Thursday, April 5, 2012
Radio Free EuropeWhen
The legal guarantee of landline telephone service at almost any address is quietly being legislated away. But Reuters columnist David Cay Johnston says people should fight for their right to have one: A landline telephone is vital to people's health and safety and sometimes a cell phone just won’t do.
http://news.yahoo.comThe White House revealed Thursday that President Barack Obama believes women should be admitted to the all-male Augusta National Golf Club, site of the Masters golf tournament. The club still has the right to make its own decision, but "[Obama's] personal opinion is women should be admitted to the club," spokesman Jay Carney said during the Thursday White House briefing. When later asked if Obama would play at a men-only club, Carney said the president had not specifically addressed that scenario during their conversation on the subject.The White House's statements come amid a coordinated effort by the Democratic Party and the Obama campaign to label the Republican Party as anti-women. Carney was also asked to explain Thursday why the White House is choosing to host the Forum on Women and the Economy Friday. But he offered no direct explanation for the focus, and responded by saying that other sectors of the population will be the centerpiece of future events. A Gallup poll of registered voters in battleground states released Monday shows an increasing gender gap between Obama and Romney as Democrats have begun courting the female vote ahead of Election Day. Democrats are arguing that Republicans are alienating female voters this cycle by focusing on women's issues such as contraception, abortion and federal funding for women's health care provider Planned Parenthood. Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus on Wednesday dismissed the suggestion of a "GOP war on women," saying on Bloomberg Television's "Political Capital With Al Hunt": "If the Democrats said we had a war on caterpillars and every mainstream media outlet talked about the fact that Republicans have a war on caterpillars, then we'd have problems with caterpillars. It's a fiction." Democrats immediately seized on those comments, citing them as evidence the GOP is out of touch. Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz issued the following statement Thursday amid a blast of Democratic emails highlighting Priebus' comments: To have the head of the GOP say these attacks on women are as fictional as a 'war on caterpillars' is callous and dismissive of what matters to women and completely out of touch. Chairman Priebus and the Republican Party know they have a serious problem on their hands: Mitt Romney and the Republican Party are seeing a serious deficit among women voters, who are simply fed up with Romney and the other Republican candidates advocating for policies that would hurt women and take us backward instead of focusing on jobs and restoring economic security for the middle class. "From the Dept. Of Clueless, RNC chair says GOP problems with women are contrived by media," Obama's former senior adviser David Axelrod tweeted."Women are already abandoning the Republican Party in droves because of their antiquated positions on women's health and out-of-touch policies on the middle class," Obama for America deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter said in a statement Thursday. "Reince Priebus' comments today only reinforce why women simply cannot trust Mitt Romney or other leading Republicans to stand up for them." Priebus said Wednesday that Republicans this election will be making their case "to women and everyone in this country." "We can do better in this country in regards to jobs and the economy," Priebus said. Update 3:57 p.m. ET: Mitt Romney was asked later Thursday to weigh in on Augusta National's men-only policy. His response, via Emily Friedman of ABC News:"Well of course. I'm not a member of Augusta...I don't know I would qualify-- my golf game is not that good but certainly if I were a member and if I could run Augusta which isn't likely to happen but of course I'd have women in Augusta, sure."
http://finance.yahoo.comAlmost a year ago, at a meeting on June 8, 2011, with a group of financial journalists, I asked President Obama if he was considering releasing oil from the Strategic Petroleum Reserve as a way to lower oil and gasoline prices. At the time, oil was about $95 per barrel and gasoline had recently hit $4.00. The president demurred, implying it would be a sign of panic and wouldn't do all that much to change the dynamics in a complicated global industry. Fifteen days later, Obama ordered the release of up to 30 million barrels from the SPR into the system for refining. Gas prices fell, but the release of what amounts to about 4.5 days of U.S. crude production didn't have much of a long-term impact. On Wednesday, at another meeting with a group of financial journalists, I asked a follow-up question. (Check out the video above. The click-clack in the background is the sound of my furious typing). With gas this high, would he consider releasing crude from the SPR again? And what had the White House learned from the last release? In response, Obama channeled energy analyst and oil expert Daniel Yergin, giving a brief dissertation on oil prices. "As I've said publicly, there are no silver bullets when it comes to gas prices," Obama said. "Everybody here understands oil is a world commodity." He noted, correctly, that U.S. oil production in 2011 was at its highest level since 2003, that the economy has become more efficient, and that imports now account for less than 50 percent of total usage. "We've used less oil each year that I've been in office." Obama argued that two significant global factors beyond his control — or any president's control — are helping to push oil prices higher. First, "a little over a million barrels a day [in production] that have been taken off the market in dribs and drabs." He said that Sudan's production is off by a "couple hundred thousand barrels, Yemen maybe a hundred thousand. Recently the Kurds took 50,000 to 70,000 off the market." None of these moves is significant on its own, he said, "but cumulatively we have a significantly larger amount that's been taken off than is typical." Second, Obama argued that prices are higher in part because of the "risk premium that folks are looking at because of possible conflict in the Middle East." Translation: Instability in the region in general, and concerns about a potential conflict with Iran in particular, are making oil more expensive. The president found a bit of sunshine in the mix. Europe's congenital weakness is acting as something of a brake on oil prices. "So, if it weren't for those two other factors, we would potentially be in a position where the U.S. economy could grow without gas prices being driven up significantly." Of course, that's sort of like me making reference to my 20-inch vertical jump and chronically dislocating right shoulder and saying that "if it weren't for those two other factors, I'd potentially be in a position to play starting forward for the Oklahoma City Thunder." Production slips and Middle East tension are likely to be near-permanent factors. So given the stubborn persistence of high prices, I asked, why not consider releasing some more crude from the SPR? It would provide some measure of relief to consumers at a crucial time — in 2012, the summer driving season and the political season conveniently coincide. And in recent weeks, there's been some discussion about a coordinated release from petroleum reserves in the U.S. and Europe. "We're looking at all of this very carefully," Obama said. "I don't engage in a SPR release lightly. You have to factor in how effective it's going to be, how much participation we get internationally," and whether the major producers will support it. "So I will not be making any news today but I appreciate the effort to try to make some news." If past performance is any guide to future performance, this can only mean one thing: more oil to be released in time for the summer driving season.
ahram.org.egHuman rights activist Maryam Al-Khawaja says the clampdown on pro-democracy protestors continues in Bahrain as her father marks 56 days on hunger strike The Bahraini uprising that erupted in February 2011 was a thorn in the side of the Gulf monarchies fearing that the wave of Arab uprisings that had ousted dictators in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya could threaten their own thrones. Weary of the dangers posed by the democratic sentiments being voiced by Bahraini protesters, Saudi Arabia, the most powerful of the Gulf kingdoms, sent troops to Bahrain in order to quell mass protests in March 2011. The Bahraini government then tore down the landmark Pearl Square monument in the capital Manama, the epicentre of the protest movement, in an effort to prevent further protests. More than a year later, protests still persist in the face of lethal government force, according to Bahraini activist Maryam Al-Khawaja
Russia has warned the West against using threats and ultimatums against Syria, arguing that Damascus has been cooperative with the special UN envoy to the country. "Russia proceeds from a deep conviction that any steps around Syria should be aimed at facilitating the success of UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's mission," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said during a visit to Kyrgyzstan on Thursday. Lavrov noted how the Syrian government has accepted Annan’s proposals and has begun putting them into action. “It is very important right now not to undermine this process through ultimatums and threats and unfortunately there are those who'd like to do that," he cautioned. Lavrov said Kremlin could back the UN Security Council document on Syria if it facilitates the implementation of Kofi Annan's plan. "When we debate the document at the Security Council, we will proceed from the principle 'do no harm'," the Russian foreign minister pointed out. He said Moscow would favor a consensus aimed at facilitating Kofi Annan's efforts and not using the Security Council for threats and ultimatums that “could provoke tensions.” Russia is supporting a six-point peace initiative proposed by former UN chief Kofi Annan, who told the Security Council earlier this week that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has agreed on the April 10 deadline to put the plan to work. Syria has been plagued by a deadly unrest since mid-March 2011 and many people, including security forces, have lost their lives in the unrelenting violence. The West and the Syrian opposition accuse the government of killing the protesters. But Damascus blames ''outlaws, saboteurs and armed terrorist groups'' for the unrest, stating that it is being orchestrated from abroad.
Anti-regime protesters have once again flooded the streets in the Saudi town of Qatif in the oil-rich Eastern Province, calling for the release of a prominent human rights activist, Press TV reports. The protesters came out in separate rallies in and around Qatif on Thursday, demanding the release of Fadel al-Monassef. The demonstrations came in spite of an official ban on protest rallies. The Saudi interior ministry issued a statement on March 5, 2011, prohibiting “all forms of demonstrations, marches or protests, and calls for them, because that contradicts the principles of the Islamic Sharia, the values and traditions of Saudi society, and results in disturbing public order and harming public and private interests.” Saudi protesters have held demonstrations on an almost regular basis in the Eastern Province, mainly in the towns of Qatif and Awamiyah, since February 2011, calling for the release of all political prisoners, freedom of expression and assembly, and an end to widespread sectarian discrimination. The demonstrations, however, intensified into protest rallies against the Al Saud regime, especially since November 2011, when Saudi security forces killed five protesters and injured many others in the oil-rich province. Rights groups, including US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), UK-based Amnesty International and Saudi-based Human Rights First Society (HRFS) have accused Riyadh of silencing dissent through intimidation and violating the basic rights of citizens. They have also slammed the Al Saud regime for its persecution of demonstrators and urged it to carry out an investigation into the killings of protesters. Riyadh has escalated its crackdown on protesters since the beginning of 2012.
By Ernesto LondoñoThe subject came up casually on a recent morning as I was hiking with two friends in the outskirts of Kabul. The Afghan driver employed by one of my fellow hikers was busy planning his wedding next month. “You’re going to have dancing boys, aren’t you,” my friend, a jovial non-government worker said to his driver, who had come along for the hike.The driver nodded, beaming. I asked how much it cost to hire a dancing boy. It depends, he explained, on how young and beautiful they are. He was planning to hire one in the $200 range. I have long been fascinated by Afghanistan’s dancing boys, or bacha bazi. But reporting a story on them seemed unrealistic for a Western journalist. Though the practice of exploiting young boys--either as party entertainment or as sexual partners--is far from a secret in Afghanistan, few Afghans publicly speak about or acknowledge it. I was stunned by how openly my friend’s driver was talking about his eagerness to have cross-dressing, underage boys perform at his wedding. Perhaps, I thought, I’d manage to find other people willing to shed light on an opaque and disturbing issue. The first stop was the driver’s brother, who works as a videographer at wedding halls in Kabul. When we spoke, he seemed uncomfortable discussing the issue. Nonetheless, he told me the phenomenon was on the rise, and estimated that one of five weddings he shoots features dancing boys. My attempts to find dancing boys or their patrons who were willing to be interviewed were unsuccessful in Kabul, the Afghan capital. So I turned to a young Afghan journalist based in the northern city of Mazar e-Sharif for help. (He was vital to the reporting of this story, but asked that his name be left out for fear of reprisals.) Within days, he had promising news: there were men who kept dancing boys as sexual partners, willing to be interviewed in a rural area we could safely travel to, he said. There was a catch, though. They wanted us to pay for a singer so the meeting could happen during a party in which the young boys would dance. That raised an obvious ethical issue. The Washington Post could not fund this form of child exploitation in order to report on it. I asked if the men would consider meeting us for tea. A couple days later, it was arranged. Dehrazi, the village where the crucial interviews for this story took place, is a 30-minute drive from Mazar-e-Sharif. My Afghan colleague seemed a bit nervous when he pulled into the driveway of a mud hut. Assadula, man in a military jacket, greeted us and asked us to come in. We sat on cushions in a small sitting room with a bare light bulb. Assadula was sitting next to his bacha, who is now 18 years old. As Assadula held court, I was struck by how masculine and assertive he was. He had no qualms about saying he was sexually attracted to boys. He openly said his bacha was getting too old, and would soon be growing a beard. Soon, Assadula said, “I will try to find another one.” There were two young boys in the room. I asked if either was a dancing boy. One, a smiling, slightly chubby boy wearing scraggly, soiled clothes was not, they said. The other one, a delicate, pale boy dressed in pink, was. I asked who the fair boy’s patron was. Mirzahan, a young man who until then had sat quietly, stepped forward with pride. The boy was his, he said. I asked what the boy’s parents thought of the arrangement. Mirzahan said it hadn’t been an issue because the boy’s father had died violently years ago. When I asked about the child’s mother, Mirzahan shrugged. Other men in the room started playing dancing boy videos on their cell phones so I could see what their gatherings were like. There was no apparent shame to what they were showing me. I asked if they felt the practice was exploitative. They said it wasn’t, because boys 10 years and older understood what they were getting into and reaped benefits from the relationship. I asked whether what they were doing went against Islam. They said the mullahs, or religious leaders, condemned it, but that they didn’t see anything morally wrong with it. After an hour or so, my Afghan colleague said we should probably go. The village was not entirely safe, and he was afraid word might have spread that there was a foreigner in town. As I got up to leave, Mirzahan and Assadula said they had one question for me. “Are you Muslim?” one asked. I told them I am not. They asked me to convert then and there. Baffled, I told them I would think about it, and walked out.
by KAREN LEIGHNear a busy intersection where burqa-clad women beg for spare change at car windows, Mahmoud Saikal, Afghanistan's former deputy foreign minister, sat under a photo of this capital city's crowded hillside neighborhoods in the stately living room of his compound. "If you are from Kabul," he says, "you can find your place of birth in this photo." It's the only landscape not changing in Afghanistan. A series of American blunders in the past few months has raised questions about whether the decade-long U.S. mission in Afghanistan is doomed to failure. In February, reports that copies of the Quran had been burnt at a NATO base sparked protests across the country that left dozens dead. And last month, Staff Sgt. Robert Bales murdered 17 Afghan civilians in cold blood — returning to his base in Kandahar province mid-massacre before going out to kill again. Meanwhile, the Afghan security forces are increasingly turning on their trainers: Three NATO soldiers were killed by Afghan police and military members on March 26 — the latest of more than 80 coalition troops who have lost their lives in this way since 2007. The escalating string of disasters has led to an increasingly contentious debate within President Hamid Karzai's inner circle between officials who say Afghanistan is better off without the United States and those who see the American presence as necessary for security. But even among America's erstwhile allies, there is a profound disappointment at the gap between the grandiose U.S. pledges and the dismal reality on the ground in Afghanistan. "The U.S. could have been a more responsible superpower, a caring superpower," Saikal says. "It's important for them to stand for [their] values around the world. But I think the last three incidents were definitely deliberate acts that tarnish the values the U.S. stands for." U.S. efforts to forge a lasting relationship with the Afghan government has been complicated by the eclectic makeup of Karzai's inner circle and the often haphazard nature of its decision making process. "We make foreign policy decisions on the run on the steps of a ministry," laments Saikal, a former ambassador to Indonesia and Australia. The disarray, he says, makes it easier for those in power "to twist the law in their own personal taste." That taste is only growing more anti-American. With popular anger at the U.S. military hitting an all-time high, Karzai has increasingly been forced to stand up to the United States to prove that he is not in the pocket of the foreign occupiers. He has renewed his demand that U.S. Special Forces end nighttime raids, and looks set to win a concession that would subject the raids to review by Afghan judges. But even with that victory, Karzai's advisors are increasingly debating whether cooperation with the Americans has brought more trouble than it's worth. "Karzai's inner circle is split between a group that's very Afghan nationalist and suspicious of the West the other that has the technocrats and more Westernized elements that are pro-West," says a former senior U.S. military officer who commanded in Afghanistan. Recent American missteps have rocked Afghan officials' faith in the coalition's ability to help govern the country's tenuous political situation. "The Afghans have to be wondering how incompetent we are," adds a former civilian advisor to ISAF in Afghanistan. "[Afghan parliamentarians] have to be very, very frustrated because we've undercut their ability to work with us. How do you now go about selling working with the Americans to people on the street?" There is a pervasive fear on the streets of Kabul that, once coalition forces leave, the traditional hard-line nationalists — known, during the Taliban's era in power, for gruesome torture and punishment — will reemerge in full force. "We see no sign to prove that the mentality of using violence for political [gain] has changed," Saikal says. "Whatever we've done [to counter it], the mentality is still strong. If that doesn't change, I'm afraid the future looks bleak." The Afghan government's disarray means personal interests and opinions can become official policy without a thorough debate. "No doubt, there are some left [close to Karzai] who do have some wisdom and do see the relationship between Afghanistan and the U.S. as in the interest of both countries," Saikal says. "But those would be their personal views because the government simply doesn't have policies." Omar Samad, an advisor to Afghanistan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs and formerly the country's ambassador to France and Canada, has seen his country's political dysfunction up close. "Contradictions [between the politicians' competing views] have existed for a while," Samad says. "And it's reflected in the upper echelons of the Afghan government and the inner circle around the president. It seems that each incident ... restricts the space that exists for those who believe that a long term strategic relationship with the U.S. is important." But the debate among Afghan officials is not only based on ideology — many high-rollers have profited immensely from the influx of American riches, overriding any personal antagonism that might have been stirred in the wake of Bales's rampage. Wartime corruption has been rampant in Afghanistan: According to a 2010 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Karzai and his attorney general "refused to allow any action to be taken against corrupt leaders," and likely blocked cases against dozens of top officials from going forward. "This situation is highly unlikely to change in the middle of a war where Karzai needs all of the internal support he can get, and the rest of the Afghan political and legal system either is too weak to pose a challenge or would like a share of the money," the report reads. It's not only the upper echelons that are reaching into the government's coffers — the massive influx of funds that the United States and its partners have poured into the country has created a whole class that is dependent on foreign money. "A lot of people have been benefitting enormously from the U.S. presence in terms of patronage, grabbing a slice of aid money, being in positions of authority where they could take money from the Afghan state," says Stuart Gordon, an Afghanistan researcher at the London think tank Chatham House. Not all of that money has stayed in Afghanistan, much less gone to improve the life of its citizens. In March, a senior Afghan official told Reuters that his wealthy countrymen were smuggling $8 billion in cash out of Afghanistan each year. According to a 2009 State Department cable published by Wikileaks, former Vice President Zia Masoud was caught bringing $52 million in cash through the Dubai airport and was released without question. Indeed, while popular anger against the United States is undoubtedly rising across Afghanistan, it may not be a decisive factor for the Afghan elite. Those Afghan officials have an incentive to keep their eye on the bottom line: the flow of U.S. dollars into the country. "I'm not sure that the power brokers in the Afghan government have a particular hatred for the Americans," says Samad. "The hatred of the Americans tends to be more amongst the conservative rural Afghans, who have a more shortsighted view, but have also suffered at the hands of the police and government brutality. The upper echelons of the Afghan government are probably more calculating. They think the gravy train is leaving." On a gusty day in Kabul, one of Karzai's former ministers wedges a chair into a doorknob of her drafty home to keep the door from slamming over and over. She expresses concern that the country is backsliding into its conservative, Taliban-era ways. Some female officials, she claims, had been told to wear traditional scarves only over half of their heads, to appease Western officials. After the Americans leave, she says, they will be told to cover the entire head. The minister echoes the views of many of the president's past and present allies, who say the latest incidents are the straw that broke the camel's back — cherries on a sundae of broken promises to a female population that remains largely marginalized, and a dysfunctional government that is a democracy in little more than name only. "The U.S.'s beliefs failed here, and that was their enemies' intention from the beginning," she says. "Afghanistan is a world of extremism. The world should be helping that Afghan people get rid of terrorism and give us a civil government with men and women participating equally." In the past five months, cracks in the foundation of the U.S.-Afghan relationship have been exposed. The question is whether Karzai's men want to put the alliance back together again — or whether America's indiscretions in their country are too much to overcome. "I have talked to [members of] the Taliban," Saikal says, the thick security walls around his house a reminder of the precarious situation on the streets. "The Taliban called me a fool. They said, 'You're working with a political process that is a waste of time."
Afghan President Hamid Karzai telephoned Prime Minister Syed Yousuf Raza Gilani on Wednesday and expressed his concern over the emergency landing of his plane at the Islamabad Airport on Tuesday, soon after its take-off for Sukkur.The Afghan President also extended invitation to the Prime Minister to visit Kabul as the weather has become considerably pleasant. Prime Minister Gilani accepted the invitation and said that he would soon visit the Afghan capital. ‘We would also review the progress made towards political reconciliation in the context of the last bilateral meeting held in Islamabad’, Gilani said.
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan condemns violence in Gilgit Baltistan, urges promotion of sectarian harmony
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) has expressed serious alarm at the continuing loss of life in sectarian strife in Gilgit Baltistan and demanded that the government, political parties and civil society organisations join hands to bring peace to the area at the earliest. In a statement issued on Thursday, the Commission said: “HRCP has watched with growing concern the reprehensible and lengthening shadow of sectarian bloodshed in Gilgit Baltistan and condemns it unequivocally. “The relative calm in Gilgit following the imposition of curfew and deployment of troops is a tense one and retaliatory attacks and incidents of hostage taking have been reported amid concerns that the authorities have responded only to some of the more violent incidents and are proceeding in a reactive manner. “HRCP is very concerned at the people facing great difficulties as provisions and food stocks, even milk for children, have run low. In hospitals medicines are scarce and food is being rationed as curfew has continued without a break. The lives of those who have provided shelter to others irrespective of sect or faith and only out of concern for human life find their own lives are now at risk as a consequence. Everything must be done to ensure safety and protection for their lives and property. It would be naïve to think that the scars of the events of the last few days in Gilgit Baltistan would go away by imposing curfew and shutting down cellular phone services or by preaching calm. The monumental task of healing the wounds and promoting sectarian harmony must begin at the earliest in consultation with the affected communities and should be persisted with. The political parties must desist from indulging in point scoring and in addition to publicly expressing their unambiguous condemnation for violence they should also share with the people their vision for controlling the situation and preventing recurrence of such senseless violence in the future. They should join hands with the government to help implement that objective. Those who have fanned the strife in Gilgit Baltistan must be identified and held to account as must those who pulled the trigger in target killings. In fact, there is every reason to pay equally urgent attention to contain the continuing bloodletting based on sectarian identity in Quetta, Karachi and elsewhere in the country and send a clear message to the hate mongers that they will not be allowed to take the people and law and order hostage.” www.newspakistan
http://www.newspakistan.pkThe built-in inequality in classrooms is stopping children from learning well. This dilemma has put India in a “big stuck” and the situation in Pakistan is no different when looked through the lens of the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER). This was stated by ASER Centre, India, director Dr Rukmani Banerji during her presentation on “Every child in school and … learning well? Evidence and experience from India” at the opening session of a two-day international conference on “Quality – Inequality Quandary – Transacting Learning Relevance & Teacher Education in South Asia” organised by the South Asia Forum for Education Development (SAFED) and Idara-i-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA) in collaboration with the Education Testing Service (ETS), Princeton; UK aid and Foundation Open Society Institute at a hotel here on Wednesday. Dr Banerji said survey reports in rural India showed that classes’ composition was complex in terms of students’ age, language and learning levels, resulting in huge implications for instruction and equity. Quoting ASER survey results, she said students of different learning levels and capacities were sitting in a classroom and teachers were teaching all of them on a par. Resultantly, students’ learning levels were found far less than the desired levels. At least, she said, fifth standard students must be fluent in reading Grade-II text and solve similar level arithmetic questions. She regretted that textbook level for a specific grade was too difficult for most children and classrooms were not friendly at all. Still, Dr Banerji said, “big change can happen if governments make strategic moves based on evidence and reality”. In India, she said, close to 200 million children (97 per cent) aged 6-14 were enrolled in schools. There was a need for India as well as Pakistan to move from ensuring schooling to guaranteeing learning for all children. ANP vice-president Bushra Gohar said children should be more important to any government and stressed the need to invest more in education from country’s own resources instead of looking toward the World Bank and other donor agencies. She said only “political will” could help bring about a change in the depressing education scene in the country. Calling for strict accountability process, Ms Gohar stressed the need for improving village schools as well as strengthening public-private partnership. She said there was a lot of political pressure for posting and transfers of teachers and “teachers have been lost somewhere in the system”.