Tuesday, January 28, 2014
President Barack Obama vowed on Tuesday to bypass a divided Congress and take action on his own to bolster America's middle class in a State of the Union speech that he used to try to breathe new life into his second term after a troubled year. Standing in the House of Representatives chamber before lawmakers, Supreme Court justices and VIP guests, Obama declared his independence from Congress by issuing a raft of executive orders - a move likely to inflame already tense relations between the Democratic president and Republicans. Obama's actions, while relatively modest, collectively amounted to an outpouring of frustration at the pace of legislative action with Republicans in control of the House of Representatives and able to slow the president's agenda. "I'm eager to work with all of you," Obama told the lawmakers gathered for the annual speech. "But America does not stand still - and neither will I. So wherever and whenever I can take steps without legislation to expand opportunity for more American families, that's what I'm going to do." Obama's orders included a wage hike for federal contract workers, creation of a "starter savings account" to help millions of people save for retirement, and plans to establish new fuel efficiency standards for trucks. He said he was driven to act by the widening gap between rich and poor and the fact that while the stock market has soared, average wages have barely budged. "Inequality has deepened," Obama said. "Upward mobility has stalled. The cold hard fact is that even in the midst of recovery, too many Americans are working more than ever just to get by, let alone get ahead. And too many still aren't working at all." Obama's strategy means he has scaled back ambitions for large legislative actions and wants to focus more on small-bore initiatives that can reduce income inequality and create more opportunities for middle-class workers. He did, however, renew appeals for actions that still await congressional approval. He called for Congress to give him the authority to speedily negotiate international trade agreements, a proposal held up by Democratic opposition. On one of his biggest priorities, immigration reform, Obama urged Congress to work together on an overhaul, but he tempered his criticism of Republicans who have held up the law, with signs of possible progress emerging in recent days among House Republicans. Obama also held back from taking a step that immigration reform advocates have called on him to take. He did not take executive action to freeze the deportations of parents of children brought to the United States illegally. "Let's get immigration reform done this year," he said. 'REFIGHTING OLD BATTLES' On healthcare, the issue that rocked his presidency and caused many Americans to lose confidence in him, Obama defended the overhaul law he signed in 2010 but did not dwell on it, urging Americans to sign up for medical insurance coverage by a March 31 deadline. "I don't expect to convince my Republican friends on the merits of this law," Obama said. "But I know that the American people aren't interested in refighting old battles." His political objective was to create a narrative for Democrats to use as they seek to head off Republicans eager to wrest control of the Senate from Democrats in November elections and build on their majority in the House. The party in control of the White House typically loses seats in these so-called mid-term elections, but Democrats feel they stand a chance of limiting their losses or even making some gains. With three years left in office, long-standing issues still seemed to hang over his presidency. He called anew for closing the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. "This needs to be the year Congress lifts the remaining restrictions on detainee transfers and we close the prison at Guantanamo Bay," Obama said. "Because we counter terrorism not just through intelligence and military action, but by remaining true to our constitutional ideals and setting an example for the rest of the world. He also said nothing about whether he would approve the long-delayed Keystone XL Canada-to-Texas oil pipeline that environmentalists oppose. Instead, Obama spoke passionately about the need to tackle climate change, a statement that could foreshadow more executive actions to reduce carbon emissions this year. "Climate change is a fact," he said. Republicans clambered for some of the same rhetorical ground as Obama in pledging to narrow the gap between rich and poor but staked out a different vision for doing so. "It's one that champions free markets and trusts people to make their own decisions, not a government that decides for you," Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, chairwoman of the House Republican Caucus, said in her party's response to Obama's speech. "It helps working families rise above the limits of poverty and protects our most vulnerable." Obama is trying to recover from a difficult fifth year in office, when immigration and gun control legislation failed to advance in Congress, his healthcare law struggled out of the starting gate, and he appeared uncertain about how to respond to Syria's civil war. Polls reflect a dissatisfied and gloomy country. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Tuesday showed 68 percent of Americans saying the country is either stagnant or worse off since Obama took office. People used words like "divided," "troubled" and "deteriorating" to describe the state of the country, the poll showed. Obama dwelled mostly on domestic issues in his hour-long address, but warned Congress he would veto any effort to increase economic sanctions on Iran as he tries to reach a comprehensive deal with Tehran to ensure it does not obtain a nuclear weapons capability. Obama will talk up the economic themes from the speech in a two-day road trip starting on Wednesday that will include stops in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Tennessee.
New supplies of weapons to Syria provide solid preconditions for supporting terrorists in the region, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said. "New supplies of lethal and non-lethal weapons to the Syrian conflict area lay groundwork for supporting terrorists," Lavrov told journalists in Brussels on Tuesday. Read more: http://voiceofrussia.com/news/2014_01_28/New-supplies-of-weapons-to-Syrian-conflict-area-lay-groundwork-for-supporting-terrorists-Lavrov-8677/
The Bahraini authorities must immediately investigate the death in custody of a 19-year-old boy who was shot in the head by security forces, said Amnesty International. “Bahrain’s authorities must come clean and open a full, independent investigation to establish the truth about the death of Fadel Abbas. Those responsible for his death must be held to account,” said Said Boumedouha, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Middle East and North Africa Programme. “The conflicting information that has emerged over the version of events that led to his death makes such an investigation even more urgent.” Fadel Abbas was wounded when security forces tried to arrest him and others as they went to visit a recently released prisoner in the village of Markh. The Interior Ministry said in a statement on 26 January that Fadel Abbas had died of his wounds after he was shot on 8 January when he “purposefully” drove a car into members of the security forces as he attempted to escape arrest for smuggling arms and explosives. The Ministry said its forces had acted in self-defence. Human rights activists, who published pictures of the body of Fadel Abbas, said that he sustained bullet injuries in the head and wounds to the leg during a violent altercation with the security forces. Fadel Abbas’s family were also not told he had been arrested when they asked police about him after he went missing. Fadel Abbas’s mother said that the Criminal Investigation Directorate had contacted her on 26 January to inform her of her son’s death. Prior to this the family said they were not given any information about his whereabouts or medical condition and were not allowed to visit him in hospital. The Interior Ministry has stated that Fadel Abbas’s family were allowed access to him on 13 January. The killing of Fadel Abbas has triggered protests in the village of Diraz, west of the capital Manama where his funeral was held. Police fired tear gas and gunshots as they clashed with protesters after the funeral. “The latest protests show that there remains a deep lack of trust in information issued by the authorities. Such mistrust is largely due to the authorities’ unwillingness and abject failure so far to adequately address abuses by its security forces and provide justice for those who have died,” said Said Boumedouha. Since anti-government protests erupted in Bahrain on 14 February 2011, a number of low ranking police officers have been tried over the deadly crackdown on protester. However they have either been acquitted or given sentences that do not match the seriousness of their alleged offences. The authorities have yet to implement a number of key recommendations made in the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report, including carrying out investigations into killings by the security force during the uprising. Demonstrations have continued to take place regularly outside of Manama calling for human rights and political reform.
A brutal winter storm brings cold and ice to the U.S. South.
President Barack Obama will lay out a strategy for getting around a divided Congress and boosting middle-class prosperity on Tuesday in a State of the Union speech that reflects scaled-back legislative ambitions after a difficult year. Obama will make clear in his 9 p.m. address that he is willing to bypass U.S. lawmakers and go it alone in some areas by announcing a series of executive actions that do not require congressional approval. The White House said Obama would announce he is issuing an executive order to raise the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for federal contract workers with new contracts.
In his address, Obama will also call on Congress to pass a bill to increase the federal minimum wage for all workers to $10.10 an hour from $7.25 and index that to inflation. The executive order raising the level for federal workers, which applies to new contracts or existing contracts in which terms are being changed, will take effect at the beginning of next year, with janitors and construction workers among the beneficiaries. Issuing the order allows Obama to bypass Congress, where Republicans oppose a broad increase in the minimum wage. White House officials said Obama would also announce new executive actions on retirement security and job training to help middle-class workers expand economic opportunity. "What you'll hear in the speech tonight is very concrete, realistic proposals as it relates to wages, as it relates to education, as it relates to training, high-tech manufacturing, retirement security, those are the things that he's focused on," White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough said on NBC's "Today Show." With three years left in office, Obama has effectively reduced for now his ambitions for grand legislative actions. Obama is expected to renew his appeal for a long-stalled immigration overhaul that has been stymied by Republicans. He will promote his signature healthcare law, four months after its disastrous initial rollout. White House officials said the president would try to work with Congress to accomplish his agenda, but would also try to advance it through executive actions if necessary. "We will continue to call on Congress - both sides of the aisle - to come up with new and fresh ideas for how we can grow our economy and create opportunities for the American people, but we aren't going to stop at that," White House senior advisor Valerie Jarrett said on MSNBC'S "Morning Joe." Congressional Republicans expressed skepticism. House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner said that while the president may have the authority to raise the minimum wage on federal contracts, the impact will be "close to zero" because it will only affect future contracts. He also said an across-the-board increase in the minimum wage could harm the economy. "When you raise the cost of something you get less of it," Boehner told a news conference after a party meeting near the U.S. Capitol. "And we know from increases in the minimum wage in the past, that hundreds of thousands of low-income Americans have lost their jobs." 'COMES DOWN TO ECONOMIC ISSUES' Obama is trying to recover from a difficult fifth year in office, when immigration and gun control legislation failed to advance in Congress, his healthcare law struggled out of the starting gate, and he appeared uncertain about how to respond to Syria's civil war. Polls reflect a dissatisfied and gloomy country: an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll released on Tuesday showed 68 percent of Americans saying the country is either stagnant or worse off since Obama took office. People used words like "divided," troubled" and "deteriorating" to describe the state of the country, the poll showed. A central them of the address, Obama's sixth such annual speech in the House chamber, is addressing income inequality, as middle-class Americans struggle to get ahead even while wealthier people prosper in the uneven economic recovery. "It comes down to economic issues," said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. "The economy is going to be the thing that determines whether people have confidence in the president. If the economy is doing well, people will forgive a lot of the things the president has done or not done." Attending the speech will be a variety of Americans who will sit in the gallery with the president's wife, Michelle Obama, symbolizing issues important to the White House. They will include heroes from last year's Boston Marathon bombings, a firefighter who led the rescue response to an Oklahoma tornado, and an openly gay basketball player. One of Obama's goals is to lay out ideas that Democratic congressional candidates can adopt in the run-up to November elections as they try to hold on to their Senate majority and challenge Republicans for control of the House. Obama will talk up themes from the speech in a two-day road trip starting on Wednesday that will include stops in Maryland, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Tennessee.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai reportedly believes that the U.S. government and military have been a hidden force behind recent insurgent attacks in Afghanistan, such as an attack earlier this month that killed 21 people, including three Americans, in Kabul. The Washington Post, citing an Afghan official who it said was sympathetic to Karzai's view, reported that the Afghan leader believes that dozens of attacks blamed on the Taliban have been planned by the U.S. to weaken his government and foment instability in the country. The official did acknowledge that Karzai had no concrete evidence of American involvement in any attack.
The report is another sign of the deepening rift between the U.S. and Karzai, who has continued to refuse to sign a tentative security agreement allowing for American troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014, preferring to leave the issue for his successor following Afghanistan's April presidential election. U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan James B. Cunningham told the Post that Karzai's reported suspicions represented "a deeply conspiratorial view that's divorced from reality ... It flies in the face of logic and morality to think that we would aid the enemy we’re trying to defeat." Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan added, "We have spent 12 years trying to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan in the face of threats from terrorist and insurgent networks . . . to suggest otherwise does a grave disservice to those who have sacrificed for the people of Afghanistan." According to the Afghan official quoted by the Post, Karzai's theory is based on suspicions that the attacks are intended to draw attention away from civilian casualties caused by U.S. airstrikes. In addition, the official contends that attacks like that on the Kabul restaurant were "too sophisticated to be the handiwork" of the Taliban. For their part, the Taliban have rejected any possibility of the U.S. playing a role in their attacks, with spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid telling the Post, "Whatever claims [of responsibility] we make, those are attacks that have genuinely been carried out by our forces."
After remaining in power for 12 long years, President Hamid Karzai, towards the fag-end of his rule, is making his last-ditch stand against the superpower that brought him to power. The United States of America hand -picked him out of relative obscurity in December 2001, when the Taliban regime had collapsed as a result of the American invasion of Afghanistan and made him the war-ravaged country’s president at the first Bonn Conference in Germany. The Americans had few choices then as Abdul Haq, the other favourite candidate for the job had just been killed by Taliban fighters in Logar province following his failed attempt to lead an uprising, and there wasn’t any credible challenger to Karzai, who spoke fluent English and wasn’t tainted by any scandal concerning corruption or human rights abuses. More important though was his pedigree: he was the son of a former member of parliament, Abdul Ahad Karzai belonging to the old Kandahar ruling clan of Popalzais from the Durrani Pashtun tribe. Karzai was lucky to have survived an attempt by the Taliban to hunt him down in the central Urozgan province in those dangerous times. Loyal Durrani tribesmen came to his rescue and protected him while the Americans airlifted him to safety in a helicopter. Karzai didn’t have much experience when he assumed the difficult job of Afghanistan’s president, except for a brief stint as deputy foreign minister during the chaotic Afghan mujahideen rule after the fall of Dr Najibullah’s communist government in April 1992 and running mujahideen leader Professor Sebghatullah Mojadeddi’s office earlier in Peshawar. Prior to that, he managed an Afghan food restaurant owned by his family in the US. However, he learned on the job and became increasingly assertive. The vast powers entrusted to Afghanistan’s president in the country’s new constitution enabled him to make and break political alliances at will and use patronage and ethnic and regional rivalries to keep warlords and tribal chiefs by his side. The parliament tried to challenge him and some of his ministers were ousted from the cabinet, but Karzai’s presidential authority ensured that he was left untouched. His latest, and probably last, battle before the April 5, 2014 presidential election isn’t against his numerous Afghan rivals. This time he is pitted against the US, his frequent benefactor, which won’t have to do much to win over his Afghan opponents, most of whom benefited during the Karzai rule before drifting apart due to personal reasons, rather than any issue of principles or ideology. It is an unequal battle between an Afghan president, who is on his way out and doesn’t enjoy much popular support, and the US, which has the financial and military resources to keep the government in Kabul in power. Nobody could have imagined some months ago that Karzai would put his foot down at the eleventh hour and refuse to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US. He had already signed the strategic partnership agreement with the US in 2011 and the BSA was being negotiated for a year since late 2012. The US had agreed to Karzai’s proposal to convene the traditional Loya Jirga to discuss the BSA and was hoping that the deal would be signed before the end of 2013. The 2,500 delegates at the Loya Jirga were mostly handpicked by the Karzai administration and included parliamentarians, tribal elders, members of the intelligentsia, clerics and women activists. As expected, the Loya Jirga endorsed the BSA after being exhorted by none other than Karzai to do so. However, the Loya Jirga, rather unexpectedly, advised the Afghan president to sign the security agreement before the end of the year. It was at this stage that Karzai, apparently as an after thought, declined to sign it until his conditions, both old and new, were met by the US. He also wanted the new president to be elected in the April 2014 polls to sign the security agreement. Karzai listed a number of conditions, including the most crucial one for an end to US airstrikes and searching of homes in Afghan villages as he advocated action against militants’ sanctuaries outside Afghanistan’s border, which meant Pakistan. He also wanted more US efforts to promote the peace process involving Taliban. This also involved Pakistan because Karzai believed the US could put enough pressure on Islamabad to persuade it to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Another Karzai condition, which wasn’t stressed enough, was the release of all Afghan prisoners from Guantanamo Bay detention centre. It was primarily linked with the reconciliation process because all these prisoners are Taliban and their release could be termed as a major confidence-building measure to get the Taliban leadership to agree to peace and power-sharing talks with Kabul. It was interesting to know that most of these points were also advocated by the Loya Jirga, though unlike Karzai it didn’t make the signing of the BSA conditional to the acceptance of these demands. The US termed these conditions unrealistic and insisted on early signing of the BSA under the terms already agreed to in the year-long negotiations. After insisting that the BSA must be signed by Karzai before the end of 2013 to enable the US government to plan for the post-2014 deployment of the residual troops, totalling around 10,000 according to most accounts, and secure the required funds from Congress, the Obama administration later relented and agreed to extend the deadline to February, when Nato is scheduled to hold an important meeting. Subsequently, some US officials hinted that they could even wait until April, when the presidential election would have taken place. This meant narrowing of the differences, at least on the timing of signing the security agreement, between Karzai and the US. Karzai is under pressure from all sides to sign the security agreement. There is unrelenting pressure by the US, which has on occasions been undiplomatic in its dealings with him and has warned that it would cut off most of its aid to Afghanistan if the security agreement isn’t signed and it is forced to apply the “zero option” by withdrawing all its forces. The US also unsuccessfully tried to bypass him by proposing that Defence Minister General Bismillah Khan Mohammadi or another minister could sign the BSA if Karzai didn’t want to do so. Karzai had, in the past, bluntly accused US officials of undermining his position by accusing his late brother Ahmad Wali Karzai of involvement in drug-trafficking and raising questions about the fairness of the 2009 presidential election, accusing his government of fraud. At home, the Loya Jirga felt offended when Karzai didn’t pay heed to its recommendation to sign the BSA. The Afghan elite and all 11 presidential candidates want the BSA to be signed. It seems Karzai would eventually have to swallow his pride and sign the BSA or risk putting the embattled Afghan government and its largely untried security forces at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the Taliban once the Nato forces leave by December 31, 2014. There were reports that Karzai was concerned about his legacy and didn’t want to be equated in history with former king Shah Shuja, who got the British forces to invade Afghanistan to install him in power, and Communist president Babrak Karmal who, in the words of his critics, came riding a Soviet tank to capture power and facilitate the Red Army takeover of the country in December 1979. The Afghan president knows the risks he is taking by refusing to sign the BSA. He has spoken about the grave consequences for the country in case the military assistance by the US is halted because, in his view, signing the BSA was necessary for strengthening security and stability in Afghanistan. However, he has rejected the observation that not signing the BSA would lead to factional fighting or that Afghanistan would fail to survive as a nation. As if provoking the US, he argued that the Afghans had fought and defeated invaders and preserved their independence. In another provocation to the US, he visited Iran and agreed with newly-elected President Hasan Rouhani to negotiate and sign a treaty of friendship and cooperation between the two countries. This would certainly have upset the Americans because he was trying to get close to Iran at a time when he was refusing to sign the security agreement with the US. Karzai has also been trying to increase defence cooperation with India so that it could somehow fill the vacuum in Afghanistan once the US-led Nato forces are gone. However, such a move risks further alienating Pakistan, which is wary of the growing Indian influence in Afghanistan. Abdullah_Zalmai_Ashraf_Qayyum01-14It wasn’t surprising that both the Taliban and former mujahideen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami backed Karzai for not signing the BSA. It was rare for the Taliban to appreciate Karzai and they encouraged him not to sign the security agreement in keeping with the glorious Afghan history of resisting foreign military presence in their homeland. Hekmatyar went a step further and offered to declare a ceasefire, stand by the Afghan security forces and take part in the elections. However, by the end of 2013 it appeared that Karzai’s resolve was weakening as he was quoted as saying that raids on suspected houses could be carried out provided Afghan forces accompanied the US troops and formal permission from a court was obtained. It seemed he wanted the US to positively respond to at least some of his demands as part of a face-saving deal, instead of categorically rejecting everything he wanted. It is possible he is seeking a future role for himself as an elder statesman following the election of a new president. He has already acquired a home adjacent to the presidential palace, Arg, in Kabul and got it renovated so that he could live in a secure place close to the seat of power. After having announced his neutrality, he could discreetly back his elder brother Qayyum Karzai or his former foreign minister Dr Zalmai Rassoul in the election for president to continue his legacy, even though both are trailing far behind the front-runners, former foreign minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah and former finance minister Dr Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, in the recent public opinion surveys. It won’t be surprising if Karzai in the end shifts his support to Dr Ahmadzai, a fellow Pashtun who would be friendlier to him than Dr Abdullah, who lost to him in the bitterly fought 2009 Presidential election and turned from loyalist to bitter foe.
President Hamid Karzai's Spokesman Imal Faizi on Tuesday told reporters that several recent attacks were orchestrated by foreign intelligence services, despite being claimed as Taliban attacks. He also responded to recent reports that Karzai believes the U.S. has been behind some of the violence. An Afghan Presidential Palace official was said to have told the Washington Post on condition of anonymity this week that President Karzai suspects the U.S. has been behind a number of insurgent-style attacks. The Afghan President reportedly has a list of dozens of such attacks, inlcuding the recent assault on a popular Lebanese restauran in Kabul that left 21 dead, including 13 foreign civilians, and grabbed headlines around the world as one of the deadlest attacks on foreign nationals in Afghanistan since 2001. Karzai has made a career out of lashing out at the U.S. military for causing civilian casualties. But if true, recent reports would indicate he has been planning a much larger indictement of the U.S. that implicates it in terrorist plots. According to the Washington Post's source, Karzai believes the U.S. may be trying to destabilize his government or attempting to shift attention way from civilian casualties caused by airstrikes, which the Afghan President has denounced on multiple occassions. The Afghan official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the sophisticated coordination and patterns of certain attacks were what initially raised red flags for Karzai. "Some attacks launched in Kabul and other provinces have the work of foreign intelligence services behind them," Faizi said on Tuesday. "We have evidence supporting this sent by official institutions." When responding to questions about the Washington Post report, however, Faizi said that the government had no evidence at this time indicating the U.S. was behind the attack at the Lebanese restaurant in Kabul last week. "We do not have evidence showing whether or not it was America that attacked the Lebanese restaurant, and it was just a report published by a foreign newspaper," Faizi said. "But it is clear that some attacks are being done by foreign country's intelligence services in the name of the Taliban." Meanwhile, the National Security Council has also said that the Lebanese restaurant attack was not a Taliban operation despite it being claimed by the group's spokesman. The Taliban's spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid has disputed the Afghan officials' claims and maintained that all the attacks were in fact launched by insurgents. Faizi nor anyone else form the Afghan government said explicitly what countries or groups exactly were suspected of being behind the attacks, or the nature of the evidence that had been gathered so far. U.S. officials in Kabul have outright rejected the claims that there was any involvement in recent attacks, calling them "conspiratorial" and "divorced from reality", according to the Washington Post. The U.S. government has publically supported the Karzai government since its beginning, funneling billions of dollars into its budget over the years. In recent months, Karzai has publically derided the U.S. for supposedly putting "all types" of pressure on Kabul to sign the still pending Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), which would allow U.S. troops to stay in Afghanistan post-2014 and outline a continued military partnership between the two nations. But whether or not Karzai's suspicions surrounding recent attacks are related to tensions over the BSA is uncertain. In the past, most suspicion of foreign involvement in violence in Afghanistan was directed at Pakistan. For years, Afghan and foreign officials have bemoaned the involvement of Pakistani intelligence in nurturing insurgent groups on either side of the border. Karzai's new allegations could be a great deal more groundbreaking. But whether or not they are true, the speculations alone confirm that relations between the U.S. and the Karzai administration have reached an all-time low.
By Ashfaq YusufzaiThe Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan's staunch opposition to the vaccine is a roadblock to eradication of the disease. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) opposition to polio vaccination endangers children in Pakistan and around the world, officials say. "The Taliban are proving to be bitter enemies of children, on whom our future hinges," Rafiq ul Haq, a vaccinator in Khyber Agency, told Central Asia Online. Only a few weeks into the new year, Pakistan has registered four polio cases in North Waziristan. The newly infected children live in Taliban-controlled areas and did not receive vaccine, officials said. The problem exists because militants have threatened vaccinators or forced them to leave the areas they control and also have run anti-vaccine propaganda to misguide parents. Spreading the disease The Taliban's hard-line opposition to the vaccine is preventing global polio eradication, Muhammad Saleem, an official at the Expanded Programme on Immunisation (EPI) in Mir Ali Tehsil, North Waziristan, said, noting that the thousands of unvaccinated children could transmit the virus to other parts of the country and foreign countries. In fact, Peshawar, a city adjoining the tribal areas, has become the world's largest polio virus reservoir, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says. "Not only has the Taliban's [intimidation] crippled more children, but they are responsible for transmitting the virus," Dr. Kamran Shah, an official at the directorate of health for Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), said. To illustrate how the disease's prevalence in one area can make trouble elsewhere, he observed that, in 2013, more than two dozen polio cases detected in Syria and Egypt originated in Pakistan. In 2013, FATA had 65 cases (35 in Waziristan alone), followed by 10 from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, nine in Sindh and seven in Punjab. Seven of the nine children who tested positive in Sindh matched the FATA virus, according to reports from the National Institute of Health Islamabad. "Genetic sequencing of the virus detected in seven children in Frontier Region Bannu showed a resemblance to the virus of North Waziristan," Kamran said. Crippling their own children Children in Taliban-controlled areas are vulnerable to falling ill because their parents failed to have them vaccinated, Kamran said. "We have to vaccinate all target children in FATA to be able to eradicate the disease," he said. The TTP's stance against polio has wrought suffering not only among innocent families but among its members' children too. "The Taliban's own children are among the infected lot," Saleem said. "We have not tested them, but the signs and symptoms we observed resembled those of polio-affected children." Vaccination hasn't taken place in North Waziristan for 19 months, he said, noting that he examined two children in Sara Melowa, a village and Taliban hub in North Waziristan, suffering from what appeared to be polio. "We asked the local clerics in Waziristan to encourage the Taliban to allow vaccination, but indications are that the requests will fall on deaf ears," Juma Khan, a Waziristan-based malik, told Central Asia Online. "Now our main concern is the safety of children who live in areas controlled by the Taliban because they face real risk." The adamant stance taken by the Taliban against vaccination is utterly reprehensible, Kamran said. "They don't care about their own children, so how can we expect them to care about other children?" he asked. Thwarting eradication The Pakistani Taliban are a serious threat to the country's plan to eradicate polio in 2014. "Pakistan's plan to eradicate polio will remain a distant dream as long as the Taliban's [intimidation] continues," Kamran said. FATA has been a stumbling block in the way of global efforts to eliminate polio from Pakistan, one of only three countries where polio remains endemic. In 2013, Pakistani authorities registered more than 100,000 children whose parents refused vaccination under the misconception that vaccine was formulated to render its recipients sterile. Health workers could not reach another 600,000 children because of security concerns. "We are able to vaccinate 35m children countrywide, but the unvaccinated children are the real threat to the eradication effort," Dr. Noor Shah of the WHO said. "As long as the virus remains in one child, we have to administer [oral polio vaccine] to all children."
Who killed the children of Hangu - there is no claimant yet, and may never be - given inability of even the most stone-hearted to admit committing such a heinous crime. How would these kids, five boys and a girl, some of them as young as two, know that the cleverly-planted grenade was a killing machine and not a toy they felt happy to find in the street? How would they know that beyond the end of the street they lived there was a war? According to a local, "One of the minors found the device and started playing with it when it suddenly went off". There is so much common in ignorance and innocence. The death was in their chase; their parents had migrated to Hangu from the neighbouring Orakzai tribal agency where military is fighting the Taliban. But even when there is no taker of this battle-front victory, there is this puzzling commonality between the Hangu tragedy and the attack in the vicinity of the General Headquarters (GHQ), Rawalpindi - almost simultaneous to these incidents the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan offered peace talks to the government. The banned outfit's spokesman said 'they once again offer serious and meaningful dialogue to the government'. And should Pakistan government rise to the bait the spokesman promised 'positive response', as it did when Maulana Samiul Haq approached them. Is it that these two attacks were expected to gain position of strength at the negotiating table? Or, is it that having committed the murder of the innocent children the TTP is trying to avert the tit-for-tat nemesis like the one they had after the Rawalpindi attack? There can be no intelligent guess about the TTP's game plan - essentially because both the government and its political opposition tend to figure it out in the light of their myopic outlooks. Intentionally or otherwise the government is confused, as if scared of disturbing the status quo. The opposition, on the other hand, is too vocal but sharply divided, largely along their narrow political agendas. As expected the PTI's Imran Khan has welcomed the TTP's latest peace talks offer, warning that war with Taliban would 'destroy' the Pakistan army - as if so far the terrorists have been sparing any effort not to do so. With nothing to his credit as peace-maker between the government and banned TTP Imran Khan must come up every time with some quotable quote to remain relevant. His immediate rival Maulana Fazlur Rehman's case is not very different; he too is on the same page with Imran Khan vis-a-vis the Taliban. That despite their identical dispositions towards the TTP they are at each other's throat the reason is their tense rivalry over the power in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa. At present there is greater bite to the Maulana's position on the Taliban offer also for the reason that the Nawaz Sharif government is not prepared to give the JUI(F) a plum ministry in the federal government. Whether the positive response the two have shown to the Taliban peace offer has any taker beyond their parties in the KP or elsewhere in Pakistan, not much is detectable. Dissatisfied both with the PML (N)-headed federal government and PTI-headed provincial government the ANP chief Asfandyar Wali Khan wants to know what is actually happening on the counter-terrorism front. Obviously, with perceptions and perspectives of the three principal stakeholders in the front-line province so much at variance the decision to accept the Taliban's offer of peace dialogue lies somewhere else. And that may be the case now, aptly reflected by the speculation rife in the Capital that a full-fledged military operation in North Waziristan is in the offing. The people's patience with atrocities committed by the terrorists and instantly owned up by the TTP is fast running out. They ask how killing six small children is Jihad, and what is that the so-called Jihadists are prepared to give up on the negotiating table. If the TTP has any agenda for peace talks Amir Muqam of Shangla, who recently escaped a deadly assassination attempt, has asked the pro-TTP parties to 'unearth' and show it to the people of Pakistan. If not, then its offer of peace dialogue makes no sense.
Last week, a 65-year-old British man of Pakistani origin, Mohammad Asghar, who is said have a history of mental illness, was sentenced to death for blasphemy by a court in Rawalpindi. He had been arrested in 2010 after writing letters to several individuals in which he claimed to be a prophet. An accusation of blasphemy — a term loosely applied to several offences that fall under Section 295 titled “Of offences relating to religion” in the Pakistan Penal Code — is fraught with risk at various levels; for the accused himself, his family, his lawyers, even the judge who grants him relief whether in the form of bail or acquittal. “This is the only criminal offence – except perhaps treason – which when levelled, instantly stigmatises the accused and invites danger of violence,” says lawyer Faisal Siddiqi. “That’s why it’s initiated in the first place; such an accusation makes it easy to mobilise people against the individual.” In 2012, there were at least two cases in which mobs were instigated by exhortations of vigilante justice, over mosque loudspeakers in one instance, to attack police stations where two accused were present, and beat them to death. As per the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), in the first eight months of 2013, FIRs were registered against 19 people under Section 295. Among them are at least eight Muslims, six Ahmadis and two Christians. According to HRCP’s 2012 report, 35 cases were registered that year for offences relating to religion. Of the 39 accused, 27 were Muslim, seven were Christian and five were Ahmadi, which means that while Muslims were the main target in terms of numbers, the ratio of non-Muslims far exceeds their representation in the country’s total population. “When the blasphemy accused is Muslim, he alone will suffer,” says Tahir Naveed Chaudhry, lawyer and chairman of the Pakistan Minorities Alliance. “But when the accused is a member of a minority, the entire community suffers. ” To illustrate his point he cites the examples of the ransacking of Gojra and Joseph Colony. Blasphemy laws were first instituted in pre-partition India by the British in 1860. They were expanded in 1927 in response to large-scale communal clashes between Hindus and Muslims at the time. The intention was to control religious violence by criminalising behaviour likely to wound religious sensitivities and thus enable it to be dealt with through courts in a non-violent manner. After amendments to the blasphemy laws by General Zia-ul-Haq between 1980 and 84, the situation began to change rapidly. “It was not anticipated that from the ’80s the state itself will become party to the law in pursuing cases,” says a lawyer. According to a report by the Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), there were eight cases of blasphemy in the 40 years between ’47 and ’87. From 1987 until August 2012, a period of 25 years, 247 blasphemy cases have been filed, affecting nearly 330 people. And that may only be a partial picture: “A rough estimate of the persons that have been accused is more than 1,000…,” says the report. Various factors have contributed to a climate of vigilante justice. As per the CRSS report, nearly 60 people accused of blasphemy have been murdered, either while they were under trial or after being acquitted. There is also intimidation inside the courtroom from the complainant’s supporters. As a lawyer puts it, “No one ever takes up a blasphemy case for money; they only do it to uphold human rights.” Moreover, judges are reluctant to grant bail in these cases. “They’re more likely to acquit rather than grant bail because they do not want to appear inclined to give interim relief to anyone accused of blasphemy,” says a lawyer. This is despite the fact that many cases are triggered by personal disputes or a desire to take over property of the accused. The risk of violence means that often, even after acquittal, anyone accused of blasphemy and his family cannot go back to where they lived before and must either put down roots elsewhere, often under assumed identities, or seek asylum abroad, as young Rimsha Masih was compelled to do recently. In this country, there is clearly no respite for those once accused of blasphemy.
Daily TimesThere are many sides to the power crisis in the country and partisan politics has now become one of them. Accusations are being hurled from ministers in the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) at each other regarding electricity theft. Federal Minister of State for Water and Power Abid Sher Ali launched a diatribe at a recent press conference against the PTI for providing protection to the looters of electricity in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. He went on record as saying that there are areas in the province, which is under PTI governance, that have recorded as much as 90 percent electricity losses. He also said that no one was paying any sort of electricity bill under the constituency of the provincial minister for information, Shah Farman, clearly hinting that the minister was providing a shield for electricity thieves. These allegations have reportedly inflamed the PTI, which, to settle scores, had Mr Farman and his aides raid the residence of the Peshawar Electric Supply Company (PESCO) chief. There it was discovered that the chief was receiving electricity in his home through illegal means. This has provided the PTI with enough ammunition against Mr Abid Sher Ali, under whom the PESCO chief serves. All of this mudslinging and public humiliation really is an unnecessary distraction from the task at hand. The country is going through one of its worst energy crises, with domestic consumers suffering as much as 12 hours of power outages a day. Life and industry have come to a virtual halt but our politicians still cannot get enough of their mutual point scoring. Does the PML-N minister not know that electricity theft is one of the main reasons behind the energy crunch and that the malaise can be found all over the country and not just in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa? Individual electricity thieves and bill defaulters are not the problem as they have their power supply cut when discovered. It is the government departments and institutions that resist any sort of payment; they are the real defaulters. The electricity theft problem is much bigger than Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and the petty politics of some ministers. A major cleanup operation is required to purge the entire country of electricity theft and default on bills. Deliberately targeting one province or one party is certainly not the answer.
Bakhtawar and Bilawal Bhutto’s commendable expression of support for Shia-Sunni victims of Takfiri Deobandi terrorism
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has not spoken about the mass graves found in Balochistan. Chief Minister Dr. Malik Baloch has not uttered a word either. The mainstream national media has systematically snubbed the story. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have not issued statements. Nevertheless, that does not help in keeping the world ignorant about the shocking mass mass graves of Balochistan in the age of social media. There is widespread anger among the people of Balochistan and those who believe in human rights across the world over such brutal acts as well as over the silence of the Pakistani government authorities and the media. They are trying to cover up the whole issue in an attempt to protect those involved in these crimes against humanity. According to the Asian Human Rights Commission, at least one hundred dead bodies have been found from these mass graves although B.B.C. Urdu has reported only 13 bodies from two mass graves. None of the dead bodies could be identified because they had been completely decomposed. It is very likely, says the A.H.R.C, that these bodies are that of the Baloch boys who had gone missing since the dictatorial days of General Pervez Musharraf. While thousands of Balochs are still reported missing, hundreds of bullet-riddled dead bodies of these missing persons were found in different parts of Balochistan after Musharraf’s departure from power. Such killings were called as ‘kill and dump’ operations by the international human rights watchdogs and the foreign media. The town from where these graves have been discovered is the stronghold of Shafiq Mengal, an ultra-religious tribal strongman connected to the Pakistani intelligence agencies. He was empowered by the State in order to counter and replace the local influence of Baloch nationalists Sardar Attaullah Mengal and his son Akhtar Mengal, both former chief ministers of Balochistan. Shafiq’s father, Naseer Mengal, a former senator, served as Pakistan’s minister for petroleum in the government of the pro-Musharraf Pakistan Muslim League (P.M.L-Quaid-e-Azam) during 2002-2006. Shafiq has remained infamous in the area as a strongman of the Pakistani agencies who is involved in kidnapping and murder of Baloch political activists. He reportedly heads the anti-nationalist outfit, the Baloch Musla-Defai Tanzeem that has claimed responsibility in the local media for hundreds of killings of Baloch nationalists, journalists and human rights activists. It is not a coincidence that Balochistan’s minister for home and tribal affairs (the local version of federal interior minister), Sarfaraz Bugti, belongs to the rival tribe of late Nawab Akbar Bugti, the former governor of Balochistan who was killed by General Musharraf in 2006. After Bugti’s killing, the Baloch revolted and waged a full-fledged insurgency while the Pakistani military empowered and patronized Nawab Bugti’s tribal opponents such as Sarfaraz Bugti. Hence, today a top rival of Nawab Bugti has been rewarded and promoted for his loyalty to the army to such an extent that he has been appointed as the province’s minister for home and tribal affairs. Hours after the discovery of the mass graves, the home minister, as expected, absurdly raised fingers at the Indian intelligence agencies for killing and dumping the Baloch youth. Such irresponsible statements on the part o the provincial minister only amounts to exempting the provincial government from its responsibilities and covering the heinous crimes for which the Pakistan army has been blamed by international human rights organizations. The recovery of the mass graves in Khuzdar has surely come as a setback to those women, children and the elderly participants of the historic long march headed by Mama Qadir Baloch whose son, Jalil Reki, also disappeared and was eventually killed in a similar fashion two years ago. The participants of the long march walked 700 miles from Quetta to Karachi to seek the release of their loved ones. For the past few weeks, they have been marching from Karachi to Islamabad to continue their peaceful struggle seeking humane treatment for their family members. The mass graves are indeed not the reward these peaceful protesters deserve. It is likely, although not confirmed, that some of the dead bodies found in these mass graves may belong to those whose family members are a part of the ongoing long march. Despite official efforts and the media’s complicit role, the story about the mass graves in Balochistan will not fade away in the coming days. A government investigation in the matter is unacceptable considering the government’s own non-serious attitude toward the whole matter as demonstrated by the home minister. The government, security forces and intelligence agencies are routinely blamed for these mass graves. Therefore, it is not possible to dig out credible findings from a probe that is conducted by the Pakistani government. Only an investigation conducted by credible organizations such as the United Nations, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and similar international bodies known for their reliability will be acceptable. In addition, the international community, must play their role in bringing the people behind these crimes to justice. The Baloch have been suffering for decades and the international community has an inalienable obligation to end the state-sponsored crimes against our unarmed people.
Organisers abandon event in reminder that the young education campaigner is loved more abroad than in her home countryOrganisers abandon event in reminder that the young education campaigner is loved more abroad than in her home country
Pakistani academics have been forced to cancel plans to launch Malala Yousafzai’s memoir in her home province, claiming they came under pressure from local government ministers and the police. Malala has become an international icon of resistance to the Taliban after being shot for her campaign to get more girls into school, but she is a divisive figure at home where she is widely suspected of being a Western stooge. Sarfraz Khan, director of the Area Study Centre at the University of Peshawar, said he received telephone calls from two provincial ministers asking him not to go ahead with Tuesday’s launch. They include a figure from Imran Khan’s Movement for Justice and one from its coalition partner, Jamaat-i-Islami, a religious party. Mr Khan said he had to cancel the launch after police said they would not be able to provide security and served him with an order banning the event.“All we want is a normal campus life with the free exchange of ideas,” he said, dismissing the order as illegal. “This has nothing to do with ministers or the provincial government. We are independent and autonomous. “It is part of our work to read books and discuss them.” The Pakistan Taliban claimed responsibility for the attempted assassination of the 15-year-old campaigner in 2012 as she returned from school in the Swat Valley. Commanders have also threatened to attack shops that stock her book, “I am Malala” – although it has not acted upon them. That hardline stance has permeated mainstream opinion. There is widespread envy that Malala has been allowed a visa for Britain when many other victims of terrorism have no such escape route. Many take it – along with her visits to the United Nations – as evidence that she was part of a foreign plot to introduce secular, Western values to the Muslim country. Imran Khan took to Twitter to distance his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party from the move. “I am at a loss 2 understand why Malala's book launch stopped in Peshawar. PTI believes in freedom of speech/debate, not censorship of ideas,” he said. Inayatullah Khan, the provincial local government minister, denied putting pressure on the university. “I never spoke to anyone regarding the book launching programme,” he told Dawn newspaper.