Posts Tagged ‘human rights groups’

U.S.: Calls Mount for Obama to Appoint “Truth Commission”

February 20, 2009

By Jim Lobe* | Inter Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb 19 (IPS) – Eighteen U.S. human rights groups Thursday joined a former director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and a retired top diplomat in calling on President Barack Obama to appoint a non-partisan commission of leading citizens to examine and report on the treatment of detainees held by the United States during President George W. Bush’s “global war on terror.”

In a joint statement, the groups, which included Human Rights Watch (HRW) and Human Rights First (HRF), said members of such a commission “should be persons of irreproachable integrity, credibility, and independence” with “reputation for putting the truth and the respect for our nation’s founding principles ahead of any partisan advantage.”

Such a commission should also report on the consequences of alleged abuses committed by U.S. officials against detainees and “make recommendations for future policy in this area,” according to the statement, which was also signed by ret. Maj. General Antonio Taguba, the senior military officer whose 2004 report and subsequent Congressional testimony on abuses committed by U.S. soldiers in Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq drew headlines and outrage around the world.

The statement comes amid a growing public clamour, particularly from Obama’s Democratic base, for some forum that will determine responsibility for some of the more notorious abuses sanctioned or committed by U.S. official personnel during Bush’s war on terror and help inform the detention and interrogation policies of the new administration.

“The abuses carried out over the past eight years have not only undermined America’s moral authority, but also jeopardised its national security,” said Jennifer Daskal, senior counter-terrorism counsel at HRW. “We need to understand exactly what happened in order to protect our fundamental freedoms and keep the country safe.”

To date, Obama and his top officials, including his attorney general, Eric Holder, have been ambiguous about their views on the question. Obama has said he believes that “nobody is above the law, and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, that people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen, but that, generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking backwards.”

Democratic lawmakers, led by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, have made a number of suggestions, including creating a “truth commission” that could summon witnesses, including high-ranking Bush administration officials who authorised interrogation techniques that rights groups consider to be torture, and make recommendations, but could not bring criminal charges.

The plan appears, at least in theory, to enjoy not insubstantial public support. A Gallup poll conducted late last month found that nearly two-thirds of respondents favoured some form of investigation into alleged administration abuses, including the torture of detainees. While a quarter of respondents said they favoured investigations without criminal charges, almost 40 percent indicated support for criminal prosecutions if the investigations found evidence that laws had been violated.

“There’s a growing sense both in Washington and the country at large that people don’t want these abuses swept under the carpet,” said Tom Parker, policy director for terrorism, counter-terrorism and human rights for Amnesty International USA, one of the statement’s signatories. “They want to know what’s been done in their name; and, if they don’t approve of what was done in their name, they want to see people held accountable.”

Republicans, however, appear united in strongly opposing the creation of any independent forum, least of all one that could result in criminal prosecutions.

They have argued that Congress has already held a number of hearings on detainee abuse and that appointing an independent commission would amount to a “political vendetta” that would not only make bipartisanship more difficult but could also set a damaging precedent.

“If every administration started to re-examine what every prior administration did, there would be no end to it,” warned Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee who had himself frequently complained about the Bush administration’s denial of habeas corpus and authorisation of aggressive interrogation techniques for detainees, last month. “This is not Latin America,” he added.

But rights groups have long claimed that Congress’s hearings that have looked into the alleged abuses have been far too limited in their scope and have provided only a partial picture of how specific policies authorising the alleged abuses were derived and implemented. Moreover, the hearings were mostly conducted in a highly politicised context.

The signatories of the new statement stressed that the president should solicit recommendations from both parties’ Congressional leaders before choosing members of the commission.

Among the kinds of members who should be considered, according to the statement, are “leading academics, retired judges and government officials, retired military officers and intelligence officials, and human rights experts.”

“We need people of the stature of John McCain or John Kerry who have knowledge of military service, people with a great deal of experience with the intelligence community,” said Parker. “It isn’t just about morality; it’s about the right policy, whether these kinds of methods worked. We don’t think they do,” he added.

In addition to Taguba, who last year accused the Bush administration of having committed war crimes in its treatment of detainees, individual signatories of the statement included ret. U.S. Amb. Thomas Pickering, who served as Washington’s envoy to the United Nations under President George H.W. Bush and is among the highest-ranking and most-decorated diplomats of his generation; and Judge Williams Sessions, who served as FBI director under both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

Also signing was Juan Mendez, president of the New York-based International Centre for Transitional Justice and former president of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organisation of American States. Mendez, an Argentine native who gained asylum in the United States, has advised truth commissions that were established in Latin America and elsewhere around the world to investigate abuses committed by military and other authoritarian governments.

In addition to HRW, HRF, and AIUSA, other institutional signatories included the National Institute of Military Justice, the Centre for Victims of Torture, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Open Society Institute, and Physicians for Human Rights, among others.

The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) also called this week for the Obama administration to conduct an investigation into abuses against terrorism suspects.

“Seven years after 9/11 it is time to take stock and repeal abusive laws and policies enacted in recent years,” former Irish President Mary Robinson told reporters. “Human rights and international humanitarian law provide a strong and flexible framework to address terrorist threats.”

Robinson was one of several members of an ICJ panel that looked into abuses committed during the war on terror. The panel also included Stella Rimington, the former head of Britain’s MI5.

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at http://www.ips.org/blog/jimlobe/.

Gaza: Death’s Laboratory

February 14, 2009

Conn Hallinan | Foreign Policy In Focus, February 11, 2009

Erik Fosse, a Norwegian cardiologist, worked in Gaza hospitals during the recent war.”It was as if they had stepped on a mine,” he says of certain Palestinian patients he treated. “But there was no shrapnel in the wound. Some had lost their legs. It looked as though they had been sliced off. I have been to war zones for 30 years, but I have never seen such injuries before.”

Dr. Fosse was describing the effects of a U.S. “focused lethality” weapon that minimizes explosive damage to structures while inflicting catastrophic wounds on its victims. But where did the Israelis get this weapon? And was their widespread use in the attack on Gaza a field test for a new generation of explosives?

DIMEd to Death

The specific weapon is called a Dense Inert Metal Explosive (DIME). In 2000, the U.S. Air Force teamed up with the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The weapon wraps high explosives with a tungsten alloy and other metals like cobalt, nickel, or iron in a carbon fiber/epoxy container. When the bomb explodes the container evaporates, and the tungsten turns into micro-shrapnel that is extremely lethal within a 13–foot radius. Tungsten is inert, so it doesn’t react chemically with the explosive. While a non-inert metal like aluminum would increase the blast, tungsten actually contains the explosion to a limited area.

Within the weapon’s range, however, it’s inordinately lethal. According to Norwegian doctor Mad Gilbert, the blast results in multiple amputations and “very severe fractures. The muscles are sort of split from the bones, hanging loose, and you also have quite severe burns.” Most of those who survive the initial blast quickly succumb to septicemia and organ collapse. “Initially, everything seems in order…but it turns out on operation that dozens of miniature particles can be found in all their organs,” says Dr. Jam Brommundt, a German doctor working in Kham Younis, a city in southern Gaza. “It seems to be some sort of explosive or shell that disperses tiny particles…that penetrate all organs, these miniature injuries, you are not able to attack them surgically.” According to Brommundt, the particles cause multiple organ failures.

If by some miracle victims resist those conditions, they are almost certain to develop rhabdomyosarcoma (RMS), a particularly deadly cancer that deeply embeds itself into tissue and is almost impossible to treat. A 2005 U.S. Department of health study found that tungsten stimulated RMS cancers even in very low doses. All of the 92 rats tested developed the cancer.

While DIMEs were originally designed to avoid “collateral” damage generated by standard high-explosive bombs, the weapon’s lethality and profound long-term toxicity hardly seem like an improvement.

It appears DIME weapons may have been used in the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, but not enough to alarm medical workers. But in Gaza, the ordinance was widely used. Al-Shifta alone has seen 100 to 150 victims of these attacks.

Gaza as Test

Dr. Gilbert told the Oslo Gardermoen, “there is a strong suspicion…that Gaza is now being used as a test laboratory for new weapons.”

DIME is a U.S. invention. Did the Israelis get the weapons from the United States, or did they design similar ones themselves? Given the close relations between the two militaries, it isn’t unlikely that the U.S. Air Force supplied the weapons or, at least, the specifications on how to construct them. And since the United States has yet to use the device in a war, it would certainly benefit from seeing how these new “focused lethality” weapons worked under battlefield conditions.

Marc Garlasco, Human Rights Watch’s senior military advisor, says “it remains to be seen how Israel has acquired the technology, whether they purchased weapons from the United States under some agreement, or if they in fact licensed or developed their own type of munitions.”

DIME weapons aren’t banned under the Geneva Conventions because they have never been officially tested. However, any weapon capable of inflicting such horrendous damage is normally barred from use, particularly in one of the most densely populated regions in the world.

For one thing, no one knows how long the tungsten remains in the environment or how it could affect people who return to homes attacked by a DIME. University of Arizona cancer researcher Dr. Mark Witten, who investigates links between tungsten and leukemia, says that in his opinion “there needs to be much more research on the health effects of tungsten before the military increases its usage.”

Beyond DIMEs

DIMEs weren’t the only controversial weapons used in Gaza. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) also made generous use of white phosphorus, a chemical that burns with intense heat and inflicts terrible burns on victims. In its vapor form it also damages breathing passages. International law prohibits the weapon’s use near population areas and requires that “all reasonable precautions” be taken to avoid civilians.

Israel initially denied using the chemical. “The IDF acts only in accordance with what is permitted by international law and does not use white phosphorus,” said Israel’s Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi on January 13.

But eyewitness accounts in Gaza and Israel soon forced the IDF to admit that they were, indeed, using the substance. On January 20, the IDF confessed to using phosphorus artillery shells as smokescreens, as well as 200 U.S.-made M825A1 phosphorus mortar shells on “Hamas fighters and rocket launching crews in northern Gaza.”

Three of those shells hit the UN Works and Relief Agency compound on January 15, igniting a fire that destroyed hundreds of tons of humanitarian supplies. A phosphorus shell also hit Al-Quds hospital in Gaza City. The Israelis say there were Hamas fighters near the two targets, a charge that witnesses adamantly deny.

Donatella Rovera of Amnesty International said: “Such extensive use of this weapon in Gaza’s densely-populated residential neighborhoods…and its toll on civilians is a war crime.”

Israel is also accused of using depleted uranium ammunition (DUA), which a UN sub-commission in 2002 found in violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the UN Charter, the Geneva Conventions, the International Convention Against Torture, the Conventional Weapons Convention, and the Hague Conventions against the use of poison weapons.

DUA isn’t highly radioactive, but after exploding, some of it turns into a gas that can easily be inhaled. The dense shrapnel that survives also tends to bury itself deeply, leaching low-level radioactivity into water-tables.

War Crimes?

Other human-rights groups, including B’Tselem, Gisha, and Physicians for Human Rights, charge that the IDF intentionally targeted medical personal, killing over a dozen, including paramedics and ambulance drivers.

The International Federation for Human Rights called on the UN Security Council to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court for possible war crimes.

Although the Israelis dismiss the war-crimes charges, the fact that the Israeli cabinet held a special meeting on January 25 to discuss the issue suggests they’re concerned about being charged with “disproportionate” use of force. The Geneva Conventions require belligerents to at “all times” distinguish between combatants and civilians and to avoid “disproportionate force” in seeking military gains.

Hamas’s use of unguided missiles fired at Israel would also be a war crime under the Conventions.

“The one-sidedness of casualty figures is one measure of disproportion,” says Richard Falk, the UN’s human rights envoy for the occupied territories. A total of 14 Israelis have been killed in the fighting, three of them civilians killed by rockets, 11 of them soldiers, four of the latter by “friendly fire.” Some 50 IDF soldiers were also wounded.

In contrast, 1,330 Palestinians have died and 5,450 were injured, the overwhelming bulk of them civilians.

“This kind of fighting constitutes a blatant violation of the laws of warfare, which we ask to be investigated by the Commission of War Crimes,” a coalition of Israeli human rights groups and Amnesty International said in a joint statement. “The responsibility of the state of Israel is beyond doubt.”

Enter the Hague?

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann would coordinate the defense of any soldier or commander charged with a war crime. In any case, the United States would veto any effort by the UN Security Council to refer Israelis to the International Court at The Hague.

But, as the Financial Times points out, “all countries have an obligation to search out those accused of ‘grave’ breaches of the rules of war and to put them on trial or extradite them to a country that will.”

That was the basis under which the British police arrested Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998.

“We’re in a seismic shift in international law,” Amnesty International legal advisor Christopher Hall told the Financial Times, who says Israel’s foreign ministry is already examining the risk to Israelis who travel abroad.

“It’s like walking across the street against a red light,” he says. “The risk may be low, but you’re going to think twice before committing a crime or traveling if you have committed one.”

Conn Hallinan is a Foreign Policy In Focus columnist.

Israel will back troops accused of war crimes

January 26, 2009

Reuters
The Independent, UK, Monday, 26 January 2009

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International calls to investigate Israel over alleged war crimes in the Gaza Strip prompted Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to promise military personnel state protection from foreign prosecution yesterday.

“The commanders and soldiers sent to Gaza should know they are safe from various tribunals and Israel will assist them on this front and defend them, just as they protected us with their bodies during the Gaza operation,” Olmert said.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Malki said after meeting counterparts from the European Union, Egypt, Turkey and Jordan in Brussels that Olmert’s comments should not preclude action against Israeli military figures.

“It does not mean there is an immunity against legal actions…More of such efforts will be seen also in the near future.”

Last week, the military censor ordered local and foreign media in Israel not to publish names of army commanders in the Gaza war and to blur their faces in photos and video for fear they could be identified and arrested while travelling abroad.

Israeli media reports said the military had been advising its top brass to think twice about visiting Europe.

Speaking at a weekly cabinet meeting, Olmert said Israel’s justice minister would consult the country’s top legal experts and find “answers to possible questions relating to the Israeli military’s activities” during the 22-day war.

Some 1,300 Palestinians, including at least 700 civilians, were killed, medical officials said, in the offensive Israel launched in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip with the declared aim of ending cross-border rocket attacks.

The civilian deaths sparked public outcry abroad and prompted senior UN officials to demand independent investigations into whether Israel committed war crimes.

Ten Israeli soldiers and three civilians, hit by rocket salvoes, were killed in the conflict.

Israel said hundreds of militants were among the Palestinian dead and that it tried its best to avoid civilian casualties in densely populated areas where gunmen operated.

Rights group Amnesty International has said that Israel’s use of white phosphorus munitions — which can cause extreme burns — in built-up areas of the Gaza Strip was indiscriminate and therefore constituted a war crime.

Israel has said it used all weapons in Gaza within the limits of international law. Its military, however, has opened an investigation into white phosphorous use during the conflict.

US Envoy

In a quick start to efforts by US President Barack Obama’s new administration to shore up a shaky Gaza truce and revive Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, his envoy, former US Sen. George Mitchell, is expected in Israel on Wednesday.

He plans to visit the occupied West Bank, Egypt and Jordan. A Western diplomat said Syria was not currently on his schedule.

Palestinians have lobbied for a tougher international response to Israel’s military crackdowns. Yet legal frameworks are problematic.

The International Criminal Court in The Hague has no jurisdiction to investigate in the Gaza Strip, as it is not a state. Though the Palestinian Authority has been functioning as an interim sovereign polity since 1993, it was forced out of Gaza last year by Hamas after the Islamists won an election.

And while Israel has not signed the Rome Statute that enshrined the ICC, it can still be investigated, but that would require a UN Security Council mandate. Any such proposal would probably be vetoed by Israel’s ally, the United States.

Some European nations allow for war crimes lawsuits to be filed privately against members of Israel’s security services.

Guantanamo trial suspension hailed cy of Bush

January 22, 2009

The Morning Star

(Wednesday 21 January 2009)
President Barack Obama has vowed to close Guantanamo Bay, which holds about 245 men.

PLEDGE: President Barack Obama has vowed to close Guantanamo Bay, which holds about 245 men.

HUMAN rights activists hailed US President Barack Obama’s decision to suspend military trials at Guantanamo Bay as a “first step” towards closing the detention camp on Wednesday.

The White House has filed motions to suspend proceedings at the infamous camp for 120 days until Mr Obama’s administration completes a review of the system for prosecuting suspected terrorists.

Military lawyer William Kuebler said that the White House motions have “the practical effect of stopping the process, probably forever.”

Only about 20 have been charged.

Mr Obama’s nominee for attorney general Eric Holder has said that the so-called military commissions, which were created by former president George W Bush and congress in 2006, lack sufficient legal protections for defendants.

Mr Holder has argued that they could be tried in US federal courts.

British human rights group Reprieve, which represents 30 detainees at the camp, called on Mr Obama to “help to drain the poisoned chalice left to him by his predecessor.”

Reprieve director Clive Stafford Smith said: “This is a wonderful and historic first step, but it is much too early to cry: ‘Mission accomplished’.”

American Civil Liberties Union human rights programme director Jamil Dakwar agreed, noting that “the president’s order leaves open the option of this discredited system remaining in existence.”

According to Reprieve, British resident Binyam Mohamed has endured “medieval torture” at the camp and is currently on hunger strike.

Mr Mohamed is in solitary confinement, desperate for an idea of when he will be released.

Another prisoner represented by Reprieve, Mohamed el Gharani, has been held for seven years based largely on allegations that he was a member of the “London cell of al-Qaida” when he would have been 11 years old.

He was recently cleared for release by a federal judge, who noted that he had never been to London.

Pointing to CIA secret prisons in the Middle East, Africa and beyond, Reprieve observed that Guantanamo “is just the tip of the iceberg.”

“Many thousands of prisoners continue to be held by the US beyond the rule of law in sites across the world,” the group emphasised, describing every prisoner that languishes in a secret prison as “a corrosive legacy of the Bush era.”

Reprieve called on Mr Obama to “urgently close Guantanamo Bay and shine a light on the thousands of prisoners still held beyond the reach of our lawyers.”

Judge: Rumsfeld sanctioned torture in Gitmo

January 16, 2009

RINF.COM, Jan 15, 2009

A top US official has for the first time publicly admitted that a suspect, incarcerated at the Guantanamo Bay prison was tortured.

The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Susan J Crawford, a judge tasked with deciding on whether Guantanamo detainees should be brought to trial, told the newspaper that she decided against prosecuting Saudi national Mohammed al-Qahtani because his interrogation met the legal definition of torture.

Crawford said that the harsh techniques used against al-Qahtani were approved by the then defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

“A lot of this happened on his watch,” she said.

The paper quoted the judge as saying that al-Qahtani, who allegedly planned to participate in the September 11, 2001 attacks on the US but was denied entry into the country, was subjected to prolonged isolation, sleep deprivation, nudity and exposure to cold that placed him in a “life threatening condition.”

“The techniques they used were all authorized, but the manner in which they applied them was overly aggressive and too persistent,” said Crawford, a former inspector general of the Pentagon.

“You think of torture, you think of some horrendous physical act done to an individual. This was not any one particular act; this was just a combination of things that had a medical impact on him, that hurt his health. It was abusive and uncalled for and coercive. Clearly coercive,” she added.

The report came out amid growing certainty that President-elect Barack Obama will issue an executive order to close the notorious prison camp as one of his first moves.

Obama is under huge pressure from human rights groups to close Guantanamo, but has also conceded that closing it is quite complicated and will take some time.

Rights Groups Condemn U.S. Role in Gaza Conflict

January 11, 2009

WASHINGTON, Jan 9 (OneWorld.net) – Decrying U.S. “complicity” in what they say amounts to Israeli violations of international law, human rights groups are calling on the U.S. government to demand an immediate cessation of indiscriminate violence against civilians and increased humanitarian aid to Gaza inhabitants.

A woman and child sit next to a bag of Mercy Corps food aid in Gaza, 2006. The flow of humanitarian assistance, including food aid, into Gaza has been severely limited by the Israeli attack. © Mercy Corps

A woman and child sit next to a bag of Mercy Corps food aid in Gaza, 2006. The flow of humanitarian assistance, including food aid, into Gaza has been severely limited by the Israeli attack. © Mercy Corps“The Israeli airstrikes represent serious violations of international law — including the Geneva Conventions and a range of international humanitarian law — and the U.S. is complicit in all of it,” wrote Phyllis Bennis of the Institute for Policy Studies as the Israeli attacks on Gaza began in late December.

Specifically, “Israel’s lethal attack today [Dec. 28] on the Gaza Strip could not have happened without the active military support of the United States,” charged Bennis, detailing the types of weapons — such as F-16 fighter planes and Apache attack helicopters — and the amount of military aid — $3 billion a year — Israel receives from Washington.

“The use and threat of use of the U.S. veto in the [United Nations] Security Council and the reliance on raw power to pressure diplomats and governments to soften their criticism of Israel all serve to protect Israel and keep it from being held accountable by the international community,” added Bennis.

The advocacy group U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation is among those that agree that Israel’s assault on Gaza “would not be possible” without U.S. support in the form of military assistance and diplomatic backing at the United Nations.

Similarly, human rights monitor Amnesty International has voiced serious concern about “attacks directed at or resulting in harm to unarmed civilians,” the deteriorating humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, and the significant role the U.S. alliance with Israel plays in the conflict.

“Without diminishing the responsibility of Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups for indiscriminate and deliberate attacks on Israeli civilians, the U.S. government must not ignore Israel’s disproportionate response and the longstanding policies which have brought the Gaza Strip to the brink of humanitarian disaster,” wrote Amnesty International Senior Deputy Executive Director Curt Goering in an open letter to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last week.

Highlighting the grave humanitarian situation in Gaza and noting the disproportionate impact violence has on women and children, the women-for-peace group CODEPINK is encouraging concerned U.S. citizens to take action.

In a letter to supporters today, the group decried yesterday’s Senate resolution — passed by unanimous voice vote — “recognizing the right of Israel to defend itself against attacks from Gaza and reaffirming the United States’ strong support for Israel in its battle with Hamas, and supporting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.”

“There was nothing in this one-sided legislation…that will help the 1.5 million Gazans who are currently under siege,” the group charged, adding: “There is nothing in this bill that will do anything to support ‘the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.'”

With a similar vote expected in the House of Representatives soon, CODEPINK is rallying its supporters to urge their members of Congress to oppose any legislation that doesn’t call for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire as well as unimpeded access for humanitarian aid into Gaza and a lifting of Israel’s blockade of vital household goods like cooking oil and baking flour.

OneWorld.net: Latest from Groups Inside Gaza — What’s Happening & How You Can Help

AFGHANISTAN: Journalist Serving 20 Years for “Blasphemy”

October 22, 2008

By Zainab Mineeia | IPS News

WASHINGTON, Oct 21 – International human rights groups have called on Afghan authorities and President Hamid Karzai to free 24-year-old Afghani journalist Perwiz Kambakhsh, who has been sentenced to 20 years of prison after being convicted of blasphemy.

“There are no legal grounds for either his conviction or this sentence,” said Sam Zarifi, Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific director. “While it can only be a positive step that he is no longer on death row, he should be freed immediately.”

Kambakhsh is a journalism student at Balkh University and a reporter for the newspaper Jahan-e-Naw (“New World”). He was arrested on Oct. 27, 2007, and accused of “blasphemy and distribution of texts defamatory of Islam”.

Afghan authorities claimed that Kambakhsh downloaded material from the internet that spoke to women’s roles in Muslim societies and was distributing them on his college campus. Kambakhsh strongly denies the charges, stating that he made such confessions due to severe torture.

On Jan. 20, Kambakhsh was condemned to death — behind closed doors and without a defence lawyer — by a court in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif. The sentence was later commuted by an Afghan appeals court. However, Kambakhsh would still have to spend 20 years in prison for a crime which, under article 347 of the country’s Penal Code, carries a maximum sentence of five years of imprisonment.

Mohammad Afzal Nooristani, Kambakhsh’s attorney, told the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) that one of the witnesses called by the prosecution, a classmate of Kambakhsh’s identified by CPJ only as Hamid, told the court that National Directorate of Security officials had visited him a few days after Kambakhsh’s initial arrest and threatened to take his family into custody if he did not make a statement about Kambakhsh’s blasphemy.

“He was their prime witness; no other was eligible to give testimony,” Nooristani said, according to CPJ.

Yaqub Ibrahimi, Kambakhsh’s brother, told CPJ Tuesday that he was only able to talk to Kambakhsh for a few seconds after the sentencing.

“He was really shocked. He expected his release today but this was a very strong decision against him,” Ibrahimi said.

“Afghan justice has again failed to protect Afghan law and guarantee free expression,” Reporters Without Borders, a journalist advocacy group, said in a statement. “By sentencing this young journalist to imprisonment, the appeal court has eliminated the possibility of his being executed, but it has also exposed the degree to which some Afghan judges are susceptible to pressure from fundamentalists.”

“Kambakhsh was able this time to be represented by a lawyer,” continued the Reporters Without Borders statement, “but the appeal proceedings were marred by ideological distortion, a glaring lack of evidence and incomprehensible delays that ended up undermining the court’s serenity.”

Afghanistan’s government and warlords may not be notorious for executing journalists, but they do have a reputation for harassing, detaining, abusing and threatening them, advocacy groups say. The country is generally known as a harsh place for journalists, where they are in danger from harassment by U.S. forces, Afghan authorities, and the resurgent Taliban-led insurgency.

In another incident, Afghani journalist Jawed Ahmad, aged 22, was released from Bagram Air Base north of Kabul on September 21 following a year-long captivity in U.S. custody. He was detained as what the U.S. Department of Defense told CPJ was an “Unlawful Enemy Combatant.”

Ahmad was never charged with a crime and military officials have never explained the basis for his prolonged detention. He was working under contract as a field producer with the Canadian broadcaster CTV when he was picked up by Canadian troops at the International Security and Assistance Force’s (ISAF — the U.S. – and NATO-led international coalition that invaded Afghanistan in 2001) Kandahar airbase and soon moved to the U.S. facility at Bagram.

Ahmad said he does not know why he was freed and is unclear about why he was detained in the first place.

According to a statement from Bob Dietz, CPJ’s Asia Programme coordinator, Ahmad had suffered physical abuse during his detention, where he said he was frequently beaten, two of his ribs were broken, and he was deprived of sleep.

Karzai’s government hasn’t shown much openness to freedom of expression, according to the Nai Centre for Open Media, an Afghan NGO supported by foreign funding. The government is responsible for at least 23 of 45 instances of intimidation, violence, or arrest of journalists between May 2007 and May 2008. That is a 130 percent increase over the same period from the year before, the Nai Centre says, according to CPJ.

Kambakhsh described the court’s decision as an “injustice.” His lawyer said he would immediately appeal to the Supreme Court.

Pro-freedom demonstrations crushed in Kashmir

September 13, 2008

Two killed, 80 wounded in Indian Kashmir clashes

Sheikh Mushtaq | Reuters North American News Service

Sep 12, 2008 09:31 EST

SRINAGAR, India, Sept 12 (Reuters) – Two people were killed and 80 wounded in Indian Kashmir on Friday when troops fired bullets and teargas shells to break up renewed protests by Muslims against New Delhi’s rule in the disputed region.

The shooting took place in two separate towns near Srinagar, the summer capital of Kashmir, as several thousand worshippers demonstrated after weekly Friday prayers.

“I saw several people falling down when forces fired indiscriminately,” witness Muzamil Ahmad told Reuters by telephone. At least 21 people were hit by bullets and were rushed to a local hospital, officials said.

Protesters later threw stones in clashes with police, witnesses said.

“Oppressors, get out of Kashmir,” shouted the Srinagar protesters.

Clashes between police and stone-throwing protesters broke out in several other areas of Kashmir, witnesses said.

Earlier on Friday, Yasin Malik, a senior separatist leader and chief of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front (JKLF), was injured when police used teargas and batons to disperse thousands of demonstrators he was leading in Srinagar.

Malik shouted “Allahu Akbar (God is Greatest), we will break the chains,” before police fired teargas, witnesses said.

“Malik fell unconscious and was immediately removed to the hospital,” said Showkat Bakhshi, a JKLF spokesman.

At least 37 protesters have been killed by government forces in the Muslim-majority Kashmir Valley since last month, when some of the largest pro-independence rallies broke out since a revolt against New Delhi’s rule in 1989.

More than 1,000 people have been injured in the protests, sparked by a decision to grant land for shelters to Hindus for an annual pilgrimage to Kashmir, one of the most militarized regions in the world.

Authorities deployed thousands of troops across the valley to prevent demonstrations called by the region’s different separatist factions.

Indian troops have been criticised by Kashmiris and international human rights groups for using excessive force to quell protests in the Himalayan region.

Officials say violence involving Indian troops and Muslim militants has declined significantly since India and Pakistan, who claim the region in full but rule in parts, started a slow-moving peace process in 2004.

But people are still killed in shootouts and occasional explosions.

Separately, Indian security forces shot dead five militants in gunbattles in southern Kashmir on Friday, police said.

Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the strife-torn region since Muslim rebels launched a violent campaign opposing Indian rule in Kashmir twenty years ago. (Editing by Bappa Majumdar and Paul Tait) (For the latest Reuters news on India see in.reuters.com, for blogs see blogs.reuters.com/in)

Source: Reuters North American News Service

Kashmiris Seek Trade Route to Pakistan

September 9, 2008

Hindus Blocked Off Road to New Delhi

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service, Monday, September 8, 2008

SRINAGAR, India — After Hindu protesters blocked the only road connecting predominantly Muslim Kashmir with the rest of India last month, Altaf Bukhari, like many business owners in this disputed Himalayan region, became convinced of the need for an alternative trade outlet.

The most logical solution to the impasse is reopening a historic road that was closed to trade when the Indian subcontinent was partitioned in 1947. Part of the ancient Silk Road connecting Europe with Asia, it winds from Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, to the bustling market town of Rawalpindi, in Pakistan, 100 miles away.

It’s a direct route to a city far closer than Kashmir’s trading partner of New Delhi, India’s capital, about 400 miles away. But several political twists and turns must be navigated before the road can be used again for commerce.

India says it is ready to open the old trade route but has taken few steps to do so. It blames Pakistan for the delay. Pakistan has blamed India. But last week Pakistan proposed a meeting with the Indian government to discuss reopening the route as quickly as possible.

Kashmiri business leaders say everyone is watching eagerly. If India and Pakistan reopen the road, it could go a long way toward building confidence among entrepreneurs in Indian-controlled Kashmir, which has seen some of the largest pro-independence demonstrations this summer since an uprising against Indian rule broke out in 1989.

Tens of millions of dollars were lost in the fruit industry alone during the blockade, said Bukhari, an agricultural businessman. Family farms fell into debt, he said, adding that the business community learned how vulnerable it is under Indian rule.

“This blockade has changed our psychology completely. There is a real fear psychosis now,” Bukhari said, adding that he lost almost $1 million when his plums, pears and freshly packed apple juice couldn’t make it to Indian markets last month. “For us, business is business, and India is a good market, but it’s now created a fear in our minds.”

Along with chants of “Azadi,” or “Freedom,” demonstrators in Srinagar this summer were chanting, “Kashmir’s market is in Rawalpindi.”

“Everyone has woken up to the fact that economic independence would be completely powerful. India can shut us down any time it wants, and that is a terrifying thing,” said Nisar Ali, an economics professor at the University of Kashmir. “Opening the trade route to Pakistan, a nearby and logical road, is an idea whose time has come. Opening the road would go a long way to cooling down temperatures — a long way.”

Pakistan and India have fought three wars, two of them over Kashmir, since 1947. Both claim Kashmir but control only parts of it. Human rights groups estimate that the conflict has left 77,000 people dead and as many as 10,000 missing.

Tensions appeared to be easing. But a crisis erupted in Kashmir in June when Muslims launched protests over a government decision to transfer land to a Hindu shrine, saying it was a settlement plan designed to alter the religious balance in India’s only Muslim-majority region. After the plan was rescinded, Hindus took to the streets of Jammu city, in the predominantly Hindu part of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, demanding its restoration.

At least 35 unarmed protesters were killed by Indian security forces during peaceful self-rule demonstrations after the land dispute. A nine-day curfew was imposed late last month, and several separatist leaders were arrested.

A degree of calm has since been restored. The curfew was lifted last week at the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, and the separatist leaders were released from jail, although they remain under house arrest. The land-deal controversy was settled, in what many observers see as a draw: The Hindu shrine would be able to use the land during the three-month pilgrimage season but would not own it. The roadblocks that caused the economic blockade have been removed.

Still, the reopening of the road to Pakistan remains a powerful rallying cry among Kashmiris.

“The blockade was really an act of war that left children without milk and patients without medicine,” said Yasin Malik, a separatist leader. “It really woke up the business community to what azadi and what self-reliance would mean. It won’t be forgotten.”

For the Ahmed family, the reopening of the road would mean food on the table, money for schools and safety for the two oldest sons, who ply the dangerous route to New Delhi.

Sitting on the floor of his family’s kitchen with his head wrapped in gauze, Wahid Ahmed, 23, and his brother Munir, 24, said they were attacked while trying to bring a truckload of about 100 sheep from New Delhi to Kashmir.

The Indian army said it would escort them, the brothers said. But the soldiers later left them, saying all was safe. Soon afterward, the brothers said, they were pelted with stones by groups connected to India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, which was protesting the overturning of the land deal.

“We are afraid to try again,” said Wahid, who had 15 stitches. Family members, listening nearby, said they needed the brothers’ earnings. “We have no other road to choose,” Wahid said. “We just hope things are safe now.”

In Kashmir, Conflict’s Psychological Legacy

September 1, 2008

Mental Health Cases Swell in Two Decades

By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, September 1, 2008; A09

SRINAGAR, India

Suraya Qadeem’s brother was one of the Kashmir Valley’s brightest students. Handsome and disciplined, he had been accepted into a prestigious medical school in Mumbai. But just weeks before Tahir Hussain was to pack his bags, the 20-year-old was shot dead by Indian forces as he participated in a peaceful demonstration calling for Kashmir’s independence.

At his funeral, Suraya Qadeem, also a medical student, wept so hard she thought she might stop breathing. Seventeen years later, she spends her days counseling patients in Indian-controlled Kashmir who have painfully similar stories.

In the sunny therapy rooms of a private mental hospital here in Kashmir’s summer capital, Qadeem listens to young patients, nearly all of them children scarred by the region’s two-decade-old conflict. Most suffer from depression, chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, drug addiction and suicidal tendencies in numbers that are shockingly high, especially compared with Western countries.

Srinagar, a scenic lakeside city nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas, once had among the lowest mental illness rates in the world. But in 1989, leaders of the region’s Muslim majority launched an armed separatist movement, one of several said to have been backed by predominantly Muslim Pakistan, which has fought two wars with Hindu-majority India over Kashmir since India’s partition in 1947. Srinagar became a battleground as hundreds of thousands of Indian troops quelled the uprising. The fighting has left a powerful psychological legacy.

The number of patients seeking mental health services surged at the state psychiatric hospital, from 1,700 when the unrest began to more than 100,000 now. Last year, they were treated at the hospital or the recently opened Advanced Institute of Stress and Life Style Problems, where Qadeem works.

“Every home in Kashmir has a heartbreaking history,” said Qadeem, who admits she sometimes becomes emotional during sessions. “There is terrible ache when you lose a sibling. Pills can’t help. I share that agony of loss with my clients. In Kashmiri society, this pain is everywhere.”

India’s push to keep Kashmir is taking a toll on Kashmiris as well as Indian soldiers, in ways that are harder to measure than deaths or injuries. Experts say that mental health is an invisible casualty of war and that generations will bear the scars, imperiling Kashmir’s prospects for a bright future with or without India.

The patients have insomnia, learning disabilities, anxiety disorders and what Kashmiri therapists call the “midnight-knock syndrome,” a fear stemming from the many pre-dawn raids by Indian security forces aimed at rooting out suspected insurgents.

Mental health groups estimate that 60,000 Kashmiris committed suicide last year, a record number, said Mushtaq Margoob, head of the Government Psychiatric Diseases Hospital in Srinagar.

More than 15 percent of Kashmiris are afflicted with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a recent study by Margoob. Indian troops also are suffering, undertaking long tours without their families in a place where residents are often hostile. In January, the Indian army recruited 400 psychiatrists after more than 100 soldiers, including officers, killed themselves.

Among Kashmiris, the sufferers who reach the hospital are a fraction of those who need help. Remote villages have borne the brunt of the violence, and many who live there do not have the money for the long trip.

“It’s really an epidemic in Kashmiri society,” said Margoob, who opened Qadeem’s hospital to deal with the overflow of cases. “Over decades, Kashmiri society has been stretched beyond its natural capacity to cope. Depression and anxiety can also be passed down from generation to generation.”

Part of the problem is that there is little justice, Margoob said, something that in psychological terms would be called “closure.” Human rights groups estimate that the conflict has left 77,000 people dead and as many as 10,000 missing. Women whose husbands have gone missing during the conflict are known here as “half-widows.”

Under Indian law, security forces have wide powers when operating in “disturbed” regions, including the right to shoot on sight any insurgency suspect. A Human Rights Watch‘s report last month, “Getting Away With Murder: 50 years of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act,” alleges that the law has become a tool of state abuse and discrimination.

The 500,000-member Indian force is posted in bunkers in Kashmir’s apple orchards, saffron farms and hospitals. Signs dotting villages, towns and cities read “Our ultimate aim is your well-being.”

Tensions had eased in recent years. But a crisis began in June when Muslims demonstrated over a government decision to transfer land to a Hindu shrine. They said it was a settlement plan meant to alter the region’s religious balance. After the plan was rescinded, Hindus took to the streets of Jammu city, in the predominantly Hindu part of the state of Kashmir and Jammu, demanding that it be restored.

About 40 unarmed protesters have been killed by Indian forces during the self-rule demonstrations, the largest since early 1990. The land deal reinvigorated a nonviolent movement for Kashmir’s independence, especially among the so-called children of the conflict, those younger than 35, who make up nearly 70 percent of the population.

But with an Indian-issued curfew in place, many say the tough times are back, and so are the memories. Depression often flourishes under curfew, Margoob said, with children unable to play outdoors and parents worried about their stocks of food.

Qadeem has more than 100 patients, but she is a doctor who specializes in the care of women and children, not a mental health expert. She started working at the Advanced Institute of Stress and Life Style Problems because there were only 14 practicing psychiatrists in Kashmir, a region with more than 5.7 million people. Margoob helped train her.

Among Qadeem’s typical cases is a 30-year-old widow with four children. The widow’s 13-year-old daughter is suicidal. The mother has been depressed for three years and complains of headaches and insomnia. Her husband was a teacher who got caught in crossfire. His wife and daughter saw his bloodied body lying limp on their neighborhood street.

Before the conflict, Kashmir was often featured in fairy-tale-like Hindi movies, with couples falling in love amid the saffron fields. Across from Qadeem’s clinic is where Beatles guitarist George Harrison learned to play the sitar and, it is said, where Buddha used to meditate.

But the region’s natural beauty masks a community in pain. Qadeem, a petite, energetic woman, said she sometimes feels as anxious as her patients. During the curfew last week, she was unable to see her patients.

Qadeem said her 3-year-old daughter recently asked to pet some puppies she had noticed.

“It hurt. I had to tell her it was a curfew,” Qadeem said, as the child screamed in her arms. “Before that, she asked me to take her to the nearby gardens. I also had to tell her no, because there was lots of Indian army there. Suddenly I realized that from childhood, she knows that there is danger. That is Kashmir. That is our reality.”


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