Saturday, March 12, 2011

Saudi women banned from voting again

Saudi Arabian women have been prohibited from participating in the municipal elections that are scheduled to be held later this year.

It is the second time Saudi women have been banned from voting in municipal elections since 2005.
The Saudi ministry responsible for polls decided not to allow women to participate because of social considerations, a report said on Saturday.
Only men were allowed to vote and run for office in the last mayoral elections in 2005. However, municipal councils in Saudi Arabia have no legislative powers.
The mayoral elections slated for later this year will be the second in Saudi Arabia's history.
Saudi Arabia has extremely harsh regulations for women, and it is the only country in the world that prohibits women from driving.
But there is evidence that many women in Saudi Arabia do not want radical change.
Even many advocates of reform reject Western critics for "failing to understand the uniqueness" of Saudi society.
However, some women in Saudi Arabia have campaigned for the right to drive cars for decades.
An economic argument against the ban is that the country can save the money the army of foreign drivers sends back to their home countries.

Jalib’s Pakistan


March 12, 2011 was Habib Jalib’s 18th death anniversary. Jalib was not just a revolutionary poet, a Marxist-Leninist, a political activist but he was a visionary who wanted Pakistan to be a country free of military dictatorships, religious fanaticism and class differences. Urdu poet Qateel Shifai summed up Jalib sahib’s life beautifully in these words:

“Apney saarey dard bhula kar auron ke dukh sehta tha,

Hum jab ghazlain kehtey thay woh aksar jail mein rehta tha,

Aakhir kaar chala hee gaya woh rooth kar hum farzaanon se,

Woh deewana jisko zamana Jalib Jalib kehta tha.”

(He hid his own anguish and languished for others,

When as we rhymed for damsels and composed lilting songs, he was the one who pined behind the bars,

Now at last he is gone, leaving us sane and mandarins behind,

The one who went by the name Jalib).

Jalib sahib was committed to freedom of expression and he was not afraid to voice his opinion. He was imprisoned in General Ayub Khan’s time for the first time because he vociferously opposed the General’s capitalist policies, which were only beneficial for a handful of families. Despite the relative success of Ayub’s economic policies, the bitter truth was that the masses kept suffering and kept getting poorer. It was because of the rise in sugar prices that a mass movement finally made General Ayub resign but another military dictator, General Yahya Khan, replaced him. Jalib was against the oppression in the then East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) and wrote his hauntingly beautiful poem ‘Bagiya Lahu Luhan’ (The Garden is full of blood). It was not just during military rule that Jalib went to jail but Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, too, imprisoned him along with some of his leftist friends. When General Ziaul Haq came to power, Jalib sahib was again vocal about his disastrous policies and challenged his orthodox views. Jalib had a keen eye and long before others would say it, he wrote how it was not Islam in danger but the vested interests of our ruling elite, who invoked the religion card at the drop of a hat. He also challenged the mullahs and how they never questioned the rich but always preached to the poor, whose fate could not change through prayers.
Agar may farangi ka darbaan hota
Tho jeena kis kadar aasaan hota
Meray bachay bhi amreeka may parthay
Har garmi may main Inglistaan hota
Meree English bhi balaa ki chusth hotee
Balaa say jo na main Urdu-daan hota
Sar jhuka kay jo ho jaata sar main
Tho leader bhi azeem-u-shaan hota
Zameenain meree har soobay may hoteen
May wallah sadr-e-Pakistan hota
The rising tide of fanaticism that has gripped Pakistan, its manifestations clear in the assassinations of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, need to be swept away by revisiting Jalib and his ideas. The new generation needs to discover what Jalib stood for and why it is important in order to save our country from an abyss of darkness. Had Jalib sahib been alive, he would have been the first one to stand on the barricades and recite a new poem for an enlightened future of Pakistan. Jalib’s poetry is about resistance and we definitely need to resist religious extremism.

Pakistani Women Move Beyond Traditional Roles

A visit to the Jalozai camp, originally established in 1980 for Afghans fleeing the Soviet invasion, gives an idea of how the fighting between the Pakistani Army and militants has affected families in the tribal areas of Pakistan.

In 2008, all the Afghan refugees left. Their place was taken by about 100,000 Pakistanis known as the “internally displaced” of their country. Children, women and men arrive with what they can carry, then spend weeks, months, even years in tents.

In this part of Pakistan, the women, almost all Pashtun, traditionally have no other role beyond marrying and producing children at a young age, then taking care of those families.

For some women, though, the camp in recent months has offered new opportunity and a change in perspective. A few hundred of them attend one of the five community centers for women established since last June. They learn to read, write, count, sew or knit. The centers, managed by the Center for Excellence and Rural Development, a partner of the U.N. refugee agency, also serve as venues where they can freely air their problems and hopes.

For Savida, a 30-year-old mother of four from the Bajaur Agency of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, life had followed the same pattern for 14 years. She woke, prepared breakfast for her husband and children, worked in the field, and then cooked lunch and dinner. The family had to flee the war and ended up in Jalozai. She and her husband got divorced one year ago.

“He was a drug addict and very aggressive,” Savida said, cradling her 1-year-old boy, his feet caked with mud from playing outside. A thatched roof protects the women from the rain; walls prevent outsiders from looking in at the women. “My husband kidnapped the two older ones when they were on their way back to the tent from school,” she said, tears rolling from her eyes.

Savida, who declined to give her family name because she feared violence from her husband, said the support of the community center and other female refugees helped her. She has learned to tailor, and she stitches together clothes that the center sells for her in the local market. She wants to earn money for her children to get an education — something she was denied because fathers, and later, husbands, have to give permission. “I will not make a difference between my daughters and sons,” Savida said. “I want them all to learn and have a bright future.”

Husbands and fathers indeed have to be persuaded to allow their women to visit the center.

Neila Bibi, a teacher, and her colleague Huma Farman said they went each day from tent to tent to assure the men that only women were allowed in the center and that Islam also permitted the teaching of women. “They fear the gossip of other people,” Ms. Bibi said.

For most of the men, even negotiating with women is a big step. “We are the only chance for these girls and women to get a new perspective in their lives,” said Ms. Farman, who grew up in the nearby city of Mardan.

She recalled how one 29-year-old woman, who had been married at 13, had told her she had never been allowed to see a doctor. “We brought female medics, and this woman and others were for their first time examined,” Ms. Farman said. “For the first time.”

Some of the women report a slow change of perspective among their male kin. Alia Jahwaz, 20, from Khyber Agency, learned to read and write in six months at the center and has lived at the camp for a year and a half. “There were no girls’ schools in my area, that’s why I had not been able to read and write until I came here,” she said, smiling. Last month, Ms. Jahwaz gave a speech to nearly 1,000 people at the camp. Wearing a burqa, traditional in the region, she spoke about women’s rights also guaranteed by Islam and the issue of violence. “I am sure it was the first time for most of the men to hear about this,” she said, giggling, “but my father was very proud of me.”

Anjuman dost Muhammad, 21, has been disabled since birth. Her hands are not fully developed. Yet she learned to write the English alphabet, studying with her older brother. “We are alone here. Our parents are in Bajaur; we are not in touch for a long time,” she said.

Ms. Muhammad said she and other women taught at the center were passing on knowledge to tent neighbors who could not visit the center, either because husbands and fathers still said no, or because they had other commitments. “I teach them the alphabet and also the Koran,” she said.

One of the first things teachers discuss with their new female pupils is violence. “There is psychological, physical and sexual violence,” proclaimed Mulhtiara lal Wazir, who has visited her center since it opened. She proudly reads a plaque to a visitor. It also says that violence can stem from poverty, unemployment, drug dependence and psychological problems, and that tradition and gender discrimination play a part.

Mrs. Wazir is 42, from Bajaur. Women in her region never used even to talk about these issues, even within families. But she has broken the pattern. “I even discuss violence with my husband and sons,” she said. “I want them to know what is right and what is wrong.”

If ever she returns home, she said, “we already discussed, that we want to start a new center there.” Will her husband agree? “Of course,” she said, laughing. “We know our rights now. We do have a voice.”

Zahida Kazmi: Pakistan's ground-breaking female cabbie

Zahida Kazmi has been hailed as Pakistan's first female taxi driver. She has driven from the crowded markets of Islamabad to the remote tribal country in the north. Here she tells Nosheen Abbas about her two decades in a male-dominated world.

In 1992 at the age of 33, newly widowed Zahida Kazmi decided to take her fate in her own hands and become a taxi driver.

Born into a conservative and patriarchal Pakistani family, she flew in the face of her family's wishes but with six children to support, she felt she had no choice.

She took advantage of a government scheme in which anybody could buy a brand new taxi in affordable instalments. She bought herself a yellow cab and drove to Islamabad airport every morning to pick up passengers.In a perilous and unpredictable world, Zahida at first kept a gun in the car for her own protection and she even started off by driving her passengers around wearing a burqa, a garment that covers the entire body.

Her initial fears soon dissipated.

"I realised that I would scare passengers away," she said. "So then I only wore a hijab [head covering]. Eventually I stopped covering my head because I got older and was well-established by then."

Exposing herself to the hot, bustling city streets of Islamabad and by driving to the rocky and remote districts adjoining Pakistan's tribal areas, Zahida says she learned a lot about the country she lived in and its people.

The Pathans of the tribal north-west, despite a reputation for fierce male pride and inflexibility, treated her with immense courtesy on her journeys.

Eventually she became the chairperson of Pakistan's yellow cab association. Once she was established, she offered to teach young women how to drive taxis, but there was little interest. Even her daughters didn't express enthusiasm."They don't need to make a living," she says wistfully. "They are all married."

Zahida is not one of Pakistan's metropolitan liberal middle class - there are plenty of educational and career opportunities for privileged women in Pakistan but not for women from Zahida's background.

Pakistan has an exceptionally low number of women in work: 33.7% according to the Sustainable Development Policy Institute. Most women who work come under the category of "unpaid family workers".

Pakistan's legal system does little to protect women, so harassment is commonplace. Campaigners say it is little wonder that women do not choose livelihoods that make them even more vulnerable.

"Girls shy away from non-traditional jobs in a setting where there is a particular mindset... of intimidation," says Anees Haroon, chairperson of the National Commission on the Status of Women in Pakistan.

'Curious and amazed'
But had Zahida been starting out now, things would be quite different as she would be entering the workforce in a country torn between the forces of liberalism and Islamic radicalism.

Pakistan in 1992 was a more moderate place: it was opening up to the world; the dish antenna had been introduced; Pakistan had won the cricket world cup. Zahida says society felt fairly open to her.

But the Taliban presence in many parts of Pakistan has intensified over the years.Zahida has had to drive long distances on treacherous routes to northern areas such as Balakot, Chitral, Dir and even the Swat valley.

"Police at checkposts would be interested in why I was driving a taxi, but they were simply curious and amazed," she said.

Passengers seek her out as well. Adnan Waseem, a businessman from Haripur, told me that he always books Zahida for his journeys.

"I saw her and the first thought that came to my mind was that she's my mother's age. I liked her driving and in these days where one feels insecure in Pakistan I felt very relaxed," he said.

Another traveller, Sohail Mazhar, had to be driven through rocky terrain up to the northern city of Abbottabad.

Continue reading the main story

Start Quote

I am old now and I get tired. It's hard for me to drive all the time but what can I do? ”

Zahida Kazmi
"Even the policemen who stopped us at security checkpoints also knew her... we were so happy to see a woman driving a taxi."Although Zahida has been feted for being Pakistan's first female taxi-driver, she still has many bitter memories of her struggles as a single mother working hard on the road.

Her own mother disapproved of her career choice and only resentfully accepted it when the media gave her positive coverage.

And she is estranged from her children now.

"I am old now and I get tired. It's hard for me to drive all the time but what can I do? My sons don't help," she said.

"If I had a chance I would have become a doctor."

Just as she said that to me, a passing taxi driver stopped his car and got out to reverentially greet Zahida.

Despite her travails, she is clearly a respected presence on the streets of Islamabad.

Jacqueline Fernandez is one of the many star guests who will be at the GR8! Awards in Dubai

The iconic GR8! Women Awards, which have completed 10 amazing years in India, will soon be coming to Dubai! An initiative of Anu and Shashi Ranjan’s Indian Television Academy (ITA), the GR8! Women Awards honour ladies who have reached the pinnacle of success in their field. From the world of cinema to business and philanthropy, from fashion and education to marketing and journalism, the winners all demonstrate the kind of excellence that makes the world a better place. Those honoured in the past include some of the greatest Women Achievers of India – Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Sushmita Sen, Asha Bhosle, Nita Ambani, Shiela Dixit, Maharani Gayatri Devi and Rajshree Birla.
A key feature of the awards is that they support the ‘Beti’ campaign against female foeticide in India. This has attracted many celebrities to the event and the cause it champions, year after year.
The 2011 GR8! Women Awards in India took place in the Kingdom of Dreams, Gurgaon, under the aegis of GR8! TV Magazine in February this year. The A-lister award winners included Rani Mukerji, Raveena Tandon, Farah Khan Ali and Rina Dhaka, among many other super-talented women.
Now, the Awards will be in Dubai! The Middle East leg of the GR8! Women Awards will take place in the city on April 15, 2011, and you can be sure to see a lot of renowned achievers at the event. Expected are over two dozen Bollywood stars and celebs including Jacqueline Fernandes, Mugdha Godse, Bhagyashree, Zeenat Aman, Khushbu, Divya Dutta and Sunidhi Chauhan, among many others.
Check out the GR8! Women Awards categories below, and keep checking for more details on the event in Dubai, which is being organised by GR8! Tv mag and marketed by Cyclops Communication. A lot more stars are expected to attend and perform, and we’ll let you know all about it right here. Watch this space for updates!

Operation in N. Waziristan

The federal government has directed the Fata Disaster Management Authority to prepare a contingency plan for thousands of families likely to be uprooted after a military operation in North Waziristan Agency, an official told Dawn on Saturday.

The official said about 50,000 families (roughly 500,000 individuals) could be displaced from the agency, where speculations about the military operation against militants have been doing the rounds for quite some time.

The army has deployed over 20,000 troops, including two wings of the Frontier Corps, in the agency. The region is regarded as a bastion of Al Qaeda and Taliban.

“The FDMA has received directives from the federal authorities to chalk out a plan in consultation with the United Nations’ agencies and other humanitarian bodies to cope with the displacement,” he said.

Knowledgeable sources said the federal government had not set any timeframe for completion of the contingency plan, but the FDMA had been asked to keep the plan ready.

“We have been asked by the authorities to complete the task as soon as possible, but we have no idea about the timing of a military offensive,” the sources said.

The US government has been pressuring Islamabad, since the Times Square (New York) bomb plot in which a Pakistani national Faisal Shahzad was arrested in May last year, to launch an operation against militant groups, particularly the Haqqani network, to dislodge them from their redoubt in North Waziristan. The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) had claimed that it had masterminded the car bomb plot.

Islamabad, however, has stuck to the line that it alone would take a decision on the launch of an operation, citing lack of resources as the biggest handicap.

The FDMA, according to officials, had alerted the UN and its satellite organisations to the likelihood of a big displacement in the event of an operation, advising them to make provisions for shelter, food and other assistance.

They said that sites would be identified and selected for relief camps after consultations with the UN and other stakeholders.

According to official estimates, 50 per cent of the families feared to be displaced would take shelter in relief camps and the rest would settle with relatives and in rented houses.

Sources said camps were likely to be set up in neighbouring districts.

About financial resources, they said UN agencies had expressed willingness to foot the bill for tents, food, NFIs, water, sanitation and health. Officials said the average cost of a tent was 310 dollars.

The FDMA is already looking after 148,893 registered displaced families (over 1.1 million individuals) which had been displaced due to violence and subsequent military actions in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (Fata).

About 23,505 families have been living in camps and 125,388 other displaced families have been staying with their relatives.

A recent military action in Mohmand Agency caused the displacement of some 6,000 families. They were accommodated in two camps.

On the other hand, the IDPs displaced from Orakzai and South Waziristan agencies have started returning home.

Blasphemy law founders Pakistan

A deadly silence


At least with a dictatorship, you know where you are -- and if you know where you are, you may be able to find your way out. In Pakistan, it is not so simple.

While brave Arab protesters are overthrowing deeply entrenched autocratic regimes, often without even resorting to violence, Pakistan, a democratic country, is sinking into a sea of violence, intolerance and extremism. The world's second-biggest Muslim country (185 million people) has effectively been silenced by ruthless Islamist fanatics who murder anyone who dares to defy them.

What the fanatics want, of course, is power, but the issue on which they have chosen to fight is Pakistan's laws against blasphemy. They not only hunt down and kill people who fall afoul of these laws, should the courts see fit to free them. They have also begun killing anybody who publicly advocates changing the laws.

Salman Taseer, the governor of the Punjab, Pakistan's richest and most populous province, was murdered by his own bodyguard in January because he criticized the blasphemy laws and wanted to change them. He said that he would go on fighting them even if he was the last man standing - and in a very short time he was no longer standing.

But one man still was: Shahbaz Bhatti.

Bhatti was shot down earlier this month. The four men who ambushed his car and filled him with bullets left a note saying, "In your fight against Allah, you have become so bold that you act in favour of and support those who insult the Prophet. . . . And now, with the grace of Allah, the warriors of Islam will pick you out one by one and send you to hell."

Bhatti was not a rich and powerful man like Taseer, nor even a major power in the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) to which they both belonged. He was the only Christian member of the cabinet, mainly as a token representative of the country's three million Christians, but he had hardly any influence outside that community. Nevertheless, he refused to stop criticizing the blasphemy laws even after Taseer's murder, so they killed him, too.

That leaves only Sherry Rehman, the last woman standing. A flamboyant member of parliament whose mere appearance enrages the beards, she has been a bold and relentless critic of the blasphemy laws - and since Taseer's murder she has lived in hiding, moving every few days. But she will not shut up until they shut her up.

And that's it. The rest of the country's political and cultural elite has gone silent, or panders openly to the fanatics and the bigots. The PPP was committed to changing the blasphemy laws only six months ago, but after Taseer was killed, President Asif Ali Zardari assured a gathering of Islamic dignitaries that he had no intention of reviewing the blasphemy laws. Although they are very bad laws.

In 1984 Gen. Zia ul-Haq, the dictator who ruled Pakistan from 1977 to 1988, made it a criminal offence for members of the Ahmadi sect, now some five million strong, to claim that they were Muslims. In 1986 he instituted the death penalty for blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad. No subsequent government has dared to repeal these laws, which are widely used to victimize the Ahmadi and Christian religious minorities.

Ahmadis and Christians account for at most 5% of Pakistan's population, but almost half of the thousand people charged under this law since 1986 belonged to those communities. Most accusations were false, arising from disputes over land, but once made they could be a death sentence.

Higher courts generally dismissed blasphemy charges, recognizing that they were a tactic commonly used against Christians and Ahmadis in local disputes over land, but 32 people who were freed by the courts were subsequently killed by Islamist vigilantes -- as were two of the judges who freed them.

The current crisis arose when a Christian woman, Aasia Bibi, was sentenced to death last November, allegedly for blaspheming against the Prophet Muhammad. Pakistan's liberals mobilized against the blasphemy law -- and discovered they are an endangered species.

The murders of Taseer and Bhatti were bad, but even worse was the way the political class and the bulk of the mass media responded. A majority of a population fully supports the blasphemy law, making it very costly for politicians to act against it even if the fanatics don't kill them. Political cowardice reigns supreme and so Pakistan falls slowly under the thrall of the extremists.

Being a democracy is no help, it turns out, because democracy requires people to have the courage of their convictions.

Very few educated Pakistanis believe people should be executed because of a blasphemy charge arising out of some trivial village dispute, but they no longer dare to say so. Including the president.

"We will not be intimidated nor will we retreat," said Zardari the day after Bhatti's murder, but he has already promised the beards the blasphemy law will not be touched.

Nor is it very likely that the murderers of Taseer or Bhatti will be tracked down and punished. You could get killed trying to do that.

Free guided tours to historical sites

The Directorate of Archeology and Museums plans to organise free trips for people wanting to visit the historical sites located in three different districts of the province.

The free guided trip with the motto “Opening the doors of archeological heritage of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa” would be carried out by the directorate in collaboration with the Tourism Corporation of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa under its awareness campaign about historical sites and revival of archeological tourism in the province.

The programme will be completed in two months during which visits will be conducted to different sites including Gor Khutree, Takht Bhai, Hund etc, in district Peshawar, Mardan and Swabi, said Dr Abdul Samad, consultant Directorate of Archeology and Museums, while talking to media persons here on Friday.

He said that the programme had been designed for people in three categories including teenagers, families and senior citizens. The basic purpose of the guided tours, he said, was to create awareness and a sense of ownership in the community for cultural heritage and promotion of domestic archeological tourism in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

He said that the registration process would be initiated from Monday (March 14) under certain terms and conditions. The aspirants should register themselves during the office hours, he added.

“We will provide transportation facility to the archeological sites in Peshawar, Mardan, and Swabi under the guided programme,” he added.

The registration process, he said, was also possible via electronic mail. If anybody willing to participate in free trips under the mentioned category, he/she should send the requests on, with his/her name, address, district and other relevant information, he concluded.

CD shop blown up in Peshawar

A CD shop was blown up in Peshawar on Saturday, police said. The blast, which took place in the Badabher police precincts, completely damaged the shop, but no loss of life was reported, local police said. Police have registered a case against unidentified terrorists. Terrorists have stepped up attacks in Peshawar and the provincial government has ordered beef up of security to keep the situation under control.

Why Saudis Ignored Calls for Protests

Friday was Saudi Arabia's "day of rage", planned for and anticipated for weeks. But, in the event, there wasn't even a grumble – unless you count the ongoing protests in the eastern province which had been going on for a week.

The protests in the east, where the Saudi Shia minority is concentrated, were mostly to call for the release of political prisoners. However, across the country there was silence. Many were expecting it to be so, but some wonder why.

Two main factors played a role in this silence. The first was the government's preparation, with the interior ministry's warning and the senior clerics' religious decree prohibiting demonstrations and petitions.

During the week there was also a huge campaign to discourage demonstrations. Saudis were bombarded on TV, in SMS messages and online with rumours that the demonstrations were an Iranian conspiracy, and that those who went out in the streets would be punished with five years' prison and fines in the thousands of riyals.

Finally, on Friday itself, there was an intimidating security presence all over the major cities, with checkpoints on the roads and helicopters flying above.

The second and more important factor discouraging protests was a huge question mark regarding who was calling for them. What started on a Facebook page as a call for the creation of a civil society with a list of demands including a constitutional monarchy and a call for public freedoms and respect for human rights eventually turned into a page where sectarianism was openly practised and Islamists were praised.

The grassroots movement was gradually taken over and given a Jihadi name: Hunain, recalling a famous battle in the early history of Islam. Sa'ad al-Faqih and other anti-monarchy people took over. On his channel, Islah TV, he assigned locations and gave instructions on how to conduct a protest, with tips ranging from what to wear to what to do if tear gas gets in your eyes. He hijacked the grassroots movement for reforms into an outright call for an end to the monarchy and the creation of a new Islamist state – a cause similar to what Bin Laden and al-Qaida were calling for. These types of calls no longer have support within Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, none of the prominent Saudis who drafted the petitions during the last few weeks openly supported the demonstrations. These academics, actors, writers, and public speakers whose petitions drew thousands of Saudis to bravely sign their names, did not call for the demonstrations on Friday nor say that they were participating.

The Monday before, in a weekly meeting of a group of reformists, it was noted that for the overwhelming majority of them, there were no plans to be part of the "Hunain Revolution". Even Saudis who considered participating said they would sit out the first day, just to gauge whether those coming out were reformists or anti-monarchists, so as to not be associated with the latter.

As to how Saudis feel now that the day of no rage has come and gone, a hashtag on Twitter, #After11March, was created to discuss just that. There, most Saudis expressed their surprise at the extent to which the government took any threat of demonstrations seriously. Also, many wrote that they had not expected any large-scale protests to happen. As Soumz, a fellow blogger and medical student, tweeted:

"Things i learned on #Mar11: the gov listens to you (though chooses to ignore you) AND the gov is afraid of you."
Fouad al-Farhan created a poll asking how people felt about the non-event. While it may not be scientific, it's still telling. Four hundred took part and 37% felt relieved that nothing happened because they are opposed to any form of demonstrations; 30% felt disappointed that nothing happened because they believed demonstrations would push reforms forward; only 2% were disappointed because they were expecting a revolution on the same scale as Tunisia and Egypt; and finally 32% were optimistic that reforms are going to happen regardless of whether or not protests materialise.

'Saudi people seek political reforms'

People in Saudi Arabia have ratcheted up political criticisms of the kingdom over mounting concerns about political detentions and intolerance against free speech, says an analyst.
People in Saudi Arabia “have genuine grievances. They are asking for their voices to be heard. So I think the way Saudi authorities have dealt with it so far is completely inappropriate,” said Pat Lancaster, the editor of the “Middle East” magazine in a Friday interview with Press TV.
She noted that it was unacceptable for Saudi authorities to disregard people and their demands in the 21st century.
“It is impossible to tell people that they have no voice, they can't speak. It just won't be tolerated. Nor should it be.”
Her remarks come in the wake of the recent police clampdown on Saudi demonstrators in a protest rally in the eastern city of al-Qatif where people poured out into the streets to demand freedom and release of political prisoners. Saudi police shot and wounded at least three protesters in the city on Thursday as the rally was about to finish.
The anti-government demonstration was the latest of a series of small protests over the past three weeks, in which several people were arrested.
More than 32,000 people backed a Facebook call to hold two demonstrations in the country on March 11 and March 20.
The Saudi regime heightened security in the city and stepped up its crackdown on any dissent.

Bahrain protesters march on palace

Tens of thousands of Bahraini protesters encircled one of the royal family's palaces Saturday, shouting calls for political freedom and the king's ouster a day after a similar march triggered a violent response from security forces.There was no repeat of the violent scenes from a day earlier when police backed by pro-government mobs drove crowds back from a different palace by firing rubber bullets and tear gas in a melee that injured dozens, according to witness

accounts.In contrast, Saturday's demonstration — which coincided with a visit by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates — was allowed to ring the palace with police deployed only inside its premises.Gates said that Bahrain and other Arab governments facing popular uprisings need to move quickly toward democratic reforms or risk giving regional rival Iran a chance to exploit the instability. Iran, a Shiite power in the region, is seen by Sunni-led countries such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as a serious threat.Still, there is no evidence that Iran has made any inroads with the Shiite activists who have led a month of protests in Bahrain modeled on the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia but fueled by local grievances against the island kingdom's Sunni monarchy. Bahrain's majority Shiite population accuses the rulers of discriminating against them and persecuting those who speak out.

Gates was in Bahrain to encourage dialogue between the Shiite-led protest movement and the Sunni ruling family.Bahrain holds particular importance to Washington as the host of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, the main American military counterweight to Iran's efforts to expand its armed forces and reach into the Gulf.Gates is the first member of President Barack Obama's Cabinet to visit Bahrain since street protests began in mid-February. In Saturday's meetings, Gates had been expected to urge a more open dialogue with political opposition groups, while offering reassurances of U.S. support for the rulers.The protesters have been staging daily demonstrations and marching on state and financial institutions that they say symbolize political oppression and economic inequality.

Tensions were high after Friday's march on the royal palace in Riffa, 12 miles (20 kilometers) south of Manama turned violent. The royal compound includes the Ruler's Court, the country's highest legal authority. Many members of ruling Al Khalifa family also live in the island capital's suburb.Security forces, reinforced by pro-government Sunni vigilantes, responded by fired rubber bullets and tear gas to scatter protesters near the palace in Manama, the capital.
Several witnesses reported the use of rubber bullets by the government side on Friday, including two protesters and human rights activist Sayed Yousef al-Mahafdha. Dr. Ali al-Iqri, who was part of an ambulance crew treating the wounded, also said he witnessed the firing.Bahrain's Interior Ministry denied its forces had fired rubber bullets though it acknowledged using tear gas.Saturday's march on another royal compound in Saferiya, 15 miles (25 kilometers) west of Manama was bigger and peaceful. With police monitoring the demonstration from the palace's sprawling courtyard, the protesters encircled the king's summer residence — chanting anti-government slogans and calling on the monarch to step down.Some protesters were dressed in white — the color of funeral shrouds — to symbolize a willingness to die for their cause. They carried signs that said in English and Arabic, "I am the next martyr" and "Willing to die for freedom."
The island's Shiites — about 70 percent of the population — have long demanded rights equal to those of the nation's Sunnis and the naturalized Sunnis from Arab states. The current political unrest is unprecedented, though tensions have simmered for years.
Seven protesters were killed in the government crackdown last month.

Lady Gaga launches Japan relief bid

The superstar singer who topped the charts around the world with her latest smash hit single 'Born This Way' has called her fans who she calls "Little Monsters" into action. She wants them to help her help Japan by buying a bracelet on her official website that she has designed for $5 (€3.60) or more and all proceeds will go to the relief efforts.

Gaga, who has nearly 9 million fans on Twitter, tweeted; "I designed a Japan Prayer Bracelet. Buy It/Donate on my website and ALL proceeds will go to Tsunami Relief Efforts. Go Monsters."

She added; "Choose your price to add an additional donation with your wristband. All proceeds go directly to Japan relief efforts."

Many other pop stars have taken to Twitter to offer the messages of sympathy including Alicia Keys who wrote; "My heart breaks for Japan".

And Justin Bieber tweeted; "Japan is one of my favourite places on Earth. It's an incredible culture with amazing people. My prayers go out to them. We all need to help."

Pakistan spy chief to stay on as key CIA partner

Pakistan's government will extend the term of the country's powerful spy chief, the CIA's main partner in the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban and a major player in the country's policies toward Afghanistan, an official said Saturday.
Lt. Gen. Ahmad Shuja Pasha has headed the Inter Services Intelligence, or the ISI, since 2008.
The ISI and the army — rather than the civilian government — formulate Pakistan's foreign and defense policies, especially concerning Afghanistan and India. The agency has significant influence over domestic political developments.
Defense Minister Ahmad Mukhtar told reporters Pasha would stay on as ISI chief when his term expires March 18, but he did not say how long the extension would be. Media reports in recent days suggested he will get a one or two-year extension.
Pasha is believed to have a good relationship with the CIA, and under his leadership the country has taken the fight to Islamist militants linked to al-Qaida and the Taliban. But Pakistan's perceived differing strategic interests, especially over the future of Afghanistan, cause frequent tensions between the two spy agencies.
Ties have hit a low since the arrest of a CIA contractor in eastern Pakistan in January after he shot and killed two Pakistanis. The contractor remains in jail despite Washington's insistence he must be freed. The ISI has criticized alleged CIA covert operations in the country.
Last year, Pakistan gave an unprecedented three-year extension to army chief Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, an ally of Pasha.

Thai 'Red Shirts' rally on protest anniversary

Thousands of anti-government "Red Shirt" demonstrators took to Bangkok's streets Saturday amid a heavy police presence, marking a year since the start of protests in the capital that turned deadly.

Thai society remains deeply divided following political violence that left about 90 people dead -- mostly civilians -- in a series of bloody street clashes between armed troops and protesters in April and May last year.

Police estimated that about 25,000 people had joined Saturday's gathering by early evening with the numbers expected to increase later for a video-link address by the Reds' hero, ex-premier Thaksin Shinawatra.
"In the past year we have suffered excruciating pain and been suppressed by the elite," said Nattawut Saikuar, one of seven main leaders of the movement recently released on bail after nine months in prison.
"I invite our brothers and sisters to come out tonight," he told a satellite television station run by the Reds.
The rally near Bangkok's Democracy Monument was expected to be the largest since May 2010, when troops firing live rounds and backed by armoured vehicles moved in to end the Reds' two-month demonstration.
After the crackdown, dozens of buildings were set ablaze across Bangkok, including a major shopping complex and the stock exchange.
"Many people I knew died last year so I want to call for justice. I hope this government goes," said Prapai Wichianchod, a 72-year-old retiree from northern Kampaengpetch Province.
Demonstrators at Saturday's rally wore T-shirts saying "Reds never die" and waved placards with slogans including "No Justice, no unity".
Many seek the return of Thaksin, who was ousted in a 2006 military coup and lives overseas to avoid a jail sentence imposed in absentia for corruption.
"I want to express my desire to fight. I voted in an election but the military seized power and stole my rights," said Supoj Ardsak, a 25-year-old company worker from Bangkok. "Now I want to call for my rights back."
National police spokesman Major General Prawut Thavornsiri said almost 3,500 officers were deployed for the demonstration and more were on standby, although the authorities said the rally could go ahead if it was peaceful.
"Police predict there will be more than 40,000 protesters and the rally will continue into the early hours, but we don't expect any violence," Prawut said.
The Red Shirts have held a series of peaceful one-day rallies in the capital in recent weeks.
The movement views Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva's government as an unelected elite because it came to power in a 2008 parliamentary vote with military backing, after a court ruling threw out the previous administration.
The government rejects the accusation, saying it came to power through a democratic process.
Abhisit said on Friday he would dissolve the lower house of parliament by early May, paving the way for what is expected to be a hard-fought election in late June or early July.
The British-born, Oxford-educated head of the establishment Democrat Party, must call a vote by the end of this year, when his term finishes, but he has repeatedly said he favours early polls.
The government has said it hopes the election brings a return to normality, but the Red Shirts are sceptical about prospects of a fair vote.
"If there's no cheating by the government side and no dirty tricks in the election then there'll be no political crisis," said Waraporn Puriladapun, a 53-year-old protester from Bangkok.
"But I think there will be cheating because some people are obsessed by power".
Some fear the military may even intervene in a country which has seen 18 actual or attempted coups since 1932, although Abhisit has rejected the idea.
"I'm 90 percent sure there'll be a coup before the election. I have a feeling," said protester Supoj.

US army to aid Japan quake rescue

Saudi Arabia in for revolution?

Saudi Arabia is at the focus of experts’ attention after police broke up a Shiite rally in the east of the country and the authorities banned any demonstrations. Western analysts quickly listed Saudi Arabia as a country to witness the next revolution amid local publications defaming the Royal Family. All analysts are unanimous, however, that the West would not welcome destabilization in a country which is widely seen as the US’ major partner in the volatile region.

While Tunisia, Egypt and Libya were swept by riots and the authorities in Bahrain and Yemen struggled to pacify the opposition, Saudi Arabia remained an island of stability. The government precluded social unrest by announcing a 35-billion-dollar increase in social spending. And a member of the ruling family, Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal, issued a statement saying that King Abdullah should expand political rights and freedoms. But the measures proved useless against the critics who continued to slam the regime in the Internet on, encouraging critical publications in the western press. Guided by WikiLeaks files, the Reuter news agency accused members of the royal family in corruption. Vladimir Isayev, an expert from the Oriental Research Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, believes, however, that ruining relations with Saudi Arabia does not meet the western agenda.

Saudi Arabia is a top buyer of US weapons and a major oil supplier to the US. American armed forces are monitoring the situation in the country from a number of bases on the territory of Saudi Arabia and Saudi leaders have been cooperating with the US on a whole range of issues. Washington is unlikely to challenge its number one partner in the Arab world.

After a Shiite rally in the east the Saudi government banned any demonstrations. The Shiites say, however, that will take to the streets again. Vladimir Isayev says that revolutionary moods are instigated by Iran.

Iran has been trying hard to increase its clout over Shiite communities across the globe. Shiites make up a minority in Saudi Arabia. An attempt of ten to twelve years ago to capture a mosque in Mecca was sponsored by Iran.

The clergy pledged support for the royal family saying that mass protests are at odds with Islamic tradition. In this respect, experts hope that Saudi authorities will manage to keep the situation under control.

The flop of Friday’s rally proves that. “Day of wrath” rallies which were to have taken place across Riyadh after Friday prayers were attended by only one person.

Karzai tells NATO,End operations in Afghanistan

Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Saturday urged international troops to "stop their operations in our land", his strongest salvo yet in a row over mistaken civilian killings.

Karzai's comments came after a week in which a relative of his was killed in a raid by foreign forces and he rejected an apology by the US commander of troops General David Petraeus for the deaths of nine children in a NATO strike.

"I would like to ask NATO and the US with honour and humbleness and not with arrogance to stop their operations in our land," Karzai said, visiting the dead children's relatives in Kunar province, eastern Afghanistan.

"We are very tolerant people but now our tolerance has run out."

He added that Kabul and his Western backers in the war against the Taliban were well aware that Pakistan's border areas, where insurgents have hideouts, ought to be the focus of international military campaigns.

Karzai also met relatives of those caught up in another incident in Kunar in which Afghan officials say 65 people died but NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) says left up to nine people injured.

The president cried as he held a girl who he said had her leg amputated following the latter attack.

A spokeswoman for ISAF could not immediately comment.

The latest Kunar incident, which happened as the children gathered firewood, forced the always-sensitive issue of civilian casualties caused by international troops back to the top of the political agenda in Afghanistan.

Karzai had already angrily rejected a public apology from Petraeus, the US commander of foreign troops, over the deaths.

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates also said he was sorry personally to Karzai during a visit to Afghanistan Monday.

Then on Thursday, it emerged that Karzai's father's cousin had been shot dead near his home in the family's village in Kandahar province, southern Afghanistan.

Karzai's spokesman Waheed Omer said the president was "extremely sad" at the news and "once again calls on NATO forces to avoid killing civilians."

A UN report Wednesday revealed that the deaths of Afghan civilians in the war had increased 15 percent to a record high last year, adding that insurgents were responsible for three-quarters of the killings.

The report recorded 2,777 civilian deaths last year, underscoring the level of violence in the country as foreign troops prepare to start handing control of security to Afghan forces in some areas from July.

Afghan security forces are due to take responsibility for security across the country by 2014, allowing international combat forces to withdraw.

There are currently around 140,000 international troops serving in Afghanistan, around two-thirds of them from the United States.

Yemeni Security Forces Fire Bullets as Protesters Demand Ouster

Yemeni security forces failed to stop thousands of protesters streaming into the center of the capital, Sana’a, after firing bullets at demonstrators demanding the ouster of President Ali Abdullah Saleh.

Government forces killed at least one protester, fired tear gas and injured thousands of people in clashes early this morning, Al Jazeera television said. That didn’t dissuade more demonstrators from marching into the city’s Taghyeer Square to show solidarity with the injured, shouting “down, down with the president” and “shame on you.”

“Hundreds are suffocating and dozens of the cases are serious,” said Mohammed al-Obahi, who is running the team of medical volunteers in the square. “People affected by the gas are suffering from headaches, hallucinations and are trembling.” Fifty people have been wounded by live bullets, he said.

Protestors are rejecting Saleh’s promises of a new constitution this year as he seeks to stop a wave of protests sweeping the Arab world toppling his regime. Saleh, 68, a U.S. ally in the fight against al-Qaeda, became leader of North Yemen in 1978, and has ruled the Republic of Yemen since the north and south merged in 1990. Yemen is the Arabian peninsula’s poorest nation.

“Protesters are demanding the prosecution of the attackers,” Nabeel Mohammed, a protester in Taghyeer Square, said. “This is a heinous crime against us. We will continue the protests in spite of this excessive use of the force. We want the immediate trial of these criminals.”

Protestors in Taiz City, south of Sana’a, were also met by live bullets after they took to the streets to condemn government actions in the capital, Bushra al-Maktari, a protester, said by telephone.

Gadhafi Continues Assult on Key Oil Port City

Explosion at quake-hit Japan nuclear plant

An explosion was heard and white smoke was reportedly seen at Japan’s quake-hit Fukushima No.1 nuclear plant today, Jiji press agency said.

Several workers were reported to be injured in the explosion, and smoke was seen billowing out of the plant.

The Japan Nuclear Safety Agency later said however the explosion was not at the reactor.

Radioactivity at the plant was 20 times over the normal level, and Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission has said it may be experiencing meltdown.

Several workers were reported to be injured in the explosion, and smoke was seen billowing out of the plant.

The Japan Nuclear Safety Agency later said however the explosion was not at the reactor.

Radioactivity at the plant was 20 times over the normal level, and Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission has said it may be experiencing meltdown.

Several workers were reported to be injured in the explosion, and smoke was seen billowing out of the plant.

The Japan Nuclear Safety Agency later said however the explosion was not at the reactor.

Radioactivity at the plant was 20 times over the normal level, and Japan’s Nuclear Safety Commission has said it may be experiencing meltdown.