Thursday, April 5, 2012

Austerity vs solidarity: Democratic legitimacy and Europe's future

Across the EU, there is an outcry - including from economists - about the potential damaging effects of austerity plans. German sociologist and influential European thinker Ulrich Beck recently highlighted that one of the most (problematic) prevailing contemporary tendencies is to elevate Germany's "culture of stability" to "Europe's guiding idea". While it is necessary that some states take a more conscious and strict approach towards spending, national finances and public debts, this submission to a peculiar form of German Europeanism risks not solving all EU problems, while supranational institutions and democracy are fully bypassed. The Greek bailout deal, for example, was reached after a night of meetings and talks in Brussels and one of demonstrations and riots in Athens, but the risk is that, in the long run, all this may also generate several other negative outcomes, including for the same harmony of the European continent, and it may weaken the external images of Germany and France.After Greece, there are signs of rising protests across EU societies. There is an outcry, including from some important economists, about the potential damaging effects of austerity plans - how do they generate growth? What about their implications on people's lives? Will a further labour and contractual flexibility, in country such as Italy or Spain, really improve the youth's (already very precarious) job perspectives? Recent unrest is only the prelude of an escalation of violence and, despite all significant efforts, there are no real signs of a counter-recession. In Italy this "foreign help" was instead - at least initially - greatly welcomed, but the economic measures seemed "lighter" than the Greek ones. Years of Berlusconism generated a strong disillusionment with existing political parties, and the President of Republic Giorgio Napolitano wanted to resolve the crisis within the wider European frame, beyond the dogma of national sovereignty and aside of all allegations of Franco-German interferences. But what will be the final bill for this? And what about Greece? Austerity plan The Financial Times suggested that the bailout would essentially impose controls on Athens, and there are still allegations of the creation of a future technocratic grand coalition to implement the austerity plan. Other important media are openly talking about a malicious EU that is essentially "destroying" Greece and still forcing it to buy French or German armaments, despite the current bankruptcy. With the growing crisis of the eurozone, it is natural that its strongest political and economic actors are worried by the ineffectiveness of some national elites - especially in Greece and Italy. (And all types of technocracies, in this sense, do represent a tremendous failure for the local political classes.) The problem is now that a growing number of other socio-political and intellectual voices are questioning the deep value of such interferences, and anger towards Germany may become a new mantra. After the measures imposed upon Greece, conservative commentators in Britain openly called their government to withdraw the support to the eurozone - because this latter is "devastating" a state member. In Athens, people wonder why a German minister of finance should actually decide the future of their homeland, also suggesting postponing elections. Meanwhile, demonstrations took place in Spain against the budget measures, labour reforms and reduction in public spending presented by the new conservative government. But also in France, writers in publications such as Le Monde sometimes - implicitly or explicitly - seem to wonder if the German economic and fiscal model could work in their country and if it is the best solution for the current European crisis (and what would happen if the socialist Francois Holland wins the presidential elections?). If a political unity of Europe has never been achieved and the same Germany is not immune from political scandals, the question is about the nature of this "authority" and its legitimacy. Greece is leaning towards poverty, and hungry citizens have started burning German flags. Protests and "euro-doubts" are rising among Spaniards. In Italy, after the revelations about German chancellor Angela Merkel's manoeuvre to help dismiss Berlusconi, some of the media and rightist parties immediately called for a parliamentary board of inquiry to investigate the issue, and lamented how "we are not a German colony". This propaganda is still ongoing (against Mario Monti, Germany, and the EU). Some Italians are currently questioning why their prime minister should fully implement pension cuts and labour reforms which would not be accepted in other countries, while banks are the only entities helped by the EU. It is accepted that some EU members need reforms and a better organisation, but there are some limits too. Economist Luis Garicano introduced an interesting point: "If the rest of euro countries keep insisting on treating this problem as a morality play, in which some wayward southerners must be reined in, the tailspin will only become worse … Spain can reform itself, but it requires the support of its European partners to do so. There is a limit to how much pain its people will be able to endure." In sum, a feeling of injustice currently crosses the political spectrum (paradoxically unifying the extreme left and the radical right). It is therefore unsurprisingly that across Europe, some are calling to the return of national currencies or are dreaming the establishment of an autarkic world.This is understandable, but also slightly paradoxical: Europe came out weak and destroyed from two world wars and was peacefully rebuilt on principles of harmony and shared aims and on the basis of a newly (re-)born fraternity among its people and different languages. Interviewed almost a decade ago by the Dutch writer and journalist Geert Mak in his remarkable In Europe, Italy's distinguished intellectual and politician Vittorio Foa tenderly recalled this sense of solidarity which crossed both his and the old continent's postwar lives: "When I first opened my eyes to the light, in 1915, all the countries of Europe were busy slaughtering each other. And each of those countries felt that justice was on its side … Now that my eyes have almost completely dimmed, I see, by that last light, that the countries of Europe are embracing each other and forgetting their borders. That whole turnaround took place within the space of my almost ninety years. I still find that unbelievable. But I also know how difficult it has been." European unity The reality is that, if politicians really want a European unity - of lands and citizens - it is only a supranational power and particularly a more democratic and powerful EU parliament and "government" that have to tackle the critical issues of member states. This embodies a realistic confederation, and the erosion of some important national political powers. Angela Merkel is instead playing a very risky game. She cannot sack prime ministers abroad, impose policies and, at the same time, lead her country and back candidates (such as Nicolas Sarkozy) in foreign electoral campaigns. Where is, once more, the separation of powers? Economic austerity and success at home is not the only prerequisite to legitimate external influence. All of this is clearly undermining the same external image of a great and fundamental political actor such as the German nation, but it is also slowing the real process of integration of the EU - at least as the "fathers of Europe" had imagined it. The rebirth of ethnic-based nationalisms, the rise of right-wing extremist feeling and Europhobia are a likely new threat and will be forged with mounting social and workers' protests. Yet, the Euro-dream was specifically to bypass these nationalistic divisions and create an all-inclusive porous European citizenship. This led to a reconsideration of concepts such as space, borders and belonging - and is, with some difficulties, aiming to create a European public sphere. The "market" economy was only one (though very important) of the pillars that had to contribute to build all this, but it was not the unique one. "Solidarity" was the other (at least implicit) pilaster. It is known that Germany was in fact helped after the Second World War without imposing severe austerity plans. Some of the measures now imposed upon Greece and perhaps tomorrow upon Italy, Spain, Portugal or some central or eastern European nations, may be to some extent necessary - but some political-economic flexibility and democratic legitimacy are essential, too.

Silenced No More:Nazia Iqbal, Popular Pashtun Singer Set To Return

Radio Free Europe
Nazia Iqbal called it curtains on her singing career in order to pursue her faith, shocked fans were left to lament the early exit of one of the world's most popular Pashtun entertainers. Now, months later, they know the real reason for the 32-year-old's early departure -- threats against her children -- and can now look forward to encore performances. Iqbal describes the blackmail that led to her faux retirement in an interview with RFE/RL's Radio Mashaal. "I was in Dubai when I received these threats. They told me they had kidnapped my two kids. They forced me to announce I was quitting singing. That's why I made that announcement," Iqbal said. The singer provided few details about the threats other than to say that she was told to publicly declare she was ending her singing career in order to concentrate on religion. She did what she was told -- telling a live audience in Dubai in January that she was leaving music and was planning to open religious schools in her native Pakistan. RFE/RL was unable to independently verify if the perpetrators of the threat actually kidnapped Iqbal's children, and whether their release was secured. Originally from western Swat Valley, Iqbal is one of the most prominent contemporary female singers among Pashtuns. She has released music albums in her native Pashtu as well as Urdu, Farsi, and Punjabi, which have made her popular in Pakistan's Pashtu-speaking tribal areas and Afghanistan. Her retirement was described by some Pashtuns as a "national tragedy" for Pashtuns. Iqbal, who currently lives in Dubai, said that in the past few months she has heard pleas from fans and even officials in her native Khyber-Pashtunkwa Province to return. While she did not reveal specifics, Iqbal says that more performances are in the offing, and that she will in the future perform only with her singer-husband Java Faza and their colleague Rahim Shah.

AT&T, Verizon try to put end to landline telephone era

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.

Justice Kagan--Giving liberals a rhetorical lift

During three days of arguments over the Obama healthcare plan, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan put on a display of rhetorical firepower, reinforcing predictions that the newest liberal justice is best equipped to take on the conservative, five-man majority controlling the bench. The strong views and persuasive tactics of the administration's former top lawyer could affect the fate of the healthcare overhaul, as well as decisions in other ideologically charged issues that will come before the court, such as same-sex marriage. Kagan's sturdy advocacy was evident to law professors and to lawyers who practice before the court during her first term. But the healthcare debate has offered her a more prominent platform with bigger stakes. She pressed her argument as ardently as any lawyer who stepped to the lectern. At the final session on the final day of arguments, attorney Paul Clement, representing 26 states challenging the healthcare law, had barely uttered three opening sentences when Kagan pounced. What followed was one of the most aggressive exchanges of the entire three days. It centered on a provision expanding eligibility for Medicaid, the joint state-federal program that pays for poor people's healthcare. Kagan tried to puncture Clement's argument that bringing more people into the program would impinge on states' sovereignty and further strain their budgets, even though the government would pick up 90 percent of the cost. The justice and the lawyer - Kagan a former solicitor general for Obama, Clement for George W. Bush - went at it for several minutes. When Clement eluded her, Kagan posed trickier scenarios to test the notion that states are trapped in a program that funnels hundreds of billions of dollars their way yet consumes significant state funds, too. "Wow! Wow!" Kagan exclaimed in disbelief, as Clement rejected her hypothetical offers of huge sums of money, which she posited anyone would accept. The money would not be attractive, Clement responded, if it "came from my own bank account. And that's what's really going on here, in part." GROUNDBREAKER, BUT IN A NEW ERA The exchange illuminated how Kagan, President Barack Obama's second Supreme Court appointee, who joined the bench in August 2010, has energized the four-member liberal wing of the nine-member court. A keen strategist, she can also match wits with Chief Justice John Roberts and Antonin Scalia, the longest-serving conservative on today's bench. Her role is distinct from that of Justice Anthony Kennedy, the conservative who is most likely to swing and occasionally permit the other side to prevail. Rather than casting a crucial vote, she lends a critical voice that could make the case for liberals within the court and beyond. Her approach, seen in her early months and brought vividly to the fore during the healthcare case, suggests she may be adopting some of the liberal passion of her mentor, Thurgood Marshall, for whom she clerked. He also served as a solicitor general, during the Lyndon Johnson administration, before becoming the first African-American justice on the high court. Marshall, whose tenure spanned 1967-1991, was, with the late Justice William Brennan, a standard-bearer for a liberalism that has all but disappeared from the federal bench. They opposed the death penalty in every case, consistently boosted defendants' rights and favored broad-scale solutions for past racial discrimination. They sought to give judges a strong hand in remedying social policy disputes. Kagan is unlikely to embrace that activism of a bygone era. Yet her approach could lead her to oppose efforts by the conservative majority to reverse past rulings on race-based remedies, or break new ground on gay rights. IDEOLOGICALLY CHARGED CASES Kagan's fiercest dissenting opinions on behalf of the liberals have so far come in ideologically charged cases. In an Arizona campaign finance dispute, she wrote that while the conservative majority said it had found the "smoking guns" at the center of the case, "the only smoke here is the majority's, and it is the kind that goes with mirrors." "It is absolutely clear. She is positioned to be the leader on the liberal side," said Harvard University law professor Mark Tushnet. "It was incredible," he said of the exchange with Clement. "She was just not going to let him go. She had the questions all set up." In the months preceding the court's healthcare hearing, conservative groups and prominent Republicans, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, questioned whether Kagan should sit on the case because she had worked as a high-level lawyer under Obama when the healthcare law and strategy for its defense was being developed. The overhaul, which includes a mandate that most Americans buy insurance by 2014, is intended to bring coverage to more than 32 million uninsured people in the United States. Kagan testified during her summer 2010 confirmation hearings that she did not work on healthcare litigation, and administration officials have since said she was walled off from discussions on how to defend the law. Challengers say Congress exceeded its constitutional authority with the mandate and Medicaid expansion. Chief Justice Roberts implicitly backed Kagan and Justice Clarence Thomas on January 1 when he wrote in an annual report on the judiciary: "I have complete confidence in the capability of my colleagues to determine when recusal is warranted." Liberal groups had urged Thomas not to sit, because his wife, Virginia, a Tea Party activist, has opposed the healthcare law. HUNTING PHEASANT AND CRACKING WISE If anyone had thought Justice Kagan might pull her punches during arguments because of the criticism she faced for not recusing herself, they were wrong. She defended the Obama healthcare plan with a vigor that might have been expected if she were still Obama's first solicitor general. "I was surprised that she didn't try to seem a little more balanced. She was certainly up there with her perspective," said Carrie Severino, a former law clerk to Thomas who is chief counsel of the Judicial Crisis Network, a conservative advocacy group that focuses on legal issues and was one of the organizations that had questioned Kagan's participation in the case. Kagan, who declined to be interviewed for this story, has made friends with colleagues on both sides. The Manhattan native, who as dean of the Harvard law school brought in more conservative professors to a campus dominated by liberals, has taken up skeet shooting and pheasant hunting with Scalia, her ideological opposite. For all her toughness with attorneys who stand before the court, Kagan is also mindful of her place. Last week she was cut off by senior justices and had forgotten her question by the time her turn came. Quipped the court's newest appointee: "See what it means to be the junior justice?" The views she has brought to the court are not lost on fellow liberals, particularly veteran Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who since her own 1993 appointment has witnessed the conservative takeover of the court. Ginsburg has praised Kagan's rhetorical skills and "powerful" and "forceful" opinions - and her use of humor. In a speech in New York last July, Ginsburg cited Kagan's bench reading of one of her first court opinions. "If you understand anything I say here, you will likely be a lawyer, and you will have had your morning cup of coffee." The daughter of a lawyer and a school teacher, Kagan became the first woman to hold the post of solicitor general when President Obama selected her in 2009. She had never argued a case before the court but, with her background in the classroom and navigation of campus politics, she swiftly proved herself a daunting presence. Her style is one of concise, declarative sentences. Representing the Obama administration at the lectern, she sometimes clashed with Chief Justice Roberts. In a case involving potentially competing stances within the Department of Justice, he called her argument "absolutely startling." Kagan stood her ground: "The United States government is a complicated place." She has also expressed respect for Roberts. Referring to his years as an appellate lawyer, she referred to him as "the great Supreme Court advocate of his time." STANDOUT DISSENTS In her first full term, Kagan aligned herself most with Obama's only other appointee. According to figures compiled by the SCOTUSblog, a site now partially sponsored by Bloomberg Law, she voted with Sonia Sotomayor 94 percent of the time, with Ginsburg 91 percent, and Stephen Breyer, the fourth liberal justice, 87 percent. She was least in accord with Justice Thomas, at 66 percent. More than her votes, it is her opinions - mainly in dissent - that have made her stand out. She took the lead to protest a 5-4 decision in an Arizona case allowing state tax credits that benefited religious schools, insisting the decision "damages one of this nation's defining constitutional commitments," that of religious liberty. On the last day of the 2010-11 term, Kagan led dissenters in a separate hot-button Arizona case, as the majority invalidated a state law that gave extra funding to political candidates who used the public-finance system rather than relied on private backers. Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the majority. The dueling opinions revealed the energetic style of the two young leaders: He is 56, she turns 52 this month. When Kagan wrote that challengers to the Arizona law showed "chutzpah," Roberts countered, "The charge is unjustified." As much as they both employed long citations of law and precedent, they also used punchy two-word sentences. One of his: "Not so." One of hers: "Me too." SPEAKER FOR THE LEFT Last week's healthcare arguments, testing Obama's major domestic achievement, illustrated Kagan's robust approach and her potential to speak for the left. She jumped in when administration lawyers faltered, responded to conservative justices' questions about the Obama position, and came on strong when Clement was at the lectern. During arguments over the new insurance mandate, premised on the notion that everybody will eventually need medical care, the lead lawyer for the state challengers said: "The government can't say that everybody is in that (healthcare) market. The whole problem is that everybody is not in that market, and they want to make everybody get into that market." Kagan replied: Wasn't that "cutting the baloney thin? Health insurance exists only for the purpose of financing healthcare. The two are inextricably interlinked. We don't get insurance so that we can stare at our insurance certificate. We get it so that we can go and access healthcare."

Hand over Saif Gadhafi, court tells Libya

Libya must make arrangements to hand over Saif al-Islam Gadhafi to the International Criminal Court immediately, court officials said Thursday, complaining that the son of Libya's deposed leader has been mistreated and "physically attacked" since he was captured last year. Gadhafi is in a "legal black hole," held for 139 days in "total isolation" except for visits from officials, his ICC-appointed defense said in a strongly worded statement. He also suffers dental pain because he hasn't had treatment, and Libyan authorities have given him nothing to remedy the pain, lawyers Xavier-Jean Keita and Melinda Taylor said. "At no point have the Libyan authorities been legally justified in their failure to surrender him to the ICC," the lawyers said. "The brutal death of Moammar Gadhafi deprived the Libyan people of their right to justice, and their right to the truth. It would be a travesty for the prospects of a free and fair Libyan state if the same were to occur to his son," they said. Saif al-Islam Gadhafi was facing an arrest warrant from the ICC for alleged crimes against humanity at the time of his capture, and the court, based at The Hague in the Netherlands, is still seeking to prosecute him. Domestic authorities told Gadhafi only that he was being investigated in Libya for "trivial allegations" of not having a license for camels and irregularities concerning fish farms, his ICC lawyers said. When the ICC requested that Libya surrender him to the court, Libyan authorities then said they wanted to prosecute Gadhafi for more serious crimes, Keita said. ICC prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said it's possible that the court will allow Libya to proceed with its case if the Libyans explain their plans. "According to the rules, Libya has the primacy to prosecute Saif, so if they present this to the International Criminal Court judges, probably they will get an approval," Moreno-Ocampo said on Thursday. "That's the system. The system is the primacy for the national judges." Amnesty International called on Libya to hand over Gadhafi at once in light of the ICC statement. "An unfair trial before a Libyan court where the accused could face the death penalty is no way to guarantee justice and accountability," the rights group said. Amnesty said Libya did not have a functioning court system and the country was "unable to conduct effective investigations," so "the ICC will be crucial in delivering accountability in Libya." Saif al-Islam Gadhafi, once his father's heir apparent, was captured in November and has been held in the Libyan city of Zintan since then. Libya and the ICC have been going back and forth since his capture about where he will be tried. Human Rights Watch said after visiting Gadhafi in custody last year that he should have a lawyer, but Interior Minister Fawzy Abdilal implied in February that he had not asked for one. "He may have a lawyer if he asks for a lawyer," the interior minister told CNN in an exclusive interview. "Should Saif demand a lawyer, then a lawyer would be provided."

UK finance salaries drop, vacancies wane - report

The average starting salary for senior workers in the UK financial sector fell 16.5 percent from February to March, the biggest such drop in a year as the number of vacancies slumped compared with a year ago, according to a report. Job vacancies at banks, asset managers and some insurance companies were down 57 percent in March compared with the previous year, data from recruitment consultancy Morgan McKinley showed. But while the industry as a whole is hiring fewer people on lower salaries than a year ago, amid continued economic uncertainty, job availability did pick up by 4 percent in the first three months of 2012 from the fourth quarter of 2011. Investment banks in particular were hit hard in the second half of last year by the euro zone debt crisis, leading to thousands of layoffs in London and other financial centres. The recent show of optimism tallies with a Confederation of British Industry survey this week that said some financial firms had stopped cutting jobs in the first quarter and were hiring again. "We are beginning to hear some anecdotal indications from City employers that the market is starting to regain some of the confidence that was particularly low at the end of last year," said Andrew Evans at Morgan McKinley. Even so, March was a weaker month for hiring than February, with job vacancies dipping 8 percent, a sign that confidence is still fragile. "Any positive sentiment tends to be immediately cancelled out by some form of negative market commentary. We are genuinely working in a confused and uncertain market," Evans said. Average salaries for senior bankers, fund managers and senior analysts fell to 78,003 pounds in March. Over the past year, these salaries have risen 2.6 percent, which is below the overall inflation rate of 4.4 percent. Bankers may take home much greater sums than just salaries, however, with the addition of bonuses and share-based incentives. Middle market professionals such as human resources officers, junior analysts, project managers, financial controllers, portfolio analysts and business analysts fared worse, however. Their salaries fell 12.7 percent in the past 12 months to an average of 44,605 pounds when starting a new job, compared with 51,099 in March 2011. Overall, the average starting salary in the UK finance industry has fallen 7.6 percent since this time last year to 50,330 pounds.

Obama supports women at Augusta National as party courts women’s vote
The 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."

Obama: ‘No Silver Bullets’ on Gas, Noncommittal on SPR Release
Almost 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.

Is a military coup possible in India?

It seems like quite an unusual scandal broke out in India. On Wednesday, the Indian Express newspaper published a large article, reporting that in the night from 16 to 17 of January a motorized infantry battalion, stationed in the state of Haryana, and several units of the 50th airborne brigade, stationed in Agra, moved in the direction of Delhi. According to the information of the newspaper, this march had not been coordinated with the Ministry of Defence, and the government was “spooked”. Then an alarm was supposedly announced, and the units were ordered to return to the places of their permanent stationing. The newspaper was careful to avoid the word "coup d'état",
only saying that it was a violation of the normal connections between the army commanders and the civil government represented by the Ministry of Defence. But immediately after the publication there appeared numerous comments actively discussing the theme of the military coup. And all this despite the fact that the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, as well as the Defence Minister A. K. Antony, and the chief of the army headquarters General Vijay Kumar Singh completely dismissed the information of the newspaper as "groundless“. "This is absolute nonsense, - General Singh said. People spreading these rumours are trying to blacken the government and the army, and they must be called to account. " An expert of the Russian Institute of Strategic Research Boris Volkhonsky notes that in the information of the Indian newspaper one fact is unusual: during the 65 years of the independence of India, the army stayed absolutely out of politics, and India by right was proud of its title of the world's largest democracy, in contrast, for example, to the neighboring Pakistan. "There are no prerequisites for the military coup today. Yes, in recent months General V. K. Singh conflicted with his civilian leaders from the Ministry of Defense. His period of office as the chief of staff is coming to an end in accordance with the age limit, and his attempts to prove that he is a year younger than he really is, ended in a scandal.” According to the expert, many people in India are not satisfied with the present government. But none of the political forces will support a military coup. This is true for the "system opposition" represented by the Bharatiya Janata Party, and for the "third front" that consists of a number of regional parties, as well as for various social movements. As for the army, it won’t ally itself with the Maoist gunmen (Naxalites). So the rumors about a possible coup d'etat are exaggerated, to put it mildly. But, as the saying goes, there is no smoke without a fire. It is not just a conflict between the chief of staff and the Ministry of Defence. We can talk about a broader set of problems, continues Boris Volkhonsky: "Today India is going through a difficult period. The last year’s broad anti-corruption campaign and the deplorable results of the party in power at the regional elections of 2011-2012 tell us that the position of the central government is considerably weakened, and at the best it can hold out until the next elections, which are planned for 2014. But the alternative of early elections is not excluded.” In addition - and this was revealed in the course of scandals associated with the name of General Singh - India is facing a significant dilemma now: how to combine its claim for regional leadership with the necessity to live within its means as the growth rate of the economy is slowing down, and the exchange rate of the national currency is falling. India is the world's largest importer of weapons and that reflects its geopolitical ambitions. And at the same time, in his recent letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh General V. K. Singh describes the deplorable state of the Indian army. Situations like the personal conflict of the General with the Ministry or the events of the night from 16 to 17 of January, are not some accidental episodes, but a reflection of a system crisis, that has struck India and its armed forces, the Russian expert concludes.

Saudi Arabian newspaper says kingdom will not send women to London to compete at the Olympics

Plans for Saudi Arabia to send women to the Olympics for the first time appear to be in jeopardy. Saudi Arabian newspaper Al-Watan reported Thursday that Saudi Olympic Committee President Prince Nawaf does "not approve" of sending female athletes to the London Games. But he left room for Saudi women to possibly compete on their own outside the official delegation, a plan that may not satisfy demands by the International Olympic Committee. A similar arrangement was made at the Youth Olympics in 2010 for Saudi equestrian competitor Dalma Rushdi Malhas. She won a bronze medal in show jumping. "I do not approve of Saudi female participation in the Olympics at the moment," Nawaf was quoted as saying by the newspaper. Officials at the Saudi Olympic Committee could not be reached for comment. The IOC has been in talks with the Saudis about sending women to London. "We are still in discussion and working to ensure the participation of Saudi women at the games in London," the IOC told The Associated Press in an email on Thursday. In a statement Thursday, Human Rights Watch said Nawaf's comments underline Saudi Arabia's wobbly commitment to granting women rights to participate in sports. "If the International Olympic Committee was looking for an official affirmation of Saudi discrimination against women in sports, the minister in charge just gave it," said Christoph Wilcke, a senior Middle East researcher for the New York-based group. "It is impossible to square Saudi discrimination against women with the noble values of the Olympic Charter." Saudi Arabia is one of three countries that have never included women on their Olympic teams, along with Qatar and Brunei. The IOC has been hopeful that all three will send female representatives to London, marking the first time every competing nation does so. A formal proposal for the participation of Saudi women had been scheduled to be submitted to the IOC executive board at its meeting in Quebec City from May 23-25.

Ahram Online interviews Bahraini activist Maryam Al-Khawaja
Human 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
in interview with Ahram Online. “Human rights violations are still being committed on a daily basis,” she said, sitting in a conference room in downtown Cairo after finally being allowed to enter the Egyptian capital. Al-Khawaja was kept at the airport for several hours without being given a clear reason why. A human rights activist herself, Al-Khawaja is on a mission to expose rights violations and abuses by the Bahraini government against peaceful protesters asking for a fair and democratic system. She heads the foreign relations office at the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR) and the Gulf Centre for Human Rights. “Our job is mainly documentation and reporting,” she explained. “It’s about making sure that the world knows what's going on in Bahrain.” Al-Khawaja, whose father, a co-founder and former president of the BCHR, has just appealed against a life sentence for crimes against the state, talked about the disparity between what the Bahraini government says it is doing and what is actually happening on the ground. It isn’t new for the Bahraini government to look into the human rights situation and investigate alleged violations and then do nothing about them, she said. A government-mandated independent probe into the events of February and March 2011 was carried out last year and a report produced in November. The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) found many reports of abuse by regime forces to be true and gave recommendations for reform. “The government is trying to sell the idea to the West that they've implemented reforms, that they're working on them, that they take time, and that people need to wait,” Al-Khawaja said. However, the “people who have committed the past violations are either the same ones committing them today — they've been promoted in some cases — or they're not being held accountable.” Al-Khawaja underlined the necessity of accountability if the reforms to be carried out by the government are to be taken seriously. However, not only are the officials responsible not being held to account, she claimed, but crimes are still being committed. “The number of deaths we've had after the cases documented by the BICI are more than the ones registered during the BICI period,” Al-Khawaja said. As for the degree of violence now used compared to that probed by the BICI, this has only increased, she said, with cases documented by the BCHR. The latest victim of security force violence in Bahrain was Ahmed Ismail Hassan Al-Samadi, reportedly shot on 2 April by men affiliated with the country’s riot police as he filmed protesters affected by tear gas. While clashes between protesters and police occur almost daily in Bahrain, media coverage and international attention leaves much to be desired, according to activists. Days since the first post-uprising Arab League summit meeting in Baghdad in March, the issue of Bahrain has once again disappeared from discussion. Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari stated the week before the summit was held that the Bahrain issue was not on the summit agenda. While she expressed her disappointment at the removal of the Bahraini issue from the agenda of the Arab League summit meeting, Al-Khawaja said that Iraq’s keenness for Gulf countries to attend the summit may have prompted its removal. Al-Khawaja testified on the Bahraini situation before a 2011 human rights commission in the US Congress, and today she says that most Arab governments are silent about the situation in the country, as is the West. She told Ahram Online that “given the situation now, the West is definitely an accomplice” in the clampdown. Al-Khawaja criticised what she said was the West’s inconsistency in criticising Russia for sending arms to the Syrian regime, while doing “the exact same thing” in Bahrain. “Now we’re at a point where they’re either ready to do the right thing by standing with democracy and human rights, or they’re not, and they’re choosing not to,” she said. Al-Khawaja said that “We’re still talking about a situation in which a barrel of oil is more valuable than a human life. It’s this that we need to change.” Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, Maryam's father, has now been on hunger strike for 56 days. Authorities said Wednesday that he was transfered to a prison clinic for close medical observation. NGOs have warned that Bahrain is responsible for the life of Abdulhadi. "The Bahraini government and the ruling family will be held responsible for any harm resulting from the ongoing (hunger) strike of rights activist Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja," a statement issued by the Gulf Forum for Civil Societies said.

Russia to West: No ultimatum on Syria!

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.

Saudis hold anti-regime rallies in Qatif, demad release of activist

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.

Obama signs jobs bill, praises private sector

Obama administration respects the Supreme Court
Attorney General Eric Holder told a federal appeals court today that President Obama and the Justice Department respect the Supreme Court's right to review legislation, and he pushed back on the judge's criticism of Obama's comments on the pending health care case. "The department has not in this litigation, nor in any other litigation of which I am aware, ever asked this or any other court to reconsider or limit long-established precedent concerning judicial review of the constitutionality of federal legislation," Holder wrote. At the end of a three-page memo addressed mainly to Appeals Court Judge Jerry Smith, Holder wrote: "The President's remarks were fully consistent with the principles described herein." On Monday, Obama said he expects the Supreme Court to uphold the health care law -- and that an adverse ruling could well be defined as "judicial activism." The president cited "conservative commentators" who have argued that "the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint -- that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law. Well, this is a good example." Another critic: An appeals court judge named Jerry Smith. During a hearing this week, Smith told a Justice Department lawyer that Obama's comments "troubled a number of people who have read it as somehow a challenge to the federal courts or to their authority or to the appropriateness of the concept of judicial review. And that's not a small matter." Smith ordered the DOJ to produce the letter that Holder released today. As we reported earlier, both Obama and Smith have been criticized for commenting publicly as the Supreme Court works on its opinion in the health care case -- a decision not expected to come down until June. Obama's comments on the case have drawn harsh criticism from Republicans who voted against the health care law. They accused Obama of trying to intimidate the court into a favorable ruling. 'The president crossed a dangerous line this week," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in a speech today. "The independence of the court must be defended." In today's memo, Holder echoed Obama and other aides who have said that the high court generally defers to Congress on major economic legislation, such as the 2010 health care law. "While duly recognizing the courts' authority to engage in judicial review, the executive branch has often urged courts to respect the legislative judgments of Congress," Holder wrote.

Obama’s Supreme Court comments lead some to question his strategy

President Obama struck a nerve this week when he took the unusual step of commenting on Supreme Court deliberations, saying it would be an “unprecedented, extraordinary” step for the justices to overturn the health-care law that stands as his signature domestic policy achievement. Many conservatives charged that Obama’s words amounted to a stark warning that he intends to campaign against the court if the law or its key elements are struck down, while some speculated that he was trying to bully the justices. One Texas judge, outraged that Obama seemed to question the court’s very right to review laws, ordered the Justice Department to submit a three-page explanation of what role the administration believes the courts have. Even some legal scholars sympathetic to Obama and the health-care law are saying that the president might have been better off keeping quiet. “Presidents should generally refrain from commenting on pending cases during the process of judicial deliberation,” said Harvard Law professor Laurence Tribe, a close Obama ally. “Even if such comments won’t affect the justices a bit, they can contribute to an atmosphere of public cynicism that I know this president laments.” White House officials sought Wednesday to play down Obama’s comments, with press secretary Jay Carney calling them an “unremarkable observation about 80 years of Supreme Court history.” Carney said Obama was “referring to the fact that it would be unprecedented in the modern era of the Supreme Court, since the New Deal era, for the Supreme Court to overturn legislation” on a “matter of national economic importance” — not that it would be unprecedented for the court to rule that a law was unconstitutional. “That’s what the Supreme Court is there to do,” Carney said. But the White House was forced to defend the assertion that overturning the health-care law would be unprecedented. According to the Congressional Research Service, the court through 2010 had ruled 165 times that laws passed by Congress were unconstitutional. Obama himself agreed with some of those decisions, including 2008’s Boumediene v. Bush, in which the court ruled 5-4 that the Military Commissions Act’s suspension of the right of habeas corpus for Guantanamo Bay detainees was unconstitutional. And Wednesday, the administration was in court in Boston explaining why it thinks the Defense of Marriage Act is unconstitutional, although it was passed by bipartisan majorities and signed by a Democratic president. An intense public argument The debate over Obama’s foray into the Supreme Court’s deliberations underscored the intense political heat surrounding the fate of the health-care law, which many scholars across the ideological spectrum once considered a sure bet to pass constitutional muster. After three days of oral arguments last week in which conservative justices appeared willing to consider striking down the heart of the law — the requirement that all Americans buy health insurance or pay a penalty — the notion of a major loss for Obama began to look far more realistic. Some liberal groups have said that a loss could help the president politically by galvanizing his base in time for the November election around shared disdain for an activist conservative court. Obama has attacked the court once before, criticizing in his 2010 State of the Union address its Citizens United decision, which loosened campaign spending restrictions. In the case of the health-care law, experts agreed that it was unusual, though not unprecedented, for a president to inject himself into the matter before the justices had announced their ruling. A White House official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal thinking, said Obama’s remarks reflected the reality that the law was the subject of a major public and political debate. “It would have been bizarre in the extreme for the president to say, ‘That’s pending litigation, and I’m not going to comment,’ ” the official said. “It’s just not realistic.” Obama commented on the health-care deliberations on two occasions this week: during a Rose Garden news conference Monday and in response to a question Tuesday at a luncheon with newspaper editors. On Monday, he needled conservative commentators, saying that for years, “what we’ve heard [from them] is, the biggest problem on the bench was judicial activism or a lack of judicial restraint — that an unelected group of people would somehow overturn a duly constituted and passed law.” “Well,” he added, “this is a good example.” Then on Tuesday, asked why he seemed to be dismissing the court’s long-held role of reviewing laws passed by Congress, Obama sought to clarify, if not soften, his earlier remarks, though he did not back off his argument. He also tried to emphasize a point that some close to the White House thought was being overlooked by the court’s conservative wing — that it was up to the challengers of the law to prove its unconstitutionality. “The Supreme Court is the final say on our Constitution and our laws, and all of us have to respect it, but it’s precisely because of that extraordinary power that the court has traditionally exercised significant restraint and deference to our duly elected legislature, our Congress,” Obama said. “And so the burden is on those who would overturn a law like this. Now, as I said, I expect the Supreme Court actually to recognize that and to abide by well-established precedence out there.” Defending the president Some scholars argued that the president was well within his rights to speak out, particularly given the intense public attention paid to the health-care debate. “To the extent some may have misconstrued the president’s initial remarks, he made expressly clear in his second statement what he obviously intended in his first — that of course he respects the independence of the judiciary and the role of judicial review,” said Walter Dellinger, who was solicitor general under President Bill Clinton. “The justices’ life tenure secures their independence. There is no reason that issues before the court should be fenced off from public debate.” Brian Fitzpatrick, a former clerk to Justice Antonin Scalia and now a law professor at Vanderbilt University, noted that Republican members of Congress and the GOP presidential candidates regularly denounce the liberal U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, and he said he thought Obama was being similarly “cute” with his comments Monday. Some wondered if the president has a strategy to convince the public that the court, with its conservative majority, is thwarting his agenda. That could mobilize liberal voters who see future judicial appointments as a key concern. Two politically charged issues important to pieces of Obama’s base are likely to come before the justices soon: the administration’s attempt to block Arizona’s tough immigration law and its stance opposing the Defense of Marriage Act. Still, such a strategy could backfire among the justices, resulting in policy setbacks that outweigh any political gain. “The president may end up losing more than he gains” by calling out the court, Fitzpatrick said. Should Obama decide to challenge the court more directly, some experts say he faces political risk. Not only is the health-care law unpopular — polls show that many Americans see it as unconstitutional — but the court itself can be a losing target. James Gibson, a political science professor at Washington University in St. Louis, has found in an annual survey that Americans hold a consistently high regard for the legitimacy of the Supreme Court. “Obama’s got to be very careful about attacking the institution,” Gibson said. “We have good data to suggest the Supreme Court is deeply respected, and that’s even after Bush v. Gore, even among Democrats and even among African Americans.”

Afghanistan sees rise in ‘dancing boys’ exploitation

By Ernesto Londoño The 9-year-old boy with pale skin and big, piercing eyes captivated Mirzahan at first sight. “He is more handsome than anyone in the village,” the 22-year-old farmer said, explaining why he is grooming the boy as a sexual partner and companion. There was another important factor that made Waheed easy to take on as a bacha bazi, or a boy for pleasure: “He doesn’t have a father, so there is no one to stop this.” A growing number of Afghan children are being coerced into a life of sexual abuse. The practice of wealthy or prominent Afghans exploiting underage boys as sexual partners who are often dressed up as women to dance at gatherings is on the rise in post-Taliban Afghanistan, according to Afghan human rights researchers, Western officials and men who participate in the abuse. “Like it or not, there was better rule of law under the Taliban,” said Dee Brillenburg Wurth, a child-protection expert at the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, who has sought to persuade the government to address the problem. “They saw it as a sin, and they stopped a lot of it.” Over the past decade, the phenomenon has flourished in Pashtun areas in the south, in several northern provinces and even in the capital, according to Afghans who engage in the practice or have studied it. Although issues such as women’s rights and moral crimes have attracted a flood of donor aid and activism in recent years, bacha bazi remains poorly understood. The State Department has mentioned the practice — which is illegal here, as it would be in most countries — in its annual human rights reports. The 2010 report said members of Afghanistan’s security forces, who receive training and weapons from the U.S.-led coalition, sexually abused boys “in an environment of criminal impunity.” But by and large, foreign powers in Afghanistan have refrained from drawing attention to the issue. There are no reliable statistics on the extent of the problem. “It is very sensitive and taboo in Afghanistan,” said Hayatullah Jawad, head of the Afghan Human Rights Research and Advocacy Organization, who is based in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif. “There are a lot of people involved in this case, but no one wants to talk about it.” An open secret A recent interview with Mirzahan and a handful of his friends who sexually exploit boys provided a rare glimpse into the lives of men who have taken on bacha bazi. The men agreed to be interviewed together in a mud hut in this tiny village in Balkh province, accessible only by narrow, unpaved roads and just a few miles from areas where the Taliban is fighting the government for dominance. The men insisted that only their first names be used. Although the practice of bacha bazi has become something of an open secret in Afghanistan, it is seldom discussed in public or with outsiders. Sitting next to the 9-year-old Waheed, who was wearing a pink pants-and-tunic set called a shalwar kameez, Mirzahan said he opted to take on the boy because marrying a woman would have been prohibitively expensive. The two have not had sex, Mirzahan said, but that will happen in a few years. For now, Waheed is being introduced to slightly older “danc­ing boys.” “He is not dancing yet, but he is willing,” Mirzahan said with pride. Asked how he felt about becoming a dancing boy, Waheed responded shyly. “I feel so happy,” the boy said. “They are so beautiful.” Sitting nearby was 23-year-old Assadula, who said he’s an Afghan soldier assigned to a unit in the southern province of Kandahar. Assadula said he has been attracted to teenage males for as long as he can recall. Two years ago, he took on a 16-year-old as his bacha. The relationship will end soon, he said, sitting next to his companion, Jawad, who is now 18. “When he starts growing a beard, his time will expire, and I will try to find another one who doesn’t have a beard,” Assadula said. Many of the men who have bachas are also married. But Assadula said he has never been attracted to women. “You cannot take wives everywhere with you,” he said, referring to the gender segregation in social settings that is traditional in Afghanistan. “You cannot take a wife with you to a party, but a boy you can take anywhere.” Boys who become bachas are seen as property, said Jawad, the human rights researcher. Those who are perceived as being particularly beautiful can be sold for tens of thousands of dollars. The men who control them sometimes rent them out as dancers at male-only parties, and some are prostituted. “This is abuse,” Jawad said. “Most of these children are not willing to do this. They do this for money. Their families are very poor.” Although the practice is thought to be more widespread in conservative rural areas, it has become common in Kabul. Mohammed Fahim, a videographer who films the lavish weddings in the capital, estimated that one in every five weddings he attends in Kabul features dancing boys. Authorities are well aware of the phenomenon, he said, as he played a video of a recent party that featured an underage boy with heavy makeup shaking his shoulders seductively as men sitting on the floor clapped and smiled. “Police come because they like it a lot,” Fahim said, referring to parties with dancing boys. When the boys age beyond their prime and get tossed aside, many become pimps or prostitutes, said Afghan photojournalist Barat Ali Batoor, who spent months chronicling the plight of dancing boys. Some turn to drugs or alcohol, he said. “In Afghan society, if you are raped or you are abused, you will not have space in society to live proudly,” he said. When Batoor completed his project on dancing boys, he assumed that nongovernmental organizations would be eager to exhibit his work and raise awareness of the issue. To his surprise, none were. “They said: ‘We don’t want to make enemies in Afghanistan,’ ” he said, summarizing the general response. A post-Taliban revival Afghan men have exploited boys as sexual partners for generations, people who have studied the issue say. The practice became rampant during the 1980s, when mujaheddin commanders fighting Soviet forces became notorious for recruiting young boys while passing through villages. In Kandahar during the mid-1990s, the Taliban was born in part out of public anger that local commanders had married bachas and were engaging in other morally licentious behavior. Afghanistan’s legal codes are based mainly on sharia, or Islamic law, which strictly prohibits sodomy. The law also bars sex before marriage. Under Afghan law, men must be at least 18 years old and women 16 to marry. During the Taliban era, men suspected of having sex with men or boys were executed. In the late 1990s, amid the group’s repressive reign, the practice of bacha bazi went underground. The fall of the Taliban government in late 2001 and the flood of donor money that poured into Afghanistan revived the phenomenon. Wurth, the U.N. official, who is leaving Kabul soon after three years of work on child-welfare issues in Afghanistan, said the lack of progress on combating the sexual exploitation of children is her biggest regret. Foreign powers have done little to conduct thorough research or advocate for policy reforms, she said. “It’s rampant in certain areas,” Wurth said. “But more than that we can’t say. Nobody has facts and figures.” Wurth said she was encouraged by recent discussions with Afghan government officials, who she said have begun to acknowledge the problem and have expressed concern about the rising popularity of the practice. The sexual exploitation of boys recruited to the Afghan police force was one of the reasons it was added in 2010 to a U.N. list of armed groups that recruit underage fighters, Wurth said. But, so far, the government has taken few meaningful steps to discourage the abuse of bachas. Wurth said she was not aware of any prosecutions. “A kid who is being sexually exploited, if he reports it, he will end up in prison,” she said. “They become pariahs.”

Afghanistan’s ‘dancing boys’: Behind the story
By Ernesto Londoño
The 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.

Foreign Policy: What Afghanistan's 1 Percent Thinks

Near 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."

Enjoy weather in Kabul, Karzai invites Gilani

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.

Afghan Women Addicts on the Rise
A leading drug addiction treatment center says that the rising number of drug-addicted men is a key driver behind the growing numbers of drug-addicted women. The addiction treatment group Nejat Center, which hosts a number of rehabilitation homes and programmes including in Kabul and Jalalabad, said more than 700 women were undergoing treatment through Nejat now, and the numbers are increasing. By passing their addiction on to their wives, men are also passing it on to their children, according to the Center's experience. The Nejat Center called for the government to give the matter more serious attention to address the ever-growing problem. "We much try to decrease the total number of addicted people, but we have fewer and fewer possibilities," Nejat director of harm reduction for women Mohammed Amman Raoufi said, adding that the poor who are returning from regional countries are more likely to be addicts. "Those who are traveling to Iran and Pakistan, they often come back as addicts further adding to the increase of addicts in the country." Raoufi said many of the women undergoing treatment said they became addicts when their spouses returned from neighbouring countries which they went to for work. A woman, who requested anonymity, in prison for her addiction said: "My spouse went for work [outside Afghanistan] and when he came back, he was addicted. Then I also started to smoke opium and I gave it to the children too. If I don't smoke my body is painful." Raoufi suggested that because many women in lower-income families are doing onerous work, they use opium to "medicate" against the fatigue and pain, before passing it on to their children. Afghanistan is the source of about 90 percent of world's opium, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The UNODC estimates about 1.5 million Afghans use drugs Afghanistan. While there are no clear statistics on the gender breakdown of this estimate, in 2009 the UNODC said at least 110,600 women used some form of illegal drugs.

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

Asif Ali Zardari wants the support of all the major political parties

The President of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari has once again invited the opposition parties to support the government so that all the major parties can work together for the betterment of the country. Zardari said this during his speech on the death anniversary of former Prime Minister and President of the country, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. A massive procession was held in Garhi Khuda Bux last night. While talking about the on-going clash of the present government of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) with the Supreme Court of the country, Zardari expressed that he along with Prime Minister, Yousuf Raza Gillani and Aitzaz Ahsan are there in the court for the people of Pakistan, who have handed over the responsibility to PPP. Zardari said, "If I am fighting today, if (Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani’s lawyer) Aitzaz Ahsan is fighting in the Supreme Court, it is with the backing of the people. Pakistan is in the hands of the people, who can never be wrong." A strong verdict of the court is expected later this month against the Prime Minister of Pakistan as he has been charged for contempt of court. However, Zardari, who also happens to be the co-chairman of PPP, said that Gillani talks about the supremacy of the constitution and that is the reason why judiciary is against him. On top of that, Gillani backs the making of Saraiki Province and in Zardari’s opinion; some forces do not like this. "They are after Gilani not because he is loyal to me – he talks of the Constitution. He wanted to separate south Punjab from the seat of Lahore and that is his crime, and he is being punished for it," he said. PPP is currently heading a coalition government and has successfully enjoyed the support of most of the political parties in the parliament but in recent months, some parties have started to go against the government policies. Zardari expressed that he needs the support of all the major parties, if Pakistan is to have a prosperous future. "Today, I again urge the opposition, let us work together to steer the country out of internal and external challenges," he added. Zardari’s statements look quite ironic as the present government is surely one of the worst of the history of the country.

Inequality stopping children from learning in schools in South Asia
The 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”.