Thursday, April 12, 2012

Clinton: rocket launch reveals North Korean paranoia

Afghan Lashing Highlights Use Of Shari'a Law

Radio Free Europe

Afghanistan -- It's the type of punishment that many thought would vanish with the fall of the Taliban, but Shari'a law is alive and well in Afghanistan.

One unidentified 20-year-old man has felt the full force of the Islamic legal code in the northern Afghan province of Baghan.

After confessing to drinking alcohol, which is forbidden under Shari'a law, he received 80 lashes at the hands of a local judge.

Proof that such punishments are still being carried out is contained in a video obtained this week by Radio Free Afghanistan.

But the April 11 ruling and punishment depicted in the video is by no means a rare occurrence, according to experts.As Wadir Safi, a law professor at Kabul University, explains, Shari'a law prevails in much of rural Afghanistan, while civil law takes precedence in urban centers.

This is because Afghan law incorporates both Islamic and civil law, and leaves it up to individual judges and courts to determine which code of law to apply.

Different Interpretations Of Same Law

"The difference in law is the person, the judge themselves," says Safi. "In Kabul, they act in one way, in Jalalabad another, and in Kandahar another. The law is the same law but the judges are different. They are [handing out punishments] according to their own [interpretation]."

The silent video provides a window into the process. It shows the 20-year-old facing justice in the yard of a local court, where he is declared guilty of consuming alcohol.

As a handful of bystanders look on, the bearded judge proceeds to lash the criminal with a leather strap containing an inner layer of lead.

According to witnesses, the judge holds an egg in the armpit of the arm he uses to flog the culprit. This is intended to limit the strength of the blows by forcing the judge to keep his arm close to his body. If he drops or breaks the egg, he has gone too far.

Witnesses of this punishment describe it as moderate compared to penalties handed down by the Taliban, which could be as severe as beheadings and amputations of limbs.

But that is not to say that Shari'a law does not allow for severe punishment in modern-day Afghanistan.

According to some interpretations of the law, women can be stoned to death for adultery; drug users can be lashed and chained for several consecutive days for "cleansing" purposes; and convicted murderers can be offered to a victim's family, which has the right to carry out an execution.

Putin looks to Soviet past in South China Sea strategy

It's not new for Russia to jointly explore oil and gas resources in the South China Sea region with Vietnam, but in the context of increasingly complicated disputes over the South China Sea, Russia's intentions and exploration activities deserve attention. China must clarify Russia's strategic intentions in the South China Sea: In fact, over the past decades, Russia's attention has never moved away from the region and it has a vested interest in the area.

Vietnam was an ally of the former Soviet Union. Russia's interests in the South China Sea region are mostly related to Vietnam. When Russian leader Vladimir Putin met Vietnamese Premier Nguyen Tan Dung at the end of 2009, he stressed that the bilateral relations between Russia and Vietnam have special strategic significance.

The Cam Ranh Bay was one of the forward bases of the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. There were over 10,000 soldiers and their family members stationed in Cam Ranh Bay at the closest relations between the two.

Military expansion was followed by economic interests. In the early 1980s, Vietsovpetro, a joint venture company of the former Soviet Union and Vietnam, began oil exploration in the continental shelf of Vietnam. To some degree, the oil and gas industry of Vietnam grew under the support of the former Soviet Union. In 2010, Bui Dinh Dinh, the then Vietnamese ambassador to Russia, praised oil exploration between Russia and Vietnam as the most effective and promising field of cooperation.

As Vietnam is introducing more foreign investment into the oil and gas industry, more Russian enterprises have engaged in oil exploration with Vietnam. Besides cooperation over oil, the Russian government provided a loan of $8 billion with the construction of Vietnam's first nuclear power station. Meanwhile, Russia is one of the biggest weapon exporters to Vietnam.

In recent years, Vietnam has purchased lots of advanced weapons from Russia and has replaced China as the second largest arms importer from Russia. However, the trade volume between the two was only $2.45 billion in 2011. All the cooperation, no matter in oil exploration, nuclear power station construction or arms imports, goes beyond economic interests and is chiefly related to political and security concerns. That's the main considerations of Russia when developing the strategic relationship with Vietnam.

The importance of the South China Sea depends not only on the abundant resources but also its strategic significance, where the Russia strategic foresight lies. With the economic recovering and military reform advancing, Russia has begun to move eastward and it certainly won't neglect the south. Vietnam is definitely the springboard. Russian presidential aide Sergei Prikhodko once said it wasn't necessary for Russia to restore the military base at Cam Ranh Bay, but it was logical to use the infrastructure and facilities there.

In essence, Russia, standing behind Vietnam, is not that different from the US, which is coveting the South China Sea behind the Philippines. But Russia doesn't have as strong overseas military power as before and has many common interests with China, so it could not be so hasty over the South China Sea issue.

Russians can confidently claim that their oil exploration with Vietnam is not involved within the controversial area between China and Vietnam. However, the more interests Russia has in the South China Sea, and the bigger the joint programs, the higher the possibility that these activities could dampen China's interests. It's normal in international politics for interests to drive countries into irrationality.

China must improve its own strength and seek as many common interests as possible with Russia. National strength is the premise and assurance for a mutually respectful relationship, and with the constraint of common interests, Russia could be cautious in any decisions related to China.

Journalists must be watchmen, not rumormongers

Frozen yogurt was made from old leather shoes, according to another "scandal" quickly blowing up on the Internet.

It started from a vaguely-stated microblog post by a famous TV anchor. Zhao Pu, the CCTV news host warned Monday on his Weibo account that the public should stop consuming solid yogurt and jelly products because of some terrible secrets in their manufacturing process, citing an unnamed colleague as a source. His comment was later echoed by a news reporter, who told his Weibo followers that a friend tipped him off that frozen yogurt products used industry gelatin extracted from rotten leather shoes.

The posts instantly stirred anger and panic from the public especially through the extensive reach of the microblog users, who have become extremely sensitive to food safety scandals.

However, a number of jelly producers soon questioned the reliability of the information. The posts named no specific company involved but put the whole industry under scrutiny.

The China National Confectionery Association, the official body representing the industry, also released a statement warning that those breaking so-called inside information must be responsible for their comments or face legal consequences.

Some take this scenario to be the government trying to cover up another food incident exposed by honest journalists, particularly given the poor public image of China's food industry. The original intentions of Zhao may have been good, but as a journalist himself, he should understand the consequences that muckraking would bring to the companies and persons involved.

Journalists from other news media conducted more thorough research and concluded that the accusations on the jelly and yogurt industry were not true.

Experts explained that putting industry gelatin in jelly will ruin its taste, and that it is more costly to do that than using carrageenan, a substance commonly used by most jelly producers.

The public needs watchdogs to safeguard its interest. But there are also law-abiding people earning their fortune through honest activities and it is irresponsible to smear the entire industry with weak accusations.

This is particularly the case for journalists. Although they have the power to influence public opinion, this power is given for them to better fulfill their role as watchdogs, not to abuse it.

Bahraini activist Khawaja enters day 64 of hunger strike

Prominent Bahraini human rights activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja has entered his 64th day of hunger strike in detention as protests for his release continue in the Persian Gulf state.

Al-Khawaja called his family on Thursday and confirmed that he will continue his hunger strike , despite the deterioration of his health.

The rights activist, the co-founder and former president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was arrested in April last year for participating in anti-regime protests. Al-Khawaja is now serving a life sentence for his role in the ongoing revolution.

On Wednesday, Bahraini demonstrators took to the streets in the northeastern town of Sitra demanding the release of al-Khawaja.

Protesters continue their demonstrations against the US-sponsored Al Khalifa family across the country as regime forces persist with brutal crackdown on peaceful protests.

Bahraini activists say seven people have been killed due to inhalation of toxic tear gas since March 17, 2012.

Anti-regime demonstrators hold King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa responsible for the death of protesters during the popular uprising that began in the Persian Gulf state in February 2011.

Saudi Princess: Saudi Regime is Corrupt

The daughter of Saudi Arabia's former king has called on rulers to implement a new constitution giving men and women equal rights in kingdom in an interview with the BBC's World Service.

She said she was "saddened to say that my beloved country today has not fulfilled that early promise".

She lists five key changes she would like to see - to the constitution, divorce laws, education system, social services and the roll of the mahram (chaperone).
“We lack, and urgently need, fundamental civil laws with which to govern our society.”

“I would like to see a proper constitution that treats all men and women on an equal footing before the law but that also serves as a guide to our civil laws and political culture,” Basma, who lives with her children in London, told BBC.

For example, she said, today in Saudi courts, all decisions are made according to the individual judge's interpretation of the holy Koran. “This is entirely dependent on his own personal beliefs and upbringing rather than universally agreed principles or a written constitution as a guide. I am not calling for a western system but an adaptation of that system to suit our needs and culture.”

“I strongly believe that current divorce laws are abusive,” she added.
Concerning the overhaul of the Saudi educational system, she said: The way women today are treated in Saudi Arabia is a direct result of the education our children, boys and girls, receive at school. The content of the syllabus is extremely dangerous. For one, our young are taught that a woman's position in society is inferior. Her role is strictly limited to serving her family and raising children. They are actually taught that if a woman has to worship anyone other than God it should be her husband. I consider these ideologies to be inherently abusive.

“The ministry of social affairs not only abuses women's rights but is also one of the reasons poverty is rife in the kingdom,” she indicated. A corrupt system that lacks transparency has meant that more than 50% of our population is poor and needy even though we are one of the wealthiest countries on earth, she added.

Concerning women driving in the kingdom, she said:
I am definitely for women driving but I don't think this is the right time for a reversal of this law. In the current climate if a woman drives, she could be stopped, harassed beaten or worse to teach her a lesson. This is why I am against women driving until we are educated enough and until we have the necessary laws to protect us from such madness. Otherwise we might as well hand out a license to the extremists to abuse us further. If as drivers we get harassed, they will say to the Islamic world "see what happens when women drive, they get harassed they get beaten" and they will call for even more stringent laws to control women. This is something we can't afford. Fundamental changes in the law and its attitude to women are needed before we take this step.

Human rights body warning over Bahrain

Human Rights Watch has warned Formula 1 that by holding next week's Bahrain Grand Prix, it will be endorsing the kingdom's regime despite claims that sport and politics don't mix.
Joe Stork, the deputy middle east director of Human Rights Watch, which monitors human rights issues worldwide, stopped short of calling for the race to be cancelled in an interview with AUTOSPORT. But he believes that if the race does happen then F1 will be seen as supporting the government.
"You can't say that you are not mixing politics and sport when you are coming down on one side," Stork told AUTOSPORT. "You may prefer not to be facing the choice of whether to go in or stay out, but this is the choice F1 faces. Whatever decision it takes, there is a political aspect to it.
"We don't feel that it is our place to be calling for F1 to boycott Bahrain. But it is not a very good situation and it's getting steadily worse. We are not security experts, so that's a whole separate consideration that F1 needs to take into account as well.
"We are looking at a lockdown. F1 is not my world, but this seems to be a terrible climate in which to hold what is supposed to be a competitive, festive sporting event. In the circumstances, I don't know who is going to be having any fun."
Stork believes that even though there is a good chance that security forces in Bahrain can make the race itself safe, F1 will face serious questions about its willingness to race there.
Protests against the race have been ongoing in Bahrain in recent weeks according to widespread news reports, and they are expected to continue once F1 arrives.
"I think that they [F1] will have some explaining to do," said Stork. "I can easily imagine that the security will be such that you won't have the race disrupted on the track and I imagine that they can keep that under control.
"But if you have a situation where there are demonstrations on a nightly, if not daily basis, clashes with security forces who aren't known for the most sophisticated crowd control techniques is not going to be good.
"It's not going to be good for Bahrain, it's not going to be good for F1 either if it happens either during the race or when it's clear that the demonstrations are primarily aimed at stopping the race. That's what the story will be."
Stork accepts that staging the race will be a positive for some in the kingdom - specifically the government - but that this is not a valid argument for the race going ahead.
"From the Bahraini government's point of view, of course," he said when asked if there were potential benefits to the race going ahead. "They are desperate to make the case that the situation is normal from a security point of view, normal in terms of civil strife, and that it's one big happy family.
"But the fact is, it's not normal. I'm not sure that it's the mission or the mandate of F1 to be participating in these kinds of exercises.
"Then there's the financial aspects. The economy of Bahrain is not in the best shape given the year-plus of civil unrest. F1 is a money-maker and is good for Bahraini business and tourism.
"The [ruling] Al Khalifa family are desperate for [the grand prix] to happen. But that doesn't mean that it should happen."

Pakistan Approves New Guidelines for Ties with US, NATO


Pakistan's parliament on Thursday unanimously approved a list of conditions that the United States must meet, if relations are to be restored and NATO supply routes to Afghanistan reopened.
The revised terms of engagement between Pakistan, and the United States and NATO call for an end to U.S. drone strikes on Pakistani territory and an unconditional apology for the killing of 24 Pakistani troops during a NATO airstrike last November along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan. The United States has expressed regret over the incident, calling it an accident, but has not apologized.
Senator Raza Rabbani, chairman of Pakistan's parliamentary committee on national security, presented the 14-point set of recommendations to parliament. He said that to protect the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity, the U.S. military must stop incursions into Pakistan, including drone strikes. Rabbani added that Pakistani territory, including its airspace, would not be used to transport weapons to Afghanistan.
The recommendations also prohibit covert operations inside Pakistan, and say that no private security contractors or intelligence operatives will be allowed in the country.
Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani said Thursday that his government will ensure that the recommendations are fully implemented.
In Washington Thursday, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said “the U.S. looks forward to discussing the parliamentary recommendations with Pakistan's government. Nuland added that the U.S. respects the seriousness with which parliament's review of U.S.-Pakistan relations has been conducted. She said the U.S. seeks relations with Pakistan that are enduring, strategic and more clearly defined.
Washington wants to rebuild U.S.-Pakistan relations, which have been severely strained since the November attack. The United States needs the NATO supply routes through Pakistan for its planned 2014 withdrawal of combat forces from Afghanistan.
But U.S. officials are unwilling to end drone strikes, saying they are key to success against al-Qaida and the Taliban. U.S. officials say they are seeking balanced ties with Islamabad that respect Pakistan's sovereignty and take into account U.S. security needs.

Afghan leader raises prospect of early elections

Afghanistan's president raised the prospect Thursday of holding presidential elections a year early to avoid a potentially deadly concurrence of a transition of power and a major drawdown of international forces in 2014.
The suggestion could mean that President Hamid Karzai is looking for a graceful exit ahead of what many Afghans predict is looming civil war, but it also could provide some hope for a peaceful democratic transition to a nation worried about falling apart as NATO troops leave.
Karzai — who has led Afghanistan for more than a decade — is constitutionally barred from running for a third term in the election currently scheduled for March 2014.
Karzai's rule has been tarnished by a lack of clout outside the capital and allegations of fraud surrounding his re-election in the last vote, but he also has managed to hold together rival ethnic groups and political factions through a combination of patronage and compromise deals — and a lot of help from international allies.
Karzai said he had discussed the possibility of holding elections in 2013 with his inner circle of advisers in a bid to reduce security risks and lessen the strain that could be caused by foreign combat troops leaving Afghanistan at the same time as the elections. But he stressed no final decision has been made and it was not likely to happen quickly.
"I have been talking about this for a few months now," Karzai said in response to a question at a joint news conference with visiting NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
"With all the changes that are taking place — with the complete return of international forces to their homes from Afghanistan and the holding of the presidential election at the same time — whether that will be an agenda that we can handle at the same time," he added.
Both the 2009 presidential election and last year's parliamentary poll were marred by violence and drawn-out disputes over fraudulent ballots despite the presence of foreign troops, and many fear attacks will spike as Afghan security forces try to protect the country without combat assistance.
"We are not sure that the Afghan security forces are able to handle the security needed for an election," said Wahid Muzhda, a Kabul-based political analyst. "If we have it in 2013, at least we would have foreign troops to help."
Underscoring the dangers, a suicide bomber targeting police struck a bazaar Thursday evening in the northern city of Kunduz, killing five people, including two officers and three civilians, police spokesman Lal Mohammad Ahmadzai said.
A roadside bomb also killed a NATO service member Thursday in southern Afghanistan, the alliance said, raising to 104 the number of NATO troops killed so far this year.
Some of Karzai's close associates have said that he is weary of his place at the helm of a country at war, but many in his inner circle are loathe to give up power.
The prospect of an early departure for the controversial leader would please those are ready for a fresh start because they don't think Karzai has not done enough to battle corruption or improve daily life in the impoverished country.
Electing a new leader in 2013 also would clear the slate as the international community looks for a smooth transfer of power before most of the foreign troops go home or move into support roles.
And it could give the country its best shot yet at an undisputed election after recent votes took serious intervention from international allies to force the hands of incumbents. In 2009, Karzai didn't agree to stand for a run-off election without heavy U.S. pressure.
Jandad Spinghar, executive director of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, the country's top independent election monitoring group, said Karzai's voluntary early departure would burnish his legacy.
"The people will take it very positively because in Afghanistan, in our history, we have the experience that when someone becomes president or king he has never agreed to leave," he said.
Karzai's term expires in May 2014 and the constitution says elections must be held 30 to 60 days before an incumbent leaves office.
An official with Afghanistan's election commission, which is in charge of conducting the poll, said preparations were still under way for the balloting in March 2014 and no one had approached the commission about organizing an earlier vote.
"My understanding is that early elections can happen if something happens to the president or if the president resigns," said Zekria Barakzai, deputy chief electoral officer. In such a case, the commission would have three months to organize elections, he added.
Karzai's spokesman and Western diplomats denied that there had been international pressure to set an earlier date for the election. His spokesman Aimal Faizi said Karzai was simply considering it as an option to smooth the security handover to Afghan forces. "The year 2014 will be a very busy year," Faizi said.
NATO began the transition last year, handing over responsibility for areas that are home to half the nation's population — with coalition forces in those regions now in a support role. The handover took place in two stages and a third tranche is expected before a NATO summit in Chicago in late May. Another three phases are planned over the coming year.
Fogh Rasmussen said NATO it is on track to fully hand over responsibility by the end of 2014 as scheduled. He also said Afghan troops would be ready to take the lead role around the country by mid-2013.
"We will stick to the road map and we will gradually hand over by 2014," Fogh Rasmussen told Afghan special forces during his visit earlier Thursday to their main training base outside Kabul.

PM’s son on notice


The whiff of scandal has never been far from the surface since this government came to power four years ago. Even if one discounts the ravings of motivated vested interests only concerned with bringing this government down by hook or by crook, the fact remains that the speculative hearsay about scandals bubbling just below the surface has by now acquired the status of urban legend. In the obtaining circumstances, most of these issues seem sooner or later to find their way to the Supreme Court (SC). Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry’s remarks the other day seemed to reflect this growing trend when he said that that the SC should not be asked to pronounce on each and every thing, particularly issues that properly belong in the political sphere and should therefore be dealt with within the realm of politics. The problem of course is that the system of governance is by now so corroded that the SC as the final destination and arbiter on most issues has become all but inevitable.

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani’s son Ali Musa Gilani has been dragged into the case before the SC concerning the Rs 7 billion Ephedrine scam. The drug is used for making medicines, but unfortunately also finds use by drug addicts. That is why there is an international regime to control the import and utilisation of Ephedrine through quotas, etc. The case involves the allowance of an above quota allocation of Ephedrine imports to two drug companies, allegedly at the behest of Ali Musa Gilani, whose name cropped up because a gentleman called Tauqeer Ahmed Khan, who passes himself off as the junior Gilani’s private secretary, is alleged to have been instrumental in getting these firms the undue quotas, which they allegedly misused to sell the drug illegally in the local market. To add to the conundrum, the Anti-Narcotics Force (ANF) high ups investigating the affair are said to have been ‘leaned’ on allegedly by the prime minister’s Principal Secretary Khushnood Lashari, to go easy and get Ali Musa Gilani off the hook. That is the thrust of the affidavit filed in the SC by the ANF investigating officer, who claims he and his superiors, not to mention his investigation team key members, were transferred when he refused to bow before the ‘request’. Those transfers have been rescinded by the SC. Of course there is no room for rushing to judgement, especially since the matter is sub judice, but the allegations and accusations certainly represent a troubling development.

The issue was apparently raised in the National Assembly in January this year, and the then health minister Makhdoom Shahabuddin had set up a fact-finding committee to investigate. Unfortunately, the findings of that committee have yet to be placed on the record of the house. The three-member SC bench headed by the Chief Justice hearing the case has exercised due prudence and restraint in issuing notices to all concerned parties, including Ali Musa Gilani, and its order enjoins a fair hearing to both Gilani junior and Lashari should they choose to depose before the court. While the court is proceeding in a judicious manner, the case has become the cause of banner headlines and much airtime on the media. There is a considerable body of opinion in the country that is pre-disposed to believing the worst about this government and its leaders. That may be preconceived bias or prejudice dictated by political likes and dislikes. But that pre-disposition to believe the worst about any and everything involving the government is not the way justice can be done or dispensed. If the court’s proceedings find any truth in the allegations (including the serious accusations by the ANF), the law must of course take its course, irrespective of the individuals involved, no matter how high and mighty. On the other hand, due process requires that they receive full opportunity to defend themselves and clear their name. Unfortunately, perceptions are likely to be even more skewed after the revelation that the ANF was too late in asking for the names of Ali Musa Gilani and Lashari to be placed on the Exit Control List, and Ali Musa has left the country, for a pre-planned tour according to his staff. That may be happenstance, but the prime minister should ensure tat his son appears duly before the court after his return. Family members’ scandals have been known to bring down many a ruler. It is therefore in the interests of the government and all those accused of involvement to cooperate with the investigation and court proceedings.