Thursday, May 31, 2012

Sudanese woman sentenced to stoning death

A young mother found guilty of adultery in Sudan has been sentenced to death by stoning. Intisar Sharif Abdallah was tried without access to a lawyer and is being detained with her four-month-old baby

Amnesty puts Abdallah's age at 20; Human Rights Watch says she may be under 18. Her family is appealing against the execution and it is unclear when it will be carried out. Abdallah admitted to the charges only after her brother reportedly beat her. The conviction was based solely rests on this testimony. The man held with her reportedly denied the charges and was released.

Abdallah is said to be shackled by the legs and in psychological distress, unable to understand the nature of her sentence. Her other children are being cared for by family, who are of filing an appeal in Ombada. Jean-Baptiste Gallopin of Amnesty's Sudan team said: "The case is emblematic of the failure of the Sudanese judicial system. Intisar Sharif Abdallah was tried without access to a lawyer or a translator, despite the fact that Arabic is not her native language. She was convicted solely based on a testimony she gave under duress. She's being detained with her four-month old son, in a state of deep psychological distress. We call on the Sudanese authorities to stop the execution, overturn her stoning sentence and release her immediately and unconditionally.

"Stoning is a method of execution designed to increase the suffering of the victim, which means it is an extreme and cruel form of torture. International human rights law specifically prohibits death sentences resulting from unfair trial, as well as the execution of new mothers. In addition, we urge the government to have the best interest of Intisar's child as their main consideration during the judicial process." Amnesty has urged its supporters to write to the Sudanese government and plead for the sentence to be quashed and for Abdallah to be set free.

The sentence was also criticised by Human Rights Watch. Daniel Bekele, its Africa director, said: "No one should be stoned to death and imposing this punishment on someone who may be a child is especially shocking. Sudan should immediately reform discriminatory laws and abolish the death penalty and all corporal punishments that violate the international treaty obligations it has promised to respect." Sudan is one of seven countries where death by stoning is a punishment. Judges in the country have imposed the sentence on several women in recent years, but courts have overturned them all on appeal. The vast majority of adultery cases and stoning sentences have been imposed on women. "Sudan should uphold international and African standards," Bekele said. "It should ban death by stoning and other corporal punishment, and revise laws that discriminate against women and girls."

The Sudanese embassy in the UK criticised Amnesty's attitude towards the country. Spokesman Khalid al-Mubarak said: "It is not interested in the welfare of our women because it never mentions the positive side. Our women have achieved equal pay for equal work. They occupy top jobs as ministers and members of the high court."
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/may/31/sudanese-woman-stoning-death-adultery

Writer’s block in Nepal: Manjushree Thapa

What do you do if you’re the high-caste leader of a democratic party faced with a vote that will end your caste’s supremacy? You avoid voting at all costs. This is what the leaders of the Nepali Congress party and the Communist Party of Nepal (Unified Marxist Leninist) did in Kathmandu on May 27. Their refusal to compromise with the Unified Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) and other parties led to the failure to pass a new Constitution and the dissolution of the country’s only democratically elected body, the 601-member Constituent Assembly.

This was an unforgivable betrayal of public trust: the citizenry had waited for four years for a new Constitution that would mark the birth of a “New Nepal”. It also plunged Nepal into a constitutional crisis: the country now has a caretaker President, a caretaker Prime Minister, and a caretaker Cabinet, but no representative body. The judiciary, the bureaucracy and the security forces remain, of course. But no one is sure what is legitimate and illegitimate now. The Prime Minister has called for elections for another Constituent Assembly in six months. The President is mulling over his options, which are few. With no clear way forward, Nepal is, for now, a constitutional Neverneverland. Was it worth it? To the leaders of the NC and CPN-UML, it obviously was.

They threw everything away over the issue of federalism. Nepal has over a hundred ethnic nationalities and nearly as many languages. But all government institutions, and most non-government ones as well, are monopolised by high-caste Hindus. Brahmins and Kshatriyas — called Bahuns and Chhetris in Nepal — occupy almost all national space. This is a glaring, undeniable fact and it holds true for all the political parties (including the Maoists), every media house, the entire private and NGO sectors, and the vast informal networks of power — including the well-heeled of Kathmandu who exert immense influence over confused donors and ambassadors.

During the 10-year-long “People’s War”, the Maoists promised the excluded (that is, the majority) autonomous federal states named after each area’s ethnic nationalities. This proved very popular. (Though the 2011 census data is not out yet, it’s safe to say that Nepal’s population comprises 15 per cent Chhetris and 12 per cent Bahun. The Madhesis, Janajatis and other excluded groups amount to over 60 per cent.) Once the peace process was underway, the issue of federalism got another boost from the newly formed parties of the Madhes, or the south-eastern plains. In 2007, they separated from the Maoists and other parties, demanding an autonomous Madhesi state.

In 2008, the Maoists won almost 39 per cent of the vote in the election for the Constituent Assembly, becoming Nepal’s largest party. The Constitution that resulted was bound to reflect their agenda. For the NC and CPN-UML, the challenge on the political front was to ensure that the future polity remained democratic. Their vision was firm: they wanted the Westminster model.

On the social front, they had no vision at all. Out of social conservatism or perhaps sheer apathy, they had over the past two decades resisted Nepal’s multiple civil rights movements, consistently delaying or opposing the rights of women, dalits and ethnic nationalities, though these are all important votebanks. Indeed, the women, dalit and ethnic members of the NC and CPN-UML have had to defy their party leaders several times to pass socially progressive legislation. Their leaders have in turn tried to rein them in by issuing whips.

For NC and CPN-UML Assembly members from various ethnic nationalities, federalism became a core part of the civil rights movement: only by decentralising power would they be able to end the monopoly of high-caste Hindus. After much debate, and a two-year delay, the Assembly finally proposed two alternatives on federalism: to create either 14 or 10 “ethnic states”. Flouting democratic procedure, the NC and CPN-UML leadership refused to entertain these proposals, by turns opposing federalism altogether, or proposing six or eight states named after geographic features.

As lines hardened along caste and ethnic lines, a bloc of over 320 Assembly members across party lines declared they would vote in favour of ethnic federalism. The NC and UML leadership began to threaten its defiant members with a whip and with expulsion...
http://www.asianage.com/columnists/writer-s-block-nepal-961

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will

Mr. Obama has placed himself at the helm of a top secret “nominations” process to designate terrorists for kill or capture, of which the capture part has become largely theoretical. He had vowed to align the fight against Al Qaeda with American values; the chart, introducing people whose deaths he might soon be asked to order, underscored just what a moral and legal conundrum this could be.

Mr. Obama is the liberal law professor who campaigned against the Iraq war and torture, and then insisted on approving every new name on an expanding “kill list,” poring over terrorist suspects’ biographies on what one official calls the macabre “baseball cards” of an unconventional war. When a rare opportunity for a drone strike at a top terrorist arises — but his family is with him — it is the president who has reserved to himself the final moral calculation. “He is determined that he will make these decisions about how far and wide these operations will go,” said Thomas E. Donilon, his national security adviser. “His view is that he’s responsible for the position of the United States in the world.” He added, “He’s determined to keep the tether pretty short.”

Nothing else in Mr. Obama’s first term has baffled liberal supporters and confounded conservative critics alike as his aggressive counterterrorism record. His actions have often remained inscrutable, obscured by awkward secrecy rules, polarized political commentary and the president’s own deep reserve. In interviews with The New York Times, three dozen of his current and former advisers described Mr. Obama’s evolution since taking on the role, without precedent in presidential history, of personally overseeing the shadow war with Al Qaeda.

They describe a paradoxical leader who shunned the legislative deal-making required to close the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba, but approves lethal action without hand-wringing. While he was adamant about narrowing the fight and improving relations with the Muslim world, he has followed the metastasizing enemy into new and dangerous lands. When he applies his lawyering skills to counterterrorism, it is usually to enable, not constrain, his ferocious campaign against Al Qaeda — even when it comes to killing an American cleric in Yemen, a decision that Mr. Obama told colleagues was “an easy one.”..
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/29/world/obamas-leadership-in-war-on-al-qaeda.html?pagewanted=all

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Blind Activist Calls For End To 'Lawlessness' In China

How China Flouts Its Laws By CHEN GUANGCHENG
SINCE I arrived in the United States on May 19, people have asked me, “What do you want to do here?” I have come here to study temporarily, not to seek political asylum. And while I pursue my studies, I hope that the Chinese government and the Communist Party will conduct a thorough investigation of the lawless punishment inflicted on me and my family over the past seven years.

I asked for such an investigation while I was hospitalized in Beijing, after I had left the refuge of the United States Embassy and American officials negotiated my reunification with my family. High officials from the Chinese government assured me that a thorough and public investigation would take place and that they would inform me of the results. I hope that this promise will be honored. But the government has often failed to fulfill similar commitments. I urge the government and people of the United States and other democratic countries to insist that the Chinese government make timely progress in this matter.

The central government and the authorities in Shandong Province, Linyi City and Yinan County have many questions to answer. Why, beginning in 2005, did they illegally confine my family and me to our house in Dongshigu Village, cutting us off from all contact with other villagers and the world? Why, in 2006, did they falsely accuse me of damaging property and gathering a crowd to interfere with traffic and then, after farcical trials that excluded my witnesses and defense counsel, send me to prison for 51 months? On what legal basis, following my release from prison in 2010, did they turn our home into another, equally harsh, prison?

The fundamental question the Chinese government must face is lawlessness. China does not lack laws, but the rule of law. As a result, those who handled my case were able to openly flout the nation’s laws in many ways for many years. Although China’s criminal laws, like those of every country, are in need of constant improvement, if faithfully implemented they could yet offer its citizens significant protection against arbitrary detention, arrest and prosecution. Countless legal officials, lawyers and law professors have labored for decades to produce constitutional and legislative rules intended to prevent a recurrence of the nightmarish anti-rightist campaign and other “mass movements” of the 1950s and the later abominations of the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76.

But those protections have been frequently ignored in practice, as they were in my case and in the case of my nephew, Chen Kegui. After the local police discovered my escape from my village in April, a furious pack of thugs — not one in uniform, bearing no search or arrest warrants and refusing to identify themselves — scaled the wall of my brother Guangfu’s farmhouse in the dead of night, smashed through the doors and brutally assaulted my brother.

After detaining him, the gang returned twice more, severely beating my sister-in-law and nephew with pickax handles. At that point, Kegui tried to fend them off by seizing a kitchen knife and stabbing, but not killing, three of the attackers. Kegui, who is 32 years old, was then detained in Yinan County and, absurdly, charged with attempted homicide. No one has been able to reach him, and he has most likely been tortured even more severely than his father was. Although China signed the United Nations convention against torture in 1988 and has enacted domestic laws to implement it, torture to extract confessions is still prevalent...

Although China has yet to enact any remedy similar to habeas corpus, which allows people to challenge a detention before the courts, its current justice system is based on the assumption that prosecutors have the independence to correct the misconduct of the police and the extralegal thugs they often employ. Judges, in turn, are supposed to independently correct misconduct by prosecutors and the police when cases reach the courts. In real life, however, cases of any significance are controlled at every level of the judicial system by a Communist Party political-legal committee, rather than by legal officials. From the Yinan County Basic Court to the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing, it is this committee that directs the actions of the police, prosecutors and judges, transforming these ostensibly independent actors into a single, unchallengeable weapon. These political-legal committees have eroded decades of progress in implementing the rule of law.

While my wife and I now have the opportunity to study the law and meet freely with a broad range of American officials, law professors and legal reformers, the independent defense lawyers who tried to help me and now my nephew face daily danger and unfair treatment. Any serious investigation of the injustices that we and hundreds of thousands of others have suffered must determine who is beating, kidnapping, disbarring and prosecuting these lawyers and threatening their families, and why defendants are compelled to accept the nominal legal assistance of government-employed lawyers instead of counsel of their choosing.

China’s government must confront these crucial differences between the law on the books and the law in practice. This issue of lawlessness may be the greatest challenge facing the new leaders who will be installed this autumn by the 18th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party. Indeed, China’s political stability may depend on its ability to develop the rule of law in a system where it barely exists. China stands at a critical juncture. I hope its new leaders will use this opportunity wisely. As an ancient Chinese proverb says, “If one is not righteous oneself, how can one rectify others?” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/30/opinion/how-china-flouts-its-laws.html?_r=1

Disgusted and scared to live in Kerala, land of killers: Mohanlal

Malayalam superstar and national award winning actor Mohanlal has expressed deep anguish and disgust over the murder of TP Chandrasekharan, the CPM-dissident, who was hacked to death at Kozhikkode in north Kerala on May 5th. I don’t want to talk about the politics behind this murder. I don’t know. But, I do want to say that I feel thoroughly disgruntled to live in a state where there are people who kill and make others kill. I feel scared and disgusted. Is Kerala turning into a mad house?

“I feel disgruntled to live in a place where people kill and make others kill,” he said. “I feel disgusted and scared.”Writing a solemn note on his blog to express his deep pain on his 52nd birthday, he said an otherwise joyous day has been shrouded by the sadness of Chandrasekharan’s murder. He said he can very closely personalise the intense sorrow of the slain leader’s mother. Mohanlal is one of the very few cultural icons in the state who have spoken out against the murder. A few days ago, the chief minister Oomen Chandy expressed surprise that the cultural leaders of the state, who otherwise speak on literally everything, were conspicuously silent on Chandrasekharan’s murder. Balachandran Chullikkad, a celebrated poet, had said that the cultural leaders were silent because they were scared of bodily harm. In a state where armed criminals can be hired for pittance, one is scared for one’s life and limbs, he had said.

Noted writer Paul Zacharia denounced the silence of writers and artists. Mohanlal’s creative response is significant in this context. No other political murder has stirred the state’s conscience this much. Read below a translation of the post by Mohanlal. The original Malayalam post can be read at www.thecompleteactor.com : "Two mothers in my thoughts: 21 May is my birthday. I have completed 52 years in the journey of my life. It’s certainly an occasion to be happy; but this year, the day is shrouded by the dark clouds of sadness. On this overcast day, the thoughts of two mothers are brimming solemnly in my heart. One is my mother who has been lying unconscious for three months following a brain-attack and the other, the mother of TP Chandrasekharan, who was killed with more than 50 hacks to his face.

"I don’t know him personally; but from whatever little I know, he would have been roughly my age, and his mother, probably as old as my mother is. So many times, I have seen my mother’s mind writhing in pain when she sensed a flicker of pain in me. Therefore I can so closely feel the “sea of sorrow” in his mother, thinking about a son who has been butchered into so many pieces. The joy of my birthday drowns deep in the ocean of her tears...
http://www.firstpost.com/india/actor-mohan-lal-says-he-is-disgusted-to-live-in-kerala-316595.html

Also see: T P Chandrasekharan, Revolutionary Marxist Party leader dead
T P Chandrasekharan, Revolutionary Marxist Party leader in Kerala was hacked to death by unidentified assailants in a dreadful incident which happened at Vallikkad in Kozhikode district of Kerala on Friday night. Chandrasekharan(52) was attacked by a bunch of hooligans travelling in an innova car throw bombs and later attacked him as he fell from the bike. The incident happened on 4th May night at around 10.15 PM. Chandrashekaran who had been brutally murdered was left on the road for half an hour unidentified before he was taken to the Vadakara Govt hospital. On view of the brutal murder of T P Chandrashekaran, UDF had declared a 12 hours of hartal in the state. T P Chadrasekharan who was expelled from CPI (M) few years back, was the leader of Revolutionary Marxist Party in Kerala. T P Chadrasekharan started his political career as an activist of SFI (Students Federation of India) the student's wing of CPI (M) and later gave up his whole life to work for the party. He served as the district secretary of SFI, State Joint Secretary and later a representative in the national level.

We have plotted and killed people, admits CPM leader
The outspoken claim of a CPM leader in Kerala that the party has indeed plotted and killed its opponents landed the Marxists in an absolute mess.The star of the foolish street-corner spectacle that plunged the CPM into a fresh crisis is MM Mani, secretary of the party in Idukki, an eastern district adjoining Ernakulam and Kottyam. Ironically, the meeting where he blurted out was convened to tell the party workers that the CPM was not involved in the murder of Chandrasekharan. Unfortunately for him and the CPM, the shocking footage of his speech found its way to the state’s TV channels.

His speech was surprisingly vivid... the party had made a list of 13 people and killed four of them – all Congress functionaries. “One, two, three, four…” he said narrating the sequence of murders.“The first one was shot dead, the second was beaten to death and the third was stabbed to death,” he said with absolute derision, citing their names and other details. The murders he narrated were in fact among the most sensational in the district – three of them in the early 1980s and the fourth in 2004. In the first three, nobody had been convicted for lack of evidence. Mani’s admission to the party’s involvement has provided fresh evidence for the police to reopen the cases.

And: Dead TP Chandrasekharan more lethal to CPM
Whoever the killer, T.P.Chandrasekharan (TPC) dead is much lethal to CPM than TPC living. In the party belts of Malabar, the CPM is realising the TPC effect, as its organisations had to suspend many public programmes due to the lackadaisical attitude of party workers. CPM fears that the TPC effect will spill over to the Kariyad, Kidanhi, Chokli and Panur regions in Kannur district where there were many dormant followers for TPC. The region is adjacent to Azhiyur and Eramala panchayats, RMP strongholds...  it is the first time that dissidents of the CPM received a martyr of their own, who fought against the party in the name of Communist ideologies. Most second-rung leaders of the CPM in Kannur, Kozhikode, Malappuram and Wayanad were close allies of TPC while he was in the party. Most including legislative members, former legislative members and a few who play a key role in the CPM at the national level are in constant touch with Rema, wife of TPC, who has been drafted for RMP work now. Meanwhile, a meeting of CPM members who left the party on TPC murder issue and those who plan to leave the party, have convened a commemoration programme in Kozhikode on Tuesday. Many district-level leaders of the CPM and the DYFI are expected to participate in the programme.

See also: ADITYA MENON: A brutal side to God's own country


Flame computer virus can spy on every action of user

Iran and other Middle East countries have been hit with a cunning computer virus that can eavesdrop on computer users and their co-workers and filch information from nearby cellphones, cybersecurity experts said Tuesday. And suspicion immediately fell on Israel as the culprit. The Russian Internet security firm Kaspersky Lab ZAO said the “Flame” virus is unprecedented in size and complexity, with researcher Roel Schouwenberg marveling at its versatility. “It can be used to spy on everything that a user is doing,” he said. Computers in Iran appear to have been particularly affected, and Kaspersky’s conclusion that the virus was crafted at the behest of a national government fueled speculation it could be part of an Israeli-backed campaign of electronic sabotage against the Jewish state’s archenemy.

The virus can activate a computer’s audio systems to listen in on Skype calls or office chatter. It can also take screenshots, log keystrokes and — in one of its more novel functions— steal data from Bluetooth-enabled cellphones. Schouwenberg said there is evidence to suggest that the people behind Flame also helped craft Stuxnet, a virus that is believed to have attacked nuclear centrifuges in Iran in 2010. Many suspect Stuxnet was the work of Israeli intelligence.Tehran has not said whether it lost any data to Flame, but a unit of the Iranian communications and information technology ministry said it has produced an anti-virus capable of identifying and removing Flame from its computers.


Israel’s vice premier did little to deflect suspicion about the country’s possible involvement in the cyberattack. “Whoever sees the Iranian threat as a significant threat is likely to take various steps, including these, to hobble it,” Moshe Yaalon told Army Radio when asked about Flame. “Israel is blessed with high technology, and we boast tools that open all sorts of opportunities for us.”

Researchers not involved in Flame’s discovery were more skeptical of its sophistication than Kaspersky, with Richard Bejtlich of Virginia-based Mandiant saying the virus appeared similar to spyware used by the German government to monitor criminal suspects. “There have been tools like this employed by high-end teams for many years,” he said. Colorado-based Webroot said the virus wasn’t as complex or as stealthy as Stuxnet and was “a relatively easy threat to identify.”

Flame is unusually large. Malicious programs collected by the British security firm Sophos averaged about 340 kilobytes in 2010, the same year that Kaspersky believes Flame first started spreading. Flame is 20 megabytes — nearly 60 times that figure. Alan Woodward, a professor of computing at the University of Surrey in England, said functions can be added or subtracted to the virus depending on what kind of espionage is desired, not unlike the way apps can be downloaded to a smartphone. He was particularly struck by Flame’s ability to turn an infected computer into a kind of “industrial vacuum cleaner,” copying data from vulnerable cellphones or other Bluetooth wireless devices left near it. “I don’t believe I’ve seen it before,” he said.

Udi Mokady, chief executive of Cyber-Ark, an Israeli developer of information security, said he believes four countries, in no particular order, have the know-how to develop so sophisticated a weapon: Israel, the U.S., China and Russia. “It was 20 times more sophisticated than Stuxnet,” with thousands of lines of code that took a large team, ample funding and months, if not years, to develop, he said. “It’s a live program that communicates back to its master. It asks, ‘Where should I go? What should I do now?’ It’s really almost like a science fiction movie.”

It’s not clear exactly what the virus was targeting...
http://www.firstpost.com/tech/flame-computer-virus-can-spy-on-every-action-of-a-user-325413.html

Syrian massacre child-survivor tells how his family were slaughtered

An 11-year old boy has described how he smeared himself in the blood of his slain brother and played dead as loyalist gunmen burst into his home and killed six members of his family during the start of a massacre in Houla, central Syria. The young survivor's chilling account emerged as Russia continued to blame both Syrian troops and opposition militias for the weekend rampage in the town that left at least 116 people dead and prompted fresh outrage against the regime's crackdown.

It comes on the eve of Kofi Annan's scheduled meeting on Tuesday in Damascus with Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, which is seen as the last hope of salvaging the UN special envoy's failed peace plan. Speaking to the Guardian, the young survivor said government troops arrived in his district at around 3am on Saturday, several hours after shells started falling on Houla. "They came in armoured vehicles and there were some tanks," said the boy. "They shot five bullets through the door of our house. They said they wanted Aref and Shawki, my father and my brother. They then asked about my uncle, Abu Haidar. They also knew his name."

Shivering with fear, the boy stood towards the back of the entrance to his family home as gunmen then shot dead every family member in front of him. "My mum yelled at them," said the boy. "She asked: 'What do you want from my husband and son?' A bald man with a beard shot her with a machine gun from the neck down. Then they killed my sister, Rasha, with the same gun. She was five years old. Then they shot my brother Nader in the head and in the back. I saw his soul leave his body in front of me.

"They shot at me, but the bullet passed me and I wasn't hit. I was shaking so much I thought they would notice me. I put blood on my face to make them think I'm dead." Apparently convinced their work was finished, the gunmen moved on to other areas of the house, from which they proceeded to loot the family's possessions, the boy said. "They stole three televisions and a computer," he said. "And then they got ready to leave." On the way out of the house, the boy said the gunmen found the three men they had been looking for. They killed them all. "They shot my father and uncle. And then they found Aref, my oldest brother, near the door. They shot him dead too."..
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/may/28/houla-massacre-survivor-boy-syria

The butler did it

One of the Vatican's biggest scandals in decades has widened, with the pope's butler agreeing to co-operate with investigators over confidential documents allegedly found at his home


Gabriele, the pope's personal butler since 2006, was arrested last Wednesday after documents he had no business having in his possession were found inside his Vatican City apartment. In custody in a Vatican detention facility, accused of theft, he has been allowed to see his wife and his lawyers. Gabriele's lawyer Carlo Fusco said his client would "respond to all the questions and will collaborate with investigators to ascertain the truth".

The 46-year-old Gabriele was always considered extremely loyal to Benedict and to his predecessor, John Paul II, for whom he briefly served. Vatican insiders said they were baffled by his alleged involvement in the scandal. Fusco reported on Monday that Gabriele was "very serene and calm". So far, he remains the only person who has been arrested, but Lombardi stressed that the investigation was continuing.

The scandal broke in January when the Italian journalist Gianluigi Nuzzi broadcast letters from the former number-two Vatican administrator, Monsignor Carlo Maria Viganò, to the pope. In the letters, Viganò begged not to be transferred for having exposed alleged corruption, which cost the Holy See millions of euros in higher contract prices. The prelate is now the Vatican's US ambassador. The scandal widened over the following months, with documents leaked to Italian journalists that laid bare clear power struggles inside the Vatican over its efforts to show greater financial transparency.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/may/28/vatileaks-scandal-pope-butler-gabriele

Monday, May 28, 2012

Afghan grandmother is a crimebuster on wheels

It's unusual for a woman to be a leader in Afghanistan but Zarifa Qazizadah has become the country's only female village chief through force of personality and determination to get things done - even if that means cross-dressing, wearing a false moustache and driving around on a motorbike at night. "I tell the men of the village, all I want is your prayers," she says. "When you have a problem, I'll speak to the government on your behalf and whenever there is any disturbance at night-time, I'll pick up my gun and come to your house to see what's going on."

Zarifa Qazizadah

When the mother of 15 first sought political office, and told local men she wanted to connect the village to the electricity grid, they laughed. That was in 2004. She lost the election, but she got the electricity all the same, and two years later the men asked her to apply for the post of head of the village - Naw Abad in the country's northern Balkh province. Now she guards the electricity supply with a vengeance, and if anyone wires their home up and starts stealing it, they have to watch out.

"I can't let that happen because we have to respect the law," she says. "When something happens in the village at night and I have to react quickly, I'll put on men's clothes and ride my motorbike." Women in rural Afghanistan are rarely seen riding motorbikes alone and Qazizadah disguises herself, with the clothes and a fake moustache, to avoid attracting too much attention. She has also been known to come to the rescue of her villagers by wrestling Jeeps out of ditches with a tractor. "She does the type of work that even men are not capable of doing," says Molavi Seyyed Mohammad, one of her local supporters. Qazizadah does not take "No" for an answer...
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18145805

Ahmed Rashid: Why Are We Abandoning the Afghans?

What will Afghanistan look like in 2014, after a dozen years of occupation, more than 2,800 NATO soldiers killed, and an expenditure of $1 trillion? If the participants in this week’s NATO summit in Chicago are to be believed, what they will leave behind is little more than a series of fortresses in enemy territory: Kabul and the other major cities will be protected by Afghan forces, while the countryside falls back into the hands of the Taliban. NATO leaders all but acknowledged that much of Kandahar & Helmand provinces - where 30,000 US marines had launched “the surge” two years ago to root out the Taliban - would quickly revert back to Taliban control once the Americans left.

President Barack Obama has said that the promise to end combat operations by next summer and withdraw all Western troops by 2014 is “irreversible.” In other words, whatever happens on the ground when authority is handed over to the fledgling, largely illiterate, and drug infested Afghan army will not stop US and NATO forces from going home. The 350,000-strong Afghan army and police will be downsized by 100,000 men—not because they are not needed on the battlefield, but because the West will not pay for their upkeep. “Are there risks involved in it? Absolutely,” Obama conceded while winding up the summit.

The US and NATO long ago abandoned any pretense that that they are trying to build a modern, democratic state in Afghanistan. But the lackluster meeting in Chicago showed just how far support for the Afghan mission has eroded in recent months. Now, even limited aims—like working infrastructure, a functioning civil service and judiciary, and basic economic stability—will be difficult to realize. Clearly there is a rush for the exits by Western leaders, but there is no Plan B to address worsening battlefield conditions and political crises if they occur.

US officials now speak blithely about “Afghanistan good enough,” meaning that we should disabuse ourselves of any expectation that Afghans are capable of creating sufficient security, a sustainable economy, democracy, rights for women, or anything close to what the West insisted upon back in 2001. Even Obama admits to the possibility that the departure of NATO forces will leave behind a mess. “I don’t think there’s ever going to be an optimal point where we say, ‘This is all done. This is perfect. This is just the way we wanted it,’” Obama said. “This is a process, and it’s sometimes a messy process.”

Even more demoralizing for the Afghans, however, is Washington’s deliberate downgrading of its al-Qaeda strategy for the country. The way Tom Donilon, Obama’s National Security Adviser, now describes the US’s security aims for Afghanistan is so minimal that it is hard to square them with the policies that have been officially in place during much of the occupation. “The goal is to have an Afghanistan again that has a degree of stability such that forces like al-Qaeda and associated groups cannot have safe haven unimpeded,” said Donilon, the day before the summit started. In other words the aim to “eliminate” al-Qaeda from the region is no longer in play; all that can be hoped for is a “degree of stability.” NATO leaders spoke deliberately about “ending the war” but nobody believes the war will end simply because NATO is leaving...
http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2012/may/22/why-are-we-abandoning-afghans/

Sunday, May 27, 2012

DRUG-FINANCED SALAFI JIHADISM: The Afghan Drug Trade, threat to Russia and U.S.-Russian Relations

What particularly concerns me is the relative absence of public response in America to a long-term Pentagon-CIA agenda of aggressive military expansion... No doubt many Americans may think that a global pax Americana will secure a period of peace, much like the pax Romana of two millennia ago. I myself am confident that it will not: rather, like the imperfect pax Britannica of a century ago, it will lead inevitably to a major conflict, possibly another nuclear war... few in America seem to care about Washington’s global domination project. We have seen critical examination of why America fought in Vietnam, and even the American involvement in the Indonesian massacre of 1965. Chomsky and Bill Blum have chronicled America’s criminal acts since World War II. But only a few, like Chalmers Johnson and Andrew Bacevich, have written about the consolidation of a war machine that now dominates America’s political processes...

The U.S. dollar, weakening as it is, still depends largely on the OPEC policy of demanding U.S. dollars for payment of OPEC oil. Just how strongly America will enforce this OPEC policy can be seen by the fate of those countries that have chosen to challenge it. “Saddam Hussein in 2000 insisted Iraq's oil be sold for euros, a political move, but one that improved Iraq's recent earnings thanks to the rise in the value of the euro against the dollar."[9] Three years later, in March 2003, America invaded Iraq. Two months after that, on May 22, 2003, Bush by executive order decreed that Iraqi oil sales would be returned from euros to dollars. Shortly before the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya, Qaddafi, according to a Russian article, initiated a movement, like Saddam Hussein’s, to refuse the dollar for oil payments. Meanwhile Iran, in February 2009, announced that it had “completely stopped conducting oil transactions in U.S. dollars.” The full consequences of Iran’s daring move have yet to be seen...

I repeat: every recent U.S. and NATO intervention has served to prop up the waning dominance of western oil companies over the global oil and petrodollar system. But I believe that oil companies themselves are capable of initiating or at least contributing to political interventions. As I say in my book. There are recurring allegations that US oil companies, either directly or through cutouts, engage in covert operations; in Colombia (as we shall see) a US security firm working for Occidental Petroleum took part in a Colombian army military operation "that mistakenly killed 18 civilians.” More relevant to Russia was a 2002 covert operation in Azerbaijan, a classic exercise in deep politics. There former CIA operatives, employed by a dubious oil firm (MEGA Oil), “engaged in military training, passed ‘brown bags filled with cash’ to members of the government, and set up an airline…which soon was picking up hundreds of mujahideen mercenaries in Afghanistan.”These mercenaries, eventually said to number 2000, were initially used to combat Russian-backed Armenian forces in the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh; but they also backed Muslim fighters in Chechnya and Dagestan. They also contributed to the establishment of Baku as a transshipment point for Afghan heroin to both the Russian urban market and also the Chechen mafia.

In 1993 they also contributed to the ouster of Azerbaijan’s elected first president, Abulfaz Elchibey, and his replacement by Heidar Aliyev, who then agreed to a major oil contract with BP, including what eventually became the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline to Turkey. Note that the U.S. background of the MEGA Oil operatives is unmistakable. However who financed MEGA is unclear; and may have been the oil majors, many of which have or have had their own covert services. There are allegations that major oil corporations, including Exxon and Mobil as well as BP, were “behind the coup d’état” replacing Elchibey with Aliyev. It is clear that Washington and the oil majors have a common perception that their survival depends on maintaining their present dominance of international oil markets. In the 1990s, when it was widely believed that the world’s largest unproven reserves of hydrocarbons lay in the Caspian basin of Central Asia, this region became the central focus for both corporate U.S. petroinvestment and also for U.S. security expansion. Clinton’s close friend Strobe Talbott, speaking as Deputy Secretary of State, attempted to put forward a reasonable strategy for this expansion. In an important speech of July 21, 1997.. Read more:
http://www.globalresearch.ca/index.php?context=va&aid=31008

Paul Fussell, ex-soldier, literary Scholar & critic, dies at 88

Out of the mass experience of pointless death, a new way of speaking and writing, devoid of euphemism, arose, a plain style we associate with Hemingway.. The Great War chronicles the loss of the old rhetoric, of high pieties, of sacrifice and roseate dawns, in favor of “blood, terror, agony, madness, shit, cruelty, murder, sell-out, pain and hoax,” as Fussell lists it at one point; the sound of “ominous gunfire heard across water.” Fussell himself fought in World War II, and himself wrote in a candid style. “I am saying,” he concludes one chapter.. as if replying to a margin note from a junior editor, “that there seems to be one dominating form of modern understanding; that it is essentially ironic; and that it originates largely in the application of mind and memory to the events of the Great War.”

Paul Fussell, the wide-ranging, stingingly opinionated literary scholar and cultural critic whose admiration for Samuel Johnson, Kingsley Amis and the Boy Scout Handbook and his withering scorn for the romanticization of war, the predominance of television and much of American society were dispensed in more than 20 books, died on Wednesday in Medford, Ore. He was 88.

From the 1950s into 1970s, Mr. Fussell followed a conventional academic path, teaching and writing on literary topics, specializing in 18th-century British poetry and prose. But his career changed in 1975, when he published The Great War and Modern Memorya monumental study of World War I and how its horrors fostered a disillusioned modernist sensibility. “The Great War,” a work that drew on Mr. Fussell’s own bloody experience as an infantryman during World War II, won both the National Book Critics Circle Award for Criticism and the National Book Award for Arts and Letters.  Fussell’s influence was huge, Vincent B. Sherry wrote in “The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War.” “The book’s ambition and popularity move interpretation of the war from a relatively minor literary and historical specialization to a much more widespread cultural concern. His claims for the meaning of the war are profound and far-reaching; indeed, some have found them hyperbolic. Yet, whether in spite of or because of the enormity of his assertions, Fussell has set the agenda for most of the criticism that has followed him.”

The lavish praise and commercial success of “The Great War” transformed Mr. Fussell into a public intellectual, or perhaps more accurately a public curmudgeon; he crabbed, for instance, about Graham Greene’s “inability to master English syntax.” Mr. Fussell brought an erudition, a gift for readable prose, a willingness to offend and, as many critics noted, a whiff of snobbery to subjects like class, clothing, the dumbing down of American culture and the literature of travel...
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/24/books/paul-fussell-literary-scholar-and-critic-is-dead-at-88.html?_r=2&hp

Also see :  Book Of A Lifetime: The Great War and Modern Memory, By Paul Fussell
"This book is about the British experience of the Western front," he writes, "and some of the literary means by which it has been remembered... I have tried to understand something of the simultaneous and reciprocal process by which life feeds materials to literature while literature returns the favour by conferring forms on life. And I have been concerned with something more: the way the dynamics and iconography of the Great War have proved crucial political, rhetorical and artistic determinants on subsequent life. At the same time as the war was relying on inherited myth, it was generating new myth"... Fussell observes humanity observing, the hows and to-what-ends of the work of Sassoon, Graves, Blunden, David Jones, Rosenberg and Owen. It is a history book; a personal introduction to the minds and methods of these wonderful writers; criticism; a threnody. He gives an account, for example, at once merciless and tender, of the great clichés of the Great War, from the obvious (poppies, birdsong over the ruined battlefield) to the ones you hadn't even quite clocked as cliches (young men swimmming in rivers, sunset blazing a gilded reflection from flooded shellholes, letters). With astonishing perspicacity, he identifies them, analyses them and explains why we love them; why they have proved so rich and so powerful for so long.

The book was published in 1975; every sentence remains strong, valid and beautifully put: "Every war is ironic because every war is worse than expected... Its means are so melodramatically disproportionate to its ends... Eight million people were destroyed because two people, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his consort, were shot... But the Great War was more ironic than any before or since. It was a hideous embarrassment to the prevailing meliorist myth... It reversed the idea of Progress." So what precisely did I learn from this book? That war, this one especially, of its nature destroys that which it's trying (at best) or claiming, or purporting, or pretending (all too often), to protect. At national level this is important, today as then. At the level of the individual, it is shattering.
http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/reviews/book-of-a-lifetime-the-great-war-and-modern-memory-by-paul-fussell-2264683.html

And: Man of War: How combat changed Paul Fussell, and how Fussell changed American letters Fussell iterates the thesis at length, and the result is a unique kind of masterpiece —a plausible argument by an ex-warrior in favor of literature as the most appropriate measure of the immense shock of not only war, but all social change. The Modern Library has rightly named The Great War to its list of 100 Best Nonfiction Books..

And this too: On Paul Fussell
To write The Great War, Fussell read every British war memoir of note and then churned through the archives of the Imperial War Museum, adding the voices of scores of Tommies to those of the famous war writers, among whom Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, and Edmund Blunden loom the largest. The book traffics in higher literary criticism but is also crammed full of the demotic myths and rituals of the “Troglodyte World” of the trenches, so you catch the chill of the dawn, and stand-to and hear the tales of the corpse-eating rats from both poets and postcard writers. You learn a lot about how soldiers lived and also about how shockingly unexpected their experience was, not only in its unheroic misery but also in the amount of dissimulation, stupidity, and sheer incompetence they encountered. Fussell’s story of the Great War is of industrialized horror and bureaucratic mendaciousness rendering vocabularies and imaginations inadequate, and permanently scathed. 

Paul Fussell, the critic who fought the cant of military sacrifice

Ravi Shankar, Alla Rakha, Ali Akbar Khan, George Harrison in The Concert for Bangladesh August 1971

"In one day, the whole world knew the name of Bangladesh. It was a fantastic occasion ..." - 
Ravi Shankar. 


“a brief incandescent revival of all that was best about the Sixties”. Editors, Rolling Stone


The “warmth, care and goodwill” of the August 1971 concerts “echoed all over the world” - Bangladesh historian Farida Majid. 


Watch and hear it at : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pb60LBKqeB8&feature=related



The Concert for Bangladesh was the name for two benefit concerts organised by George Harrison and Ravi Shankar, held at noon and at 7pm on Sunday, 1 August 1971, playing to a total of 40,000 people at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The shows were organised to raise awareness and fund relief efforts for refugees from East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) following the 1970 Bhola cyclone and the 1971 Bangladesh atrocities. The Concert for Bangladesh was also the title of the accompanying live album, a boxed three-record set, released in December 1971 and Apple Films' concert documentary, which opened in cinemas in the spring of 1972.

The event was the first-ever benefit concert of such a magnitude and featured a supergroup of performers that included Harrison, fellow ex-Beatle Ringo Starr, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Billy Preston, Leon Russell and the band Badfinger. In addition, Shankar and another legend of Indian music, Ali Akbar Khan, performed a separate set. Decades later, Shankar would say of the overwhelming success of the event: "In one day, the whole world knew the name of Bangladesh. It was a fantastic occasion ...". The concert raised close to US$250,000 for Bangladesh relief, which was administered by UNICEF. Although the project was subsequently marred by financial problems − the Concert for Bangladesh is recognised as a highly successful and influential humanitarian aid project, generating both awareness and considerable funds as well as providing valuable lessons and inspiration for aid projects that followed, notably Live Aid. As with the live album, sales of the 2005 DVD release of the film continue to benefit the George Harrison Fund for UNICEF. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Concert_for_Bangladesh

Lyrics of Bob Dylan's A Hard Rain's Gonna Fall (sung at this concert):
Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son ?
And where have you been my darling young one ?
I've stumbled on the side of twelve misty mountains
I've walked and I've crawled on six crooked highways
I've stepped in the middle of seven sad forests
I've been out in front of a dozen dead oceans
I've been ten thousand miles in the mouth of a graveyard
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.


Oh, what did you see, my blue eyed son ?
And what did you see, my darling young one ?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin'
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin'
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand takers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.


And what did you hear, my blue-eyed son ?
And what did you hear, my darling young one ?
I heard the sound of a thunder, it roared out a warnin'
I heard the roar of a wave that could drown the whole world
I heard one hundred drummers whose hands were a-blazin'
I heard ten thousand whisperin' and nobody listenin'
I heard one person starve, I heard many people laughin'
Heard the song of a poet who died in the gutter
Heard the sound of a clown who cried in the alley
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.


Oh, who did you meet my blue-eyed son ?
Who did you meet, my darling young one ?
I met a young child beside a dead pony
I met a white man who walked a black dog
I met a young woman whose body was burning
I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow
I met one man who was wounded in love
I met another man who was wounded in hatred
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard
And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.


And what'll you do now, my blue-eyed son ?
And what'll you do now my darling young one ?
I'm a-goin' back out 'fore the rain starts a-fallin'
I'll walk to the deepths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are a many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner's face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I'll tell and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin'
But I'll know my songs well before I start singin'
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, and it's a hard
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Revealed: Hundreds of words to avoid using online if you don't want the US government spying on you

The Department of Homeland Security has been forced to release a list of keywords and phrases it uses to monitor social networking sites and online media for signs of terrorist or other threats against the U.S. The intriguing the list includes obvious choices such as 'attack', 'Al Qaeda', 'terrorism' and 'dirty bomb' alongside dozens of seemingly innocent words like 'pork', 'cloud', 'team' and 'Mexico'.

Released under a freedom of information request, the information sheds new light on how government analysts are instructed to patrol the internet searching for domestic and external threats.
The words are included in the department's 2011 'Analyst's Desktop Binder' used by workers at their National Operations Center which instructs workers to identify 'media reports that reflect adversely on DHS and response activities'. Department chiefs were forced to release the manual following a House hearing over documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit which revealed how analysts monitor social networks and media organisations for comments that 'reflect adversely' on the government. However they insisted the practice was aimed not at policing the internet for disparaging remarks about the government and signs of general dissent, but to provide awareness of any potential threats.

As well as terrorism, analysts are instructed to search for evidence of unfolding natural disasters, public health threats and serious crimes such as mall/school shootings, major drug busts, illegal immigrant busts. The list has been posted online by the Electronic Privacy Information Center - a privacy watchdog group who filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act before suing to obtain the release of the documents. In a letter to the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Counter-terrorism and Intelligence, the centre described the choice of words as 'broad, vague and ambiguous'.

Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2150281/REVEALED-Hundreds-words-avoid-using-online-dont-want-government-spying-you.html#ixzz1w2g7qFRu

Also see: Pakistani Telecommunications Authority orders blocks on obscene sms messages

What do the words sex, lavender, flatulence, quickie, butt, mango and pud have in common? They are among more than 1,000 words deemed so obscene by the Pakistani Telecommunications Authority that they have instructed mobile phone operators to block them from all text messages. It is a decision that has left many in Pakistan unsure whether to be staggered, amused or outraged. Social media sites such as Twitter have been flooded with posts about the decision. An unconfirmed list has been circulating online. Many of the words are sexually explicit but the inclusion of some words and phrases appear to have defied even those who admit to possessing the lewdest of minds.

Some Pakistanis have expressed their delight and gratitude, saying the list has taught them so many forbidden words and provided such a source of mirth. Censorship in Pakistan has a rich history, from public lashings of journalists and those who were anti-regime in the 1980s to people getting shot in public places for religious beliefs. For many, this is just the latest and most bizarre twist, in a culture where freedom of expression is hard fought. But many people have picked up on inconsistencies: the banned list includes every conceivable incorrectly spelled version of "masturbation". Bizarrely, if spelt correctly, the word is not banned. One Twitter user who used the identity, @KaalaKawa also noted: "Oh no! They banned "kiss ass"! That's the end of all political commentary via text messaging. #PTABannedList" as well as pointing out that while "breast job" is forbidden, "boob job" is not.

It is unclear if the ban has been put into practice yet, but many people say they have tried to send out text messages which include swear words. Some have succeeded in getting through; others have not, so the ban appears patchy for now. Many note, with irony, that "Jesus Christ" and "Satan" are on the list - underscoring that it also has the potential to offend cultural and religious sensitivities. Every possible irony has been pored over by Pakistanis talking on the street and online. MahwashB tweets: "You can't use the word "devil". There goes the religious sermon. #PTABannedList".

What many people want to know is who the creative genius behind this list of words is? What anonymous bureaucrat has toiled over this list of more than 500 Urdu and 1,000 English expletives and other words for the love of decency in telecommunications?.. some in Pakistan - not without some irony - are lauding it as a work of art: "The #PTABannedList is what Charles Dickens would have wrote if he lived in Federal-B-Area right now," one user tweets
http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-15793721

Thursday, May 24, 2012

China's lost history of famine

The great famine that devastated China half a century ago killed tens of millions of people - but is barely a footnote in history books.

There are few open public records of an event that is seared into the memories of those who survived this largely man-made disaster. A documentary maker now hopes to redress that imbalance by collecting the stories of hundreds of people who lived through the famine. He has sent young film-makers across China to video the survivors' testimonies. Some of those videos have already been shown to the public in screenings at the 798 arts district on the outskirts of Beijing. Stories are still being collected and the long-term aim is to bring all these video memories together. Wu Wenguang, the man behind the project, said: "If we don't know about the past, then there will be no future."

Armed with video cameras, Mr Wu's researchers have already travelled to 50 villages in 10 provinces across China. So far they have collected more than 600 memories from the famine, the result of a disastrous political campaign launched by Mao Zedong. The Great Leap Forward was supposed to propel China into a new age of communism and plenty - but it failed spectacularly. Agriculture was disrupted as private property was abolished and people were forced into supposedly self-sufficient communes. Interviews for this new project reveal that even though the famine happened a long time ago - between late 1958 and 1962 - memories are still sharp.

Li Guocheng is just one of those who still have fresh memories on what happened 50 years ago
Those interviewed seem to remember exactly how many grams of rice they were allocated in the period's communal kitchens. It was sometimes as low as 150g a day, occasionally they got nothing
Just one of those featured in the public screenings was Li Guocheng, a pensioner from the village of Baiyun in Yunnan province. He told the story of a relative who was so hungry that he stole a few ears of corn and took them home to cook. "After he ate them he was caught and tied up with a vine. They bound him to a post at his house," said Mr Li. But the next day he said the relative did the same again. He was once more caught and once more tied up as punishment. His 10-year-old daughter was told not to release him. "The next day he didn't steal again. He stayed home, put a rope over the beam of his house and hanged himself. He was so miserable," said Mr Li.

The researcher who recorded this story is Li Xinmin. The 23-year-old comes from the same Yunnan village as Mr Li, but it was not until she went back there to video its elderly residents that she realised the full horror of the famine. "Only occasionally would older people talk about these bitter times - when they had to eat wild vegetables or other stuff that humans wouldn't usually eat," she said. The 23-year-old is now finding out about a famine she learned little about in school.

Calculating how many people died is difficult. Not every government organisation kept accurate records at the time and there is little official appetite to investigate this dark episode in China's modern history... http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-17987733

Does globalization mean we will become one culture?

the very psychology that allows us to form and cooperate in small tribal groups, makes it possible for us to form into the larger social groupings of the modern world

Stroll into your local Starbucks and you will find yourself part of a cultural experiment on a scale never seen before on this planet. In less than half a century, the coffee chain has grown from a single outlet in Seattle to nearly 20,000 shops in around 60 countries. Each year, it’s near identical stores serve cups of near identical coffee in near identical cups to hundreds of thousands of people. For the first time in history, your morning cappuccino is the same no matter whether you are sipping it in Tokyo, New York, Bangkok or Buenos Aries.

Of course, it is not just Starbucks. Select any global brand from Coca Cola to Facebook and the chances are you will see or feel their presence in most countries around the world. It is easy to see this homogenization in terms of loss of diversity, identity or the westernization of society. But, the rapid pace of change also raises the more interesting question of why – over our relatively short history - humans have had so many distinct cultures in the first place. And, if diversity is a part of our psychological make-up, how we will fare in a world that is increasingly bringing together people from different cultural backgrounds and traditions?

To get at this question, I argue that we need to understand our unique ‘capacity for culture’. This trait, which I outline in my book Wired for Culture, makes us stand alone amongst all other animals. Put simply, we can pick up where others have left off, not having to re-learn our cultural knowledge each generation, as good ideas build successively upon others that came before them, or are combined with other ideas giving rise to new inventions.

Take the axe as an example. At first we built simple objects like hand axes chipped or “flaked” from larger stones.  But these would give way to more sophisticated axes, and when someone had the idea to combine a shaped club with one of these hand axes, the first “hafted axe” was born.  Similarly when someone had the idea to stretch a vine between the ends of a bent stick the first bow was born and you can be sure the first arrow soon followed. In more recent history, this ‘cumulative cultural adaptation’ that our capacity for culture grants has been accelerated by the rise of archiving technology. Papyrus scrolls, books and the internet allow us to even more effectively share knowledge with successive generations, opening up an unbridgeable gap in the evolutionary potential between humans and all other animals.

Chimpanzees, for example, are renowned for their “tool use” and we think this is evidence of their intelligence. But you could go away for a million years and upon your return the chimpanzees would still be using the same sticks to ‘fish’ for termites and the same rocks to crack open nuts – their “cultures” do not cumulatively adapt.  Rather than picking up where others have left off, they start over every generation. Just think if you had to re-discover how to make fire, tan leather, extract bronze or iron from earth, or build a smartphone from scratch.  That is what it is like to be the other animals. Not so for humans. Around 60,000 years ago, cumulative cultural adaptation was what propelled modern humans out of Africa in small tribal groups, by enabling us to acquire knowledge and produce technologies suitable to different environments.  Eventually these tribes would occupy nearly every environment on Earth – from living on ice to surviving in deserts or steaming jungles, even becoming sea-going mariners as the Polynesians did. And amongst each one we see distinct sets of beliefs, customs, language and religion...
http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20120522-one-world-order

Israelis attack African migrants during protest against refugees

Demonstrators have attacked African migrants in Tel Aviv in a protest against refugees and asylum-seekers that indicates an increasingly volatile mood in Israel over what it terms as "infiltrators". Miri Regev, a member of the Israeli parliament, told the crowd "the Sudanese are a cancer in our body". The vast majority of asylum-seekers in Israel are from Sudan and Eritrea. Around 1,000 demonstrators took part in the demonstration on Wednesday night, waving signs saying: "Infiltrators, get out of our homes" and "Our streets are no longer safe for our children." A car containing Africans was attacked and shops serving the refugee community were looted. Twelve people were arrested.

A reporter for the Israeli daily Maariv described it as an "unbridled rampage" and explosion of "pent-up rage". "Suddenly one of [the protesters] noticed that in one of the cars waiting for traffic to move were two young dark-skinned men, apparently foreign workers. For the hundreds of inflamed and enraged young people, that was all they needed. Within minutes, they dismantled – there is no other word to describe it – the car and its passengers. Some of them smashed the windows with their hands and rocks, others kicked the car, bent the plastic parts and tried to attack the people inside. 'I'm not from Sudan, I'm not from Sudan,' the driver tried to tell the assailants, but nobody was listening at that stage."

The protest followed a claim on Sunday by the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, that "illegal infiltrators [were] flooding the country" and threatening the security and identity of the Jewish state. "This phenomenon is very grave and threatens the social fabric of society, our national security and our national identity," he said. The government is constructing a fence along the Egypt-Israel border to deter migrants and asylum-seekers, and is building what will be the world's largest detention centre, capable of holding up to 11,000 people. It is also seeking court approval to deport up to 3,000 refugees back to South Sudan, despite concerns over the humanitarian crisis there and human rights violations. Israel's police chief has urged the state to allow asylum-seekers to work in order to avoid economic and social problems.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/may/24/israelis-attack-african-migrants-protest

Book Review - Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life

 “I’m no parasite. I’m a poet, who will bring honor and glory to his country.”

Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life : By Lev Loseff
Brodsky’s behavior in the Soviet Union in 1964 was astonishing, a sign both of the changing times and of his extraordinary courage. He did not cave or confess or plead for forgiveness, nor did he make a stirring political speech. He had not publicly opposed the Soviet system or its censorship (even though he had suffered from it), and he had no political message to communicate.

Joseph Brodsky caught the attention of the outside world for the first time in 1964, when he was tried in Leningrad for the crime of writing poetry. That is not how the indictment read, of course: his “crime” was that he did not have a regular job, and was therefore a “parasite.” But a scurrilous article attacking Brodsky in the Evening Leningrad newspaper not long before his trial gave the game away. He was charged with being a “literary drone,” a writer of pointless doggerel, and therefore useless to society unless he was made to do “real” work. The newspaper attack and the subsequent trial were badges of honor for someone as young as Brodsky. He was only twenty-four and virtually unknown outside the narrow circle of his admirers, and campaigns of this sort were ordinarily reserved for famous older figures, such as Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova.

Brodsky was in fact the victim of political events far beyond his control. Khrushchev’s “Thaw” experiment of 1956–1962, designed, among other things, to do away with such embarrassments as show trials, had badly backfired in 1962 with the sensational success of Solzhenitsyn’s short gulag novel, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which scared the living daylights out of the Soviet leaders. They needed scapegoats, and so they launched a crackdown on all branches of the arts, especially literature—always a bellwether in Russia—looking for young and vulnerable writers less able to fight back than their elders.

So it was that in March 1964, the young Brodsky found himself alone in the dock in a large hall in Leningrad, facing a hostile judge and twice as many witnesses for the prosecution (none of whom knew him personally) as for the defense, and charged with not having a regular job. It was a setup, of course. A large placard outside the hall set the tone: “Parasite Brodsky on Trial.” The prosecutor made no bones about what the verdict would be. Brodsky’s defenders were “crooks, parasites, lice, bugs,” and Brodsky “a parasite, a lout, a crook, an ideologically corrupt human being.” After five hours of insulting innuendo and hostile questioning, much of it by the judge, Brodsky was informed of his pre-determined sentence, which was five years of exile from Leningrad, with compulsory physical labor.

The palpable injustice of this vindictive show trial aroused the ire of the liberal wing of the Russian literary community. They concluded that literature itself, and especially poetry, was on trial, and that the verdict set a dangerous example. Brodsky became “a symbol, an archetype—the Poet misunderstood and vilified by an ignorant rabble,” as the late Lev Loseff puts it in his illuminating but uneven biography (which has been admirably translated by Jane Ann Miller). Brodsky’s case was taken up by two older writers, Lydia Chukovskaya and Frida Vigdorova, who understood perfectly the threat to all writers posed by the trial. They enlisted a galaxy of cultural celebrities in support of the young poet, and Vigdorova circulated her unofficial transcript of the trial in samizdat (a new phenomenon in those days), which quickly found its way abroad and was published there. John Berryman, W.H. Auden, and Stephen Spender were among those galvanized by the trial to protest the persecution of a fellow poet, and instead of fading into oblivion the little known Brodsky became a minor celebrity...
http://www.tnr.com/article/books-and-arts/magazine/103341/joseph-brodsky-russian-literature-lev-loseff

Human Rights Work of Russia's “Memorial” group

“Memorial” began initially as an historical and educational association with a significant part of its work dedicated to protecting human rights. Each of “Memorial”'s regional divisions is involved in protecting human rights, specifically in vindicating the rights of former prisoners. The organization appeals to society to not forget the cruel and massive human rights violations in our country's past, but also not to ignore that human rights violations continue to occur.

In the spring of 1989, authorities brutally broke up a meeting in Tbilisi, leading to many deaths. In Moscow, “Memorial” organized a series of protest actions. Through the year, “Memorial” repeatedly posted pickets at the building of the General Procurator of the U.S.S.R. demanding freedom for all the then-remaining political prisoners in the U.S.S.R. Towards autumn, a legal defense group grew out of this work: the association “Memorial”. In 1991 “Memorial”'s Human Rights Center was established to organize and coordinate “Memorial”'s human rights' work.

The Human Rights Center “Memorial” Moscow concentrates its activities on human rights violations in zones of armed conflicts in the Russian Federation, so called “hot spots”, and on the protection of refugees and victims of discrimination and political persecution. Accordingly, several programmes have been set up, which often are closely interlinked. The Human Rights Center works in partnership with “Memorial”'s regional organizations, many which also work to protect human rights. Much of the activity is carried out in Voronezh, Yekaterinburg, Nizhniy Tagil, Novosibirsk, Orel, Ryazan, Tomsk, Kharkov, Chelyabinsk and other towns.. http://www.memo.ru/eng/memhrc/index.shtml

Archive of Memorial's Reports

Book review: Orlando Figes and Stalin's Victims

By Peter Reddaway and Stephen F. Cohen
Many Western observers believe that Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian regime has in effect banned a Russian edition of a widely acclaimed 2007 book by the British historian Orlando Figes, The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia. A professor at University of London’s Birkbeck College, Figes himself inspired this explanation. In an interview and in an article in 2009, he suggested that his first Russian publisher dropped the project due to “political pressure” because his large-scale study of Stalin-era terror “is inconvenient to the current regime.” Three years later, his explanation continues to circulate.

We doubted Figes’s explanation at the time—partly because excellent Russian historians were themselves publishing so many uncensored exposés of the horrors of Stalinism, and continue to do so—but only now are we able to disprove it. (Since neither of us knows Figes or has ever had any contact with him, there was no personal animus in our investigation.) Our examination of transcripts of original Russian-language interviews he used to write The Whisperers, and of documents provided by Russians close to the project, tells a different story. A second Russian publisher, Corpus, had no political qualms about soon contracting for its own edition of the book. In 2010, however, Corpus also canceled the project. The reasons had nothing to do with Putin’s regime but everything to do with Figes himself.

In 2004 specialists at the Memorial Society, a widely respected Russian historical and human rights organization founded in 1988 on behalf of victims and survivors of Stalin’s terror, were contracted by Figes to conduct hundreds of interviews that form the basis of The Whisperers, and are now archived at Memorial. In preparing for the Russian edition, Corpus commissioned Memorial to provide the original Russian-language versions of Figes’s quotations and to check his other English-language translations. What Memorial’s researchers found was a startling number of minor and major errors. Its publication “as is,” it was concluded, would cause a scandal in Russia.

This revelation, which we learned about several months ago, did not entirely surprise us, though our subsequent discoveries were shocking. Separately, we had been following Figes’s academic and related abuses for some time. They began in 1997, with his book A People’s Tragedy, in which the Harvard historian Richard Pipes found scholarly shortcomings. In 2002 Figes’s cultural history of Russia, Natasha’s Dance, was greeted with enthusiasm by many reviewers until it encountered a careful critic in the Times Literary Supplement, Rachel Polonsky of Cambridge University. Polonsky pointed out various defects in the book, including Figes’s careless borrowing of words and ideas of other writers without adequate acknowledgment. One of those writers, the American historian Priscilla Roosevelt, wrote to us, “Figes appropriated obscure memoirs I had used in my book Life on the Russian Country Estate (Yale University Press, 1995), but changed their content and messed up the references.” Another leading scholar, T.J. Binyon, published similar criticism of Natasha’s Dance: “Factual errors and mistaken assertions strew its pages more thickly than autumnal leaves in Vallombrosa.”

In 2010 a different dimension of Figes’s practices came to light. For some time he had been writing anonymous derogatory reviews on Amazon of books by his colleagues in Russian history, notably Polonsky and Robert Service of Oxford University. Polonsky’s Molotov’s Magic Lantern, for example, was “pretentious” and “the sort of book that makes you wonder why it was ever published.” Meanwhile, Figes wrote on Amazon, also anonymously, a rave review of his own recent The Whisperers. It was, Figes said, a “beautiful and necessary” account of Soviet history written by an author with “superb story-telling skills…. I hope he writes forever.”

When Service and Polonsky expressed their suspicion that Figes had written the reviews, his lawyer threatened Service with court action. Soon, however, Figes was compelled to admit that he had indeed written the anonymous reviews. Service summed up the affair: Figes had “lied through his teeth for a week and threatened to sue me for libel if I didn’t say black was white…. If there is one thing that should come out of this, it is the importance of giving people freedom to speak the truth without the menace of financial ruin.”..

At about the same time, as we later learned, the true story of the Russian edition of Figes’s The Whisperers was unfolding behind the scenes in Moscow. In summer 2010, representatives of three Russian organizations involved—the publisher Corpus, Memorial and a foundation, Dynastia (which owned the Russian rights and paid for the translation)—met to consider what Memorial’s researchers had uncovered. According to a detailed account by one participant, the group tried to find a way to salvage the project, but the researchers had documented too many “anachronisms, incorrect interpretations, stupid mistakes and pure nonsense.” All of The Whisperers’ “facts, dates, names and terms, and the biographies of its central figures, need to be checked,” the participant added. It was too much. A decision was made against proceeding with the Russian edition. After re-examining the relevant materials, Dynastia informed Figes of the decision in an April 6, 2011, letter to his London literary agency.

Indeed, after looking at only a few chapters of The Whisperers, Memorial found so many misrepresentations of the life stories of Stalin’s victims that its chief researcher, a woman with extensive experience working on such materials, said, “I simply wept as I read it and tried to make corrections.” Here are just three examples, which we have also examined, whose gravity readers can decide for themselves:..
http://www.thenation.com/article/168028/orlando-figes-and-stalins-victims

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Time is almost up for the old city of Kashgar

China's plan to transform the heart of Uyghur culture, learning and urban settlement - Kashgar old city - is well underway. The Uyghurs themselves have no voice in this process..

For the last three years, and over the silence of the international community, the din of bulldozers has reverberated across this ancient Silk Road hub. The demolition of the heart of Kashgar, a process accompanied by countless individual stories of loss, heralds the end of a distinct Uyghur culture. In the People's Republic of China, development planning equates to a no-choice acceptance of whatever blueprint for the future of communities the party-state chooses.

Kashgar old city has long held a central place in Uyghur culture and history. A distinguished line of Uyghur scholars, such as the renowned 11th-century Turkic-language lexicographer Mahmud Kashgari, made Kashgar a focal point of learning. Throughout its many-layered existence - as a major Silk Road trading axis, "great game" listening-post and birthplace of the first East Turkestan republic - the Turkic people of this urban oasis have formed the core of its ingenuity and progress. It can be said without exaggeration that Kashgar old city is the physical embodiment of Uyghur history; but it is also, amid the current desecration, the source of Uyghur thinking on the Uyghurs' own preferred course of development.

The Uyghurs' record of long-term settlement & self-management means little to the current Chinese administration. A plan it laid out in 2009, funded both from regional and central coffers, ordained the demolition and reconstruction of most of the eight square kilometers that encompass the old city. By the end of the project, 65,000 Uyghur households will have been relocated to uniform apartment-blocks on the city's fringes. So far, it is estimated that two-thirds of the old city has been torn down. There are few genuine preservation efforts, although - reflecting the characteristic style and mindset of the Chinese authorities - small areas of the old city are set aside for tourists to pick over.

The urgency of the demolition project took on new life after the convening of the "Xinjiang work forum" in Beijing in May 2010. This initiative, following the outbreak of unrest in 2009 in the regional capital of Urumchi, was an attempt to breathe new life into state-development initiatives in the Uyghur region. The Chinese government had blamed the tensions on "overseas forces", though the work forum was a tacit admission that inequity between Uyghurs and Han Chinese (in education, income, employment, and life-chances) was a contributing factor.

The meeting was held without any Uyghur input whatever, which made its conclusion - let's do more of the same, only faster - unsurprising. The pace of demolitions of Uyghur neighbourhoods accelerated, as did the imposition of Mandarin-only education...
http://www.opendemocracy.net/henryk-szadziewski/kashgars-old-city-endgame

Putin and the loneliness of the long distance president

An ideal Russia, in Putin’s paranoid logic, would be a Russia without its people.

outside Russia no one, apart from a handful of lost souls, needs Putin. This may not be the best news for him, especially bearing in mind his offshore oil and gas plans, but it’s not critical. But it looks as though things aren’t that much better at home – and here I’m not even talking about the wide-ranging opposition to his rule. In terms of internal politics, we can see through another decision, one even more jaw-dropping than his refusal to meet the G8. In this case, it is true, all the analysts have worked it out: the appointment of Aleksandr Tkachov, a former mechanical engineer, as his special envoy to Abkhazia is less a question of pandering to public opinion than a demonstration of his terminal mistrust of his own, ‘putinist’ elite...

Vladimir Vladimirovich’s self appointment as president was the act of a petty tyrant and marked the beginning of the slow but sure suicide of the post-Yeltsin regime. It wasn’t enough that middle class hopes of Russia joining the 21st century were dashed; the ambitions of the more dynamic members of the ruling elite and the technocrats were also smashed. Medvedev, of course, was a good boy, but the look in his eyes on 24th September… it’s clear to everyone that the famous ‘job swap’ was carried out by Putin for his own benefit and that of his immediate circle, and to the detriment of just about everyone else. And when at his swearing in Vladimir Vladimirovich made his way along the red carpet, with the beneficiaries of the Russian state lined up to flatter him with their smiles, in the sound of the applause could be heard the same old phrase: ‘we’d be better off without you, mate’.  Outside on the streets at the same time, the same message was being carried in more laconic form through squares and along boulevards around the Kremlin, dodging police truncheons as it went - ‘Russia without Putin’.  

So who is left of the ‘national leader’s’ gang – a ‘best friend’, friends? I don’t particularly know about such things, but it looks as though the ranks have thinned: connections with oil baron Timchenko  have to be curtailed and hushed up; rumour has it that the appetites of judo expert Rotenberg became so great that he has fallen out of favour; there are disagreements on issues of political economics with ex finance minister Kudrin, and Putin’s goddaughter Ksenya Sobchak, again according to rumour, has crossed to the other side of the barricades. As for his own family, both his daughters live incognito and abroad, and his wife Lyudmila has been seen in his company twice in the last two years (I won’t go into the rumours)…

‘Russia without Putin’, ‘Putin and Emptiness’… this picture of total desolation has echoes of Marquez, or even Shakespearean tragedy!  Not that the diminutive figure of Putin deserves such comparisons. But he has deserved his loneliness, and deserved it fully. It is a manmade loneliness, like the streets and avenues of Moscow during the rehearsal of the president’s drive to his swearing-in, cleared of people as though by a neutron bomb...
http://www.opendemocracy.net/od-russia/artemy-troitsky/vlad-putin-and-loneliness-of-long-distance-president