Thursday, February 5, 2015

Music Video - Pharrell Williams - Dear G I R L

Video Report - Hannah Davis nabs SI Swimsuit cover

Bahraini forces clamp down on anti-regime protesters

Bahraini regime forces have once again attacked and clashed with a group of demonstrators demanding the release of the Persian Gulf kingdom’s prominent opposition leader Sheikh Ali Salman. 
On Thursday, dozens of people took to the street in the village of Bilad al-Qadeem, on the outskirts of the capital, Manama, to call for the freedom of the 49-year-old secretary general of Bahrain’s main opposition bloc, the al-Wefaq National Islamic Society. 
Scuffles broke out when police fired tear gas canisters and rubber-coated bullets to disperse the protesting crowd. 
Similar rallies were also staged in several other towns and villages across Bahrain in solidarity with Sheikh Salman. 
Salman was arrested on December 28, 2014, after Manama accused him of seeking regime change and collaborating with foreign powers. 
The arrest has triggered massive condemnation inside and outside the monarchy, with leaders, governments and international organizations across the world calling for his immediate release. 
On January 31, Bahrain’s Interior Ministry issued a statement saying that 72 people were stripped of their citizenship because they failed “in their allegiance duties towards the kingdom” and “harmed its interests.” 
Bahraini courts have sentenced more than 200 activists to long-term prison sentences on charges of involvement in terrorist activities and acting against national security. At least 70 activists have received life imprisonment since the uprising began in 2011. 
A recent report by Human Rights Watch said Bahraini courts have become more active in sustaining repression in the country. 

Claims Against Saudis Cast New Light on Secret Pages of 9/11 Report

A still-classified section of the investigation by congressional intelligence committees into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks has taken on an almost mythic quality over the past 13 years — 28 pages that examine crucial support given the hijackers and that by all accounts implicate prominent Saudis in financing terrorism.
Now new claims by Zacarias Moussaoui, a convicted former member of Al Qaeda, that he had high-level contact with officials of the Saudi government in the prelude to Sept. 11 have brought renewed attention to the inquiry’s withheld findings, which lawmakers and relatives of those killed in the attacks have tried unsuccessfully to declassify.
“I think it is the right thing to do,” said Representative Stephen F. Lynch, Democrat of Massachusetts and an author of a bipartisan resolution encouraging President Obama to declassify the section. “Let’s put it out there.”
White House officials say the administration has undertaken a review on whether to release the pages but has no timetable for when they might be made public.
Mr. Lynch and his allies have been joined by former Senator Bob Graham of Florida, who as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee was a leader of the inquiry. He has called for the release of the report’s Part 4, which dealt with Saudi Arabia, since President George W. Bush ordered it classified when the rest of the report was released in December 2002.
Mr. Graham has repeatedly said it shows that Saudi Arabia was complicit in the Sept. 11 attacks. “The 28 pages primarily relate to who financed 9/11, and they point a very strong finger at Saudi Arabia as being the principal financier,” Mr. Graham said last month as he pressed for the pages to be made public.
Relatives of those killed on Sept. 11 as well as plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against Saudi Arabia have also demanded that the pages be made public, seeing them as the vital link that they believe connects an important ally of the United States to the deadly attacks. They say the pages, Part 4 of the report, could also help in determining the source of current funding for terrorist activities.
“If we stop funding of terrorism and hold those people accountable, wouldn’t it make a dent in the financing of terrorism today?” asked William Doyle, whose son, Joseph, was killed in the World Trade Center. Mr. Doyle said that President Obama personally assured him after the death of Osama bin Laden that he would declassify that section of the report.
Proponents of releasing Part 4, titled “Finding, Discussion and Narrative Regarding Certain National Security Matters,” have suggested that the Bush and Obama administrations have held it back for fear of alienating an influential military and economic partner rather than for any national security consideration.
Others familiar with that section of the report say that while it might implicate Saudi Arabia, the suspicions, investigatory leads and other findings it contains did not withstand deeper scrutiny. Philip D. Zelikow, the executive director of the national commission that investigated the Sept. 11 attacks after the congressional panels, said the commission followed up on the allegations, using some of the same personnel who wrote them initially, but reached a different conclusion.
“Saudi Arabia has long been considered the primary source of Al Qaeda funding, but we have found no evidence that the Saudi government as an institution or senior Saudi officials individually funded the organization,” the commission said in its July 2004 report. It did note, however, the “likelihood that charities with significant Saudi government sponsorship diverted funds to Al Qaeda.”
Mr. Zelikow pointed to the more thorough investigation undertaken by the commission.
Demands for the release of the 28 pages began soon after the intelligence committees finished their work. In 2003, more than 40 senators called on Mr. Bush to order the material’s disclosure. He refused, saying “we won’t reveal sources and methods that will compromise our efforts to succeed” in fighting terrorism.
The Saudi government has also said it favored making the 28 pages public because that would make it easier to refute what it said were unfounded allegations. The embassy said Wednesday that it stood by that position.Representative Walter B. Jones, a North Carolina Republican pushing for the release of Part 4, said the Moussaoui claims might give momentum to the declassification effort. He said he was approached Wednesday on the House floor by lawmakers inquiring how to view the 28 pages.
But there seemed to be little appetite for declassification among the Republican leaders of the intelligence panels. Senator Richard M. Burr, the North Carolina Republican who heads the Senate Intelligence Committee, said he was skeptical of the value of releasing the pages, calling them more of a historical document in a fight against terrorism that has shifted substantially since 2002.
“There may have been a level of participation by some Muslim country that is not commensurate with today,” he said.
Representative Devin Nunes, Republican of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said “the authority to declassify this document lies with President Obama.”
Advocates of releasing the document have been frustrated by Mr. Obama, noting that Democrats were much more aggressive in pushing for its disclosure when Mr. Bush was president.
Mr. Doyle and Kristen Breitweiser, whose husband, Ronald, was killed on Sept. 11 in the World Trade Center, say the president assured them during separate meetings with families of the victims of the attack that he saw no reason the document should be withheld.Mr. Doyle said he encouraged Mr. Obama at a meeting in May 2011 with surviving family members to follow through on a pledge he made two years earlier to Ms. Breitweiser. “He said: ‘Bill, I know about the pages. I promise I am going to get them released,’ ” Mr. Doyle recounted.
The White House said it was responding to the calls to consider releasing the material.
“This administration, in response to a congressional request, last year asked the intelligence community to conduct a classification review of this material,” said Edward C. Price, a spokesman for the National Security Council. “We did so in keeping with the standard procedure for determining whether classified information can be publicly released without jeopardizing national security. That process is ongoing.”

War with Isis: If Saudis aren't fuelling the militant inferno, who is?


With Riyadh increasingly suspected of funding the terrorist group, the West may have to rethink its relationships.

The image of a Muslim burned alive is more terrible for millions of Muslims than that of an “unbeliever” burned alive. So just who are the Muslims who support the immolation of a young Jordanian? And, more to the point, who are their masters? Jordanians, more than half of whom are Palestinians, must now debate the dichotomy of tribal loyalty and religion, and ask a simple question: who are their real allies – and their real national enemies – in the Middle East? The searchlight beam of their attention, and of Washington’s, will now again pass over the Gulf and that most Wahhabi of nations, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Put bluntly, should the world blame the Saudis for the inflammable monster that is Isis?

The US, where the State Department and the Pentagon have themselves been divided over Saudi Arabia’s foundational role in Salafist violence – the former happy to stroke the monarchy as a pro-Western “moderate force for good”, the latter suspecting that all Islamist roads lead to Riyadh – may now have to recalculate its relationship with the Kingdom. While President Obama predictably talked of Isis “barbarism” this week, The New York Times was revealing that the so-called “20th 9/11 bomber”, Zacarias Moussaoui, wishes to testify that he once delivered letters from Osama bin Laden to Crown Prince Salman – now the Saudi King – and that prominent Saudi royals were helping to fund al-Qaeda. The report was compiled by Scott Shane, who specialises in “security” reporting, and Moussaoui’s allegations refer to events that happened well over 13 years ago. Moussaoui himself was arrested before the 9/11 attacks. It also seems unlikely that a comparatively lowly al-Qaeda functionary would have personal contacts with a Saudi crown prince, or handle a database of al-Qaeda donors which allegedly included Prince Turki al-Faisal, then the intelligence majordomo in the Kingdom, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, then the Saudi ambassador to the US but now out of favour.
But Saudi Arabia is a Wahhabist state whose 18th-century puritan morality defined the Taliban – which received moral and financial support from Saudis – and whose misogyny and grotesque public beheadings after unfair trials parallel the cruelty of Isis punishments. The Saudis always declare their innocence – sometimes through their lawyers – of any involvement in “terrorism”. But bin Laden was himself a Saudi, who in the 1990s did have a personal meeting with Prince Turki in Pakistan. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers of 9/11 were Saudi citizens. And within months of the US attacks, a classified Pentagon briefing was told by an analyst for the Rand Corporation – set up in 1945 with the help of the US military – that Saudi Arabia was the “kernel of evil” in the Middle East and was “active at every level of the terrorist chain”.
Deciding who is funding Isis – and who should take the heat for its survival – depends upon the degree to which the world believes that the “Islamic State” is self-financing. Western governments have detailed the production of oil wells in Isis territory and the vast amounts of cash supposedly stolen from Mosul banks after Isis took over, but smuggling fuel and ransacking vaults can hardly sustain an Islamist “nation” which controls an area larger than the UK.
Millions of dollars must be arriving in Isis hands from outside Iraq and Syria, and the question must be asked: if it doesn’t come from within Saudi Arabia – or Qatar – who on earth is providing the wherewithal? Iceland? Peru?

Isis militants are 'using mentally challenged children as suicide bombers and crucifying others', says UN body

By Andrew Buncombe 

Report reveals widespread abuse of youngsters in Isis-controlled areas - particularly those from minority communities

Isis militants are using children – including those with mental health problems – as suicide bombers and human shields, according to experts from a UN watchdog. Officials believe some of the youngsters may have little or no idea what is happening to them.
A report published on Wednesday said the militants were selling abducted children as sex slaves and killing others, including by means of crucifixion and burying them alive. Children from minority communities were particularly vulnerable.
“We have had reports of children, especially children who are mentally challenged, who have been used as suicide bombers, most probably without them even understanding,” expert Renate Winter told Reuters.
“There was a video placed online that showed children at a very young age, approximately eight years of age and younger, to be trained already to become child soldiers.”
Ms Winter, a member of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) was one of 18 independent experts who helped compile the report that revealed stark and widespread abuse of children in areas controlled by the militants.
“It is a huge, huge, huge problem,” she told reporters in Geneva. “We are really deeply concerned at torture and murder of those children, especially those belonging to minorities, but not only from minorities.”
She said those communities particularly vulnerable to abuse by the Sunni extremist militants included Yazidis, Christian and Shi’ite Muslims. But Sunnis had also been victims, she added.
The report, which reviewed Iraq’s treatment of children for the first time since 1998, drew attention to what it said was the “systematic killing of children belonging to religious and ethnic minorities by the so-called Isis, including several cases of mass executions of boys, as well as reports of beheadings, crucifixions of children and burying children alive”.
It added that large numbers of children had been killed or badly wounded during air strikes or shelling by Iraqi security forces. Others had perished from “dehydration, starvation and heat” and Isis had carried out widespread sexual violence including “the abduction and sexual enslavement of children”.
On Tuesday Isis released a video which showed its fighters burning alive a Jordanian pilot whose plane had been downed while on a bombing run against the militants. Jordan has vowed revenge and has already stepped up its attacks.
The experts who worked on the report called on Iraqi authorities to take all necessary measures to “rescue children” under the control of Isis and to prosecute perpetrators of crimes. Yet the experts have acknowledged that the government in Baghdad is almost certainly powerless at the moment in terms of holding the fighters accountable.
However, the committee took Baghdad to task for a number of abuses that cannot be blamed on the militants, including reports of under-age boys used to guard government checkpoints and children held in harsh conditions on terrorism-related charges.
It also denounced frequent so-called honour killings as well as forced early and temporary marriages of girls as young as 11. The committee took issue with a law that allows rapists to go free if they marry their victim, the AFP said.

Don't Expect Bread Lines From Russia's Crisis

Despite dire economic forecasts, Russia will escape high unemployment and social unrest this year thanks to an exodus of migrant workers, clever politics and a flexible shadow economy, analysts said.
Officials are braced for layoffs. Russia must "prepare for the fact that people will become unemployed," Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov said last month. Extra cash has been allocated for unemployment benefits, and Moscow's economic crisis plan will inject over 52 billion rubles ($790 million) into job creation.
But January was full of announcements of mass firings. As the state began trimming spending by 10 percent almost across the board, media companies, state firms, industrial producers and banks said they would shed thousands of jobs.
Yet analysts said the unemployment rate, now at 5.3 percent, would not spiral. Russia's workforce is shrinking, and the state knows mass layoffs in the public sector could cause political trouble.
Russia will use its "traditional" crisis management technique by cutting salaries over firing staff, said Vladimir Gimpelson, director of the Center for Labour Market Studies at Moscow's Higher School of Economics.
According to official estimates, real incomes will fall this year by 9 percent.

All Will Suffer 

"Nobody is immune in this crisis," and all sectors will suffer job losses, said Chris Weafer, senior partner at Russia-focused business consultancy Macro-Advisory.
Western sanctions on Russia over Moscow's actions in Ukraine and a plunge in the price of oil, Russia's main export, have slashed Russia's income and are propelling the economy toward a contraction of up to 5 percent this year.
Construction and consumer services like retail and restaurants will see big job losses, analysts said, but metallurgy, car production, advertising and the financial sector all face cutbacks.
The ax may fall hardest on bloated state-owned companies caught up in the government's belt-tightening, according to Weafer.
According to online employment service Superjob, the number of jobseekers in January leapt 9 percent, while advertised vacancies fell 8 percent.

But Migrants Suffer First 

Central Asian migrant workers will be the economy's first shock absorber, according to Weafer. A near-halving of the value of the ruble to the U.S. dollar over the last year has slashed the buying power of the remittences they send home to support their families, while rising inflation in Russia increases the cost of living.
The number of incoming workers has already fallen sharply, according to Russia's Federal Migration Service. Over 500,000 Uzbeks and Tajiks left Russia in the second half of last year, news agency RBC reported on Wednesday citing migration service data.
Russian employers are also likely to fire migrants first, creating openings for any Russians willing to take their typically low-paid jobs.
Without this factor, Weafer said, unemployment could rise to 9 percent this year. With it, he predicted an increase to between 6.5 and 7 percent.
The Economic Development Ministry predicts 6 percent unemployment this year.

Shocking Bureaucrats 

Another unlucky group are middle-class bureaucrats, whose likely job losses in 2015 will be a "shock to the system," according to Weafer. These — some 20 percent of the workforce — are the backbone of President Vladimir Putin's political order. The ax has not fallen on them since the 1990s, when Russia endured economic turmoil under former President Boris Yeltsin.
In the global economic crisis of 2008-09 oil prices fell to $40 per barrel, wiping 8 percent off Russian economic output and doubling unemployment. The fall was sharp, but the recovery was swift.
This time is different. The economy began slowing in 2013, and the key problems are structural. That means unemployment will rise more slowly, but will be harder to beat back, according to Andrei Pavlyuchenko, senior analyst at jobs website
Employers weathered the 2009 crisis because they knew the end was in sight, analysts said. This time no one expects a quick recovery and even the state will have to trim some fat.
Pavlyuchenko forecast unemployment by the end of the year at 8.5 to 9 percent.

Shrinking Workforce 

Russia's demographics mean its workforce is shrinking. According to Weafer, it will decline by up to 10 percent over the next 8 years, exerting powerful downward pressure on unemployment.
Also depressing unemployment are miserly benefits, which the government uses to discourage out-of-work Russians from kicking back and avoiding hunting for a job. The maximum payout is around 5,000 rubles ($75) a month, Gimpelson said, and the average payout is 2,700 rubles, or 8 percent of the average Russian salary.
Most Russians don't even bother to sign up and, understandably, take the first work they can get.
Even if this means in the shadow economy, where one-fifth of Russia's working-age population already earn a living, Gimpelson said.

Social Unrest? 

Russia's misery index — found by adding together a country's unemployment and inflation rates — was 16.7 percent at the end of last year (5.3 percent unemployment plus 11.4 inflation). With inflation predicted to near 15 percent over the coming months, if unemployment increases Russia's misery index will rival that of Greece, which is on about 24 percent.
But Russia is unlikely to suffer a Greek style political turmoil, analysts said.
The Kremlin knows what it is doing: Siloviki — the name given to employees of law enforcement bodies — won't be fired, said Pavel Kudyukin, a lecturer at the Higher School of Economics.
State employees — of which there are 15 million, according to Gimpelson — will see salary cuts and part-time work rather than full layoffs.
Protests will flare up, but will remain local and small scale.
Pavlyuchenko said, "Social pressure is possible; Political [pressure] is not." Thanks to clever state management of virtually all Russian media outlets, Putin may even get more popular as the economic situation worsens against the backdrop of Western sanctions, he added.
Deputy Prime Minister Shuvalov, a dollar multimillionaire, was equally confident, saying Russians would "withstand all hardships … eat less food, use less electricity."

Hollande, Merkel go to Moscow to discuss Ukraine without consulting US – report

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande did not consult Washington before deciding to visit Moscow to hold talks on the Ukrainian crisis, a source in the French government told AP.
The two leaders, who are part of the so-called ‘Normandy Four’ group along with Moscow and Kiev, decided on a trip on Wednesday night, an unnamed French government official said. Merkel and Hollande are due to arrive to the Russian capital on Friday, the next day after visiting Kiev.
“Together with Angela Merkel we have decided to take a new initiative,” Hollande told a news conference on Thursday.
Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that “the leaders of the three states will discuss what specifically the countries can do to contribute to speedy end of the civil war in the southeast of Ukraine, which has escalated in recent days and resulted in many casualties.”
After the Thursday meeting with the German and French leaders, Ukrainian President Poroshenko said that the talks indicated that a ceasefire was possible in eastern Ukraine.
Meanwhile, a senior French official told local weekly Le Nouvel Observateur on Thursday that the decision to meet tet-a-tet with President Vladimir Putin was taken on Tuesday after the Russian leader called on both sides in the Ukrainian conflict to stop military actions and hostilities.
The French weekly also said that this “historic initiative” on the part of the two European leaders was preceded by “secret” talks between Paris, Berlin and Moscow.
As Hollande and Merkel are set to discuss a peaceful resolution to the conflict, the US Secretary of State John Kerry is in Ukraine to answer Kiev’s plea for weapons. Kerry told reporters that US President Barack Obama will make his decision on the possibility of sending lethal aid to Ukraine next week.
The White House however admitted on Thursday that military assistance from the US could increase bloodshed in the region.
Le Nouvel Observateur journalist Vincent Jauvert believes that Hollande and Merkel’s prompt decision to talk with Putin in Moscow comes as an attempt “to get ahead of the Americans who are trying to impose their solution to the problem on Westerners: a transfer of weapons to Ukraine.”
The journalist elaborates that the two leaders went to Kiev straight after Kerry as they “distrust the American administration” and want to “present their diplomatic solutions just before US Vice President Joe Biden” presents the US plan of sending lethal weapons to Kiev at the Munich security conference on Saturday.

Video Report - Kiev agrees to ceasefire with rebels in E. Ukraine

Video Report - Kerry on Ukraine: "You cannot have a one-sided peace"

Pashto Music Video - Gul Panra - Khabara Tola Da Zargi Da

Pashto Music Video - Gul Panra - Meena Da Har Cha Da

Religious intolerance in India would have shocked Mahatma Gandhi: Obama

US President Barack Obama on Thursday said the "acts of intolerance" experienced by religious faiths of all types in India in the past few years would have shocked Mahatma Gandhi.

The comments by Obama came a day after the White House refuted suggestions that the US President's public speech in New Delhi in which he touched upon religious tolerance was a "parting shot" aimed at the ruling BJP.
"Michelle and I returned from India - an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity - but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs - acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation," Obama said in his remarks at the high-profile National Prayer Breakfast.
The US President, who has just returned from India, was referring to violence against followers of various religions in India in the past few years.
He, however, did not name any particular religion and said the violence is not unique to one group or one religion.
"Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.

"In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow (racial segregation state and local laws) all too often was justified in the name of Christ," he said, addressing the gathering of over 3,000 US and international leaders.

"There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith. In today's world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance.

"But God compels us to try.

"And in this mission, I believe there are a few principles that can guide us, particularly those of us who profess to believe," he said.

In a US-style Town Hall address in New Delhi on January 27, the last day of his India trip, Obama had made a strong pitch for religious tolerance, cautioning that India will succeed so long as it was not "splintered along the lines of religious faith".

The White House yesterday strongly refuted allegations that Obama's remarks on religious tolerance was aimed at the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), saying the speech in its entirety was about the "core democratic values and principles" of both the US and India.

How to Save Afghanistan’s Democracy


Afghanistan’s last election almost tore the country apart. The next one has to be different.
 September 21, 2014, after months of gridlock following a hotly contested election, Afghan presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah signed a power-sharing deal to form a National Unity Government. As part of the arrangement, Ghani became Afghanistan’s president while Abdullah assumed the newly created position of chief executive officer, who heads the cabinet.
Crucially, the agreement also requires the establishment of a special electoral reform commission to address allegations of electoral fraud and mismanagement and attempt to rebuild the public’s badly eroded trust in the electoral process. The need for such a plan is obvious, given just how destructive election-related disputes have been. In the last election both candidates claimed to have been victims of fraud, with Abdullah in particular pointing to leaked phone conversations which appeared to show staff of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) colluding with members of Ghani’s campaign to arrange stuffing of ballot boxes.
But since the agreement, Afghan officials have done little to make the reform commission a reality. Nor has the international community pushed them to do so — and time is running out. The next parliamentary and district council elections, currently scheduled for May 2015, will elect a majority of the Loya Jirga (the Grand National Assembly), which is responsible for voting on important constitutional amendments. It is imperative that these elections be seen as legitimate, which will require carrying out decisive structural and legal reforms well ahead of time. Realistically, there no longer much of a chance that this is possible, making it advisable to postpone these elections until the summer of 2016. This would allow the Independent Election Committee (IEC) and the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) to remedy their technical and institutional failures and would give the new reform commission and the international community time to make the necessary changes.

There are four key areas in need of reform. Above all else, the problem of credibility needs to be addressed. Because the election commissions have become increasingly discredited and unable to fulfill their mandates, their current leadership should step down. Ghani and Abdullah, counterbalancing one another’s political motives, must call for a selection committee to appoint new independent and impartial leaders for these crucial electoral bodies. Furthermore, for the sake of pluralism, the government must invite electoral experts, civil society activists, and lawyers to participate as election commission officers.
Aside from replacing particular directors, improving credibility will also require redesigning the structure of how the IEC is governed. Among other shortcomings, the current arrangement leads to managerial conflict between two key positions: the chairman and the chief electoral officer (CEO), both appointed by the president. In the law, these positions are ranked equally and have no clearly defined roles. In practice, the chairman has little involvement in supervising electoral operations and by and large shows deference to the CEO. Meanwhile, the accusations of ballot stuffing implicating the CEO are evidence that this position is not being effectively monitored. To improve the work of the commissions, redefining their managerial hierarchy and instituting checks and balances must be a priority. The CEO position, for example, should be downgraded from the ministerial level to the highest civil servant position, where he or she would be obligated to report to senior management on daily electoral operations.
Technical improvements to enable the IEC to keep tally of Afghanistan’s voters are the second crucial reform. Although the IEC has conducted full-scale voter registration efforts since 2004, the commission lacks a reliable database to track eligible voters and has difficulty identifying appropriate polling stations. No one knows exactly how many eligible voters there are or where the district boundaries are located. As a result, election operations in Afghanistan are largely based on imprecise estimates.
To address this, the key step would be to establish a verified voter registration list. This will not only bolster the transparency and credibility of future elections, but also enable the IEC to carry them out over several days instead of just one. An updated voters list would allow the IEC to conduct elections in phases based on geographical zones, reduce logistical pressures, and increase procedural oversight and transparency. Such changes would also help the Afghanistan National Security Forces to protect election sites from the Taliban and other armed groups without overextending their departmental resources and staff.
Because the IEC plans to conduct district council elections for the first time, the third key reform is for the commission to adjust electoral operations for district-based constituencies. Government-related agencies should establish an updated list of district boundaries by mid-2015, which will facilitate fairer and more representative elections on the district level.
Fourth, in the longer term, Afghanistan’s electoral system itself must change. In 2004, despite strong recommendations from international experts to institute a system of proportional representation, which ensures strong and representative political parties, Hamid Karzai approved a Single Non-Transferable Voting (SNTV) system, which favors individual candidates. Encircled by powerful leaders of Islamic political parties, Karzai wanted to weaken these parties by alienating them from their constituents.
For this reason, Afghanistan’s legislative branch — made up of representatives who, in some cases, were elected with less than one percent of the vote — has remained fractured, dysfunctional, and unrepresentative of its constituents. The next parliamentary elections will be the third time SNTV is practiced in Afghanistan despite delivering the same ineffective outcome each time. A shift to a mixed SNTV-proportional representation system would increase political party and minority representation in Afghanistan’s national and local legislatures. For the Afghan government and international partners, this must be a long-term priority in the second phase of electoral reform after 2016.
In light of the 2009 and 2014 electoral crises, the tenuous nature of the current unity government, and the country’s ethnically polarized politics, Afghanistan’s stability depends on better-functioning, more legitimate electoral bodies. The West must urge the current unity government to remain committed to implementing the necessary reforms prior to and after the 2016 Loya Jirga convenes. This is the single most important way to support Afghanistan’s decades-long struggle for democracy.

    Pakistan - 'Nawaz's 16 foreign visits in over a year cost Rs 294 million'


    Prime Minister Nawaz's 16 foreign visits in over a year cost the cash-strapped nation over Rs 294 million with his trip to India last year accounting for Rs 4.3 million.

    Dawn News reported that the total number of foreign visits by Sharif from July 2013 to December 2014 were 20.
    However, Prime Minister's Adviser on National Security and Foreign Affairs Sartaj Aziz in a written reply to a question informed the Senate yesterday that the expenditure statements of Sharif's three visits in September 2014 and one in December are still awaited from the respective missions.
    Between July 2013 and September 2014, Sharif undertook 16 foreign visits that cost the nation over Rs 294 million, he said.
    The 20 visits included three each to the US, China and the UK, two to Turkey and one each to Thailand, the Hague, India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Iran, Tajikistan, Germany and Nepal.
    The first official visit was to China which Aziz said provided an opportunity to the Prime Minister to meet the Chinese leadership. An expenditure of Rs 26.2 million was incurred on the visit in July 2013.
    Sharif's week-long visit to New York in September 2013 was the most expensive as an amount of Rs 91.6 million was spent on it. Days after the visit, he again travelled to Washington and held a bilateral meeting with the US President.
    This was the first official visit of a Pakistani premier to Washington in over a decade. The cost of the visit was Rs 35 million.
    An amount of Rs 4.3 million was spent on Sharif's visit to India to attend the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
    The minimum expenditure of Rs 1.4 million was incurred when Sharif undertook a day-long visit to Afghanistan in November 2013.
    Sharif's second visit to China cost Rs 11.7 million while details of the expenditure on his third visit (November 7-9, 2014) has not been given by Pakistan's mission in Beijing.
    The cost of his third visit to the US from September 24-27, 2014, stood at Rs 31.7 million.
    The list of foreign tours undertaken by the Prime Minister does not find a mention of his visits to Saudi Arabia.

    Why many Afghans distrust their judicial system

    Frustrated with a corrupt judicial system and an incredibly slow dispensation of justice, some Afghans are turning to "Taliban courts." DW talks to analyst Belquis Ahmadi about why Afghans lack faith in their judiciary.
    Some Afghans seem to be turning their backs on the Afghan judicial system and opting instead for Taliban justice. According to a New York Times report, many Afghans think that the militants' quick and tradition-rooted rulings are their best hope for justice. In the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Chaman, which are believed to be havens for exiled Taliban leaders, local residents describe long lines of Afghans waiting to see judges, said the report.
    Despite progress in strengthening formal justice institutions since 2002, as much as 80 percent of disputes in the South Asian nation are still resolved outside the formal justice system, typically by shuras, jirgas, mullahs, and other community-based actors, says the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).
    Disputes over land and land grabbing have risen in the last decade, with increasingly few options to sustainably resolve them. If left unresolved, disagreements over land ownership can quickly escalate from a civil dispute to acute acts of violence and can feed inter-generational conflict, said USIP. Another way is to look for the Taliban to settle the issue.
    In a DW interview, Belquis Ahmadi, an expert on rule of law in Afghanistan at USIP, explains that while corruption and bureaucratic red tape play a role in the Afghans' limited trust in the judiciary, this is not the main reason why some are opting for Taliban justice. The real problem, she says, is that the Taliban already control a larger part of the country than the government does today.
     DW: How would you describe the current state of Afghan courts and its legal system?
    Belquis Ahmadi: In any society, security is a fundamental, foundational requirement needed to ensure citizens' rights and enable the government to protect those rights and guarantee public order. Today, Afghanistan remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world.
    There are many reasons for this; the most significant ones being state fragility, the withdrawal of international troops, political interference by neighboring countries, waging of jihad and enticing violence in Afghanistan by other countries' state and non-state actors, and lack of a long term sustainable foreign policy by allies.
    Insecurity affects every aspect of Afghans' lives including access to justice and the proper and fair implementation and administration of the rule of law. Limited reach of the formal justice system to many parts of the country, lack of familiarity with formal justice system as a result of close to half a century of conflict, instability and lack of infrastructure, and the ongoing distrust of state institutions have forced many Afghans to seek alternative ways to go about their daily lives.
    Where there is no formal justice system reach, Afghans try to solve disputes through the traditional (or customary) mechanism of resolving disputes that include mediation and arbitration by trusted members of a community.
    Traditional dispute resolution bodies vary significantly in the degree they provide just, fair and humane resolutions to disputes. The traditional or informal justice system is often as corrupt, if not more so, as the formal justice system; again due to the lack of rule of law and accountability.
    In the formal justice system, there are national laws, enacted by legislative body, and codes of conducts, and though in some cases they only remain on paper, they do provide guidance to judges and staff and more often include consideration of human rights; this can have a positive effect on the way decisions are rendered and on the conduct of those who are the administrators of justice. There are also procedures to appeal a decision.
    In the informal justice system there are no written laws that are followed. There are few procedures to appeal a decision. One can choose to go to the formal sector, but if you disagree or disobey the order or decision made by the informal justice actors you could end up paying a huge price. That price may include being outcast from the community, monetary penalties, and houses or harvests burned. Most don't want to pay that price, so they acquiesce.
    How much trust do Afghans have in the current court system and why?
    Trust in the courts is limited. Some of the reasons for this are corruption - in most cases perceived corruption - and the lengthy process of trials and lack of familiarity with how things work within the formal justice system.
    Rural citizens have reduced access to the courts and there remains a lack of knowledge about how a case is filed, responsibilities of the parties, what laws govern the dispute or issue presented, how to appeal, access to legal counsel, and the cost of litigation. Security and control of courts creates an atmosphere that resists more open and accessible courts, courtrooms and information.
    Too often cases are heard in judges' offices and not in open court – this may even be viewed preferably by litigants as they may have family or financial issues being discussed; however, transparency could help increase trust and reduce the opportunity (real or perceived) for corruptive practices. Transparency also creates a demand for competent judges who cannot hide behind a closed door.
    It's been reported that more Afghans are turning to the Taliban seeking justice. What are the main reasons for this?
    I think the issue is not that more and more Afghans are turning to the Taliban to seek justice – the one or two cases referred to in the media do not represent the wishes of millions of Afghans – rather the problem is that the Taliban control a larger part of the country than the government does today.
    Afghans know very well what Taliban justice means. It means beheading a seven-year-old boy accused of being a spy, the stoning of women accused of adultery or running away from abusive relationship, the burning down of houses whose owners were perceived as government supporters, the killing and beheading of men and women for exercising their right to work and feed their families.
    This is what Taliban justice means, and ordinary citizens who live under the rule of the Taliban have no say in decisions made by the extremists.
    In light of this development, are the gains made by the Afghan legal system over the past decade at risk?
    The good news is that the support provided by international community has helped Afghanistan's justice system to be in better shape, in terms of capacity, than it has been over the past twenty years. But certainly, those gains will be at serious risk if the international community turns their back to Afghanistan.
    We don't have to look that far back. We know too well that after the end of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and in spite of the sacrifices that Afghans made, the West left them on their own to revive the economy, infrastructure, education and cultural heritage.
    The void quickly turned to war that not only brought massive loss of life and the catastrophic destruction of property, but also destroyed the fabric of society, peoples' values and hope for future generations.
    While some view Afghanistan as a post-conflict country, the reality is Afghanistan is a war zone, and it needs assistance to find long term solutions to move past the decades of mistrust, despair and destruction. Rule of law, trust in the judicial system, good governance and investment in education are the keys to a prosperous and peaceful Afghanistan.
    What can the Afghan government do to re-establish the people's trust in the country's legal system?
    First, the government must work to restore security, protect citizens' rights, tackle the problem of corruption, and bring those found guilty of corruption and violation of citizens' rights to justice. They also must work to help create jobs and educate the public about laws and the functions of government institutions. A fragile state such as Afghanistan's will not be able to do all this without international support.
    The international community, governments, politicians and media must stop treating Afghans as second class citizens of this world. Stop propagating that Afghans are better off with traditional and informal justice – instead support the formal justice system within Afghanistan legal framework and judicial system. The failure of justice and legal system in Afghanistan will be the failure of international community too.
    Ironically, Afghans have had codified laws for hundreds of years– the NYT article, "Laws suited to Western-style democracies have populated the books" has it wrong. This is yet another view that looks at Afghans as if they live in the Stone Age. Afghans have had laws and have been teachers of law for centuries. The key is to support an open, fair, timely and cost-effective justice system that is free of corruption and committed to serving the citizens of Afghanistan.