Thursday, April 7, 2011

Bahrain hospital abuse

An international humanitarian organization said Thursday that Bahraini authorities turned hospitals into "places to be feared" during a deadly crackdown on anti-government protesters in the Gulf country.

Doctors Without Borders condemned the arrest of injured opposition supporters being treated at medical facilities. In a statement, the organization said Bahrain's security forces used hospitals and health centers as "bait to identify and arrest those (protesters) who dare seek treatment."
The capital's Salmaniya medical complex, in particular, was at the center of the country's turmoil, treating hundreds of injured demonstrators. The military took control of the facility, and doctors and patients there said soldiers and policemen interrogated and detained them.
Bahrain declared emergency rule last month and cracked down on protests by the country's Shiite majority against the Sunni monarchy. The protests have called for sweeping political reforms and equal rights for Shiites. At least 27 people were killed.
Hundreds have been injured in clashes with riot police and security sweeps.
On Thursday, Bahrain's Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa warned the government's opponents against trying to restart their demonstrations, saying they were a small group and accusing them of trying to create sectarian divisions on the island.
"Those who seek to cleave our society into two will not be dealt with easily," Al Khalifa said in a short televised speech. "The story of (Bahrain's) success that we are living cannot be corrupted by a small group that seek its fall."
The crown prince also said the monarchy would press on with reforms, but did not provide specific examples.

Syrian president attempts to appease minority Kurds
Bashar al Assad,

the Syrian president, has issued a decree granting nationality to thousands of Kurds living in the eastern al-Hasaka region as part of efforts to ease resentment over nearly five decades of strict Baathist rule.

It was not immediately clear how many would get nationality, but the announcment on Thursday is due to affect around 150,000 Kurds currently registered as foreigners as a result of a 1962 census in the region.

But Kurdish leader Habib Ibrahim said that Kurds would press their non-violent struggle for civil rights and democracy to replace autocratic rule despite Assad's decision.

"Our cause is democracy for the whole of Syria. Citizenship is the right of every Syrian. It is not a favour. It is not the right of anyone to grant," Ibrahim, who heads the Democratic Unity Kurdish Party, told the Reuters news agency.

Governor sacked

State television also said that Assad had fired the governor of Homs province, one of the areas affected by recent protests calling for greater freedoms. Replacing the governor was one of the main demands of protesters last week.

In another move to appease the ethnic Kurds, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 48 Kurds were released on Tuesday, more than a year after they were arrested in the eastern city of Raqqa.

The Syrian leader also met provincial leaders from the Kurdish east of the country earlier in the week to listen to their demands, the official news agency reported.

Assad cracked down on ethnic Kurds, who make up about 10-15 per cent of Syria's 20 million people, after they launched violent demonstrations against the state in 2004.

Recent popular protests have shaken mainly Sunni Muslim Syria for nearly three weeks, with demonstrators demanding an end to emergency law and one-party rule by the Baath Party.

The pro-democracy protests first erupted in the southern city of Deraa, where many Sunni Muslim tribes resent the power and wealth accumulated by the Alawites, an offshoot sect of Shia Islam.

Syria's ruling hierarchy has not tolerated any dissent and has used emergency laws to justify arbitrary arrests, including those of other minorities such as Kurds who say they are discriminated against.

In a move to mollify conservative Muslims, Syria also lifted on Wednesday a ban on teachers wearing the full face veil and ordered the closure of the country's only casino.

Blame Hamid Karzai for massacre in Mazar
The Koran protests in Afghanistan began with an Iranian propaganda initiative that was set in motion on March 24, a full week before the Massacre in Mazar. Afghan president Hamid Karzai

played a central role in the affair. The bloody skirmishing that has left at least two dozen people dead across Afghanistan has gone so far as to cast a shadow over the future of the UN’s operations in the country. In other words, it’s working.

Of all places in Afghanistan for a UN compound to be turned into a human abattoir, we’re supposed to be shocked that it would be in the contented little metropolis of Mazar-i-Sharif, the capital of the peaceful northern province of Balkh. We’re supposed to be astonished that the murderers of those seven UN workers arose from a frenzied mob at the head of a procession that started out at the city’s famous Blue Mosque.

We should not be surprised at all.

On March 24, the Iranian foreign ministry, Iran’s Lebanese proxy Hezbollah, and Karzai’s office issued simultaneous alarms about Jones’ Koran-burning. Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehman-Parast said the incident was part of American “hegemonic plots.” Karzai called for Jones’ arrest and prosecution.

Karzai’s statement was widely reported in Iran’s government-controlled press but got limited play even in the Afghan news media. Then the Netherlands-based BNO News got involved. After making its mark in 2007 when it sold Reuters a videotaped speech by Osama Bin Laden, BNO went on to become a popular Twitter feed and is now a low budget social-media hybrid, part press-release clearinghouse and part amateur-journalism vector. When BNO began circulating a report headlined “Afghanistan, Iran condemn Koran burning in U.S.,” the story went viral.

The first Afghan protests about the Koran-burning were staged by the Shura-e Olama-e Shiia, the Kabul-based Shiite religious council dominated by Asif Mohseni, the leading Khomeinist ayatollah in Afghanistan. Mohseni is best known for having persuaded Karzai to sign off on the incendiary Afghan “rape law” in 2009 (which effectively legalized marital rape), an event that prompted protests by Afghan women and howls of international indignation.

The Khomeinist-led Koran demonstrations in Kabul were the first that most Afghans had even heard about Jones’ vulgar escapade. (You always know it’s a Khomeinist event by the tell-tale slogan, Marg Bar Yahood—Death to the Jews). This brings us back to Mazar, to the Tomb of the Exalted where most Afghans prefer to believe that the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed is buried, and to the famous Blue Mosque.

From accounts of last Friday’s massacre that I’ve received from several Afghan human rights activists and journalists, what emerges is a picture of an opportunity that was just waiting for a pretext. What happened did not simply result from a protest march that began at the Blue Mosque and got terribly out of hand. . .

That’s from my piece today in Dissent.

The Washington Post provides some useful and rare insight into the distance Karzai has moved from his American benefactors, although nothing about the Khomeinist orbit within which Karzai has allowed himself to be drawn. For insight into that, all you need to do is follow the money.

There is a lot of money to follow. The Iranian payments, which officials say total millions of dollars, form what amounts to an off-the-books “presidential slush fund” that Iran fills up regularly so that Karzai can buy Afghan legislators, tribal elders and Taliban commanders. It’s quite the racket, and it has been happening under the Americans’ noses for quite some while.

Briefcases full of it. Bakshish by the barge load. And that just scratches the surface.

For an Afghan view from the front lines of the Koran-burn frenzies, here’s a report from Ehsanullah Ehsan in Kandahar. And I see that Christopher Hitchens, running on instinct alone, gets it dead to rights anyway, as usual. Karzai went out of his way to intensify mob feeling. “This caps a long period where his behavior has come to seem like a conscious collusion with warlordism, organized crime, and even with elements of the Taliban.”

Why would Karzai behave this way? Start asking that kind of question and nowhere will the discomfort be felt more acutely than in and around the White House. Well, too bad. It’s time to start asking these awkward questions, before it’s too late.

Music In The Time Of Extremism

In Pakistan, radical clerics have unleashed a religious fervor that is chilling secular voices and diminishing free speech.

Two high profile murders — the governor of the Punjab, Salman Taseer, in January, and the only Christian Cabinet minister, Shahbaz Bhatti, in March — have people from the political class to the artistic community feeling the pressure of the religious right.

We sat down with two flourishing female musicians from Lahore for their insights into making music in the time of extremism.

Singer Zeb Bangash and guitarist Haniya Aslam have chosen to write songs that are the antithesis of turmoil: Now working on their second album, the 32-year-old cousins have written a piece simply titled, "The Happy Song."

"Despite everything, there are beautiful things happening in this country," Zeb says, "there are moments of happiness, there's happiness all around, so we thought it might actually be nice to bring that together into a song."

The two women have won critical acclaim in a country where female musicians face challenges simply because they're women.

Their origins have also helped distinguish them. They are Pashtuns from the heart of the Northwest Frontier Province renamed Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, where tradition and custom have kept women largely out of the public eye. Pursuing a career in entertainment goes against the grain of the conservative Pashtu culture.

Haniya, a graduate of Smith College, however, says she doesn't necessarily see herself as "secular.""I don't see myself as religious or secular," she says. "I think we all inhabit a space which really straddles both of them. I don't think anyone here is entirely this or that or the other."

Zeb and Haniya performed one evening this week at a U.S. Embassy event in Islamabad. They are vying for the chance to tour the United States as part of a State Department cultural exchange.

The U.S. is spending millions of dollars on public diplomacy in Pakistan.

There is alarm from Islamabad to Washington that tolerance for secular life in Pakistan is fast retreating as evidenced by the shocking murders of the governor of the Punjab and the Minority Affairs Minister.

The space for artistic expression is narrowing. Zeb says the obligation for artists like her is to keep "reclaiming" the space. Haniya says their work reflects the growing instability around them, but in an unexpected way.

"The more violence that starts taking place outside, the more sort of serene and calm our music begins to get. I think because it's a way of creating an alternate universe, right? You create work that would reflect the world that you want to be in rather than the one you are in," she says.

The two were educated in the United States — Zeb attended Mount Holyoke and Haniya went to Smith College in Massachusetts. They are of a generation of Pakistanis that is comfortable connecting with many worlds.Their musical roots lie in a city where cultures have collided and merged over a millennium — Peshawar, a portal to Central Asia. Zeb says the intricacy of their culture gets lost in today's projection of Pakistan as "the most dangerous place in the world."

She rejects the perception of a Pakistan mired in backwardness and conflict. Zeb says it's a misperception that many Americans hold. And she says that makes it difficult to engage with Americans.

"Because they have their own idea, and then I think what's also happening is that the religion has come under attack," Zeb says. "And that is not something that we are completely comfortable with because no matter now progressive we might be, we have roots which are Islamic and we believe in those, at least a large part of us do."

Haniya chimes in that "you don't have the good Pakistanis and the bad evil Pakistanis divided in half, and one wears black and one wears white. It's just not that simple."

Haniya says she is optimistic about what lies ahead for Pakistan. "I have to be. It's something I've worked at for about three years now," she says with a laugh. "It will absolutely get better."

They live comfortably in a leafy neighborhood of Lahore with Zeb's mother and father, a retired general. But the two musicians have gained a following with their fluid ability to incorporate traditional songs from Afghanistan and beyond with their own modern composition.

They continue to make discoveries about their own work. The hit "Paimana Bitte," or "Bring the Chalice (and Let Me Be Intoxicated)," was not the folk song they thought it was when they sang it as children in their grandmother's parlor. The daughter of the composer for the Afghan King Zahir Shah heard them perform the song and told them it was one her father had written for the Court 40 years ago.

Despite all of the turmoil in their country, Zeb and Haniya have no interest in living anywhere but Pakistan, exploring their vast musical heritage and interpreting it for a new turbulent time.

US, UK to stop aid if corruption continues

The US and Britain will stop helping Afghanistan if corruption is not rooted out,

the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption said. Head of the High Office of Oversight and Anti-Corruption, Azizullah Ludin, expressed grave concern that the US and Britain will not be willing to continue helping Afghanistan if no serious action is taken to root out corruption. Mr Ludin urges international community and the Afghan government to join hands in fighting against corruption. "We have to work together to eradicate corruption and reassure the US and Britain that their aid is not wasted in Afghanistan," Mr Ludin said. The High Office of Oversight and Anti-corruption has also urged Britain to freeze all bank accounts of the former Afghan cabinet minister Sediq Chakari and extradite him to Afghanistan. The issue has been raise with British officials who have pledged to cooperate with the Afghan government. According to Mr Ludin, Chakri has many cases of embezzlement filed against him and in addition he has around $800,000m in his Dubai bank account. Mr Ludin also hinted to the disappearance of 42 million dollars of donation to the Afghan National Army Hospital in Kabul. "It is clear that 42 million dollars has been donated to the hospital and disappeared. This case should be addressed seriously," said Mr Ludin. He believes not only Afghans but also "some others" are involved in this misappropriation. Corruption in Afghanistan is one of the biggest concerns of donor countries. Some of the high ranking officials have been accused of corruption, but it is believed that the Afghan government, in the last 9 years, has not been able to bring a single corrupt official to justice.