Saturday, December 10, 2011

Balochistan – a human rights free zone


Every year on this momentous day, 60-year old retired bank employee Abdul Qadeer Baloch organises special events in Balochistan capital, Quetta, to mark the international human rights day. He has organised, for instance, hunger strike camps and convened press conferences to raise the voices of the families of the disappeared Baloch political activists, students and professionals.

Qadeer had remained absolutely aloof to such hardcore activism until February 13, 2009, when officials attired in plainclothes whisked away his son Jalil Ahmed Reki, 35, from Quetta. The disappearance of a breadwinning son turned Qadeer’s life upside down. He eventually joined the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons (VBMP), an organisation representing the families of missing persons, to campaign for the release of his disappeared son.

Jalil Reki, Qadir’s missing son, had regularly operated as the central spokesman for the Baloch Republican Party, a nationalist political group seeking self-rule for the resource-rich Balochistan province. He was articulate, charismatic and well-connected with the local media. Qadeer made every attempt possible to seek the release of his missing child but completely failed to bring him back from the custody of the captors. After his involvement in similar missing persons’ cases, Qadeer realised his was not the only family which had a loved one listed as ‘missing’.

“Every missing person is my son,” Qadeer assured as he was recently promoted as the vice president of the VBMP. With more organisational responsibility came more pressure. In October, two secret agents reached out to Qadeer in Quetta warning him to immediately and unconditionally end the demand for the release of the disappeared activists.

“They warned if I wanted my son alive then I should end the hunger strike camp,” Qadir shared his insecurity with the media soon after being warned in person and also on telephone.

Qadeer would have routinely snubbed this warning if he had been contacted two years ago. In the past one year, the situation in Balochistan has dramatically changed. The bullet-riddled dead bodies of at least 220 missing persons have been found from different parts of the province in the past eight months.

Thus, Qadeer and his friends were totally cognizant of what he bills as the “nasty capabilities” of the captors of their loved ones. He took the threats seriously but it was no longer practically possible to abandon an organisation which funnelled hope to the relatives of hundreds of other missing persons.

“Quitting wasn’t simply an option” said Qadeer. Those who had warned him stood by their words. On November 24, the tortured and bullet-infested dead body of Qadeer’s disappeared son was found in Turbat district.

This year brings a totally different international human rights day for Qadeer. He says his young son’s killing has not undermined his resolve but given him a reason to stand beside those who still await the return of their loved ones.

‘Moral Crisis’

There is increasing international concern about human rights violations in Balochistan. Official denial of access to international media, human rights groups and researchers and increased role of agencies further make it difficult to independently analyse the crisis in Balochistan.

On November 16, the deputy spokesman of the US Department of State, Mark Toner, expressed concern over the situation in Balochistan.

Amnesty International’s Pakistan researcher Mustafa Qadri terms Balochistan as one of Pakistan’s “greatest moral crises”. The province, he says, has fast become a “human rights-free zone” with security forces and armed groups acting with total impunity.

Qadri, whose London-based global human rights watchdog has actively sought an end to killings and disappearances in Balochistan, says there are no excuses for the government to continue “such policies” in Balochistan.

“The failure of the state to protect its citizens’ right to life has left all of Balochistan’s diverse communities living in constant fear of abductions, torture, and targeted killings. The state continues to suppress the Baloch community’s right to freedom of expression whether with respect to nationalist politics or calls for justice for victims of enforced disappearance,” he claims.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has decided to dedicate this year’s international human rights day to the people of Balochistan in order to urge Islamabad to “make vigorous efforts to ensure respect for the rights of the people in the long suffering province.”

Zohra Yusuf, HRCP’s chairperson, says at least 107 new cases of enforced disappearance have been reported in Balochistan in 2011, and the ‘missing persons’ are increasingly turning up dead.

“Bodies of at least 225 ‘missing persons’ have been recovered from various parts of the province since July 2010,” she reveals, “It is scandalous that not a single person has been held accountable for these disappearances and killings.”

Alarming Trends

With numerous existing indicators, there are valid reasons to paint a murky future scenario for Balochistan vis-à-vis the state of human rights.

Firstly, defenders of democracy, champions of human rights and the advocates of press freedom are all being forcefully dragged into the ongoing conflict. At least two HRCP coordinators, eight journalists and one campaigner for the IDP (internally displaced persons) rights have been tortured and killed in less than a year.

In addition, the so-called ‘kill and dump operations’ provide a glimpse into the prevalent and sophisticated network of illegal torture cells maintained inside Balochistan. For example, when activists, such as Qadeer’s son, disappear from Quetta and are found dead 856 kilometres away in Kech district, it gives a clear idea about the extraordinary operational and logistical capabilities of people involved in such regular and untraceable operations.

Meanwhile, an underground armed group calling itself as the Baloch Musla Defai Tanzeem (Baloch Armed Defence Organisation) recently issued a hit-list of four journalists in Khuzdar district warning to kill them all if they reported the activities of Baloch nationalists. At least two former presidents and two members, of the same district press club have been murdered in recent past, highlighting the threats faced by journalists working in Khuzdar.

Amidst the crises, the governments at the centre and the province do not currently have an engagement policy in Balochistan to give an idea where it stands on the issue of disappearances, killings and warnings to defenders of human rights. It demonstrates absolute official indifference toward the issue while the attacks on defenders of democracy and human rights are taking place with flagrant impunity showing a total absence of an accountability-driven system.

The number of unknown, shadowy armed groups is increasing day by day. Emboldened over lack of official action against them, these groups have become less reclusive, more assertive and more selective while singing out their targets.

Turning a blind eye, the provincial and central governments and the executive and the judicial branches of the government continue to throw the issue of human rights into each other’s court. Additionally, the government has not either completed or initiated investigations into killings for which it has been blamed, such as the murder of Professor Saba Dashtiyari of the University of Balochistan, to assure its commitment to independently probe blatant attacks on educators and free-thinkers.

The government has also not fulfilled the promise it made unveiling the Aghaz-e-Haqooq-Balochistan Package that all missing Baloch persons would be released.

Decades of unabated attacks on dissenters have eroded Balochistan’s political landscape to such an extent that violence has knocked out an ambiance of political dialogue.

Obama decides high-profile issues ahead of 2012

On issues from air pollution to contraception, President Barack Obama has broken sharply with liberal activists and come down on the side of business interests and social conservatives as he moves more to the political middle for his re-election campaign.

Without a Democratic challenger who might tug him to the left, Obama is free to try to neutralize Republican efforts to tar him as a liberal ideologue by taking steps toward the political center.

At the same time, he is finding opportunities to boost his standing with his most committed backers. For example, he has appealed to environmentalists by delaying an oil pipeline that would run from Canada to Texas, and to gay rights activists by bolstering gay rights overseas and helping end a ban on gays in the military.

The sometimes seemingly contradictory moves come as Obama maneuvers toward next year's election. Critical to his success in 2012 is retaining support from independent voters who could be won over by his GOP opponents, given the country's high rate of unemployment and economic distress.

The White House denies that politics is at play. But as with any president, some of Obama's most potent campaign tools derive from the powers of his office, from the bully pulpit to decisions on issues that affect people's lives.

In the most recent example, Obama's health secretary overruled scientists at the Food and Drug Administration to block sales of the morning-after contraceptive bill Plan B to girls under age 17 without a prescription.

Social conservatives applauded and women's rights groups were livid, but Obama backed up Health and Human Services chief Kathleen Sebelius.

"As the father of two young daughters, I think it is important for us to make sure that, you know, we apply some common sense to various rules when it comes to over-the-counter medicine," the president said Thursday.

In September, Obama overruled scientific advisers at the Environmental Protection Agency and scrapped a clean-air regulation intended to reduce health-threatening smog. That angered environmentalists, but won praise from business leaders and even Republicans, who argued that the costs and potential job losses that could result from the proposal were too high.

Yet environmentalists cheered and Republicans and business groups groused last month when the administration delayed a decision on the oil pipeline from Canada to the Texas until the U.S. government can study routes that avoid environmentally sensitive areas of Nebraska. Final action on the pipeline is not expected now until after next November's election.

"There are politics in every issue, and there's an upside and a downside to every issue," White House press secretary Jay Carney said. "And usually, it's hard to know in advance how these things will play out politically. Which is just another reason why decisions like these ought to be made on the merits."

Melinda Pierce, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club, said that despite the disappointing decision on smog rules, environmentalists still believe they are coming out ahead with Obama as president. In addition to the pipeline delay, she cited rules from the administration on fuel efficiency for cars.

Pierce noted that one of Obama's most important roles in the eyes of environmental groups was to guard against bills being passed by majority House Republicans that would roll back environmental regulations.

"The kind of backstop the Obama presidency has provided against the barrage of anti-environmental attacks from the House is critical, and until the face of the House changes we need that backstop," Pierce said.

That underscores a calculation confronting Obama's liberal supporters: Even if Obama disappoints them, they would have to think twice before voting for his Republican opponent or staying home on Election Day, given how a Republican president might act on issues they are advocating.

So Obama has some latitude to make decisions that will anger interest groups that support him, especially if he mixes in other moves in their favor.

Such as the case this month when the White House announced plans to use foreign aid to promote gay rights abroad.

It was a relatively narrow step on gay rights, and one without great resonance domestically. What gay rights activists would really like Obama to do is endorse gay marriage, a step that seems unlikely before the election.

But Obama's done enough other things, such as repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on gays in the military, that he's likely to maintain strong support from gay activists even without taking the final step on gay marriage that could hand ammunition to his GOP critics.

With the 2012 election approaching some analysts said it was hard to avoid viewing Obama's decisions through the lens of politics.

"He has no primary challenger and he's in full re-election mode, so he's triangulating, as Bill Clinton would say," said Paul Light, professor of public policy at New York University, using the term for Clinton's strategy of splitting Republican and Democratic differences.

"And that means quashing some major regulations and maneuvering toward the center on a host of issues, and he's perfectly willing to alienate core constituencies like the environmental movement," Light said.

PVDP launches campaign against HIV/AIDS

Pakistan Village Development Programme (PVDP), a non-governmental organization, observed a weeklong awareness campaign against HIV/AIDS in the flood affected union councils of district Nowshera.

The organization with the assistance of an international relief agency,
TROCAIR organized the concluding function of the week in Camp Koroona village, one of the worst flood affected union councils of the area.

Local teachers and students also addressed the concluding function of the HIV/AIDS awareness week, beside, chief of PVDP, Haris Zaka, Manager Operations, Ziaullah Khan and Project Coordinator, Imran Iqbal.

Addressing the function, the officials of the organization expressed concern over the growing number of HIV/AIDS patients and attributed it to the lack of awareness in the province. Expressing sympathies with the patients, he assured all possible cooperation and support in the treatment of the patients on behalf of the organization.

They said that the organization has prepared effective planning to
handle HIV/AIDS in the backward areas of the province. They urged the participants for becoming volunteers to carry door-to-door awareness campaign against the disease.

During the awareness campaign, the organization also organized several awareness related sessions in which youth and women were provided information about HIV/AIDS.

VEENA MALIK: I posed topless, not nude for FHM

Pakistan upgrades air defences on Afghan border in wake of Nato air strike

Pakistan has upgraded its air defence system on the Afghan border to make it capable of shooting down aircraft, after NATO strikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers
"Now we have a fully equipped air defence system on the Afghan border. It has the capability to trace and detect any aircraft," the official in the northwestern city of Peshawar told AFP by telephone.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media, said the step had been taken to avert air incursions from Afghanistan and to respond to any future air strikes.

"The system has also been upgraded to immediately respond after detecting any aircraft or helicopter and to shoot it down," he added.

Pakistan shut its border to NATO supply convoys on November 26, the same day as the deadliest single cross-border attack of the 10-year war in Afghanistan.

The government also ordered the United States to leave the Shamsi air base in the southwest, widely reported as a hub in the covert CIA drone war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Pakistan's border area with Afghanistan.

Sarkozy snub David Cameron's handshake

The body language between the David Cameron and French President Nicolas Sarkozy was tense today after talks ended this morning with Britain opting out a Franco-German proposal for an intergovernmental European treaty.
At a second gathering of European Union leaders today, Nicolas Sarkozy can be seen walking towards David Cameron with his hand out. The Prime Minister raises his hand as if in greeting but as the French President walks on by, pats him on the shoulder.

The gesture was widely reported as a snub to David Cameron, but others have pointed out that the pair had already shaken hands moments before. Mr Sarkozy was making eye contact with a man beyond Mr Cameron, and the Prime Minister simply let him past.

National security not so fragile: Haqqani

Former Pakistan ambassador to the US, Hussain Haqqani said on Saturday that national security was not so fragile that it could be threatened by one memo.
Talking in a private TV channel programme, he said he had come to Pakistan to reply the allegations leveled by Mansoor Ejaz.
“I have filed reply in the Supreme Court through counsel in memogate issue. No charge has been leveled against me legally nor has any legal evidence been presented against me. If opinions from people have come on one essay I myself have made offer for investigation into matter”, he maintained.
Pakistan is a nuclear state and our national security is not so fragile that it can be threatened by a memo from a US citizen, he underlined.
Haqqani said he was loyal to PPP, President Asif Ali Zardari and democracy in Pakistan. An individual had brought accusation against him, therefore, he had come to Pakistan to prove his innocence, he maintained.
To a question, he said President Asif Ali Zardari was safe and stable and he would return home and complete his mandate.
“I am supporter of liberalism in Pakistan. Therefore, any matter be decided on the basis of truth rather than faith of anyone ”, he remarked.

Karzai chasing red herring


What can you really make of this? After Pakistan asked for hard evidence to support Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s assertion regarding Lashkar-i-Jhangvi (LJ) owning up responsibility of the terrible terrorist bombing of Ashura procession in Kabul, his spokesman has come out with an amazingly senseless statement. “It is up to Pakistan”, he says, “to take action and find out where and how the contact was made by Lashkar-i-Jhangvi from inside Pakistan” without waiting for evidence. So do they expect Pakistan to act with no incriminating material or leads in hand to work on? There indeed is too much of jiggery-pokery to Kabul’s stance over this tragic episode, fraught with even contractions in its various official strands’ positions about it. While Afghan foreign ministry says it is collecting the evidence of LJ’s involvement, their interior ministry has accused the Taliban of perpetrating the mayhem. Clearly, they are still to determine the real culprits, and it was some half-baked information that a Karzai itching to take on Pakistan used as a launching pad to fling at Pakistan. Had he been any wise, he would have eschewed an impetuous assertion and instead first tried reaching the truth by critically wading through his various official arms’ disparate versions. The Taliban have denied any responsibility in the horrific carnage, which they have termed un-Islamic. Even the LJ has disowned any involvement. Obviously, the Afghan state apparatus has no concrete substantive information in its possession and different official organs have slapped the responsibility where that suited their fixations. And since Karzai with a strategic partnership pact with India in pocket is in these days in a jingoistic binge against Pakistan, he flew with some raw information to assail it.But certainly now is the time that he takes a pause and ponders seriously that his chase of red herring would take him to nowhere. His problem is right inside Afghanistan, not outside in Pakistan. The thorns were in fact sowed all over his land to sting its polity inconsolably the day Tajik-led Northern Alliance of minorities rode on the CIA’s shoulders to saddle in power in Kabul to the Pakhtun majority community’s great consternation. Had indeed he understood this right from the outset, his country in all probability would not been such a troubled land as is it now and personally he would have been earning acclaim worldwide as a great nation-builder to go down in history with golden letters. He would have been making all the right demands to the US-led occupiers and taking all the right initiatives for grand national reconciliation to bring lasting peace, security and stability to his war-torn country. He would have insisted firmly on the occupiers to put enormous boots on the ground to establish his writ not just in the south or the east but in the north and the west as well. He would have insisted on the international community unbendingly to channel all their aid through his government alone. And he would have demanded unflinchingly a fully free hand to found an all-inclusive power dispensation with due representation of each and all the ethnic entities of his polity. He did nothing of the sort. And now he is reaping the bitter harvest of his infirmity. Not only the Pakhtun bastions of the south and the east stand irreconcilably estranged with his. Even the Pakhtuns in the rest of country are alienated with him. And no darling is he of the Tajiks or Hazaras or Uzbeks either. He indeed is just a lame duck, dependent on others’ mercies and easily pliable by the occupiers. The insurgents denounce him as a mere West’s stooge, no peace interlocutor worth the name. Worse, he is getting a lot of infamy of corruption for the stolen aid money which in fact has been purloined by the NGOs and private contractors and consultants of the donor countries. But for this infamy he has to blame himself for not standing up for the aid money coming to his government instead of going directly to NGOs and the donors’ contractors and so on. Indeed, at the instance of these real beneficiaries of foreign aid, he showed the door to his competent planning minister Ramazan Bashardost for insisting on at least bridling these fortune-makers. Verily, Karzai has now missed the bus, probably forever. No wild-goose chase will come of avail to him. Pillorying Pakistan will not change the ground realities for him, and for that matter, not even for his allies, local or foreign. For their own failures, Afghanistan is now a veritable live tinderbox that will take long to defuse, if at all. And the people of Pakistan are fed up with being a perpetual quarry of Afghanistan’s turmoil. But Karzai should at least get them rid of the colossal burden of over two million Afghan refugees that has become such an unbearable strain on this cash-strapped country’s back multifariously.

President Asif Ali Zardari : I am coming

* President says he is ‘fine’

* Says those who run from country run with their kids

* Says his enemies will be disappointed

Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari is “fine” and will return home soon, a news anchor quoted him as saying on Friday, after his rush to a Dubai hospital led to speculation the unpopular leader might resign and even of a possible coup.

“I’m fine and will return soon,” Zardari reportedly told a news anchor, who repeated the comments on state television. “I did not want to leave. My children and friends and the prime minister insisted that I go for a checkup.”

The issue of the president’s health has gripped Islamabad, exacerbating a series of cascading crises. News media, bloggers and analysts have openly speculated that Zardari would resign or that a coup was afoot.

Zardari seemed to acknowledge the speculation.

“Those that run from the country run with their kids,” the president was quoted as saying. “My son is in Pakistan. I left him there.”

“My enemies will be disappointed.”

Zardari likely suffered a transient ischemic attack (TIA), sources said on Friday, which can produce stroke-like symptoms but no lasting damage to the brain.

According to the US National Institute of Health web site, a TIA occurs when blood flow to a part of the brain stops for a short period of time. It can produce “stroke-like” symptoms for up to two hours. “The MRI is clear, but we suspect it may have been that (a TIA),” said one party official who requested anonymity.

Zardari suffers from high blood pressure and diabetes and has been under heavy pressure in recent weeks following the resignation of the ambassador to Washington over an alleged memo to the US military chief asking for help in forestalling a feared coup attempt in May.

That political saga immediately preceded a low-point in relations with the United States after a November 26 cross-border NATO air attack killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

The extent of Zardari’s possible involvement in the memo case is a burning question in Pakistan, where the military dominates, setting security and foreign policy.

Zardari had been due to address parliament this week after the Supreme Court admitted an opposition leader’s petition demanding a judicial inquiry into the memo issue, including any role played by Zardari. That address has now been postponed.

The government fuelled the rumour-mill by offering different explanations for Zardari’s trip to Dubai, initially saying it was previously scheduled routine medical tests. Then the prime minister’s media office said he went to get treatment for a “pre-existing heart condition.”

Zardari, however, would become vulnerable to longstanding corruption charges in Pakistan by losing his legal immunity as a head of state if he steps down. reuters

Veena Malik concedes to shooting 'topless' for FHM, but not 'nude'
Pakistani actress

Veena Malik has conceded to being photographed in a “topless” shoot for FHM India, but denied that she shot a photograph in which she was “nude”.

In an interview with the British news channel BBC, Malik said that pictures of her fully naked which appeared on the December issue cover of the men’s magazine, FHM India were ‘morphed’ since during the shoot she was “topless and “covered” not “nude”.

Malik has filed a suit against FHM India, claiming damages worth Rs100 million. FHM India has counter sued Malik for Rs250million over the controversial magazine cover that hit the stands in early December.During the interview, Malik says “if you look at my shoot, I do admit that I have done a topless shoot.”

Asked about why she agreed to the shoot, Malik said “I liked the idea of a bold shoot, but I did not do a nude shoot – that’s why I am standing here today, because I have to prove it.”

She explained “I won’t allow anybody to remove my bikini or my shalwar (loose trousers) or my dupatta (scarf).” Malik said if anyone was going to remove her clothes, it would be her. “If I want to do it, I will do it myself. And if I do it, I will own it,” she said.

Veena Malik has been mired in controversy in both India and Pakistan with regards to the shoot. One rendition of the cover has a nude Malik with an enlarged ISI (acronym for Inter Services Intelligence, Pakistan’s premier spy agency) tattoo on her left shoulder.

Veena had rejected nude shoot of her

Veena Malik’s PR Manager Sohail Rashid has said that there was no agreement or any exchange of payment between his client and FHM India. That he had been approached by a Dubai based advertising agency which wanted a bold and a nude shoot with Malik, he told The Express Tribune on Thursday.

“Sometime back, in early November 2011, Veena Malik was approached through me by a Dubai-based Advertising firm to do bold shoots for which they were willing to pay $60,000 and wanted it to be conducted before 14 December 2011, for the pictures to run worldwide on 1st January 2012.” Says Rashid, the same company soon offered another shoot, this time a nude. “Besides that they wanted to do a nude shoot of hers, and had I quoted $200,000, I am sure they would have paid it to her,” the PR manager claims. However, he says Malik rejected the offer “but she rejected the nude photo-shoot offer completely and said, ‘I don’t go for such a thing, Sohail.”

Asked about how the FHM India shoot came to be, Rashid asserted, “FHM India approached her and it happened through Vishaal Saxena, the photographer.” Saxena had earlier shot Veena Malik for Zoom TV, in October 2011, the manager explained. “When Saxena approached her for FHM India, she never said no, because you develop a comfort zone with someone, if you have worked with them before.”

Asked whether Veena Malik was paid for her FHM India shoot, Rashid seems confused, a little unaware, “there was no contract agreement between the two parties, i.e Veena Malik and FHM India hence, I don’t think so they paid her anything.”

Earlier on Wednesday, a case was filed against Veena Malik in the Islamabad High Court. Rashid said, “It was filed by a petitioner, yesterday and rejected, today on account that this was a case based in India and the pictures too had been published in India.”