Friday, February 21, 2014
http://www.whitehouse.gov/On March 18th, 2014, President Barack Obama will award 24 Army veterans the Medal of Honor for conspicuous gallantry. These veterans will receive the Medal of Honor in recognition of their valor during major combat operations in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. Each of these Soldiers’ bravery was previously recognized by award of the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second highest military award; that award will be upgraded to the Medal of Honor in recognition of their gallantry, intrepidity and heroism above and beyond the call of duty. In 2002, Congress, through the Defense Authorization Act, called for a review of Jewish American and Hispanic American veteran war records from WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War, to ensure those deserving the Medal of Honor were not denied because of prejudice. During the review, records of several Soldiers of neither Jewish nor Hispanic descent were also found to display criteria worthy of the Medal of Honor. The 2002 Act was amended to allow these Soldiers to be honored with the upgrade - in addition to the Jewish and Hispanic American Soldiers.
US President Barack Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Friday discussed the implementation of a plan to resolve the bloody conflict in Ukraine, a conversation one senior US official described as “constructive.” “They exchanged views on the need to implement quickly the political agreement reached today in [Kiev], the importance of stabilizing the economic situation and undertaking necessary reforms, and the need for all sides to refrain from further violence,” the White House said in a statement. The Kremlin described the conversation as “substantive” in an English-language statement that blamed the violence in Ukraine that has left dozens dead on “the radical opposition,” which it accused of taking the confrontation in the former Soviet state “to a very dangerous point.” Washington has said that both security forces and protesters in Ukraine must refrain from violence but that it holds the government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych ultimately responsible for reining in the deadly clashes and stabilizing the situation. Yanukovych on Friday signed an agreement with opposition leaders aimed at ending the nation’s deadliest violence since it gained independence in 1991, agreeing to an early presidential election and a return to a 2004 constitution designed to limit presidential powers and make the country a parliamentary republic. In a call with reporters Friday, a senior US State Department official called the Obama-Putin phone call “constructive” and said the two leaders agreed that “the agreement reached today needed to be implemented quickly.” “It’s clearly an important signal that the president and President Putin were able to talk positively about implementing this agreement,” the official said, the Washington newspaper The Hill reported on its website. “We have to move on from there and ensure that this very, very fragile Ukrainian economy is stabilized.” The United States and its EU partners have been at odds with Russia over the crisis in Ukraine, with officials in Moscow accusing the West of stoking the violence by backing what they describe as radical elements seeking to carry out a coup against Yanukovych. US and European officials have said they are merely supporting Ukrainians’ right to protest peacefully after mass demonstrations broke out there in November following Yanukovych’s decision to forego partnership and trade agreements with the EU in favor of closer integration with Russia. As Obama and Putin were preparing to speak by telephone, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters Friday that “it is in Russia’s interest for the violence to end in Ukraine, as it is in the interest of the United States and our European friends.” “We welcome the cessation of violence, and we welcome the agreements that have been reached,” Carney said. Obama initiated the call, during which the two leaders also discussed Iran’s nuclear program and the situation in war-torn Syria, the White House and the Kremlin said. Both sides said in their respective statements that Obama congratulated Putin on the Winter Olympics currently being held in Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi.
Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui on Friday night summoned Daniel Kritenbrink, charge d'affaires of U.S. embassy in China, to lodge solemn representations for U.S. President Barack Obama's meeting with the Dalai Lama regardless of China's strong opposition. According to Zhang, such a wrong move gravely interfered in China's internal affairs, seriously violated the U.S. commitment of not supporting the "Tibet independence", gravely violated basic norms governing the international relations, and seriously undermined the China-U.S. relations. "China expresses strong indignation and firm opposition," Zhang said. Tibet is an inalienable part of the Chinese territory, Zhang said. "The Tibetan issue is the domestic affair of China and the United States bears no right to interfere," he stressed. The contradictions between the Chinese side and the Dalai Lama is neither an ethnic issue nor religious and human rights issues, but an important issue concerning the principles of maintaining China's unification while opposing secession, he said. China firmly opposes any foreign country to allow the Dalai Lama's visit and opposes any foreign dignitaries to meet with the Dalai Lama by any form, he stressed. "Nobody can shake the will and determination of the Chinese government and people to oppose outside interference and to safeguard the national sovereignty and unification," he said. "The United States, on the one hand, recognizes that Tibet is part of China and has agreed not to support 'Tibet independence', while on the other hand arranged the meeting between its leader and the Dalai Lama," he said, calling the Dalai Lama "chief head of the secessionist group seeking 'Tibet independence.'" "Such a move will gravely sabotage China-U.S. cooperation and relations, and will definitely undermine its own interests," he said. "The key to ensure the healthy and steady growth of China-U.S. relations is to respect the other's core interests and major concerns," he said. He urged the United States to seriously take into consideration of China's solemn stance and observe its commitments of recognizing Tibet as part of China and opposing "Tibet independence." Moreover, he demanded the United States to immediately take concrete actions to offset negative influence, stop interfering into China's internal affairs by making use of Tibet-related issues, stop conniving and supporting anti-China secessionist activities made by the Dalai Lama and his followers. "The United States must take concrete actions to regain trust of the Chinese government and people," he said. On the same day, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said China has time and again expressed its serious concern over the Dalai Lama's visit to the United State for a period of time. "The Dalai Lama is a political exile who has long engaged in anti-China secessionist activities in the name of religion," he said. He urged the United States not to connive and support anti-China secessionist forces seeking "Tibet independence," in order to avoid further damage to the China-U.S. relations.
http://www.atimes.com/By Pepe Escobar Move over, Peter O' Toole. It's Charles of Arabia time. Prince Charles switched to Lawrence mode when he went schmoozing and dancing in Riyadh this past Tuesday with the natives. And just like clockwork, the next day BAE Systems - Europe's number one weapons peddler - announced that the UK and the House of Saud had agreed on "new pricing" for an extremely juicy deal; 72 Eurofighter Typhoon jets. The Eurofighter is a direct competitor of the spectacularly unsalable French Rafale and the very expensive American F-35s and F-16s. The Associated Press duly included in its dispatch - reproduced by virtually every newspaper around the world - the Washington-enforced meme "Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries are fortifying their military capabilities to counter a perceived threat from regional rivals, particularly Iran." As if Tehran was going to bomb the House of Saud tomorrow. The Eurofighter, on the other hand, has already been employed against fellow Arabs - as in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's humanitarian bombing of Libya back to failed-state status. It's open to debate whether the House of Saud might be tempted to employ it against the enemy within: aspiring Saudi women drivers. Brandishing the official excuse that near-nonagenarian King Abdullah was not able to receive him, Charles of Arabia declined to discuss with the House of Saud the absolutely appalling women's rights, migrant workers' rights and for that matter the full human rights situation in the kingdom. Of course not; this is only brought up when demonizing Russia, China and/or Iran. Moreover, Charles of Arabia could not possibly ruffle feathers as the French are also positioning themselves as contenders in the Snuggle-Up-with-a-Saudi industrial-military complex game show (worth more than US$70 billion in these past few years). French President Francois Hollande - an abysmal nullity at home but a Great Liberator of Africa and Syria - visited Riyadh in December trying hard to steal significant market share from the Anglo-Americans. The problem is, no sentient being anywhere would even contemplate buying a Rafale. Here's the dough, now gimme a bomb So the House of Saud is stockpiling weapons. Check. Saudi Arabia's Prince Bandar bin Sultan, aka Bandar Bush, remains on the loose, financing/weaponizing his growing army of mercenaries in the Levant. Check. And the House of Saud is up to something with its ally Pakistan. Check. Just one day before Charles of Arabia hit Riyadh, Saudi Defense Minister - and, crucially, Crown Prince - Salam bin Abdul Aziz was in Islamabad. The heart of the matter was - what else - a "defense pact".  Crucially, there's also a Pipelineistan reverberation. By mid-2013, Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was all excited over the Iran-Pakistan (IP) gas pipeline, which should theoretically go online in 2015. Now he's not so sure. One doesn't need to be the perspicacious Charles of Arabia to detect a Saudi hand on all this - actively spoiling the Iran-Pakistan energy partnership. The House of Saud's Iranian paranoia has no equal in the whole solar system, and regime change in Syria is a key plank in the retribution scenario. No matter Washington's non-denial denials of the "we're not involved" kind, Bandar Bush's network will soon be supplying mercenary gangs in the Levant with anti-aircraft weaponry. And guess who's following Charles of Arabia to Riyadh next month: none other than US President Barack Obama. As part of the House of Saud's multi-pronged attack, King Abdullah will practically supplicate from Obama (of Arabia?) a decisive push for regime change in Syria. Meanwhile, the House of Saud is trying to amass as many Pakistani "advisers" as possible to train its paid goons in Syria. The official Pakistani non-denial denial is that they won't be sending their army to Syria.  But in a remix of Afghanistan during the 1980s jihad, a bunch of seasoned "advisers" will more than suffice. Then there's the House of Saud nuclear play. Already in 2012, they were advertising the drive to build no fewer than 16 commercial nuclear reactors by 2030 - and on top of it a tech agreement with Beijing was signed. The House of Saud spent a lot of dough in the Pakistani nuclear weapons program. It's not even a matter of "acquiring nuclear technology" against Iran; that would take too long. Depending on the result of the P5+1 talks with Iran along 2014, a hyper-paranoid House of Saud could simply rain a mountain of hard cash on cash-strapped Islamabad and just buy one of its nukes. After all, Riyadh just offered a cool $3 billion to the Lebanese army so that it would buy French weapons - something that over-excited Frenchmen duly interpreted as a Saudi "tactical divorce" from the Barack Obama administration. Every each way one looks at it, expect major House of Saud-provoked mayhem ahead. Even in Tehran, they are worried about Saudi sanity - as the office of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei knows all there is to know about the cosmic paranoia, aging King Abdullah (89) riding into the sunset, the fierce succession war to follow, and, meanwhile, Bandar Bush's warmongering offensive. Which brings us back to perspicacious Charles of Arabia. He could not have failed to notice there is a direct continuum from medieval Wahhabism and one Osama bin Laden. Until recently, every leadership of every hardcore Islamist gang on the planet shared three traits: they studied in Saudi Arabia; they were financed by Saudi sources (public or private); and they reached their "maturity" in Afghanistan. Now the jihadi landscape is more diversified. So it's up to Bandar Bush to regiment the new jihadi Google generation into "Islamic Fronts". For the House of Saud, though, the agenda always remains the same: demonize Iran; be the dutiful errand boys of the hyperpower and lesser Western "powers"; and buy weapons in droves. No wonder Charles of Arabia happily danced to their tune; after all, these jolly old chaps are "our" gold-medal bastards.
http://www.voanews.com/War-weary women in Afghanistan have unleashed an unprecedented campaign to seek an immediate cessation of hostilities and defend the freedom they have gained over the past decade in the mostly conservative and male-dominated Afghan society. The move comes amid intensifying fears the Islamist Taliban would try to regain power after NATO combat troops withdraw from the country in December. Afghanistan’s nearly four-year-long peace effort, made through a High Peace Council of prominent Afghan personalities, has so far failed to persuade the Taliban to end its insurgency and join a political reconciliation process. The lack of progress has prompted the women's wing of the panel to undertake a rare peace initiative of its own, providing a glimmer of hope for traditionally and socially oppressed Afghan women. A Council member, parliamentarian Golalei Nur Safi, is at the forefront of the campaign, called ‘Voice of Afghan Women for Peace and Cease-fire’. She told VOA their mission is to urge the government and Taliban-led opposition groups, as well as international forces, to try to negotiate a peaceful settlement of the conflict as soon as possible. Safi said the campaign was launched early this month and Afghan women are joining it in large numbers every day. She added that despite security concerns, women volunteers are making serious efforts to secure as many signatures as possible from female members of Afghan society on a piece of paper carrying a message of peace. “We go door-to-door also and also [arrange] some meetings between the women. And the group of volunteers they go to the people, to the society, to the schools, to the universities, to the workplaces, and they tell [them] about the message that we want peace and [a] cease-fire. We have hundreds of women, they are working like volunteers to take the signature from the women and until now we have more than 120,000 signatures,” said Safi. Organizers say copies of the signatures will be submitted to President Hamid Karzai, United Nations Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon and representatives of the Taliban. Safi said they have also taken their demands to candidates taking part in the upcoming Afghan presidential elections. “We talk to every candidate about this campaign and we tell our message to them that Afghan women they are very tired from the war and we want peace,” said Safi. She said that after more than a decade of political empowerment at different levels, Afghan women are determined not allow anyone violate their rights, be it the government or the Taliban. The lawmaker reiterated that women must be made part of political decision-making process to ensure their rights are protected in the search for a peaceful way out of the crisis facing Afghanistan. “We expect that the rights of women are not violated once again that we have achieved and accomplished in the last ten years in Afghanistan. And we believe that the rights of women will not be jeopardized once again as it was a decade ago and these rights shall be respected and should be promoted despite starting or convening the peace negotiations with the Taliban,” she said. The Afghan civil war of the 1990s that paved the way for the Taliban to seize power and impose their brand of strict Islamic law critically undermined female rights in the war-shattered country. The Taliban banned women from workplaces and prohibited girls’ education during their five year rule. It is estimated that until the U.S.-led military coalition ousted the Taliban from power in 2001, there were fewer than one million Afghan children in school, and all of them were boys. Recent local and foreign studies show that international assistance has since helped the country raise the number of students close to eight million; more than a third of that 8 million are girls. Meanwhile, improvements to health facilities has brought down the maternal mortality rate by 80 percent and Afghan women are now running their own businesses.
Pakistan's on-off dialogue with the Taliban has been commanding headlines and the attention of politicians and diplomats. But there has been little interest in a dialogue that could end the longest civil war in Pakistan's history, says guest columnist Ahmed Rashid. On 17 January, 13 bodies were discovered from a mass grave in the village of Tutak near Khuzdar in Balochistan province. Only two of the mutilated, decomposed bodies have been identified so far - both were men who had disappeared four months earlier. A heartbreaking account of the mass grave by Saher Baloch, a journalist for Dawn newspaper, ends with the ominous prediction by an official that there are more bodies waiting to be found. The Frontier Corps, the anti-Shia group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and other groups are all enmeshed in a decade-long campaign of "pick up and dump" in which Baloch nationalists, militants or even innocent bystanders are picked up, disappeared, tortured, mutilated and then killed. The army, paramilitaries and the government have consistently denied being responsible for violence in Balochistan, pointing instead to the myriad of armed groups operating in the region. But even though the Supreme Court has taken up some of the cases of the disappeared, the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has failed to engage with the issue. Untold story Nobody even knows how many people have have disappeared - the figures are between hundreds and several thousand. Now the families of those disappeared are on a long march through the winter months from Karachi to Islamabad to register their loss and grievances with the government. Wizened old men and women wrapped in chadors have been dragging children along and braving the cold and the rain. They entered Lahore earlier this month and have already been on the road for nearly four months. They said they do not even have a dead body to bury and want to know where the men of their families are. But the government has ignored them - it is almost as if they did not exist. So many journalists have been killed in Balochistan that there are few honest reports from the province in the national print or electronic media because journalists are too scared. The story of this bloody civil war is going untold. The chief minister of Balochistan Abdul Malik Baloch, who heads the weak provincial government in Quetta, has demanded a dialogue with the nationalist leaders. He is powerless unless the federal government and the army agree to rein in the violence many believe they are responsible for - something they utterly deny - and the militants agree to a ceasefire. The fifth Baloch insurgency against the Pakistan state began in 2003, with small guerrilla attacks by autonomy-seeking Baloch groups who over the years have became increasingly militant and separatist in ideology. Their leaders who are mostly in exile abroad now demand independence from Pakistan. Cycle of violence Unlike in past Baloch insurgencies when militants only targeted the army, this time the militants have targeted non-Baloch civilians living in Balochistan in an attempt to drive out other nationalities. Every disappeared Baloch leads to many more youngsters taking up arms. Every attack on the security forces leads to more disappeared. It is an endless cycle of violence that has gone on for 11 years. The tragedy is that although there is intense division in the country over talking to the Taliban - strong pro- and anti-lobbies hammer it out daily - there is no such dispute about talking to the Baloch nationalists. All the political parties seem to be in agreement about the need for a dialogue, but it is the army that has to agree to one. "After the opening of negotiations with the Taliban, it is even more absurd to be not offering an opening to talk to the Baloch nationalists," said IA Rehman, secretary-general of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "The lack of response is causing incalculable harm to Pakistan," he added. The Taliban have killed thousands of people in the past five years compared to the Balochistan insurgency where casualties have been far lower. But without a major initiative from the federal government to bring together the army, parliament, the political parties and other stakeholders in the establishment, it is unlikely there will be any move for opening talks with the Baloch militants. Pakistan remains fragile, with all the violence that the state faces from the Taliban and mayhem in Karachi. Meanwhile the economy only gets worse. As long as the government stays silent on Balochistan, the longest civil war in Pakistan's history will only create more casualties and break more records for longevity and heartbreak.
Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) patron-in-chief, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari tweeted his response to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) spokesman Shahidullah Shahid’s statement that there was not a single Islamic clause in Pakistan’s constitution.
Letter signed by UK politicians and academics asks for release of Mohammed Asghar so he can receive mental health treatment A group of politicians and academics have called for the release of a British man sentenced to death in Pakistan for blasphemy, so that he can receive mental health treatment. In an open letter published in the Independent, the group raised concerns about Mohammed Asghar's wellbeing and asked the president of Pakistan to intervene. Asghar was arrested in 2010 in Rawalpindi, near Pakistan's capital, Islamabad, for claiming to be the prophet Muhammad. His family says he suffers from mental illness and was treated for paranoid schizophrenia in Edinburgh before returning to Pakistan in 2010. He was convicted last month and his family immediately launched a campaign for him to be released from custody in order to receive medical help. His lawyers said he appeared "pale, dehydrated, shaking and barely lucid" during a recent visit, prompting fears his condition had seriously deteriorated. Signatories to the open letter include the shadow justice secretary, Sadiq Khan, Scottish human rights lawyer Aamer Anwar, academics from the Muslim Institute, the Islamic Society of Britain and a host of charities. The letter is addressed to Pakistan's president, Mamnoon Hussain. It reads: "Like so many British Pakistanis, Mr Asghar was a successful businessman and pillar of the community who lived for many years in the UK where, through a lifetime of hard work, he helped promote the bonds of friendship and understanding between his native and adopted countries. "We the undersigned are concerned that his recovery from illness is impossible whilst he remains detained at Adiala jail, where his lawyers fear he is in danger of taking his own life. "We respectfully urge you to consider using your discretionary powers as president to pardon Mr Asghar and to allow him to be released from jail so that he can receive his treatment and be reunited with his loving family." The blasphemy complaint was brought against Asghar by a tenant with whom he was having a dispute. His family have appealed to the UK government to do everything it can to make sure he is safe. In a statement released through Reprieve earlier this month his relatives said: "As a result of a property dispute with one of his tenants, my father was jailed pending a trial. "The dates kept being moved forward so that by the time the trial concluded he had already been in horrific jail conditions, sharing a cell with several other men for three years. "Throughout this time he had minimum access to medication that might have helped his mental illness for three years. "We are really upset and concerned that they will never release him and that he will die in jail." A petition on change.org, addressed to the prime minister, David Cameron, and Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, is calling Mr Asghar's release. It currently has over 28,000 signatures. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office said it has continuously made representations to the Pakistan government on behalf of Asghar and would continue to do so. The Scottish government said it was in touch with the Foreign Office about the case.