Friday, March 9, 2012

LHC asked to hammer ‘ISI-backed’ politicians

A petition was filed in the Lahore High Court on Thursday requesting the declaration of the political wing of Inter service intelligence (ISI) as unconstitutional. It also demanded the disqualification of politicians from holding public office who had got funds from ISI in 1990 to play political games.
The petition was moved by Rana Illam Uddin Ghazi advocate contending that the political wing of the ISI had distributed Rs 140 million to blackmail the opposition and politicians and had played an unlawful role in demolishing the government by ‘buying’ politicians back in 1990. He said ISI had spent this money for making Islamic Jamhori Ittihad (IJI) a success and the money had gone to politicians via Gen (R) Aslam Baig and Gen (R) Asad Durrani. He prayed to the court to instigate proceedings against the politicians who had received the amount in that time and to declare them disqualified for contesting elections in the future or from holding any public office. He requested the court to hold the agency also accountable to the civilian government and violation of law of the land.

Mehrangate scandal: Money distributed on orders of Aslam Baig

Former Director-General Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Asad Durrani revealed on Friday that the money was
distributed to politicians on the directives of the then army chief General (R) Mirza Aslam Baig and the then president Ghulam Ishaq Khan.
During the hearing of the case filed by Air Martial (R) Asghar Khan against the ISI's alleged role in distributing money amongst politicians in the Supreme Court, Durrani informed the court that he wasn't sure if Ghulam Ishaq Khan was involved in the scandal, but he said that he had "backed" it.
Durrani also said that the money was collected by the business community of Karachi. Earlier, Aslam Baig while submitting his reply in the Supreme Court had snubbed Mehran Bank's former chief Younus Habib's allegations.
Baig, in his statement, had said that Habib, the central protagonist of the scandal, was trying to "scandalise" the court's proceedings and was trying to malign his and former president's name.
Younus Habib's allegations were rejected in the first paragraph of the four-page affidavit submitted to the court by Baig. The remaining affidavit consisted other details and references from the previous court hearings.
An overview of the document was done by the three-member bench headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry. Chief Justice Chaudhry pointed out that paragraph 14 of the affidavit was contemptuous. Shaikh defended Baig saying that the paragraph should be read in context with the other paragraphs. Baig apologised to the court and asked if he could remove that paragraph. The chief justice permitted him to do so.
The chief justice observed that there were conflicting statements given to the court by all the respondents, hence it was necessary to launch an inquiry in this case.
Concurring to the chief justice's statement, Baig's counsel Akram Shaikh said that if a judicial commission is constituted by the court, it will be duly accepted.
Advocate Salman Akram Raja said that the records from banks where the money was transacted from should be obtained. He also said that all the respondents, being government officials, have violated the oath by
committing this act.
Advocate Raja said that directive according to the constitution should be given so that such a scandal do not surface in the future.
The affidavit has been handed over to the media, while the other documents submitted by Baig's counsel Akram Shaikh remained with the judicial bench.
In the documents, Shaikh maintained that his client had previously complied with the court's orders and was still willing to do so.
During Thursday's hearing, Younus Habib had tendered an unconditional apology for his deeds and had said that he was used by former army chief Baig and former president Ghulam Ishaq Khan and subsequently jailed for four years.
He had further revealed that, due to pressure from the "higher-ups", he had arranged for Rs1.48 billion out of which Rs140 million were distributed among political parties while the rest were invested in army welfare schemes and transferred to account numbers provided by ISI officials on the
directives of Baig.
Asghar Khan's petition, filed in 1996, had requested the court to look into allegations that the ISI had provided Rs140 million to create the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad to harm Benazir Bhutto's election campaign.

Flowers power many Bangladeshi poor out of poverty


sell cheaply on the streets of the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, adding fire to the efforts of Aleya Begum and several other children nearly begging for sales at a stoplight.

“Sir, buy some flowers,” the tall, slender 14-year-old said. “I need to sell all my flowers before I go (home). Next morning they will all become trash.”

Ten roses fresh from the garden cost 5 taka (six cents), and Aleya said her average daily income is about $4. ($1=74 taka)

Yet flowers are becoming an important source of income for many in Bangladesh as demand for blossoms for everything from social occasions to national holidays soars.

The new interest is helping many in this nation where nearly one-third of the nation’s 160 million population survive on just $1.25 a day slowly inch their way from poverty.

“The flower business is growing fast and becoming more popular every day,” said Montu Miah, a 50-year-old flower seller in the northern town of Bogra, 300 km (180 miles) from Dhaka.

“Nowadays, it is difficult to imagine any occasion such as birthday, wedding anniversary, a state function or even Eid celebrated without flowers,” he added, referring to the festival that ends the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Ten years ago there were no flower market in the town, but now it has one with over a dozen stalls, and several more stalls on sidewalks.

When Montu began his business 15 years ago as a flower vendor, he earned at most 100 taka ($1.35) a day. Now his daily income is 30 times that, allowing him to pay for a home of his own and put his son and daughter through a local college.

Similar success stories abound from around the country, with flowers being used to wish someone well, congratulate students over success in exams or in finding a job.

People now take flowers on hospital visits, instead of the traditional fruit, and flowers are also popular as presents at weddings.

U.N.’s Ban cites gains in fighting world poverty

The world has been able to meet some of the U.N. goals of reducing poverty and raising living standards in developing nations, though some regions like sub-Saharan Africa are not reaping many benefits, the U.N. chief said on Thursday.

There has been “broad progress” in achieving the Millennium Development Goals, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters. The goals are targets adopted by world leaders at the United Nations in 2000 to slash poverty, hunger and disease in poor countries by 2015.

Earlier this week the United Nations announced that developing nations have already achieved their 2015 goal of drastically reducing the number of people without regular access to safer drinking water, though much of the credit lies with India and China.

Last week the World Bank said developing countries appear to have already met the U.N. goal of halving extreme poverty in the world's poorest countries by 2015. That was also mainly due to China's economic boom.

There have been improvements in other areas, Ban said.

“The world has made progress in driving down tuberculosis, with 40 per cent fewer deaths compared to 1990, and global malaria deaths have declined by nearly a third over the past decade,” he said.

There is now “near parity” in primary school education for girls and boys, Ban said, adding that the goal of significantly improving the lives of at least 100 million slum dwellers by 2020 has already been met.

Despite the gains, there are “massive disparities between and within regions and countries,” he said.

“Only 61 percent of people in sub-Saharan Africa have access to improved sources of water, while the level in most other regions is 90 percent or higher,” Ban said.

With 2.5 billion people lacking improved sanitation, the world is unlikely to meet the sanitation target by 2015, he added.

“Many people who have escaped extreme poverty are still vulnerable,” he said.

“Their incomes have not risen sufficiently to protect them from shocks, such as the impending food crisis in the Sahel region,” Ban said, referring to the belt of land bordering on the Sahara Desert that stretches from East to West Africa.

Obama lionized for tough decisions in campaign film

White House Works to Shape Debate Over Health Law

The White House has begun an aggressive campaign to use approaching Supreme Court arguments on the new health care law as a moment to build support for the measure seen as President Obama’s signature legislative achievement, hoping to shape public opinion on an issue at the center of the battle for the White House and Congress.

On Wednesday, White House officials summoned dozens of leaders of nonprofit organizations that strongly back the health law to help them coordinate plans for a prayer vigil, press conferences and other events outside the court when justices hear arguments for three days beginning March 26.

The advocates and officials mapped out a strategy to call attention to tangible benefits of the law, like increased insurance coverage for young adults. Sensitive to the idea that they were encouraging demonstrations, White House officials denied that they were trying to gin up support by encouraging rallies outside the Supreme Court, just a stone’s throw from Congress on Capitol Hill. They said a main purpose of this week’s meeting, in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building adjacent to the White House, was to give the various groups a chance to learn of the plans.

For months, Democrats in Congress and progressive groups have urged the White House to make a more forceful defense of the health care law, which is denounced almost daily by Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates.

Administration officials said that they would much prefer to focus on job creation and the need for clean energy at the moment and that the court arguments were forcing health care to the forefront. But they appear to have decided that they cannot risk allowing the court proceedings to unfold without making sure that backers of the sweeping overhaul will be prominent and outspoken.

Opponents of the law will be active as well and are planning to show their sentiments at a rally on the Capitol grounds on March 27, the second day of Supreme Court arguments. Republican lawmakers, including Senator Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania and Representative Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, are expected to address the rally, being organized by Americans for Prosperity, with support from conservative and free-market groups like the Tea Party Express.

At the White House meeting on Wednesday, a wide range of advocates representing consumers and people with diseases and disabilities — as well as doctors and nurses, labor unions and religious organizations — discussed plans to bolster the landmark law, which is being challenged by 26 states as unconstitutional.

Supporters of the law plan to hold events outside the court on each day of oral argument. The events include speeches by people with medical problems who have benefited or could benefit from the law. In addition, supporters will arrange for radio hosts to interview health care advocates at a “radio row,” at the United Methodist Building on Capitol Hill.

People who attended the meeting on Wednesday said the speakers included Jennifer Palmieri, deputy communications director at the White House; Jon Carson, director of the president’s Office of Public Engagement; Jeanne M. Lambrew, deputy assistant to the president for health policy; and Mark B. Childress, a deputy chief of staff at the White House.

“The White House was very encouraging and supportive of our activities,” said Ronald F. Pollack, executive director of Families USA, one of more than 60 organizations that sent representatives to the meeting.

Mr. Pollack said the theme of events at the Supreme Court would be, “Protect our health care, protect the law.”

Jennifer M. Ng’andu, a health policy specialist at the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic rights group, said White House officials emphasized that the court case provided “a great opportunity to highlight benefits of the law for real people.”

A White House official who attended the session said that at least 100 people were present, but he declined to provide a list of their organizations.

Nicholas Papas, a White House spokesman, confirmed that “outside organizations came together to share with the White House and each other the activities they have planned.” In coming weeks, he said, “the administration will continue to implement the law and educate the public about the benefits of health reform.”

In the week before the Supreme Court arguments, administration officials will fan out around the country and join local groups in celebrating the second anniversary of the law, signed by Mr. Obama on March 23, 2010.

Just after the law was signed, Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, predicted on the NBC program “Meet the Press” that “those who voted for health care will find it an asset, those who voted against it will find it a liability.”

But two years later, public opinion on the law is deeply divided, and polls show significant opposition among Republicans and independent voters in battleground states.

Backers of the law said they would use data supplied by the White House to show how the law had reduced drug costs for older Americans, guaranteed free preventive care for millions of people and allowed many children to stay on their parents’ insurance policies.

However, one of the main provisions on which the Supreme Court will focus — a requirement for most Americans to carry health insurance — is not particularly popular, according to opinion polls.

The court is expected to issue its decision in late June, as the presidential campaign enters its crucial final months and Congressional races grow more intense.

Groups working with the White House include the Service Employees International Union; the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees; Health Care for America Now, a consumer coalition that fought for passage of the legislation; Protect Your Care, a nonprofit group created last year to defend the 2010 law; and the Center for American Progress, a research and advocacy group with close ties to the White House.

Eddie P. Vale, a spokesman for Protect Your Care, said White House officials at the meeting “sounded pretty excited about the size and scope” of efforts to promote the law this month.

Levi Russell, a spokesman for Americans for Prosperity, said buses would bring people to rally against the health law from Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Virginia, among other states. The theme is “Hands off my health care.”

On its Web site, the Obama re-election campaign describes Americans for Prosperity as a “special-interest front group run by the oil billionaire Koch brothers.” In a recent fund-raising appeal, Jim Messina, the campaign manager, said that the oilmen, Charles and David Koch, were “obsessed with making Barack Obama a one-term president.”

Mr. Russell said, “The Koch brothers were involved in the founding of Americans for Prosperity and contribute to it, but they are just two out of 90,000 donors.”

Pakistan's Swat to return to civilian control

Al Jazeera's Kamal Hyder reports from Swat.

After three years of fighting the Taliban, army handing over scenic valley to local leaders.
Pakistan's army is in the process of handing over the Swat Valley to civilian leaders.

In 2009, 30,000 troops were sent to the area to fight the Taliban in 2009. Three years of fighting has forced almost two million people to leave their homes.

Russia Opposes New UN Draft On Syria, As Opposition Rejects Dialogue

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty

Russia says it's opposed to a new Western-backed draft UN Security Council resolution aimed at curbing the bloodshed in Syria.

Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said the draft is "unbalanced" because it doesn’t contain a call for a simultaneous halt to violence by both the government and rebels.

Russia, a longtime ally and arms supplier to the Syrian regime, and China have vetoed two previous Security Council draft resolutions on Syria.

Also on March 9, Burhan Ghalioun, head of the opposition Syrian National Council, told AP he would rule out any negotiations so long as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad continues the crackdown on the opposition.

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the joint UN-Arab League envoy to Syria, has urged a dialogue between the government and opposition.

Annan is scheduled to visit Syria on March 10.

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World Powers Stress Diplomacy in Iran

Bahraini Kangaroo Court Trials

A new Human Rights Watch (HRW) report discussed sham show trials in Bahrain titled, "No Justice in Bahrain."

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights said hundreds of unfair, politically motivated trials were conducted for months. Innocent victims were convicted.

Before trial, they were arrested, imprisoned and brutally tortured. They'll endure years more brutality. It's largely unreported by Western media scoundrels, especially American ones suppressing unpleasant truths.

Last March, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa assumed emergency powers. Field Marshall Khalifa bin Ahmad Al Khalifs, Bahrain Defense Force commander, issued sweeping regulations governing public order.

Military courts were also decreed, called National Safety Courts, to prosecute alleged crimes "brought about (by) the State of National Safety (and) def(ied decree) procedures."

As a result, from April 4 through early October, hundreds were lawlessly tried. Military judges convicted defendants by accusation. Justice was denied.

HRW said:

"Based on scores of interviews with defendants, former detainees, defense lawyers, and observers of the trials, as well as a comprehensive review of available court records, medical documents, and other relevant material, this report finds that the National Safety Courts repeatedly failed to respect and protect basic due process rights."

"These findings are similar to those in the November 2011 report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), which comprised five international jurists and human rights experts, and was created by royal order in June 2011."

On June 1, King Hamad lifted the State of National Safety, but continued military tribunal alleged felony cases through October 7. Thereafter, politically connected prosecutions and appeals were held in civilian criminal courts. Defendants were treated just as harshly. Justice continues being denied.

Prior to February 2011, civil courts disregarded fair trial protections. They replicated military court injustice, violated free expression and association, denied the right to counsel and proper defense, and ignored systematic torture and ill-treatment in detention.

Special Military Courts

Only armed forces members and combatants should get military court trials. Civilians deserve civil ones. Bahrain's National Safety Courts flout international law, as well as Bahraini criminal law provisions.

The monarchy's choice lack competence, impartiality and independence. Defendants can't communicate properly with counsel. Nor can prosecution witnesses be cross-examined. As a result, they're convicted by torture extracted confessions. They have no validity in judicial proceedings.

In one case, the tribunal convicted and sentenced a defendant, despite no incriminating evidence against him. Moreover, trials were mostly closed to the public.

Overall, National Safety Courts "served primarily as a vehicle to convict defendants of alleged crimes stemming from the exercise of fundamental rights of freedom of expression, association, and assembly, in violation of international and Bahraini law."

In fact, hundreds were convicted of "political crimes" related to exercising their free expression rights.

HRW examined two high-profile collective cases, involving 21 activists and 20 medical personnel. National Democratic Action Society leader Ibrahim Sharif was involved.

He was sentenced to five years for encouraging assemblies, demonstrations, and sit-ins, "discuss(ing) the demand for a republic," asserting the existence of "sectarian and tribal discrimination in the country," and claiming Bahrain's government "lost its legitimacy."

Al Haq leader Hassan Mushaima was also tried. He was accused of advocating “marches, demonstrations and civil disobedience” supporting the “establishment of a democratic republic.” He got a life sentence.

Human rights advocate/political opposition leader Abdulhadi al-Khawaja was also convicted. He also received a life sentence for “advocat[ing] the overthrow of the regime, a willingness to sacrifice, disobedience, a general strike, and marches.” Prosecutors also charged him with “insult(ing) the army” and “impugn(ing) the integrity of the judiciary.”

In fact, all activists lawfully exercised their speech, assembly, and association rights nonviolently. International and Bahraini law protects them. However, hanging judges ruled emergency decree provisions took precedence.

Yet the nation's constitution only permits suspending citizen rights under martial law. King Hamad's decree establishing the State of National Safety excluded doing so. Judges also ignored Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa statements pertaining to lawfully permitted and protected peaceful street demonstrations.

Nonetheless, law abiding Bahrainis were extrajudiciously convicted based on torture extracted confessions.

Of the 21 activists, two got 15-year sentences, despite no evidence whatever against them. Blogger Ali Abdulemam and human rights activist Abdul Ghani al-Kanjar were tried in absentia. No incriminating evidence was presented. Yet they were convicted of joining an illegal group and attempting to overthrow the government.

Overall, all 21 activists were convicted. Eight got life sentences. Others got from two to 15 years, despite violating no laws.

All 20 medical personnel were also convicted for doing their jobs responsibly. Baseless charges included joining in "slogans and chants," expressing "hatred and contempt for the governing regime," and "broadcast(ing) false and tendentious news" in interviews.

In fact, one defendant was convicted for having accidently stepped on the prime minister's photo. Charges against another involved asking Manchester United football club manager Alex Ferguson to observe a moment of silence before a match.

Judicial proceedings were rigged to convict. Military judges prohibited defense lawyers from cross-examining prosecution witnesses. In some cases, defendants got no right to testify in self-defense.

HRW also examined numerous other cases. They included a prominent defense attorney and former parliamentarian. In all trials, defendants were guilty by accusation.

Bahrain's civil courts function like military ones in highly politicized cases. Eleven of the charged 21 activists were earlier accused of being part of a "terrorist network" in civil proceedings. They involved 25 opposition activists.

The case was ongoing when unrest began last year. As an early concession to protesters, King Hamad freed 23 of the 25. However, 11 were re-arrested, tried and convicted.

In the "terrorist network" case, defendants were denied the right to counsel and access to trial materials. In addition, inappropriate prejudicial public statements were made against them. Moreover, allegations of torture in detention were whitewashed. According to court minutes, all but one defendant claimed security forces abused them physically and psychologically.

Charges against all were spurious. No evidence whatever proved crimes. An accused cleric was asked about his sermons and "what rights people should have."

Last year, HRW interviewed eight defendants after their release. All said they were tortured and ill-treated. They explained beatings, sleep deprivation, forced prolonged standing, extended isolation in solitary confinement, and other forms of abuse.

Torture extracted confessions used in two civil trials unraveled during proceedings. One case involved two defendants accused of assaulting a pro-government newspaper editor. In fact, the victim said they weren't his assailants. After release, the two men said they were slapped, punched and threatened with electric shocks until confessed to stop pain.

The other case also involved a torture extracted confession. An innocent young man got a year in prison, despite his passport showing he was in Britain at the time of the alleged incident. According to HRW:

"The egregious violations of fair trial rights in the cases presented in this report do not reflect simply poor practices by individual judicial officers, but also serious, systemic problems with Bahrain’s criminal justice system as a whole and the role of the military and intelligence services in state oppression."

"For this reason, the government should conduct thorough and impartial investigations into the broad range of human rights violations detailed in this report by implicated ministries and agencies, including the Ministry of Interior, the National Security Agency, the Bahrain Defense Force, the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs, and the Public Prosecution Office."

"The government should fully prosecute those responsible for serious abuses, regardless of position or rank, and adopt measures to deter future violations."

A Final Comment

Despots spurn rule of law principles with impunity. They also ignore calls for judicial fairness and redress for victims. Instead, their crimes against humanity continue daily.

Since nonviolent protests began in February 2011, dozens of people were killed. Over 90 journalists were threatened and abused. So were many others. Hundreds of arrests were made. Virtually everyone was brutally tortured.

Defendants tried were guilty by accusation. Rigged proceedings railroaded them. On March 4, the Bahrain Center for Human Rights said unfair, politically motivated civil trials continue. They operate like military ones.

Virtually everyone convicted, sentenced and imprisoned is innocent. No matter. Some got life sentences for supporting right over wrong. King Hamad calls them terrorists. Like other regional despots, he's a valued US ally.

A year after nonviolent protests began, democratic change remains elusive. Yet courageous Bahrainis keep resisting. Their liberating struggle continues.

Bahrainis plan mass anti-regime rallies on March 9: Activists


Bahraini opposition activists have announced plans to stage a massive demonstration against the ruling Al Khalifa regime in the capital Manama on Friday, Press TV reports.

The activists have also called for anti-government rallies in other towns and villages across the country.

Nationwide protests against the US-backed Manama regime continue in Bahrain as government forces, backed by the invading Saudi troops, persist with their violent crackdown on peaceful anti-regime demonstrations across the country.

The Bahraini activists announced on Tuesday that a 78-year-old woman was killed after inhaling tear gas fired by regime forces during a demonstration in the northern village of Abu Saiba, about 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) west of Manama.

The elderly woman was killed a day after Bahraini activists also reported the death of a 45-day-old infant due to inhaling tear gas fired by the Saudi-backed forces during a peaceful rally in a residential area of Manama.

Bahraini demonstrators hold King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa responsible for the death of protesters during the popular uprising in the country that began in February 2011.

US, Afghans reach deal on handover of prisons

Afghan and Western officials say an agreement has been reached on the contentious issue of transferring control of U.S. detention facilities in the country to the Afghan government.

The Afghan Foreign Ministry says Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak and NATO forces Commander Gen. John Allen will sign a memorandum of understanding later on Friday.

The ministry statement doesn't say what the memorandum is about or provide other details.

A Western official says the document is about the long-delayed handover of detention facilities from U.S. to Afghan control. The official says the language of the agreement is still being discussed but the major issues have been decided. The official declined to give other details and spoke anonymously because the document is still being finalized.

Waheeda Shah: Arrogant feudal convicted; denied status of MPA

For the first time in our political history, the arrogant feudal culture received a serious shock when the Election Commission of Pakistan found Waheeda Shah, a feudal candidate from PS 53 (Tando Mohammad Khan) and debarred her from taking part in any elections for next two years. Earlier, the Election Commission withheld the results of the Constituency and according to the fresh verdict the past elections declared cancelled and fresh by elections will he held in due course of time. Waheeda Shah was contesting elections on the PPP ticket following death of her husband who died of cancer. During the electoral process, she entered in one of the polling stations and after receiving some complaints against the polling staff, she slapped the Presiding Officer Habiba Memon and another polling staff member. A Private TV channel telecast the footage which was also shown almost all the private TV channel showing the arrogant lady using violence against the submissive polling officer. She was very harsh using filthy language against the Polling Officers presumably for not coming to her expectations in manipulating the elections in her favour.
The Election Commission had also ordered tough action against the DSP present on the scene who failed the violent feudal lady slapping and insulting the passing and submissive polling staff. The IGP Sindh was asked to take departmental action for failure to perform his lawful duty. Earlier, the Supreme Court had taken suo motu notice to the incident and summoned her to explain her position for using violence against the polling staff inside a polling station. She offered her apologies which the Supreme Court rejected and adjourned the case to be resumed for a next date. Now she had been found guilty and awarded a punishment by the Election Commission debarring her from contest elections for next two years. In any way, it is a good decision and for the first time a message is conveyed to all feudal and tribal chiefs that they too can be brought to justice if they tried to rig the next elections. Let us hope that the next general elections will be free and fair and officials, feudal lords and tribal elders will not use their powers in manipulating the elections. It is hoped that the next general elections will be free and fair having no parallel in our political history.

Saving Face: A Conversation with Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy

In 2009, I watched Saira Liaqat in the doorway of the tiny house in Lahore that she shared with her parents because no man was likely to have her. The then 22-year old was angling toward the summer sun with a pocket mirror and a tube of shockingly red lipstick.

Saira held the mirror close to her face, and in the right light with her one good eye she was able to find her lips. Her ritual of small dabs and sweeping strokes was punctuated with a pucker and a smile.

"My colour," she said.

Saira's lips were what remained of a face that once glowed with arresting beauty. Her skin was now warped and leathery and wiped of age. The bad eye was milky white with blindness and strayed downward as though it had lost its way in the darkness; the other, still black and piercing, was slowly surrendering its will to see.

Somehow Saira's lips were strangely spared when the acid was thrown in her face by a disgruntled fiancé and they seemed the sole reminder of a young woman who existed until the day they formed the word, "no". Everything else was the consequence of actually saying it.

* (click on the video link above to watch Saira's story)

Acid attacks on women are unfortunately not uncommon in places like Pakistan and Afghanistan, and their effects are physically and emotionally shattering. Official statistics are not considered fair estimates because most incidents go unreported. A woman disfigured by acid is often hidden out of shame and condemned to a life of solitude.

Can a documentary change that?

Since a high-profile win at the Academy Awards the film "Saving Face" has forced the issue of acid attacks on Pakistan's women to the spotlight. Last year, legislation spearheaded by women politicians in Pakistan became law to encourage prosecution and stiffer penalties against offenders. It is hoped the maximum sentence of 14 years proves a deterrent but the sort of acid used in attacks is still widely available and cheap.

Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy, the co-director of "Saving Face" (with Daniel Junge), answered questions for CTV from Karachi, Pakistan.

Your film (and its Oscar win) has people openly discussing the often taboo topic of acid attacks. Why are women targeted?

Women are attacked for a variety of reasons that stem from the concept of shame and power. A perpetrator throws acid for two major reasons: to establish their authority, and to permanently dehumanize a victim.

The women I met were attacked because of petty matters. Some had rejected a marriage proposal, others had shunned an eager suitor. Many survivors are attacked by family members: Zakia and Rukhsana, the two main subjects in Saving Face, were both attacked by their husbands. Zakia's husband, a drug and alcohol addict, threw acid on her in broad daylight outside the civil court where she had filed for divorce. Rukhsana's husband and mother in law attacked her because she was allegedly misbehaving in her role as a wife and mother.

I have met some of these women and what they have suffered is hard to see and difficult to describe. How do you explain to people what happens to a woman's face and features when she is attacked with acid?

Acid violence has a devastating impact on the survivors of the attacks. Nitric or sulphuric acid melts the skin tissue exposing the bones below the flesh, often even dissolving the bone. In cases where the acid reaches the eye of the victim, it blinds them permanently. Many acid attack survivors have lost the use of one or both of their eyes, and others the use of their hands.

This largely inhibits the victims' ability to work and even mother their children. It lowers future chances of marriage due to the appearance-distorting effect of acid. In Pakistani culture women are financially dependent on their men, and so this usually leads the victims to extreme and unavoidable poverty.

Acid violence does not usually kill its victims but instead leaves them suffering the consequences of their attack for the remainder of their lives. Survivors will be irritated by the itchiness and tightness of their skin on a daily basis, and may have trouble eating and drinking depending on the severity of the attack. Although the permanent scarring of the skin is unsightly and very expensive to reconstruct, it is the psychological scars that are more debilitating.

What about the emotional suffering and feelings of being condemned? How do families and society typically react?

The emotional trauma suffered by survivors is unimaginable. Physical disfigurement leads to a crushed sense of self, acute depression and feelings of inadequacy. Local communities and family members then exacerbate these feelings. Survivors are often forbidden from leaving the house as they are seen as a source of humiliation for their families. They are effectively removed from their place in society by not being able to access the public sphere. These sentiments are then internalized by survivors to a point where they start believing that they deserved to be attacked, and that they were simply being punished for bad behavior.

Does tougher legislation help protect women if acid is so readily available and simple to buy?

We hope that tougher legislation will act as a deterrent for people who are considering acid violence. Previously, perpetrators would act knowing that their victim would never file a case against them, and even if they did it was unlikely that they would receive a jail sentence if they were found guilty. The bill has already been put into action; very recently a girl named Yasmin was attacked with acid in the city of Sahiwal, Pakistan and her perpetrator has been arrested under the laws enforced by the Acid Control and Acid Crime Prevention Act.

Do most women want revenge?

Most women want justice, not revenge. Whilst some feel that justice can be served through the legal system a minority have voiced the desire to retaliate in their own way. However, I feel that their motivation is not so much the physical act of throwing acid on their perpetrator but the sense of satisfaction they would get from watching them suffer permanent damage like they have. Acid violence is unique because it affects a victim physically, emotionally and socially; it closes off many avenues for their future and severely limits their options. These aspects of acid assaults are what survivors want their perpetrators to feel.

You are garnering a lot of attention with your Oscar win, and being celebrated in Pakistan -- what some are calling a rare ‘feel good boost' for Pakistan. What does that mean to you?

The most gratifying and humbling part of this entire journey has been the response coming out of Pakistan. I have received an outpouring of well wishes and celebratory messages over the last few weeks, and no amount of thanks can convey my gratitude. It was a privilege to represent my country on such a prestigious platform, and I was proud to show a different side of Pakistan; one that was progressive, proactive and committed to solving its own problems.

Can an Oscar help stop acid attacks?

No, but it is a great way to start a movement! Daniel and I are launching an awareness campaign that will use "Saving Face" as an educational tool. We will be traveling to cities and villages and will screen the films in local town centers, schools and universities. Special focus will be given to areas in which acid violence is most rampant. Details about our initiative can be found at:

Since the Academy Awards, we have heard received a variety of inquiries about getting involved in the campaign. Surgeons, philanthropists and rehabilitation organizations are being redirected to our partners, the Acid Survivors Foundation Pakistan (ASF). "Saving Face" has started a conversation, now it is our job to sustain it.

Gender apartheid cannot be justified in the name of religion

Canada, and its NATO allies, must speak out against Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s attempt to appease the Taliban by taking away the rights of women. Ottawa should reconsider its support of the Karzai government in light of his apparent willingness to ignore his country’s own laws.

Mr. Karzai has publicly supported an edict from the Ulema Council, composed of 150 Muslim clerics, that classifies men as fundamental and women as “secondary.” The council’s code bans women from travelling without a male guardian, prohibits women from mingling with men in offices, schools and markets, and allows men to beat their wives in certain circumstances. The clerics, who call the code “voluntary,” believe it is in line with a literalist interpretation of Islamic law.But gender apartheid cannot be justified in the name of Islam. A state where men have one set of rights and women another is not only morally repugnant but contradicts the country’s own 2004 constitution, which re-established equality between men and women. If Afghan’s female parliamentarians cannot work with their male counterparts, then Parliament cannot function.

With international forces set to withdraw by 2014, Mr. Karzai is under increasing pressure to appease the Taliban. He must resist the temptation to sacrifice women in order to bring the insurgents and other hard-line conservatives to the negotiating table. “While the code is not legally binding, it comes at a critical time for Afghan women. Many are already concerned about the future, especially if peace talks with the Taliban move ahead,” said Robert Fox, Oxfam’s executive director.

Part of the justification for the 2001 military overthrow of the Taliban was the regime’s shocking treatment of women and girls; girls were prohibited from going to school and women forced to cover themselves in head-to-toe burkas. Some of the 158 Canadian soldiers who have died in Afghanistan since 2002 no doubt felt they were fighting more than just the insurgents; they were fighting for justice.

Canada has also spent millions of dollars in international aid to strengthen the country’s institutions, with an emphasis on improving the lives of women and children. Today, 2.7 million girls are enrolled in school, and 30 per cent of the country’s teachers are women. A record number of female candidates ran in the 2010 parliamentary elections.

It would be wrong to reverse a decade of progress. A peace process that excludes women is not sustainable. Afghanistan’s leader must stand up for all members of society. If he cannot defend justice, it is right to ask whether his government is worth defending.

Afghan girls put lives at risk to pursue education

The Globe and Mail

Afghan teens Maryam and Heena have risked their lives and defied a repressive, conservative culture to do what most young Canadian women take for granted: attend school.

Even as they don caps and gowns to speak to reporters via Skype late at night from a unique Afghan-Canadian school in Kandahar city, these new graduates from SAIT Polytechnic in Calgary are taking a chance.“For me,” said 18-year-old Heena, who dreams of being a doctor, “every second of going outside is dangerous.”

They live in the Taliban’s birthplace, where women are discouraged from going to school or getting a job, and one of the most violent places on Earth. But, especially on International Women’s Day, they are also fiercely proud. The opportunity to study at the Afghan-Canadian Community Center (ACCC) and receive college diplomas in business management from SAIT means they can support their families and have a future previously unimaginable.

“It is really not easy to get an education for Afghan women, especially in Kandahar city, but still we didn’t give up and we do our best to get an education,” said 19-year-old Maryam, who lives with her mother, brothers and sisters. “I believe education is the only solution for the problems we are facing in Afghanistan.”

Literacy rates in Afghanistan are among the lowest in the world. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, one in two men and four of five women over the age of 15 cannot read or write. The problem is even more glaring in rural areas – where most people live – where an estimated 90 per cent of women and 63 per cent of men are illiterate.

In the past decade, school enrolment among Afghan girls has risen to about 30 per cent from virtually zero.

The improvements have come despite threats and attacks.

In one particularly horrific incident in 2008, terrorists sprayed acid in the faces of 15 girls outside their school. That was among 292 attacks on schools that year that killed 92 people and injured 169 others, according to the UN.

But since its inception in 2007, the ACCC has been challenging the odds.

It opened with a small group of students, but now boasts 1,500, and the majority are girls and women, teens to adults, studying everything from English to information technology.

To date, more than 2,000 students have graduated, and 17 are from SAIT. The school’s offerings include six online courses on subjects ranging from computers to communications. Dozens more have taken at least one subject and 40 students are currently enrolled.

Gord Nixon, SAIT’s vice-president academic, pointed out that while the average per-capita income in Afghanistan is about $60 per month, the women who have gone through the program, even if they’ve completed only a single course, are bringing home $800 each month.

“The program has been life-changing for our students,” he said.

Ehsanullah Ehsan, the ACCC’s director, said employers, including the Afghan government, international development agencies and local businesses, clamour for graduates because they respect a Canadian education. The students not only go on to support an average of five family members, but they become role models, which in turn has spurred enrolment.

“People in the community see that and it helps them think that women, and women’s education, are important, and maybe their daughter should get an education, too,” he said.

While more than half of ACCC’s funding comes from the Canadian International Development Agency – about $541,000 since 2008 – the money runs out in September. Officials such as Ryan Aldred, president of the Canadian International Learning Foundation, a registered charity that has supported the initiative from the start, is knocking on doors trying to secure new revenue. He’s optimistic the school will be self-sufficient within three years.

Maryam and Heena are among 16 SAIT students – and 200 ACCC students – who are about to graduate. The ceremony date remains secret because of security concerns. For the same reason, they requested that their last names not be published.

They both talk about how walking across that stage is a step toward changing Afghanistan. But they also share something more fundamental to which every Canadian student can relate.

“My family is really proud,” Heena said.

Afghanistan opens first women-only internet cafe

Afghanistan opened its first female-only internet cafe on Thursday, hoping to give women a chance to connect to the world without verbal and sexual harassment and free from the unwanted gazes of their countrymen.

Swarms of hijab-wearing young visitors poured into the small cafe on a quiet street in central Kabul on International Women's Day in a country where women still face enormous struggles even though the Taliban were toppled over a decade ago.

"We wanted women to not be afraid, to create a safe place for women to use the internet," said Aqlima Moradi, a 25-year-old medical student and member of Afghan activist group YoungWomen4Change, which set up the cafe.

Spray-painted in bright colors with smilies, birds and Facebook and Yahoo logos, the modest cafe was named after Sahar Gul, a 15-year-old Afghan girl who was brutally tortured last year by her in-laws for refusing to become a prostitute.

"There are a lot of Sahar Guls in Afghanistan. There are women every day facing violence," said Mohammad Jawad Alizada, 29, who oversaw the cafe's creation and is a volunteer from the male advocacy wing of the group.

"For as long as I can remember, Afghan women have had no rights. She (Gul) is a brave girl who stood up for herself. It is her bravery and her courage that we want to honor here," Alizada, who also works as a social research analyst at a U.S. company in Kabul, told Reuters.

While Afghan women have gained back basic rights in education, voting and work since the Taliban were toppled in 2001, their future remains highly uncertain as Afghan and U.S. officials seek to negotiate with the Taliban to ensure stability after foreign combat troops leave by end-2014.

At the net cafe's opening, high school student Sana Seerat bemoaned the lack of attention given to women: "We never have things that are just for women, everything in Afghanistan is always for men. But we are the same, equal".

Project manager Zainab Paiman applauded the cafe initiative, but said dividing the sexes could lead to further oppression of women. "We should work on harassment together. If we do things separately then we will have to continue this in future," she said, sporting a polka dot headscarf and long floral skirt.


Organizers said a British charity donated the cafe's 15 used laptops, which sit on low wooden tables surrounded by cushions where women can sit and work for the reduced fee of 50 Afghanis ($1) an hour, much less than the rates in other net cafes.

Fundraising both at home and abroad secured the approximate $1,000 a month needed for the near future to run the cafe, purposely situated near a girls' high school, although it hopes to become self-sustaining in the future.

Like other projects designed to help women in Afghanistan, from business to culture and education, there is fear of threats and violence from the Taliban, who banned women from most work and forbade them to leave their homes without a male relative.

"There will always be threats. We're not going to say we are not worried. But we can't stop because of that," Alizada said of the cafe, which has painted windows and is discreetly marked.

There is now concern among some Western officials, activists and female Afghan lawmakers that women's rights in Afghanistan could be compromised under any power-sharing deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Activists were outraged this week when President Hamid Karzai backed recommendations from his powerful clerics, the Ulema Council, to segregate the sexes and allow husbands to beat wives under certain circumstances, reminiscent of Taliban rule.

"We were so shocked by this. Karzai is an educated man, he should know that men and women are equal," said teenager Seerat.

Encourage women for future prosperity

The women are true leaders who are fighting to create a better Pakistan for their mothers, daughters and sisters. And through this struggle, they are ultimately creating a better society for all.

Acting US Consul General Kevin Murakami, who is also a Public Affairs Officer with the CG in Karachi, said this in his opening remarks of a seminar on International Women’s Day. He hosted a dialogue on the day titled ‘Women: Freedom and Equality.’

The seminar was presided over by Bilqees Edhi, while Mahtab Akbar Rashdi, Sheema Kermani and Sadiqa Salahuddin also spoke on the occasion. Renowned poetess Azra Abbas recited her poem as Sheema Kermani performed there.

Kevin Murakami said, “It is an honour to address you all,” adding that Consul General William Martin wanted to be here as he is a staunch supporter of women’s rights in Pakistan. Congratulating the Pakistani women, he said that Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy’s Oscar for Saving Face, is great achievement of everyone. Her success signifies an extraordinary triumph for Pakistani women who, far too often, bear the brunt of violence, poverty and disease, he said.

The acting Consul General said, “Today we honour the achievements of Pakistani women, while remembering that there is still so much work to be done.” He said young women must be equipped with the knowledge, skills and opportunities to pursue their dreams. Indeed, investing in young women means economic progress, political stability, and greater prosperity for everyone tomorrow, he added.

He maintained that most importantly, women from all ethnicities, religions and socio-economic groups must live a life free from gender-based violence. He said, “We should never forget that human rights are fundamentally women’s rights.”

Kevin Murakami informed the audience that Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and First Lady Michelle Obama will announce the Secretary of State’s International Women of Courage Awards in Washington DC, honouring 10 remarkable women from around the world. This is an annual award, and last year, Pakistan’s Ghulam Sughra won this prestigious and deserved recognition. He said, “I am pleased to announce that Hillary Clinton will announce the name of another Pakistani woman who has won the award this year.”

The event will be an important step in the ongoing struggle to ensure equality and freedom for all women and girls, he concluded.

International Women’s Day...The women question


International Women’s Day was celebrated worldwide, including Pakistan, yesterday. Celebrations on the day encompassed many kinds of activity, including conferences, marches, cultural events, etc. As can be expected, women brought their own unique colour and joy to these festivities. The general view that emerged from the day was that women in Pakistan have reason to celebrate the progress they have made so far, but there is still a long way to go. The undeniably bleak prospects for millions of women in our country, particularly in the rural areas, are hardly a secret. First the traditional attitudes and forms of women’s oppression: these include perceiving and treating women as chattel, to be dealt with accordingly and not as human beings. Patriarchy still rules in Pakistan, and despite the undoubtedly better situation of urban women, traditional and hidebound attitudes still have a considerable hold on society and particularly men’s minds. Physical intimidation and subjugation lies at the heart of phenomena such as rape, domestic violence, acid attacks, etc. They all have in common the ability and penchant of the so-called stronger sex to physically abuse women. Unfortunately, for a host of reasons, including lack of education, awareness of rights and the shame associated in our society with bringing domestic issues into the public domain, most abused women stay shy of accosting their torturers. The law enforcement and judicial regime in our country suffers from male domination and its accompanying patriarchal grip. The list of women’s woes is far too long for this space, but dishonourable mention must be made of practices such as ‘honour’ killings, trafficking, vani, sawara, early or forced marriages and the imposition of jirga decisions on women’s fate.

This government can take satisfaction from the fact that it has legislated for women’s rights during the last four years. It is perfectly understandable that the PPP, associated in terms of political culture with ideas such as women’s equality, should have focused more than ever on women’s issues after the assassination of its leader, Benazir Bhutto in December 2007. To bring these bills into the light of day and finally get them passed through the somewhat labyrinthine legislative process in parliament was the collective effort of women parliamentarians and civil society activists cutting across all parties and schools of thought. This women’s solidarity across party or other lines has yielded a body of pro-women legislation, for which all these parliamentarians and civil society activists desrve congratulations and our thanks. However, both in the legislative field as well as on the ground, much more is required, not the least in terms of implementation of the protections and rights extended to women through such legislation.

Lest some people think that the only problems concerning women lie in the rural areas, a cautionary note is in order. In the ‘modernising’ urban environment too, all is not hunky dory as far as women are concerned. The hangovers of patriarchal attitudes and values lie skin deep beneath the liberal veneer most urban men like to sport. It is when this liberalism is tested in crises or crunch situations that the demons of patriarchy once again raise their heads. Education and the widening of horizons and values it brings is in itself no guarantee against lingering antediluvian ideas. We live in a world in which capitalism is increasingly seen as the ‘natural’ order. In the first place this assertion is questionable on the touchstone of philosophy, history, politics, economics and sociology. In the second place, the capitalist system brings in its wake a new form of women’s subjugation, one infinitely more subtle and difficult to comprehend: the commodification of women. This is reflected in phenomena like using women and their bodies to sell products and even create the desire for certain products, advertised as quintessential for a desirable, glamorous lifestyle. So while modern capitalist society, towards which we are all tending, eliminates the most brutal and crude forms of patriarchy found in feudal and tribal societies, at the same time it reduces women to vehicles for the purveying of a range of commodities, while also placing enough temptation in their path to become consumer digits. While women in Pakistan have a mammoth struggle still to wage against feudal and tribal social practices, they need to reflect on the limits imposed on equality by a capitalist system that is inherently unequal itself.

Alarming: A culture of silence veils crimes against women

The Express Tribune

As the struggle to denounce violence against women (VAW) gains momentum, with billions of funds injected into the campaign through civil society organisations, the number of women victimised in Hazara division witnessed a rise in 2011, while the current year promises to be no better.

According to research conducted by Human Development Organisation, an organisation working for human rights, a total of 106 cases were reported from Haripur, Abbottabad, Mansehra, Battagram, Kohistan and Torghar districts.

The research suggests that a majority of firearm killings were motivated by family feuds and murder by close relatives, while only a few were accidental discharges. Fifteen suicides committed under undisclosed circumstances were not investigated by the police.

Tehsinullah Khan of HDO believes that 80 per cent of cases involving the murder of women are changed into reports of suicide by the police.

In 2011, three women were injured in cases involving family enmity, there was one case of attempted murder and a woman lost her nose after she was accused of having illicit relations with a relative.

During the first 38 days of 2012, at least 12 women were killed, two raped, while five cases of abuse were reported from across Hazara.

Human rights activists believe the number of cases is significantly higher, however, due to the fear of bringing dishonour to the family, such incidents are hushed up, according to research data.

On Women’s Day: Commission on status of women wins autonomy

The Express Tribune

President Asif Ali Zardari

on Thursday signed the National Commission on the Status of Women Bill 2012 into law, and expressed optimism that the panel would play an instrumental role in ensuring protection of women’s rights.

Signing the bill to coincide with the International Women’s Day, the president reiterated Pakistan Peoples Party’s (PPP) commitment to working for the well-being of the country’s women, stressing that ‘highlighting the plight of women was part of the PPP’s historic struggle.’

“The National Commission on the Status of Women shall be independent and autonomous; empowered to protect the social, economic, political and legal rights of women,” said the president.

He also lauded the efforts of women legislators in Parliament, stressing that it was their resolve which aided the government’s efforts.

He also remarked that one of the best ways to confront the threat of terrorism in the country was to raise the status of women.

The ceremony was attended by Senate Chairman Farooq H Naek, Speaker National Assembly Fehmida Mirza, federal ministers, parliamentarians and members of civil society.

Exceptional women

At the same time, Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani pointed out that during the last four years, historic decisions were taken in political, economic as well as the legislative spheres to empower women.

He was addressing a function held to mark the International Women’s Day at Islamabad’s Convention Centre.

“I would like to congratulate women in general and Pakistani women, in particular, on the occasion of International Women’s Day, who by any standards, constitute a vibrant segment of our society,” said Prime Minister.

The premier also highly praised the steadfastness of Cabinet Secretary Nargis Sethi, pointing out that a woman supported him at a time when men refused to do so.

“When I needed a witness in court, men flinched but a woman sided with me,” he said.

Cabinet Secretary Nargis Sethi recorded her statement as a defence witness in the Supreme Court in a contempt of court case against the premier on Wednesday.

Gilani said that the government is fully cognizant of its responsibility for effective implementation of all women-related legislation.

“I am confident that the institutes of media, civil society, academia and other leading actors will also play their part in implementing these laws in letter and spirit,” he said.

The prime minister urged provincial governments to address the issue of gender equality in light of new political and economic arrangements in the post-devolution framework. WITH ADDITIONAL INPUT FROM APP