Thursday, November 1, 2012

Politics 2012: Race to the White House

Storm-ravaged New Jersey Shore starts to rebuild

New Jersey is Ground Zero of superstorm Sandy, where the low-lying coastline is still in a critical state as residents slowly come to terms with the devastation.Duration

Officials and experts praising FEMA for its response to Hurricane Sandy

Following Hurricane Katrina seven years ago, FEMA became a national punching bag, ridiculed for its slow and cumbersome response to the disaster along the Gulf Coast. In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy this week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and its administrator W. Craig Fugate are garnering more positive reviews from public officials in northeastern states hit by the superstorm, as well as from disaster-management experts. “The president has been outstanding in this and so have the folks at FEMA,” New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) said Tuesday on NBC’s “Today” show. Officials from Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and other storm-struck states have also praised the federal agency’s performance. “My impression is that this is a different agency than we’ve seen over the last decades, one that post-Katrina had lost a lot of credibility,” said Joseph E. Trainor, an assistant professor with the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. Trainor added that the FEMA-led pre-positioning of equipment and supplies and the “unprecedented” federal major disaster declaration before the storm hit “shows a level of agility that didn’t exist a couple of years ago.” In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Fugate brushed off a question asking for an assessment of FEMA’s performance. People affected by the storm “don’t care how many press releases you’ve put out,” Fugate said. “. . . All they want to know is: When is my power coming back on? And can you help them get a place to stay?” Dissatisfaction with FEMA’s performance could rise as power outages and other problems continue. In the hard-hit New York borough of Staten Island, local officials and residents complained Thursday of a slow government response, prompting pledges from members of Congress that more help would be coming. “A lot of people doubt the capacity of government to learn from past mistakes, but the evidence so far in this case is that there has been learning on the part of the federal government on how to prepare for disasters,” said Edward Alden, director of the Renewing America Initiative at the Council on Foreign Relations. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has backed off a suggestion made during a 2011 primary debate in favor of curtailing federal disaster response and letting states and the private sector take on a bigger role. “We cannot afford to do those things without jeopardizing the future for our kids,” Romney said at the time. On Wednesday, the Romney campaign issued a statement supporting FEMA. “I believe that FEMA plays a key role in working with states and localities to prepare for and respond to natural disasters,” Romney said, adding that as president, he would ensure FEMA has the funding it needs to work with states and localities “in the best position to get aid to the individuals and communities affected by natural disasters.” FEMA’s primary role during disasters is to serve as a coordinator of other federal agencies as well as state, local and nonprofit resources. Much of the credit for FEMA’s improved image has been given to Fugate, a plain-spoken former paramedic who served as head of Florida’s emergency agency during Katrina. Fugate, who described himself Thursday as “the most impatient . . . person in the world” has made it a priority to better coordinate federal efforts with state and local governments as well as the private sector. Fugate “is very well-grounded in the history and science of disaster management,” said James Kendra, director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. “He has a lot of regard for first-responders and looking at disasters from the community perspective.” “The track record of FEMA in the past has been not a lot of attention paid to the body of research,” Kendra added. Until Katrina, few of FEMA’s administrators had experience in emergency management, and the agency did not put a high priority on natural disasters. FEMA was “reinvigorated” by funding and management changes from the Post-Katrina Emergency Management Reform Act of 2006, said Richard Sylves, a professor with the Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management at George Washington University. “The agency’s reputation is a lot better, and it’s more responsive,” Sylves said. “State and local governments generally have good relations with FEMA.” President Obama, who directed FEMA “to cut through red tape,” has expressed satisfaction with the agency’s performance. “You all deserve a pat on the back,” Obama said Wednesday during a visit to FEMA, according to pool reports. One criticism leveled at FEMA’s performance came from its former administrator, Michael Brown, who served under President George W. Bush during Katrina. Brown suggested during a radio interview Monday that the Obama administration’s preparations were “premature” before the storm hit land. “Better to be fast than to be late,” Fugate responded in an interview Tuesday with NPR.

Hurricane Sandy : Estimate of Economic Losses Now Up to $50 Billion

Economic damages inflicted by Hurricane Sandy could reach $50 billion, according to new estimates that are more than double a previous forecast. Some economists warned on Thursday that the storm could shave a half percentage point off the nation’s economic growth in the current quarter. Losses from the storm could total $30 billion to $50 billion, according to Eqecat, which tracks hurricanes and analyzes the damage they cause. On Monday, before the storm hit the East Coast, the firm estimated $10 billion to $20 billion in total economic damages. The flooding of New York’s subways and roadway tunnels and the extensive loss of business as a result of utility failures across the region were behind the sharp increase in the estimate, the firm said. “The geographic scope of the storm was unprecedented, and the impacts on individuals and on commerce are far larger,” said Tom Larsen, Eqecat’s senior vice president and product architect. “Lost power is going to contribute to higher insurance losses.” Eqecat predicted that New York would bear 34 percent of the total economic losses, with New Jersey suffering 30 percent, Pennsylvania 20 percent and other states 16 percent. That includes all estimated losses, whether covered by insurance or not. The estimates and the share that will be covered by insurers are far from certain at this point, as government officials, property owners and insurance adjusters struggle to assess the destruction. While the stock market, banks and other financial institutions regained some of their stride on Thursday, other sectors like retailing, transportation and leisure and hospitality face a much longer and more difficult recovery. With fuel in short supply in many areas and utilities warning that power may not be back for a week or more in some areas, businesses found themselves preparing for the equivalent of a long siege. FedEx, for example, was trying to rent fuel tankers for its trucks in New York and New Jersey as commercial gas stations ran dry. “We’re reaching out to everyone who has a gasoline tanker that we can move to these areas,” said Shea Leordeanu, a spokeswoman for the company. While FedEx had stocks of oil in advance of the storm for generators, it was not prepared for the gas shortages that caused long lines at stations on Wednesday and Thursday. “There has not been an impact yet, but this is something we can see as an issue and we’re concerned,” she said. As logistical problems mounted, and damage estimates surged, economists raised their estimates of the storm’s impact. “I think the effect will be quite big,” said Julia Lynn Coronado, chief economist for North America at BNP Paribas. “In the fourth quarter, we’re probably looking at an impact of half a percentage point.” She said some of those losses would be made up in the first quarter of 2013, as insurance reimbursements were distributed and homeowners and businesses rebuilt. Hurricane Sandy will rank high among disasters in terms of economic impact but will not be at the top of the list, said Mark Zandi of Moody’s Analytics. He estimated that the losses would be less than half of those suffered because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and from Hurricane Katrina. Moody’s Analytics also put the impact in the $50 billion range, with about $12 billion in losses falling in the New York City metropolitan area. About $20 billion of that total is from lost economic activity like meals not served in restaurants, canceled plane flights and bets not placed in casinos, Mr. Zandi estimated. The rest, about $30 billion, will be from property destruction, including damage to homes, cars and businesses, Mr. Zandi said. Eqecat said it believed that various forms of insurance would cover $10 billion to $20 billion of the total cost. Other losses will be borne by individuals and businesses, or covered by federal government programs like the National Flood Insurance Program. Much of the federal spending will be used to repair damaged public infrastructure, rather than for private property. Eqecat said that if insured costs remained at the lower end of its predicted range, at $10 billion, then about 60 percent of the losses would be covered by homeowners’ and, to a lesser extent, auto insurers. The remainder would be covered by commercial and industrial insurance. The firm’s officials said that if total insured losses rose to the higher end of its predicted range, it would be because of costs like business-interruption losses — and in that case, commercial insurers pay more. They said this possibility would depend to a great extent on how long power failures continued. They said there were no solid data yet on the number of transformers and power lines that had been knocked out. They added that in some cases, power might not be restored until well into December. Moody’s issued a report on Thursday stating that the large nationwide insurers had “diversified exposures and strong capital bases to withstand” payouts related to the storm. It added, however, that the costs could disrupt the capital bases of smaller regional insurers. State Farm, the largest writer of home and auto insurance in the region, reported having received nearly 25,000 homeowners’ claims and 4,000 auto claims as of Wednesday. Those numbers are probably a fraction of the eventual totals. Some of the losses will not be recouped. Lost Halloween sales will be especially painful for some retailers, according to a separate analysis by Moody’s. “As shoppers in the affected regions focus on the storm, other discretionary spending will fall and not be recouped,” Moody’s said.

Clinton Assails Romney on Swing Through Ohio

Bill Clinton swept through a campaign visit to Ohio on behalf of President Obama on Thursday, blasting Mitt Romney and his surrogates for implying that Jeep might begin manufacturing vehicles in China at the expense of American jobs and for suggesting that Colin L. Powell endorsed Mr. Obama because both men are black. Mr. Clinton, 66, started the day with a campaign stop in Wisconsin and made his first Ohio stop here, outside Toledo, his voice as hoarse as it often was 20 years ago when he campaigned for president. Much of his appearance was a reprise of his speech at the Democratic National Convention and other campaign talks that have praised Mr. Obama’s economic, health care and student loan policies. “My voice is a little weak,” he told a crowd of about 1,900 students and other supporters at Owens Community College. “But I wasted it in a good cause.” In fact, the pace of his appearances for Mr. Obama was evident a few minutes into his speech when Mr. Clinton said, “I’m honored to be here in Pennsylvania to support President Obama.” “Ohio!” many in the crowd shouted. “I have a Pennsylvania line in the speech,” Mr. Clinton explained. But it was a forgiving crowd. “It’s O.K,” one woman screamed. “Give ‘em hell, Bill,” a man shouted a few minutes later. Mr. Clinton reveled in the opportunity to attack Mr. Romney over the Republican ticket’s widely criticized commercial that left the misleading impression that Chrysler — the corporate parent of Jeep – would build Jeeps in China at the expense of American jobs. The automaker says it is discussing new Jeep production in China for sales within China, but that would not affect jobs in the United States, and that it is adding workers in Toledo. The Romney campaign has stood by the accuracy of the commercial. “Mr. Romney has come into Ohio time and time again and tied himself in knots,” Mr. Clinton said. “So what’s their latest scam? You’ve probably seen it — they say that Jeep is moving jobs to China.” Many in the crowd also shouted “China!” as Mr. Clinton said it, almost drowning his raspy voice. “The truest thing the Romney campaign ever said was, they have no intention of having their campaign be dictated by fact-checkers,” Mr. Clinton added. Mr. Clinton also took a shot at John H. Sununu, the former New Hampshire governor and one of Mr. Romney’s chief surrogates, who last week had suggested that Mr. Powell, the former secretary of state under George W. Bush, may have endorsed Mr. Obama for a second time because they are both of the same race. “Oh, he endorsed him because they are both black,” Mr. Clinton said, using his own paraphrase of Mr. Sununu’s comments. (Mr. Sununu had quickly backtracked last week, saying he did not doubt Mr. Powell’s endorsement was based on anything other than support for Mr. Obama’s policies.) And Mr. Clinton wasn’t finished. He mentioned how the Romney campaign had, in Mr. Clinton’s words, stated that “now the Italians are taking your jobs away.” (Chrysler is majority-owned by Fiat – the “Italians” – and the Romney commercial’s voiceover had stated that Mr. Obama had “sold Chrysler to Italians who are going to build Jeeps in China. Mitt Romney will fight for every American job.” Text shown on the screen had also said, “Plans to return Jeep output to China.”) Chrysler’s chief executive, Sergio Marchionne, e-mailed his employees earlier this week to “unambiguously restate our position: Jeep production will not be moved from the United States to China,” adding that “it is inaccurate to suggest anything different.” Mr. Clinton, who says he has Irish ancestry, closed his remarks here by joking, “Pretty soon, they’ll come after the Irish – and I’m toast.”

Michael Bloomberg Endorses Obama For Reelection

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg endorsed President Barack Obama for reelection on Thursday, Bloomberg TV reported and The Huffington Post confirmed. The mayor, an Independent, did not endorse a candidate in the 2008 election and hadn't seem poised to do so this time around either. But he said in an op ed published on his website that his eagerness to see action on climate change legislation persuaded him to back a second term for the president. Bloomberg also explained that while he admired Mitt Romney, his stance on a number of social issues gave him pause. I believe Mitt Romney is a good and decent man, and he would bring valuable business experience to the Oval Office. He understands that America was built on the promise of equal opportunity, not equal results. In the past he has also taken sensible positions on immigration, illegal guns, abortion rights and health care. But he has reversed course on all of them, and is even running against the health-care model he signed into law in Massachusetts. If the 1994 or 2003 version of Mitt Romney were running for president, I may well have voted for him because, like so many other independents, I have found the past four years to be, in a word, disappointing. Bloomberg's endorsement was one of the few remaining with any political significance in the presidential race. It remains to be seen whether it comes too late in the cycle to make a difference. The mayor won't be hitting the stump for the president, owing to the massive cleanup job he must now oversee in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. But it appears that it was the storm itself that prompted him to offer up his support. "The devastation that Hurricane Sandy brought to New York City and much of the Northeast – in lost lives, lost homes and lost business – brought the stakes of Tuesday’s presidential election into sharp relief," Bloomberg said. His endorsement seems likely to dominate the few remaining media cycles in the presidential race, if only for its unexpectedness. Just a week ago, Bloomberg had been highly critical of both Obama and Romney in an interview with The New York Times. Obama said he was honored to receive the endorsement. "While we may not agree on every issue, Mayor Bloomberg and I agree on the most important issues of our time -- that the key to a strong economy is investing in the skills and education of our people, that immigration reform is essential to an open and dynamic democracy, and that climate change is a threat to our children's future, and we owe it to them to do something about it," he said in a statement. "Just as importantly, we agree that whether we are Democrats, Republicans, or independents, there is only one way to solve these challenges and move forward as a nation -- together."

Christie, Obama form pre-election bond in Sandy's wake

Hurricane Sandy deals short-term blow to U.S. economy

The mammoth storm Sandy, ravaging in the densely-populated East Coast of the United States, was predicted to deal a short-term blow to the world's largest economy and may further affect financial markets. Economic losses caused by Sandy, whose sheer breadth has taken scores of lives, cut power supply to millions and flooded subways, were preliminarily estimated to outdo Hurricane Irene which cost the United States 7 billion dollars and 4.5 billion dollars in insured losses last year. RMS, a firm calculating disaster exposure, said in a report on Tuesday that Sandy is much more severe and has impacted New York City to a much worse degree than Irene. Unlike Irene which landed at the weekend, Sandy came ashore on Monday, shutting down business and even the New York Stock Exchange, the first weather-related closure of Wall Street in 27 years, said the company. In a preliminary evaluation, IHS Global Insight, a forecasting company, said damages from storm Sandy could reach 20 billion dollars, with around 10 billion dollars insured. Disaster modeling company AIR Worldwide said that Sandy could cost the United States insured losses from 7 billion dollars to 15 billion dollars, the third largest amount in U.S. history. The company's estimation excluded losses caused by flood submerging subways or tunnels. State Farm Insurance Company said on Monday that it had received 6,000 insurance claims for houses and 900 for cars, much more than the 1,000 claims it faced 24 hours after Hurricane Issac made landfall in Louisiana in August. Although Sandy's total impact on the economy has yet to be felt and its damage is unlikely to last long, it would apparently hurt the economic output of the fourth quarter. According to IHS Global Insight, "the effect on growth for the fourth quarter will not be catastrophic but might still be noticeable, especially in an economy with little momentum anyway." The firm said the lost output in the affected regions would subtract as much as 0.6 percentage points from the economic growth in the fourth quarter. The most affected economic sector for short term was the crude oil industry, as Sandy shut down 70 percent of U.S. East Coast refineries. More concerns were raised after a Phillips 66 refinery in Linden, New Jersey that produces 238,000 barrels a day of fuel ground to a halt due to power cut. Although the power supply has already been recovered, no timetable for resuming oil production has been set yet. Sandy also forced several ports and railroads to close, causing logistical problems in delivering fuel. More than half of gasoline service stations in New York City and New Jersey were shut because of depleted fuel supplies. Concerns about oil supply helped push up the gasoline futures, which in turn led to a rise in the price of benchmark crude. However, analysts from BNP Paribas, a French global banking group, said the impact of Sandy on U.S. oil production would not last long, because the timely shut-down of machines to ward off the damage from water would enable refineries to resume pumping fuel soon. Meanwhile, the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) reopened Wednesday after an unprecedented two-day shutdown of trading. However, the effects of Sandy were still being felt. On Wednesday a failed backup power generator forced Knight Capital, a top U.S. market maker, to inform clients to send trades to other brokerages. Stocks for insurers, airlines, and transportation industry dipped temporarily while stocks for Home Depot and Lowe, two major American home improvement chains, rose as investors anticipated more business for the the two companies as people made repairs in the aftermath of the devastating storm. Ted Weisberg, a veteran of the trading floor for 43 years at NYSE said the reactions from different sectors would be relatively short-lived.

Sandy causes 300,000-gallon diesel spill into water near New Jersey
A major oil spill has occurred in the strait of water separating Staten Island, NYC and the state of New Jersey. The spill, of more than 300,000 gallons of diesel fuel, reportedly occurred in the wake of Superstorm Sandy. The Coast Guard said the incident occurred in the Arthur Kill tidal strait as fuel leaked from the Motiva oil tank facility, according to a report by NBC New York. Some 200 people have been working to contain the spill. By Wednesday evening all the spilled oil was believed to be contained by booms put in the water, the Coast Guard said, according to AP. Environmental officials in New Jersey say 336,000 gallons of diesel fuel spilled after a storage tank was lifted and ruptured by a water surge caused by Superstorm Sandy on Monday night. Oil has already started to wash up on a nearby shore, authorities said. The New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection commented that the company operating the oil tank facility reported the spill and hired contractors to clean it up. President Barack Obama earlier toured Sandy-devastated areas of New Jersey and reasserted the government’s support for any victims, saying “we are here for you, and we will not forget.” He also put aside politics to praise New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, a Republican and vocal supporter Mitt Romney, for his relief efforts. “I want to let you know that your governor is working overtime,” Obama said. Christie returned the kind words, later tweeting the he accepts Obama’s help and “appreciate his good will”.

Bruce Springsteen set for Sandy benefit

Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi are to perform at a benefit concert for victims of Hurricane Sandy on Friday. The rock stars are natives of New Jersey, which was one of the areas hardest hit by the storm. They will be joined by other stars including Billy Joel, Sting and Christina Aguilera on the live one-hour telethon to be broadcast on NBC. Money raised from Hurricane Sandy: Coming Together will go to the American Red Cross relief efforts. Hosted by Today show presenter Matt Lauer, the concert will be recorded from NBC's New York studios at Rockefeller Plaza. It will be broadcast live across NBC's other cable networks including Bravo, CNBC, E!, Syfy and USA at 20:00 EST (00:00 GMT) and tape-delayed on the west coast. The commercial-free telethon will also be streamed live on NBC's website. Making the announcement on his morning programme, Lauer added more acts would be announced on Friday. President Barack Obama visited New Jersey on Wednesday to see the worst affected areas after the storm hit on Monday. More than 70 people were killed in the US, while some 20,000 people remain trapped in their homes by sewage-contaminated floodwater. NBC organised a similar benefit after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 which raised $50m (£31m) for the Red Cross.

U.S. Presidential race still tied with six days to go

The presidential race remained effectively tied on Thursday, with President Barack Obama backed by 47 percent of likely voters and challenger Mitt Romney supported by 46 percent in a Reuters/Ipsos daily tracking poll.
The race has been stable in the last days before Election Day on Tuesday. Obama has remained at 47 percent and the Republican Romney at 46 percent support in the online poll for three days running. It is a statistically insignificant difference between them despite a barrage of late campaign ads and the effects of devastating Hurricane Sandy. Backing for both candidates seemed solid. Only 11 percent of Romney's supporters said they might change their mind, and just 8 percent of Obama's backers indicated the same about the president as he seeks re-election. About a quarter - 26 percent - of registered voters said they have already cast their ballots. Among them, Obama leads by 52 percent to 43 percent. The number is not necessarily predictive because Democrats are typically more likely to vote early than Republicans. For the survey, a sample of 5,575 registered voters and 4,556 likely voters was interviewed online from October 28-November 1. The precision of Reuters/Ipsos online polls is measured using a credibility interval. In this case, the poll has a credibility interval of plus or minus 3.0 percentage points for registered voters and 3.4 for likely voters.

New Jersey: Sandy Throws Roller Coaster Into the Ocean

In New Jersey, superstorm Sandy destroyed several blocks of Atlantic City's world-famous boardwalk and wrecked several other boardwalks up and down the coast. A Seaside Heights roller coaster was left partially submerged in the ocean.

Sandy recovery: Death toll up, gasoline lines grow after monster storm

Subways started running again in much of New York City on Thursday for the first time since Superstorm Sandy, but traffic at bridges backed up for miles, long lines formed at gas stations, and crowds of hundreds of people, some with short tempers, waited for buses. Lines formed at gas stations amid fuel shortages around the U.S. Northeast and emergency utility crews struggled to reach the worst hit areas and restore power to millions of people.At least 82 people in North America died in the superstorm, which ravaged the northeastern United States on Monday night, and officials said the count could climb higher as rescuers searched house-to-house through coastal towns.
More deaths were recorded overnight as the extent of destruction became clearer in the New York City borough of Staten Island, where the storm lifted whole houses off their foundations. Authorities recovered 15 bodies from Staten Island. Among those still missing were two boys aged 4 and 2 who were swept from their mother's arms by the floodwaters, the New York Post reported. In all, 34 people died in New York City. In hard-hit New Jersey, where oceanside towns saw entire neighborhoods swallowed by seawater and the Atlantic City boardwalk was destroyed, the death toll doubled to 12. The trains couldn't take some New Yorkers where they needed to go. There was no service in downtown Manhattan and other hard-hit parts of the city, and people had to switch to buses. But some of those who did use the subway, after three days without service, were grateful. About 4.7 million homes and businesses in 12 U.S. states remained without power early Thursday as utilities scrambled to restore service disrupted by Sandy, U.S. Department of Energy data showed. Power companies had restored electricity to more than 3 million customers across states on the East Coast. In total, Sandy left more than 8 million customers in 21 states from North Carolina to Maine when the storm came ashore in New Jersey late Monday. Three days after Sandy slammed the mid-Atlantic and the Northeast, New York and New Jersey struggled to get back on their feet, the U.S. death toll stood at more than 70, and more than 4.6 million homes and businesses were still without power. Nearly 20,000 people remained stranded in their homes by floodwaters in Hoboken, N.J., across the river from the New York, and swaths of the New Jersey coastline lay in ruins, with countless homes, piers and boardwalks wrecked. Downtown Manhattan, which includes the financial district, Sept. 11 memorial and other tourist sites, was still mostly an urban landscape of shuttered bodegas and boarded-up restaurants. People roamed in search of food, power and a hot shower. Some dispirited and fearful New Yorkers decided to flee the city. Flights took off and landed Thursday at LaGuardia Airport, the last of the three major New York-area airports to reopen since the storm. With the electricity out and gasoline supplies scarce, many stations across the metropolitan area closed, and the stations that were open drew long lines of cars that spilled out onto roads. New Jersey power company Public Service Enterprise Group Inc (PSEG) CEO Ralph Izzo said on Thursday that Hurricane Sandy's tidal surge caused significant damage to the electric transmission system and some switching stations. The storm left 1.7 million customers without service at the peak, he said, adding that the company has already restored service to about a million.

Obama lauds bipartisanship, attacks Romney
President Obama is back on the campaign trail for the first time since Hurricane Sandy struck the east coast on Monday; Obama has campaign appearances Thursday in Wisconsin, Nevada, and Colorado. President Obama began his post-Sandy re-election campaign Thursday by striking a bipartisan tone before resuming attacks on Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
During an airport rally in Green Bay, Obama first said that the response to Hurricane Sandy showed how Americans can come together: "There are no Democrats and no Republicans in a storm." Obama then said that the U.S. economy is turning around under his leadership, but Romney is advocating the type of "top down" economics that produced a near-depression in 2008. "We know what change looks like," Obama said. "What the governor's offering sure ain't change." Instead, the president touted his own record of change, citing the health care law, new financial regulations, education and research programs, and efforts to reduce the federal debt by raising taxes on the wealthy as well as budget cuts. Wearing a leather jacket in the chilly Wisconsin air, Obama said: "We need a middle class agenda that rewards hard work and responsibility." Romney aides said the middle class are the ones who have suffered the most under Obama's handling of the economy. "We need a new president who actually understands businesses and won't punish them with higher taxes, more regulations, and job-destroying energy policies," said Romney spokesman Ryan Williams. "Mitt Romney spent his career in the private sector as a successful businessman, and as president he will promote pro-growth policies that will create jobs, help small businesses, and strengthen the middle class." Making what aides described as a "closing argument" for a second term, with Election Day less than a week away, Obama told backers they "know what I believe" and "where I stand." The president also cited the support of Democratic predecessor Bill Clinton, who has a full schedule of events leading into Tuesday's election. The Green Bay rally kicked off five days of campaigning for the president heading into Tuesday's election. Thursday features a western swing that will take Obama to Las Vegas and Denver. Obama had suspended his campaigning on Monday as Hurricane Sandy approached the East Coast, and earned good reviews for his reaction to the damage in New Jersey, New York, and other states. Aides said that, throughout Thursday, Obama will continue to be in communication with emergency management aides and local officials hurt by the storm. Commenting on the storm during his speech in Green Bay, Obama said: "We're awed and humbled by nature's destructive power."

Federal Storm Aid Available for NYC, NJ, L.I. Residents

Assistance includes grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs
The Federal Emergency Management Agency says federal funding is being made available to storm-affected residents and business owners in New York City, parts of New Jersey and on Long Island. Assistance includes grants for temporary housing and home repairs, low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses and other programs.
Federal aid is also available to state and eligible local governments and certain non-profit organizations on a cost-sharing basis for debris removal and emergency protective measures. The money was made available as part of a disaster declaration signed Tuesday by President Barack Obama. The counties eligible for aid in New Jersey include Atlantic, Cape May, Essex, Hudson, Middlesex, Monmouth, Ocean and Union, which bore the brunt of the storm in the Garden State. All of New York City and Long Island is eligible. Residents and business owners who sustained losses within the declaration zone can apply for assistance online at or by calling 1-800-621-FEMA(3362) or 1-800-462-7585 (TTY) for the hearing and speech impaired.

One Result of Hurricane: Bipartisanship Flows

The power of the image could not have been lost on a politician as savvy as Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey: With days to go before a cliffhanger election, a Democratic president was giving the handshake-back pat to his Republican opponent’s most aggressive campaigner as they prepared to embark on a tour of damage from a catastrophic storm. Mr. Christie had been scheduled to campaign for Mitt Romney, but he embraced the moment. When President Obama praised the governor after they finished their tour — “I want to let you know your governor is working overtime” — the two were soon swapping compliments. “It’s been a great working relationship,” Mr. Christie said. “I cannot thank the president enough for his personal concern and compassion for our state,” he added during a brief news conference. He said it was “my honor” to turn the podium over to the president and then stood just behind him, occasionally nodding and smiling at his jokes. For all the disruptions caused by Hurricane Sandy, the most unexpected may have been its unsettling effect on a presidential campaign winding into its final days. Perhaps nothing demonstrated the sudden upending of a political landscape years in the making so much as Mr. Christie’s unexpected and effusive praise of Mr. Obama. Only last week he dismissed the president as “clutching for the light switch of leadership.” The scene played out on televisions around the country like a stirring campaign ad that hit themes of bipartisanship and crisis management — only it was run free of charge. And for those who missed it, Mr. Christie repeated his praise again and again in television interviews, saying the president had been “outstanding,” “incredibly supportive” and “deserves great credit.” As pundits mused about the political implications for the presidential race, few of those watching, including campaign aides to the president and Mr. Romney, could do more than guess about the latest wild-card move from a wild-card governor. Was he just a selfless leader making sure that he and his state had the ear of the man holding the federal purse strings? Or a selfish climber who figured he could run for president in 2016 if Mr. Romney were to lose this year? Or maybe he saw it in purely local terms, as a way to scare away a potentially strong Democratic challenger, like the popular Newark mayor, Cory A. Booker, at a time when the state’s unemployment rate hovers well above the national average. As Mr. Obama stood beside Mr. Christie and gushed about “his extraordinary leadership,” Romney aides were eager to make nothing of the partnership. “He’s a governor focused on his job,” said Kevin Madden, a Romney adviser. “He has said he’s not looking at this through the lens of politics. He’s right, and I expect most folks are looking at it just like the governor is.” Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, said the visit should not be seen as a political event. “This is a time to focus on what was a devastating storm and the terrible aftermath of that storm,” he said. But Mr. Christie did not completely set aside politics: he has blasted Democrats in the State Legislature for not allowing him to raise fines on utilities that do not respond quickly enough to power failures, and he has picked a fight with the Democratic mayor of Atlantic City. Part of it may be that Mr. Christie still feels like a youngster in a candy shop about being governor — he tells audiences at home that when he sees his name and title etched in gold on his office door, he asks himself, “How the hell did this happen?” When the president calls, it’s still a pinch-me moment. Even when he wakes you up. “It’s O.K., he’s allowed to,” he told reporters. Before the visit Wednesday, Mr. Christie mentioned several times that he and the president had talked “just the two of us,” and that the president had insisted that if he had any problems, he was to call him directly. Mike DuHaime, an adviser to Mr. Christie, said the governor was acting true to form. “He calls ’em as he sees ’em,” he said. “If they’re working well together, he’s going to say it.” Mr. Christie has not announced whether he will run for a second term, but if he does, Election Day is a mere year and five days away. His approval ratings are high in New Jersey, but Mr. Obama’s are higher. It would not be the first time that Republicans have accused him of putting his own interests first: many criticized him after he delivered the keynote speech at the Republican National Convention, when it took him 15 minutes to mention Mr. Romney’s name. But one Republican close to Mr. Romney said that Mr. Christie would have been accused of playing politics if he had said no to the president’s post-storm visit, as Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York had. Still he seemed at times almost dismissive of Mr. Romney. When a host of Fox and Friends asked whether Mr. Romney would come visit New Jersey, the governor replied sternly: “I have no idea,” he said. “Nor am I the least bit concerned or interested.” As the president and the governor flew over the devastated Jersey Shore, at least one resident seemed to be staying on message. At the north end of Point Pleasant Beach, someone had etched in the sand: “ROMNEY.”

US Concerned Over Bahrain Banning All Protest Gatherings
The United States has expressed concerns over the recent ban on all protest gatherings in Bahrain, and urged the government in the Gulf Kingdom to allow freedom of peaceful assembly in line with its international commitments. "The United States is deeply concerned by the Bahraini Government's decision to ban all public gatherings," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said at a press briefing in Washington on Wednesday, noting that "freedoms of assembly, association, and expression are universal human rights." Toner also urged the Bahraini government to uphold its international commitments and ensure that its citizens are able to exercise - are able to assemble peacefully and to express their views without fear of arrest or detention. "We urge the Government of Bahrain to work with responsible protest leaders to find a way for peaceful and orderly demonstrations to take place. The decision to curb these rights is contrary to Bahrain's professed commitment to reform, and it will not help advance the national reconciliation nor build trust among all parties," he said. The spokesman also urged the Bahraini Opposition to refrain from provocations and violence, stressing that violence undermines efforts to reduce tensions, rebuild trust, and pursue meaningful reconciliation in the Middle East nation. "Recent violent attacks, including fatal attacks, on security force personnel are a deeply troubling development. So we urge the Government of Bahrain to take steps to build confidence across Bahraini society and to begin a meaningful national dialogue with the political Opposition," he added. Toner's response came a day after Bahrain banned all protest gatherings and threatened legal action against groups encouraging demonstrations and clashes. The move is believed to be aimed at crushing the oil-rich Kingdom's anti-government uprising spearheaded by the majority Shia population, who have been complaining about discrimination by the ruling Sunni royal family. While announcing the ban apparently targeting Al-Wefaq, the country's largest Shia political bloc, the Interior Ministry warned that any "illegal rally or gathering would be tackled through legal actions against those calling for and participating in it." Notably, the Al-Wefaq had previously organized several Opposition marches that ended in clashes with security forces. Separately, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashid al-Khalifa said on Wednesday that "repeated abuse" of the rights to freedom of speech and expression could no longer be tolerated. He added that protests of any kind would be permitted only after sufficient levels of security and stability required to maintain national unity were achieved. It is estimated that at least 60 people have been killed since pro-democracy protests broke out in Bahrain in February 2011 as a fallout of the 'Arab Spring' that saw the toppling of entrenched rulers in North Africa and the Middle East. The Bahraini government had suppressed last year's unrest with the help of troops from other GCC (Gulf Cooperation Council) States. Nevertheless, the country continues to witness frequent protests staged by the Opposition and Bahrain's Shia majority, who have long been complaining about discrimination in housing and government jobs. They have been demanding greater political rights and want the Sunni monarchy to hand over most of its powers to the elected Parliament. Political turmoil in Bahrain has been of particular concern to the United States since the strategically located island in the Persian Gulf is home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet. The U.S. also fears that the Gulf Kingdom with its Shia-majority population could come under Iranian influence.

Calls for Saudi Arabia to free ‘blasphemor’
A Human rights organisation on Wednesday called for the immediate release of a man holding dual US and Saudi citizenship and detained by Saudi authorities for writing comments on twitter about the Quran. Human Rights Watch said Mohammad Salama has been held since April without charge after he was arrested for posting tweets criticising interpretations of the sayings of the Muslim Prophet Mohammad (PBUH), also known as the hadiths, on his twitter account. It said that in March Salama wrote that the “the Prophet [PBUH] himself questioned the Quran” and that “thoughts of suicide are normal, because the Prophet himself contemplated it.” He also posted a video on YouTube criticising a cleric for his political views after which unidentified online commentators called for his arrest and execution.HRW said that neither Salama or his family have been informed of accusations against him. “Salama’s case is a sad example of the way that Saudi authorities hold detainees for extended periods of time without charge and in violation of major human rights standards,” Joe Stork, HRW’s deputy Middle East director, said in a statement. “Authorities have shown no evidence that he did anything more than express his opinion peacefully. He should be released immediately.” HRW said another Saudi, Hamza Kashgari, has also been in custody since February 12 for his tweets discussing religion. Saudi authorities arrested and detained Kashgari immediately after Malaysia extradited him, despite pleas by human rights organisations not to send him back to Saudi Arabia. Kashgari had posted messages on his twitter account that top Saudi clerics said committed apostasy, HRW said.

West call for Assad departure daydreaming: Russia

Russia has warned the Western powers that their call for the ouster of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is like daydreaming and will only lead to more bloodshed in the Arab state.
"If the position of our partners remains the departure of this leader who they do not like, the bloodbath will continue," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said in Paris on Wednesday after holding talks with his French counterpart Laurent Fabius. “It is like daydreaming to speculate on the subject, to the effect that if the [Syrian] government is overthrown everything will fall into place,” Lavrov added. “If this is a priority for somebody, bloodshed will continue,” he stated. Lavrov went on to say that “Assad’s fate should be decided by the Syrian people.” The Russian foreign minister called for efforts to find a political solution to the Syrian conflict, reiterating that there is no military solution to the problem. He urged the Western states and Turkey to negotiate with the Syrian president. Damascus accuses Ankara of being a key member of an international coalition attempting to destabilize Syria. Lavrov said Paris and Moscow want an end to the conflict and support efforts to avert an international contagion. Meanwhile, the French foreign minister said Paris still disagrees with Russia over Assad's role in any future transition government.

Kuwaiti Court Frees Top Opponent after Violent Clashes

A Kuwaiti court on Thursday ordered the release on bail of opposition leader Mussallam al-Barrak following a night of violent protests that left dozens hurt, his lawyer said. News of the court order came as opposition groups convened in an emergency meeting in the wake of the night-long clashes, which also saw more than 20 demonstrators arrested, according to activists. "A judge ordered the release of Barrak on bail of 10,000 dinars ($35,600) pending trial," lawyer Abdulrahman al-Barrak told Agence France Presse, adding that his client was expected to be freed from the central jail later in the day. Thousands of protesters staged a demonstration on Wednesday, marching on the central jail to demand freedom for the former lawmaker before police confronted them with tear gas and stun grenades. Clashes continued into the early hours of Thursday and spread to several areas of the Gulf state. The disturbances in the OPEC member saw the Kuwait Stock Exchange index dive about 2.0 percent to 5,645.31 points on Thursday. Barrak was arrested on Monday and two days later his detention was renewed for 10 days, triggering the angry demonstrations. He has been charged with undermining the status of Kuwait's emir at a public rally on October 15 for which he could face a jail sentence of up to five years, his lawyer said. Kuwaiti opposition groups meanwhile went into an emergency meeting on Thursday to discuss the situation following the clashes and what they claim was the use by police of excessive force, an activist said. The interior ministry said in a statement five policemen were wounded during the overnight clashes when two vehicles hit them and sped away. It said one of the vehicles bore a "foreign number plate." The ministry said police arrested several protesters without giving a number but witnesses told AFP that at least 23 people were detained. Activists said that dozens of people, especially children, were rushed to hospital after inhaling gas when riot police made extensive use of stun grenades and tear gas canisters in their attempt to disperse the protesters. The activists said police chased demonstrators in the Sabah al-Nasser area, a predominantly tribal district near the central jail, into homes and beat them up. The violence continued there until riot police withdrew at around 3:00 am (12:00 GMT) after about seven hours of unrest. Protests spread to other mostly tribal areas as police clashed with demonstrators in residential areas near the oil hub of al-Ahmadi, around 40 kilometers south of Kuwait City and also in northern Kuwait. The violent protests were the second major confrontation between police and the opposition in the past 10 days. On October 21, more than 100 people and 11 policemen were hurt during a massive protest. The opposition plans to stage another demonstration on Sunday amid a stern warning by authorities that any illegal protest will be stopped by force. Senior Kuwaiti cleric Nabeel al-Awadhi said on Thursday that he and a number of other clerics had begun an initiative aimed at ending the political stalemate in the country. He did not elaborate. Tensions have been simmering since the emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, on October 19 said he had ordered the government to amend the controversial electoral law. The opposition claims the change is aimed at electing a rubber stamp parliament. Kuwait is scheduled to hold snap polls on December 1 which almost all opposition groups have announced they will boycott. The Gulf state has been rocked by a series of ongoing political disputes since 2006 during which the cabinet was forced to resign nine times and parliament was dissolved on six occasions.

Hina Rabbani Khar looks forward to working with Salman Khurshid

Congratulating external affairs minister Salman Khurshid on his assumption of office, Pakistan foreign minister Hina Rabbani Khar said she looks forward to working closely to promote friendly and cooperative bilateral ties. "I wish you every success and look forward to working with you closely to promote good neighbourly, friendly and cooperative relations between our two countries. "We attach considerable importance to taking forward the ongoing dialogue process," Khar said in a letter to Khurshid. Besides Pakistan, Russia, Turkey, Bangladesh, Nepal, the UK and Oman have sent Khurshid a letter of felicitation.

Malala Yousufzai status updates (01 November 2012)

Thursday 1 November 2012
Malala Yousufzai remains in a stable condition in the Queen Elizabeth Hospital Birmingham, under the care of Queen Elizabeth and Birmingham Children’s hospitals' medical staff.

AFGHANISTAN: Disease outbreaks prompt action

Afghanistan is taking steps to improve its routine immunization coverage, after a drop in coverage led to a sharp increase in measles outbreaks last year, killing more than 300 children. Since the start of the last Afghan winter, in November 2011, 9,000 measles cases were reported across almost every province in the country, as compared to 3,000 cases over the same period the year before. Aid workers described the increase as an emergency situation that should serve as a “ringing alarm bell”. It was the culmination of several years of decreasing vaccination coverage due to rising insecurity, decreased access, difficult terrain and harsh winters that cut off thousands of villages. Last year’s severe drought also contributed. Routine immunization is supposed to cover measles, polio, Hepatitis B, Haemophilus influenza type B, diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus and tuberculosis. “The main issue is access,” said Maria Luisa Galer, the coordinator of the international aid community’s health cluster in Afghanistan. “We probably have to revise and adapt the strategy to this context,” she told IRIN. In its 2011-2015 plan for the National Immunization Programme, the Ministry of Public Health writes: “Considering the current constraints and challenges in Afghanistan, reaching 95 percent [measles vaccine] coverage nationally and at least 80 percent in each district through routine immunization services is not easily achievable.” According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the number of suspended or non-functional health facilities in Afghanistan increased by 40 percent between 2011 and 2012, reaching 540. The Basic Package of Health Services (BPHS), the government programme responsible for healthcare delivery at the primary level, does not cover the whole country. “On paper it covers 80 percent, but practically it is close to 60 percent,” said Islam Saeed, director of the government’s Disease Early Warning System (DEWS). The rest is left to humanitarian NGOs and the private sector, but they, too, face challenges. “Day by day, the [security] situation becomes worse and our access to the people for providing health services becomes more limited,” said Sayed Zubair Sadat, responsible for the Afghan Red Crescent Society’s 45 health clinics nationwide. “We had problems conducting the [Expanded Programme on Immunization] in the border areas and conflict provinces,” he told IRIN. “Not covered by anyone” Experts say nearly 30 percent of the population has no or very poor access to primary health care, including immunization, and the percentage is estimated to be as high as 70 percent in areas of conflict in the south. In some communities, the closest health facility is 70km away. Last year, there were some districts where the government was not present at all. “We have lots of big areas… that are not covered by anyone - no health facilities, no private sector, no NGOs in the whole area,” Saeed told IRIN. Where vaccinations do take place, quality can also be an issue, and government officials readily admit the lack of capacity of their staff to properly manage cold chains, for example. “There has been a decline not only in the coverage, but also in the quality of routine immunization,” said Elena Vuolo, external relations officer with the World Health Organizations (WHO) in Afghanistan. BPHS, which is responsible for immunizations, “is overburdened with several activities they have to carry out with limited resources, and difficult access,” she told IRIN. In the National Priority Programmes, which outline government priorities until 2015, the government admits many vaccinators lack initial training, and that budget shortages in past years prevented supervisory and monitoring visits by provincial level management teams. It found this to be “a major cause” in decreasing immunization coverage. Quality of vaccinations The last national measles vaccination campaign was in 2009, but according to Shakoor Waciqi, who used to manage the government’s immunization programme in the 1990s but now works with WHO, the target age group was limited and “the quality of the campaign was sub-optimal”. Given the number of outbreaks last year, health workers say the immunization clearly did not reach 90 percent of children in every district - the minimum required to prevent outbreaks. According to DEWS, there have been 285 disease outbreaks, including 179 measles outbreaks, in 2012 so far. (An outbreak is defined as more than five cases within a defined geographical area within the incubation period of the disease). “In some areas, the coverage is less than 20 percent. In some areas, it is zero percent,” Saeed, of DEWS, said. Another problem is the lack of a baseline to accurately gauge how many children to target. Afghanistan has not conducted a census since the 1970s. Aid workers worry that the figures used to create targets are outdated, and thus many children are missing in the national statistics. Preventing a repeat As a new winter approaches, WHO is trying to prevent a repeat of last year. In July, it began an emergency nationwide measles vaccination campaign, vaccinating more than six million children between nine months and 10 years old in 16 provinces. It is planning to continue with the remaining 18 provinces in November. While measles cases are still appearing, the numbers have decreased sharply after the first phase of the measles campaign, WHO says. In November, the government and WHO will be training immunization officials in advance of the second phase of the measles vaccination campaign. Health officials are also taking other steps to improve immunization. This year, WHO, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the Ministry of Public Health combined the measles and polio vaccination campaigns, Vuolo said, suggesting the “piggy-back” model could make better use of resources in the future. As part of a winter contingency plan, health workers also started pre-positioning medicines in areas that will be cut off during the winter; and establishing temporary sub-health centres to serve villagers in remote areas through the winter. Mobile health teams The government is increasingly recognizing the important role of mobile health teams, in some cases airlifting teams by helicopter into remote areas. This is part of an approach to tailor immunization strategies to the specific context of an area, instead of applying “one blanket method for every province”, Galer said. The government is also planning to use more female vaccinators to increase access to women; and to improve the reporting forms to improve monitoring. A new task force is aimed at coordinating activities linked to the surveillance of and response to diseases, bringing together people from different government departments as well as WHO, Saeed and Waciqi said. There are also initiatives aimed at integrating the various disease surveillance systems into one mechanism and consolidating all health information under one department responsible for analysis.

Quetta: Striking doctors ponder plan to quit en masse

Strike at Balochistan hospitals entered 16th day to protest against kidnapping of doctor. Doctors in Balochistan are on the verge of resigning en-masse as they continued strike on the sixteenth day (Thursday) demanding recovery of their abducted colleague, Dunya News reported. The provincial government has failed in making any headway in recovering Dr Saeed Ahmed Khan, an eye specialist and head of LRBT Hospital, who was kidnapped on October 16 from Saryab Road in the provincial capital. Due to strike, the outdoor patient departments (OPDs) and operation theatres remained closed, causing immense difficulties to the patients.

Doctors Without Order In Balochistan

Ghulam Rasool bears psychological scars from trying to practice psychiatry in Pakistan's Balochistan Province.
For his efforts, the 52-year-old doctor found himself bound and blindfolded for more than two weeks in his kidnapper's remote hideout. He had been kidnapped in broad daylight in a busy market in Quetta, the capital of the restive southwestern province, and held for ransom. "I feel lucky that I was not physically tortured during the 17 days I was in captivity," Rasool says. "As a psychiatrist, I can tell you if I were to confine someone even in heaven they would not be at peace for a minute. Socially, it caused great stress to my family and my community. Rasool was targeted because of his profession, and he is no exception. Dozens of doctors working in Balochistan have been killed or kidnapped in recent years amid the lawlessness of secessionist violence. Doctors make easy targets because of their perceived wealth, the openness of their profession, and the lack of alliances to prominent tribal leaders who could provide protection. For the past two weeks, doctors like Rasool have joined ranks by going on strike throughout the province, and calling on the authorities to do more to protect them. If their demands are not the consequences could be fatal for health care in the province. Hundreds of doctors have already prepared their resignations, and threaten to add to the many doctors who have already fled the region to take jobs in Europe and the Middle East. Rasool, who would not reveal how his release was secured, says doctors are easy prey. "It is very easy to kidnap doctors because their schedule and their pattern of movement can be easily traced by everyone," he notes. "They [kidnappers] are also aware of doctors' wealth because they can monitor their business. This makes them potentially a good target for kidnapping." Doctors Demand Protection The current strike was precipitated by the shooting deaths of two doctors in remote regions of the province and the abduction of a prominent ophthalmologist. Saeed Ahmed Khan was kidnapped as he returned home from a Quetta hospital on October 16, and has not been heard from since.The doctors vow to continue the strike -- which affects all medical care with the exception of emergency services -- until they see action. Aftab Kakar, a senior leader of the provincial doctors association, says 27 doctors have been killed and 12 more kidnapped in the past five years. "Doctors are being threatened across the province. They constantly receive threatening [phone calls] and messages," he says. "Our doctors are facing a very difficult situation here." The flight of doctors has had a visible impact on health care in the province, Kakar says, which is considered the most impoverished of Pakistan's four provinces and was already struggling to provide adequate medical services. "If these problems continue you should realize it will be difficult to find good doctors even in Quetta," he says. Local Action Needed Much of the criticism has been leveled against provincial authorities, who have been ordered by the Pakistani Supreme Court to do more to protect doctors. Kakar says that senior officials have privately told him that the authorities know about some kidnapping gangs but are reluctant to move against them for unexplained reasons. Officials say they are actively trying to combat the problem. Asmatullah Kakar, the most senior bureaucrat in Balochistan's Health Ministry, notes that authorities recently met with doctors to work out a plan to improve security. He says the government is ready to deploy police officers and paramilitary units. "God willing, we will do whatever we can to protect doctors," he says. However, no concrete steps have yet been taken, and Rasool claims the provincial government has failed doctors. "So far, the government has not arrested a single culprit. The government has so far failed to assert its authority or show its resistance to such incidents," he says. "Why is this happening? This is a big question here for people from all walks of life." Comprising nearly half of the country's territory, Balochistan is Pakistan's largest but poorest province. Thousands of civilians, soldiers, and rebels have died in a worsening separatist conflict perpetuated by ethnic Baluch nationalists. Sectarian clashes, targeted assassinations, and unchecked criminality have added to the woes of the province's 8 million people.

Pakistan's rights record slammed by UN

As Pakistan seeks to become a member of the United Nations' Human Rights Council, the West has once again expressed 'serious concern' over human rights violations in the Islamic country. Pakistan's bid to become a member of United Nations' Human Rights Council (HRC) suffered a setback on Tuesday when the HRC members slammed the human rights situation in Pakistan at the council's Universal Periodic Review meeting in Geneva. New HRC members will be elected on November 12 and Pakistan hopes it will get a seat at the council. Pakistan's Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar
led the delegation to Geneva to defend Islamabad's human rights record and convince the member states to vote for her country. "Today Pakistan is a functional democracy with an elected and sovereign parliament, an independent judiciary, a free media and a vibrant and robust civil society," Khar told the HRC. She said that her government was working hard to improve human rights in Pakistan and defeat extremism. Sharp criticism Most HRC member countries, however, seemed unimpressed by Khar's defense.We have
serious concerns about the human rights situation in Pakistan," US ambassador to the HRC, Eileen Donahoe, told the council. She, in particular, mentioned the army operations "aimed at silencing dissent" in the Pakistani province of Baluchistan, which is facing a protracted separatist movement. Donahoe said that Pakistan should "ensure that those guilty of torture, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings must be prosecuted" and that laws discriminating against religious minorities should be reformed. Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws also came under criticism. The British delegate condemned the recent case of a young Christian girl, who had been accused by an Islamic cleric of burning pages of the Koran. The girl - who was released by a Pakistani court on bail - had spent several weeks in jail on blasphemy charges. The US and British condemnation was echoed by Sweden, Switzerland and some other European countries, including Belarus. The Belarus delegate urged Islamabad to fight the trafficking of women and children, stop sexual exploitation and the cruel treatment of children. 'A weak defense' Pakistani human rights activist Saleha Athar told DW that it was not easy to defend the dismal human rights situation in Pakistan. She said that Khar's defense of Pakistan's human rights situation was "weak." "The human rights situation in Pakistan is very bad," Athar said. "Khar was trying to defend her government and not the human rights situation in Pakistan."Athar appreciated the fact that Pakistan had a democratic government but said that democracy was still controlled by the Pakistani army. "True democracy guarantees better human rights but unfortunately, Pakistan is far away from it," Athar commented, adding that in recent years, the Pakistani parliament had passed a number of bills and laws to empower women and minorities but that they would remain meaningless until the government made sure they were properly implemented. She said that the issue of "forced disappearances, extremism, and religious rights of minorities" needed government's immediate attention. Karachi-based rights campaigner Zahid Farooq told DW that one should not expect human rights to improve in a country whose legislations were based on religion. "Religious minorities are being targeted in Pakistan. The blasphemy laws are used to grab their lands, to steal their wealth and to kidnap their women," said Farooq, adding that Pakistan's founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah had a liberal vision for Pakistan but that the successive regimes turned the country into a theocratic state. International obligations Both Athar and Farooq, however, believed that Pakistan should be given the HRC membership. "Pakistan's human rights record is not good but we hope that the HRC membership will make things better," Farooq said. The international obligations would obligate Islamabad to do more work to improve the rights situation, he added. Athar was of the opinion that the HRC membership would allow the international community to monitor the human rights situation in Pakistan in a better way.

Pakistan security chief calls for formulating new counter-terrorism law

The chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on National Security (PCNS), Mian Raza Rabbani, has said that Pakistan requires a new counter-terrorism law in order overcome the threat of terrorism in the country. Rabbani, during a PCNS meeting, said that a law to counter terrorism was being formulated in the country. He said the proposed law should also cover the fundamental rights of the people, reports The Dawn. A British lawyer and an expert on anti-terrorism laws, Lord Alexander Charles Carlyle, also attended the meeting. During the meeting, Lord Carlyle briefed the committee on Britain's counter-terrorism laws. "We will take into consideration the counter-terrorism laws enforced in different countries," Rabbani added.

New US envoy present credentials to Zardari

Ambassador designate of the United States of America, Richard Olson, called on President Asif Ali Zardari on Wednesday at the Governor House and presented his credential as ambassador to Pakistan. Other Ambassadors (designate) of Hungary, Jordan, Belgium, Uzbekistan, Oman and the High Commissioner (designate) of Canada also called on President Zardari and presented their credential at a special ceremony held at the Governor House, Karachi. According to officials, they called on separately on the president and discussed bilateral relations and matters of mutual interest.The president, while felicitating the newly-appointed ambassadors, expressed the hope that they will work for furthercementing the existing ties of their respective countries with Pakistan. Those who called the President were Mr. Istvan SZABO, Ambassador designate of Hungry, Maj Gen (Retd) Nawaf Khalifeh Ibrahim Saraireh, Ambassador designate of Jordan, Mr. Peter L.J.F. CLAES, Ambassador designate of Belgium, Mr. Parvez Aliev, Ambassador designate of Uzbekistan, Mr. Greg Giokas, High Commissioner designate of Canada and Mr. Riyadh Ahmad Yousif Al-Raisi, Ambassador designate of Oman. All the designated ambassadors and high commissioner were come with full protocol and at the Governor House. National anthems of Pakistan and their respective countries were played and the envoys were presented Guard of Honour by a smartly turned out contingent of Pakistan Army. Sources said all the diplomats were arrived in city on Tuesday night in a special plane and it was the first big ceremony held at Governor House where the ambassadors and high commissioner were present their credential to the President of Pakistan. The United States Ambassador were arrived in Pakistan on Saturday and he was waited the President Zardari in Islamabad to present his credential. The program was shifted to Karachi from Islamabad as the President Zardari arrived in city on Eid day and he is busy in official engagements in Sindh. Meanwhile, the President Asif Ali Zardari expressed concern over the destruction caused by Hurricane Sandy. Expressing grief over the loss of lives and huge destruction caused to the property, the President expressed his sympathies with the affected people and has wished early rehabilitation of the affectees. The President was expressed his concern in a meeting with Sherry Rehman, Pakistan’s Ambassador to United States, who called on him at Bilawal House.The President especially inquired about the well being of the Pakistani community present in the affected areas and advised the ambassador to provide all possible help to the affected people.

Balochistan: Aslam Raisani's PPP membership suspended

Pakistan Today
Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) has decided to suspend the primary membership of the Balochistan Chief Minister Aslam Khan Raisani for the next three months. Talking to Private Channel, PPP Kalat Division President Rafique Sajjad said that Raisani’s membership of the party has been suspended for deviating from party’s policies. “He (Raisani) is also damaging party’s reputation,” he said, adding earlier a notice was issued to the Balochistan chief minister but he did not mend his ways. Sajjad said that neither were the issues of the PPP workers were being addressed, nor was Raisani spending sufficient time in Quetta. He said that Raisani had been voted into power by PPP workers but the chief minister was not taking steps to solve their problems. Sajjad added that the PPP had weakened in Balochistan due to the actions and policies of Chief Minister Raisani. Sajjad said that Raisani’s membership has been suspended after taking into confidence PPP provincial chief Mir Sadiq Umrani.

Cultural show breaks silence of fear in Swat

The singers and artists enthralled the residents of militancy-hit Malakand division at a three-day cultural and music show, held here at Wadoodia Hall in Saidu Sharif. The participants of the show said that after attempt on the life of Malala Yousufzai, organising such a successful cultural event was a great victory for those forces, who wanted to promote sanity and restore peace in the region. The culture and music show was organised by Swasto Art and Culture Association with the cooperation of provincial cultural department. The show was aimed at breaking the silence of fear and fright in Swat and reposing people’s confidence in the government and security forces. The show, started on Oct 28, continued till Oct 30. A large number of people from Swat, Shangla, Buner, Dir Upper and Lower and Malakand protected area participated in the show. According to administration of Wadoodia Hall, around 1,000 people attended the show on the first day, over 15,000 on the second and 20,000 on the final day. Bakhtiar Khattak was the host of the show while renowned Pashto singers Humayun Khan, Sitara Younas, Kiran Khan, Ayaz Khan, Ziauddin, Anwar Khial, Azra Iqbal, Nabeela, Omera and Fareeha performed at the show. Comedians Rahmat Ali Ajiz, Mohammad Akbar Meno, Jehanzeb, Alamgir Swati and Yousuf Khan also amused the audience. The participants of the music show appreciated the government’s efforts to create confidence in the people of Swat. Osman Ali, a resident of Barikot, told Dawn that he enjoyed such an attractive show after three years. He applauded the singers, who enthralled the participants with their melodious voices. The opening and final days of the show were attended by Swat DCO Kamran Khan, DOR Niaz Ahmed and MPA Sher Shah Khan, who is also district president of the ruling Awami National Party. They said that the show would convey a message of peace to the world. It would prompt people to visit the picturesque area and enjoy its scenic valleys, they added. They said that such events would be arranged in future to show the world that Pakhtun culture always promoted peace and not vulgarity. They regretted that some religious and militant groups considered culture as a vulgar and un-Islamic act. Swasto Art and Culture Association head Usman Olasyar told Dawn that they proved that there was no space for vulgarity in Pakthun culture and music. He said that the show was aimed at providing recreational opportunity to the people of Swat and highlighting the positive aspects of Pakhtun culture. He said that it was responsibility of every Pakhtun to work for promotion of culture. Extraordinary security arrangements were made on the occasion. Swat DPO Gul Afzal Khan Afridi told Dawn that apart from security forces 6,000 policemen were deployed at different spots of Swat after the government declared Swat and Shangala as sensitive areas during Eidul Azha. He said that leaves of all police personnel were cancelled during Eid to make elaborate security arrangements. He said that all entry and exit points of Swat were sealed and mobile teams were set up to keep vigil on the movement of suspected persons. He said that no untoward incident occurred during Eid owing to better security arrangements. Apart from the music and culture show, a large number of visitors thronged the scenic spots of Swat valley including Kalam, Bahrain, Madyan, Malam Jabba, Marghuzar and Fizagut. The tourists enjoyed the relatively chilly weather of Swat and snow-covered Kalam valley.

DNA test lab goes functional in Peshawar

A DNA test laboratory has been set up in Khyber Teaching Hospital of Peshawar while other facilities have also been increased in the medical facility, Geo News reported on Wednesday. Dr Umar Ayub, Chief Executive Doctor at the Khyber Teaching Hospital told Geo News that there had been a record improvement in the medical facilities for the patients. He said although the provincial government had provided machinery worth millions of rupees, big hospitals were needed in the wake of increasing number of patients.

Islamabad : Girls college falls prey to ‘political point scoring’

The Islamabad Model College for Girls I-8/3 has been functioning without budget allocations, teaching and non-teaching staff and infrastructure since its inception. Insufficient and borrowed teaching and non-teaching staff has been running the college affairs. The then Federal Minister for Education Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani had inaugurated the college in August 2009 and, according to officials, it was indeed political point scoring and individual boost up and material self-benefits on the part of certain individuals who arranged inauguration of a girls degree college in hurry in the federal capital without even considering the provision of basic amenities. In spite of even mounting pressure from parents, the principal was compelled to drop the science subjects and launch intermediate and degree classes in humanities group only. “This is indeed mockery of education that only those subjects which have least fascination and little use in the job market are being taught,” remarked an official. A teacher who has been teaching in the college temporarily, while recalling the days when the classes were started, said, “the principal, Metlo Hamida Qais, used to run among different offices of the then Ministry of Education and the Federal Directorate of Education (FDE) and even had been begging to meet the basic needs of the students. It makes big question mark on the face of performance of these bureaucratic offices and those political high ups.” Another teacher of the college telling about their problems said that until now, there is not even a single regular teacher in the college. The principal borrows teaching and non-teaching staff from other sister institutions under the FDE on request that is insufficient to meet the requirements of such a degree college. “Due to having no regular teachers to teach different classes, the academic work is suffering badly. It is also resulting mounting anxiety among both the parents as well as students and the principal does not find any way out to address the situation effectively,” he maintained. This is no less than a joke that a degree college has no head of accounts and no budget allocations from the government to meet miscellaneous expenditure. The utility bills of the college are paid from the little amount collected from the students’ fee. The Pak-Korea Trust had donated 20 computers to the college when the Principal approached the Trust in 2010 but the computers can be seen lying as a dead heap for lack of computer tables and chairs for the students to use them in a proper computer laboratory. Besides the absence of any infrastructure, the college does not have any auditorium to arrange any extra-curricular activities so the students have also been deprived of such activities, which play very important role in personality building of the young learners. Reportedly, the college was allotted an area of 6 acres and payment was made to the Capital Development Authority (CDA). However, it was fine jugglery of CDA that only 4 acres land was handed over to the college for construction of the campus. Rest of the two acres has been reportedly allotted to three CDA members. When the CDA was contacted by the college principal in this regard, it responded with the measurement of area, acknowledged the fact regarding handing over only four acres to the college. CDA authorities clearly stated verbally, if FDE takes up the issue officially with the Authority, they would compensate by adding almost 1.5 acres land adjacent to the college campus and will return the paid amount for the acres less than 0.5 acre. This is indeed indifference on the part of the FDE (Planning & Development section) that up till now, no proceeding has been witnessed in this regard. Spokesman for the Federal Government College Teachers Association, Prof. Tahir Mahmood said, “the present picture of the college, after three years, has raised a big question mark on the will power, intention and interest of the political leadership and bureaucratic machinery. It has proved that the inaugurators were interested only in political scoring and personal projection for material gains. The political and bureaucratic point scorers have escaped and the college administration is left to face the criticism of the parents and students’. FDE Spokesperson Waqar Ashraf could not be contacted despite repeated attempts made by this scribe to have his point of view on the subject.

Pakistan: Elections to be held by May 10

Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira on Wednesday said the interim governmental set up would take over around March 18, 2013 following the completion of the five-year term of the government, while general elections would be held 40 days after the caretaker set up took over. Talking to reporters after a meeting of the federal cabinet, Kaira said there was a baseless propaganda making rounds about delay in election. “There is a free media and independent judiciary which will never allow this (delay). Moreover, the government and parliament duly get the credit for completion of terms of the assemblies and a democratic transition of power will take place and by delaying the elections, all credit will become a discredit,” he said. The minister said the government would investigate the role of people like Hameed Gul in line with the Supreme Court’s order in the Asghar Khan case. “This order has proved that the government installed after the 1990 election was illegitimate and its decisions need validation. A serious debate is on over the legitimacy of the then government and the issue should be resolved.” The information minister claimed that history had revealed that mandates of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) had been stolen. “At times direct martial laws were imposed and indirect martial laws were imposed at other times through alliances like Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI).” He said that several past presidents, like Rafique Tarar, worked against the PPP. “Tarrar should be asked about the service for which he was awarded the office of the president. What was the reason behind issuance of licence to launch a new bank to Younus Habib in 1992,” he argued. Referring to the release of tapes involving Justice Quyyum and Nawaz Sharif’s crony Saifur Rehman, Kaira said it was strange that the judge had to resign but the then chief minister, who happened to be the present chief minister of Punjab, did not face any punishment. He said the PML-N government was illegal in the past and even the Punjab government had no majority in the provincial assembly and was being saved by crutches of turncoats from the PML-Q. Kaira said that after the 1990 elections, Benazir Bhutto had issued a white paper about an alleged election fraud and rigging in 100 constituencies which was part of history. To a question, Kaira said when the PPP-led government came to power in 2008, the economy was in tatters and there was recession in international markets, Pakistan had over 250,000 IDPs from Swat and Malakand. “Moreover, the country was hit by devastating floods in 2010 and 2011 and in such a situation bringing the inflation down was no meagre achievement,” he said. Kaira said the Presidency was a political office and was part of parliament. He said the president should be impartial, but there was no bar on his meetings with political leaders. To a query on the much demanded army operation in North Waziristan, he said the government had already clarified that no such operation would be conducted. He said that if any decision was made by the political and military leadership, it would be shared with the media and the nation. To a question about increase in public sector debt, he said in presence of Fiscal Responsibility Act, the government could not exceed the limit. Commenting on the CNG sector, he said filling station owners had their own viewpoint which would be presented to the Supreme Court. Cabinet decisions: Giving details of the cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, Kaira said the finance secretary informed the cabinet that the overall price situation had stabilised and the inflation in prices had been capped to single digit at 8.8 percent, compared to 25 percent in October 2008. Following the policy of self dependence, the government had collected Rs 350 billion in taxes in the current year. The overall revenue collection had doubled from Rs 1 trillion to Rs 2 trillion in the last four-and-a-half years. The government had raised salaries by 115 percent during its tenure, while the overall expenditure of the federal government had increased by only six percent, adding that the country did not default on payment of loans, both internal and external. Kaira said the tax to GDP ratio had increased by 0.5 percent. The cabinet was told that the subsidy on power sector was affecting the financial prudence of the federal government. While the overall expenditure of the federal government was Rs 220 billion per annum, subsidy on power sector alone had reached the Rs 30 billion per month. Kaira said the cabinet reviewed status of implementation of decisions pertaining to the Finance Division. The cabinet was informed that 93 percent of the decisions made by the cabinet from 2008-2012 had been implemented, while the rest were at various stages of implementation. The cabinet was also informed that as a result of NFC Award, the provinces had been given 70 percent funds of the divisible pool, thus restraining the federal government to meet subsidies. “The country is generating power at the cost of Rs 12 per unit but providing the same to consumers at Rs 9 per unit. If the country imports gas from outside it will cost $18 per thousand cubic feet, while the same amount is being provided in the country for $6 only.” The information minister said the prime minister apprised members of the cabinet about his recent visit to Saudi Arabia to perform Haj on the invitation of Khadum al Harman Sharifan. The PM said that during his stay in Saudi Arabia, he met Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz and Crown Prince Salman bin Abdul Aziz. During his meeting with the Saudi crown prince, the PM extended an invitation to him to visit Pakistan, which he graciously accepted. “The son of the crown prince will soon visit Pakistan. Kaira said the cabinet expressed solidarity with the Sandy storm-hit Americans, adding that several Pakistanis had also been affected by Sandy. The federal cabinet also ratified the visa agreement with India and approval was been given for three business and one cultural visa agreements. An approval was also given for an MoU with the United States concerning financial intelligence cooperation.