Thursday, 31 January 2008

Sentenced to death: Afghan who dared to read about women's rights

I am taking the liberty of posting an article from today's 'Independent'. The individual case it describes is desperate enough, but the sense that our government and our troops are simply propping up a government who scarcely differ from the Taliban in the name of the so-called 'war on terror' leaves me in despair. I hope you'll follow the link at the end of the article and sign the petition. It'll probably have no effect, but it just might.

Sentenced to death: Afghan who dared to read about women's rights

By Kim Sengupta
Thursday, 31 January 2008

The fate of Sayed Pervez Kambaksh has led to domestic and international protests, and deepening concern about erosion of civil liberties in Afghanistan. He was accused of blasphemy after he downloaded a report from a Farsi website which stated that Muslim fundamentalists who claimed the Koran justified the oppression of women had misrepresented the views of the prophet Mohamed.

Mr Kambaksh, 23, distributed the tract to fellow students and teachers at Balkh University with the aim, he said, of provoking a debate on the matter. But a complaint was made against him and he was arrested, tried by religious judges without – say his friends and family – being allowed legal representation and sentenced to death.

The Independent is launching a campaign today to secure justice for Mr Kambaksh. The UN, human rights groups, journalists' organisations and Western diplomats have urged Mr Karzai's government to intervene and free him. But the Afghan Senate passed a motion yesterday confirming the death sentence.

The MP who proposed the ruling condemning Mr Kambaksh was Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, a key ally of Mr Karzai. The Senate also attacked the international community for putting pressure on the Afghan government and urged Mr Karzai not to be influenced by outside un-Islamic views.

The case of Mr Kambaksh, who also worked a s reporter for the Jahan-i-Naw (New World) newspaper, is seen in Afghanistan as yet another chapter in the escalation in the confrontation between Afghanistan and the West.

It comes in the wake of Mr Karzai accusing the British of actually worsening the situation in Helmand province by their actions and his subsequent blocking of the appointment of Lord Ashdown as the UN envoy and expelling a British and an Irish diplomat.

Demonstrations, organised by clerics, against the alleged foreign interference have been held in the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif, where Mr Kambaksh was arrested. Aminuddin Muzafari, the first secretary of the houses of parliament, said: "People should realise that as we are representatives of an Islamic country therefore we can never tolerate insults to reverences of Islamic religion."

At a gathering in Takhar province, Maulavi Ghulam Rabbani Rahmani, the heads of the Ulema council, said: "We want the government and the courts to execute the court verdict on Kambaksh as soon as possible." In Parwan province, another senior cleric, Maulavi Muhammad Asif, said: "This decision is for disrespecting the holy Koran and the government should enforce the decision before it came under more pressure from foreigners."

UK officials say they are particularly concerned about such draconian action being taken against a journalist. The Foreign Office and Department for International Development has donated large sums to the training of media workers in the country. The Government funds the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) in the Helmand capital, Lashkar Gar.

Mr Kambaksh's brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, is also a journalist and has written articles for IWPR in which he accused senior public figures, including an MP, of atrocities, including murders. He said: "Of course we are all very worried about my brother. What has happened to him is very unjust. He has not committed blasphemy and he was not even allowed to have a legal defence. and what took place was a secret trial."

Qayoum Baabak, the editor of Jahan-i-Naw, said a senior prosecutor in Mazar-i-Sharif, Hafiz Khaliqyar, had warned journalists that they would be punished if they protested against the death sentence passed on Mr Kambaksh.

Jean MacKenzie, country director for IWPR, said: "We feel very strongly that this is designed to put pressure on Pervez's brother, Yaqub, who has done some of the hardest-hitting pieces outlining abuses by some very powerful commanders."

Rahimullah Samander, the president of the Afghan Independent Journalists' Association, said: "This is unfair, this is illegal. He just printed a copy of something and looked at it and read it. How can we believe in this 'democracy' if we can't even read, we can't even study? We are asking Mr Karzai to quash the death sentence before it is too late."

The circumstances surrounding the conviction of Mr Kambaksh are also being viewed as a further attempt to claw back the rights gained by women since the overthrow of the Taliban. The most prominent female MP, Malalai Joya, has been suspended after criticising her male colleagues.

Under the Afghan constitution, say legal experts, Mr Kambaksh has the right to appeal to the country's supreme court. Some senior clerics maintain, however, that since he has been convicted under religious laws, the supreme court should not bring secular interpretations to the case.

Mr Karzai has the right to intervene and pardon Mr Kambaksh. However, even if he is freed, it would be hard for the student to escape retribution in a country where fundamentalists and warlords are increasingly in the ascendancy.

How you can save Pervez

Sayed Pervez Kambaksh's imminent execution is an affront to civilised values. It is not, however, a foregone conclusion. If enough international pressure is brought to bear on President Karzai's government, his sentence may yet be overturned. Add your weight to the campaign by urging the Foreign Office to demand that his life be spared. Sign our e-petition by clicking here.

Alan Johnson vs. your GP

It takes a lot of brass neck to offer GPs a contract they accept, then change your mind long after the deal is done and dusted, and blame the GPs. But like too many members of the cabinet these days, brass neck is in plentiful supply when it comes to Alan Johnson.

When he's not blaming the doctors themselves, he blames them collectively as the BMA. Family doctors are 'out of touch with patients' he tells us. Unlike politicians, that is. Still it could be worse, it could still be that Patricia Hewett harpie in charge; she made even Alan Johnson look competent. This government is not alone in not having a clue how to run the NHS.

The most important issue facing any government in it's management of the NHS is this: how do we continue to provide free healthcare for all when the range of treatments (and the age of the patients) is increasing so rapidly? Even if the government diverted it's entire income from taxation to the NHS there would not be enough. GPs working longer less social hours is a trivial irrelevance set against that. At some point soon we need a government with the guts to offer a real solution, rather than tinkering round the edges hoping it will all hold together until after the next election.

Wednesday, 30 January 2008

'Sir' Ronnie Flanagan

It was difficult to see what PC Flanagan was given his knighthood for, given the fiasco of his tenure as Chief Constable in Northern Ireland. You'd have thought that the farce of the recent Omagh bombing trial would have left any residual shred of reputation he possessed in tatters.

So what's happening now? Jacqui Smith appears to be about to accept the advice he gives in a report he drew up for the government. And his advice? That police should be allowed to stop and search anyone they like, whenever they like, and not have to complete any paperwork about it into the bargain. Why did he offer such a libertarian suggestion? As Mandy Rice-Davies so famously said, 'Well, he would, wouldn't he?'. And let's face it, it'll slot in nicely with the rush towards indefinite detention without trial that this government is so hell-bent on.

In the past ten years, has our Labour government once appointed a Home Secretary who begins to understand the notion of civil liberties? Sadly, no, and it hardly seems likely to do so. Desperate times indeed.

Another day, another sleazy politician

Conway to stand down at next election

No surprise really, is it. And good riddance. But it's hardly in the Hain class; it's just someone over-claiming expenses at the end of the day. And lets face it; snouts in the trough seems to be par for the course when it comes to MPs expenses. But we certainly need clearer rules for MPs. The first is that they should be required to declare payments they make to any members of their family that they claim expenses for, if not prohibit such payments altogether. And secondly, since it's another widespread scam, that there should be an absolute prohibition on claims for rent involving properties that are owned by the MPs concerned (the so-called 'constituency office').

But the fact that a fairly minor Tory MP has been caught dipping his hands in the till shouldn't be allowed to shift the focus away from Peter Hain; it almost beggars belief that he is so short of principle that he would accept money from a supporter of the former National Party in South Africa. Or maybe I'm just naive in thinking that there might be any politicians left in this world who have principles.

It's difficult to see why anyone wanted the Deputy Leader post anyway, unless that they were hoping that Gordon would pop his clogs before too long and they'd find themselves in line for the top job. At least John Cruddas wanted to represent the ordinary party member; the rest are all far too constrained by collective cabinet responsibility to do that so the post is utterly meaningless.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

Iraq's Future and the race for the US Democratic Nomination

I write this from a left-wing political perspective and as one who is hoping, after the disaster of the George Bush years, that America chooses a Democrat as it's next President. But not as much as I might have done and this is all because of Iraq.

Iraq has become a nightmare, the nightmare nearly everyone could see and warned about ahead of the invasion. We should never have gone in, but now we are in and we can't get out again. And the politicians who were happy to support the invasion are now trying to bring the troops home as quickly as they can without losing face. But is this right?

It is slightly ironic really but it seems to be the US military that has made the difference in recent months. They seemed to grasp that their Commander-in-Chief was worse than clueless and taken the development of strategy into their own hands with surprising success. They have used the 'surge' to focus their efforts on protecting the Iraqi population and that this has produced a considerable fall in the level of day-to-day violence. Or maybe I've just been duped by US propaganda, yes I know. But the problem now is this: that George Bush has committed to bringing home the extra troops that made the recent difference in six months time, which will only return the situation to what it was six months ago. Iraq will once again head towards civil war and there will be a general wringing of hands in the west.

So what do the two leading Democratic candidates have to say on all this? Well, last March Hillary Clinton said 'This is an Iraqi problem; we cannot save the Iraqis from themselves'. Barack Obama wants to withdraw the troops, but send them back again as part of an international force if it becomes apparent that there is wholesale genocide. 'It is conceivable that there comes a point where things descend into the mayhem that shocks the conscience and we say to ourselves, 'This is not acceptable'' he said in November talking about his post-withdrawal strategy.

Given a choice between those two positions, I'm more comfortable with the latter, but I find it hard to see any other result from an initial withdrawal than that the situation would then demand we returned. And all this just reinforces the fact that the 'coalition' have no more strategy for post-invasion Iraq now than they did before we went in. Here in the UK the government is keeping it's head down, and bringing troops home as and when, just hoping the problem will go away. As for Afghanistan, it's even worse, as the situation is deteriorating and troops pulled out of Iraq will simply end up re-deployed there.

But it's the US who are the big player in all this. And, like here, the politicians find themselves dancing to the tune of a public opinion which shares the 'let's leave them to it' sensibility of Ms Clinton. It's sad that the need for coherent long-term strategy doesn't yet seem to have been grasped and developed to a point where it enjoys a broader consensus of support after even after all this time. Because then foreign policy would not be about to be determined by the short-term prejudices of an unpredictable US electorate.

I suspect that Clinton will be the candidate, and that Obama is the person who should have been.

It would be remiss of me to post about Iraq and not point you to an excellent article that appeared in the lrb - 'It's the Oil' by Jim Holt.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Why should we pay for the Labour Party to elect a deputy leader?

Peter Hain forgets to register the odd £100,000 or so...

Far from being an argument for the public funding of political parties, this latest episode provides strong reason for not going down that route. The great advantage of the current system is that it exposes the politicians like Peter Hain who are contemptuous of the law and the electorate; and the Prime Ministers who should sack them, but don't.

Public cynicism is, I'm afraid, fully justified. Why should we expect Mr Hain to be any more careful with funds donated by unwilling taxpayers than those from spurious think-tanks?

Underhand donations will always exist; ways are always found of exploiting ambiguities in the law. Mr Hain is not the first to receive a 'loan' (instantly repaid as soon as it becomes a matter of public exposure) and I doubt if he'll be the last.

It is to be hoped that this case results in a prosecution; it might remind politicians that they are not in the end above the law.