Saturday, May 4, 2013

President Obama's Weekly Address: Fixing our Immigration System and Expanding Trade in Latin America

Bangladesh: Protection of the minorities

The Savar tragedy shone a glaring light on the vulnerability of our workers, who suffer death and injury because of the malignant clutch around their and all our throats of the tentacles of greed, corruption and nonchalance of those who have power for the lives of those without a voice in Bangladesh. In the early hours of the Savar building collapse, we also witnessed an incredible coming together of the common people of Bangladesh who flocked to help the victims of the tragedy, even at a time when the instruments of state seemed paralyzed by the enormity of the tragedy. For those of us who remain optimistic about Bangladesh, some would say delusionally so, in spite of all the darkness that swirls around us on a daily basis – for us, it is the belief in the inate good of the people and their ability to step up and face oppression and danger is what keeps our optimism afloat. I write this piece with our common people in mind, and hope to start the conversation on how we can engage the type of volunteerism that came alive during the Savar tragedy for the protection of another vulnerable group of Bangladesh, our religious and ethnic minorities.A few weeks back, thugs attacked a 200-year temple and burnt it to the ground; a few days back, another group of the same monsters attacked Buddhist temples; tomorrow it might be more of the same, if not worse. The violence towards Bangladesh’s religious and ethnic minorities continue unabated, and stories of this violence and the destruction of our fellow citizens’ property and religious artefacts are far from an aberration in our country; unfortunately, and to our collective shame, they have become common practice, and the frequency of the attacks and the inability of the law enforcers to forestall them or punish the perpetrators make a mockery of our much touted claims of being a progressive and peaceful nation. As we the majority, seemingly silent and “neutered” watch on, our fellow citizens continue to suffer from this type of barbaric violence, which goes against the core faith of Islam (the religion of peace), whilst the perpetrators of this violence disappear without any consequence and with impunity. This is where we are now: with the likely issuance in the coming days and weeks of more severe verdicts by the War Crimes Tribunal and the worsening political situation and breakdown of law and order, it is likely to get much worse for our fellow citizens from the minority or other vulnerable groups. The fundamental principle in any working democracy is not simple majority rule, but having a rule of law that provides protection of all minority groups and their values within the society. It is a disgrace to us all as citizens of a democratic country, a country that was birthed out of the sacrifice of millions of people, that due to our impotence in protecting our fellow citizens, we are weakening the very foundation of the establishment of our country.We are outraged and ready to act, but what can we do, we ask – after all, we are unarmed ordinary folks whilst the enemy is armed, ready to kill and maim, with a special taste for and skill in cutting the tendons off the ankles of their unfortunate victims. Even the government and the police seem unable to protect the minorities – heck, the police seem unable to even protect themselves against the viciousness of the political thugs. After discussions with a few friends, we came up with a non-exhaustive list (that is, a list that you the readers can add to and we can all work towards) of steps we can take to act to protect our fellow citizens and bring to account their attackers (calling Shahbagh to take this up as an immediate cause): (a) use all our resources in and out of the government to lobby the government to provide special police protection for minority enclaves and areas (and remind the government that as these reprisals are a foreseeable consequence of the government’s actions and the War Crimes Tribunal’s verdicts, it is the government’s obligation to pre-empt such reprisals – there is very little doubt that history will not look kindly upon the government’s continued failure to do so); (b) along with the media, sponsor GSM connected tablets or smart phones that will be kept with volunteers at the enclaves/around Hindu/Buddhist temples and Christian churches, which will allow for citizen journalism and immediate recording and uploading off any videos of the attackers; (c) organize concerned citizens including Muslim groups who loathe to let a small group of their own besmirch the core values of Islam through their actions, in and around minority areas/temples/churches and provide them the tools (GSM connected tablets/smart phones) to act as an early warning system, so they may contact the police and the larger public and inform them as to any groups that may be moving towards such areas (an application can be uploaded into the tablets to enable instant messaging to local authorities, media personnel, etc.’s. mobile phone numbers and e-mail addresses, twitter, etc.); (d) create a refuge in our and other volunteers’ homes for any citizens who are in fear of attack or have already lost their homes; (e) provide funds and other assistance to those who have been hurt or have lost their homes; (f) for those of us who can, to go in large numbers and stay in or around the minority areas so that we may be able to join those being attacked in the defence of their lives and property; and (g) contact relevant international agencies for support, and for the international media to highlight attacks on vulnerable groups in our country. The beacon of progressive idealism that Bangladesh was at its conception may have been snuffed out by the transgressions of the years following its birth, but it can still be lit by the flint of collective action of its people. It is never too late to start.

Two killed in blasts near MQM office in Karachi

Two persons were killed and 20 others injured when two successive blasts occurred in Azizabad area of Karachi near MQM unit office. Police and volunteers of Edhi Foundation reached the blast site and the injured were shifted to various hospitals. The markets and shops in the area were closed after the blast and fear gripped the area. Another blast was heard minutes after the first blast in the same area. Meanwhile, In Mardan nephew of ANP candidate Latif-ur-Rehamn was injured in bomb blast. In Quetta Jammat-e-Islami provincial office was attacked with hand-grenades Saturday. However, no loss of life was reported. MQM chief Altaf Hussain strongly condemned the blast and said that a conspiracy was being hatched to keep his party out of the election race.

Disney Kicks Belarus, Pakistan Out Of 'Mickey Mouse' Club

One of the world's biggest merchandising powerhouses, The Walt Disney Company, has decided to cut production of trademarked goods in a handful of countries that includes Belarus and Pakistan. The U.S.-based company -- which controls the rights to such popular characters as Mickey Mouse, Winnie-the-Pooh, the Lion King, and Snow White -- says the step is part of an effort to boost safety standards in its supply line by avoiding the "highest-risk countries," according to a CNNMoney report. Belarus and Pakistan are joined on Disney's list of safety slackers by Ecuador, Venezuela, and serial violator Bangladesh, a low-wage haven where the collapse this week of a shoddily constructed factory building left at least 500 people dead and refocused attention on the country's abysmal workplace-safety record. Disney representatives suggested to "The New York Times" and others that the pullout decision followed two garment-factory fires last year, in Bangladesh and Pakistan, that killed nearly 400 workers. Disney reportedly sent a letter to thousands of retailers and license holders telling them to put an end to the production of its branded products in those five countries by April 2014. The company said its decision was based on a report from the World Bank that assesses how countries are governed, using metrics like accountability, corruption and violence, among others. The five countries from which Disney pulled production had the lowest scores on those measures. Disney said it will continue to source from some countries, like Haiti and Cambodia, that didn't get high marks in the World Bank report, but only with factories that partner with the Better Work program run by the International Labor Organization and the International Finance Corporation. The group works to control health and safety conditions. CNN and "The New York Times" quoted company sources as saying none of the five blacklisted countries accounts for more than 1 percent of Disney's sourcing. The Walt Disney Company is thought to be the world's largest licenser, with reported gross revenues of more than $42 billion in 2012. Belarus's economy has slowed in recent years following a decade of steady growth and poverty reduction, with a currency and payments crisis taking a heavy toll in 2011, The World Bank has noted.

Searching for IEDs with the Afghan army

Improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, are the biggest killers of Afghan security forces. They're the weapon of choice for the Taliban and other armed groups. But as American forces begin to withdraw from the country, it’s the job of the Afghan national army to detect and disable these home-made bombs. Al Jazeera's Imtiaz Tyab reports from eastern Khost province.

Afghan president calls for close relations with Pakistan

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday called for close and friendly relations with his country' s immediate neighbor Pakistan. "Once again I am calling on Pakistan to choose the way of friendship," Karzai said at a press conference in his fortified Palace here. He made the appeal in the wake of the clash between border guards of the two countries along the Durand Line in Goshta district of the eastern Nangarhar province Wednesday night that claimed the life of an Afghan policeman and injured two Pakistani troopers. Durand Line, which divides the two neighboring countries, has not been recognized as official border by Afghanistan. Karzai categorically stated that the "Afghan nation has not recognized the Durand Line and would not accept it in future." However, the Afghan president pointed that he had visited Pakistan 19 times with the objective to build friendly relations. The Afghan leader said his government would ink the proposed security pact with the United States if Afghanistan's national interest is respected. Going into details, Karzai said that his government wants the United States to properly equip Afghan national security forcces, to support its economy and ensure his country's viable security. Karzai also called on the Taliban to give up fighting and defend the Afghanistan soil like the young man Qasim did, a reference to the Afghan policeman who was killed in a clash with Pakistani forces in Goshta district of Nangahar on Wednesday night.

Pakistan: Uneven playing field: Election violence

THE concerns of the Chief Election Commissioner Fakhruddin G. Ebrahim that free and fair elections are not possible without proper security arrangements were further justified with the killing of a National Assembly candidate in Karachi yesterday. There will now be no elections on May 11 to the seat he was contesting. On Tuesday, a provincial assembly candidate in the Jhal Magsi area was killed — polling in his constituency too has been suspended. Meanwhile, on Thursday, two polling stations in Balochistan’s Nasirabad district were blown up while an MQM election office in Karachi was bombed. The militants’ campaign of violence is in full swing. There have been over 40 election-related acts of violence since April 11. Over 70 people have died in these while more than 350 have been injured. Parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Fata, and Balochistan, along with Karachi, are the worst affected while thousands of polling stations countrywide have been declared ‘sensitive’. All this violence has proved that there is anything but a level playing field especially for those parties that have been singled out by the militants for their ‘secular’ leanings. However, the parties that have been spared by the extremists, including the PML-N and PTI as well as the religious parties, have either been lukewarm in their criticism, ‘appealing’ to the militants to hold their fire, or have maintained a deafening silence. Quite naturally, there are many concerns about how the ongoing mayhem will affect voter turnout. With such frequent shootings and bombings, the public cannot be faulted for being wary about stepping out on election day, especially in areas that have witnessed the most violence. This is where the role of the state and the Election Commission of Pakistan comes in. The deployment of 70,000 troops for election security has begun and hopefully this will reassure jittery voters that matters are under control. Yet public confidence will only rise when there is a noticeable decrease in the acts of violence in the days leading up to May 11. The state needs to project that troops are on the ground for the safety of candidates, political workers, polling staff and the voters while the ECP needs to launch a major media campaign reassuring voters that it is safe to come out and cast their ballot. It is essential to convince the voters and ensure a sizable turnout for two main reasons — to defeat the extremists’ campaign and to grant legitimacy to the continuity of the democratic project in Pakistan.

Benazir Bhutto murder Case: ''Blood and secrets''

The brutal gunning down on Friday of Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali, the FIA’s special public prosecutor and the man investigating the December 2007 Benazir Bhutto murder case, was indeed well planned and premeditated. The unidentified gunmen who pumped bullets into his body as he left his home in Islamabad obviously intended to kill him. Chaudhry was to appear before an Islamabad anti-terrorism court in the Benazir murder case on the same day. We will now never know what he intended to say but we can be certain that he died because he was supposed to say something which drove his scared murderers, and the people behind them, into panic. Chaudhry’s murder adds a new twist to the case which remains unsolved more than five years after the most popular politician of the country was assassinated at Rawalpindi’s Liaquat Bagh through a huge blast and with bullets. A while back we saw a similar murder of Khalid Shahenshah in Clifton Karachi. Shahenshah was BB’s main security guard. It is astonishing that a government led by the party Benazir Bhutto headed made such limited efforts to discover what really happened, apart from making grand and expensive but purposeless moves like the so-called UN inquiry which led to nothing – and this nothing was, for whatever reasons, perhaps the goal. This lack of action has almost ensured that Benazir’s murder may join the long list of mysteries that our political history is replete with. The assassination of Chaudhry Zulfiqar Ali may make it all the more likely that this will be the case. This incident is no doubt a personal tragedy for the victim’s family and also for that of the female passerby who also died during the incident. But this death also goes beyond the personal and adds a new chapter to our history of many secrets seeped in blood. There are clearly persons who do not want the truth in this case to ever surface and wish to intimidate – even eliminate – those who are pursuing the case. It would be highly unfortunate for us as a nation if such elements managed to thwart meaningful progress in this and other affairs the secrecy around which they must find vital for their survival. The more things remain hidden, the more dangerous the state of our affairs becomes – with even greater risks lying ahead. The Benazir case must not get bogged down in the heinous murder of Chaudhry Zulfiqar.

Sarabjit Singh: Lives both shaken and stirred

The tragic end of Sarabjit Singh in Lahore jail unplugged long-frozen memories of my journalistic encounters with the surreal and secretive world of cross-border spies. Documenting tales of these real-life spies who had survived years of torture and incarceration in Pakistan was a bone-chilling experience that still sends a shiver down the spine. And, contrary to popular depictions of spies such as a James Bond, armed with cool gadgets or fast cars, they were ordinary folk, inhabiting the grubby, poverty-stricken villages on the India-Pakistan border where espionage has always been a risky but alluring option to eke out a living. Many become cannon fodder during furtive border crossings or perish in jails. On a hot morning in late April of 1988, the iron gate at Wagah opened to reveal the sight of 107-odd Indian nationals on the Pakistan side, barely metres short of the zero line. Looking forlorn and emaciated, they waited for their homecoming as a large batch of Indian prisoners repatriated from Pakistan after many years. Each had a harrowing tale to tell. One of them had on him only a small earthen-pot that carried the ashes of his fellow Indian prisoner, who had died during incarceration, hoping to deliver it to his family in a village in Gurdaspur. Another gaunt-looking prisoner with the surname Azad hobbled across on crutches. As an operative of Indian intelligence agencies who returned after an 18-year sentence in Pakistan jails, he carried tell-tale signs of torture like a badge of honour - some of which he ascribed to his protests against ill-treatment meted out to Indians in Pakistani jails. That lent him the status of a leader among fellow prisoners. But the return to the homeland was in no way welcoming. Swarmed by intelligence sleuths for de-briefing sessions, the repatriated prisoners were made to sit on their haunches under the blazing sun for hours. Not served even a glass of water, they felt distraught and insulted at such a heartless reception in their motherland. Soon enough, the angry prisoners were on their feet, raising slogans against the Indian authorities while amused Pakistani officials looked on from a distance. It took quite an effort to pacify them before they were bundled into waiting vehicles to ferry them to their homes. Years later, curious to know what happened to the spies upon their return, I set out to locate some of them for a story I was doing for a weekly. A few trips to the border belts of Punjab and Jammu didn't throw up any leads. Meeting intelligence officials was equally frustrating as they feigned ignorance of any ex-spies. A few months later, a Jammu-datelined news item caught my eye. It was about a Pakistan-returned spy on hunger strike outside Raj Bhawan, demanding the reward money that his intelligence handlers had promised before launching him into enemy territory. The next day I was in Jammu, and the protester turned out to be Azad. Asked whether it would be possible to meet some ex-spies of his ilk, Azad shot back: "Kitne jasoos chaheeye?" We drove through dusty villages along the border and soon our Maruti van was overflowing with ex-spies of different ages. They shared the same chilling tale - of being left out in the cold. He is guilty as charged.

Kot Lakpat jail staff suspended over Sarabjit’s killing

The superintendent and two deputy superintendents of Kot Lakhpat Jail were suspended on Friday for failing to prevent the attack on Sarabjit Singh. The three jail officials were previously issued show cause notices, and Punjab Inspector General of Prisons Farooq Nazeer has termed their suspension to be official. According to the notification, Kamran Anjum will assume the responsibilities of the superintendent, Raza Mahmood Zaman has been appointed as an additional superintendent, while Hasan Bhagala will assume the charge of a deputy superintendent. Sarabjit Singh was a convicted Indian spy on a death-row. He was attacked on April 26, and died of cardiac arrest on Thursday after being comatosed for nearly a week due to severe injuries. Earlier, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) had urged the governments of India and Pakistan to save their ties given the tension between the two countries on account of treatment being meted out to the prisoners. In a statement issued on Thursday, the HRCP said, “Not even the most naïve can believe that a prisoner like Sarabjit in a death cell inside a jail can be targeted in such a brutal assault by prisoners without the knowledge and support of prison guards and the authorities. This is far more serious a crime than allowing someone like General Pervez Musharraf to escape from court. It was no secret that Sarabjit faced more threats than other prisoners on account of the charge that he was convicted of and yet his security was so completely compromised.” According to the India Ministry of External Affairs spokesman Syed Akbaruddin, there are 535 Indian prisoners in Pakistani jails and 272 Pakistani prisoners in Indian jails. He said India had issued an advisory to strengthen security for Pakistani prisoners in Indian jails. He said India was proposing a meeting of officials in both countries to ''identify and put in place further measures to avoid such tragic incidents in future.'' - See more at: