Saturday, January 17, 2015

'Flogging for Blogging': Official Saudi Policy


On January 9, two days after the massive Paris march condemning the brutal attack on freedom of the press, a young Saudi prisoner named Raif Badawi was removed from his cell in shackles and taken to a public square in Jeddah. There he was flogged 50 times before hundreds of spectators who had just finished midday prayers. The 50 lashes -- labeled by Amnesty International a "vicious act of cruelty" -- was the first installment on his sentence of 1,000 floggings, as well as 10 years in prison and a fine of $266,000. Badawi's crime? Blogging.
The father of three young children, Badawi hosted the website known as Free Saudi Liberals, a forum intended to promote a lively exchange of ideas among Saudis. Badawi wrote about the advantages of separating religion and state, asserting that secularism was "the practical solution to lift countries (including ours) out of the third world and into the first world." He accused Saudi clerics and the government of distorting Islam to promote authoritarianism. Unlike the Saudi rulers, Badawi cheered the Egyptian uprising against Hosni Mubarak, calling it a decisive turning point not only for Egypt but "everywhere that is governed by the Arab mentality of dictatorship."
In mid-2012, Badawi was arrested for his blogs, including an article in which he was accused of ridiculing the kingdom's religious police, the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice. He was also charged for failing to remove "offensive posts" written by others. The prosecution originally called for him to betried for "apostasy", or abandoning his religion, which carries the death penalty.
If nothing changes, Raif Badawi will be flogged every Friday for the next 19 weeks. And he will not see his wife or children for 10 years, who were forced to flee to Canada to avoid public harassment at home.
Badawi's case is not unique. In 2014, Reporters Without Borders described the government as "relentless in its censorship of the Saudi media and the Internet", and ranked Saudi Arabia 164th out of 180 countries for freedom of the press.
Last year, four members of the group Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, an organization documenting human rights abuses and calling for democratic reform, were sentenced to prison terms ranging from 4 to 10 years. The fourth member sentenced was Omar al-Saeed, who was handed four years in prison and 300 lashes because he called for a constitutional monarchy.
Or look at the case of another human rights lawyer, Walid Abu al-Khair, in prison since 2012. Just this week, on January 13, a Saudi court increased his prison term from 10 to 15 years after he refused to show remorse or recognize the court that handed down his original 10-year term for sedition. Al-Khair, founder of Monitor of Human Rights in Saudi Arabia (MHRSA) and legal counsel for blogger Badawi, was convicted on charges of disrespecting King Abdullah and the Saudi authorities.
Saudi Arabia also remains the only country in the world to maintain a ban on women drivers. According to this law, women are strictly restricted to the passenger seat of vehicles. This ban is so harshly imposed that two women, 25-year-old Loujain al-Hathloul and 33-year-old Maysa al-Amoudi, were not only arrested for driving to the United Arab Emirates, but they were also referred to be tried by a terrorism court. In the past, punishments for women drivers have included loss of jobs, passport revocation, and even floggings.
The U.S. government's response to these egregious and inhumane punishments from its ally usually takes the form of a U.S. State Department spokesperson expressing"concern." But there is no major public condemnation. No threats of cutting arms sales. No sanctions against government officials. The U.S. government basically turns a blind eye to the medieval forms of torture the Saudis still mete out.
One major reason is oil. Since before World War II, the United States has viewed Saudi Arabia as a strategic source of petroleum. In 1933, the Arab American Company (ARAMCO) was established as a joint venture by both countries. Currently, Saudi Arabia is the second largest supplier of petroleum to the United States.
With the money it receives from oil, the Saudi government purchases vast amounts of weaponry from the United States. In 2010, the U.S. government announced it has concluded a deal to sell $60 billion of military aircraft to Saudi Arabia -- the largest U.S. arms sale deal in history. One use of U.S. tanks was seen in Bahrain, where the Saudis intervened to crush a democratic uprising against the Bahraini monarchy.
There's now Congressional legislation being introduced to declassify a 28-page section of the 9/11 Senate report which allegedly exposes the direct role of the Saudi government in the Twin Tower attacks on 9/11. After all, Saudi Arabia supplied 15 out of the 19 9/11 hijackers and was the home of Osama bin Laden. Saudi Arabia exports the radical version of Islam, Wahhabism, that fuels extremism throughout the Middle East. Saudi Arabia treats its women as second-class citizens. Saudi Arabia is the capital of beheadings, with the government carrying out 87 public beheadings in 2013 and nine already this year.
Being one of the world's top oil providers does not give a country the right to dehumanize its own people. The U.S. is certainly no model for respecting freedom of expression -- as we saw in the streets of Ferguson where peaceful protesters were teargassed and beaten -- but it shouldn't overlook the human rights abuses carried out by a country that imprisons, tortures and executes its citizens simply for speaking their minds. This Friday, when Raif will once again be subjected to 50 lashes, take a moment to call the Saudi Embassy in Washington, D.C. (202-342-3800, then press "3" for the Public Affairs office) and tell them "Free speech is not, and should never be, a punishable crime. Je suis Raif!"

What to Expect From Obama's State of the Union Speech

President Barack Obama will unveil a slate of reforms during Tuesday's State of the Union speech aimed to close "unfair" tax loopholes and ease the financial burden on middle class families. But he'll likely get a fight from Republicans on some key parts of his proposal.
Historically, it has been a challenge for both political parties to find common ground on taxes. Corporate tax reforms, however, are one area that Obama and Republicans, who now control Congress after a sweeping victory in the midterm elections, have identified as a point of possible agreement this year.
Still, the devil is in the details, and senior Obama administration officials are counting on the public to get behind the plan. The administration is touting how it wants to revamp the tax code and eliminate various loopholes as more ways to keep the American economy on the upswing and help grow the middle class.
"The president will have a chance to go before the nation to tell America, 'Here's how far you have come, here's what works in doing that,' and then he will be able to lay out the vision for what are the steps that we need to take," a senior administration official told NBC News.
"Our estimation is, not having provided this additional context ahead of time, it's going to make the speech and the vision more meaningful when [the people] hear it on Tuesday night," the senior official added.
In the lead up to Obama's next-to-last State of the Union address, the president has spent recent weeks unveiling somewhat smaller administration proposals, from providing free community college for qualified students to endorsing paid sick leave and ways to bolster online security in the wake of the Sony Pictures cyber attack.
Republican leaders have already warned that they will fight Obama and advance their own agenda on issues such as health care and the environment — underscoring the possibility of more gridlock in Washington. While tax reform could be friendlier territory, senior administration officials admit proposals to raise capital gains — something Obama has pushed for previously — and close capital gains loopholes would be the hardest parts to get passed. Among the proposed reforms:
  • Closing the trust fund loophole, which the administration says allows hundreds of billions of dollars to escape untaxed and means wealthier Americans aren't paying their "fair share" on inherited assets.
  • Raising the total top capital gains and dividends rate back to the level under President Ronald Reagan of 28 percent.
  • Propose a fee on the biggest financial firms, making it more costly for them to borrow.
Such measures would help the country pay for other programs, including providing free community college, officials said. They added that they plan to unveil other proposals for working and middle class families, including a $500 tax credit for second earners in families, which could aid an estimated 24 million couples, and streamlining child care tax incentives amounting to a tax cut of up to $3,000 per child.
Before any of the proposals can get through Congress, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has already warned that the president needs to abandon what McConnell characterizes as a go-it-alone approach. "Tuesday can be a new day," said McConnell, according to The Associated Press. "This can be the moment the president pivots to a positive posture, this can be a day when he promotes serious realistic reforms that focus on economic growth and don't just spend more money we don't have. We're eager for him to do so."

France's Hollande defends freedom of speech after anti-Hebdo clashes abroad


French President Francois Hollande said on Saturday that anti-Charlie Hebdo protesters in other countries do not understand France's attachment to freedom of speech.
He was speaking a day after the satirical weekly's publication of a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammad sparked violent clashes, including deaths, in some Muslim countries.

Demand has surged for Charlie Hebdo's first issue since two militant gunmen burst into its weekly editorial conference and shot dead 12 people at the start of three days of violence that shocked France.
A cartoon image of Mohammad on its front page outraged many in the Muslim world, triggering demonstrations that turned violent in Algeria, Niger and Pakistan on Friday.
"We've supported these countries in the fight against terrorism," Hollande said during a visit to the southern city of Tulle, traditionally his political fiefdom.
"I still want to express my solidarity (towards them), but at the same time France has principles and values, in particular freedom of expression."
The shootings in Paris were prompted by Charlie Hebdo's previous publication of Mohammad cartoons, a depiction many Muslims consider blasphemous.
In Niger, protesters set fire to churches and looted shops in the capital Niamey on Saturday in a second day of riots over Charlie Hebdo's publication of the image.
France's embassy in Niamey advised its citizens against going out in the streets.
Five people were killed on Friday in Zinder, the second city of the former French colony, while churches were burnt and Christian homes looted.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius condemned the violence in Niamey and Zinder and said France stood in solidarity with Niger authorities.
Protests also turned violent on Friday in the southern Pakistan city of Karachi where police used teargas and a water cannon against demonstrators outside the French consulate.
Several Algerian police officers were injured in clashes with demonstrators in Algiers after rioting broke out at the end of a protest.
"There are tensions abroad where people don't understand our attachment to the freedom of speech," Hollande said. "We've seen the protests, and I would say that in France all beliefs are respected."
Hollande has received a big poll boost for his handling of the attacks with his popularity rating surging to its highest level in nearly one and a half years.
His rating has jumped to 34 percent from 24 percent before the attacks, according to a BVA poll published on Saturday.
Produced by survivors of the attack, the latest edition of Charlie Hebdo shows a cartoon of a tearful Mohammad holding a "Je suis Charlie" sign under the words "All is forgiven."
A lawyer for one of the gunmen in the Charlie Hebdo attack said the man had been buried in the eastern city of Reims in an unmarked grave so as not to attract sympathisers.

Meanwhile, Belgium deployed hundreds of troops to guard potential terrorism targets. Two gunmen were killed on Thursday during an anti-Islamist raid in the town of Vervier.

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Music Video - Noor Jehan - Mujh say pehli si Muhabbat

Liberals rally to 'reclaim' Pakistan after school massacre

One month on from a Taliban school massacre in Peshawar that left 150 dead a new movement is growing among marginalised urban liberals rallying to "Reclaim Pakistan" from violent extremism. Carrying placards and candles, their stand against religious fanaticism is an unusual sight in a country more used to mass demonstrations by Islamist groups filled with chants against the West or India.
Muhammad Jibran Nasir, a 27-year-old lawyer who has played a key role in organising demonstrations, said he and others felt they could no longer stand by following the brutal killings of schoolchildren in the country's northwest on December 16.
"I never felt so overwhelmed. I felt pathetic as a human being, as a Muslim, as a Pakistani. I felt very, very small," he said.
While Pakistan's military has been engaged in heavy offensives in the country's northwestern tribal areas, progressive critics believe the state -- including both the army and political parties -- must do more to tackle those Islamist groups that have traditionally received official backing.
In an effort to highlight the discrepancy, Nasir, who happened to be visiting Islamabad at the time of the Peshawar assault, led like-minded activists to protest outside the radical Red Mosque, whose imam is known for his pro-Taliban views and who has refused to condemn the attack on the school.
Maulana Abdul Aziz led an armed insurrection against the military in 2007, but was acquitted of all charges against him by 2013 in a case which analysts say highlights weaknesses in Pakistan's judicial system and sympathies for militants among parts of the security establishment.
The "Reclaim" movement's first small victory was the re-opening of an investigation against Aziz, said Nasir.
"There's an arrest warrant out, police say they are doing their own investigation," he told AFP, adding he was hopeful that more pressure could result in firm action.
He now says he has been threatened not just by Aziz but by the Jamaat-ul-Ahrar faction of the Pakistani Taliban over the phone. But, as someone who considers himself an observant Muslim, he felt he could no longer see his faith hijacked.
"I've got some views on my religion, I read on it, I research on it to an extent. I can't seem to reconcile the preachings of my Imam and the teachings of the Koran," he says.

As Asia Bibi waits on death row, Pakistan's blasphemy laws in spotlight as deaths increase

On the Sunday before the terrorist attacks at the French newspaper Charlie Hebdo, a handful of mourners gathered at Liberty Plaza in Lahore to mark the 2011 assassination of Salman Taseer.
The then governor of Punjab, Pakistan's eastern province, Taseer was shot dead in broad daylight by his bodyguard while eating lunch at an Islamabad cafe.
Taseer deserved his fate, his killer said afterwards, because he had had the effrontery to show sympathy for Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who remains in jail awaiting execution after being sentenced to death for blasphemy. Not only had Taseer called for Bibi's pardon, he criticised as a "black law" the criminal code that saw her convicted in the first place.
Support costly: Asia Bibi with the then governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, in 2010.
Support costly: Asia Bibi with the then governor of Punjab, Salman Taseer, in 2010. Photo: AFP
"We were there, burning the candle in front of [Taseer's] portrait and suddenly a group of people armed with sharp knives, Kalashnikovs and other weapons, they attacked us," says Abdullah Malik, president of Lahore's Civil Society Network. 
"We ran away, to save our lives," says Malik. "They were raising slogans 'we will kill you, we will kill you. You are not Muslims. You are supporting a non-Muslim'."
Three days later, masked gunmen in another part of Punjab kidnapped 52-year-old Aabid Mehmood, another man facing blasphemy charges, who had just been released from jail on health grounds. Mehmood's bullet-ridden body was found dumped in the street the next day, just a few hours before the gunmen in Paris stormed the offices of Charlie Hebdo.
Fate in hand: A decision on Asia Bibi's appeal to the Pakistan Supreme Court is expected to be heard next month.
Fate in hand: A decision on Asia Bibi's appeal to the Pakistan Supreme Court is expected to be heard next month. Photo: AP
"The blasphemy law is not perfect," says Malik, with guarded understatement. "We demand that it must be changed and our government must take steps to bring some changes to this law."
While Pakistan's constitution supposedly guarantees freedom of speech, a 1991 review of the criminal code by the Federal Shariat Court of Pakistan not only upheld the then rarely invoked blasphemy laws, but upgraded the penalty for blasphemy to death.
Since then, supposed crimes of blasphemy have soared, many of them malevolent and spurious accusations more likely to be the result of personal vendetta than any actual contravention of the law.
Last year, there were more than 100 blasphemy cases registered. Since 1991, 62 people accused of blasphemy have been murdered by vigilantes, more than half of those in the last five years.
"Most reports of blasphemy have been shown to be about vendetta," says Asma Jahangir, a leading lawyer in Lahore and a former chair of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "I think the law is framed in such a way that it's a very open-ended way of adjudication because it's one person's word against another. And the fact that it's such an emotional subject here, it is always accompanied with violence."
Lawyers acting for those accused of blasphemy have been threatened and killed, as have judges who have failed to convict alleged blasphemers brought before their courts, creating an intimidating culture of fear and violence.
"Before this law was there, we hardly had any cases of blasphemy," says Jahangir. "It's very strange that you have the law and suddenly people begin to blaspheme, it does not make sense to me at all, so this is obviously a tool in the hands of those who want to persecute other people on a religious basis."
According to Sahaid Mehrej, the Dean of the Lahore Cathedral, Christians - who make up less than 3 per cent of Pakistan's 194 million people - are particularly vulnerable to charges of blasphemy.
"There are forces of darkness that are leading Pakistan adrift from that vision of the founder of this country," says Mehrej. "These people who are really damaging our country have guns in their hands. This is our struggle. To take away these guns, to make peace everywhere."
Asia Bibi, the Christian mother of five awaiting the death sentence for blasphemy, was a field labourer in Sheikpura, a small village 70 kilometres outside Lahore who in 2009 got into a quarrel with some co-workers after she drank from the same water vessel as them. The co-workers, two Muslim women, later told a local cleric that during the argument, Bibi had insulted the prophet.
Enraged by what he heard, the cleric, Muhammad Salam, publicly denounced Bibi, inciting mobs across the district demanding her arrest. After five days, local police placed Bibi under arrest and in November 2010 she was found guilty in the district court and sentenced to death by hanging.
That wasn't enough for some. One cleric promised 500,000 rupees (about $6000) to anyone who would kill her in jail.
"I live in a confined cell," Bibi said in an interview with a Christian rights group in 2011. "I am allowed to go out for only 30 minutes every day and allowed to meet my family for one hour every Tuesday."
Bibi is given raw food so she can cook for herself for fears she might be poisoned - in 2011 a female prison guard at the jail was suspended after she tried to strangle Bibi - and she has reportedly suffered numerous beatings.
While many blasphemy cases are thrown out by higher courts, Bibi's appeal to the High Court of Lahore was denied and now she is awaiting the outcome of an appeal to the Supreme Court of Pakistan in Islamabad which is expected to be heard next month.
Bibi's lawyer, Saif ul-Malook, who prosecuted the man who killed former Punjab governor Salman Taseer, told Fairfax Media that he believes there are strong reasons to hope that the Supreme Court will void Bibi's conviction.
"I think we have a good chance because there were a lot of faults in the original trial and a lot of legal mistakes made by the trial judge, as well as by the two judges of the High Court deciding her [first] appeal," says Malook.
Before 1991, Pakistani judges had the option of sentencing people convicted of blasphemy to life imprisonment. Now judges are compelled to impose the death sentence.
If Bibi's appeal to the Supreme Court fails, her only chance will be the personal intervention of the Pakistan President, who can commute her sentence, or even pardon her.
Speaking at his home in Lahore's military cantonment, an area secured by a series of fortified checkpoints, Malook is accompanied around-the-clock by at least two armed bodyguards.
Last May, Rashid Rehman, a lawyer representing a man accused of insulting the prophet Muhammad, was shot dead in Multan, a city south of Lahore.
"Of course, I fear for my life," says Malook. "Whenever I am on the street and someone appears to be following me, even for just a minute, the thought crosses my mind that this person has come to kill me."
Despite his efforts on behalf of Aasia Bibi, Malook is himself careful to emphasise that has no problem with Pakistan's blasphemy laws of themselves, only the capricious way they are being applied.
"The parliament of Pakistan has enacted the law, the wisdom of the whole parliament," says Malook. "This is a punishment fixed by God in the holy Koran. It can't be fixed by parliament of anyone else."
Blasphemy, Malook maintains, should remain a crime.
"If it is a free society like Australia and somebody said I want to abuse Jesus Christ or I want to abuse Moses, that means that man is mentally deranged. A normal man, why should he abuse the prophet? Even the Muslim prophet or the Christian prophet? Or a Jewish prophet? Why should he?"