Sunday, April 1, 2012

Top Obama aides hit back at Romney over Russia

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney on Sunday came under political fire from two of President Barack Obama's top lieutenants, who dismissed Romney's tough talk on Russia as being behind the times. In separate interviews, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sought to cast Romney as stuck in the days of the Cold War and unaware of the strategic interests that the United States and Russia share on Iran, Afghanistan and the world's oil supply. The two were hitting back at Romney for criticizing Obama last week after the Democratic president assured Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have "more flexibility" to deal with the contentious issue of missile defense after the November 6 general election in the United States. Republicans seeking to oust Obama from the White House in November pounced on his comments, which had been caught inadvertently by an open microphone. Romney expressed alarm that Obama had offered assurances to Russia, which he called "our number one geopolitical foe." The former Massachusetts governor has increasingly trained his attacks on Obama while seeking to establish himself as the Republican candidate most likely candidate for the party's nomination to challenge the president in November. Biden and Clinton took aim at Romney's limited experience on foreign relations issues. "He acts like he thinks the Cold War is still on, Russia is still our major adversary. I don't know where he has been," Biden shot back during a Sunday interview on the CBS current affairs program "Face the Nation." "This is not 1956," Biden added. "We have disagreements with Russia, but they're united with us on Iran. One of only two ways we're getting material into Afghanistan to our troops is through Russia ... if there is an oil shutdown in any way in the Gulf, they'll consider increasing oil supplies to Europe." Meanwhile, Clinton told CNN that Romney needed to be more realistic about U.S.-Russian relations. "I think it's somewhat dated to be looking backwards instead of being realistic about where we agree, where we don't agree," she said in an interview during a visit to Turkey. The Romney campaign quickly jumped to their candidate's defense. "Vice President Biden appears to have forgotten the Russian government's opposition to crippling sanctions on Iran, its obstructionism on Syria and its own backsliding into authoritarianism. And Secretary Clinton herself asked recently of Russia, 'whose side are they on?'," Romney policy director Lanhee Chen said in a statement. The Romney campaign stepped up Republican criticism that the president is too open to concessions to Moscow. "The administration has given away concession after concession to the Russian government and received obstructionism on major issues of national security in return. We can expect more such 'flexibility' if President Obama is re-elected," Chen said. U.S. plans for an anti-missile shield have bedeviled relations between Washington and Moscow, despite Obama's "reset" in ties between the former Cold War foes. The United States and NATO have offered Russia a role in the project to create an anti-ballistic shield that includes participation by Romania, Poland, Turkey and Spain. But Moscow says it fears the system could weaken Russia by gaining the capability to shoot down the nuclear missiles it relies on as a deterrent. It wants a legally binding pledge from the United States that Russia's nuclear forces would not be targeted by the system and joint control of how it is used.

Ranks of Working Poor Grow in Europe

By LIZ ALDERMAN When Melissa Dos Santos leaves her job at the end of each day, she goes home to an unlikely place: a tiny trailer in a campground 30 miles north of Paris, where scores of people who can barely make ends meet are living on a sprawling lot originally designed as a bucolic retreat for vacationers. “I grew up in a house; living in a campground isn’t the same,” Ms. Dos Santos, 21, said wistfully. Her dreams of a more normal life in an apartment with her boyfriend evaporated when they both took minimum-wage jobs — she in a supermarket and he as a Paris street sweeper — after months of searching fruitlessly for better-paying work. “People call us marginal,” she said. “Little by little, it’s eating us up.” Europe’s long-running euro crisis may be cooling. But the economic distress it has left in its wake is pushing a rising tide of workers into precarious straits in France and across the European Union. Today, hundreds of thousands of people are living in campgrounds, vehicles and cheap hotel rooms. Millions more are sharing space with relatives, unable to afford the basic costs of living. These people are the extreme edge of Europe’s working poor: a growing slice of the population that is slipping through Europe’s long-vaunted social safety net. Many, particularly the young, are trapped in low-paying or temporary jobs that are replacing permanent ones destroyed in Europe’s economic downturn. Now, economists, European officials and social watchdog groups are warning that the situation is set to worsen. As European governments respond to the crisis by pushing for deep spending cuts to close budget gaps and greater flexibility in their work forces, “the population of working poor will explode,” said Jean-Paul Fitoussi, an economics professor at L’Institut d’Études Politiques in Paris. To most Europeans, and especially the French, it seems this should not be happening. With generous minimum wage laws and the world’s strongest welfare systems, Europeans are accustomed to thinking they are more protected from a phenomenon they associate with the United States and other laissez-faire economies. But the European welfare state, designed to ensure that those without jobs are provided with a basic income, access to health care and subsidized housing, is proving ill-prepared to deal with the steady increase in working people who do not make enough to get by. The trend is most alarming in hard-hit countries like Greece and Spain, but it is rising even in more prosperous nations like France and Germany. “France is a rich country,” Mr. Fitoussi said. “But the working poor are living in the same condition as in the 19th century. They can’t pay for heating, they can’t pay for their children’s clothes, they are sometimes living five people in a nine-square-meter apartment — here in France!” he exclaimed, speaking of an apartment of about 100 square feet. In 2010, the latest year for which data were available, 8.2 percent of workers in the 17 European Union countries that use the euro were living under the region’s average poverty threshold of 10,240 euros, or about $13,500, a year for single adult workers, up from 7.3 percent in 2006, according to Eurostat. The situation is nearly twice as bad in Spain and Greece. While direct comparisons are difficult because of different standards, the Labor Department estimated that 7 percent of single adult workers in the United States earned less than the poverty threshold in 2009 of $10,830 in 2009, up from 5.1 percent in 2006. France fares better than most European countries, at 6.6 percent, but perhaps nowhere is the phenomenon more startling. While the country seems to exude prosperity, the number of working poor is up from 6.1 percent in 2006, and experts predict it will grow. In France, half the nation’s workers earn less than $25,000. The median monthly paycheck is $2,199, 26 percent above the average for the entire European Union. But the high cost of living and the difficulty many people face securing affordable housing (home prices have surged 110 percent in the last decade, and most rentals require large advance deposits), leaves a growing number out in the cold. Ms. Dos Santos and her boyfriend, Jimmy Collin, 22, moved to the trailer because they did not want to live with their families and lacked upfront money for an apartment. Mr. Collin, a high school graduate with some additional technical training, searched for work for more than six months before landing a minimum-wage contract last year, at $1,800 a month, cleaning streets near Parisian jewels like the Eiffel Tower. He gets a small government stipend for low-income earners, but they still found it hard to save after paying taxes and living expenses. The wait for subsidized housing is more than five years. Ms. Dos Santos, also a high school graduate, jumped at the job at a Carrefour supermarket after she failed to find work through one of France’s national employment centers, where counselors meant to handle 120 cases have been overwhelmed lately with up to 500 each. But her boss will not let her work more than 35 hours a week, and she cannot find supplemental jobs. “It holds people back,” she said. Today, up to 120,000 people are living in French campgrounds, according to Observatoire des Inégalités, a social watchdog group. While it is not a new phenomenon, officials say it is accelerating. And even some people with middle-class jobs are living on the edge. Bruno Duboscq, 55, a human-resources manager at a small company in central Paris, moved into a recreational vehicle in the parking lot of the Château de Vincennes, a splendid 12th-century castle in eastern Paris, three years ago when the expense of a small apartment left him with too little money at the end of the month. “People at work were shocked when they found out I live in a camper,” said Mr. Duboscq, who is near retirement and hopes the extra savings will tide him over when he is no longer working. “It’s getting harder to get by.” One February evening, as the thermometer showed minus 6 Celsius (21 degrees Fahrenheit), he opened the door to his camper and showed off a small kitchen, a TV, two beds and a tiny shower. Living in an official campground would have been better, but at about $40 a day, he said, it was too expensive. Yet Mr. Duboscq is better off than most of his neighbors. “There is more and more misery around,” he said, gazing at a row of snow-swept vehicles outside. “There are many people, especially young people, living in their cars here,” he said. “They are not well paid, it’s hard to afford an apartment, and the price of everything has risen considerably.” Many of them are on temporary contracts that employers are increasingly using to replace permanent jobs, which carry benefits and job protections that many employers are reluctant to take on. Contract labor has surged in the last several years and is set to increase as politicians in France and elsewhere encourage their use as a way to reduce high unemployment. But numerous recent studies by economists and social groups warn they may increase in-work poverty, because they pay less and have fewer benefits. In 2011, temporary contracts accounted for 50 percent of all new hires in the European Union, according to Eurostat. Isabelle Maquet-Engsted, a senior analyst at the European Commission in Brussels, said political efforts to encourage temporary work may only paper over the problems that Europe has in generating solid economic growth and well-paying jobs. “We have signs that things are not going to get better, because the jobs being created are those that carry a higher risk of poverty,” she said. For those who cannot find work after a temporary contract expires, the situation can become dire. In the Bois de Vincennes, a park behind the parking lot where Mr. Duboscq lives, Jean, 51, an electrician who would give only his first name, warmed his hands recently over a fire in a small oil drum. He used to rent a tiny Paris studio, he said, but moved to a tent hidden in the woods three months ago after a fixed-term job expired and he was unable to secure other lodging. By day, the forest is a playground for young urbanites. At night, however, it is home to an estimated 200 people, including families with children. Some are French, some are immigrants from Eastern Europe and North Africa. Like many tent shelters, Jean’s is quasi-permanent. With his neighbors, he shares a rickety table and a shelf stocked with sugar, salt and an old teapot. Strips of meat hung frozen on a clothesline. “I never dreamed I would be here,” Jean said. “But my contracts ran out, and at my age, it’s getting harder to find new ones.” Matthieu, 31, a construction worker living on fixed-term jobs, wonders why European leaders seem focused more on protecting financial institutions than on helping people like him. France enjoys a beautiful image, he said one recent evening in the Château de Vincennes parking lot. “But it’s not like Anglo-Saxon countries,” he said. “There, you arrive, you know how to do something — you can climb. That’s the American dream. “Never anywhere in the world do you hear anyone talking about the French dream,” he added, pausing to look at the row of campers. “There is no such dream in France.”

Obama praises John McCain as he sharpens rhetoric against GOP

Team Obama has been saying all along that the 2012 election will be about contrasts, not just a referendum on the president. Now there’s a new wrinkle: President Obama has taken to complimenting 2008 GOP nominee John McCain, though not by name, in contrast with the Republicans of today.At two high-dollar fundraisers Friday, one in Burlington, Vt., the other in Portland, Me., Mr. Obama spoke of his 2008 rival’s willingness to work in a bipartisan fashion. “In 2008, I was running against a candidate who believed in climate change, believed in immigration reform, believed in the notion of reducing deficits in a balanced way,” Obama told a luncheon attended by about 100 donors at the Sheraton Burlington Hotel on Friday. By “balanced,” the president means a willingness to consider raising taxes on the wealthy alongside cuts in spending to reduce the deficit. “We had some profound disagreements, but the Republican candidate for president understood that some of these challenges required compromise and bipartisanship,” Obama continued. “And what we’ve witnessed lately is a fundamentally different vision of America and who we are. It’s an America that says – or it’s a vision that says that America is about looking out for yourself, not for other people.” The president echoed those comments at a fundraising dinner that night at the Portland Museum of Art. “We probably have not seen an election where the contrast is that sharp between the two parties as in this election,” Obama said, before talking about the 2008 nominee. At his other two fundraisers Friday, both low-dollar events that felt like campaign rallies, Obama didn’t reference Senator McCain. Instead he ramped up the rhetoric against today’s Republicans in arena speeches aimed at firing up his liberal base, especially the youth vote. “Their philosophy is simple: You are on your own,” Obama told a raucous crowd of 4,500 at the University of Vermont field house. “You’re on your own. If you are out of work, can’t find a job, tough luck, you’re on your own. You don’t have health care – that’s your problem, you’re on your own. If you’re born into poverty, lift yourself up with your own bootstraps even if you don’t have boots. You’re on your own.” It was the first visit to Vermont by a sitting president since 1995, according to the Obama campaign. Amid reports that Democrats are even less enthusiastic than Republicans about the 2012 election, Obama also brought back some of the rhetoric of 2008 about “change,” though in the context of highlighting what he sees as his biggest accomplishments to date. “When you think back over the last three years, I want you to know that because of what you did in 2008, we’ve begun to see what change looks like,” Obama told some 1,800 people at Southern Maine Community College in Portland. “Change is the first bill I signed into law – a law that says a woman deserves an equal day’s pay for an equal day’s work. That’s the kind of change we believed in,” Obama said, building to a crescendo as he highlighted other “change” moments – the rescue of the auto industry, raising fuel-efficiency standards, and student-loan reform.“And, yes, Maine, change is the health-care reform that we passed after a century of trying – (applause) – because we believe that in America, in this great country of ours, nobody should go bankrupt just because they get sick,” Obama said. In all four of his fundraising events Friday, the president did not mention the historic three days of Supreme Court argument on health reform earlier in the week – or predictions that some or all of the law could be struck down. But former Sen. George Mitchell (D) of Maine, who served the Obama White House as a special Middle East envoy, didn’t shy away from the topic in his warm-up remarks to the crowd at Southern Maine Community College. “The Supreme Court should stay out of politics,” former Senator Mitchell said. Friday’s four fundraisers came as the first quarter of 2012 was drawing to a close, and the campaign sought to post the largest numbers possible. And while Vermont and Maine are both seen as firmly in the Obama column for November, there is money to be tapped. Tickets for the high-dollar event in Burlington started at $7,500 and in Portland, at $5,000. At the larger events in both cities, there were some student/activist tickets for $44; general admission started at $100 per person, the campaign said. Also on Friday, first lady Michelle Obama headlined a fundraiser before about 350 people at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. In her remarks, she steered clear of attacking the Republicans and instead talked about her husband’s accomplishments and the stakes in 2012. Like her husband, she urged the young people present to get involved. “You can get out there with your parents,” Mrs. Obama said. “You guys can knock on doors. “ Vice President Biden also got into the campaigning act this past week, but unlike his boss, he went after the Republican candidates extensively – and by name – fulfilling the typical role of running mate as attack dog. “Look, folks, conventional wisdom that manufacturing is dead in this country is dead wrong – dead wrong – and we’ve got to maintain this momentum,” Mr. Biden said Wednesday in remarks at PCT Engineering in Davenport, Iowa. “But if you’ll forgive me for saying this, one thing that could bring this momentum to a screeching halt is turning over the keys of the White House to [Rick] Santorum or [Mitt] Romney.”

Aung San Suu Kyi 'Wins Landslide' In Burma

Myanmar opposition says Suu Kyi led party to landslide victory

The party of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi said she had led it to a landslide election victory Sunday, setting the stage for her to take public office for the first time and head a small opposition bloc in the military-dominated parliament. As results came in Sunday night from the poll watchers of Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, party spokesman and campaign manager Nyan Win projected it would win 40 of 45 parliamentary seats at stake.Other party members, who asked not to be named because they were waiting to verify some returns, said they achieved a clean sweep of all 44 seats they contested. No official results were expected before Monday. Independent verification of the vote was not possible. The victory, if confirmed, would mark a major milestone in the Southeast Asian nation, where the military has ruled almost exclusively for a half-century and where a new reform-minded government is seeking legitimacy and a lifting of Western sanctions. It would also mark the biggest prize of Ms. Suu Kyi's political career, and a spectacular reversal of fortune for the 66-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate who the former junta had kept imprisoned in her lakeside home for the better part of two decades. A digital signboard outside the National League for Democracy's headquarters in Myanmar's main city, Yangon, announced in the late afternoon that Ms. Suu Kyi had won a seat. Supporters gathered by the thousands began wildly shouting upon learning the news, chanting “We won! We won!” while clapping, dancing, waving red party flags and gesturing with thumbs-up and V-for-victory signs. As more counts came in from the NLD's poll watchers around the country, the crowd grew to as many as 10,000. The party's security guards tried without success to keep the traffic flowing past the people occupying much of the road and all nearby sidewalks. Party executive Soe Win said Ms. Suu Kyi had won in 128 of the 129 voting stations in Kawhmu, the constituency south of Yangon that she contested. He said the party had reports of irregularities in the sole holdout.

Pakistan Govt must protect minorities’ places of worship: Minister

Minister In-charge of National Harmony Dr Paul Bhatti said on Sunday that he would raise objections in the parliament if the government fails to safeguard the places of worship of minorities, particularly the Hindu community. “Minorities in Pakistan are in deep trouble,” Bhatti told the Express Tribune. “The government should be committed to safeguard the places of worship of all minorities in the country and all possible steps should be taken for the care and maintenance of these places,” said Bhatti. Taking notice of the Hindu community’s protest in front of the National Press Club in Islamabad for the repossession of their temple, the minister said that no one should be allowed to occupy their places of worship. He also directed the concerned authorities to take up the matter and resolve it at the earliest. More than 30 Hindus from Tehsil Zafarwal in Norowal district took part in the protest on Friday. Bhatti said: “We should respect the places of worship of others and demonstrate tolerance to establish peace in the country in order to promote interfaith harmony. All religions are integral parts of the society.” “Interfaith harmony can only be achieved through interfaith relationship,” added Bhatti. “Interfaith dialogue and harmony among the people of different faiths can create an environment of peace and tolerance in the society.” “We should have interactions to understand each other’s point of views.” He further said that peace was necessary for the development of the country and the socioeconomic uplift of the minorities so that the people of different faiths can sit together and work for the welfare of the nation.

Let’s take Sino-Pak trade to $15b

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani said on Sunday that Pakistan and China had the potential to further enhance their trade ties and called for joint efforts to increase bilateral trade to $15 billion in the next three to four years. He was talking to China’s Executive Vice Premier Li Keqiang, as the two leaders met here on the sidelines of Boao Forum for Asia at the State Guest House, said a statement issued by the PM’s office in Islamabad. Gilani said Pakistan-China friendship was based on mutual trust and respect, and remained a cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy. He said Pakistan was committed to fighting terrorism in all its forms, adding that strategic and defence cooperation was an important component of Sino-Pak partnership. The prime minister said that Pakistan greatly values China’s economic support and assistance, and wishes to promote closer collaboration in agriculture, irrigation, energy, infrastructure development, railways and security sectors. He expressed satisfaction over the establishment of Pak-China Joint Energy Working Group, which was an encouraging landmark in the economic relations of the two countries. He said that Pakistan looked forward to Chinese cooperation in the full gamut of energy, including hydro, coal, thermal, alternative and civil nuclear energy. He mentioned the memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between the Government of Pakistan and China’s EXIM Bank in 2009 for $700 million credit line for the construction of small and medium dams in Pakistan. He stressed for the early materialisation of this arrangement to alleviate poverty and help Pakistani farmers. Gilani called for establishing an umbrella corporation under the energy cooperation mechanism known as “Pak-China Power Cooperation”, which would include specialists and entities from all fields - conventional and alternative. He said that with joint efforts, Pak-China bilateral trade increased by 22 percent last year to $ 10.6 billion. He said his government derived satisfaction as the Pakistani exports to China had doubled from $1 billion in 2008 to $2.1 billion in 2011. The prime minister welcomed the support of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China for infrastructure projects as well as Chinese investment in banking sector. He also appreciated Chinese assistance in the wake of massive floods in Pakistan in recent years. The Chinese vice premier said his country wanted to further enhance the existing friendly relations with Pakistan in diverse fields. He hoped that the ties, spanning over six decades, would be further strengthened at the levels of both governments and the two nations. Separately in an interview to China Radio International, the prime minister said the Asian countries should use platforms like Boao Forum for in-depth cooperation. He said despite difficult economic conditions, the performance of the Asian countries was impressive. Gilani added that US drone attacks were violating the sovereignty of Pakistan and had created a negative impact. During Boao conference, Italy also assured Pakistan of its support to get the status of Generalized System of Preferences (GSP Plus) in the European Union. ITALY: Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti in a meeting with his Pakistani counterpart hoped that the GSP Plus would have substantial positive effect on Pakistan’s economy. The two leaders met here on the sidelines of Boao Forum for Asia and discussed wide range of issues of mutual interest, including the GSP Plus - the European Union’s generalized system of preferences that provides developing countries preferential access to the EU markets through reduced tariffs. Gilani mentioned the significant efforts of Pak-Italy Joint Business Commission in enhancing bilateral trade and stressed holding of its regular meetings. IRAN: The prime minister also expressed Pakistan’s strong desire for boosting bilateral relations with Iran, especially in energy and trade. “Realisation of Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline project will open new vistas of cooperation,” Gilani said while talking to Iranian Vice President, Mohammad Javad Mohammadizadeh, as the two leaders met on the sidelines of Boao Forum for Asia. He said the 1,000 MW electricity being supplied from Iran to Balochistan would prove helpful in overcoming the energy shortage. KAZAKHSTAN: Gilani also offered Kazakhstan – the world’s largest landlocked country – to benefit from Pakistan’s shortest route to seaports. In a meeting with his Kazakh counterpart Karim Massimov on the sidelines of Boao Forum for Asia here, the prime minister said Pakistan provides an easy access for the Central Asian states to access the sea for the transportation of goods. Gilani said Pakistan wants to maintain strong trade and communication links with the energy-rich Kazakhstan. He mentioned the Quadrilateral Agreement for Traffic in Transit (between Pakistan, China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan) that facilitates direct land route between the two countries.

Let’s not forget U.S. student loan debts

As most Americans focus on the Trayvon Martin investigation, the Supreme Court health care hearings, and other sensational stories, another potential crisis is looming that experts are comparing to the 2008 economic crisis and the housing crisis: rising student loan debt. Experts may disagree on what to do to amend the current student debt situation, to the students there is no doubt this is a crisis. As American University alum Alexandra Moller explains, “It’s silly that people who are qualified for schools and programs often can’t go because they cannot afford them.” Fellow AU grad Andy MacCracken echoed a similar sentiment stating, “I know [being in debt] will affect my life decisions … Looking further down the road I’m not going to be able to buy a home, or start a family, or start thinking about retirement because I’ll still be paying all these loans and [have] all this debt for this device that’s supposed to train me for all of these things, my education.” The numbers are staggering: just last week cumulative student debt in the U.S. hit $1 trillion for the first time, surpassing credit debt. Defaults on student loans are on the rise as average amount of student debt upon graduation surpassed average starting salary for 2010 graduates. These numbers may grow even more disparate if Congress does not renew the CCPA Act by June 30 this year, which holds student loan interest rates at 3.4 percent. Representative Hansen Clarke (D- Michigan) has taken the issue a step further and introduced a student loan forgiveness bill. Experts have offered a wide variety of recommendations for how to move forward. However, two main ideologies emerge. Neal McClusky of the CATO Institute and Lindsay Burke of the Heritage Foundation agree that federal intervention creates a “vicious cycle” in which “government increases aid, colleges raise their prices and… congress raises aid” as McClusky explains. This, in turn, “sends students scrambling back for federal aid,” according to Burke. While McClusky and Burke agree that government involvement is the source of the crisis, Rory O’Sullivan of the youth advocacy group The Young Invincibles advocates the opposite. O’Sullivan asserts that states have cut funding for higher education, forcing students to turn to loans to make up the difference. “The high cost of college is making it unaffordable to get the education and training they need to succeed in the coming decade,” O’Sullivan added, “and our country is going to be in a lot of trouble.”

Florida teenager's home town turns out in Miami protest

Thousands of protesters gathered in a downtown bayfront park on Sunday demanding the arrest of the neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in central Florida a month ago.
Civil rights leaders were joined by Martin's parents who were making their first major public appearance in the family's home city since a news conference on the steps of the Baptist Church where the funeral for their son was held last month. Sunday's protest came a day after one of the largest demonstrations yet in Sanford, the central Florida town where Martin was killed. The crowd gathered in an amphitheater with a "Justice for Trayvon" poster behind the stage. Protesters called for the arrest of George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer who shot Martin with a semiautomatic handgun. Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, was in his car about to drive to a store when he noticed Martin walking back to his father's fiancée's home after buying candy and iced tea on Oscar night, February 26. Zimmerman called 911 to report that Martin looked "suspicious" and followed him against the dispatcher's advice. He later told police that he was walking back to his vehicle when Martin attacked him and that he fired his weapon in self defense after he was punched in the nose, knocked down and had his head slammed against a sidewalk. Police refused to arrest Zimmerman citing Florida's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law, which allows the use of lethal force outside the home when a reasonable threat is perceived.
The case has sparked a public outcry from celebrities, politicians, civil rights activists and ordinary citizens who believe Zimmerman had judged Martin to be suspicious simply on the color of his skin and should have been arrested for the shooting. More than two million people have signed a petition on Change.Org to demand justice in the case. President Barack Obama weighed into the matter in personal terms, comparing Martin to a son he might have had and calling for "soul searching" over how the incident occurred. A special state prosecutor is examining the case and could decide as soon as this week whether charges should be filed. Federal investigators are looking into charges of racial bias. Martin was visiting Sanford while serving a 10-day suspension from Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School in north Miami. His parents are divorced but both still live in Miami where his mother is a county housing agency employee and his father is a truck driver. Martin's former classmates have held several smaller protests, including a school walkout by more than 1,000 students last month.
Martin's mother, Sybrina Fulton, later urged students not to protest with walkouts, but to sign petitions, take part in organized rallies and pray. Martin was reportedly a good student and was taking after-school classes in the hopes of becoming an aviation mechanic. Betty Wright, a Grammy Award winning R&B artist and Miami native was scheduled to sing at Sunday's rally in support of the Martin family. "It is something where we need to stop and realize that this is like 2012 and it's unacceptable," she told NBC. Wright, whose has an album due to be released on Wednesday, will be singing "Dry Well," a song written to honor her own 21-year-old son, Patrick Parker, who was fatally shot in 2005. His killer was also never arrested. "And if I can lend a celebrity voice to it, because when my son died, the way I got through it was through the power of family and the power of prayer," Wright told NBC. "And I began to write it out, as I have always done the pain in my life."

Bahrain youths protest against Formula One

Bahraini police fired tear gas and arrested demonstrators Sunday in two Shiite villages as protests were mounted against the Formula One race to be held in the Gulf kingdom, activists said. Dozens of young protesters gathered in the village of Abu Saiba, west of Manama, and Tubli, south of the capital, according to postings by the Coalition of the Youth of the February 14th Revolution on Facebook. Police fired tear gas to disperse the small gatherings and made some arrests, according to provided footage. Activists have intensified their campaign to push Formula One to cancel the Bahrain round of the world championship, slated for April 20-22 at the Sakhir circuit, southwest of Manama. The race was cancelled last year due to the unrest that gripped the Shiite-majority state after a mid-March brutal crackdown on protests demanding democratic reforms that would challenge the power of the Sunni Al-Khalifa ruling dynasty. "We (object to) holding a sports race that belittles the sacrifices of our children and ignores our suffering and wounds," said a statement read by a youth dressed in a white death shroud and a black hood, according to a video posted online. "Do not tarnish the reputation of the respected auto sport with the blood of Bahrain victims." On Twitter, a whole campaign has been launched against the return of the Grand Prix to Bahrain. "Stop, my blood is flowing" and "race over blood," were two slogans posted by activists on Twitter, where hashtags like BloodyF1 and NoF1 generate scores of tweets. Formula One supremo Bernie Ecclestone has insisted that the outbreak of fresh violence will not affect this year's grand prix. Defending champion Sebastian Vettel and seven-time winner Michael Schumacher lately supported the return to Bahrain. According to an independent probe, 35 people were killed in the unrest between mid-February and mid-March 2011.

Arming Syria rebels will lead to 'proxy war', Iraq warns

Arab leaders on Thursday urged a swift and peaceful solution to the crisis in Syria at a landmark summit in Baghdad, with Iraq's premier warning that arming rival camps there would lead to a "proxy war." Nuri al-Maliki's remarks highlighted the split in the Arab League, with hardliners Qatar and Saudi Arabia calling for Assad to step down and for rebels opposing his regime to be supplied with weapons, while others including Iraq are pushing for political reconciliation. Qatar and Saudi Arabia were among Gulf countries that largely snubbed the summit, with the two countries only sending envoys to the first Arab meet to be held in the Iraqi capital in more than 20 years. Doha said its decision was a "message" to Iraq. Kuwait was the only Gulf country represented by its head of state, the first such visit since Saddam Hussein's 1990 invasion of the emirate, and in all, just nine visiting leaders attended the summit, along with UN chief Ban Ki-moon. Syria, which has been suspended from the pan-Arab body, was not invited. "Based on our experience in Iraq, the option to arm either side of the conflict will lead to a regional and international proxy war in Syria," Maliki warned. "This option will prepare the ground for foreign military intervention in Syria and so infringe on the sovereignty of a brother Arab country," he said. Even as the summit was taking place, Syrian security forces assailed rebel strongholds across the country, a day after Assad's regime made clear it would not abide by any Arab League initiatives. While regional officials wanted to tackle a wide variety of issues, ranging from the Arab-Israel conflict to jumpstarting the bloc's economies, the summit was firmly focused on Syria, where monitors say nearly 10,000 people have died in a year-long revolt against Assad's rule. In his speech opening the summit, UN chief Ban Ki-moon called for Syrian authorities to implement Annan's peace plan and for an end to violence ravaging the country. "It is essential that President Assad put those commitments into immediate effect. The world is waiting for commitments to be translated into action. The key here is implementation. There is no time to waste," he said. He added: "The conflict in Syria is on a dangerous trajectory with potential ramifications for the entire region." Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah called on Damascus to "listen to the language of reason and wisdom and end all sorts of violence against its people," saying that "prolonging the crisis in Syria will only make it more complicated." Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, meanwhile, said that while his country was against military intervention in Syria, Damascus was only interested in "extending the conflict" so Assad's regime could "negotiate ... from a position of strength." Arab leaders have said they will call at the summit for talks between the Syrian government and opposition based on Annan's six-point peace plan, according to a draft copy of the Baghdad Declaration obtained by AFP. The region's leaders "denounce the violence, murder and bloodshed, and are in favour of a political solution via national dialogue," said the document, to be issued after the summit. Iraqi premier Maliki also warned in his remarks that Al-Qaeda could benefit from Arab Spring uprisings that have toppled four long-time rulers and shaken other autocratic regimes in the region. "The main thing we are afraid of is that Al-Qaeda will find new cracks (to operate) after it was defeated in Iraq, in Arab countries that are witnessing important developments," Maliki said, adding: "We warn that Al-Qaeda might ride the wave of the Arab uprisings." Iraq has deployed 100,000 security forces in an effort to prevent attacks on the summit, and officials have closed down swathes of roads and mobile networks and shut down airspace. Despite razor-tight security measures that effectively shut down Baghdad, a mortar round struck near the Iranian embassy on the outskirts of the heavily-fortified Green Zone where the the summit was being held, police said, adding that the blast did not cause any casualties but damaged the embassy. Smoke could be seen rising from the site, and security forces members, military vehicles and firefighters raced to the scene of the blast, an AFP journalist said. The Honein jihadist forum has included several recent messages from users threatening attacks on the Arab summit, using mortar shells as well as with suicide bombers. A week ago, Al-Qaeda-claimed attacks nationwide killed 50 people, including three in a car bombing opposite the foreign ministry.

Aung San Suu Kyi's party claims by-election victory

Pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi has won a parliamentary seat in Burma's government, her National League for Democracy party said on Sunday. The NLD says it is on track to win 44 of the 45 seats at stake.

Hundreds arrested for swarming NATO HQ in Belgium

Police in Belgium have arrested some 483 peace activists from hundreds of protesters, who tried to break into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters in Brussels. The Sunday demonstration organized by the Belgian Association Action for Peace was called to protest NATO intervention in Afghanistan and Libya, and nuclear arming. The activists crossed fields and sought to climb over fences leading to the NATO compound but were stopped by the five to six hundred police officers who were deployed to counter the protesters. "We neither want the anti-missile shield, nor intervention by NATO in Libya or Afghanistan, nor nuclear bombs that are illegal in our country," a spokesman for Action for Peace, Benoit Calvi said. Demonstrators most of them in their twenties, came from 10 European countries including Britain, Finland, France, Germany, Spain, and Sweden. "A military alliance that intervenes all over the world and has nuclear weapons is a threat to world peace," Action for Peace said. The protest came ahead of next month’s NATO summit in Chicago.

Women give Obama lead
President Obama
has opened the first significant lead of the 2012 campaign in the nation’s dozen top battleground states, a USA TODAY/Gallup Poll finds, boosted by a huge shift of women to his side. In the fifth Swing States survey taken since last fall, Obama leads Republican front-runner Mitt Romney 51%-42% among registered voters just a month after the president had trailed him by two percentage points. The biggest change came among women under 50. In mid-February, just under half of those voters supported Obama. Now more than six in 10 do while Romney’s support among them has dropped by 14 points, to 30%. The president leads him 2-1 in this group. Romney’s main advantage is among men 50 and older, swamping Obama 56%-38%. Republicans’ traditional strength among men “won’t be good enough if we’re losing women by nine points or 10 points,” says Sara Taylor Fagen, a Republican strategist and former political adviser to President George W. Bush. “The focus on contraception has not been a good one for us … and Republicans have unfairly taken on water on this issue.” In the poll, Romney leads among all men by a single point, but the president leads among women by 18. That reflects a greater disparity between the views of men and women than the 12-point gender gap in the 2008 election. Obama campaign manager Jim Messina says Romney’s promise to “end Planned Parenthood” — the former Massachusetts governor says he wants to eliminate federal funding for the group — and his endorsement of an amendment that would allow employers to refuse to cover contraception in health care plans have created “severe problems” for him in the general election. “Romney’s run to the right may be winning him Tea Party votes,” Messina said in an interview, but he says it’s demonstrated that “American women can’t trust Romney to stand up for them.” He adds: “It would be hard for them to win if you have this kind of gender gap.” Romney pollster Neil Newhouse predicts the gender gap will narrow as Romney moves from the pitched battle of the GOP primaries — Wisconsin, Maryland and the District of Columbia vote Tuesday — to a fall election focused on economic issues. “If there’s a gender gap, it goes beyond Mitt Romney or Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum to a partisan gender gap,” Newhouse said in an interview. “It’s not Romney-specific. I would argue that it’s broader than that.” While women typically are more likely to identify themselves as Democrats than men are, that difference widens to a chasm in the USA TODAY poll. By 41%-24%, women call themselves Democrats; men by 27%-25% say they’re Republicans. The survey of 933 registered voters, taken March 20-26, has a margin of error of +/- 4 points. The swing states surveyed are Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin.

Pakistani boy dies after setting himself on fire because family couldn’t afford school uniform

A Pakistani boy who set himself on fire because his parents could not afford to buy him a new school uniform has died, his family and officials said Sunday. The tragic story is a reminder of the woeful lives of Pakistan’s many dirt-poor citizens. It brings out the challenges facing those clinging to the hope that education could be the ticket to climbing up from the bottom rung of society. Like many in Pakistan, 13-year-old Kamran Khan’s family did not have enough money to send him to school. He was such a promising student that a local private school allowed him to attend for free, said the boy’s older brother, Saleem Khan. Even then, the family struggled. The boys’ father borrowed money from relatives to buy a work visa to Saudi Arabia four months ago, but he hasn’t yet found a job there, said the elder Khan. Their mother works as a maid. The younger Khan used to wander the streets in Shabqadar, their town of 60,000 in northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, looking for bits of metal scrap and other items to sell to help out the family, said his brother. He never asked for anything, his brother said, but last month he pleaded with his mother for several days to buy him a new school uniform, a white shalwar kameez, the loose-fitting pants and top worn by both men and women in Pakistan. He was embarrassed that his old one was worn out and patched up. His mother sympathized with him but repeatedly told him the family didn’t have the money. She finally lost her patience with him on March 24 and slapped him, said his brother. The young boy responded by saying, “If you can’t buy me a uniform, then I’m going to kill myself,” according to his brother. He stormed out of their house, doused himself with gasoline and lit himself on fire, said his brother. The youth suffered burns on 65 percent of his body. He was taken to an army-run hospital in Punjab province. But the family could only raise one-tenth of the roughly $5,500 they needed for his treatment. He died of his injuries on Saturday, said Zahir Shah, a police officer in Shabqadar. Public school fees in Pakistan average only around $2 per month, but even this is often too much for poor Pakistanis, who tend to have many children. About 30 percent of Pakistanis have received less than two years of education, according to a report issued last year by the Pakistani government. The results are poor even for those kids who do attend school. Around 50 percent of school children aged 6-16 can’t read a sentence, said the report. ___

Making sense of US-Pakistan ties
Political and military leaders have narrowed their differences and favour a hard-headed pragmatic re-setting of relations By Tanvir Ahmad Khan, Special to Gulf News Pakistan’s relations with the United States are not only important for the country but also for the entire region. Even as it waxes and wanes, the relationship has been a major determinant of the regional history since the Soviet Union’s fateful invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. The Pakistani and American re-engagement in 2001 paved the way for the decade-long US-led Nato-International Security Force’s (Isaf) military intervention in Afghanistan that brought down the Taliban and launched the so-called global war on terrorism. And yet, defining bilateral relations has become a highly contested exercise in the midst of glaring contradictions. In Pakistan, it is no longer clear as to which forum would ‘re-set’ the relationship undermined by various American actions that outraged public opinion and forced the government to block overland transit of supplies for Nato-Isaf forces. President Asif Ali Zardari’s elected government is as, if not more, ‘pro-American’ as that of General Pervez Musharraf and yet it now evades direct executive decisions and declares that future relations with the United States would be decided by parliament. On its part, parliament has before it, since March 20, a report written by the Parliamentary Committee on National Security on Guidelines for Revised Terms of Engagement with USA/Nato/Isaf (PCNS). The report not only seeks to provide a framework for future cooperation with the US but also makes recommendations for strengthening relations with some other states including China, Russia and Iran with a view to re-balancing Pakistan’s foreign policy. A conspicuous lack of consensus in the joint session of the two houses of parliament convened to consider it has led to procrastination and there has been no substantive parliamentary debate so far. An extraordinary meeting of various political and military leaders has now tried to identify ideas that would break the logjam in parliament. Following this conference in which the opposition parties reportedly took a hard line with an eye on the next general election — anti-Americanism gets votes — the Committee has gone back to the drawing board to reconsider some of the initial recommendations; the result may be a tightening of conditionalities under which full scale collaboration with foreign forces could be resumed.Populism apart, the opposition, especially from the right wing, is being driven by two factors: one, scepticism about government motives in referring Pakistan-US relations to parliament and, two, suspicion that recent high level meetings between the two countries — Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani’s consultations with President Barack Obama in Seoul and Pakistan army chief, General Pervez Kayani’s long deliberations with Centcom’s leader, General James Mattis and Isaf commander, General John Allen in Islamabad — were an attempt to settle issues at the executive level while using parliament for political legitimacy. Then there is the pressure of media leaks from Washington that it would turn to India and the northern route states — Russia and Central Asia — if Pakistan fails to deliver. The tipping point will be parliament making cessation of lethal drone attacks a precondition to restoration of overland transit routes. Government leaders in Islamabad deflect criticism with rhetorical declarations that the president and prime minister have effectively transferred their powers to parliament. In reality, Pakistan’s governance continues to be a personality-centred affair with a very narrow base of authority. Pakistani parliaments have seldom taken a proactive interest in the formulation and conduct of external relations; they have, as a rule, lacked information, expertise and the resolve to address highly complex issues of international relations. Matters concerning the US have particularly been settled in secret civil and military conclaves; the process reaching a climax with Musharraf concluding secret agreements that parliament is now belatedly demanding to see. There is much clamour that the armed forces and the allied foreign policy establishment do not allow the elected institutions to play a significant role in the realm of foreign and security policy. The executive has probably gone to parliament not because of a revolutionary re-think but because collaboration with the US has become extremely unpopular after certain events. Prominent among them are the following: departure with impunity of the CIA killer of two Pakistani citizens in Lahore; the unprovoked destruction by Nato aircraft of the Pakistani border post, Salala, in which 24 Pakistani soldiers perished; information that transit rights given to foreign forces in Afghanistan have depreciated Pakistan’s infrastructure to the tune of Rs80 billion and above all, speculative reports that Zardari’s government has facilitated an influx of “thousands” of American intelligence operatives and special forces personnel into Pakistan. As things stand today, political and military leaders seem to have narrowed their differences vis-a-vis Washington and favour a hard-headed pragmatic re-setting of cooperative relations. Parliament is expected to give it a broad ownership but, anticipating early elections, politicians wish to act as custodians of Pakistan’s sovereignty. The government has not been able to control parliament’s proceedings and foreign policy has got caught up in the cross-currents of Pakistani politics. It is yet to be seen how the civil and military leaders re-engage with the US without a prohibitive cost for the political class.

Future of educated Lollywood

Daily Times
Pakistani actor and coming-of-age star, Ahsan Khan, talks to Daily Times about his upcoming film 'Ishq Khuda', his break from Lollywood, and the much-awaited drama serial 'Bilqees Kaur'. Q Tell us a little about the role that you're playing in 'Ishq Khuda', and how much can you relate to it? A. I play Ahsan, the love-bound boy-next-door that almost every guy would be able to relate to. He finds himself stuck in a love triangle, which is very believable and convincing, without any sign of artificiality. Whether I relate to the character or not, I think yes. I can in more ways than one. I play this very regular guy who finds himself in an inevitable situation, and I guess I've been there, done that. Q Why do you think Shehzad approached you for the role? A. You see, Shehzad was the one who introduced me to Lollywood, with my first film 'Nikaah'. The two of us got along immediately, and he is the sort of person I share my mind with. The big hit 'Nikaah' was, and the educated, accomplished director Shehzad is, I said 'yes', without a second thought. Q Did you initially have any reservations or apprehensions about the role? A. Shehzad is of the few filmmakers that we have who make nice, enjoyable, family movies. Many people might not know it but Shehzad's 'Salakhen' was the first Pakistani film to be released in India. Whatever apprehensions I did have, immediately went away as the role and the script was narrated to me. I trust Shehzad with the films he makes and all his directorial ventures. Q How is this role different from other roles that you've played? A. It's not really, actually. I always make sure that I play roles I and the audience can relate to, ones which have the power to convince and have the believable factor to them. QWould we see you dancing and shaking a leg in the film? A. (Laughs) Totally! I love to dance, actually. It's part and parcel of being a commercial film actor I guess. Not in-your-face dancing, but the kind that would get the audience grooving as well. There are not many fast beat tracks in the film, as most of them have a lot of emotion involved. The film has a musical aspect to it, with the kind of touchy-feely sense to it, and not just mindless crooning on which actors and made to dance to. QWho has choreographed the songs for 'Ishq Khuda'? A. You might be surprised but Shehzad himself is an amazing dancer. He's done most of the choreography himself, alongside Pappu Samrat and Jabbar. So, there's a lot of versatility and flexibility to the dance steps. Q We'll be seeing you on the silver screen after a long time. Why's that? A. I wasn't able to find a good role to fit in. Bad timing, you can say. At that time, I could relate more to the drama roles that I was being offered so took a wild plunge in that. It wasn't as if I had made a niche for myself in dramas. I longed for a good film role, and with 'Ishq Khuda', I felt that connection I was longing for. QWhat are you most comfortable in? Silver screen or drama? A. I'll be honest here. I think drama is my real edge. I've learned so much from it, still am. It has really brought out the actor in me. But then again, film is forever. It's a one-time running show and leaves an impact, which is inerasable. I love doing films. QHave you ever tried your hands in theatre? A. Unfortunately, I've not, as drama and my current projects take most of my time. But I'd definitely love to. Working in theatre is one experience I'd love to gain. QHaving Meera as your co-star in 'Ishq Khuda', who has major film experience, both in Pakistan and in India, and boasts of a large fan following, did you at any point feel intimidated that she might outshine you or you might get unnoticed? A. Never for once did I feel that way. I was rather more excited and looked forward to working with her. The experienced actress that she is, the moment I came to know that she'll be my co-star, I realised how much I could learn from her. Acting should be an extractive job. You should extract everything from the cast and the crew and just should never stop learning. Also, I'm a very focused actor and just give everything my best shot, so that leaves no room for insecurity. Q What are the different genres of 'Ishq Khuda' and what is that one genre you're very comfortable in? A. The film is about unconditional love, the sort of love that God has for us and vice versa. Unconditional so to say, along with a beautifully-scripted love story. I really enjoy performing emotional scenes, where one has to do a lot to get inside the skin of the actual character that you're playing. You see, when you just have to laugh or spell out dialogues from a calm setting, you're not doing much. A scene, which asks for an enactment of emotions, is where I like to challenge myself. Q That's interesting to know. So, what is next for you, after 'Ishq Khuda'? A. Well, I'm doing another Lollywood film, which is Faisal Bukhari's 'Sultanat'. Then there a few good plays in my kitty as well, one of them namely 'Bilqees Kaur' with an amazing cast, which includes Bushra Ansari. I'm launching my own fashion store, 'Ahsan Khan', mid-April, Insha Allah. My other play which I'm eagerly looking forward to is 'Heera Ranjha' directed by Yousaf Salahuddin. 'Meri Ladee', 'Kiski Ayegi Baraat', 'Mere Qatil Mere Dildar', and I've two more projects with Momina Duraid in the pipeline.

‘Ishq Khuda’ shooting continues

Daily Times
Pakistani feature film ‘Ishq Khuda’ is currently under production. Its cast and crew recently came back from the beautiful valley of Swat, which included Ahsan Khan and Meera. Portions of songs were filmed during the spell. The director of the film, Shahzad Rafique, said, ‘’By the grace of Almighty Allah, I was able to shoot in the beautiful valley of Swat. It wont have been possible without the support of the Pakistan Army, the police and last but not the least, the public! The public is as good as the weather there. My passion to show my beautiful Pakistan to the world was fulfilled! It’s my message to all the tourists to visit it without any fear. It’s a beautiful place with great people! I am also thankful to my lead artists Ahsan Khan and Meera and also my crew who without any fear participated in the shoot of ‘Ishq Khuda’ with full enthusiasm!’’ The next spell is expected to start from April 7th in Soon Sakesar Valley where other cast and crew of the film will also participate. Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Shazia Manzoor and Sanam Marvi have sung the songs for the film while marketing and PR is being handled by Hasnat Afridi.

Zardari to address public gathering on ZAB’s 33rd anniversary

Chief Minister Sindh Syed Qaim Ali Shah has informed that president Asif Ali Zardari will address a public gathering at Garhi Khuda Bux Bhutto in connection with 33rd death anniversary of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto shaheed
. Talking to the mediamen here at Garhi Khuda Bux Bhutto on Sunday after offering Fateha at the Mazar of Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto and others, he said 33rd death anniversary of Shaheed Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto would be observed at Garhi Khuda Bux Bhutto on April 4, in a respectable manner and all arrangements in this connection had been finalized. He said under the vision of Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto, the reconciliation policy strengthened the democratic process in the country with the result that the coalition government in center and in the province of Sindh were working smoothly. About Karachi unrest, the CM said that the law and order problem would be resolved in consultation with coalition partners.

Khyber Pakhtunkhwa deport 929 Afghan families

Provincial Government Sunday ordered to send back 929 Afghan families serving in Afghan National Army. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa(KP) government sought details of the Afghan refugees from all over the province in 66th session of KP Cabinet. Provincial Home Ministry directed commissioners of all districts and Police officials to take Afghan citizens into custody working in Afghan National Army alongwith 306 Head Imams living in the province to be deported to Afghanistan. According to the details, 964 Afghan Citizens have purchased properties illegally whereas 473 Afghanis comprised relatives of several ministers and governors work illegally in the province. Most of them belong to Northern Afghanistan are presently living in posh areas of the province.

In remote Baluchistan, Pakistan fights a shadowy war

The family of Jalil Reki learned from television news that his body had been found, more than two years after the political activist was allegedly abducted by Pakistani security officials. Reki's body bore signs of severe torture, according to his father, Qadeer Baloch, including broken wrists and knees and burn marks. He was killed by several shots through the back of the head. His grisly story is replicated across the remote and thinly populated western province of Baluchistan, where Pakistani forces are fighting a separatist insurgency that the outside world barely knows about. While the U.S. and other Western powers focus on the country's other war - against Islamic extremists in the northwest tribal areas bordering Afghanistan - the conflict in Baluchistan is raging mostly in the shadows even as violence escalates. In a congressional hearing in Washington in February, Ali Dayan Hasan, Pakistan director for Human Rights Watch, said that since January 2011, at least 300 people had been abducted or killed in Baluchistan and their bodies abandoned. The acts are widely referred to as "kill and dump" operations, in which Pakistani security forces engaged in counterinsurgency may be responsible, Hasan said. The increasingly bloody conflict also has another side: Baluch separatists have targeted and killed hundreds of settlers, mostly ethnic Punjabis who've lived in the province for generations, as well as fellow Baluch whom they accuse of siding with the Pakistani authorities. Though largely ignored, the conflict has geopolitical ramifications. Neighboring Iran, too, has a restive Baluch minority population and is loath to see the insurgency expand. The provincial capital of Quetta is home to the leadership of the Afghan Taliban, which has coexisted peacefully with Baluch insurgents since Afghan refugees began arriving in the area decades ago. The desolate province is resource-rich, with deposits of copper, uranium, gold and silver, and it produces more than one-third of Pakistan's natural gas. Washington is supporting a proposed giant gas pipeline from Turkmenistan to India that would pass through Baluchistan. U.S. officials have been pressing Pakistan for permission to open a consulate in Quetta, which so far has been denied. In February, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., tabled an unsuccessful bill supporting independence for Baluchistan. The State Department quickly distanced itself from the move, but it added to the conspiratorial view here that Washington is seeking to break up Pakistan. Baluchistan, which runs along Pakistan's western border with Iran, covers 44 percent of Pakistan's territory, yet has just 8 million of the country's 180 million people. Vast deserts and mountain ranges dominate its landscape, the most impoverished in Pakistan. Nationalists here say that the province's natural resources have been exploited by Pakistan's dominant Punjabi ethnic group, with little benefit to Baluchistan. In 1948, the territory was made part of the new nation of Pakistan - nationalists say it was annexed by force - and there have been five revolts against the central government since then. The current uprising, by many measures the most serious, began in 2000 but gained wider support after the killing of a rebel Baluch tribal chief, Akbar Bugti, during a Pakistani army operation in 2006. The long-standing grievances have been multiplied by reports of extrajudicial killings and abductions. Reki, who had a 4-year-old son, was the information secretary of the nationalist Baluch Republic Party, tasked with sending out press releases and drafting speeches and briefings. Taken from his home in Quetta in February 2009, his body was found in November 2011 in Turbat, hundreds of miles to the south. His family, which insists that Reki was not involved in the armed struggle, says that the men who took him were wearing uniforms and driving vehicles of the Frontier Corps, a government paramilitary force, accompanied by plainclothes officers who seemed to be intelligence agents. Pakistani security officials charge that Reki's party is the political wing of the Baluch Republican Army, an insurgent group. "This is inhuman. When India caught Ajmal Kasab, even he got a trial," said Qadeer Baloch, 60, referring to one of the Pakistani gunman responsible for a terrorist attack on the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008, in which 166 people were killed. According to the Voice of Missing Baluch, a local advocacy group, some 6,000 Baluch have disappeared into the hands of the Pakistani authorities since 2003. In 2011, the government acknowledged that some 1,000 Baluch were missing, but this year it revised the figure down to just 48, with little explanation. "They have taken the cream of our society," said Nasrullah Baluch, the group's chairman. "These were our political leaders, doctors, engineers, students. The point of killing them is to snuff out the Baluch voice." Officially, there is no military operation under way in Baluchistan; Pakistan says it has deployed 50,000 Frontier Corps troops to maintain law and order. But privately, security officials claim that abductees have links to the armed uprising in some way, and they also complain that Pakistani courts don't convict terrorists - so the security forces have to find other ways to deal with them. The apparent "kill and dump" policy began in July 2010 in response to deaths of Punjabi settlers, which subsequently dropped. No one has been held responsible for the killings, and security officials have rejected as "baseless" allegations that they're involved. The Frontier Corps declined to comment. "They (intelligence agencies) know how many times a person uses the bathroom a day. How can they say they don't know where these bodies came from?" said Tahir Hussain, the Baluchistan representative of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, an independent monitoring organization. Under a U.S. regulation known as the Leahy Amendment, Washington is prohibited from funding any foreign military unit that's responsible for human rights violations. The U.S. provides some $2 billion a year in security aid to Pakistan, though how much goes to the Frontier Corps is unclear. Pakistan repeatedly has claimed that India is supporting the Baluch uprising. Insurgents deny it, but some Western diplomats believe there's evidence to back up the charge. A diplomatic cable sent Dec. 31, 2009, from the U.S. consulate in Karachi and obtained by WikiLeaks said it was "plausible" that Indian intelligence was helping the Baluch insurgents. An earlier 2008 cable - discussing the Mumbai attack that was reportedly hatched by Pakistan-based terrorists - reported fears by British officials that "intense domestic pressure would force Delhi to respond, at the minimum, by ramping up covert support to nationalist militants fighting the Pakistani army in Baluchistan." "Indians are 100 percent funding and training" the separatists in camps in Afghanistan, alleged a senior Pakistan security official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to talk to reporters. The official estimated that the various insurgent groups combined had 3,000 to 4,000 fighters, but that their capability "does not compare" to the superior fighters of the Pakistani Taliban, who are battling security forces in the northwest tribal areas. Pakistani security officials believe that the insurgency is controlled by two exiled leaders, both tribal chiefs: Bramadagh Bugti, who lives in Switzerland and allegedly controls the Baluch Republican Army, and Hyrbyair Marri, who's based in London and is linked to the Baluchistan Liberation Army. Both men deny running these groups. This year, Islamabad proposed to drop all outstanding criminal cases against Bugti and Marri and enter into negotiations - an offer that was rebuffed. "We are occupied by Pakistan, which has done nothing for the Baluch except plunder us for 60 years," said Marri, speaking by telephone from London. "The only negotiation we are willing to hold with Pakistan is the withdrawal of its forces from our land." The rebels have killed 166 Frontier Corpsmen since 2009, according to the military's public relations wing. The Baluchistan Liberation Army claimed responsibility in March for killing two police officers in Quetta. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan believes that some 800 settlers, including schoolteachers, barbers and professors who had origins in Punjab province, have been murdered in Baluchistan since 2006, seemingly by separatists. The rebels also have killed hundreds of fellow Baluch whom they accuse of siding with Pakistan or spying for it. On March 10, six young and apparently unarmed Bugti men were executed by the Baluch Republican Army in the rebel stronghold of Dera Bugti. Many civilians also have been killed by landmines planted by insurgents. Baluchistan is effectively under martial law. Naseebullah Bazai, the top civilian security official, insisted that day-to-day administration was handled by civilian authorities but added that "our resources do not meet the challenges in any way."

Lifting the veil on Afghanistan’s female addicts

Anita lifted the sky-blue burqa from her face, revealing glazed eyes and cracked lips from years of smoking opium, and touched her saggy belly, still round from giving birth to her seventh child a month ago. “I can’t give breast milk to my baby,” said the 32-year-old Anita, who like other women interviewed for this story, declined to give her full name. “I’m scared he’ll get addicted.” She was huddled with other women at the UN-funded Nejat drug rehabilitation center in the old quarter of Kabul, having sneaked out of her home to avoid being stopped by her husband from going outside alone. With little funding and no access to substitution drugs such as methadone, treatment is rudimentary at Nejat for a problem that is growing in a dirt-poor country riven by conflicts for more than three decades. Afghanistan is the source for more than 90 per cent of the world’s opium, which is used to make heroin, and more of it is being grown than ever before. While it is not uncommon to see men shooting up along the banks of the dried of up Kabul riverbed in broad daylight, women in the ultra-conservative culture of Muslim Afghanistan are expected to stay out of public view for the most part. They often have to seek permission from a male relative or husband to leave their home, and when they do they are encased in the head-to-toe burqa. “I am not allowed to leave home for medical checks. What can I do? I am a woman,” Anita said matter of factly. Like many of Afghanistan’s female drug users, Anita picked up the habit from her husband. Like other women interviewed for this story, Anita asked that only her first name be used. Shrouded in stigma, female drug users is a topic that is almost never mentioned in Afghanistan. They agreed to tell their stories to a reporter only through an intermediary they trusted. CONSUMPTION ON RISE Opium poppy cultivation in a country that has been growing the plant for a thousand years increased 7 per cent in 2011 from the year before, due to a spike in prices and worsening security, according to a survey sponsored by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In 2011, the farm-gate value of opium production more than doubled from 2010 to $1.4 billion and now accounts for 15 per cent of the Afghan economy, the UNODC says. Opiate consumption in Afghanistan, where it has long been a medication but in recent years has been used increasingly for recreation, is also on a sharp rise. The UNODC says Afghanistan has around one million heroin and opium addicts out of a population of 30 million, making it the world’s top user per capita. No estimates are available on how many women are addicted to opium or heroin. Nejat estimates around 60,000 women in Afghanistan regularly take illegal drugs, including hashish and marijuana. “There has been a definite increase amongst women drug users over the last decade,” said Arman Raoufi, director of harm reduction for women at Nejat. Smoking opium costs around 200 Afghanis a day ($4), a very expensive habit in a country where a third live beneath the poverty line. Women send their children to collect scrap and bottles to help pay for their habit, or resort to begging, extending a hand to cars from beneath their burqa on busy streets when their husbands have left home. “My husband took on a second wife and began to ignore me, so I started to smoke his powder (opium) and now must beg,” said Fauzia, 30, a petite mother of five sitting in the corner of Nejat, her embroidered floral slippers poking out from under her baggy trousers. She said she was terrified that her husband and male relatives might discover she was seeking treatment on her own at the center. Treatment options are sorely limited. A pilot project launched two years ago by Medecins du Monde, which gives methadone to drug addicts, is the only one in the country. The National AIDS Control Programme (NACP) wants to roll it out across the country, but the Ministry of Counter-narcotics has objected, saying it would introduce yet another narcotic onto the black market. IRANIAN CONNECTION With her five-year-old son tugging on her unwashed burqa, 30-year-old Najia said she has smoked opium for nine years. “It is so hard for me. I have kids. I’m poor. I’m not able to work – my husband won’t allow me,” said the raven-haired mother of four. Najia said she picked up the habit from her husband after he returned from his job as a labourer in neighboring Iran. Raoufi at the Nejat center says the return of migrant workers and refugees, who fled to Iran and Pakistan during the Soviet occupation of the 1980s, and the bloody civil war and Taliban rule that followed, is the main reason behind the rise in female drug addicts. Increased street prostitution since the fall of the Taliban, which policed the trade more rigorously than the government does today, has also contributed, he said. Iran has the second highest heroin abuse rate in the world after Afghanistan, according to UNODC. Afghan addicts among the 1 million refugees in Iran have become such an issue Tehran has started to expel them. “Our relatively open borders are not doing us any favors,” said Feda Mohammad Paikan, who heads the NACP working under the Afghan Ministry of Public Health. “Most addicts get hooked in Iran, and many of these men have wives.” PRISONERS OF HABIT Afghanistan’s female narcotics problem is now filling the country’s largest women’s prison, Badam Bagh or “Almond Orchard”, on the outskirts of Kabul. Of its 164 inmates, 64 are opium and heroin users, double what it was when the clinic started in 2008, said clinic doctor, Hanifa Amiri. “There are simply more drugs out there available to women now,” she said, waving a medical-gloved hand over a prison courtyard, where burqa-clad female relatives were bringing gifts of pomegranates and flat naan bread for the inmates. With cropped black hair, a leather jacket and a henna tattoo of a scorpion on her hand, inmate Madina looks nothing like an ordinary Afghan woman. One of seven injecting heroin users in Badam Bagh, she lives with her teenage son and daughter in prison, where she has been for seven years since she killed her husband. She said she murdered him after he forbade her from prostituting herself to support her habit, said Madina, the only inmate at the prison who agreed to speak to Reuters. “I would love to give it all up, but how am I meant to, as a woman?” the 37-year-old mother of two said as she scratched at the scabs on her arm, dark red from recent use. She supports her habit by selling handmade sexual aid tools – stuffing compacted wool into condoms – to other inmates, several of whom have developed lesbian relationships. HIV and AIDS is becoming a more serious issue, largely spurred by injecting drug use, and could reach the general population if not tackled properly. A new strategy being rolled out by the health ministry to target more women in counseling and HIV testing is being met by opposition from the strong conservative forces in Afghan society. “HIV and drug use are viewed as evil in Muslim society, and even more so for women,” said specialist Mohammad Hahn Heddait, who works at the infectious diseases hospital under the ministry of health.

Afghanistan names general to run U.S. prison, asserts control

Afghanistan named a three star general to take over Bagram prison from the U.S. military and with him, final say over which prisoners are released, an issue with the potential to open another rift in relations between Washington and Kabul. The issue of the release of any of the 3,200 people held in the prison at the sprawling American base, north of Kabul, is sensitive to both countries as Afghanistan assumes full security responsibilities ahead of departure of most NATO combat forces in 2014. Washington fears the prisoners, most of whom it says are mid to high level members of the Taliban, might return to the battlefield as has happened in the past, citing the case of a Taliban commander transferred from Guantanamo Bay to Afghan custody in 2007 who ended up fighting coalition forces again. "They (the United States) can have a consultative role, but not a veto," said Aimal Faizi, chief spokesman of President Hamid Karzai. "What's the point of the transfer if we don't have full control," he said, in remarks that have become increasingly assertive following a string of incidents that have strained U.S.-Afghan ties, notably the killing of 17 villagers blamed on a U.S. soldier and the burning of Korans at the Bagram base. Afghan General Ghulam Farooq Barekzai - formerly in charge of policy at the defense ministry - has been named to take over the Bagram detention centre, a palace statement on Saturday said. It was the first step toward handing over control of the prison to Afghan authorities and another move to transferring complete security responsibility to the volatile country before the planned pullout of most Western forces. Afghanistan, which has long sought control of Bagram prison, says no sovereign country can allow thousands of its people to be held indefinitely under foreign guard and that it alone has the powers to determine what to do with them. The two sides reached an agreement in March to shift the prison to Afghan control after months of wrangling and a key element of the pact was that Afghanistan would consult with the United States before freeing any of the men incarcerated there. "And if the United States provides its assessment that continued detention is necessary to prevent the detainee from engaging in or facilitating terrorist activity, Afghanistan is to consider favorably such assessment," the document said. U.S. officials have interpreted that to mean that the two sides at the very least would have to agree before any of the detainees, many held for years without any trial, could be freed. GRADUAL TRANSFER Prisoners there will gradually be transferred to Afghan custody over six months, and U.S. forces will provide "technical and logistical support" for a further six months. About 50 non-Afghan detainees at the prison will remain in U.S. custody, both sides have said. Under the agreement, Afghanistan also has to provide the United States access to the transferred detainees to ensure that they are being treated in accordance with humanitarian laws. They may also be able to interrogate them, which has long been a key U.S. demand, U.S. and Afghan officials said. "This is something that Afghan commanders at the prison will decide," said an Afghan government official, who declined to go into any more detail because of the sensitivity of the matter.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto 33rd death anniversary to be observed

The 33rd death anniversary of PPP founder late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto will be observed on 4th April (Wednesday). Quran Khawani will be held at Jinnah Park (old Jail) and Dua will be offered for the departed soul here. Talking to APP, Member Central Excutive Committee (CEC) Qazi Sultan Mehmood said that all the arrangements have been finalised to observe the anniversary of Z.A Bhutto, with a pledge to continue his mission and strengthen the democracy norms in the country. Paying tributes to Zulfikar Ali Bhutto on his death anniversary, he urged the party workers to promote his philosophy and utilize their all available resources for the promotion of democratic culture in the country. He said that Z.A Bhutto wanted to strengthen democracy in the country and accepted gallows in the struggle for the rights of the downtrodden classes of the society adding that Bhutto declined to bow before the military dictator. He said that due to these reasons once again a PPP government has been established in Pakistan under the able leadership of the co-chairman, President, Asif Ali Zardari and the graph of popularity of the party is on rise. Various programmes including seminars and workers convention will be organised in different parts of the country to pay tribute to the PPP founder. Radio Pakistan and Pakistan Television have also made arrangements for special transmission. The special transmission will highlight life, struggle, services and revolutionary achievements of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto.

State of human rights in Pakistan

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan's report on "state of human rights in 2011" in Pakistan makes the disturbing though not surprising disclosure that rights violations increased manifold during the year, offering the unpalatable explanation that this happened because the government was caught up in its own crises - the memo controversy, NRO and rumours of a coup - and fighting for its survival. Indeed, this government has been busy trying to survive in the face of various crises - some self-created and others by extraneous circumstances - but a democratic government is not a one-man show; its army of ministers should have been addressing these issues as and when they came up. Unfortunately, however, there has been a tendency either to play it safe by confusing a given issue or, in certain instances, to look the other way. Unveiling the report on Thursday, HRCP co-chairman Kamran Arif said that 2011 began with the murder of Salmaan Taseer; and later Christian MNA and minority affairs minister Shahbaz Bhatti was murdered. "Minorities", he added, "continued to suffer and are leaving an unsafe country." It is important to recall here how the government handled the two assassinations. Soon after Taseer's assassination, although the assassin left no confusion as to his responsibility and motive, ruling party ministers and various spokespersons sought to deflect attention from the real problem, terming it a political murder. And in the case of Shahbaz Bhatti, who was under extremists' threat, Interior Minister Rehman Malik tried to shift the blame to the victim by claiming that he was offered a used bullet proof vehicle but that Bhatti had insisted on getting a new one. Another minister, Babar Awan, when accused of having accepted a hefty amount - in exchange for ensuring exoneration in court - from the accused in the multi-billion rupee Bank of Punjab scandal, said the accusation came from an Ahmadi community's conspiracy to malign him. Hence, indirectly the government actually contributed to society's tolerance for violent extremists and growing intolerance towards minority communities. The HRCP official also said that sectarian violence, kidnapping and extra-judicial killings dominated discussion during the year gone by. Notably, some of the most horrible incidents of sectarian killings took place in Balochistan where Shias of Hazara community were targeted repeatedly. It is Balochistan also where most kidnappings and extra-judicial killings took place, overtaking the old Baloch sense of deprivation with anger over enforced disappearances. The government response to the first issue has been inaction; and to the second either indifference or denial of the fact that hundreds of political activists remained 'missing'. Baloch leaders across the political spectrum accuse the agencies of enforced disappearances of over a thousand activists, and extra-judicial killings of many of the 'disappeared.' It was only after the courts began taking suo motu notice of these cases that the government admitted of 49 disappearances - too small a number compared to Baloch claims. Such grave rights violations did not happen because the federal government was embroiled in its own problems; but because it wanted to avoid any disagreement with the powers that be. It could have authorised the provincial government to talk to dissidents and settle the issues of conflict. The report also goes on to note that last year saw 16 journalists killed across the country. Sadly, Pakistan has become one of the world's most dangerous places for journalists. The worst affected are those covering lawless tribal areas where they can easily confront trouble either for stepping on the wrong side of the violent extremists or the security agencies fighting them. Other parts of the country are unsafe too. It can only be hoped that an increasing media spotlight on these incidents and the judiciary's interventions will help improve the situation.

Mohmand tribal elders demand compensation for destroying poppy cultivation

Tribal elders in Mohmand Agency have demanded “compensation” for land destroyed in an anti-poppy cultivation
drive on Friday, which injured two men including a member of the paramilitary Khasadar Force. “We held a jirga with tribal elders after the incident. The elders agreed to destroy poppy fields but demanded compensation in the form of development funds for the area,” said Shakirullah, an official of the political administration in Ambar sub-district, where the drive was conducted. He said that the political administration, with help from the Khasadar Force, had cleared almost three acres of land when some young tribal men opened fire in the Shati Mena locality. The injured troop was identified as Mohammad Shah and the civilian as Faisal. Backing their demand for compensation, tribal elders say the area is not conducive to grow other crops. “The political administration officials were destroying our valuable crops without any compensation. What else can we grow in these areas to earn a livelihood?” asked an elder from Shanti Mena on condition of anonymity. “We will continue resisting destruction of our crops until the government compensates us,” he told The Express Tribune. However, they handed over eight people, who were suspected of firing at the anti-poppy cultivation team, under the collective responsibility clause of the Frontier Crimes Regulation that govern the area. But another senior official from the agency’s political administration claimed that they had compensated all affected families with wheat seeds and fertilisers. He said they had also obtained a certificate for eradicating poppy cultivation from Mohmand Agency. He added that a local jirga will soon be convened to decide the date of removing poppy cultivation in the upper Prangghar area of Mohmand Agency. However, local sources in Ambar sub-district and the Prangghar area say that most farmers who own small-sized land grow poppy only because it serves as a more lucrative product. A smaller quantity of poppy fetches more money than a much greater quantity of any other crop, they said.