Saturday, May 30, 2015

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Bahrain uprising strong, economy dire - Activists

Rori Donaghy

The uprising in Bahrain has largely fallen of the map in terms of international news coverage in recent months, sparing the imprisonment of prominent activist Nabeel Rajab and opposition leader Ali Salman.

However, a recent commentary on the tiny Gulf state by the BBC’s Security Correspondent Frank Gardner, in which he suggests the island is “largely peaceful”, has prompted debate among Bahraini activists, both inside and outside the country.

In 2011 Bahrain was hit by mass protests inspired by the Arab Spring, which saw hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets initially to demand political reform but later to call for the downfall of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.

With the king tottering on the edge of losing his grip on power, Saudi Arabia led a Gulf intervention against the revolutionaries in Manama, prompting fierce clashes that led to the deaths of dozens of protesters and numerous police officers.

The monarchy survived the testing days of 2011 but the subsequent four years has witnessed persistent rallies, accusations of widespread human rights abuses, and a royal commission that investigated the government’s response to the uprising.

Now, with war and conflict widespread across the region, hopes raised by the Arab Spring have been dampened, and the BBC’s Gardner wrote of how fatigue has overcome Bahrain’s protest movement and he explained that years of unrest have wearied the public.

“From all my visits to Bahrain I would say there is no appetite for revolution amongst [the] large silent majority,” wrote Gardner, who prior to joining the BBC in 1995 was a banker who worked for four years at the Manama-headquartered Gulf International Bank.

An unnamed western diplomat told Gardner that there is fatigue in the villages, home to the majority Shia population, many of who live in abject poverty, and that this has led to a sharp reduction in “street violence”.

However, an activist living in Sitra, the third most populous area in Bahrain, said this couldn’t be further from the truth.

“Here the movement that began in 2011 is still strong,” said Asma Darwish, a human rights activist with the European-Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights. “There are protests every night, in all the villages of Bahrain, and confrontations with the police are regular.”

Bahrain has a population of around 1.2 million people, half of which are non-nationals. Sitra, which is made up of several villages, is estimated to be home to around 100,000 people.

But for Bahrainis living outside in the capital Manama, which has an approximate population of 150,000 people, they only hear of the protests on social media websites.

“It is pretty quiet here,” said Yaqoob Slais, a member of the Fateh youth coalition, which supports political and judicial reform in Bahrain but supports the monarchy staying in power. “I know there are daily demonstrations calling for the release of [Wefaq leader] Ali Salman but I only see that through Twitter.”

“When I am out and about in hot spot areas such as Budaiyah highway, it is pretty quiet.”

The protests that rocked Manama in 2011 at the Pearl Roundabout, which was later demolished by the government, have been completely shut down. And the fact the capital is now free from demonstrations, burning tyres, and clashes between police and protesters, has fostered the perception that the revolution has petered out.

“I think this is why the world thinks our uprising has ended,” said Sitra resident Darwish. “But it has not ended. It is on going in the villages, where there is little media exposure.”

While the protests may be carrying on in the Shia villages, the end of rallies in the capital has signalled the failure of the opposition movement to foster national unity, according to Manama-based Slais.

“The buzz of the Arab Spring is definitely over. The opposition has consistently missed opportunities to seek national unity and consensus, leaving it in the state we see today – fragmented. Dialogue has failed,” he said.

“The [government] loyalists have never pushed for reforms – their stance is that there is an Iranian conspiracy and they must block everything that comes from the Shia opposition, especially Wefaq.”

But for exiled activist Maryam Alkhawaja, whose father Abdulhadi is serving a life sentence for his part in the uprising, the changing perception of Bahrain’s political crisis is symptomatic of a hardening crackdown, rather than the result of a lack of unity among Bahrainis.

“The difference between 2011 and 2015 is that the government has gone from a chaotic crackdown to a more institutionalised one,” she said. “This has reduced the visibility of abuses because the legal system is now being used to target activists, rather than public attacks.”

The government has been regularly accused of arbitrarily detaining protesters, torturing political prisoners, and using the judicial system to stifle free speech and free association, all of which they have denied.

After the king commissioned the independent Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) in 2011 to investigate the government’s response to mass protests, a raft of reforms were recommended to end police abuse and to institute judicial reform, as well as remedying a host of other issues.

The BBC’s Gardner wrote that “abuses in policy custody have certainly been reduced”, however, Human Rights Watch contested this opinion in comments made to Middle East Eye.

“I think it’s too early to say abuses in custody have reduced,” said Nicholas McGeehan, Gulf researcher at the New York based watchdog. “We continue to receive disturbing accounts of serious torture and that's despite the fact we have no access and nor does the special rapporteur on torture.”

Alkhawaja said that abuses have not only not reduced, they have gotten worse, citing that the “details from inside Jau Prison about the treatment of political prisoners is worse now than at any point in the past four years.”

But Manama resident Slais believes there has been an improvement in police behaviour, brought about by the recommendations made in the BICI report.

“Post-BICI has improved the way police have dealt with demonstrators, rioters etc,” he said. “From what I’ve seen the police only use force now – firing tear gas – when they are faced with Molotov cocktails or burning tyres.”

Competing narratives define Bahrain, however, and for those living in the villages of Sitra, the idea of reform is a fanciful one.

“I was wishing and hoping for the king to be a reformer,” said Darwish. “But there has not been one single indication from the ground, where I live, that there is any sort of reform being implemented. There is no reform going on in Bahrain.”

Darwish’s activist husband Hussain Jawad was recently released on bail from prison, after being detained for three months over charges of having incited hatred against the king while doing his human rights work.

He says that in prison he was “subjected to horrible sexual, physical, and psychological torture”.

“The intelligence officers told my husband in prison that they have the green light to eliminate you all,” Darwish said.

The political prisoner population in Bahrain, according to an exiled opposition activist, is at a higher rate now than ever before.

“We believe there to be 4,000 political prisoners at any one time,” said Sayed Alwadaei, director of advocacy at the London-based Bahrain Institute for Rights and Democracy.

“This is on an island with an indigenous population that does not exceed 800,000 people. I believe this means Bahrain has the highest per capita rate of political prisoners in the world.”

Alwadaei said that the Wefaq opposition group have been denied over 90 requests to hold authorised protests, and it is this, rather than fatigue, that has given the impression of a dulling of the uprising in Bahrain.

“That’s why things may appear to have calmed down, or normalised, but in fact what we are seeing is a lot more control of public space,” he said. “The crackdown is a lot more incisive and has heightened in its severity.”

Despite commentary suggesting Bahrain has implemented reforms, and that abuses have reduced, campaigning groups have continued to rank the Gulf state very poorly in its rights record. Freedom House says Bahrain is “not free”, the Committee to Protect Journalists says journalists are being arrested “in record numbers”, and Reporters Without Borders rank the country 163rd in the world for media freedom.

While youth activist Slais maintains that the human rights situation has “improved”, he said there has not been “any meaningful political reform”. He also believes that, rather than rights abuses, the most alarming issue for the country lies in the economy.

“Parliament is discussing the budget for the country – it seems clear that the government is pushing ahead with austerity measures, due to low oil prices etc,” he said.

The government is proposing to cut subsidies that have kept the price of fuel, electricity, water, and meat artificially low.  The austerity measures are likely to be implemented due to concerns over a significant public debt, which in 2013 sat at 44 percent of Gross Domestic Product.

“There is a lot of discontent from Bahrainis at these policies that they feel threaten their livelihoods,” Slais said. “But unfortunately the government will not face a lot of opposition due to a lack of a vibrant, unified, political opposition.”

This perception contrasts significantly from that of Betsy Mathieson, secretary-general of the Bahrain Federation of Expatriates, who told the BBC that the economy has improved significantly.

“The economy is really flourishing,” she said. “Hotel occupancy is sharply up, the government is investing heavily in tourism.”

However, London-based advocate Alwadaei said the economy is “collapsing” and that it is “clear the vast majority of oil revenue goes to the Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Interior to maintain the security crackdown.”

More than a quarter of all public spending goes to defence and security, according to Chatham House’s Jane Kinninmont, who has written that this policy is unlikely to be challenged by parliament because of “the heightened influence of the security establishment since 2011”.

With the economy under strain and political dialogue stalled for over a year, Bahrain appears to be in a holding pattern of withstanding protests and economic worries, while spending millions on public relations firms to present an image of stability to the international community.

For Human Rights Watch, the solution to Bahrain’s problems do not lie in the security crackdown.

“With all the advocates of peaceful protest either locked up or facing jail it's difficult to see how there's going to be a political accommodation and the grievances at the heart of the unrest remain unaddressed,” said McGeehan.

“Bahrain can't jail and torture its way out of the mess it created.”

Despite Alwadaei and Alkhawaja’s belief that the security crackdown is building up a tinder box of anger and resentment that will explode at an indeterminate point in the near future, youth activist Slais does not envision such an event.

“I can’t us being taken back to 2011,” he said. “The opposition is too fractured and they are conflicted on how to move forward. Bahrain is not about to witness mass protests on the scale we saw at the Pearl Roundabout.”

But for Asma Darwish and her husband Hussain Jawad in Sitra, the uprising still has its fire and they believe the political impasse will only be solved through peaceful reform and dialogue, or there will be a violent turn that will “impact all Bahrainis.”

And despite the threat of imprisonment, the family, who say thousands of other families share their views, remain steadfast in campaigning and protesting for their country to have a democratic revolution.

“We are strong and committed to our values of human rights and democracy,” she said. “We look at the story of Nelson Mandela – he was in prison for decades because of his commitment to freedom – this is the struggle and we are prepared to endure and make the necessary sacrifices for the freedom of Bahrain.”

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Saudi Arabia is no friend to the United States

By Colbert I. King

In my Post colleague Charles Krauthammer’s May 21 op-ed column, “You want hypotheticals? Here’s one,” former Saudi Arabian intelligence chief Prince Turki al-Faisal was quoted approvingly as complaining: “We were America’s best friend in the Arab world for 50 years.” Note the past tense.
If my arithmetic is correct, that would date the beginning of Turki’s cherished Saudi-U.S. relationship to 1965. But “best friend”? As Oscar Wilde is credited with saying, “True friends stab you in the front.” America’s back was turned in 1973 when Saudi Arabian-led oil producersimposed an embargo against the United States in retaliation for U.S. military support of Israel in that country’s 1973 war with Egypt and Syria.
America’s “best friend” instigated a doubling, then a quadrupling, of the price of oil. Our good buddies in the Middle East watched as long lines formed at U.S. filling stations and consumer costs skyrocketed. The Saudi monarchy showed no regret as the pain it inflicted on the U.S. economy set in.
That’s because the Saudis, in their piety, sought to teach their American “best friend” a lesson: namely, that they could yank our chain whenever they wanted.
The Nixon White House got the message. It started negotiations with the Saudi-controlled oil producers to end the embargo and began putting pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights and the Sinai.
Manipulation of oil prices has been a handy Saudi weapon.
George W. Bush knows.
With oil at more than $127 a barrel in May 2008, then-President Bush appealed to Saudi Arabia to increase production and bring down the price. The Saudis said no. That was the second time. The Saudis had rebuffed Bush that January when he made the same request. And what, pray tell, has America’s “best friend” done over the past four decades as all of that petrodollar loot, once estimated at $116 billion a year, poured in, as noted by a PBS “Frontline” report? Besides spending like mad on airports, hotels, highways, hospitals and schools — much-needed domestic projects and infrastructure — Saudi billions also found their way to other channels, such as religious charities that funded networks of madrassas: religious schools steeped in the conservative anti-Western Wahhabi strain of Islam that laid the groundwork for the creation of al-Qaeda. All those billions did little to erase the repression of Saudi women or end inflammatory teachings about Christians and Jews.
Where did the cash and arms that helped create the Taliban come from? Yep, you guessed it, the kingdom.
In fact, after the Taliban took over the Afghan capital of Kabul in September 1996, Saudi Arabia was among the three countries to establish diplomatic relations. That relationship ended on the rocks in September 2001, however, when the Saudis concluded, the kingdom said, that the Taliban was up to no good, attracting and training Muslims, including Saudi citizens, “to carry out criminal acts” against Islamic law.
Throughout Prince Turki’s fabled 50 years of best friendship, the Saudis, when piqued, have never hesitated to publicly snub U.S. presidents. King Salman’s last-minute decision to pull out of this month’s Arab summit with President Obama at Camp David is only the latest such no-show. In 2001, then-Crown Prince Abdullah, then the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia and a backer of the Palestinian intifada, didn’t think the United States was doing enough to oppose Israeli action in the Palestinian territories. So when he was invited to visit the White House to meet with newly elected Bush in May 2001, Abdullah chose to stay at home, haughtily announcing, “We want [the United States] to consider their own conscience.”
A few months later, Abdullah fired off a letter angrily warning Bush that “A time comes when peoples and nations part. We are at a crossroads. It is time for the United States and Saudi Arabia to look at their separate interests.” Remember that, Prince Turki? Today, the Saudis are in a tight spot, but it’s not because of the United States. The roiling Islamic struggle, pitting the Sunni Saudi and Persian Gulf states against their Shiite rivals in Iran, is of the Islamic world’s own doing. The United States can’t save them from themselves. Still, some good has come out of the Saudi oil blackmail. It woke us up to the vulnerability caused by dependence on foreign oil. The oil shocks forced a succession of U.S. presidents, beginning with Richard Nixon, to initiate efforts to raise fuel-economy standards, increase conservation measures and double down on other power sources.
Now, shale production has propelled the United States way up the ladder as an oil producer, making us far less dependent on the kingdom than we were when we got blindsided in ’73.
And the response from our “best friend”?
The Saudis have been pumping up oil production to cause prices to fall, preserve their market share and thus undermine U.S. shale oil development.
What a friend we have in Saudi Arabia.

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President Obama Declares June LGBT Pride Month


 President Barack Obama has, again, declared the month of June to be LGBT Pride Month. In theofficial proclamation, he calls for more support for LGBT youth and Congressional action to protect LGBT people within the workplace. He doesn't, however, make mention of the expected Supreme Court marriage ruling.
Read the full text below:

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From the moment our Nation first came together to declare the fundamental truth that all men are created equal, courageous and dedicated patriots have fought to refine our founding promise and broaden democracy's reach.  Over the course of more than two centuries of striving and sacrifice, our country has expanded civil rights and enshrined equal protections into our Constitution.  Through struggle and setback, we see a common trajectory toward a more free and just society.  But we are also reminded that we are not truly equal until every person is afforded the same rights and opportunities -- that when one of us experiences discrimination, it affects all of us -- and that our journey is not complete until our lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law.
Across our Nation, tremendous progress has been won by determined individuals who stood up, spoke out, and shared their stories.  Earlier this year, because of my landmark Executive Order on LGBT workplace discrimination, protections for Federal contractors went into effect, guarding against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.  The Federal Government is now leading by example, ensuring that our employees and contractors are judged by the quality of their work, not by who they love.  And I will keep calling on the Congress to pass legislation so that all Americans are covered by these protections, no matter where they work.
In communities throughout the country, barriers that limit the potential of LGBT Americans have been torn down, but too many individuals continue to encounter discrimination and unfair treatment.  My Administration supports efforts to ban the use of conversion therapy for minors because the overwhelming scientific evidence demonstrates that it can cause substantial harm.  We understand the unique challenges faced by sexual and gender minorities -- especially transgender and gender non-conforming individuals -- and are taking steps to address them.  And we recognize that families come in many shapes and sizes.  Whether biological, foster, or adoptive, family acceptance is an important protective factor against suicide and harm for LGBTQ youth, and mental health experts have created resources to support family communication and involvement.
For countless young people, it is not enough to simply say it gets better; we must take action too.  We continue to address bullying and harassment in our classrooms, ensuring every student has a nurturing environment in which to learn and grow. Across the Federal Government, we are working every day to unlock the opportunities all LGBT individuals deserve and the resources and care they need.  Too many LGBTQ youth face homelessness and too many older individuals struggle to find welcoming and affordable housing; that is why my Administration is striving to ensure they have equal access to safe and supportive housing throughout life.  We are updating our National HIV/AIDS Strategy to better address the disproportionate burden HIV has on communities of gay and bisexual men and transgender women.  We continue to extend family and spousal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.  And because we know LGBT rights are human rights, we are championing protections and support for LGBT persons around the world.
All people deserve to live with dignity and respect, free from fear and violence, and protected against discrimination, regardless of their gender identity or sexual orientation. During Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month, we celebrate the proud legacy LGBT individuals have woven into the fabric of our Nation, we honor those who have fought to perfect our Union, and we continue our work to build a society where every child grows up knowing that their country supports them, is proud of them, and has a place for them exactly as they are.
NOW, THEREFORE, I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, by virtue of the authority vested in me by the Constitution and the laws of the United States, do hereby proclaim June 2015 as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month.  I call upon the people of the United States to eliminate prejudice everywhere it exists, and to celebrate the great diversity of the American people.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand this twenty-ninth day of May, in the year of our Lord two thousand fifteen, and of the Independence of the United States of America the two hundred and thirty-ninth.
Barack Obama 

President Obama Signs Disaster Declaration for Texas


President Obama has signed a disaster declaration for Texas after recent storms and flooding claimed at least 24 lives in the state and more rain is expected.
The White House announced that Obama ordered federal assistance to the areas affected by the storms and floods that began on May 4. The action by the president will make funding available to the counties of Harris, Hays and Van Zandt.
Earlier, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott requested a presidential disaster declaration for his state.
“Communities across the state of Texas have experienced devastating destruction, injury and -- most tragically -- loss of life due to the major and unceasing severe weather system that has been impacting our state for weeks,” Abbott said. “I am extremely proud of the way that our first responders, local officials, law enforcement and Texas citizens have come together to protect and support one another in this time of crisis. I am requesting disaster assistance from the federal government to ensure that families, businesses and communities who have experienced hardship as a result of these severe storms have access to all possible resources as they recover and rebuild.”
Meanwhile, two areas of heavy rain and strong thunderstorms were working their way across the southern plains and Mississippi River Valley Saturday morning. One was intensifying as it headed to the east of Midland, Texas, moving south and east towards Dallas and Houston.
The other area of heavy rain was moving east of Little Rock and St. Louis. Both areas could experience one to two inches per hour rainfall rates in spots.
ABC affiliate KTRK in Houston reported that the city of Rosenberg, Texas, issued a mandatory evacuation for areas along the Brazos River. It is expected to crest Monday morning at 50 feet, barring any major additional rainfall.
On Friday, rising floodwaters continued to grip Texas, with drivers stranded and traffic stalled, as authorities raised the total number of storm-related fatalities for the state to at least 23.
"That is rising water, coming very fast, very hard, and there is nothing that we can do to stop that other than to stay out of its way," said W. Nim Kidd, chief of the Texas Division of Emergency Management.
On Friday, Capt. Kelly Turner of the Mesquite Fire Department told ABC News that at 4 a.m., as members of the fire department were rescuing five people caught up in the waters, another car was swept away.
Turner said that when rescuers recovered that car, they found the body of a man. His identity had not yet been released. It was the first death related to the recent storms in Mesquite, Texas. Also on Friday, the Coast Guard said a body they'd found on the beach this morning belonged to a man reported missing Thursday.
police officer redirecting traffic from deep waters in Dallas Friday had to be harnessed and airlifted out of the area after his sport utility vehicle got trapped.
Up to three inches of rain is likely this weekend for eastern Texas, with some isolated spots picking up to five inches of rain. A total of 70 counties are under a state of disaster but Texas Gov. Greg Abbott said Friday that number would likely rise.
In Wimberley, Texas, at least seven people remained missing almost a week after the Blanco River rushed its banks, carrying homes off their foundations. Thousands have been forced to evacuate because of dangerous downpours, torrential rains and even tornadoes. Since Sunday, more than 100 twisters have been reported across the Plains; more than 30 have been reported in Texas alone.
"The river hasn't crested yet and there's still rain coming," said resident Linny Campbell. "It don't look good for us."
The National Weather Service said that with all the rain that's fallen in Texas just in the month of May, there was enough water to spread across the entire state up to eight inches -- totaling more than 43 trillion gallons.

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Is Global Islamic Terror Rearing Its Head In Bangladesh? – Analysis

By Rupak Bhattacharjee
Bangladesh is currently witnessing an alarming rise in extremist violence with radical Islamic groups affiliated to the international terror networks continuing to target secular bloggers. In yet another gruesome incident on May 12, Ananta Bijoy Das, a 33-year-old banker was hacked to death in the northeastern city of Sylhet for criticising religious fanaticism and dogmas.
Progressive writers and online activists have been attacked throughout Bangladesh with disturbing regularity. Das is the third blogger to be brutally murdered this year, in what seems to be a systemic killing spree unleashed by the Islamic militants. The killing of Das took place only 10 days after the Al Qaeda in Indian Sub-continent (AQIS) claimed responsibility for the fatal attack on writer Avijit Roy. In a statement issued on May 2, a leader of AQIS said such “assassinations are part of a series of operations” launched on the orders of its chief.
Immediately after the attack, an obscure outfit Ansar al-Islam claimed that Das was killed by the AQIS. It accused Das of being an “anti-Islam atheist blogger” who regularly mocked “Allah and Islam”. It also warned of more attacks on so-called atheist bloggers.
The three Bangladeshi bloggers killed in less than four months were on a list of targets drawn up by the Islamic militants. Das’ name was included in that list and he had been receiving death threats for some time. His friends say the frequency of threats increased after the killing of Roy on February 26. Das was close to Roy and he used to write for Mukta-Mona, a blog created by the slain author.
While Das was critical of religious fanaticism and attacks on free thinkers, his writings mainly focused on issues related to science. He had authored a number of books on science and edited a quarterly magazine called “Jukti” (Logic). Fellow bloggers insist that despite being a vocal critic of religious fanaticism, Das had never ridiculed any particular religion.
The barbaric killing of Das has shocked Bangladesh’s civil society. Several organisations strongly condemned the murder and hundreds of online activists staged protest demonstrations demanding immediate arrest of the killers. The Bangladesh Online Activists Network believes that the planned killing of bloggers is part of the diabolic designs of the Islamic militants to turn Bangladesh into a “religion-based” country.
Taking advantage of the prevailing political uncertainty resulting from the protracted power rivalry between the ruling Awami League (AL) and the major opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), the religious extremists and reactionary elements have been making repeated forays into the Bangladesh polity. During the last few years, a number of radical Islamic outfits have emerged under different names. In early May, the Rapid Action Battalion recovered a huge cache of arms and ammunition from some cadres of a new jihadi outfit, called Saheed Hamja Brigade.
Another Islamic militant group Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT) has been making frenetic efforts to hog media limelight by taking credit for the recent killings of three bloggers. The outfit’s chief and six activists were implicated in the Rajib Haidar murder case. Blogger Haidar was murdered on February 15, 2013 when Bangladesh had been swept by the Shahbag movement vociferously demanding capital punishment of Islamist war criminals of 1971.
The ABT is a potent threat to the country’s democracy, political stability and security. In 2014, it asked “patriotic armed forces” to dismantle the current secular democratic dispensation to establish a “Caliphate” in Bangladesh. Latest reports suggest that it has threatened to kill 10 prominent personalities, including political advisor to the premier H.T. Imam and Dhaka University Vice-chancellor Arefin Siddique. Bangladesh police are yet to prove ABT’s links with the dreaded international terror groups, like Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Police recently asked the home ministry to ban the outfit.
Along with Hefazat-e-Islam, a radical Islamic group, the ABT published a hit list of 84 atheist bloggers. Nine of them have already been physically eliminated. Attacks on progressive writers and independent thinkers began in the early 1990’s. Victims of Islamist attacks include renowned poet Shamsur Rahman, writer Humayun Azad, blogger Asif Mohiuddin and Rajib Haidar.
Meanwhile, the global Islamic terror groups have stepped up their activities in Bangladesh. In 2013, Al Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri asked his Bangladeshi followers to wage jihad against the “atheist” Awami League government that “protects those who publicly ridicule the Prophet”. Intelligence inputs say some Bangladeshi fighters did respond to the call. In a video message, the Al Qaeda chief urged the Muslim clerics of Bangladesh to lead an “intifada” (uprising) against the present democratic system to create a “Shariah” state.
The religious extremist groups are engaged in a fierce competition with the AL government for power and influence. They have expanded their influence over the society as the Arab-funded Islamic seminaries owing allegiance to Wahabi and Salaafi schools of thought have flourished in the country in the last two decades.
The role of fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islami has also come under the scanner as most of the jihadi outfits maintain close links with it. The largest Islamist party is facing an existential crisis after the conviction of its top leaders for committing heinous crimes in the 1971 war. In the prevailing circumstances, it is likely that the party would join hands with the extremists to vent its anger on the secular bloggers who are soft targets. The national security experts of Bangladesh say the party’s enormous financial assets provide incentives to many young people to join Islamist ranks.
Bangladesh has always been a moderate Muslim nation where a vast majority of people follow Sufi-inspired Islam. However, this trend has now been challenged by the radical Islamists. The growing religious intolerance in Bangladesh could be attributed to this factor. The young bloggers are pitted against religious bigots who want to strictly enforce Islamic norms and practices in a traditional society like Bangladesh.
As pointed out by international human rights groups, the space for freedom of expression has deteriorated sharply in recent years in Bangladesh. Critics say the government has not properly addressed the rising cases of bloggers’ killing. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is treading cautiously in the volatile polity and her government has restrained itself from making public statement on the issue to avoid being dubbed as “atheist” by its detractors.
The number of outspoken voices against religious bigotry and obscurantism has been steadily increasing in Bangladesh. Most of them are neither affiliated to the mainstream political parties nor organised under any strong platform. Therefore the possibility of further attacks on secular bloggers cannot be ruled out completely. It is imperative that the AL government, which vows to uphold its secular credentials, initiates concrete measures to stop such killings, provides protection to the online activists who are vulnerable and ensures freedom of thought and expression as enshrined in the constitution.

After Pakistan bus attack, fears of worsening insurgency

During the past month, restive Balochistan saw an assault on a dam project that killed at least 20 people besides Friday's bus hijack.

As hundreds of mourners on Saturday protested the killing of 22 people in deadly bus hijackings in western Pakistan, the assaults raised new fears that a long-simmering insurgency there could be growing more violent.
The country’s restive Balochistan province has seen two major attacks in the span of a month, including an April assault on a dam project that killed at least 20 people and Friday’s bus hijackings. In both, gunmen let Baloch people flee while killing others, signaling a worrying ethnic bent to an insurgency seeking independence for the oil- and mineral-rich region that’s also home to Islamic extremists.
Mureed Baluch, a militant who identifies himself as the spokesman of United Baluch Army, which has attacked security forces in the past, claimed the bus attacks Saturday.
Friday night's attacks, which happened in the province’s mountainous Mastung district, saw gunmen wearing security force uniforms stop the buses, then check ID cards to determine the ethnicity of their captives, one survivor told private satellite news channel Geo TV.
Local Pashtun leader Allah Dad told The Associated Press that the gunmen made Pashtun passengers stand in a line, then shot them dead.
“What was the fault of the Pashtun passengers who were killed in the attack on the buses?” Dad asked. “We want assurance from the government that the attackers will be arrested and they will be punished.”
On Saturday, hundreds of Pashtuns, who make up about 35 percent of Balochistan’s 9 million residents, placed 16 coffins with the bodies of their dead in front of the governor’s house in the provincial capital, Quetta. The protesters later dispersed peacefully after meeting with Abdul Malik Baluch, the province’s top elected official.
The country’s paramilitary Frontier Corps said Saturday that 200 troops were taking part in an operation to find the gunmen, while Balochistan Home Minister Sarfaraz Bugti said security forces already killed two of the attackers.
Separatists in Balochistan, which borders both Afghanistan and Iran, want a substantial share of revenue from gas and mineral resources and complete autonomy from Islamabad. In the mid-2000s, General Pervez Musharraf’s government launched a crackdown on insurgents there, with Baluch and human rights activists say Pakistani forces detained their people for years without bringing them to court, sometimes killing them and dumping their bodies in the desert.
The current violence is the deadliest to target civilians in the region in recent years. Kalim Ullah, a retired history professor who lives in and has extensively studied Balochistan, said he worries the insurgency may be growing increasingly violent and spark further ethnic tension.
“There is a need to wisely handle the situation following yesterday’s attack on Pashtun people as this is something that is very dangerous,” Ullah said. “The government must take immediate steps to avoid such incidents in future because Balochistan could plunge into a deep turmoil if Baloch and Pashtun people clashed.”

Private contractors in Afghanistan outnumber U.S. troops three to one


This past Monday, as on every Memorial Day, American political and military leaders paid tribute to the sacrifice of service members who gave their lives for their country. The day of remembrance is not only to honor the past dead, but also to recognize the tens of thousands of service members still deployed in combat zones today, regardless of whether politicians label them as “wars” or whether these operations are in the forefront of Americans’ minds. On Memorial Day itself, the Pentagon released a somber statement: “Sgt. 1st Class Pablo A. Ruiz, 37, of Melbourne, Florida, died May 24, in Bagram, Afghanistan, from a non-combat related incident.”
President Barack Obama, speaking at Arlington National Cemetery, used standard language of reflection declaring, “We honor the sacrifice of the thousands of American servicemembers — men and women — who gave their lives since 9/11, including more than 2,200 American patriots who made the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan.” This is factually accurate.
However, it overlooks the important sacrifices made by non-service members on behalf of military missions. Since 9/11, a total of 1,592 private contractors (approximately 32 percent of whom were Americans) working on Department of Defense contracts were also killed in Afghanistan. Last year, private contractors accounted for 64 percent of all U.S. deaths in Afghanistan (56 service members and 101 contractors died). But we cannot know exactly where last year’s deceased are from, because shockingly the U.S. Department of Labor “does not routinely track the nationality of workers injured or killed under any of the laws administered by the program.”
This common practice of omitting the contractors’ role in U.S. military operations is troubling for several reasons. It overlooks their service and sacrifice, it disperses the burden of war onto poorly paid or protected locals or third-country nationals, and it gives a false impression of a much smaller U.S. military footprint and national commitment. Whenever the White House and Pentagon announce how many troops will be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, they never mention how many contractors will be deployed alongside them. When journalists and analysts request information, officials and spokespersons seem to never have it on hand, and it’s difficult to later obtain accurate or updated estimates.

It is long overdue that civilian and military leaders who authorize and command U.S. military operations openly acknowledge the critical role played by contractors. Private contractors have long played an essential role in U.S. overseas military operations, and the percentage of contractors relative to deployed U.S. troops has increased significantly since the end of the Cold War. The chart below from a 2014 Defense Science Board reportdemonstrates this.
Indeed, since 9/11, private contractors have been deployed at roughly the same — or even higher — rates as U.S. troops in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is hard to detail, because the U.S. military has never adequately tracked contractor personnel deployed in support of overseas operations, according to various Government Accountability Office (GAO)reports. (To give one highly disturbing anecdote demonstrating this, while in September 2011 the GAO found that the military could not reliably determine the number of contractor personnel that had been killed or wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan, over the same time period, the Pentagon had accurately beentracking the number of combat dogs killed in both countries.)
Nevertheless, relying upon the semi-detailed data available starting in 2008, the below graph shows how — since Obama’s first year in office — there have always been more contractors than U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, though neither the Pentagon nor the White House ever recognizes them.
This relative disregard for contractors is especially puzzling given that their support for recent military missions spans almost all phases of operations: shaping the environment, deterrence, support to stabilization operations, and civil governance. Their tasks include training, intelligence, transportation, translation, and force protection. But “contractors” is a dirty word in some military and policy circles, one that many Americans may conflate with the notorious firm formerly known as Blackwater, which was responsible for the massacre of 17 Iraqis in September 2007. However, even at the height of the surge, Blackwater employees comprised only 1 or 2 percentof all contractors in Iraq.
Every four months, the Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (Program Support) releases quarterly contractor census reports for CENTCOM’s area of operations: Iraq, Afghanistan, and 16 other countries. The January 2014 report declared hopefully, “This will be the final U.S. CENTCOM report on Iraq contractor numbers.” Yet, in January 2015, the contractors figure re-emerged in recognition of the U.S. military’s deployment against the Islamic State in Operation Inherent Resolve. That January report estimated 5,000 contractors, which climbed to 6,300 in the latest report released last week; by comparison, there are fewer than half as many (3,000) U.S. troops in Iraq. Meanwhile, there are three times as many (30,820) contractors in Afghanistan than U.S. troops (10,000), 12,033 of whom are Americans. It is worth recognizing that these estimates do not include the contractors supporting the CIA, State Department, USAID, or other government agencies.
The extent of contracted support for America’s wars can be unearthed in the Pentagon’s daily “contracts” press releases. The most important recent U.S. policy statement for America’s post-2014 role in Afghanistan did not come from the White House, but rather was found in two paragraphs published late on New Year’s Eve, in which the Pentagon announced $100 million in contracts for DynCorp International, LLC, to “advise, train, and mentor” the Afghan Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defense. Similarly revealing contracts include $12.8 million for Six3 Intelligence Solutions Inc., $36 million for IDS International Government Services, LLC, and two — released on the same day — for $6.9 and $6.8 million awarded to Battlespace Flight Services, LLC, for work “performed at Jalalabad, Afghanistan” and work “performed at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada” (i.e. the command and control of drones). These receive zero public scrutiny but are the visible indicators of what is predominantly and increasingly a contractor-run war.
Of course, contractors make tremendous contributions to the military outside of combat zones, including directly for Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. According to a January 2015 GAO report, the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) “estimated that there were about 3,287 contractor full-time equivalents throughout the organization, which represents about 55 percent of OSD’s total workforce.” If you visit any base or post within the United States or abroad, it is likely that contractors are running the family assistance centers, sexual assault prevention programs, physical therapy rehabilitation clinics, and schools for service members’ children.
Contractors also play a significant role in other purportedly critical — and highly controversial — national security missions. For example, the 2014 Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program had a remarkable finding that tended to be overlooked in public debates about the program’s efficacy or morality. The report found that in March 2006, 73 percent of all positions within the CIA’s rendition and detention group were held by contractors, and by 2008 that percentage had risen to 85 percent.
After the report’s release, CIA Director John Brennan passionatelyhighlighted, “the many sacrifices made by CIA officers and their families,” including those directly involved in the rendition program. Unsurprisingly, he never once mentioned the contributions of the contractors, even though they accounted for eight out of every ten individuals involved. While contractors were involved in proposing, establishing, operating, and evaluating the program, they are now an afterthought, neither recognized for, nor held to account for, any potentially criminal activities.
We do not blame service members for the wisdom (or lack thereof) of civilian officials who send them to war, and we appropriately pay tribute to their sacrifices when they are injured or killed. Yet, we do not extend any recognition whatsoever to contractors, without whom nowadays those service members could not have been deployed in the first place. There are no welcome home ceremonies, first pitches thrown at baseball games, or public commemoration. These contractors (temporarily) earn more money than service members and generally live in the bigger and safer bases where they face fewer risks to their livelihoods. However, contractors operating in Iraq or Afghanistan are never totally safe, and they too suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression — at rates at least equal to those of soldiers.
The reason Obama and politicians on Capitol Hill never mention the number of contractors deployed alongside service members to war zones today, or recognize the vital role that they play, is that they simply do not want U.S. citizens to know about them. If the American people were actually aware, then perhaps they would better comprehend the full extent of the military involvement in the ongoing wars. This is disrespectful to the contractor community and misleading because it intentionally undersells the scope of America’s military commitment. The next time the White House or Pentagon announces troop levels for Iraq and Afghanistan, they should include the telling data of how many contractors will go along with them, how many will be Americans, and what roles they will play to support the war effort. And then perhaps one day their sacrifice will be properly recognized on Memorial Day or another national day of remembrance.

Remember the Ahmadis of Lahore, remember the forgotten

A small girl who I will call Hina, sits perched on a stool, in the one corner of the living room untouched by the light streaming in from a procession of windows. Everything else is astir; rattling like an incongruous soundtrack to her solitude.
She is the most arresting seven-year-old I have ever seen. Even in the shadows, her face glows with the faint brilliance of a candle on its last flicker.
I call to her and she approaches me with the gentle quietness that attends her every movement. Following a muffled exchange of hellos we stumble into a conversational impasse and her grandmother laughs at the sight of our awkwardness.
Thankfully a scrap of paper comes into view like a floating bridge, ready to span the distance of age and discrepancy that separate us.
With my limited origami skills I set out to make a rather frayed and droopy paper tulip. It is a sorry looking thing, but it helps us connect and she graciously accepts my offering before disappearing behind a curtain.
I feel wretched in her absence – nothing I can do can erase the many traumas she has seen, for Hina is a living ghost, a forgotten remnant of the 2010 Lahore massacre on two Ahmadi places of worship which occurred just over five years ago.
Her father was among those who were slain – slaughtered along with 87 others for belonging to the wrong faith – in what remains the worst terrorist attack to have taken place in Pakistan’s second largest city.
The intruders, aged between 17 and 30 stormed the places of worship just after one o’clock as the Friday prayer was underway. Armed with guns, suicide vests and grenades they carried out the operation with remorseless precision, killing as many people as they could. Those who survived did so by sheer good fortune.

What ought to be an indelible national tragedy can barely make claim to being a footnote in the collective conscience of the country.

In Lahore itself, the only concession to the atrocity is the war-like fortifications which now guard the two places of worship where the attack took place. Even these are manned by volunteers, protecting their own because no one else wants to.
Silence prevails over contemplation. The lonely ordeal of re-imagining the forgotten is left to the bereaved.
Another daughter tearfully recalls the loss of her own father. A broad, kind-looking man known for his charity. She was 16 when he was killed, and for her at least, the memories of his life are well captured and raw – the wound of his departure will never heal.
So many other lives were destroyed at a stroke; children, parents siblings and friends. There was the single father who buried two sons after they fell to the terrorist’s bullet in Ghari Shahu, the mother who spoke to her son on the phone just before he died and the young wife who lost her husband only six months after giving birth to their first child.
Thinking back now to the surreal events of that fateful day, it seems almost impossible – the numbness and horror of the massacre playing out on live TV, the endless shrill of desperate phone calls, the rush to hospitals across the city to donate blood for the injured and the mournful frenzy with which the dead were laid to an untimely rest.
But more incomprehensible is how nothing really changed.
Within days ordinary service was resumed and Ahmadis were forced to return to their isolation. The violence may have been over but the ideology persisted. With chilling seamlessness the events of 28 May, 2010 were cut away from history.
Also read: Tracing hate
But history is a more persistent beast and the spirits that ought to have been exorcised on that day continue to haunt the country and in the years since numerous more innocent lives have been cruelly snatched away by the fire of sectarian enmities. Recent attacks in ShikarpurYouhanabad and Safoora Chowk are sufficient to show that lessons have not been learnt.
The clearest revelation of Lahore was its exposure of the dark heart of Pakistan, a country that cannot reconcile itself to its core existential identity sufficiently enough to loosen the shackles of hate.
The sad part is that maybe it never will.
Such a damning realisation is a difficult thing to confront and so the thought if it is made to vanish just as the victims of its contempt are made to disappear.
Hina is back. “The flower you gave me,” she says, “I put it in my papa’s old room.”
I force myself to smile though there is nothing of its upward arc which is true.
It is not for me to show my pain in front of her even as I well up in anguish. We sit again in silence this time as friends rather than clumsy new acquaintances.
For those few moments, everything is at peace.
The world could probably do with more paper flowers, I think to myself, while sadly knowing that in all likelihood, it will see many more Hinas instead.