Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Pain sensitivity influenced by lifestyle, environment: twin study suggests

Sensitivity to pain could be altered by a person's lifestyle and environment throughout their lifetime, according to a new study published on Tuesday in Nature Communications. Pain sensitivity was previously thought to be relatively inflexible, however, researchers at King's College London challenged this view with their twin study. They suggested that it can change as a result of genes being switched on or off by lifestyle and environmental factors. The process was called "epigenetics", which chemically alters the expression of genes. Identical twins share 100 percent of their genes. Therefore, any difference between identical twins must be due to their environment or epigenetic changes affecting the function of their genes, making them ideal participants for a study of this nature. To identify levels of sensitivity to pain, scientists tested 25 pairs of identical twins using a heat probe on the arm. Using DNA sequencing, the researchers examined over 5 million epigenetic marks across the whole genome and compared them with a further 50 unrelated individuals to confirm their results. The research team found wide variations between people and identified chemical modifications within nine genes involved in pain sensitivity that were different in one twin but not in her identical sister. The chemical changes were most significant within a known pain sensitivity gene, TRPA1. Lead author of the study, Dr Jordana Bell, said that: "The potential to epigenetically regulate the behavior of TRPA1 and other genes involved in pain sensitivity is very exciting, and could lead to a more effective pain relief treatment for patients suffering with chronic pain."

Journalists call for release of colleagues in Egypt

Putin Opens 126th IOC Session in Sochi Ahead of Olympics

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday welcomed the guests of the International Olympic Committee to their 126th session in Sochi, where the Winter Games open Friday.
The session at a hotel in the Black Sea resort runs Wednesday through Friday, and will be the first to feature an address from a UN secretary-general after Ban Ki-moon confirmed earlier this week that he’ll attend. “Let me declare the 126th session of the International Olympic Committee open,” Putin said in English at a welcome event at the Winter Theater in Sochi.
Putin rarely uses other languages publicly, and the switch to English was a throwback to 2007, when he gave an impassioned speech to the IOC to help Sochi win the Games over Pyongchang and Salzburg. The two-day session, ending Friday, is expected to focus on the so-called Olympic Agenda 2020, a plan of how the Games will develop and modernize under new president Thomas Bach.
Putin's presence at the session demonstrates his role as the chief architect of the Sochi Winter Games, widely described as his pet project.
He has been present at every major stage, from the 2007 IOC congress in Guatemala to Friday's opening ceremony, where Putin is expected to be a central figure. The Sochi Olympics run February 7-23.

Syrian opposition, govt ready to move forward with Geneva 2 peace talks

The Syrian National Coalition says it will take part in the second round of Geneva 2 talks. Russia says the Syrian government expressed "no doubts" that it will also attend, adding that it plans to send a shipment of chemical agents out of the country.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held talks with Syrian National Coalition (SNC) leader Ahmad Jarba on Tuesday. Following the talks - which took place in Moscow and focused on the temporarily halted peace conference in Switzerland - Jarba confirmed to Russian media that the SNC will come to Geneva on February 10.
“We have agreed to take part in Geneva [peace] conference to fulfill the Geneva Communiqué…We have stated our intention to take part in the second round of talks on February 10,” Jarba said, as quoted by Interfax.
The Coalition has decided it must “follow the way of political settlement” of the Syrian conflict despite all odds during the first round of talks and the latest offensive from government forces on the ground, Jarba added. The much-awaited and much-delayed Geneva 2 peace talks broke up with no sign of progress last week as the opposing sides repeatedly accused one another of being “terrorists,” failing to move forward even on humanitarian issues. The opposition’s demand that Syrian President Bashar Assad leave office – a move openly backed by Washington – was met with resistance from the government delegation.
However, Moscow expects Damascus to continue with the talks. According to Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov, the Syrian government has “expressed no doubt regarding its participation in the next round of talks.” Russia on Tuesday suggested that to move forward with the talks, the Syrian delegations should form specialized task groups on different issues, Gatilov stated. “For every issue some concrete efforts are needed; some are easier solved, the other ones are tougher – for instance, the creation of interim government. But this does not mean that one should focus on a single problem and ignore the others,” Gatilov told RIA Novosti. Such task groups should be Syrian-only, and while their work could be mediated by the UN, there can be no foreign meddling in the process, he said. It is important to “fully implement” the Geneva Communiqué of June 30, 2012, which includes “fighting terrorism, effecting ceasefire, ensuring humanitarian access and POW exchange,” Lavrov told Jarba, according to statements issued by the Russian Foreign Ministry on Tuesday. The SNC leader, however, said he believes that creating a transitional body is a top priority that will solve all other issues automatically. “Formation of an interim government will solve all other disputable problems, including ceasefire and releases of the war prisoners,” Jarba assured, stating that the opposition has already prepared a list of candidates and expressed readiness “to be flexible and open for dialogue while discussing nominees.” The Syrian parties have so far not reached an agreement on POW exchange. The opposition has failed to present a list of people they captured, though Damascus has already handed its list to the SNC, Gatilov said.
The Russian official also doubted that the Syrian opposition has any leverage to affect the actions of international terrorist groups fighting on the ground in Syria with the aim to create a Sharia law-based Islamic state. Meanwhile, Jarba said the opposition refuses to discuss the problem of terrorism in Syria “while Assad is in power.” However, he told Russian journalists that the SNC does not recognize the Islamic Front - a major merger of Syrian rebel fighters formed in November - as a terrorist organization, and considers them “revolutionaries.” Chemical delay to break ‘in February’ The start of the Geneva 2 peace talks coincided with another wave of Western pressure against the Syrian government, with the US accusing Syria of deliberately delaying the delivery of its chemical weapons out of the country, as well as reportedly authorizing the delivery of some weapons to the opposition during a closed Congress session. US Secretary of State John Kerry also asked Russia to press Damascus to speed up the completion of its international obligation, State Department spokesman Jennifer Psaki said on Tuesday. Gatilov replied to the US rhetoric by saying there was “no need to make a drama out of the situation with the disarmament.” “Literally yesterday the Syrians announced that the removal of a large shipment of chemical substances is planned in February. They are ready to complete this process by March 1,” RIA Novosti quoted Gatilov as saying. There are, however, some well-founded security related concerns, Gatilov added, saying that several provocations have already been attempted. Russia is confident that Syria’s chemical arsenal will be destroyed by the June 30 deadline, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told Reuters on Monday.

Pakistan: In first attempt, Taliban dialogue fails to take off

Govt negotiators fail to turn up at an agreed time for a preliminary meeting * Yousafzai says they wanted to clarify who was on Taliban team and what powers they had.
The planned peace talks with Taliban insurgents stumbled as they began on Tuesday, with government negotiators missing a preliminary meeting citing doubts over the militants’ team.
The faltering start will fuel scepticism about whether negotiations with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) can achieve a meaningful and lasting peace accord. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif caused surprise last week by announcing a team to begin dialogue with the TTP, which has been waging a violent insurgency since 2007. Many observers had been anticipating a military offensive against TTP strongholds in the tribal areas, following a bloody start to the year. Teams representing the Taliban and government had been due to gather in Islamabad at 2pm on Tuesday to chart a “roadmap” for talks. But the government delegation did not show up. One of its members, senior journalist Rahimullah Yusufzai, said they wanted to clarify who was on the Taliban team and what powers they had. The TTP initially named five negotiators but Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan declined to take part and another was pulled out by his political party.
“We told them we are ready to meet them after we get an explanation about one issue, that their committee will consist of three members,” Yusufzai told AFP. “We also seek explanations on other issues, like how powerful this committee is.” The head of the Taliban team, Maulana Samiul Haq, accused the government of not taking the talks seriously. “Today it has been exposed how serious the government is about talks,” Haq told AFP. “They are making a joke of talks and joking with the nation. On one side they are saying they are talking to the Taliban and on the other side they are making joke of these talks.” The TTP’s main spokesman Shahidullah Shahid told AFP that Haq and his two colleagues had their blessing. “The three-member committee is final now and we have our full confidence in it to hold talks,” he said. Talking to media persons Maulana Samiul Haq said that the government-constituted committee was powerless and certain powerful forces are bent on sabotaging the peace process with the TTP. He said that the TTP was serious about holding talks with the government, while the government, through its behaviour, has proved that it is powerless. Haq lashed out at the government’s dialogue committee and accused it of demonstrating non-serious attitude. He feared a military operation is looming.
“They are showing non-seriousness and disassociation from the day one. The government is not realising the gravity of the issue, but still we are ready to sit together and facilitate the talks, our doors are open,” said Haq. He complained about lack of coordination from the government team and appealed the to Taliban to remain silent and refrain from terrorist activities. “We are a bridge between the government and the Taliban but the rulers are not realising it. They should be thankful to us for our support and coordination, we are a blessing for them,” he added. Two other members of the committee – Professor Ibrahim and Maulana Abdul Aziz – accompanied him. Haq said it was the responsibility of the government to hold the peace talks and the government committee should have come first. “The government should appreciate that we have come in the middle. It is a gift from God,” Haq remarked.
The JUI-S chief also lashed out at the US, saying that its pressure on the government is causing hindrance in the peace negotiations. He held superpowers responsible for instability in Pakistan. PTI Chairman Imran Khan and Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F) chief Fazlur Rehman on Monday declined role in talks with the Taliban. Imran Khan will not be part of the five-member arbitration committee announced by the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), PTI core committee decided on Monday. Meanwhile, minutes after Imran Khan’s refusal to be part of Taliban’s committee, JUI-F chief Fazlur Rehman also withdrew his party member Mufti Kifayatullah from the committee.

Stocks rebound as investors find courage

Video:President Obama Bill O'Reilly Super Bowl Interview 2014 Healthcare

President Obama plans to sign Farm Bill at Michigan State University on Friday

President Barack Obama plans to sign the Farm Bill during his visit to East Lansing on Friday, the White House has confirmed.
Obama is expected to give remarks at Michigan State University's Mary Anne McPhail Equine Performance Center on Friday afternoon. He'll discuss the Farm Bill's importance to the economy.
"The President will see firsthand the research that institutions like MSU are doing to create jobs and drive innovation that benefits farmers, ranchers, our rural communities, and our nation as a whole," according to a White House news release.
The Senate on Tuesday passed the Farm Bill, a comprehensive funding package for agriculture and food assistance programs. Obama praised the passage of the bill, saying it would create new jobs and protect the most vulnerable Americans.
"This bill provides certainty to America's farmers and ranchers, and contains a variety of common sense reforms that my Administration has consistently called for, including reforming and eliminating direct farm subsidies and providing assistance for farmers when they need it most," Obama said in a statement.
U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat and chair of the Senate's agricultural committee, has spent much of the past three years leading the charge on passing a five-year farm bill - perhaps another reason Obama has chosen Michigan for the signing. Stabenow has said Michigan is on "every page of the bill," including insurance for the state's numerous tart cherry and apple growers.
"I’m very proud to say he’s going to sign it at my alma mater, Michigan State University on Friday," Stabenow said during a call with reporters. "This is a very exciting day and I welcome that the president is committed to agriculture in America ... and the research that we certainly exemplify at Michigan State."
Obama also may discuss the need for immigration reform. At least five farmers from throughout the state were invited to meet with Obama on Friday. The Michigan Farm Bureau was contacted by the White House to help find a small group of farmers who are strong advocates for immigration reform, said Ryan Findlay, national legislative counsel for the Delta Township-based trade group.

U.S: Cuts in Food Stamps, Farm Subsidies Seal Deal After 2 Year Fight

The Senate gave final approval today to a new five-year Farm Bill, a massive spending measure of nearly $1 trillion that brings sweeping change to agriculture, dairy, conservation and food programs.
The bill passed with an overwhelming bipartisan vote of 68 to 32, bringing a smooth end to two years of intense fighting over farm and food programs that touch nearly every American. The debate deeply divided a long-standing coalition in Congress, the food and farm sectors, and underscored a reshaping political landscape where rural America holds far less sway in Washington. President Obama is poised to sign the bill into law as soon as it reaches his desk. The House approved the measure last week on a vote of 251 to 166.
“This is not your father’s Farm Bill,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat and chairwoman of the Agriculture Committee. “It’s a new direction for American agriculture policy.”
This bill eliminates billions of dollars in direct subsidy payments to farmers, which is a significant change in U.S. agriculture policy. The costs have climbed to about $5 billion a year and were paid to farmers whether or not they grew the crops. The subsidies were effectively replaced by a crop insurance program to give farmers a lifeline in the wake of floods and droughts.
“This puts in place a safety net,” said Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark. “It truly is more of an insurance situation.” The legislation calls for a significant reduction in the food stamp program, which will be cut by about $8 billion over the next decade. Some lawmakers who said the cuts in food stamps were too severe opposed the measure.
Even though the reduction in the food stamp program was far less than the $40 billion in cuts initially proposed by the House, the Congressional Budget Office estimates benefits will be reduced for about 850,000 households across the county.
The legislation creates a new program that will allow the poor to double their food stamp benefits at farmers markets, which nutrition advocates say will help families eat healthier. The bill also adds $205 million to funding for food banks.
“For two long years, our nation’s farm families and rural communities have waited for a Farm Bill,” said Sen. Roy Blunt, R.-Mo. “While this may not be the best possible bill, it’s the best bill possible right now. Programs in this bill touch the lives of every American, in every community, in every state.”
Supporters of the bill say it also cuts spending in farm subsidies and nutrition programs by more than $16 billion over the next 10 years. The legislation, which has stalled repeatedly in partisan fights over subsidies and spending, is a sprawling bill that stretches to nearly 1,000 pages. Several conservative groups and Tea Party followers said the bill spent too much money, but in the end only 23 Senate Republicans voted against it. The farm bill is already emerging as a political issue in at least one Senate battleground: Arkansas Sen. Mark Pryor, a Democrat seeking re-election to a third term, supported the bill, while his Republican rival, Rep. Tom Cotton, opposed the measure because he said it spent too much money. He was the only member of the Arkansas delegation to oppose the bill. Republicans view Arkansas as one of their best opportunities to pick up a Democratic seat. When asked how the farm bill would resonate in one of the most competitive Senate races in the country, Boozman demurred and said Cotton, his fellow Republican, “has been pretty upfront about his concerns.” But Boozman said that he believed the bill needed to be passed and was essential to the rural economy.
“I think it’s important for Arkansas,” Boozman said. “I think it’s important for the nation to maintain the cheapest, most secure food supply in the world.”

Secret Afghan Talks Frustrate US Officials

Reports that Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been holding secret peace talks with Taliban officials led to high-level meetings in Washington Tuesday. U.S. officials are again calling on the Afghan leader to sign an agreement to allow U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan beyond this year.
President Barack Obama met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other military commanders at the White House Tuesday. They were expected to discuss a report, in The New York Times, that Karzai met with Taliban officials in Dubai three weeks ago, without consulting the United States.
The Pentagon is not confirming the reports, according to Defense Department spokesman U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren.
“We've long said that the path to peace here is political and diplomatic and not military and I believe that we've long said that Afghans speaking to Afghans are what's going to bring about peace and stability in Afghanistan,” he said. The Senate Armed Services Committee also met Tuesday, behind closed doors, to discuss the issue.
Republican Senator John McCain said the Obama administration's announcement that it would conclude the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan by the end of this year was likely a factor in Karzai's reported decision to negotiate with the Taliban. McCain said he had been told that the White House was considering withdrawing all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by 2017, when Obama leaves office.
"President Karzai is paranoid and irrational; but, like most people with paranoia, there is a basis for that," he said. "And when he reads that the United States is planning on having everybody out by 2017, then he makes accommodations, such as trying to negotiate with the Taliban. That is completely understandable."
White House press secretary Jay Carney said Obama has not decided on the post-2014 U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan. He said that decision cannot be made until the Afghan leader signs a bilateral security agreement.
He said, "I can tell you that as each day passes and we move further into this calendar year, it becomes more imperative that the Afghan government sign the agreement that was negotiated in good faith, so that NATO and the United States can make plans for a post-2014 troop presence. Absent a signed BSA, there will be no and can be no U.S. troops beyond 2014."
The U.S. has been calling on Karzai to sign the agreement soon, to give NATO time to prepare for a post-combat role for its troops in Afghanistan. U.S.-Afghan relations have been strained in recent months, and Karzai announced in November that he would not sign a bilateral security agreement with the U.S. until after Afghanistan's April 5 presidential election. The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Democrat Carl Levin, said he is more interested in whether Afghanistan's next president will sign the agreement.
"My advice on this one is to simply not count on Karzai signing a bilateral security agreement, because it's obvious that he's either not or unlikely," he said. "But you don't need him to, because it's the next president, who will be more reliable than Karzai, in any event."
The Afghan leader has also released some Taliban militants from prison and accused the U.S. of war crimes.

Australian fighters in Syria alarm officials

By Sophie Cousins
The Australian government has confiscated passports in an effort to prevent attacks by returning fighters.
With estimates of up to 11,000 foreign fighters in Syria, Western powers are increasingly worried about the potential national security threat posed by returning fighters. But in a country more than 14,000 kilometres from the frontline, Syria's civil war is also playing out in Australia's suburbs, with numerous beatings, assaults, shootings and property damage being reported along sectarian lines. At the heart of the violence, which has predominantly been in Australia's two most populous cities, Sydney and Melbourne, are those for and against the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad. More than 15 incidents of violence involving members of the Lebanese, Turkish and Syrian communities have been reported. However, Andrew Zammit, from the Global Terrorism Research Centre at Monash University, who has kept a tally of these cases, told Al Jazeera that Syria-related violence in Australia had actually decreased in 2013, compared with the previous year.
Despite this, local violence, along with a number of citizens who have joined the insurgency, has the Australian government concerned about its own national security. Last year the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) acknowledged the tensions in its annual report: "The situation in Syria, with the potential for violence spilling into other parts of the Middle East, increases the possibility of associated communal violence in Australia and remains a concern for ASIO."
Australian fighters
While there is no exact figure on the number of Australians who have gone to Syria, rough estimates suggest about 200 have fought in the nearly three-year war that has seen more than 130,000 people killed. About 100 Australian fighters are still active there, according to David Malet, associate director of the Melbourne School of Government.
"Only a half dozen have been reported killed, so if these numbers are accurate many have already returned, or else they have gone on to be foreign fighters in Iraq or elsewhere," Malet, who recently published a book about recruits of overseas insurgencies, told Al Jazeera.
Observers say Australia's large Lebanese community with ties to the region, which enabled volunteers' movements in and around Syria, was a likely explanation for the presence.
"Lebanese Australians have also previously been foreign fighters in Lebanon and Somalia, and involved in domestic terror plots in Sydney, so there are no doubt active connections to some of the armed groups in Syria," said Malet.
However, he noted there was no evidence that other countries with large Lebanese communities were sending large numbers of foreign fighters, like Australia was reportedly doing.
"The explanation probably lies with the effectiveness of the recruitment networks within Australia and their contacts in Turkey and Lebanon who help facilitate entry," he said. "Foreign fighters volunteer when effective recruiters tell them that they are part of a global group that is under extreme threat, and that they have a duty to intervene because no government is doing the right thing."
Zaky Mallah, who was the first person to be charged and acquitted under Australia's anti-terrorism laws, and who has deep ties to Syria, said dual Australian-Lebanese citizens were drawn to the conflict because of their disenchantment with life in Australia. "The majority of Australians heading to Syria are from Lebanese backgrounds. The Lebanese youth here feel disadvantaged, isolated and discriminated against. Many [are] unemployed and have turned to religion as a result," Mallah said.
"Many Lebanese youth have turned to Salafi ideology because it is strong and helpful to counter the struggles of life here in Australia. Many Australian Lebanese youth will find themselves ideologically 'connected' with these groups."
Government concerns
In light of the recent death of a couple from western Sydney in Syria - and in a bid to deter more Australians from going to the war-torn nation - the government has stepped up its rhetoric. Immigration Minister Scott Morrison signalled that those who fight in Syria could be at risk of losing their citizenship, while the Australian Federal Police have said anyone returning from fighting there would be treated as a national security threat. The government has also stepped up prosecutions and ASIO has continued to confiscate the passports of anyone suspected of travelling to engage in "politically motivated violence".
It confiscated 18 passports from mid-2012 to mid-2013, the largest number in any given year-long period.
Joseph Wakim, former Victoria Multicultural Affairs Commissioner and founder of the Australian Arabic Council, said the new government was taking a harder line than the previous one.
"The new coalition government has been critical of both sides and sympathetic to the Christian minorities who have been targeted by the anti-Assad forces," he told Al Jazeera. "With Australia's suite of anti-terror laws, and concerted efforts by our intelligence agencies to share resources and establish strategic community contacts, Australia's buffer against terrorist acts has been bolstered. Local community elders and clerics have also been more vigilant and public in encouraging good citizenship and close cooperation with authorities, including denouncing potential terrorists."
Real threat?
Despite this, the government continues to voice its concerns that the experience, new skills, ideologies and connections formed on Syria's battlefield could see the fighters posing a threat to Australia when they return.
But are its concerns warranted?
Last February, Norwegian terrorism expert Thomas Hegghammer released a report showing that one in nine Westerners who fight in foreign jihadist insurgencies ends up becoming involved in terrorist plots back home. Malet said research on foreign fighters was still a new field, adding different studies produced differing conclusions about the likelihood of "blowback" from returning foreign fighters.
"Other studies show that most foreign fighters simply resume their previous lives so long as they are provided amnesty," he said.
"However in 2009, four Australian citizens returning from Somalia were arrested plotting to attack the Holsworthy Army barracks, so there is precedent for the Australian government to be concerned." Wakim said Australians fighting in Syria were driven by their perceived moral duty to aid their Muslim brothers to "rid Syria of an infidel secular authoritarian regime and replace it with one that upholds their brand version of pure Islam".
"While there is no evidence of such individuals planning attacks in Australia, their recruitment activities tap into a population of Australian-born and disengaged youth searching for a worthy cause - and at times martyrdom," he added.
"Given their susceptibility and obedience, I suspect that local networks are already in place for the waging of local attacks against anyone who represents their infidel enemy." Zammit echoed his concerns. "[An attack] is a real possibility, based on our past history and on the experience of other Western countries."
But despite government attempts to deter people from going to Syria, some say that nothing will stop them.
"If a Muslim's ideology is strong, then imprisonment means nothing - no deterrent. He or she would rather stay in Syria until martyrdom," Mallah told Al Jazeera. "[It is] not worth coming back to jail."

Saudi Arabia: New terrorism law is latest tool to crush peaceful expression

A new counter-terrorism law in Saudi Arabia will entrench existing patterns of human rights violations and serve as a further tool to suppress peaceful political dissent, Amnesty International said after analysing the legislation. The Law for the Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing, which took effect on 1 February, uses an overly vague definition of terrorism, gives the Ministry of Interior broad new powers and legalizes a range of ongoing human rights violations against detainees.
“This disturbing new law confirms our worst fears – that the Saudi Arabian authorities are seeking legal cover to entrench their ability to crack down on peaceful dissent and silence human rights defenders,” said Said Boumedouha, Middle East and North Africa Programme Deputy Director at Amnesty International.
Amnesty International’s fears about this law are not recent. In 2011, the organization detailed its concerns about a leaked draft of the legislation, which highlighted the negative human rights impact such a law would have. In a series of subsequent communications with the organization, the Saudi Arabian authorities sought to allay fears the law would be used to clamp down on legitimate dissent by saying it was still only a draft.
“Passing a law with so many serious flaws two years after identical issues with the earlier draft were pointed out does not bode well for the authorities’ plans to end long-standing violations in the name of counter-terrorism. The changes made to the law since 2011 have done little to diminish the potentially devastating impact on human rights. The legislation just seems to codify the Ministry of Interior’s repressive tactics, which Amnesty International has documented for years,” said Said Boumedouha.
The definition of terrorist crimes used in the new law is overly vague and could be abused by the authorities to crack down on peaceful dissent. Among the offences labelled terrorism are any acts that directly or indirectly aim at “disturbing the public order of the state”, “destabilizing the security of society, or the stability of the state”, “endangering its national unity”, “revoking the basic law of governance or any of its articles”, or “harming the reputation of the state or its standing”. Similar charges were used against almost all Saudi Arabian human rights defenders and civil society activists arrested and prosecuted in 2013. Amnesty International fears that such a broad definition allows the prosecution of any form of peaceful human rights activism as a terrorist crime punishable by law to long prison terms and even to death as the new law considers terrorism a most serious crime. The new law also grants the Ministry of Interior wide powers with little or no judicial oversight. This includes the ability to order searches, seizures, arrests and detentions of suspects, with virtual impunity. Article 6 of the law states that suspects can be held for 90 days with no contact with the outside world beyond a single phone call to their family. This includes not having access to a lawyer during interrogations. The law also allows the Ministry of Interior to hold terror suspects without charge or trial for six months – renewable to a year – without the ability to appeal the decision. Indefinite detention in excess of a year is also allowed by the Specialized Criminal Court, which operates in secrecy.
“Legalizing prolonged incommunicado detention and blocking timely judicial challenges to detention is a recipe for systematic torture and other ill-treatment in custody,” said Said Boumedouha.
The enactment of the Law for the Crimes of Terrorism and its Financing, coming within months of Saudi Arabia’s Universal Periodic Review and its ascendancy to a seat on the United Nation’s Human Rights Council, shows utter disregard for international human right law and the UN mechanisms put in place for its protection. There has been a marked deterioration in Saudi Arabia’s human rights situation in recent months. During 2013 Amnesty International documented dozens of cases of activists sentenced by security and criminal courts to long prison terms and travel bans. The authorities forced the few independent human rights NGOs to shut down, with their members facing lengthy prison sentences, often after grossly unfair trials.

Bahrainis to face jail terms for ‘offending’ king

Bahrain has announced tougher sentences for “offending” King Hamad, ahead of the third anniversary of the country’s 2011 popular revolt against the Al Khalifa regime. An amendment to Bahrain’s 1976 penal code says that "publicly offending the king of Bahrain, its national flag or emblem" will carry a sentence of minimum one year and maximum seven years, as well as a fine of up to USD 26,000. The sentence can exceed to seven years if the "offense was committed in the presence of the king," Bahrain’s state news agency BNA reported, without providing details.
Previously, the same charges carried a minimum sentence of only a few days. In 2012, a criminal court sentenced two activists to one and four months in jail, respectively, after their conviction for posting remarks that Bahraini authorities deemed “insulting” to the king on Twitter. The new tougher measures on activists come as Bahrainis prepare to mark the anniversary of their uprising against the ruling Al Khalifa family that began in mid-February 2011. The revolt saw thousands of protesters take on the streets, initially calling for political reforms and a constitutional monarchy. However, the demand later changed to an outright call for the ouster of the Al Khalifa regime following its brutal crackdown on popular protests. On March 14, 2011, troops from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates invaded the country to help the regime repression of peaceful protests in the Persian Gulf island nation. According to local sources, scores of people have been killed and hundreds arrested in the brutal crackdown. Physicians for Human Rights say doctors and nurses have been detained, tortured, or disappeared because they had "evidence of atrocities committed by the authorities, security forces, and riot police" in the crackdown on anti-government protesters. International human rights organizations have repeatedly criticized the Manama regime for its excessive use of force against peaceful protesters.


Saudi Arabia put into effect a sweeping new law Sunday that human rights activists say allows the kingdom to prosecute as a terrorist anyone who demands reform, exposes corruption or otherwise engages in dissent.
The law states that any act that “undermines” the state or society, including calls for regime change in Saudi Arabia, can be tried as an act of terrorism. It also grants security services broad powers to raid homes and track phone calls and Internet activity.
Human rights activists were alarmed by the law and said it is clearly aimed at keeping the kingdom’s ruling Al Saud family firmly in control amid the demands for democratic reform that have grown louder since the Arab Spring protests that shook the region in 2011 and toppled longtime autocrats.
Saudi activist Abdulaziz al-Shubaily described the law as a “catastrophe.” And Human Rights Watch researcher Adam Coogle warned: “The new law is draconian in spirit and letter, and there is every reason to fear that the authorities will easily and eagerly use it against peaceful dissidents.”
The measure was approved by the Cabinet on Dec. 16 and ratified by King Abdullah. It was published in its entirety for the first time on Friday in the government’s official gazette Um Al-Qura.
In defense of the law, the Saudi minister of culture and information, Abdel Aziz Khoja, was quoted in December as saying that the legislation strikes a balance between prevention of crimes and protection of human rights according to Islamic law.
Saudi Arabia is one of the world’s last absolute monarchies. All decisions are centered in the hands of 89-year-old King Abdullah. There is no parliament. There is little written law, and judges — implementing the country’s strict Wahhabi interpretation of Islam — have broad leeway to impose verdicts and sentences.
An attempt to pass a similar counterterrorism law in 2011 was shelved after rights groups in Saudi Arabia and abroad leaked a copy online. Since then, dozens of activists have been detained, a prominent rights organization was shut down, and authorities more aggressively monitor social media websites like Facebook and Twitter, where jokes about the aging monarchy are rife and anger over corruption, poverty and unemployment is palpable.
The new law defines terrorism as any criminal act that “destabilizes the society’s security or the state’s stability or exposes its national unity to harm.” It also states that terrorist acts include disabling the ruling system or “offending the nation’s reputation or its position.”
Activists said that simply exposing corruption could be seen as a violation of the law. Some also warned that Saudi women who get behind the wheel of a car in violation of the ban on female drivers could be tried under the new anti-terror law. The law also gives the interior minister the power to end sentences and drop charges. It says only the interior minister can order the release of a person on trial. Judges would have no say.
Other worrying aspects, activists said, include an article that says police can raid homes and offices on suspicion of anti-government activity without prior approval from a judge or even a superior. Suspects can also be held incommunicado for 90 days, and lawyers are not required to be present during the initial interrogation.
Al-Shubaily is among 12 activists in the country who founded the Saudi Association for Civil and Political Rights, known in Arabic by its acronym HASEM. The group was shut down, eight of its founding members were imprisoned, and he is facing trial. “If I call for the release of someone from jail for being held longer than their sentence, I can be tried for ‘asking the state to take action,’” al-Shubaily said. “When I call for a constitutional monarchy, I can now be charged with terrorism.”
“They characterize you as a terrorist because you ask the kingdom to do something it does not want to do” he added

Suicide blast near Imambargah kills at least nine in Peshawar

Nine people were killed and more than 50 others injured when a powerful bomb blast ripped through a local hotel frequented mostly by Shias in the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Tuesday night, DawnNews reported. The incident took place at Pak Hotel near Imambargah Alamdar in Kucha Risaldar, a Shia dominated neighbourhood of Peshawar. Police officer Rizwan Khan said that the hotel is frequented mostly by Shias who visit Imambargah Alamdar next door. Most of the dead and wounded were Shias, he added. The blast came as talks between government negotiators and representatives from the Pakistani Taliban designed to end years of fighting in the northwest were delayed. Confirming the death toll, Superintendent Police (SP) City Muhammad Faisal Mukhtar said it was a suicide attack. Provincial Health Minister Shaukat Yousufzai earlier told media representatives that eight people were killed and 42 others injured in the suicide bombing. "Six of the dead have been identified," he said. Shafqat Malik, an officer of Bomb Disposal Squad (BDS) said that about six kilos of explosives were used in the blast. He said hands and legs of the suicide bomber have been recovered from the site which were sent for laboratory and DNA tests. He said other forensic evidences have also been collected. Eyewitness Musadiq Ali told Dawn.com, “I was on the first floor when a huge blast occurred and I fell on the ground.” He said that he rushed to the spot and witnessed scores of people in the “pool of blood.” Musharraf Hussain from Parachinar, who was on the spot as well, said the blast destroyed three shops and the eating kiosks in front of the Pak Hotel and Imambargah Alamdar inside Qissakhwani Bazaar. We shifted the injured and dead to the hospital on our own as no rescue worker reached the spot soon after the blast. Injured in reportedly critical condition were taken to Lady Reading Hospital where an emergency was imposed. Jamil Shah, media coordinator at LRH confirmed that nine dead bodies and 50 injured have been brought in the hospital. Women and children were among the injured, he said. Earlier today, Haji Sardar Ali, a prominent Shia leader was shot dead in the city, sparking a protest outside the LRH where his body was taken.

Pakistan's Shia Genocide: Shia Leader Shot Martyred In Peshawar

Shia leader of Tahreek e Nifaz Fiqay Jafria (TNJF), Sardar Ali Asghar has been shot martyred in Peshawar today on February 04, 2014, The Shia Post reported The terrorists of Ahl-e-Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat (ASWJ) known as Sipah-e-Sahaba attacked on Ali Asghar near Qissa Khuwani Bazar at Muhammad Ali Jouhar road. Martyr was member of Imamia Rabita Council, Peshawar. Pro-Taliban terrorists have killed thousands of Shiite Muslims across the country but government, judiciary and law enforcement agencies have failed to protect the citizens across the country. His funeral prayer will be offered at Imambargah Haji Malik Rehman Muhalla Marvi area at 5.00pm (local time). All Shia parties have condemned the terrorist attack on martyr Sardar Ali Asghar.

Protect Afghan Women’s Rights, Sign the BSA

The ongoing dance between the U.S. government and Afghan President Hamid Karzai over whether or not Karzai will sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) is becoming a laughable farce or a comedy of errors, depending on the genre you prefer. However, if you happen to be a woman living in Afghanistan, there is nothing funny about it.
With the presidential elections scheduled for April and the pending withdrawal of U.S. military and NATO forces from Afghanistan by the end of December, the country is facing a considerable level of insecurity and fear associated with its post-2014 future that is negatively affecting the chances for a stable Afghanistan.
If civil war ensues, or the Taliban regain their hold on the country, the most vulnerable citizens of the Afghan population -- primarily its women and children -- will undoubtedly suffer the most. The specter of this possibility looms even greater now with the post-2014 presence of a residual U.S./NATO force remaining unclear given Karzai's refusal to sign the BSA.
But even as the planned drawdown of allied forces proceeds and the international community continues to lose visibility within the country, international allies can remain a catalyst for security, political, and economic progress in Afghanistan. The international community, for instance, can help the Afghan government ensure the transparency and fairness of the elections, upholding the gains that have been made over the past 12 years on behalf of Afghan women's rights.
Afghan women have come a long way since the fall of the Taliban regime. They have returned to work by the hundreds of thousands, many becoming business owners and entrepreneurs helping to shape a new, vibrant economy. Others are in civil service and are increasingly being drawn into national security institutions. Nearly 40 percent of the 8.6 million children who now attend school are girls; in 2001, only 900,000 boys attended Taliban-run schools.
Women make up 28 percent of the Afghan Parliament, occupying 68 seats -- that's more women than in the U.S. Congress -- and one quarter occupy seats in the Senate, or Upper House. (This may change though as in July 2013, a revised electoral law reduced the quota of 420 provincial council seats allotted to women from 25 percent to 20 percent.)
Afghan women are now present in many sectors: three government ministers, one vice presidential candidate, one mayor, one police chief, hundreds of police and army recruits, trained pilots, thousands of professionals, hundreds of journalists, and 40,000 young women pursuing degrees in higher education. Women also play major roles in Afghan industries, such as agriculture, jewelry, carpets, and embroidery; although they receive limited benefits as there are no employment laws in place to protect them. According to the World Bank, small and medium enterprises such as these are key economic drivers of Afghanistan's development. They constitute approximately 75 percent of the labor force and generate over 50 percent of GDP. However, female Afghan business owners struggle to obtain the capital, equipment, training, and technologies they need to grow their businesses.
Despite these challenges, there are a handful of successful Afghan women entrepreneurs, such as Hassina Syed, the founder and President of the Syed Group of Companies based in Kabul, who was the first female Afghan member of the Afghan Chamber of Commerce and Industry and the only woman to participate in the official trade delegation led by Karzai to Europe and Asia in 2009. Roya Mahboob, founder of Herat-based Citadel Software, is one of the most successful Internet entrepreneurs in Afghanistan, and has received international recognition for her multilingual blog, The Women's Annex, which provides women from the region with a high-profile, multi-media platform from which they can express themselves.
In order for businesswomen to succeed, the general public's perception has to change, and signs of such progress are visible across all sectors of society. The 2004 Afghan Constitution, for example, states that women and men are equal citizens with the same rights. None of this would have been possible without the international community and the United States' assistance, and more importantly, the incredible determination and courage of Afghan women to fight for their human rights and for a place in Afghan society. Many have paid with their lives.
But with the growing uncertainty about the future and in anticipation of a Taliban-style backlash, fear has spread among Afghans, leading to increased criticism of women in public spaces. More women are afraid to go to school and work, and girls are being held back from getting an education, especially in some of the more dangerous areas, by worried families.
The U.S. and NATO military withdrawal might trigger conflict or civil war if the political transition goes wrong, the Taliban extend their influence, or both. Afghans know only too well what this will mean for them. Afghan women and girls will suffer disproportionately if political insecurity and conflict erupt. To prevent this, the United States and international community must engage with Afghan politicians and civil society leaders to facilitate consensus governance and to keep pressure on the Afghan government to uphold all human rights.
Stalling this process not only harms the goodwill remaining between the United States and Afghanistan, but puts human rights and civil liberties at jeopardy as extremist groups, well entrenched in the region, push for a return to what many consider the dark ages for human rights. Afghan women and citizens have suffered tremendously during these many years of war and oppression, and we cannot allow their hopes for a stable and peaceful Afghanistan to be dashed.
As such, Karzai must sign the BSA, and the United States needs to patiently work with him -- and with his successor -- to protect the gains made by and on behalf of Afghan women, as desired by most Afghans.

Afghanistan's Karzai In Secret Talks With Taliban

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been holding secret talks with Taliban officials in the hope of persuading them to make peace with his government, his spokesman told Reuters on Tuesday, confirming a New York Times report. "I can confirm that ... Taliban are willing more than ever to join the peace process," Aimal Faizi said. "Contacts have been made and we are also in touch with them." A member of Afghanistan's High Peace Council also confirmed that talks had taken place, but was measured in his assessment of their success. "Talks took place in Dubai three weeks ago between government officials and Taliban who flew from Doha, but we are still waiting to see the result," he told Reuters. Western and Afghan officials speaking to the Times also said the talks had borne little fruit so far, although they may help explain Karzai's mounting public hostility to Washington. The relationship has come under increasing pressure since November, when he announced his intention to avoid signing a bilateral security deal with the United States until after a presidential election on April 5. His decision to drop a deal that had taken about a year to hammer out shocked Western diplomats. The uncertainty about Afghanistan's fate after U.S. troops pull out has also weighed on the economy. Faizi did not directly link Karzai's surprise move to the start of talks with the Taliban, but said relations had improved since then. Relations with the United States have been on a downward spiral, however, and Karzai's refusal to sign is sapping already scant support for the war in Washington, which has halved aid for civilian assistance in the fiscal year 2014. President Barack Obama, frustrated by Karzai's refusal to sign the accord, was due to meet top commanders at the White House on Tuesday to discuss the future of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Washington has signaled it could pull all troops out after 2014 unless a deal is signed soon. This would leave Afghanistan's fledgling security forces to fight the Taliban insurgency alone, without U.S. financial and military support. The Taliban have vowed to derail the election, and have stepped up attacks in Kabul despite the peace talks. January's tally of attacks was the highest since 2008, according to security officials, and the trend has continued into February, with two bombs going off in Kabul on Monday.

Haqqani criticizes US miscalculation on Pakistan

Pakistan’s former ambassador to the United States Hussain Haqqani has said that Washington has not been able to change Islamabad’s policies despite 40 billion dollars in aid. He said that US would have to change its policies for Pakistan. Commenting on Pak-US relations, Haqqani said that Washington’s wrong presumptions have led to three results: Pakistan’s dependence on US witnessed gradual increase, process of reforms stagnated, and Indo-Pak rivalry grew deeper over time. When asked about Pakistan’s involvement in hiding Osama bins Laden in Abbottabad, Haqqani said that he didn’t see involvement of any high level official. He, however, added that in case any low ranked officials were involved, Pakistan should expose their names.

Blast in Pakistan kills 9 near Shiite mosque

A Pakistani official says a bomb blast in the northwestern city of Peshawar has killed nine people near a mosque belonging to the Shiite Muslim minority sect. Police official Rizwan Khan the explosion, also near a hotel, wounded 30 people.The hotel is frequented by Shiites who visit the mosque next door. Khan said most of the dead and wounded were Shiites. The blast came as talks between government negotiators and representatives from the Pakistani Taliban designed to end years of fighting in the northwest were delayed.

Bilawal Bhutto condemns Peshawar blast

Patron-in-Chief of Pakistan Peoples Party, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has strongly condemned the bomb blast in Qissa Khuwani area of Peshawar today which resulted into the loss of precious human lives and injured several others. In a statement, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said that the militants wanted to create instability in the country by violence, bloodshed and terrorism. Their subversive activities were highly condemnable. PPP Patron expressed sympathies to the grieving family members and prayed for the people who lost their lives as well as for the speedy recovery of the injured.

Explosion derails Shalimar Express in Karachi; casualties feared

Five people, including a girl, were killed when a passenger train derailed following a blast here on Tuesday. Out of 14, 10 coaches of Shalimar Express turned over near Qadir Nager between Karachi and Thatta Nine economy coaches, 3 AC and one luggage coach derailed after the explosion. Following the explosion, authorities stopped Sukkur Express and Khyber Mail.

Blast kills at least six, injures more than 30 in Peshawar

At least six people were killed and more than 30 others injured when a powerful blast ripped through a local hotel in the capital of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on Tuesday night, DawnNews reported. Initial reports suggest the incident took place at Pak Hotel near Imambargah Alamdar in Kucha Risaldar, a Shia dominated neighbourhood of Peshawar. Injured in reportedly critical conditions are being taken to Lady Reading Hospital where an emergency has been imposed. Jamil Shah, media coordinator at LRH confirmed that six dead bodies and 32 injured have been brought in the hospital. Women and children were among the injured, he said. Earlier, Haji Sardar Ali, a prominent Shia leader was shot dead in the city, sparking a protest outside the LRH where his body was taken.

Pakistan: The Truth Behind The Hazara Genocide

By Saif Khan
Shia killings in Quetta, or call it the Hazara genocide, owe not only condemnation but also an explanation. How come that in a specific time in history of the province, its Shia citizens face a brutal massacre?
Researches reveal that the causes have always been international political environment and the state policies inside its boundaries to protect ideological boarder of the state i.e. a state conceived in the holy month of Ramadan meant for ostensibly ‘Islamic-principles laboratory’. But what is specific about Hazara genocide in Quetta these days?
The following paragraphs would attempt to answer three questions. The answers might not be supported by hard facts, though, but it contains an interesting insight. First, why, most frequently, Hazara-Shias are being targeted in the state for over a decade? Second, Hazara lives elsewhere in Balochistan such as Loralai wherein no killing of Hazara has been reported yet, but why they are killed in the provincial capital? Third, which force is behind the killings and why the agency wants more Hazaras dead?
I suggest the answer lies within Balochistan, though an international account of the carnage can be taken as complementary explanation. Tax imposed on excavation of minerals in the province by Establishment under the pretext of imagined threats has strong affinity with Hazara killings in Quetta. Putting it otherwise, as the establishment stays longer Hazara genocide reaches beyond its previous records.
Looking in retrospect, the paramilitary force has failed to restore the languishing law and order situation of Balochistan. Except that the organization is performing exceptionally well in business sector of the region. To this end, precious marble stone in Loralai is being excavated under the force’s supervision. Also, heavy tax has been imposed on exaction of coal in Chamalang and Duki. Furthermore, few know that FC approached Nawab Jogezai and asked whether he could help the organization to impose tax on chromites’ excavation in Muslim Bagh? The organization, in return, promised him a prominent political position as a good gesture. All this transpired before last year election. However, JUIF’s provincial assembly representative, Moulana Wassy, needs appreciation who intrepidly opposed the establishment and pre-empted their ‘pernicious’ intentions. A friend of mine told me that the same situation exists in Baloch belt of the province too, of which I have less knowledge.
The paramilitary organization wants to extend its stay in Balochistan. The more they inhibit the province the more the organization would relish the tax imposed on mineral excavation. But to prevail they need a justification. What else can warrant them justification other than Hazara killings? The killings would always make an emergency situation and in consequence demands the organization’s presence. Hence, the answer not lies in Quetta, wherein the paramilitary force has check posts after every two miles. It has to be sought somewhere in Loralai, Muslim Bagh, Chamalang and other areas where the establishment’s financial activities are booming.
It seems ironical that despite the paramilitary’s substantial presence in Quetta and in and around Mastung they could not at least chase after terrorists. Furthermore, why no Hazara is killed anywhere else in Balochistan where the state writ is weaker as compared the provincial capital? How come despite the establishment presence in the region, LeJ and other Jihadists are burgeoning? Perhaps, one reason could be that killing Hazaras in and around Quetta grabs attention of media easily. Moreover, creating an emergency situation in the capital makes it easy to run rest of the province once one has taken over its administration and bureaucracy. Also, killing Shias in rest of the Pakistan, perhaps, cannot make rich the establishment in shortest possible time the way it can do in Balochistan.
Hazara massacre, therefore, in Quetta makes the establishment rich by extending its presence. The more they stay in the province more would they able to impose tax on minerals excavation. Killing them in and around proximity of Quetta creates and emergency situation that is utilized by the establishment to makes its stay a little more and also works as a camouflage that makes its financial activities out of the sight.

Pakistan: Rabbani calls for deadlines, transparency in Taliban talks

Pakistan Today
Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) leader Raza Rabbani on Tuesday demanded that a deadline should be decided upon for results in relation to talks between negotiators representing the government and the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), adding that the government should also explain the terms and conditions involved in these negotiations. Speaking at a session of the Senate, Rabbani severely criticised the government’s decision to approach the talks’ route with the militants. Senator Rabbani said the government should not bring the state down to a level “where it may become helpless before terrorists”. He further said that by not deciding on the issue during the past seven months, the government had given the Taliban opportunity to organise and strengthen themselves. The PPP senator moreover said that an in camera session of the Parliament be called on the dialogue. Rabbani was also critical of the Protection of Pakistan Ordinance (PPO) and called it a “black law in violation of fundamental rights enshrined in the Constitution”. He questioned why the ordinance had been brought in when a functioning Parliament was in place.

Pakistan's Terrorist Groups: '''Banned, but no action'''

SIXTY organisations have been proscribed by the interior ministry’s National Crisis Management Cell since 2001, each deemed to be a terrorist organisation. But the list of those groups published in this newspaper on Sunday raises at least two questions. First, on what basis have successive governments made their assessments and what is the evidence against each group? A quick scan of the list and it becomes apparent that a number of groups have been included under political, military and international pressure. To label a political group or an organisation championing ethnic rights a terrorist organisation is a double disservice: it denies the constitutionally guaranteed freedom of association of the citizenry while simultaneously detracting from the real threat — countering genuine terrorist organisations.
On that score — dealing with the real terrorism threat — the question is more basic: is there any group that has been banned by the state that has well and truly been dismantled? Or even severely dented in its ability to operate inside Pakistan? The normal practice for such groups is to quickly rename themselves and then return to business as usual. Where some bank accounts get frozen, fund-raising and other revenue-generating activities quickly replenish the group’s coffers. Where some leaders are temporarily put under house arrest under preventive detention laws, they are soon enough allowed to be active again. If they are, in the very rare cases, prosecuted, the legal teams of the accused run circles around the state prosecutors.
If the state’s response is flawed enough, political parties have played their part in bestowing credibility and legitimacy on banned groups. Denied at the official, national level but known to one and all at the local, constituency level, electoral adjustments and even outright alliances with terrorist groups are fairly common — and not just in a particular province. Of course, all sides that ought to be involved in sidelining and gradually making extinct terrorist groups tend to blame each other for the end goal growing ever more distant. The civilians point towards the military’s long-standing support for some stripes of militancy, the security establishment accuses the civilians of putting politics ahead of everything else, while the different limbs of the state argue whether it is the judiciary’s fault that suspected terrorists are let off or the government and legislature’s fault, etc. Amidst all the finger-pointing, accusations and recriminations, there is only one incontrovertible truth: terrorist groups have proliferated to the point that the state has been nearly battered into submission and has all but accepted them as legitimate stakeholders in the Pakistani system. A list of banned groups maintained and publicised by the interior ministry is meaningless if there is no meaningful action taken on the basis of that list.

Pakistan: The shadow of the Taliban

At least five people died and 31 were injured in a blast at a cinema hall in Peshawar on Sunday. It is not the first attack on a cinema hall and certainly not this one as it was attacked last year too. The cinema management had been warned by the police of terrorist activities many times. Two hand grenades were thrown into the audience in the midst of the film. The sound of the explosion created panic and people started running to save their lives. Such places are usually easy to target and create panic. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP) Jundallah faction has claimed responsibility for the attack, with a warning of more attacks in future. “We are requesting our Muslim brothers to refrain from visiting such places,” militant commander Ahmed Marwat told the Pakistani media. “If they don’t, they should be ready to face more attacks.” The blast occurred on the heels of the government’s initiative to start peace talks with the militants. It is such attacks that pose real problems for the government and its much sought after peace process. The minimum condition to start the peace talks was a ceasefire by the Taliban. With this attack, that condition has been violated much before the start of the talks. Though the TTP has distanced itself from the attack, their shadow over the incident cannot be denied. This is a replay of the All Saints Church attack in Peshawar last year and the attack on foreign mountaineers in Gilgit-Baltistan. This very group, Jundallah, claimed responsibility for both those attacks. That was also a time when the government and its emissaries were busy cajoling the TTP into peace talks. This is where the rub lies. Even if the TTP is not directly involved in attacks, the probability of its involvement through its various groups, 40 in number, cannot be denied because of its inherently loose organizational structure. Such anticipations are not conspiratorial; they are in fact the real concern even if the much talked about talks succeed. Such groups could even play the role of spoilers, to sabotage the peace process being followed up. Therefore there is very little margin for becoming complacent about the fact that the militants have agreed to come to the negotiation table.
The country is faced with a very tough and wily enemy. The spread of terrorism is not always visible to the naked eye. It is much deeper and as we have said so many times in this space, sleeper cells could stir up commotion anytime. Therefore peace talks aside, it is only good intelligence work that can save the country from becoming a worse killing field in the future

Pakistan: Imran Khan’s embarrassment

The inclusion of Imran Khan’s name in the committee announced by the Taliban to negotiate on its behalf with the government has proved deeply embarrassing to the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) and its leader. Imran’s critics had already characterised his emphasis on peace talks and his campaign to stop NATO supply routes out of Afghanistan as betraying his pro-Taliban leanings, with some going so far as to dub him ‘Taliban Khan’. The inclusion of Imran’s name in the five-member committee nominated by the Taliban certainly shows that he is among the ‘trusted’ as far as the terrorists are concerned. The PTI’s core committee has decided to reject Imran Khan’s inclusion in the committee, ostensibly, the party says, because it is beneath his stature. Others are of the view however that this decision was dictated more by the potentially even more embarrassing ‘labelling’ of Imran Khan and his politics had he chosen to go along with the Taliban’s suggestion. Imran Khan has thus put some distance, but perhaps not sufficient, between himself and the Taliban. The refusal came despite fellow committee nominee Maulana Samiul Haq’s pleas to Imran Khan to accept the offer. The damage to Imran Khan’s image, despite the refusal, will not go away easily.
As far as the actual process of the peace talks is concerned, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar sees the announcement of the Taliban negotiating team after the government had created it own negotiating team as positive, but he still had questions about the mandate and powers of the Taliban’s committee and whether the Taliban would accept and follow its decisions. That may be jumping the gun since the refusal of Imran Khan and Maulana Abdul Aziz for different reasons has left the committee short of two members. Whether they will be replaced by the Taliban with new names is not yet known. JUI-F’s Maulana Fazlur Rehman, despite his party member being nominated on the Taliban’s committee, is not satisfied and is raising the question why the jirga process is being ignored for the purpose of restoring peace. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has in the meantime assured full security to the government negotiating team wherever the talks are held. Given the Taliban’s obvious reluctance to hold the talks where the government has complete sway, the likelihood is that the venue will be one of the Taliban’s choosing.
On balance, the announcement of the two negotiating teams has thrown interesting light on their composition and possible effectiveness. As far as the TTP is concerned, they have announced what many believe to be the ideal team from their point of view: all pro-Taliban or at the very least sympathetic to them. There is also the added tactical shifting of onus onto those who believed peace was possible. They are now being asked to put their money where their mouth is. However, the question remains: will any decision arrived at by the team be acceptable to the Taliban without demur? Unlikely, and therefore the talks process promises to be long and complicated. The government’s committee is composed of right-leaning personalities who are essentially ‘technocrats’ without experience or skills in negotiating conflict. The absence of any weighty political figure in the government’s team suggests that its ‘suggestions’ will not amount to more than that and it is the government that will take the final decisions, should any be arrived at in the first place. The entire process appears on the face of it to be mired in so much uncertainty that the euphoria over the very fact it may start may prove premature.

Pakistan urged to ban Arab sheikhs from hunting endangered birds

Jon Boone
Special licences given to high-rolling dignitaries to kill houbara bustard, which is considered to be at risk of extinction
Pakistan is witnessing a mounting backlash against Arab sheikhs who spend part of their winters hunting a rare bird that conservationists warn is at risk of extinction. Activists in the country say they are determined to end the annual killing of houbara bustards, an elusive bird that migrates each winter from central Asia to Pakistan's warmer climes. Although the birds are officially protected, VIP visitors from the Gulf enjoy their traditional hunts with falcons and believe the houbara's meat has aphrodisiac properties.
"Is there any more ridiculous reason to kill an animal?" said Naeem Sadiq, a Karachi-based activist who petitioned the Lahore high court to ban the practice. "If it's illegal for Pakistanis to kill these birds why should the Arab sheikhs be allowed to do it?"
On Friday, the court slapped an interim ban on hunting in Punjab province, where the government has issued special hunting permits to royalty from across the Arab world. Numbers of houbara, which are considered to be at risk of extinction by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, have fallen dramatically in recent decades. They have been almost wiped out on the Arabian peninsula and various countries in the region, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, have set up breeding programmes to try to revive numbers. While houbara hunting has been banned in India for decades, Pakistan continues to give special licences to Arab rulers and senior officials. This year Pakistan issued 33 permits allowing dignitaries to kill up to 100 birds each. The list of licence holders is a who's who of Gulf potentates, including the emirs of Kuwait and Qatar, the crown prince of Saudi Arabia and the president of the UAE. The Arab kingdoms are home to huge numbers of Pakistani expatriate workers and the government is loth to jeopardise its relationship with such important regional allies. "Arab dignitaries have been coming for hunting for decades and decades – it's a longstanding tradition," said Tasneem Aslam, from Pakistan's ministry of foreign affairs. "Ten years ago there wasn't so much public awareness about the issue but now we see more voices raising their concern." It's not just environmental activists and the country's boisterous media that increasingly focuses on the comings and goings of Arab dignitaries but also politicians determined to stop the sport. Sindh, one of Pakistan's four provinces where a large number of licences were issued for the hunting season, is attempting to challenge the foreign affairs ministry's right to issue permits.
"We believe the constitution gives the right to give licences to the provinces," said Sikandar Ali Mandhro, a Sindh provincial government minister leading the fight. "If we succeed we will immediately introduce a five- or 10-year ban because the bird numbers have become so low."
Few outsiders have witnessed one of the bustard-hunting expeditions, but stories about the high-rolling Arab falconers are legendary in Pakistan.
Tons of equipment is flown in by private transport planes, including the falcons used to hunt the rare quarry. Luxuriously appointed camps are set up for the sheikh and his guests, who often stay for weeks.
Local communities value the money spent by their annual visitors, who have paid for improvements to roads and airstrips, as well as paying for the means to build mosques and schools. An official from the Houbara Foundation Pakistan, which rescues birds captured for illegal shipment to the Gulf, said there was a desperate need for a proper national survey of houbara numbers in order to decide whether limited hunting should be allowed to continue.
"The real problem arises once a hunting camp is set up and other people come and take advantage," said the official, who did not wish to be named. "We have informal information about locals shooting the birds."

Pakistan: 55,000 youths to get job training this year, says Qaim Ali Shah

The Sindh chief minister said on Monday 55,000 youths would be provided training with stipends under the Benazir Bhutto Shaheed Youth Development Programme (BSYDP) this year to enable them to get jobs in public and private sectors. Presiding over a meeting with the programme’s management here, Qaim Ali Shah said some 198,000 youths had been trained in different trades during the last government of his ruling Pakistan People’s Party.
More than 60,000 of the youths got themselves absorbed in private and public sectors, while many thousands were earning a living through self-employment, he added.
The chief minister said the success of the programme could be gauged from the fact that 84,000 youths had filed applications seeking job training, whereas the institutions working with the programme had an enrolment capacity for 53,000 candidates.
He said the programme had been appreciated by the World Bank and other International donor agencies, especially for providing qualitative skill development training to reduce poverty and unemployment from society. An international donor agency has offered 1,606.88 million in soft loans to provide training to additional 45,000 youths within three years. Besides, Unicef has offered financial assistance to provide alternate job training to 8,000 children of farmers in cotton growing areas in Ghotki and Khairpur districts to help them get rid of labour entailing health hazards (such as cotton-picking).
Similarly, the World Bank had offered 100 million dollars for youth development schemes in Sindh, the chief minister said, adding that hopefully these initiatives would reduce unemployment and provide income opportunities to millions of youths in the near future.
Appreciating the efforts made by the BBSYDP management for running the programme in an efficient manner, he directed the officers to enhance the institutional network of this programme in such a way that all applicants were able to enroll for training and get jobs in public and private sectors. He also directed the management to establish a youth employment facilitating centre in all districts to guide the young people on getting training, jobs and self-employment.
BBSYDP Chairman Riazuddin Shaikh and MD Karim Siddique briefed the meeting about the achievements and plans of the institution. They said the programme had been addressing the twin issues of poverty and unemployment through human resources development in the province since 2008. They said it had completed its four phases with success, trained about 200,000 youths and was endeavoring to enhance its capacity and provide training to more youths in more market-oriented trades, including information technology. Chief Secretary Sajjad Saleem Hotiyana, Special Secretary to the CM Abbas Baloch, Finance Secretary Sohail Rajput, Consultant to the CM on Youth Development Engineer Taimoor Siyaal, Suleman Dasti and other officers attended the meeting.