Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Video Report - #Gaza, #MH17, #Ebola, #ISIS & other trending stories of 2014: Rewind

Most Western decision-makers view Turkish gov’t, Erdoğan as authoritarian

A survey conducted among decision-makers in several Western countries has revealed that the image of both the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) and President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the eyes of most of the Western power elite is an authoritarian one, demonstrating that simply because a government is elected, it does not mean that the perception in the West will be that it is democratic and pro-freedom.

The survey, which was carried out by Fatih University and the İstanbul branch of the Journalists and Writers Foundation (GYV), took place in the form of online interviews with a total of 176 people including politicians, businessmen, academics, researchers, journalists, civil society representatives and decision-makers in the US, Germany, the UK and France between Nov. 1 and Dec. 28.
According to the results of the survey, decision-makers in the West have a relatively positive perception of the AK Party compared to their perception of Erdoğan, one of the founders of the AK Party, its leader and the country's prime minister for 12 years until his election to the presidency in August.
A total of 54 percent of the respondents who took the survey said they find the ideology of the AK Party to be authoritarian, while 23 percent said it is conservative and 16 percent said it is Islamist. Only 3 percent of the respondents described the party as liberal democrat.
When it comes to Erdoğan, an overwhelming majority of the respondents, 77 percent, said they see Erdoğan as an authoritarian leader, 10 percent called him Islamist and 8 percent called him conservative. Only 3 percent of the respondents said they think Erdoğan is a liberal democrat leader.
“The fact that Turkey's decision-makers are viewed in such a negative light makes Ankara's global prestige questionable. If the support of the international community is needed in the future for the settlement of regional problems that concern Turkey, the current picture may place Turkey in a difficult situation. It is evident that coming to power via elections is not seen as sufficient to be identified with a democratic and pro-freedom identity in Western societies,” said those conducting the survey when reporting its results.
When asked about the state of bilateral relations between Turkey and their own countries and whether they are in a better state in comparison to five years ago, 66 percent of the respondents said relations between Turkey and their country are now worse. A total of 56 percent of the respondents said they think Ankara's foreign policy preferences are not in line with the West's preferences, while 75 percent said they do not think Ankara has been following an effective and successful foreign policy over the past five years.
The Western decision-makers were also asked whether they think the AK Party government espouses European values such as the supremacy of law, democracy, human rights, pluralism and freedom. Disappointingly, 84 percent of the respondents of the survey said they do not think the AK Party government is in line with or follows fundamental European values. There is also a strong perception that the AK Party government is moving away from its Western allies and their democratic and pro-freedom values.
The AK Party government has been receiving growing criticism for following anti-democratic policies, restricting freedoms, silencing dissent and disregarding the law over the past few years. These criticisms have reached an alarming level since a graft probe became public on Dec. 17, 2013 revealing the alleged involvement of top government figures in bribery and corruption.
The AK Party government also attracts criticism for frequently violating the principle of the separation of powers, a key democratic principle, and the issue has been mentioned in progress reports released by the European Union.
When the respondents of the survey were asked whether the implementation of the principle of the separation of powers in Turkey is similar to its implementation in advanced democracies, 81 percent of the respondents said they do not agree that it is.
“It seems it is impossible for Turkish democracy to develop in a parliamentary structure in which lawmakers are not sufficiently free and the checks and balances mechanisms do not work properly,” said the producers of the survey.
To another question asking whether they believe there is an independent, transparent and fair justice system in Turkey as is the case in advanced democracies, an overwhelming majority of respondents, 78 percent, said they do not agree, indicating that they don't see Turkey as a country with an advanced democracy.
The area in which the Western power elite has the worst perception of Turkey concerns freedom of the press in the country, with 87 percent saying they do not think there is freedom of the press in Turkey.
Most of the interviews for the survey had been conducted before a government crackdown on independent media outlets on Dec.14, as part of which many journalists, TV producers and scriptwriters, including Zaman daily Editor-in-Chief Ekrem Dumanlı and Samanyolu TV top executive Hidayet Karaca, were detained. Karaca was arrested, while Dumanlı was released pending trial.
The operation was interpreted by many in Turkey and abroad as an attack on the freedom of the press.

Turkish journalist detained over criticism of graft law

A prominent Turkish female anchorwoman and journalist has been arrested for criticizing the country’s dropping of a controversial corruption investigation involving key allies of the government.
The arrest of Sedef Kabas on Tuesday came after she made remarks on Twitter about the dismissal of the corruption probe, which was launched late last year.
Kabas was detained after police raided her house in Istanbul. She faces charges of "targeting people who are involved in anti-terror operations" after the prosecutors involved in the recent decision filed a complaint against her.
"Do not forget the name of the prosecutor who dismissed the December 17 case," the journalist had written earlier on Twitter, in addition to providing the name and a photograph of the prosecutor.
Earlier this month, a Turkish prosecutor formally dropped all charges against government officials involved in the largest corruption and bribery investigation in the history of the country.
Back in October, prosecutors dropped the case against 53 people, including sons of former ministers.
On December 17, 2013, dozens of government officials and prominent businessmen close to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, then prime minister and current president, were arrested on graft charges.
Days later, Erdogan announced a major cabinet reshuffle, replacing 10 ministers, including the economy, interior, and environment ministers, who had resigned from their posts after their sons were arrested in the scandal.

Young, smart and driving for change in Saudi Arabia

Four years after the Arab Spring, we know of the revolutionaries who took to the squares and city streets to protest their governments’ inept policies. What we don’t know is that the fire of change remains burning among Arab youth.
They may not be taking to public spaces any more, owing to the political and military crackdown on them, but it would be wrong to assume the Arab people, especially the young, are happy about the status quo. After all, they are more educated, entrepreneurial, cosmopolitan, and hyperconnected than any previous generation, and they will not become complacent while being subjected to bad policies.
I had the honour of meeting one of these brave young people who continue to challenge the status quo. Loujain al-Hathloul is a 25-year-old Saudi woman who studied French literature in one of our very own Canadian universities as part of an ambitious Saudi government initiative to educate the next generation of leaders and citizens. There are some 20,000 Saudi students in Canada completing their postsecondary education and another 90,000 in the U.S. who are studying everything from engineering, medicine and business, to fine arts. The Saudi program of sponsoring and educating the next generation with a generous grant system is one of the best human capital investments any government has made in the Arab and Muslim worlds and it needs to be commended for it.
Ms. Hathloul is a product of this Saudi investment and is a great patriot who loves her country. Her studies in Canada taught her more than just the great literature of Foucault, but also the value and necessity of having safe mobility. Like many Saudi women living in Canada and the West, she drove a car. Many women who live in Saudi Arabia, however, must rely on male relatives, hired help, and a broken public transport system to get around.
Ms. Hathloul shared with me the trials of young women of her generation in Saudi Arabia: The lack of reliable and safe transport often puts them at the mercy of unscrupulous characters who can try to take advantage of, or profit from, their precarious situation. Add in the scorching heat of the desert kingdom and the stranded female waiting for her ride is an added health issue. For women who want to work or who must work to provide for families, their immobility can often mean the inability to make a living and add further dependency on already taxed family members. Young women who cannot work cannot afford to hire a personal driver, and the cycle of dependency is never broken.
Ms. Hathloul is like many young Saudi women who are educated abroad and well-travelled and who want to change their country for the better. They love many aspects of their great society – from its emphasis on family and generous Bedouin culture – but banning women from driving is no longer safe and holds no religious or cultural explanation that fits the modern century.
After her university education, Ms. Hathloul returned to Saudi Arabia and decided to challenge the law against driving by videotaping herself driving a car from the airport. The authorities arrested her father, who in Saudi law is a single woman’s guardian, for her crime. Not wanting her elderly father to be punished in her place, she choose another tactic. She went to neighbouring United Arab Emirates for work and married a comedian and social media activist, who was one of the singers behind a hit Saudi YouTube video, No Woman, No Drive, about the trouble Saudi women face in the Kingdom and sung to the tune of Bob Marley’s famous hit.

As a married woman, Ms. Hathloul knew her father was no longer responsible for her actions and so the newlywed decided to reignite the campaign for women to drive. One of the remarkable insights that I witnessed in Ms. Hathloul was her strong desire not to break Saudi law. In fact, she cleverly challenged taboos, but not the Saudi legal system. As she told me days before her next journey to Saudi Arabia earlier this month, the kingdom does not forbid women to drive, they just don’t issue Saudi drivers’ licences to women. She purchased a car in the UAE and obtained a UAE driver’s licence. Then, taking advantage of a loophole that allows all Gulf Co-operation Council drivers to enter and drive in Saudi Arabia with GCC licences, she headed to the UAE-Saudi border. While stopped at the border for more than 24 hours, and getting hungry, she was joined by a Saudi friend from Twitter who had brought food. Today, both young women have been arrested by Saudi authorities and imprisoned for more than 25 days.
Ms. Hathloul has been referred to a special court for terrorists. This young woman is nothing of the sort; she wants to give her countrywomen the safety and comfort of being mobile. Like the hundreds of thousands of Saudi women educated abroad who are returning to their country, they want to bring back not just their valued degrees but their valued spirit for social betterment and change.

Analysis: What Follows Middle East's Tough And Tumultuous 2014?

This was the year of the unthinkable.
American, Iranian and Syrian warplanes in the same airspace, bombing a common enemy — an enemy that used U.S.-supplied tanks and guns to overrun a Middle Eastern army and take a major city in a matter of days.
This was the year ISIS burst into life as the region's most feared killing machine and rubbed out borders that were drawn a century ago.
It was the year the Arab Spring finally died in the Middle East's most populous country.
A year of turmoil, when Israel crushed Gaza and Iraq's national army was exposed as a corrupt shell.
A year of horror, when beheadings posted online haunted the imagination of millions, when American, British and other hostages endured unimaginable suffering.
In this season of reflection when we assess the year gone by, few would argue that the Middle East is a better place today than it was a year ago. In fact, 2014 has been among its worst years, so deadly that few of its countries have escaped turmoil.
To highlight Syria might appear to state the obvious.
But the statistics from there are numbing, each one a life lost or destroyed. It's not simply the 200,000-plus dead — a conservative figure compiled by the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and undisputed by the United Nations.
Half the population of a country that prided itself as the beating heart of the Arab world have now fled their land or their homes.
It's a biblical exodus and the worst refugee crisis the modern world has known. The U.N. can't feed the millions it wants to.
It is not just Syria that is in chaos.
This was year when U.S. Army Special Forces landed in Iraq to halt a genocide, and American warplanes returned to Iraq's skies three years after U.S. combat troops left.
The year ends with President Barack Obama reviewing a military strategy that may have stopped the rapid advance of ISIS but has failed to destroy it.
There is no question that the year's most stunning development was the ISIS takeover of Iraq's second largest city Mosul in June, an attack so rapid it met with almost no resistance.
In the post-mortem, it became clear that while Iraq's army existed on paper, in the field it was a ghost army, tens of thousands of whose soldiers were drawing salaries but not fighting, their weapons and equipment long since sold off in corrupt deals.
Nearly 5,000 Western military "trainers" have been ordered to Iraq, most of them American. Combat troops may not be returning, but make no mistake, these are American boots on the ground in Iraq once again.
Foreign fighters, including Americans and hundreds of Europeans, are flocking to join ISIS, a group so attractive to militants that it has reduced al Qaeda and its leader Ayman al Zawahiri to near irrelevance.
An astonishing alliance is developing between old enemies.
It would be pushing the rapprochement between the United States and Iran too far to call it a full alliance, but their shared interest in defeating ISIS, in keeping Iraq together, and in a nuclear deal acceptable to most, means they have more in common than at any time since the Iranian revolution. Whether this develops into a broader deal that would reorder the Middle East is a question for 2015. After all, Saudi Arabia and Israel are desperate to keep Iran's ayatollahs in check. In a region where solutions are in scarce supply, the gambit to involve Iran may prove productive.
This was the year that exposed the limits of U.S. and Western influence.
Libya had been hailed as a success story after allied air power helped topple dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. European leaders flew in to proclaim a new dawn.
This year, Libya's government was driven out of the capital Tripoli by rebels. It is now sheltering in the city of Tobruk, watching the country fall apart into the tribal regions Gadhafi united during his four-decade rule. Next door, the strongman and former head of Egypt's armed forces Abdel Fattah el-Sissi is ensuring nothing of the kind happens in his country. The man who graduated from the U.S. Army War College in Pennsylvania just eight years ago is now a powerful president who this year killed off Egypt's Arab Spring. The last nail in its coffin was the November acquittal of former President Hosni Mubarak of conspiracy to kill hundreds of protesters in the 2011 revolution.
Only in Tunisia, where the Arab uprisings began, does a remnant of the freedom and change the revolutions promised remain.
Elsewhere old faces and old disputes dominate. In Syria, President Bashar Assad was re-elected, his forces now appear poised to retake the second city, Aleppo.
In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu is gambling on re-election as prime minister in March after Israel's military attack on Gaza, which killed more than 2,000 Palestinians.
Israel won the battle against Hamas, which rules the enclave, but in 2014 it lost the argument in the eyes of much of the world. Accusations that Israel is engaged in collective punished of Palestinians, and the continued construction of Jewish settlements on Palestinian land, has put it under intense international pressure.
At the same time, the Palestinian dream of statehood has moved closer this year, with more than 130 countries or parliaments voting to recognize it as a state. It's a bandwagon that has a long way to roll.
Israel is feeling isolated and misunderstood, its very existence under threat in a deadly neighborhood. Powerful figures, led by the Netanyahu, are pushing for a law to make Israel a Jewish state, a move critics say will codify Arab-Israelis' status as second-class citizens.
Israel bombed Syria, Iran bombed Iraq — so did Jordan and some Gulf States — and the U.S. bombed both Syria and Iraq. Libya joined the ranks of failed states, while Yemen edged close to them. A third Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, threatens in Israel. And hundreds die every day in a brutal war with ISIS.
So the great battles between Shiite and Sunni Islam, radical Islamism and the West, Israel and the rest, remain unresolved, leaving few grounds for optimism in the region in 2015.
For its part, the U.S. will struggle to maintain its influence while trying not be drawn deeper into bloody regional conflicts. And all the while, hardliners from Tehran to Saudi Arabia to Jerusalem will be watching the changing battlefields of the world's most volatile region.

The recovery of the US economy is a challenge for emerging economies

It is reported that US GDP in the third quarter rose by an annualized rate of 5%, the fastestrate of growth recorded since 2011. The rebound is above expectations - a 5% increase ishistorically unusualespecially for an economy as big as the US.
The U.Shas been maintaining inflation below 2%, and low prices have contributed to theeconomic reboundLow inflationcombined with low international oil priceshas given aboost to US consumer confidence and to domestic consumptionA strong US dollar hasattracted foreign capital to the US.
The rebound in the US economy is definitely good news domesticallybut it is mixed newsfor emerging economiesAs the US is a major importerits recovery will increase itsimports from emerging economiesEmerging economies can take the opportunity topromote their economic development.
But there is also a challenge caused by the rebound in US economy and a strong US dollar.As the US economy grows strongerthe Federal Reserve is likely to raise its interest rates,which will result in depressing the currencies of emerging economiesThis will cause afurther outflow of foreign capital from emerging economiesRussia's large economy isalready suffering from a weak rubleChina is suffering similar painThis outflow of foreigncapital will pose a challenge to emerging economies.
To deal with this challengeemerging economies should have sound monetary policyandsignificant and well-managed foreign reservesThey will also need to focus on furtherdeveloping their real economy.

Russia: New U.S. Sanctions May Obstruct Cooperation on Syria, Iran

Russia's Foreign Ministry said on Tuesday that a widening of U.S. sanctions against Moscow this week may hamper bilateral cooperation on issues such as Iran's nuclear program and the Syrian crisis.
"The actions by the United States are putting in doubt the prospects of bilateral cooperation on solving the situation around the Iranian nuclear program, the Syrian crisis and other acute international problems," the ministry said.
"As Washington could have seen previously, we don't leave such unfriendly acts without an answer," the statement added

AirAsia plane wreckage found, bodies being recovered

Over 40 bodies have been recovered from the missing AirAsia flight, the Indonesian Navy said. Objects resembling parts of the plane, as well as what was thought to be the plane’s outline underwater, were seen in the search area.
“There was a man swaying on the waves. After I looked at the photo carefully on my laptop, I understood it was a human body,” a lieutenant of the Indonesian Air Force told local media.
The bodies so far found have been brought to an Indonesian Navy ship, National Search and Rescue Director Supriyadi told. The corpses were swollen, but intact, and did not have life jackets on, he said, as cited by AP.
Several family members of missing passengers burst into tears or fainted when they saw footage of bodies floating in the water.
It comes after objects that resemble an emergency slide, plane door, and a square box-like item have been spotted 10km from the last position of the missing AirAsia jet, according to Indonesian authorities.
“We spotted about 10 big objects and many more small white-colored objects which we could not photograph,” Indonesian Air Force official Agus Dwi Putranto said at a press conference.
An AFP photographer from the same search flight said he had observed objects in the sea resembling a life raft, life jackets and long orange tubes.
Indonesian officials have expressed concern over the currents in the sea, saying if bad weather persists, debris could be spread before crews get to it.
Airforce soldiers onboard a Hercules C130 stand monitor the Belitung Timur sea during search operations for AirAsia flight QZ8501 near Belitung island (Reuters / Wahyu Putro)

The sea depth where the debris was found is between 25 and 30 meters, so divers will be used in the recovery operation, Indonesian search and rescue agency BASARNAS stated.
At least 20 divers are preparing and will be deployed to the site immediately, Indonesia’s search and rescue chief stated.
An Airbus A320-200 carrying 162 people and operated by Indonesia AirAsia disappeared in poor weather on Sunday morning during a flight from the Indonesian city of Surabaya to Singapore.
"Hopefully we will find something definite because I haven't received anything else," an Air Force official told MetroTV referring to the reported debris. "Other aircraft are still carrying out searches."
Currently, at least 30 vessels, 15 planes, and seven choppers are looking for the AirAsia jet, Indonesian officials have stated.
Most of the search is conducted by Indonesia, but Singapore, Malaysia and Australia are taking part as well.
Thailand is planning to join the search, while the US has sent a warship to help.

Video Report - Air Asia flight QZ8501

Video Report - AirAsia Flight 8501 recovery challenges

Pakistan - Aasia Bibi Trial - A BERRY-PICKER’S TRIAL


When a high court upholds the conviction and death sentence of a woman from a poor as well as politically and socially marginalised religious minority in a highly publicised case lodged under a deeply controversial blasphemy law, it is not an ordinary event.

Lahore High Court
Lahore High Court – AFP photo
Since the introduction of Section 295-C in the Pakistan Penal Code in 1986, the confirmation of the death sentence for Aasia Noreen, or Aasia Bibi as she is generally referred to, is the third such decision by the Lahore High Court (LHC) — in fact, by any high court in the country. The event, however, seems to have come and gone without any critical reaction from the intelligentsia, generally, and the lawyers, in particular. A court judgment such as this can be an important indicator of how blasphemy cases are being decided. It may also help enhance our understanding of the failure of the criminal justice system to protect the vulnerable. On both counts, the LHC decision warrants a critical analysis.
The verdict issued on November 5, 2014, is essentially based on the argument that the eye witnesses/complainants, Mafia and Asma, were not duly cross-examined during the proceedings of the trial court. The learned LHC judges, hearing the case, noted that the defense lawyers had not contested the allegation of blasphemous utterances by the accused. If an allegation is not contested by the defense lawyers, then, according to the law of the land, it must be considered to be true and admitted by the accused, the judges pointed out. Since direct evidence – that is, testimonies of the complainants – were coherent and confidence inspiring, therefore, conviction and sentence must be upheld, they concluded.
The LHC also demolished all legal and factual objections raised by Aasia Bibi’s counsels on the basis of apparently sound counter legal arguments. There were some serious arguments made in Aasia Bibi’s defense: firstly, the delay of five days in the filing of the First Information Report (FIR) raises the possibility of improvement in the stance of the complainants; secondly, the personal grudge of the complainants – who are also the only eyewitnesses of the alleged incident – against Aasia Bibi caused by an altercation over the sharing of drinking water; thirdly, the recording of evidence without adopting the standards of Tazkia-tu-Shahood (prescribed “Islamic” method of testing the propriety of witnesses in Hudood cases without which no one may be convicted and no sentence may be handed out). These grounds required more serious deliberation by the court.
It was in 1990 that the Federal Shariat Court declared (in a case filed by lawyer Ismail Qureshi) that blasphemy against the Prophet of Islam under section 295-C is a Hadd offence. According to religious interpretation, a Hadd offence is one for which the Quran has prescribed punishment that cannot be changed at all. The Federal Shariat Court declared that death was the mandatory punishment in the offence of blasphemy, thus rendering alternative punishment of life imprisonment, originally provided in Section 295-C, as ineffective. Though parliament has not changed the original wording of Section 295-C, the Federal Shariat Court’s decision has been adjudged by the superior courts to have attained finality. Conviction under Section 295-C, therefore, must only lead to the death sentence.
It is in this context that the necessity of Tazkia-tu-Shahood is of critical importance. The question one needs to consider is: if the principle of according finality to a declaration by a superior court must be followed in the Ismail Qureshi case, then should the same principle not be followed for Tazkia-tu-Shahood? In a judgment authored by a former chief justice of the Federal Shariat Court, Tanzilur Rahman, (in Sanaullah versus the State cited as PLD 1991 FSC 186) the Hadd punishment of cutting of hands for theft was set aside because the testimonies of the witnesses had not been recorded and, therefore, the allegation had not been proven according to the strict standards of Tazkia-tu-Shahood necessary for Hadd offences. There are several other such instances where the superior courts made Tazkia-tu-Shahood as the basis for changing or overturning the verdicts given by trial courts.
In Aasia Bibi’s case, the trial court did not apply the standard of Tazkia-tu-Shahood to assess the quality of testimonies of witnesses and complainants. Aasia Bibi’s counsels raised this point but the LHC dismissed it, referring to a 2002 Supreme Court verdict in a blasphemy case (Ayub Masih versus the State). The LHC argued the Supreme Court did not make any declaration on the question of Tazkia-tu-Shahood, therefore, by implication, there was nothing binding upon the LHC to follow so far as this particular ground for Aasia’s appeal was concerned.
This is clearly a case of selective use of judgments by the Lahore High Court. In an interview with this writer, one of the counsels for Aasia Bibi said the facts in Ayub Masih’s case were so clear that the court did not find the need to examine the quality of evidence. So, the question of Tazkia-tu-Shahood never arose in that case. Similarly, according to him, the defense counsels also cited the Sanaullah case to strengthen their argument about the application of Tazkia-tu-Shahood but the LHC judges have chosen to ignore that. The counsel said the defense team, too, had cited Ayub Masih case, but only to strengthen the argument pertaining to delay in the registration of FIR.
Let us assume that no conclusive jurisprudence has emerged from the Supreme Court on the question of application of Tazkia-tu-Shahood. Would not, in that case, be a high court entitled to carefully examine this serious legal question and adjudicate on it? How could the LHC dismiss this critical question, especially when constitutionally guaranteed rights to personal freedom and right to life were at stake?
In its decision, ironically, the LHC judges acknowledged that the non-application of Tazkia-tu-Shahood at the trial court was a serious objection but they then decided not to consider it to set aside the trial court order. Their reasoning was that the legislature had not passed any law to lay down the process for Tazkia-tu-Shahood. Legislation, however, also did not exist when the Federal Shariat Court decided to set aside Hadd punishment in the Sanaullah case. The Federal Shariat Court, indeed, has prescribed a detailed procedure for applying Tazkia-tu-Shahood in that case but that precedent was ignored.
To say there is no binding precedent from the Supreme Court on this question is simply not true. In Daniel Boyd versus the State (cited as 1992 SCMR 196), the Supreme Court had discussed the procedure to be adopted for application of Tazkia-tu-Shahood. In that case, it set aside Hadd punishment on the ground, among others, that witness testimonies were not recorded according to the standard procedure of Tazkia-tu-Shahood. Also, isn’t it that questions decided by the Federal Shariat Court regarding application of “Islamic injunctions” attain finality when not set aside by the Supreme Court?
Yet the LHC did not consider this verdict, perhaps because the counsels of the appellant, Aasia Bibi, did not present the judgment in support of their argument. This, however, should not be the reason for including or omitting an argument while deciding the matter of someone’s life and death. In Ayub Masih’s case, the Supreme Court set aside the conviction on the ground, among others, that there was a delay of six hours between the alleged incident and the registration of its FIR, suggesting the possibility of fabrication and false implication.
Asia bibi with former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, who was assassinated by his own guard for questioning blasphemy laws of Pakistan - AFP photo
Asia bibi with former Punjab governor Salmaan Taseer, who was assassinated by his own guard for questioning blasphemy laws of Pakistan – AFP photo
In the Aasia Bibi case, the trial court dismissed the possibility of fabrication by saying that the complainants/eyewitnesses were women who usually hesitate in approaching the police. They had to seek support from male elders and, therefore, the delay of five days in the registration of FIR was justified. The LHC implicitly agreed with this reasoning by the trial court.
The LHC judgment stated that the question of delay in reporting the matter to the police “is immaterial especially when the … direct evidence, produced by the prosecution, is consistent, coherent and confidence-inspiring”. Let us see whether the direct account of the circumstances of the case is indeed confidence-inspiring.
There were seven prosecution witnesses and one court witness whose statements have been recorded in the trial. According to the police, out of the 20-25 women workers who were present in a field of berries where the alleged offence was committed, only one or two of them were questioned by the police. One of the women questioned by the police, Yasmin Bibi, was initially chosen to be a prosecution witness but was dropped by the prosecution in the course of the proceedings for the vague reason that her testimony was unnecessary. The trial court and the LHC did not ask any questions regarding her withdrawal as a witness. If the defense counsel had also failed to raise a point about her testimony, why didn’t the court call her as a court witness?
One of the witnesses, a prayer leader, stated a meeting of the villagers was held at the house of one Mohammad Mukhtar, who happens to be another prosecution witness who was eventually dropped during the proceedings. His testimony could have shed light on the controversial matter of the delay in the registration of the FIR and its possible fabrication.
Out of the eight witnesses recorded, only two claimed to be eyewitnesses. They claimed to have heard the accused uttering the blasphemous words. Everyone else’s testimony was based on hearsay, including that of the prayer leader, Salam, who was approached by the two eyewitnesses to report the matter to the police.
Five days after the incident of the alleged blasphemy had taken place on June 19, 2009, the prayer leader called a gathering of villagers and interrogated Aasia Bibi. The prayer leader claimed it was during that gathering that Aasia Bibi confessed to making the derogatory remarks. It was on the basis of this confession that he lodged the FIR on behalf of the two eyewitnesses.
Different accounts of the gathering of villagers – as provided by the prayer leader and the two eyewitnesses – do not corroborate each other. For example, the prayer leader said the gathering was held at the house of Mohammad Mukhtar, and there were 100 villagers present. One of the eyewitnesses, Asma, testified that there were 2000 people in the gathering. She also said the gathering was held at the house of one Rana Razzaq. Her sister, Mafia, told the trial court that the public meeting was held at the residence of her father, Abdul Sattar, and there were more than 1,000 people present in it. Another witness, Mohammad Afzal, said there were about 200-250 people in the meeting which was held at the house of Mohammad Mukhtar. Would one not be justified in questioning the coherence and consistency in these accounts?
The LHC verdict stated that there was no evidence of any “previous” enmity between Aasia Bibi and the complainant/eyewitnesses. It may be true. How can one, however, exclude altogether the possibility of ill will generated in the minds of the complainants against Aasia Bibi due to a quarrel over drinking water? Why should one presume that Aasia Bibi uttered the offensive words without having been provoked? There also can be no presumption that such words had to be blasphemous.
The trial judge had a particularly interesting view on this question. Aasia Bibi’s stance is that the blasphemy case against her was a result of a quarrel where hot words were exchanged between herself and the two complainants, Asma and Mafia, after they refused to accept water from her on account of her being a Christian. This is denied by the complainants. According to the trial court judge, even if it is accepted that the altercation started with the refusal to accept water by the Muslim women, which the Muslim women deny, then it had to result in blasphemous words by the Christian woman. “So, the question arises, what type or nature of the hot words would be there in between the Christian and Muslim ladies when the quarrel started from the refusal of drinking water by the Muslim ladies from the hands of a Christian lady. So, the phenomena was [sic] ultimately switched into religious matter and hot words should had [sic] not been other than the blasphemy”. [sic]
Women in Lahore protest in favour of Asia bibi in November 2010
Women in Lahore protest in favour of Asia bibi in November 2010

When a high court considers the grounds of an appeal, it is also supposed to carefully analyse the trial court’s judgment. Nowhere in the LHC order was the possibility of bias in the trial court’s verdict considered — even when it is floating clearly on the surface. If there is any coherence and consistency anywhere in the case, it is in the determination to sentence Aasia Bibi to death. In several judgments by the Supreme Court and the Federal Shariat Court, including in the cases of Sanaullah and Daniel Boyd, mentioned earlier, it has been clearly laid down, on the basis of several precedents from early Islamic jurisprudence, that wherever there is even an iota of doubt Hadd punishment should not be applied.
In their remarkable study of the US Supreme Court’s decision-making process, titled The Choices Justices Make, Lee Epstein and Jack Knight assert that judges are both sophisticated and strategic when they make their judgments. According to the authors, judges, in the context of the United States, maximise their personal public-policy preferences while simultaneously satisfying external observers that the court is legitimately staying within the bounds of the law. The authors of the judgment in Aasia Bibi’s appeal have adopted a similar methodology — showing both strategic pragmatism and legal sophistication. The bench that heard the appeal comprised a senior judge – with more than four years of work experience at the LHC – and a junior judge who was elevated to the LHC only this year and is yet to be confirmed.
Blasphemy cases are hard to decide given that the state cannot provide protection to the judges and lawyers involved. In at least one previous instance, a LHC judge, Arif Iqbal Bhatti, was assassinated for acquitting a blasphemy accused. Recently, Rashid Rehman, a Multan-based lawyer who took up the case of a blasphemy accused after he failed to engage a counsel was shot dead in his office.
In a situation such as this, where all other institutions of the state waver in supporting the weak and the vulnerable, isn’t it still fair to expect that the high courts will come up with bold judgments in blasphemy cases to address that imbalance?


Pakistan - Wattoo expresses deep condolences over the loss of lives in fire in Anarkali Plaza


Mian manzoor Ahmad Wattoo has expressed deep condolences on behalf of the PPP and on his behalf over the loss of precious lives as a result of fire in a Plaza located in Anarkali area of the provincial capital. He prayed for the eternal peace for the departed souls and fortitude for the bereaved families to bear the irreparable loss.
He demanded of the government to immediately conduct the survey of all plazas located in urban areas with a view to ascertain the installation of arrangements to cope with the anticipated emergency situation like fire or collapse of such constructions.
He observed that most of the plazas in urban areas were death trap because the construction grossly lacked the arrangements of fire extinguishing and fire exists adding the authorities looked the other way and had not taken the notice of such glaring violations of commercial and residential buildings ‘ constructions.
He added that if the government now exhibited a degree of complacency after this accident then it would be deemed as a criminal negligence and therefore unpardonable.

Pakistani refugees find 'safety' in Afghan minefield

Pakistan has been carrying out a military offensive in its restive northwest to root out Islamist militants since June. Civilians have been caught in the crossfire, as Catherine James reports from Khost, Afghanistan.
A deminer checks uncleared land in the Golan refugee camp in Khost province, Afghanistan just meters from where refugees have set up makeshift homes
When Pakistan warned the residents of North Waziristan Agency that the military was launching a strike to clear their region of militants, few imagined that seven months later they would still be homeless.
Ahmaddudin, a shepherd from North Waziristan, fled across the nearby border into Afghanistan with his four siblings and parents, along with more than 200,000 other people, to avoid the ensuing violence. They took nothing with them, believing they would return within a week.
Now, Ahmaddudin's family says it could be three years before they return home.
"We thought we would be here two or three days and then return back. But the papers we have received [from organizations supporting refugees] say 'we will help you for three years,'" Ahktar Jan, Ahmaddudin's father, says from his tent in Gulan refugee camp, a makeshift camp in Afghanistan's eastern Khost province.
The family decided to reclaim the flock of sheep they left behind, but the attempt almost killed Ahmaddudin, 23, when he was caught in an airstrike by the Pakistani air force.
Ahmaddudin (left), 23, sits with his father and cousins in the Golan refugee camp
Ahmaddudin (left) spent two weeks in hospital after he was hit by shrapnel in a Pakistani airstrike
"I was afraid to go because the bombing was continuing and the army was still fighting," Ahmaddudin says. "But I had to get the sheep."
Knocked out by the blast, Ahmaddudin was left in a field for more than three hours before it was safe enough for his cousin, Zarim Khan, to collect him.
"I didn't know if he was alive or dead. I thought maybe he was dead because the bombing was so strong," Zarim Khan says. "I was very afraid [retrieving him from the field]. But we are Pashtuns - it doesn't matter even if there are bombs, I must bring him back."
Refugee camp in a minefield
With shattered bones and shredded muscles in the left side of his body, Ahmaddudin faces a long recovery through winter in the camp - which is also a minefield.
Halo Trust began demining the area in July - almost a month after the refugees began squatting there, not knowing that the area had been heavily mined from 1984 to 1989 during the war with the Soviet Union.
Four months later, the official count of unexploded ordinances uncovered by the deminers was already 156.
"We have found a total of 121 anti-personnel mines and 10 anti-vehicle mines, 25 cluster munitions in the camp and the surrounding hills up to the end of November," a spokesperson for the organization told DW in an email.
Boys who are refugees in the Golan camp leave school (held in tents) for the day
The Pakistani refugees were unaware they settled in an area that was mined
Despite the danger, families in Golan camp move about heedlessly, crossing upturned land at the same time as the deminers work on scanning it.
Noor al-Khoda, a senior deminer responsible for overseeing the progress at Gulan, says he has warned people of the risks but they continue to walk where they want.
"One of the anti-tank mines was found when a family was preparing the ground to set up their tent," he says, showing pictures of the tent and the round circular lid of a mine poking out from the smoothed earth.
The organization is working as quickly as possible to ensure the total area is given the all-clear, but expects with more than half the designated area at risk remaining, it will only finish the task by the end of May.
The total area cleared up to the end of November was 531,120 square meters - another 722,071 square meters remain.
"The influx of refugees continues and every day at least 100 new families are crossing the border to Afghanistan from Northern Waziristan, so clearance is a top humanitarian priority," Halo's spokesperson told DW last week.
Tent schools
At least 2,100 children under the age of 11 live in Golan camp, according to the Norwegian Refugee Council, which runs makeshift schools there. That is the number registered to attend classes - conducted in rudimentary tents set up in five locations around the camp. Around 800 of those in attendance are girls.
Girls repeat the English alphabet after their teacher at a makeshift school set up by the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) in the Golan refugee camp
Around 800 girls are among the 2,100 students attending classes with materials provided by the Norwegian Refugee Council
The NRC is building more permanent structures for the classrooms as a way of encouraging the children to attend the classes, especially during the winter months.
Getting by with basics
Indeed, "winter-proofing" the camp is the top priority for the groups involved in meeting the humanitarian demands. Not only do the 3,500 families need the basics of food, fuel, and heating, but medical assistance is sorely hard to come by.
Only one small clinic has been set up at the camp, run by a national NGO, Afghanistan Center for Training and Development. The doctors can only address basic ailments, sending the more serious cases to local hospitals in Khost province - or further afield, as in the case of Ahmaddudin who was sent to Peshawar.
Dr Naeem Lakawal, working at the clinic, says the most common complaints people come for are psychological: stress, anxiety, sleeplessness, depression.
"We don't give treatment to psychiatric patients," he says, between treating barefoot children at the clinic. The more serious patients - many who have experienced considerable trauma and stress - are referred to the local district clinic if they desire, at the very least, medication, he adds.
Anecdotally, hundreds of refugees opt not to go to the doctor even for fairly pressing needs, such as pregnancy. Around 80 women gave birth in the camp in October alone. Had they gone to the clinic, they would have been referred to the Khost hospital, Dr Lakawal says.
One such baby is Samidullah, whose mother gave birth to him in September, about two months after arriving in the camp with her three other children, all under the age of four. His father is still in Pakistan.
A man holds Samidullah in his arms
Samidullah's mother gave birth without assistance from a doctor or midwife as no females with expertise were available
How much longer Samidullah and his family will live in the camp is unclear. The Pakistan military has been deliberately vague about the Waziristan "clearing operation" that began June 15 after years of pressure from the international community to do more to reign in the Taliban and militants based in the semi-autonomous region.
Apart from those in Golan camp, a further 220,000 are estimated to have crossed into Khost province. Most of these people are living in local communities, with whom they share language and culture. The United Nations Human Rights Commission (UNHCR), which oversees Golan camp, has pointed to this as at least one positive coming out of the massive displacement, since living in local communities is better for people who have fled their homes.