Tuesday, January 10, 2017
Rick Pearson and Bill Ruthhart
Barack Obama said goodbye Tuesday night to a nation that delivered him a historic presidency and exhorted supporters to work to fulfill democracy's promise as a new era in Washington led by Republicans and President-elect Donald Trump is about to begin.
Even as Obama exits the world and national stage in little more than a week, his nationally broadcast speech to an estimated 18,000 at McCormick Place made clear to thousands of supporters in his adopted hometown of Chicago that his social and civic activism will continue — as a citizen.
Joined by First Lady Michelle Obama, daughter Malia and Vice President Joe Biden, the president credited Chicago with playing a crucial role in his path to public service.
"I first came to Chicago when I was in my early twenties and I was still trying to figure out who I was, still searching for a purpose in my life," Obama said in a speech that lasted about 50 minutes.
"And it was in a neighborhood not far from here where I began working with church groups in the shadows of closed steel mills. It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss," said Obama, a South Side community organizer. "Now, this is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, and they get engaged, and come together to demand it."
Obama's comments about Chicago came as a woman shouted at him from the audience, holding a sign saying, "Pardon us all now." That prompted supporters to try to shout down the protester by chanting, "Four more years." Police removed the protester.
The farewell speech demonstrated that while Obama is leaving the White House, the 55-year-old president is not headed to quiet retirement amid one-party Republican control of the nation, a controversial successor in the White House and a Democratic Party that finds itself in disarray and without focused leadership.
Instead, the onetime University of Chicago law lecturer delivered a lesson on what he perceives as dangers to democracy, including rising economic inequality, growing racial tensions, fear of terrorism and a fracturing of media that allows people to exist in their own political preference "bubbles," regardless of fact or science.
And while he only mentioned the incoming president once by name — discussing the peaceful transfer of power that will come on Jan. 20 — Obama's message sought to combat some of the concepts and demographic appeals that Trump embraced to win the White House. Citing the growth of automation in displacing middle-class jobs in the future, Obama called for a new social compact "to guarantee all our kids the education they need, to give workers the power to unionize for better wages, to update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now and make more reforms to the tax code" so corporations and wealthy individuals don't "avoid their obligations to the country."
"We can argue about how to best to achieve these goals. But we can't be complacent about the goals themselves. For if we don't create opportunity for all people, the disaffection and division that has stalled our progress will only sharpen in years to come," he said.
While Obama said his election as the nation's first black president inspired optimism toward a "post-racial America," he added that such a vision "was never realistic." He also warned economic divisions have intensified racial divisions, particularly at a time when the growth of the nation's Hispanic population continues. To be serious about race, Obama said laws to fight discrimination in hiring, housing, education and criminal justice must be upheld — and "hearts must change."
"For blacks and other minority groups, that means tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face," Obama said, including "the middle-aged white man who, from the outside, may seem like he's got all the advantages, but who's seen his world upended by economic, cultural and technological change."
For whites, Obama said, "it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn't suddenly vanish in the '60s, that when minority groups voice discontent, they're not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; when they wage peaceful protest, they're not demanding special treatment but the equal treatment that our founders promised."
Noting the increasing partisanship that marked his tenure as president, Obama warned another threat to democracy was the trend of people becoming "so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that's out there."
"Without some common baseline of facts, without a willingness to admit new information and concede that your opponent is making a fair point and that science and reason matter, we'll keep talking past each other, making common ground and compromise impossible," he said.
In what may have been his most direct criticism of Trump, Obama spoke of the threat of terrorism, the vigilance of first responders and the military and vowed "ISIL will be destroyed."
But the president also warned that "democracy can buckle when we give in to fear." "So just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are," Obama said. "That's why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans," he added, drawing loud applause. "That's why we cannot withdraw from global fights — to expand democracy and human rights, women's rights, LGBT rights — no matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem."
Obama also warned of complacency and urged all Americans, regardless of party, to "throw ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions. The potential of democracy only works "if our politics better reflects the decency of our people" and if everyone helps to "restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now."
As expected, Obama briefly touched on a list of accomplishments during his tenure, including the Affordable Care Act, which has provided health insurance to 20 million previously uninsured and that the new GOP administration and leadership in Congress has promised to dismantle. Obama took credit for rescuing the economy he inherited in 2009 as the Great Recession deepened, noting a gradual jobs recovery along with wages that have increased in recent years at a pace faster than at any time in the last four decades.
He also talked up a foreign policy that he characterized as sharply curtailing, but not totally ending, U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan; killing Al Qaeda leader and 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden; restoring relations with Cuba; and featuring U.S.-led multinational efforts to curb Iran's ability to develop nuclear weapons.
"That's what we did. That's what you did. You were the change," he said in summing up his accomplishments. "You answered people's hopes. And because of you, by almost every measure, America is a better, stronger place than it was when we started."
As he began to close his speech, the president recognized first lady Michelle Obama and wiped away a tear.
"You took on a role you didn't ask for and made it your own with grace and with grit and with style and good humor," he said.
Chicago has held special meaning to Obama, where he moved after serving as the first African-American editor of the Harvard Law Review to become a community organizer, then to serve as a state and U.S. senator and ultimately for eight years as president.
The city served as the base of his presidential campaigns and was a source for his top White House aides. And it helped provide him with the ambition to seek out a career in politics, even as he suffered his only election loss here in a failed 2000 primary challenge to South Side U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush.
Obama has acknowledged had he defeated Rush, it might have changed his political trajectory to a point where he would not have even sought the presidency, let alone win the White House.
Long lines of supporters looking to see Obama's last major presidential speech gathered in the rain and wind hours before the event to undergo airport-style security screening.
The Windy City's wind-swept weather on Tuesday night forced the presidential entourage to travel by motorcade to McCormick Place, which included shutting down the in-bound Kennedy Expressway and portions of Lake Shore Drive during rush hour after Air Force One landed at O'Hare International Airport. Usually, the president uses the Marine One helicopter to travel from O'Hare to downtown.
Prior to arriving at McCormick Place, the presidential motorcade arrived at one of Obama's favorite restaurants, Valois, in Hyde Park. He did an interview with NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt, who previously was an anchor and reporter in Chicago. Among the dozens in the crowd outside was Jessica Simmons, 38, a marketing manager who works in the neighborhood. Simmons said she waited for two hours on a sidewalk along Harper Avenue to catch a brief glimpse of Obama's motorcade.
"He served the country and the people for eight years, and to show my gratitude I can stand out here, wave, send him off and wish him well," Simmons said. "It's absolutely a whole new meaning to 'Thanks, Obama.'"
In the wake of strident protests by various groups, Sindh Governor Justice (retd) Saeeduzzaman Siddiqui has refused to ratify the Sindh Assembly’s forced conversion bill, officially known as Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill.
“Please reconsider the legislation,” said Siddiqui in his message to the Sindh Assembly Secretariat.
In his observations, the governor referred to the letters written by the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII), MQM parliamentary leader Sardar Ahmed, as well as the protest by religious parties, which either called for the bill’s withdrawal or proposed amendments to it.
PPP may revisit bill against forced conversions
“Today, we have received the bill with the governor’s message. The governor’s plea for reconsideration means he has asked for the bill’s withdrawal and for the introduction of a new law,” said Sindh Assembly Secretary GM Umer Farooq while talking to The Express Tribune. With the governor’s message appended to it, he said, the bill will be presented at the upcoming session of the Sindh Assembly. “However, it is the house’s prerogative to accept it or not,” he said.
The private bill – jointly moved by the ruling PPP and the PML-F lawmakers and unanimously passed by the assembly on November 24 –recommended that change of religion not be recognised until a person becomes 18 years old.
It also prescribed severe penalties for forced conversion of religion and said, “Any person who forcibly converts another person shall be liable to imprisonment for a minimum of five years and maximum of life imprisonment and a fine to be paid to the victim.”
Following the passage of this proposed law, the PPP leadership, civil society members and minorities had celebrated the development and called it a ‘landmark’ achievement in the history of the assembly, which became the first legislative forum to adopt such a law in the country.
However, religious parties rallied against the proposed legislation, calling it against the spirit of Islam and threatening street agitation over it. According to a source, the PPP government has apparently succumbed to the pressure and has agreed to make amendments to it.
“After Jamaat-e-Islami chief Sirajul Haq’s phoned PPP Co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari, the latter asked the Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah to withdraw the law and introduce a fresh bill,” an official source said.
Some sources even claimed that the governor objected to the bill on the advice of the Sindh CM.
However, Nand Kumar, the bill’s architect, insisted it was a genuine issue because forced conversions continue to pose a threat to the Hindu community. “Minor girls are compelled to change their religion and get married to Muslim men in Sindh,” he said, terming the government decision to withdraw the law a ‘cowardly act’
“No one objects to changing their faith out of their free-will. But it is a criminal practice to forcibly convert anybody,” he added. “I don’t know where the PPP stands after this decision. The party claims to have taken the mantle for the rights of minorities, yet it has surrendered that role,” he said.
More forced conversions going on than reported, says MP
PPP’s parliamentary leader in the Sindh Assembly, Nisar Ahmed Khuhro, justified his party and government policy. “We still own this bill, but since some parties have expressed reservations, so we have to redress the same,” he said. “The government will not withdraw the bill, but will make amendments to it,” he added.
However, sources privy to the development told The Express Tribune that the bill will again be sent to a standing committee for the point of view of religious parties to be incorporated in it. “I don’t know what will be the fate of this law, but it may hang in the balance,” a senior bureaucrat in Sindh Assembly said.
The PML-N’s MNA Ramesh Kumar Vakwani, who also heads the Pakistan Hindu Council, said: “It will be a big tragedy for non-Muslims, if the bill is withdrawn. After this decision the extremist elements will become confident and minorities will feel insecure.”
JUI-F lawmaker Sardar Abdul Rehman Khetran on Saturday, addressing the Balochistan assembly alleged that the former Inspector General of Balochistan Police Mushtaq Ahmed Sukhera took 28 provincial owned vehicles with him to Punjab after he retired.
The news read like just another fact of life in Pakistan, where VIPS and VVIPS act like they have rights over what does not belong to them. In this case it points to the blatant sense of entitlement that a select few officials working in Balochistan feel. Pakistan has suffered long and Balochistan even longer due to corrupt governance, unrest and chaos.
When massive wads of money were discovered by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in May last year, from the residence of Balochistan Finance Secretary Mushtaq Ahmed Raisani, there was an uproar over the conditions in Balochistan and the unabashed looting from local government development funds.
The NAB recovered more than Rs730 million from the house, an amount so large, if utilised properly, had the potential to transform the backward province. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) made two controversial plea bargain deals with Raisani, enforcing the fact, that cheaters will be allowed to prosper. The IG probably understood as much when he decided to keep the official motorcade, and if the accusation is unfounded, a clarification must be given.
If it is true, he should be investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Former federal minister Sardar Yar Mohammad Rind had brought to attention the Raisani case in October 2014, and it took three years for the NAB to take action, only to allow a way out for the corrupt. Rind alleged that the Raisani-led government had committed massive corruption in the Reko Diq gold-cum-copper project deal and the province still awaits justice.
How long will it take to get to the bottom of this one?
Local and international rights groups have urged Pakistan to urgently investigate the apparent abductions of four social media commentators. The four are outspoken campaigners for human rights and religious freedoms.
Human Rights Watch said the near-simultaneous disappearance of four activists in Pakistan raised concerns of government involvement. The US-based watchdog said the four men had been critical of both militant groups like the Taliban as well as the Pakistani military establishment.
Salman Haider, a poet and academic, and bloggers Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed, and Ahmad Raza Naseer - who campaigned for human rights and religious freedom - went missing from various Pakistani cities between January 4 and 7.
Hundreds of people attended protests in Pakistan's major cities Tuesday (pictured above), calling for the bloggers' immediate recovery.
Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch (HRW), said that the Pakistani government had "an immediate obligation to locate the four missing human rights activists and act to ensure their safety," adding that anything short of this would make the government look complicit in their disappearance:
"The nature of these apparent abductions puts the (...) government on notice that it can either be part of the solution or it will be held responsible for its role in the problem," Adams said.
The HRW statement said the four had disappeared on the same weekend. Haider was last seen in the capital Islamabad on Friday.
Over the weekend, Pakistan's interior ministry said it had ordered an investigation into the possible kidnapping of Haider; it is unclear whether any investigations are underway in the cases of the other three men.
Pakistan's independent Human Rights Commission has also expressed concern, demanding the men be located.
No group has claimed responsibility for abducting any of the four individuals. And, authorities have not posted any information to indicate that they might have been detained.
Liberal groups throughout the country announced they would hold protests in reaction to the disappearances, using the social media hashtag #RecoverAllActivists.
Pakistan: a scary place for journalists
Pakistan is ranked among the world's most dangerous countries in the world, not only for journalists. The Global Travel and Tourism Report published by the World Economic Forum ranks Pakistan as the fourth most dangerous place in the world.
Journalists critical of Pakistan's powerful military and the country's opaque security policies have in the past been detained, beaten and even killed. Many find themselves caught between the country's security establishment and militant groups - including the Taliban.
In April 2015, prominent activist Sabeen Mahmud was killed by militants who said they attacked her because she promoted liberal, secular views.
In April 2014, gunmen attacked Hamid Mir, one of the country's most recognized TV anchors. The presenter, who survived that attack, has also tweeted in favor of recovering missing academic Salman Haider.
Hamid Mir's family and employers have accused Pakistan's powerful intelligence service, the Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI) of being behind the attempt on his life.
The ISI has been regarded as complicit in several such cases before; political assassinations have shaped the history of the nation.
Newspaper airs suspicion
Pakistan's leading English-language daily newspaper "Dawn" meanwhile said in a strongly-worded editorial that "the state of Pakistan continues to be suspected of involvement in the disappearance and illegal detentions of a range of private citizens."
"It is simply not enough for government and police officials to claim that the disappearances are being investigated. Mr Haider and the other recently missing activists need to be returned to their families immediately," the statement added.
All four men were vocal critics of militant religious groups and Pakistan’s military establishment, and used the internet to disseminate their views.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said Tuesday that the Pakistan government should urgently investigate the apparent abductions of four social activists who campaign for human rights and religious freedom. The four men, Salman Haider, a well-known poet and academic, and bloggers Waqas Goraya, Aasim Saeed, and Ahmad Raza Naseer, went missing or were taken away from different cities between January 4 and 7. All four men were vocal critics of militant religious groups and Pakistan’s military establishment, and used the internet to disseminate their views. Their near simultaneous disappearance and the government are shutting down of their websites and blogs raises grave concerns of government involvement, Human Rights Watch said.
While the Pakistani interior minister, Nisar Ali Khan, directed the police on January 7 to speed up efforts to locate Haider, whom the government says it is not holding, a broader effort is needed to uncover the whereabouts and well-being of all four men. “The Pakistani government has an immediate obligation to locate the four missing human rights activists and act to ensure their safety,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The nature of these apparent abductions puts the Nawaz Sharif government on notice that it can either be part of the solution or it will be held responsible for its role in the problem,” he added. Goraya, an anthropologist who blogged on issues of religious freedom, and Saeed, a blogger and an administrator of a Facebook page hosting progressive views critical of religious extremists and Pakistan’s security policies, were reported missing from Wapda Town, Lahore, on January 4.
Haider, a poet and professor at Fatima Jinnah Women University, went missing on the evening of January 6. His wife received a text message telling her to pick Salman’s car from Koral Chowk, Islamabad. The family has not heard from Salman or the abductors since. On January 7, unidentified men took away Naseer, a blogger running a Facebook page broadcasting secular, progressive views, from his family’s shop in Sheikhupura, Punjab. The government’s failure to provide information on the fate or whereabouts of a person taken into custody amounts to an enforced disappearance, which is a serious violation of international human rights law. “Disappearances” place individuals outside the protection of the law and make them more vulnerable to torture and other abuses. After the four activists went missing, messages on social media have accused them of blasphemy and other crimes, heightening concerns for their safety.
Pakistani journalists and activists face an increasingly hostile climate due to harassment, threats, and violence from both state security forces and militant groups. In August 2016, the Pakistani government enacted a vague and overbroad cybercrimes law that threatens rights of privacy and freedom of expression. The law includes provisions that allow the government to censor online content, criminalize internet user activity, and access internet users’ data without judicial review. Pakistan’s security establishment has a long history of intimidating critics. Pakistani and international human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, have extensively documented the intimidation, torture, enforced disappearances, and killings of activists and journalists. The Taliban and other armed groups have also threatened media outlets and targeted journalists and activists for their work. In April 2015, prominent rights activist Sabeen Mahmud was killed by militants. The principal planner of her assassination later said that he killed her because, “she was generally promoting liberal, secular values.”
In May 2014, Rashid Rehman, a human rights activist and lawyer, was assassinated by militants in an apparent reprisal for his willingness to represent people charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy law.
In April 2014, unidentified gunmen attacked Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan’s most prominent television anchors in Karachi. Mir survived the attack, and Jang/Geo – his employer and the country’s largest media conglomerate – accused the director general of the government’s powerful Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency of involvement in the incident. Saleem Shahzad, a reporter for the Hong Kong-based Asia Times Online and for Adnkronos International, the Italian news agency, disappeared from central Islamabad on the evening of May 29, 2011. Shahzad’s body, bearing visible signs of torture, was discovered two days later near Mandi Bahauddin, 80 miles southeast of the capital.
“The government needs to reduce the insecurity faced by journalists and activists, which has a severe chilling effect on their work,” Adams said. “This requires the government holding responsible the militants – and its own security agencies – that threaten and attack them.”
By Jon Boone
Four prominent online campaigners with anti-military views believed abducted since Friday.
Four social media activists with outspoken, secular and anti-military views have gone missing in Pakistan in recent days, sparking fears of a crackdown on leftwing dissenters.
Pakistan’s intelligence agencies have a history of illegal detentions and of not notifying relatives about where they are or why they are being held. However, such “forced disappearances” are usually directed against those suspected of involvement in terrorism or violent separatism.
One of the four men, Asim Saeed, was abducted from his home in Lahore on Friday after he had returned from working in Singapore. Ahmad Waqas Goraya, another online activist who is usually based in Holland, was detained on the same day, his friends say.
According to a statement given by Saeed’s father to the police, four men arrived at the house in a pickup truck and “forcefully took him away”.
“I made all efforts to locate my son but I have been unable to trace him,” his statement said.
At the time of Saeed’s abduction, the IT worker was carrying his laptop and two mobile phones.
Both Saeed and Goraya help run the Mochi Facebook page critical of Pakistan’s powerful military. The page has recently criticised the army’s heavy-handed crackdown on political groups in Karachi, alleged corruption amongst senior officers and accused the military of interfering in national politics.
“We respect Armed Forces of Pakistan as much as they respect the constitution of Pakistan,” runs the text on the Facebook page’s banner.
Salman Haider, a lecturer at Fatima Jinnah Women University, failed to come home on Friday. His wife received a mysterious message from his phone saying he was abandoning his car on the Islamabad-Rawalpindi motorway. The car was later recovered by police.
On Saturday the interior minister said he had urged police to find Haider, a playwright, poet and editor of Tanqeed. The online magazinehas criticised army counter-insurgency operations in the southern state of Balochistan. Relatives of the fourth man, Ahmed Raza Naseer, say he was taken from his family’s shop in the Punjab district of Sheikhupra on Saturday.
Human Rights Watch asked authorities to investigate the apparent abductions as a matter of urgency.
“The Pakistani government has an immediate obligation to locate the four missing human rights activists and act to ensure their safety,” said Brad Adams, HRW’s Asia director.
“The nature of these apparent abductions puts the … government on notice that it can either be part of the solution or it will be held responsible for its role in the problem.”
Shahzad Ahmad, director of Bytes for All, a human rights group focused on online security, said the disappearances had spooked social media activists, and several had deactivating their Facebook and Twitter accounts.
“We are concerned over the recent roundup of social media activists, which we see as a threat to freedom of expression, association and assembly in online spaces,” he said.
The arrests were designed to “silence and smear” those who challenge the establishment and speak against human rights violations in the country, he said. Security sources have denied any involvement, while a group of MPs have called the disappearances “highly concerning”.
“The pattern of these disappearances suggests that it is a planned and coordinated action, undertaken to silence voices which are critical of prevalent socio-political issues in Pakistan,” they wrote in a parliamentary resolution.
Chairman Pakistan Peoples Party Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said that Pakistan needs an Interior Minister of Naseerullah Babar’s stature having both brain and bravery to deal terrorists with iron hand.
Paying homage to late Naseerullah Babar, the PPP Chairman said that services of the late PPP leader were remarkable and he remains the only Interior Minister who drove alone on Karachi streets while commanding clean-up operation in Karachi.