Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Punjab government using public money to promote Nawaz Sharif's daughter

Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) MPA Azma Bukhari accused the Punjab government on Wednesday of forcing various education institutes to organise seminars for Maryam Nawaz, daughter of Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) chief Nawaz Sharif and wife of MNA Capt (Retd) Safdar.

“The Punjab education department is forcing various prestigious public educational institutions to arrange functions for Maryam in their auditoriums, where she can present her political thoughts to the young students,” alleged Bukhari while speaking on a point of order during the Punjab Assembly (PA) session.

Maryam has so far addressed two public gatherings in Lahore. She made her political debut while addressing a women’s convention at Alhamra and then later spoke at the Fatima Jinnah Medical College.

“Students are forced to skip classes and attend these gatherings” Bukhari said.

The PPP MPA also said that the PML-N was frightened of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf’s (PTI) growing popularity and that they have brought Maryam in just to attract the youth of Pakistan.

Leader of the Opposition in the PA Raja Riaz said that instead of going to educational institutes and addressing students, Maryam should have addressed the recent political gatherings arranged by the PML-N in Lahore and Faisalabad.

Riaz also termed Maryam’s political ventures in public institutions as “illegal”.

Saudi Woman Beheaded for 'Witchcraft'

A Saudi woman was beheaded after being convicted of practicing "witchcraft and sorcery," according to the Saudi Interior Ministry, at least the second such execution for sorcery this year.

The woman, Amina bint Abdulhalim Nassar, was executed in the northern Saudi province of al-Jawf on Monday.

A source close to the Saudi religious police told Arab newspaper al Hayat that authorities who searched Nassar's home found a book about witchcraft, 35 veils and glass bottles full of "an unknown liquid used for sorcery" among her possessions. According to reports, authorities said Nassar claimed to be a healer and would sell a veil and three bottles for 1500 riyals, or about $400.

According to the ministry, Nassar's death sentence was upheld by an appeals court and the Saudi Supreme Judicial Council.

Philip Luther, the interim direct of Amnesty International's Middle East and North Africa program, condemned Nassar's killing, calling it "deeply shocking."

Muslim women make their way to throw cast stones at a pillar in a ritual called "Jamarat," in Mina near the Saudi holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia, Nov. 6, 2011.

"The charges of 'witchcraft and sorcery' are not defined as crimes in Saudi Arabia and to use them to subject someone to the cruel and extreme penalty of execution is truly appalling," Luther said. Luther said that a charge of sorcery is often used by the Saudi government as a smokescreen under which they punish people for exercising freedom of speech.

Nassar was not the first person to be executed for alleged witchcraft by the Saudi government this year. In September, a Sudanese man was publicly decapitated with a sword in the city of Medina after he was found guilty of the same crime.

According to Amnesty International, at least 79 people have been executed in Saudi Arabia so far in 2011, more than three times as many as in 2010. The human rights group condemned the kingdom's reliance on capital punishment. "Where the death penalty is used, under international law it should only be applied to the most serious crimes," Luther said.

The Saudi embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Obama and the politics of disappointment

All politicians disappoint their supporters. It is a relentless truth in D.C.

They make pledges they can't keep, say things they don't mean, and encounter stiff headwinds in office that were just distant breezes on the campaign trail. The bigger their failed promises, the bigger the disappointment.

And just a few hours north of Washington, in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, it is easy to see that President Obama has a lot of disappointment standing between him and re-election.

"I believed in him 100%," says Andy Heller in Scranton. "I thought it was going to be a big turnaround from President Bush. But now you have to wonder."

Heller, 56, is a registered Democrat who runs Steamtown Blueprint and Copy Center, a small construction-related firm. In 2008, he placed yard signs for Obama, attended fundraisers and eagerly awaited a first term that he thought would bring more cooperation, more innovation, or at least a better economy. Since then, business has grown worse, the atmosphere in Washington has become more toxic and his faith in Barack Obama has steadily dwindled. "I'm not sure it was entirely his fault, but he made promises he couldn't keep."

Across town, Mark Dennebaum Jr., 31, is one of those young voters who created the wave Obama rode into office. At his place, 25/8 Productions, a video production shop, business is good, but the feeling among his friends about Obama is much the same as it is elsewhere. "When he spoke it was truly inspiring. I loved him in 2008, and right now if this were in a relationship, I'd be talking to a divorce attorney. When you mention Obama, there is a giant, collective sigh."

The depth of the turnaround is massive. Three years ago this month, 77% of voters polled told CNN they believed Obama would unite the country, 68% said they were either "thrilled" or "happy" he'd been elected, 79% thought he'd do a good job and 74% were confident he would improve the economy.

Today his approval rating wallows in the mid 40% range; disapproval is over 50%. And a dismal 35% of the voters like the way he is handling the economy.mong the chief complaints of many voters: Obama has been too quick to compromise, too weak in taking on opponents and too much like just another politician intent on triangulating re-election, rather than being the transformative, bold leader they thought they were electing. "You don't get a do over," Dennebaum says. "If you have four years to make a difference that should be your focus."

White House going on offense

Sharply aware of such sentiment, the White House is now clearly launching an offensive aimed at shifting voter disappointment from their man to the opposition. Although Obama long gave up much of his talk about bipartisanship, now he is tearing into the Republicans regularly, suggesting they are doing nothing to help the economy, because they are sure it will cost him the White House.

In his headline-making interview with Steve Kroft on "60 Minutes," the president boiled his version of the Republican philosophy down to a phrase. " 'Anything Obama is for, we're against.' And so," Obama adds, "we haven't gotten the kind of engagement from them that I would have liked."

The tactic has caught the attention of some of the nation's most astute political watchers, including Paul Beck, who studies and teaches political psychology at The Ohio State University. "He is willing to take it to the Republicans," Beck says of the president. "That is the course he is taking, (although) I'm not sure it is the course I would suggest."

Why? Beck argues that taking a hard line, partisan stance now, could turn off many of the moderate voters the president needs, because one of the primary messages of his first run was just the opposite. "One of the things he campaigned on in 2008 was that politics has become too polarized."

Others, however, wonder if any other options exist. Political analysts widely agree President Obama cannot merely resurrect the "hope and change" mantra, because voters could well respond with a dismissive "been there, done that, it didn't work."

Jon Krosnick is a professor of communication, political science, and psychology at Stanford University. "Can he be convincing in discrediting Republicans? I don't know. But I don't see how he has any other choice."Still, Krosnick points out an important nuance in the president's makeover: "It's not actually clear to me that he needs to be someone else." Rather, Krosnick suggests, Obama's sales pitch to voters can be, in effect, "I'm the same man you believed in, conditions were just tougher than any of us expected. Getting the job done is going to take longer and involve new strategies. And although I still believe in bipartisanship, it doesn't work unless the other side is also on board."

The state of the economy may be the difference

That certainly seems to be the tack the White House is taking in its attempt to escape the sea of disappointment, and it will undeniably be a tricky, long journey. Scranton's Heller does not think he'll vote for a Republican, but ask if he'll vote for Barack Obama again and his response is straightforward. "I'd have to see the economy make a serious change."

Video producer Dennebaum is more pointed. "He seemed like a man with integrity and a very strong desire to make a difference. Now he's president in name only. That's what it seems like." Will Dennebaum vote for him next fall? "I don't know."

And there is the president's challenge.

Somehow he must not only run against his Republican challenger, but also against his past image, the one that so many voters believed in, and the one that let them down so hard. In critical states like Pennsylvania, he must persuade them to move beyond their disappointment, or he may risk a great and grave disappointment of his own.

Afghan rape victim freed

An Afghan woman imprisoned for adultery after a relative raped her has been freed after President Hamid Karzai intervened on her behalf.

The woman, identified only as Gulnaz for her own protection, had been sentenced to prison for 12 years after she reported that her cousin's husband had raped her two years ago. Wednesday, she was free, at a women's shelter in Kabul, with her daughter.

Her plight gained international attention when the European Union blocked the broadcast of a documentary about her ordeal, saying it would further jeopardize her safety.

Afghan Justice Minister Habibullah Ghaleb and a judiciary committee both proposed a pardon. Karzai then ordered authorities to decree Gulnaz's release.

After the attack two years ago, Gulnaz hid what happened as long as she could. She was afraid of reprisals. But soon she began vomiting in the mornings and showing signs of pregnancy. It was her attacker's child.n Afghanistan, this brought her not sympathy, but prosecution. She was found guilty by the courts of sex outside of marriage -- adultery -- and sentenced to 12 years in jail. She was only 19.In conservative Afghan society, Gulnaz faces considerable pressure to marry her attacker, thereby soothing the rift between the two families, restoring her honor and also legitimizing her daughter.

She was willing to do so in order to end her incarceration, she told CNN last month from Kabul's Badam Bagh jail, though she does not want that option. She would like to marry an educated man, according to U.S. attorney Kimberly Motley in Kabul.

How Gulnaz will be able to re-assimilate into the life she once had remains a confusing question.

Her choices are stark. Women in her situation are often killed for the shame their ordeal has brought the community. She could still be at risk, some say, from her attacker's family.

New laws protect women from abuse in Pakistan

Azim Mai's husband allegedly threw acid in her face last year after she refused to sell their two boys to a man in Dubai to use as camel racers. The 35-year-old mother of five can no longer find work as a maid because her deeply scarred face scares potential employers.

Acid burnings are among the most horrific crimes against women in Pakistan that are now criminalized in a landmark set of laws passed by the parliament. They stand to protect millions of women from common forms of abuse in a conservative, Muslim country with a terrible history of gender inequality.

Rights activists praised the laws Tuesday while stressing their passage was just the first step, and likely not the hardest one. It could be even more difficult to get Pakistan's corrupt and inefficient legal system to protect women's rights that many men in this patriarchal society likely oppose.

"This is a big achievement for the women of Pakistan, civil society and the organizations that have been working for more than 30 years to get women friendly bills passed," said Nayyar Shabana Kiyani, who has lobbied for the legislation as part of The Aurat Foundation, a women's rights group.

"We can't really get good results until the laws are implemented at the grassroots level," she added.

The two bills containing the new laws, which received final approval from the Senate on Monday, stiffened the punishment for acid attacks and criminalized practices such as marrying off young girls to settle tribal disputes and preventing women from inheriting property.

Mistreatment of women is widespread in Pakistan, a nation of some 175 million where most people are poor, only half the adults can read and extremist ideologies, including the Taliban's, are gaining traction.

In 2010, at least 8,000 acid attacks, forced marriages and other forms of violence against women were reported, according to The Aurat Foundation. Because the group relied mostly on media reports, the figure is likely an undercount.

Women are discriminated against in other ways as well. Pakistan ranked third to last in 2011 in the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Report, only beating Chad and Yemen. The report captures the magnitude of gender-based disparities in things like health and education.

The new laws explicitly criminalized acid attacks and mandated that convicted attackers would serve a minimum sentence of 14 years that could extend to life, and pay a minimum fine of about $11,200.

Other new laws mandate a minimum prison sentence of three years for forcing a woman to marry, including to settle tribal disputes; five years for preventing a woman from inheriting property; and three years for a practice known as "marriage to the Holy Quran."

Feudal families in rural areas of Pakistan engage in this practice so that women won't receive marriage proposals and their share of the inheritance will stay in the family, said Farzana Bari, head of the gender studies department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.

"This legislation addresses the patriarchal traditions that have been used against women to violate their rights," said Bari. "People have been doing these kinds of things for so long that they don't even think it's unjust.

Past bills aimed at protecting women have met resistance from Islamists and other conservatives in parliament. But the latest measures were passed unanimously by both the Senate and the National Assembly and will go into effect once the president signs them.

Mai, the acid attack victim who also has three daughters, was happy with the passage of the laws but favored even harsher punishment, including for her husband, who she said was in jail awaiting trial. It was unclear whether the new laws would affect her husband's case, since the alleged crime occurred before their passage.

The couple was living in Rahim Yar Khan, a very conservative city in Punjab province, when he attacked her for refusing to sell their children, she said. Many South Asian children have been trafficked to the Gulf to work as camel racers.

"I lost my job, I lost my face, and I have been facing hunger and poverty," Mai said during an interview at the offices of the Acid Survivors Foundation, a charity in Islamabad treating acid attack victims. "I am happy over the passage of this bill, but I will only be satisfied when authorities throw acid in the face of my husband."

Previously, victims had to prosecute attacks as attempted murder or disfigurement and were largely unsuccessful, said Valerie Khan, head of the Acid Survivors Foundation.

"This is a clear message that impunity will not exist anymore," said Khan. "It's a strong deterrent message."

Activists said it will take more work to change people's attitudes and get the laws implemented, but they were prepared.

"It might take another 10 to 20 years to change society's mindset and public will," said Kiyani from The Aurat Foundation. "That's a challenge for both the government and civil society."

President Zardari will be discharged on Thursday
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari will be discharged on Thursday from a Dubai hospital where he has spent more than a week but will remain in the Gulf emirate to rest, his spokesman said Wednesday.

"All tests are clear and the doctors plan to discharge the president from hospital tomorrow to take rest at home and continue the heart medication," Farhatullah Babar said.

"The president is recovering and the doctors have advised him complete
rest," Babar said, adding that Zardari would remain at his house in Dubai.

The 56-year-old Zardari flew to the United Arab Emirates last Tuesday after falling ill in the midst of a major scandal over alleged attempts by a close aide to seek US help to limit the power of Pakistan's military.

Babar declined to comment when Zardari would be returning to Pakistan.