirds of independent voters said they had a favorable opinion of her; six out of ten Republicans said they had an unfavorable view of Clinton.
The results of the Gallup survey were also divided along party lines. Forty percent of Republicans, 62 percent of independents and 92 percent of Democrats had a favorable view of the former first lady.
The Gallup poll was conducted March 25-27, with 1,027 adults questioned nationwide and had an overall sampling error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.
The CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll was conducted March 11-13, with 1,023 adults nationwide questioned by telephone. The survey's overall sampling error is plus or minus three percentage points.

U.S. officials, opposition warn Libya could get bloodier

From the halls of Congress to the shell-pocked streets of Libyan cities, intertwined themes rang clear Thursday: Leader Moammar Gadhafi is determined to prevail, and the opposition needs more training and allied air strikes to have a chance.
"Gadhafi will "kill as many (people) as he must to crush the rebellion," Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen told the House Armed Services Committee.
The rebels, who were regrouping after several setbacks, pinned their hopes on more coalition air power, which will likely increase as weather improves.
"We want more to bring a speedy end to this," Col. Ahmed Omar Bani, an opposition spokesman, told CNN. "A strike is not a strike unless it kills," he said.CIA operatives have been in Libya working with rebel leaders to try to reverse gains by loyalist forces, a U.S. intelligence source said.
The United States, insisting it is now fulfilling more of a support role in the coalition, shifted in that direction as NATO took sole command of air operations in Libya.
The ferocity of this month's fighting and Gadhafi's advantage in firepower was clearly evident in Misrata, which has seen snipers, significant casualties and destruction.
A witness told CNN Thursday there "is utter madness" and Gadhafi's men are going door-to-door evicting and terrorizing people.
"I am afraid it will be one big massacre here in Misrata" if the international forces "do not do more," he said. CNN did not identify the witness for security reasons.
Saddoun El-Misurati, a spokesman for the Libyan opposition in Misrata, described intense fighting and casualties in the city.
"We managed to get two shipments, so far, of badly needed medical supplies to the hospitals. But obviously we still need more supplies in dealing with the day-to-day casualties and the situation on the ground," he said.
Gadhafi's military capabilities had been steadily eroded since the onset of U.N.-sanctioned air strikes, U.S. officials have said.
But the dictator's forces outnumber the rebels by about 10-to-1 in terms of armor and other ground forces, Mullen noted.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates, also speaking before the House committee, warned that the Libyan rebels still need significant training and assistance.
"It's pretty much a pickup ballgame" right now, he said.U.S. and British officials say no decision has been made about whether to arm the opposition.
Dianne Feinstein, head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told CNN's "The Situation Room" she opposes doing that. The Democratic senator cited failures of such a move in other conflicts.
Bani -- asked whether he is open to the idea of ground forces from outside Libya joining the rebels' effort -- responded that "all options are open to us."
"It has been very hard the past few days because the freedom forces have been facing heavy tanks and artillery weapons with very light weapons," the spokesman said.
While some members of the Libyan military reportedly defected to join the opposition, the rebels include many volunteers who have not been trained.
Over the weekend, CNN reported that rebels had taken al-Brega, Ras Lanuf and Bin Jawad, and reached a town just east of Sirte. But in the past three days, opposition fighters have been pushed back eastward.
CNN's Ben Wedeman, reporting Thursday from near al-Brega, said the rebels, armed with light mortars and machine guns, have displayed no strategy in their running battles with loyalist troops.
Gates reiterated the Obama administration's promise that no U.S. ground forces will be used in Libya, telling committee members that the rebels had indicated they didn't want such an intervention.
But the United States does have CIA personnel on the ground.
A U.S. intelligence source said the CIA is operating in the country to help increase U.S. "military and political understanding" of the situation.
A former counterterrorism official with knowledge of U.S. Libya policy said there is a presidential finding authorizing the CIA to conduct operations in support of U.S. policy in Libya, including assessing the opposition and determining their needs.
Specific activities by CIA officers will be determined by conditions on the ground and would need further approval from the White House, the source said.
A former senior intelligence official said officers "might be advising [rebels] on how to target the adversary, how to use the weapons they have, reconnaissance and counter-surveillance."
Presidential findings are a type of secret order authorizing some covert intelligence operations.
The CIA has had a presence in Libya for some time, a U.S. official told CNN earlier this month. "The intelligence community is aggressively pursuing information on the ground," the official said. The CIA sent additional personnel to Libya to augment officers on the ground after the anti-government protests erupted, the official said, without giving details.
CIA officers assisted with the rescue of one of two U.S. airmen whose fighter jet crashed in Libya on March 21, a knowledgeable U.S. source said.
NATO emphasized Thursday that the U.N. resolution authorizing action in Libya precludes "occupation forces."
NATO Adm. Giampaolo Di Paola, chairman of the NATO Military Committee, indicated that the presence of foreign intelligence personnel does not violate U.N. Security Council 1973, which authorized action in Libya.
Rebel forces have been demanding an end to Gadhafi's nearly 42 years of rule in Libya. They have faced sustained attacks by a regime fighting to stay in power and portraying the opposition as terrorists backed by al Qaeda.
Rebel forces have lost Bin Jawad and the key oil town of Ras Lanuf and are backed up to the al-Brega area, Bani said Wednesday.
Ajdabiya, which is east of al-Brega, will be prepared as a "defense point" if the withdrawal continues farther east, he said.
Amid the setbacks faced by rebels, a significant crack in Gadhafi's armor surfaced when Libyan Foreign Minister Moussa Koussa fled to London on Wednesday and told the government there that he has resigned, the British Foreign Office said.
Koussa -- a former head of Libyan intelligence -- was a stalwart defender of the government as recently as a month ago. But in recent weeks his demeanor had visibly changed. At one recent media briefing, he kept his head down as he read a statement and left early.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague said Koussa had not been offered any immunity.
Koussa's defection provides evidence "that Gadhafi's regime ... is fragmented, under pressure and crumbling from within," said Hague, adding that Koussa is voluntarily speaking with officials in the United Kingdom.
Libyan government spokesman Moussa Ibrahim said Thursday that Koussa did not tell the government he planned to resign before he flew to Britain. Ibrahim said Koussa asked for sick leave and the government gave him permission to leave the country and receive intensive medical care.
The government had another setback Thursday, with news that an official who was picked as Libyan ambassador to the United Nations has defected.
A relative and an opposition leader said Thursday that former Foreign Minister Ali Abdussalam Treki was in Cairo.

India census: population goes up to 1.21bn

India's population has grown by 181 million people over the past decade to 1.21bn, according to the 2011 census.

More people now live in India than in the United States, Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan and Bangladesh combined.

India is on course to overtake China as the world's most populous nation by 2030, but its growth rate is falling, figures show. China has 1.3bn people.

The census also reveals a continuing preference for boys - India's sex ratio is at its worst since independence.

Female foeticide remains common in India, although sex-selective abortion based on ultrasound scans is illegal. Sons are still seen by many as wage-earners for the future.

Statistics show fewer girls than boys are being born or surviving. The gender imbalance has widened every decade since independence in 1947.

According to the 2011 census, 914 girls were born for every 1,000 boys under the age of six, compared with 927 for every 1,000 boys in the 2001 census.

"This is a matter of grave concern," Census Commissioner C Chandramauli told a press conference in the capital, Delhi.

Government officials said they would review all their policies towards this issue, which they admitted were failing.

FATA still to get its due


An all-party conference in Peshawar demanded full rights for the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, in the immediate neighbourhood of Afghanistan, like political parties extending their role, repeal of the colonial Frontier Crimes Regulations (FCR) and a judicial dispensation under Pakistan’s Supreme Court among other things. Last week lawmakers of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA called on President Asif Ali Zardari with identical demands and the president assured them the PPP government is already working on giving financial and internal autonomy of the region like Gilgit-Baltistan. In fact the PPP government took the first initiative by scrapping the FCR and making room for all political parties to operate in this difficult hilly tract area that has so far been nominally controlled by the Federal government and the president alone has the authority to amend rules in FATA. Pakistan’s constitution is also applicable through the same FCR as was left by British in 1901. Such lawless conditions give the people of the region, the poorest of the poor, have promoted religious extremism and terrorism. Their representation in parliament is nothing less than a joke because they ‘elect’ 12 for the National Assembly who form the electoral college for eight members to the Senate. This ‘election’ seems a farce as big landlords (Maliks) alone have represented the people of FATA who possess money and can buy their ‘election’ to parliament. Tribesmen were given the right to vote in the 1997 general elections. Prior to this they were selected by tribal elders. As for the political agents, they wield unfettered powers who have a legal authority to collectively punish a whole tribe under the FCR that are the most inhuman penalty that shows how the colonial masters perpetrated their repression on human beings. Fata as a region of seven agencies from North Waziristan to Khyber needs immediate measures to mitigate the sufferings of about 10 million people, who yearn to get their constitutional, political and socio-economic rights in addition to judicial dispensation within the ambit of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. These rights are as inalienable as of the people of Pakistan elsewhere. Such a remedy can be done within an administrative solution of establishing a new province of Pakistan which has its own assembly whose members are chosen by its people in an independent manner and free will. Likewise, FATA must have its own high court, police in place of Khasdars and with a due share in the National Finance Commission’s divisible pool. With rich natural resources, blooming forestry and eye-catching scenic beauty, the region is endowed with all the potential to develop its own industry and boost agricultural productivity. With Pakistan’s constitution guaranteeing autonomy to other provinces, the province of FATA can be established and this is what we expect of the ruling PPP to do and do it immediately.

Pakistan, Afghan MPs slam agencies for pursuing interests Tahir Khan

Pakistan and Afghan lawmakers Wednesday said that the intelligence agencies of the two countries are ‘pursuing their own individual interest’ whereas terrorism was a common enemy demanding collective action by the agencies of the two countries herelaid great emphasis on joint efforts to tackle the problem of terrorism which has not only caused death and destruction in the region but has been the major impediment in the development of both Afghanistan and Pakistan. “They urged cooperation of each other’s Parliament to bring to the notice of their respective Governments problems identified by the other side for immediate remedial action. This, they thought, would greatly help in bringing the two countries further closer to each other,” a joint statement, released at the conclusion of the meeting, said. The two sides felt the need of establishing a Joint Commission, established already, to identify problems between them. The task of the Commission would be to find solutions to these problems which will help in cementing brotherly relations between the two neighbours. The parliamentarians expressed concern on longer delays for clearance of goods under Afghan Transit Trade which was causing huge financial loss. They agreed on finding a solution to this long over-due problem for streamlining business relation between the two countries. The lawmakers felt the need and importance of media in moulding public opinion. It can play a positive role in bridging the trust deficit that unfortunately still exists somewhat between the people of the two countries. The two sides agreed to hold their next meeting in Kabul in May this year. The parliamentarians discussed issues of importance that impact the relations between the two neighbouring Islamic countries. A delegation of 20 Afghan Parliamentarians, belonging to the Senate and National Assembly of Afghanistan (Meshrano Jirga and Wolesi Jirga respectively) had a detailed dialogue with their Pakistani counterparts on issues of mutual interest including Terrorism, Afghan Transit Trade and the role of media in bringing the two countries closer to one another. Speaking at a press conference upon the conclusion of the Parliamentarians Dialogue, co-chairs of the Pak-Afghan Parliamentary Dialogue Sayed Ishaq Gailani, Member of Afghan Wolesi Jirga and Senator Salim Saifullah Khan, Chairman Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit Baltistan, said that Parliamentary dialogue between Pakistan and Afghanistan must continue in order to strengthen Pak-Afghan ties. “No country is closer to our heart than Afghanistan,” said Senator Salim Saifullah, adding that the first-ever visit of Senate Foreign Affairs Committee was undertaken to Kabul earlier this month before the Senate and National Assembly of Pakistan welcomed the 20-member Afghan Parliamentary delegation to Pakistan. Senator Mir Jan Muhammad Jamali, Deputy Chairman Senate of Pakistan and Mr. Faisal Karim Kundi, MNA, Deputy Speaker National Assembly of Pakistan welcomed and remained engaged in a dialogue with Afghan MPs alongside a multi-party Pakistan Parliamentary delegation, informed Senator Saifullah. “Parliamentarians from two sides discussed terrorism, trade, narcotics and education in a candid interaction,” said Sayed Ishaq Gailani while addressing the press conference. Terrorists have harmed both countries and a regional conference to counter terrorism must be held, he believed, to counter the scourge. Our Pakistani Parliamentary brothers and sisters agree that our interaction will pave the way for strengthening relations, he said. The Co-chairs thanked PILDAT for facilitating the Parliamentary interaction adding that the next dialogue of the series will be held in Kabul in May this year. Earlier, Afghan Parliamentarians called on Chairman Senate Senator Farooq H Naik in the Parliament House. In welcoming the Afghan delegation, Senator Naik was joined by Senator Jan Muhammad Jamali, Deputy Chairman Senate,Senator Nayyar Hussain Bukhari, Leader of the House in the Senate, Senator Jahangir Bader, PPPP, Senator Mohammad Ishaq Dar, Leader of the PML-N Parliamentary party, Senator Haji Muhammad Adeel, ANP, Senator Salim Saifullah Khan, PML, Senator Kulsoom Parveen, PML, Senator Saleh Shah, Ind. and Senator Abdul Rahim Khan Mandokhel, PKMAP. Chairman Senate said that two brotherly countries have unbreakable historical, cultural and religious ties. He said that peace in Afghanistan is important for peace in Pakistan and peace in the region. Terrorism is a common problem which needs to be addressed jointly, adding that a regional approach is required in this regard. Thanking on behalf of the Afghan delegates for the warm welcome received by delegation in Pakistan, Sayed Ishaq Gailani raised the issue of bottlenecks in Afghan transit trade and said MPs of two countries have a crucial role to play in resolving issues. Senator Nayyar Hussain Bukhari believed that relations have improved during current government tenure adding that President Zardari places huge importance on good relation of Pakistan with Afghanistan. Senator Ishaq Dar said that PML-N has always given great importance to Afghanistan and assured Afghan delegation that Afghan Students will be accommodated in Universities across Punjab.

Indian girls fall further into minority in latest census

Officials said they were alarmed at the tilting of India's gender balance further towards boys amid growing concerns over the impact of female foeticide by families who prefer sons.
According to the census 914 girls

are being born per 1,000 boys compared with 927 per 1000 in 2001. India now has 623.7 million males and 586.5 million females. Census Commissioner C. Chandramauli said the figures were a "matter of grave concern".
Dr A.L. Sharada, of the charity Laadli, which works to raise the status of Indian girls, said girls are still seen as a burden in India. "Marriage and dowry is the biggest burden for parents in India and the amount of money the parents need to shell out for a daughter's big fat wedding makes them a burden for their parents," he said. Boys, however, are seen as future breadwinners who will stay with their families.
The alarm over India's declining sex ratio overshadowed the striking growth in its population to within 120 million of overtaking China as the world's most populous country. India's population is forecast to overtake that of China in 2026, but the census revealed early signs that the growth is starting to slow.
While it has more people than the United States, Indonesia, Brazil, Japan, Bangladesh, and Pakistan combined, its growth rate had fallen to 17.6 per cent from 21.5 per cent ten years ago. It is the first time population growth has fallen since 1921.Other data indicated rising literacy levels – up to 74 per cent from 65 per cent ten years ago.
Officials surveyed 300 million households to assess people's living conditions to help the government to develop its anti-poverty and development programmes.

Muslim beauty contestant says she faces threats

A British woman hoping to become the first Muslim to represent her country in the Miss Universe pageant has gotten "indirect" threats against her life, she told CNN on Thursday.

Shanna Bukhari said she'd received "a lot of support from all communities," but that she got "some hate mail from all communities as well."

"Indirect threats have been made," she said, including video links being posted of men "suggesting things could possibly happen."

While there had been no direct threats against her, she said, "it is upsetting to receive links of certain things that could possibly endanger someone's life."

Bukhari is proud of her origins and her religion, but it's the media that has made her religion an issue, she said.

"My intentions were not to bring my religion into this," she said.

She said she would participate in the swimsuit round of the contest, but would not be "exposing revealing parts of my body."

"I will not be wearing a bikini," she said. "I will be wearing a one-piece swimsuit and a sarong."

The current Miss USA, Rima Fakih, is the first Muslim woman to win that title.

Bukhari will learn May 1 whether she will represent her country at the Miss Universe pageant, which is in September.

Bahrain rally decries teenager's death

Protesters rally in a Bahraini village, condemning the recent death of a male teenager there at the hands of security forces.

Fifteen-year-old Sayed Ahmed died from a headshot in Sa'ar on Wednesday, Bahrain's Al Wefaq political party announced on its page on the social networking website Facebook.

The party stated that the victim had gone out to play and tried uselessly to run away when he noticed the security forces closing in.

The crowd amassed in hundreds carrying overhead Ahmed's coffin, plastered with the victim's picture before and after the shooting.

Joined recently by police units and troops from Saudi and the United Arab Emirates, the Bahraini government forces have launched a deadly crackdown on the popular revolution that began to sweep the Persian Gulf island on February 14.

Bahraini protesters continue to demand the ouster of the 200-year-old-plus monarchy as well as constitutional reforms.

Not counting the latest victim, at least 24 people have been killed and about 1,000 others injured during the government-sanctioned violence.

Also on Wednesday, the Human Rights Watch accused Bahraini forces of using violence against people that had already received injuries during earlier attacks.

The rights body said it had documented several cases in which the forces had "severely harassed or beaten" patients under medical care in the country's Salmaniya hospital in Manama.

The Saudi-backed forces have recently been sighted destroying religious and historical monuments.

Syrian president orders review of Syrian laws

Facing a massive protest movement demanding reform, Syria's president has set up committees to look into the deaths of civilians during nearly two weeks of unrest and replacing decades-old emergency laws.

Thursday's move appears to be a carefully designed attempt by President Bashar al-Assad to show he will not be pressured to implement reform, instead, he will make changes at his own pace.

The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) reported on Thursday that investigative committees have been set up to look into possible causes in the deaths of protesters, including the 1962 census in east Syria, which resulted in many Kurds being denied nationality.

On Wednesday, Assad defied expectations that he would announce sweeping changes, instead blaming two weeks of popular revolt on a foreign conspiracy during his first public address since the protests began.

It was not immediately clear whether Thursday's overtures would succeed in pacifying a growing protest movement in one of regions most autocratic regimes.

Al Jazeera's Rula Amin, reporting from Damascus, says the "promise of investigation", a day after Assad failed to announce any reforms during his widely anticipated speech, proves that the Syrian government "is going to move at its own pace with regard to change".

'Martyrs Day'

Activists have called for massive demonstrations across Syrian provinces on Friday, dubbing it "Martyrs Day''.

The day could prove to be a turning point in the country's future.

Syrian TV said the ruling Baath Party's regional command formed a committee made up of legal experts to study legislation that would "guarantee the country's security and dignity of Syrians and combat terrorism''.This would pave the way for lifting the state of emergency laws,'' it said. The widely despised, decades-old emergency laws give the regime a free hand to arrest people without charge.

The state-run news agency said the committee would complete its study by April 25.

Syrian TV also said Assad has set up a judicial committee tasked with urgently investigating the circumstances that led to the death of Syrian civilians and security forces in the southern city of Daraa and port city of Latakia.

Assad dismissed his 32-member cabinet on Tuesday in a move designed to mollify the anti-government protesters, but the overture was largely symbolic.

Assad holds the lion's share of power in the authoritarian regime, and there are no real opposition figures or alternatives to the current leadership.

The protests were sparked off by the arrest of several teenagers who wrote anti-government graffiti on walls in the southern city of Daraa.

They spread to other parts of the country last week, and human rights groups say more than 60 people have been killed since March 18 as security forces cracked down on the demonstrations.

'Protesters arrested'

An anti-government protester in Daraa said on Thursday that security forces arrested up to 17 people in the city overnight. He said a sit-in by a few hundred protesters near al-Omari mosque, the epicentre of protests, ended on Thursday.

However, he said protesters were regrouping for more demonstrations in Daraa and nearby areas on Friday. He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals.

In Assad's speech before parliament on Wednesday, his first speech since the protests began, he said Syria is being subjected to a "major conspiracy''.

He made only a passing reference to the protesters' calls for change, saying he was in favour of reform, but acknowledged there have been delays.

"The question is what reforms do we need,'' he said, without offering any specifics.

Social networking sites immediately responded with activists calling on Syrians to take to the streets.

Sectarian tensions

Within hours of Assad's speech, residents of the Mediterranean port city of Latakia said troops opened fire during a protest by about 100 people, although it was not immediately clear whether they were firing in the air or at the protesters. The residents asked that their names not be published for fear of reprisals.Latakia, which has a potentially volatile mix of different religious groups, already has become a flashpoint for violence that could take on a dangerous sectarian tone in the coming days and weeks.

The anti-government protests and ensuing violence have brought Syria's sectarian tensions into the open for the first time in decades, a taboo topic because Syria has a Sunni majority ruled by minority Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam.

Assad has placed his fellow Alawites into most positions of power in Syria.

However, he also has used increased economic freedom and prosperity to win the allegiance of the prosperous Sunni Muslim merchant classes, while punishing dissenters with arrest, imprisonment and physical abuse.

Assad, who inherited power 11 years ago from his father, appears to be following the same strategy of other autocratic leaders who attempt to quell uprisings by offering minor concessions coupled with brutal crackdowns.

The formula failed in Tunisia and Egypt, where citizens accepted nothing less than the ouster of the regime.