Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Egyptian protesters condemn Riyadh for activist’s arrest

Enraged demonstrators have staged a protest rally outside Saudi Arabia's Embassy in Cairo to condemn the recent arrest of a prominent Egyptian rights lawyer and activist. Rights activists, lawyers as well as students from the University of Cairo and families of imprisoned Egyptians in Saudi Arabia joined the rally outside the Saudi Embassy on Tuesday. The demonstrators chanted slogans against the Saudi king and called for the immediate release of Ahmed Mohammed al-Gizawi. Gizawi was arrested by Saudi security forces on April 17 upon arrival in the Saudi city of Jeddah. The lawyer's detention came without any prior notification and at a time he was in Saudi Arabia for Hajj pilgrimage. On Monday, Egypt's Arabic Network for Human Rights Information issued a statement, saying Gizawi's detention followed a sentence of one year in prison and 20 lashes delivered against him in absentia for criticism of the Saudi rulers. Gizawi is being targeted for his activism in favor of Egyptian detainees in Saudi prisons, the statement added. On Monday, the Egyptian Foreign Ministry also criticized Saudi officials for the activist's arrest and asked Riyadh to explain the move. The protests come as Saudi Arabia has been faced with a continued wave of anti-regime protests at home, especially in its Eastern Province, with the protesters calling for political reform. Anti-government protests intensified last November, after security forces opened fire on protesters in the city of Qatif, killing five people and leaving many more injured.

Saudi Arabia jails Egyptian lawyer for defaming king

Egypt's foreign ministry is trying to secure the release of an Egyptian lawyer detained in Saudi Arabia on charges of defaming King Abdullah. Ahmed al-Gizawi was arrested last week as he arrived in Jeddah to undertake Umra, the lesser pilgrimage to Mecca. Unknown to Mr Gizawi, a Saudi court had earlier sentenced him in absentia to a year in prison and 20 lashes. He is due to receive the lashes on Friday. Mr Gizawi's case has aroused widespread anger in Egypt. Social media have been blazing with attacks on the Saudi authorities and several politicians have demanded action, with one MP describing his detention as kidnapping. The Saudi ambassador to Egypt has tried to calm the situation by phoning into an Egyptian TV station, saying that there would soon be good news on Mr Gizawi. BBC World Service Middle East analyst Sebastian Usher says many Egyptians work in Saudi Arabia and there have often been cases where they say they have been mistreated under Saudi law. Mr Gizawi's case is also reminiscent of that of a Lebanese TV fortune teller who was also arrested while on pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia. He was accused of blasphemy and sentenced to death - but an international outcry helped stop his execution. 'Criticism of Saudis' Mr Gizawi is reported to have filed several lawsuits against the authorities in Saudi Arabia on behalf of Egyptians detained there without trial, who claim to have been tortured or who believe they were unfairly convicted. An Egyptian human rights group, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), suggested that the judgement against him followed criticism of the Saudi government. "Gizawi criticised the Saudi repression of Egyptians living in Saudi territory and filed a case... calling for the Saudi authorities to be forced to hand over Egyptians detained in its custody, accusing the Saudi king himself," the group said on Saturday. Egyptian Foreign Minister Mohammed Kamel Amr was "following the case closely" and trying to find out "the reasons for the arrest", his spokesman told the state news agency, Mena. Correspondents say part of the anger felt in Egypt comes from perceptions that the Saudi authorities are abusing their control of the Muslim holy places in Medina and Mecca. "Saudi Arabia should not use its control of the Kaaba in political issues" Emad Arab, an Islamist activist told Egypt's Ahram Online, referring to the ancient cube-shaped shrine in Mecca's Grand Mosque. The Umra is an extra, optional pilgrimage and does not count as the once-in-a-lifetime Hajj. Although it includes some of the rituals of the Hajj, they are shortened and there are fewer of them.

Bahrain Grand Prix exposes kingdom's deep divisions

The Bahrain Grand Prix was an opportunity for the kingdom to demonstrate all is well after last year's uprising, but the weekend race instead highlighted deep divisions between the ruling Sunni dynasty and the Shiite majority. The three-day sporting event that came to a close on Sunday was presented by the authorities as a sign that security and stability had returned to the kingdom after the Shiite-led uprising in February 2011 was brutally crushed, leaving 35 people dead, according to an independent probe. A statement by Bahrain's cabinet on Sunday said the Grand Prix "reflects the confidence the world has in Bahrain's ability to host such a global event." The king and crown prince both portrayed the race as an opportunity to demonstrate the country was on a path to reconciliation. But Bahrain's Shiite opposition, including the largest group Al-Wefaq and the more radical February 14 Youth Movement, used the renewed media attention on the kingdom to highlight their demands, with daily protests alleging abuses, marginalisation, and disenfranchisement by the regime. The weekend demonstrations often spiralled into violent clashes with security forces using tear gas and stun grenades against protesters who shot back with rocks and fire bombs. And as dawn broke on the morning before racing day, the opposition reported the death of a protester, allegedly at the hands of security forces, renewing calls among international rights groups to call off the race. The government quickly issued a statement condemning the violence, pledging to investigate and prosecute those responsible "whoever they may be," but stopping short of admitting any police involvement. The escalation was no accident. In a statement released in the days before race, Al-Wefaq announced a week of demonstrations, while the February 14 movement called for "three days of rage" to coincide with the event. The government meanwhile took preventive measures, making dozens of arrests and barring news reporters from several major news organisations, including AFP, from travelling to the kingdom ahead of the race. "The revolution never stopped... Only the international media coverage stopped," said one prominent Shiite activist, who gave his name as Ali, adding that the decision by the ruling Khalifa family to go ahead with the Grand Prix "was a gift to the revolution." The violence, clashes and slogans calling for the fall of the regime made world headlines far more than the race itself. The unrest even reached the isolated desert circuit, under a total security lockdown, on Sunday when at least three women were hauled off by police for holding up pictures of prominent Shiite activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja on hunger strike since February 8. Khawaja's deteriorating health has raised fears among rights groups that he may die in prison, potentially triggering yet another wave of mass protests in the kingdom. On Monday, Bahrain's highest appeals court postponed for a second time in a month a final verdict on Khawaja, who is sentenced to life in prison for plotting to overthrow the regime. On race day, King Hamad announced he would attend the event, hoping to reassure increasingly nervous participants that the event was safe. He said he remained committed to reconciliation. But what little faith the moderate members of the Shiite opposition had in the monarch has faded in recent months as reforms proved hollow, a national dialogue has failed to move forward and political prisoners remain jailed. On Sunday evening, as teams, sponsors and government officials sipped non-alcoholic champagne and celebrated with post-race festivities at the track, protesters burned tyres and garbage in the streets, chanting "No to the Formula of blood." Bahrain's Grand Prix was "supposed to be a sign of normalisation...what happened is the complete opposite," said Salman Shaikh, the director of Brookings Doha Centre. "The race ended up polarising people in Bahrain... We ended up with further divisions," he added.

Bahrain hardliners in driving seat after F1 fiasco

Hardliners in Bahrain's Saudi-backed Sunni Muslim ruling family may dig in their heels after a Formula One Grand Prix debacle that spotlighted a frustrated pro-democracy uprising instead of projecting an image of stability. Western leaders joined rights groups and media watchdogs in criticizing Bahrain before Sunday's race, which was cancelled last year due to the unrest. Officials hailed its reinstatement as proof of a return to calm, but billowing smoke from tires set alight by protesters on race day told a different story. "I suspect now that those in the ruling family who argued that this is more trouble than it's worth will be saying 'I told you so'," said Justin Gengler, a Qatar-based researcher on Bahrain, singling out the royal court and defense ministers. Those ministers, full brothers from a family branch often known as the Khawalids, are widely viewed as masterminds of last year's crackdown, which cut short a dialogue Crown Prince Salman had begun with the opposition on democratic reforms. Bahrainis took to the streets in February 2011, inspired by successful revolts in Egypt and Tunisia, but won no concessions. The government broke up the Pearl Roundabout protest camp a month later, imposed martial law and brought in Saudi troops. The Sunni Al Khalifa monarchy branded the protesters as Shi'ite subversives with Iranian backing and Bahrain slipped off the Saudi- and Qatari-dominated pan-Arab news agenda. Western allies such as Britain and the United States, whose Fifth Fleet is moored in Manama, muted criticism of Bahrain for fear of alienating a trusted friend - or its Saudi big brother. Yet turmoil still convulses the tiny Gulf island, where riot police clash daily with demonstrators, mostly from the Shi'ite majority, and opposition parties stage mass marches. Police deploy armored vehicles, teargas, sound bombs and birdshot to lock protesters down and prevent a critical mass from re-forming and winning world attention. As a result, activists say the death toll has risen to 80 from 35, including five security personnel, when martial law was lifted in June. SECTARIAN FEARS Bahrain's government says it remains open to limited reform, but unease at the prospect of any power shift from the Sunni royal family to the Shi'ite majority has stifled progress. The hardline royal court minister, Khaled bin Ahmed, initiated contacts with the leading Shi'ite party Wefaq in January, but pro-government Sunni radicals objected strongly and the chance of renewed dialogue appears to have evaporated. Nevertheless, King Hamad responded to the Grand Prix furore on Sunday by stating his "personal commitment to reform and reconciliation". Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak al-Khalifa, adviser to the Information Affairs Authority, said many Bahrainis wanted reforms but did not want them dictated by one party or sect. "All the political societies want to fight corruption, efficient government, an empowered parliament," he said. "As long as there are no preconditions, mutual respect and no raising the bar too high, then there is hope." Sheikh Abdulaziz declined to comment on any potential rifts within the government over the question of reform. Crown Prince Salman has long been seen as its keenest royal advocate. He brought Formula One to Manama in 2004 as part of what analysts say was a vision for political and economic change that would reduce reliance on receipts from an oilfield shared with Saudi Arabia - and the influence that the arrangement gives a powerful neighbor with no interest in a democratic Bahrain. The negative publicity the latest race attracted may help to undermine whatever remains of that reform drive. "If anything the race will probably encourage the hardliners in government to say 'we don't need this sort of thing, we don't make money from it and it brings troublesome Westerners'," said Jane Kinninmont, a Chatham House analyst based in London. Prince Salman's reforms had for years been seen as a challenge to the way Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman, prime minister since independence from Britain in 1971, handles the economy. Sheikh Khalifa has become a figurehead for Sunnis who fear Shi'ite empowerment in the event of democratic change. Changes of personnel and remit in key bodies since last year's crackdown suggest the concerns of the security apparatus now dominate. "It appears to be the case across the family and throughout the government that they think they are winning," said Toby Jones, Middle East historian at Rutgers University. "NO URGENCY" "There is no sense of urgency or commitment to creating the kind of space necessary to arrive at a rapprochement," Jones said. "If that's true, then it seems that all this talk of a split - and contradictory agendas - does not really matter." Bahrain, a banking and tourism hub, is a shadow of its former self. Economic growth slowed to 1.3 percent in the last three months of 2011 compared to 2.2 percent the year before and inflation hit a three-year high of 4.7 percent in March. This has increased reliance on Saudi Arabia which has promised, along with other Gulf oil and gas powers, to offer extra financial help, giving extra comfort to the ruling elite. Hotels and office space have low occupancy and fewer Saudi weekend visitors frequent its bars, restaurants and malls. Few foreign media have correspondents based in the country. Wefaq, the main Shi'ite party, says attempts to reach a deal with the authorities are at an impasse. "This government is not serious about having a real dialogue, to listen to the demands of the Bahraini people and implement those demands which cannot be ignored," Wefaq leader Sheikh Ali Salman told Reuters. "Who are you to have a monopoly in power? Who tasked you with the job of appointing the government, controlling all ministries, taking advantage of national wealth?" he asked. Demonized in pro-government media as the "Hezbollah of Bahrain" yet singled out by U.S. President Barack Obama as an interlocutor the government should engage, Wefaq says the country is hostage to discord within the ruling family. The party, whose more radical rivals favor ditching the monarchy altogether, expects the conflict to get more violent. "Petrol bombs only appeared after November and in recent months we have seen some bombings, though it's still not clear who carried them out," Salman said. "It's just logical that political deadlock will result in deeper instability."


The three-day
anti-polio drive in 27 districts of Balochistan was kicked off on Monday wherein over 1.5 million children below the age of five years would be administered polio vaccine. A control room has been set up at Provincial Secretariat to closely monitor the campaign situation in Quetta where two cases have so far been detected during the past four months. The provincial teams of EPI, WHO and UNICEF will also monitor the campaign. As many as 4, 549 mobile teams, 608 fixed site teams, 70 border teams and 227 Transit teams will take part in the campaign while an in-charge was appointed at each 448 Union councils and 920 areas. These teams are being assisted by area in-charges, Lady Health Workers (LHWs) and officials of Health Department. Balochistan was the worst affected province during the 2011 during which 73 out of 198 cases were reported. Additional Chief Secretary Dr. Umar babar said government in collaboration with other organizations making its utmost efforts to eradicate this virus. Considering the high cases in the province, the government has constituted committee in each district under the leadership of Deputy Commissioner to make the campaign more effective. The anti polio-drive will start in high risk areas that include Quetta, Qila Abdullah and Pishin by May 7, 2012. According to health officials, two cases were reported in Quetta in this year while total 15 children have contracted with polio virus throughout the country.


Socialist International has invited President Asif Ali Zardari to deliver a keynote address at their Congress in September this year which the President accepted. The invitation was extended Monday during President’s meeting with Luis Ayala, Secretary General of Socialist International who called on him at Bilawal House. Briefing about the meeting Spokesperson to the President Senator Farhatullah Babar said that during meeting, the President called upon the Socialist International which has a large membership among the members of the European Parliament, to stress upon early operationalization of Pakistan-specific EU trade package, the Autonomous Trade Preference, announced by the European Union in response to the economic challenges faced by the country owing to the toll of war on terror and the destruction caused by the unprecedented floods of 2010. The President said that Pakistan greatly appreciates the European Union and its member states for their commitment to help the country reviving and stabilizing its economy through trade. He said that despite immense economic difficulties, we have opted for trade over aid to stabilize our economy from the shocks of ongoing war and that of the natural calamities. He said that economic stability was essential for strengthening of the democracy and the international community needs to assist the democratic dispensation in bringing about socio-economic development of the people of Pakistan. The President said that socio-economic development would help defeat militancy and also advance the goals of freedom, justice and peace. Discussing various steps taken by the present government, the President said that PPP’s Government in line with the vision of its founder Shaheed Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and her great daughter Shaheed Mohtarma Benazir Bhutto has taken a number of steps for real empowerment of the downtrodden people of this country, especially the most vulnerable segments of the society. He said that in line with our manifesto, we have empowered our women not only politically but also economically so as to save them from all kinds of exploitation. He said that the flagship program of the present government, the BISP program, with all its components was serving the poor women of the country and enabling them to support themselves financially besides taking care of their health, work and education issues. He said that besides women, the Party have also focussed on the labour class by empowering them and making them a share holder in state-run enterprises. He said that reinstatement of the sacked workers, regularization of contract labor, giving 12 percent shares in state-run enterprises to the workers, giving state lands free of cost to poor women in the command areas of the new dams were some of the major achievements of the democratic government. The President said that the PPP which also a member of Socialist International is continuing its forward march on the path of empowering people and for their progress and development despite economic and other challenges. Discussing regional situation, the President reiterated Pakistan’s principled stance of support peace efforts in the neighbouring Afghanistan saying that we believe that peace on our side and in the region was invariably linked with the peace in Afghanistan. Therefore, we will continue to support every effort for peace, stability and development in Afghanistan, the President said. Luis Ayala, Secretary General of Socialist International, thanked the President and Co-Chairman PPP for meeting and appreciated the Party’s achievements in empowering the most vulnerable segments of the society. He also lauded Pakistan’s role in war against terror and its efforts to support peace activities in Afghanistan. Mr. Ayala assured the President of continued support of Socialist International in its quest for getting more trade in the European markets.

Allies with PPP on Saraiki province

Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani on Monday claimed that all coalition partners craved for the formation of a new Saraiki province. Talking to a group of journalists from print media, the premier said he had talked to his coalition partners after President Asif Zardari’s announcement to carve out the Saraiki province in Punjab, adding that all of them assured him of support. He pointed out that Awami National Party (ANP) leader Asfandyar Wali Khan and Baloch leader Israrullah Zehri had backed it. He also said that lawmakers from the Federally Administered Tribal Areas had also assured the government of their support on the issue. The PM said that the Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid had tried several times to introduce a resolution in the Punjab Assembly regarding the Saraiki province, but did not have the majority to do so. Gilani said that nothing was impossible in politics and the government would be able to create a consensus in parliament in this regard. He said that there was a consensus among the coalition partners to create the Saraiki province, but the government would like to take all political forces on board. To a question about the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s (PML-N) demand for early elections, the prime minister said that the government would first consult with the coalition partners, adding that if they were agreed then further discussion would be held with PML-N President Mian Nawaz Sharif. On Balochistan, Gilani said that law and order situation had been overshadowing all the efforts taken by the government through Aghaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan Package to alleviate the grievances of the people of the deprived province. He said that the government would arrest former president Pervez Musharraf on his return for his involvement in the murder of Nawab Akbar Bugti. The PM defended the expansion of the cabinet, saying that a 60-member cabinet was in line with 11 percent of the total strength of parliament as recommended in the 18th Constitutional Amendment, which would be implemented from next general elections. He said that 60 members constituted 11 percent of 446-member parliament. Gilani said that the government was seriously considering for holding local bodies elections in the federal capital so that the city would be administered by a “mayor” as is being done in Bangladesh and other countries. “I have directed my colleagues to work on this and the president has already given his nod,” the PM said. Gilani said that the government wanted friendly relations with the US in line with the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security. The cabinet’s committee on defence would receive a presentation and subsequently a US team would be visiting Pakistan for holding discussions on terms of future engagement between the two war partners. He said that he had directed the economic team to prepare proposals to provide relief to the farmers and common people through programmes like the Benazir Income Support Programme.

Pakistan's top court to deliver verdict in PM case

Pakistan's Supreme Court is expected to deliver its verdict later this week in a contempt case against the prime minister that could see him losing his job, the premier's lawyer said Tuesday. A guilty verdict could also result in Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani
serving up to six months in prison for his refusal to reopen an old corruption case against the president, his political ally. That could stoke fresh political turmoil at a time when Pakistan is trying to patch up its relations with the United States and is grappling with a weak economy and a bloody Taliban insurgency. But even if Gilani is forced to step down — a process that could take months — the deeper political impact could be limited since the ruling coalition has the majority in parliament needed to elect a new prime minister. The court has summoned to Gilani to appear before it Thursday when it is expected to deliver its verdict, said his lawyer, Aitzaz Ahsan. "I am hopeful that the prime minister will be acquitted," Ahsan told reporters outside the courthouse in Islamabad. The judges have repeatedly ordered the government to write a letter to Swiss authorities requesting they reopen a graft case against President Asif Ali Zardari that dates back to the late 1990s. Gilani has refused, saying the president enjoys immunity from criminal prosecution while in office. He and other members of the ruling Pakistan People's Party have argued that the Supreme Court has relentlessly pursued the case because of bad blood between Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudry and Zardari.

Dengue, PIC victims: red-tape delays compensation

Compensation for the families of 261 dengue fever victims, who had lost their lives during the worst-ever epidemic of the disease last year, has either been delayed or denied by the Punjab government. Hospital-based mortality review committees, the Dengue Experts Advisory Group (DEAG) and committees constituted at the DG Health and Health Department levels for the verification and confirmation of genuine cases for financial assistance have brought no relief to families of scores of diseased patients. The official figure provided to Dawn by Lahore (EDO) Dr Inamul Haq reveals that the number of deaths of dengue patients was almost double than the figure announced by health authorities shortly after the epidemic. “We have issued so far Rs500,000 cheque each to 255 patients who died of dengue virus”, Dr Inam said. He said the health department had received 311 more cases of those patients who died of dengue virus for financial assistance and of these 261 were still under the verification process. Similarly, families of patients who had died in the drugs reaction scam are also facing the same situation as out of Rs256 million total financial assistance released by the Punjab government, the authorities could dispense only Rs118 million to the families of victims. According to official figures, out of 908 affected patients 183 had died of the drugs reaction in the Punjab Institute of Cardiology (PIC) scam. Health department section officer Dr Nasir told Dawn that the department had released Rs236.3 million to the Lahore district coordination officer for disbursement to families of patients who died in the PIC drugs reaction. He said the financial assistance of Rs20 million was also released to the Punjab Health Director-General to distribute it among those families of PIC patients who died in other districts of the province. “The Health Department has forwarded a summary to the chief minister on April 10 wherein it has been mentioned that the DCO office has dispensed Rs109.8 million among families of PIC victims out of total Rs236.3 million released for the financial assistance while the DG Health has disbursed Rs9.5 million among the legal heirs of patients in connection with the same scam”, Dr Nasir said. As is evident from the official figures provided by the section officer, the legal heirs of scores of dengue virus and PIC scam victims are still struggling to get financial assistance since these two major tragedies had taken a heavy toll of patients, particularly in Lahore. Complicated procedural formalities and hectic schedule of officials concerned designated for the verification of cases have caused the delay in the disbursement of financial assistance to legal heirs. Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif had announced a financial assistance of Rs500,000 for each patient who either died of dengue fever or the drugs reaction. Families are lamenting over the delay of compensation owing to the apathy of government officials. Elderly woman Safia Bibi, who lost her only son in dengue epidemic, says: “It is too easy to die of a viral disease like dengue but too difficult to get compensation from the government which is responsible for the spread of the virus.” Her 27-year-old son, Muhammad Saad, had died of dengue virus in Wapda Hospital on Oct 10, 2011. Wapda Hospital MS Dr Akmal Faiz Bhatty had confirmed that Saad died of dengue fever and issued a letter on Feb 2012 the copy of which is available with Dawn. The name of Saad was also mentioned in the officially prepared list of dengue victims. Saad’s father Bashir Ahmad of Multan Road suffered leg fracture in September 2011 and remained hospitalized for four months. Since then Safia had been pursuing the case of financial assistance by visiting offices of the EDO, DG health, Civil Secretariat and other officials concerned, but to no avail. Similarly, a job-seeker youth who had lost his parents in the PIC drugs reaction has been visiting the offices of the Health Director-General for two months for financial assistance. His father Saleemullah of Hafizabad and mother Iffat Saleem were cardiac patients and had been taking medicines from the PIC. According to official documents, the PIC administration and hospitals’ concerned where deaths took place had verified their cases by issuing death certificates. The DG office has assured the youth of financial assistance in the case of his mother but it has rejected the case of his father despite the fact that official documents carrying registration (No 2010-070749) of the patient categorically mentioned the cause as ‘death due to medicine reaction’. Legal heirs like Safia Bibi could not meet Services Hospital principal Prof Dr Faisal Masood, who is heading DEAG, during her frequent visits there in pursuance of her case due to his (Dr Masood’s) hectic schedule. Most of them are those whose patients had either died at homes or private health facilities, but there is no transparent mechanism for the verification of their cases.