BBC: New Protests in Hama after Syria’s Crackdown leaves hundreds dead

 

Tens of thousands of people have protested across Syria, days after the bloody crackdown on the city of Hama where the opposition had taken control. Video said to be of Damascus showed crowds in a central district chanting: “Hama, we are with you until death” and “[President] Bashar [al-Assad] leave”.

In a suburb of the city, at least four protesters were shot dead by security forces on Friday, reports say. In a broadcast from Hama, State TV said the city was under government control.  Hama residents and human rights groups accuse the army of killing more than 100 civilians in a bombardment of the city, a focus of the protests against Mr Assad’s rule.

As many as 2,000 people may have been killed by security forces since opponents of President Assad’s autocratic rule took to the streets in March. Protesters were inspired by the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. Mr Assad has promised reforms, but blames the violence on “armed criminal gangs” backed by unspecified foreign powers. Access to events in Syria has been severely restricted for international journalists and it is rarely possible to verify accounts by witnesses and opposition activists.

Marching in the heat

Activists had called for more protests after prayers on Friday, with one web user posting a message saying: “God is with us, are you?” Video posted by activists purports to show protesters marching through the Midan district of the Syrian capital, close to the Old City. Clapping their hands, they chanted, “We don’t want you Bashar”.

In another district of the capital, Qadam, protesters carried a banner reading: “Bashar is slaughtering the people and the international community is silent.”  Security forces opened fire with live ammunition and tear gas in several cities, activists said.  At least four people were reportedly killed in the Damascus suburb of Irbin, with a further 10 wounded.

Abdel Karim Rihawi, head of the Syrian League for the Defence of Human Rights, told AFP news agency that 30,000 people had marched in the city of Deir al-Zour despite extreme heat. Earlier, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accused security forces of killing some 2,000 people since March. Residents of Hama, which has become a focal point of protests, told reporters that there had been more gunfire and shelling early on Friday.

Snipers and tanks have been firing on civilians and food and medicine supplies are running low, witnesses say. But the Syrian TV report showed pictures of armed men hiding behind cars and claimed the army had quelled a rebellion. The report showed deserted streets with flimsy barricades and piles of rubble. Later, the reporter went into buildings that appeared to have been destroyed in an explosion.

The UN Security Council issued a statement this week condemning the crackdown.  Russia, traditionally an ally of Syria, also joined the criticism, with President Dmitry Medvedev saying Mr Assad would “face a sad fate” unless he urgently carried out reforms and reconciled with the opposition.

The BBC’s Jim Muir in neighbouring Lebanon says Mr Medvedev’s statement may give the government pause for thought, but there has been no change in the attitude on the ground.

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New Tibetian Prime Minister to Assume Dalai Lama’s Political Duties

Lobsang Sangay , a Harvard University academic, has been elected prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile andwill take on the political role previously played by the Dalai Lama. Lobsang Sangay won 55% of the votes cast by Tibetans around the world. He defeated two candidates for the role, Tenzin Tethong and Tashi Wangdi.

Mr Sangay must now assume the political functions of the Dalai Lama, who said in March he wanted to devolve this responsibility to an elected official. The Dalai Lama will retain his role as Tibetan spiritual leader.

‘Middle way’

The elections were held in March and the result announced on Wednesday in Dharamsala, India, where the Tibetan government-in-exile is based. “The Election Commission of the Central Tibetan Administration of His Holiness the Dalai Lama has declared Dr Lobsang Sangay as the third kalon tripa,” Election Commissioner Jampal Thosang announced, using the Tibetan term for prime minister.

Almost 83,400 Tibetan exiles were eligible to vote and more than 49,000 ballots were cast, he said. Tenzin Tethong, a former representative of the Dalai Lama in the US, got 37.4% of the vote and Tashi Wangdi, a government-in-exile bureaucrat, received 6.4%.

The 42-year-old winner is an Indian-born legal expert who has never lived in Tibet. His father fled Tibet in 1959, the same year as the Dalai Lama. He says he will move to Dharamsala to serve as prime minister and that he supports the Dalai Lama’s stance on ties with China. “What His Holiness stands for is the ‘Middle Way’, which is genuine autonomy within China or within the framework of the Chinese constitution,” he told the BBC earlier this month.

“If Tibetans are granted genuine autonomy then his Holiness the Dalai Lama said he is willing to accept Tibet as part of China.”  In a victory statement on Wednesday, he said he took comfort in the fact that the handover was taking place while the Dalai Lama “is healthy and available to watch over us”. “I urge every Tibetan and friend of Tibet to join me in our common cause to alleviate the suffering of Tibetans in occupied Tibet and to return His Holiness to his rightful place,” he said.

Daunting task

An official told Reuters news agency that the Dalai Lama was “very happy” that people had taken “a very active part in the election process”.  The 76-year-old monk announced in March that he wanted an elected official to assume some of his responsibilities, saying that such a move was in the best interests of the Tibetan people.

Analysts say he aims to ensure that even if China’s government tries to select the next Dalai Lama, the Tibetans will have an elected leader they can look to who is outside China and beyond the Communist Party’s control.  The BBC’s Mark Dummett says Lobsang Sangay has the daunting task of trying to keep the issue of Tibet alive while the man who embodies the struggle for Tibetan rights gradually steps back from the limelight. He has been elected head of a government which no country recognises and will face in China an opponent which has shown no sign of wanting to compromise, our correspondent adds.

A Chilling account of the brutal clampdown in Bahrain

Published in The Guardian.

sanabis police

Since the Gulf soldiers came to Bahrain, life in the Shia villages and suburbs of the capital, Manama, has been non-stop intimidation, violence and threats. Even trying to move around in normal ways has become life-threatening. They are trying to beat down the opposition with a long campaign against us.

I live in one of the villages near Manama. One night about 7.30pm, I parked in front of my father-in-law’s house and walked towards the door, when at least 50 armed and masked thugs – they were not in security forces uniform – appeared from one of the village lanes and told me to stop, pointing their shotguns at me. I ran away and they followed, but I managed to hide in one of the houses and they did not see me. I heard them talking to each other, saying: “Don’t worry, we will find him.” I was taking a look from the window and they stayed at the car park opposite the house I was hiding in, and they were smashing the windows of parked cars and wrecking and stealing from them. Some had Saudi accents; they are very different from Bahraini and easy to tell.

At 8pm most nights people go up on their roofs and chant Allahu Akbar [“God is greatest”] and the thugs start shooting randomly in the air and at the top of the roofs. That night the area was covered with tear-gas grenades and rubber bullets, while the roads around the house were deserted except for thugs. Later that night (I was unable to leave the house I was in), we heard a group of people, 100 or more, chanting: “Bahrain is free, Gulf Shield out.” I was watching from the rooftop when the riot police ran in from a main road and started shooting rubber bullets and tear-gas cartridges.

I hid inside the house while the demonstrators ran away from the shooting and in 30 minutes I saw riot police, with armed civilians among them, roaming around the lanes and roads by the house I was hiding in. They managed to catch two people, aged no more than 30, and were beating them up badly, swearing at them all the time and cursing the Shia clerics, saying: “Where is al-Khomeini now? Where is al-Sistani, you Shia dogs?” They took them away. I managed to take a photograph of the blood on the floor after the beating and there was so much. I am sure the man must have died.

They [the security forces] can tell the Shias from Sunnis because of the birth town shown on the ID cards, and also sometimes by the name. I get stopped and searched at many checkpoints and always asked the same questions: “Are you Shia? Were you at Lulu Square [the demonstrators’ name for the protest camp at Pearl roundabout that has since been demolished]?” And all kinds of other sectarian questions.

At the checkpoint by Bahrain Mall, which is the entrance to the village of Daih, the man in charge had a Saudi accent, but he was masked, in civilian clothes with an automatic rifle. My card was taken away with another officer to check my name against a list. They have pictures and names of all the people at Lulu and on the demonstrations and have posted them on Facebook with notices saying: “Bring these people to justice, they are guilty people.”

For two weeks after the attack on Lulu we kept seeing a military aircraft (a US-built F-16 type) every day at about 7.30pm, flying low over the villages, backing up the police helicopters which we see over our heads all day long in the villages. We hear shooting every day at 8pm and 10pm when the chanting starts on the rooftops. 

 The army and riot police have begun to destroy the Shia matams [mosques] in some villages, even those where there was no protest that day. They say they are looking for arms, but the only ones they’ve shown were obviously put there by them – they are government-issue weapons. The demolitions took place in broad daylight in the morning, with bulldozers.

In Karanh village at 4pm one day last week, demonstrators marched towards the entrance of the village on the main road, and they were faced with heavy firing from the riot police and masked armed civilians. They managed to get hold of three people whom they handcuffed, covered their faces with a canvas bag (like in Guantánamo) and started beating them up in a very brutal way. In the village of Daih we demonstrated at the front of the village, and as we reached the main road the riot police attacked us with tear gas and rubber bullets and shotguns…

In Sanabis, there was no sign of any protest, and as I was walking I was shocked to see riot police cars followed by unmarked cars entering the village fast and shooting randomly. They stopped near a school and about 100 armed riot police and masked armed civilians came out, roaming around the village shooting at anything that moved. They ran after a group of people who were walking by and they entered one of the houses after seeing someone running inside, and they arrested him and beat him.

Over the past week, three of my cousins have been arrested and they are all teachers, two women and one man, who is the headteacher of a school, along with 50 other full-time teachers. They have all been arrested in their classrooms for joining the strike and signing a petition to remove the education minister. Tanks were surrounding the school and riot police entered and arrested them.

My young brother, 15, was coming back from school last Sunday, and the bus had been stopped at a checkpoint and the riot police entered. The officer had a Saudi accent and he asked the whole bus: “Which of you went to Lulu Square? You are Shia dogs, why is there no photo of King Hamad in the bus?”  He asked the other officers to check the books of random students to see if the photo of King Hamad was there (all school books have his photo) and they found a number of students who ripped or damaged the photo. They started to beat them up inside the bus and then arrested them and threatened the other students. “The bus will be searched every day and we had better see the king’s photo inside the bus tomorrow, otherwise you will not go home.”

The same day I drove by the same checkpoint just after my brother arrived home and saw four teenagers with their heads covered by bags lying on their stomachs at 2pm under the hot sun, with their shirts removed and getting random kicks by the officers. I went towards a backstreet and tried to take a video, but a police car spotted me and started shooting birdshot. I ran away inside the village and they came after me. I hid in one of the private compounds and saw riot police running, looking for me.

Later that day I managed to get home and it was confirmed that the arrested students returned home after they got beaten up. They refused to be photographed, as they were threatened by the police. Now they do not use the school bus, as they are afraid they will be stopped.

I went with my mother to the military hospital by Hamad Town for her regular check-up – she has cardiac problems. That hospital is the only one in Bahrain with specialist heart doctors. When I approached the main entrance, I and my mother were asked by Bahraini security for our IDs and medical cards. When they saw them, another masked officer approached the car with a Saudi accent and asked the officer: “Who is this? What’s going on?” The Bahraini whispered something to him and the Saudi officer shouted at me:“Are you Shia?” And he kicked the car and said: “Get out of here, dog.” I did not reply and turned the car around and went back home. My mother did not do her monthly check-up and we will have to go outside Bahrain for that.

In Salmaniya medical complex [which has been under military occupation for three weeks], a cousin of mine worked at the appointments centre. After his shift he left the hospital and police stopped him at the exit, checked his ID card and noticed his Shia name. They accused him of racism for not giving appointments to Sunnis and beat him up.

He asked his family to collect him because he was bleeding from his eyes and feeling dizzy. He did not get any medical treatment as it was impossible to reach any hospital without being questioned, especially when he is injured. He is still at home and does not go to work and it seems he lost an eye. Many doctors have been arrested for treating injured people. The opposition says that 720 people have been arrested since 15 March. Many have been beaten, four have died in detention and 210 are still missing. But who knows really how many?

They say that we are spies for Iran, but nobody here wants to be ruled from Iran. We are Shia, but we are also Arabs, not Persians. We do not want help from Iran. We want democracy in our own country.

Nigeria’s New Vote “Will Change Country”

Published in BBC

Preliminary parliamentary poll results revealing big losses for the ruling party show Nigeria “has changed”, an analyst has told the BBC.  “It tells a story to every politician: You can no longer take Nigerians for granted,” Victor Burubo said. High-profile PDP casualties include speaker of the lower house Dimeji Bankole and ex-President Olusegun Obasanjo’s daughter in the senate.

Despite some violence, observers said Saturday’s poll was well-conducted. The initial vote had to be postponed from 2 April after voting material failed to reach many areas. Previous elections since the return to civilian rule in 1999 have been marred by widespread fraud and intimidation.  Elections for the presidency and state governorships were also delayed and are now to be held on 16 and 26 April respectively.

With more than 70% of preliminary results announced at a state level, President Goodluck Jonathan’s People’s Democratic Party (PDP) has suffered significant losses.  The party that has dominated politics since the military returned to barracks has so far taken 59 seats in the 109-member senate and 140 seats in the 360-member House of Representatives.

Correspondents say it is not clear whether the PDP will lose its absolute majority in both houses as voting in some 13-14% of parliamentary constituencies – where polling had begun on 2 April – has been delayed until 26 April.  The party has lost out to two newly formed parties, the opposition Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) in the south-west and to the Congress for Progressive Change (CPC) in parts of the north.

There was another embarrassing loss for the PDP in the northern state of Katsina where Maryam Yar’Adua, daughter of the late President Umaru Yar’Adua, failed in her bid get into the House of Representatives. But Mr Burubo, who leads the National Ijaw Council in the southern oil-rich Niger Delta, said the PDP’s bad showing on a parliamentary level would not affect the presidential vote.  “I have a feeling that a good number of areas where the PDP has been beaten will still revert to the PDP candidates, Dr Goodluck Jonathan and his running mate Sambo because of who they are are – not just because of the party,” he told the BBC’s Network Africa programme.

Sovereign Of the Week: Anna Hazare (Fasting against corruption)

Hunger striking Indian activist Anna Hazare has called for mass protests by his supporters against corruption. The 72-year-old campaigner is on the fourth day of a fast to push for stringent new anti-corruption laws. He wants his followers to “fill India’s jails” in a mass campaign of non-violent civil disobedience on 13 April.

Thousands of people have joined Mr Hazare’s protest. In recent months India has been rocked by a string of corruption scandals. On Thursday, the government agreed to include civil society members in a new panel which Mr Hazare is demanding be set up to draft tighter anti-corruption legislation. But differences remain over who will lead the panel and whether it will have legal powers.

Mr Hazare has said he wants the “jail bharo” (fill the prison) movement to take place across India. “But you should participate in the agitation keeping in mind Mahatma Gandhi. There should be no violence anywhere,” he told his supporters.

India’s governing Congress party leader Sonia Gandhi has urged Mr Hazare to give up his fast. She said his views would receive the government’s “full attention” in the fight against corruption. Doctors are checking Mr Hazare twice a day to monitor his health. The 72-year-old says he will refuse food until the government accedes to his demands.

There has been widespread support for Mr Hazare with protests and hunger strikes reported across India. Some 2,000 people have joined the activist at the historic Jantar Mantar observatory in Delhi, where he is conducting his fast. Correspondents say Mr Hazare has rallied people across the country disillusioned with the recent spate of scandals – he is highly respected as a social activist with an untarnished reputation.

Some of the recent corruption scandals to have angered Indians include a multi-billion dollar alleged telecoms scam, alleged financial malpractices in connection with the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games and allegations that houses for war widows were diverted to civil servants.

Last month the head of the country’s anti-corruption watchdog was forced to resign by the Supreme Court on the grounds that he himself faced corruption charges.

Charles Kenny- Dont Mess With Taxes

Published in Foreign Policy

Every spring, the Tax Foundation, a Washington-based advocacy group, announces Tax Freedom Day: the date by which the average employed American will have earned enough income to pay off his or her taxes for the year. This year, that day will be April 12. The Adam Smith Institute, a London-based, free-market think tank that makes a similar calculation for Britain, suggests that British taxpayers will have to work until around May 30 to pay off their own dues.

Tax Freedom Day is a clever-enough gimmick if your aim is to stir up ire over the government stealing income that rightfully belongs to the good people who have earned it through the toil of their labors. In an environment where Joe “the Plumber” Wurzelbacher is considered an expert on fiscal policy, it might even work. But it is worth remembering that, from a global perspective, how much we earn is actually 95 percent luck and maybe 5 percent toil. And it isn’t heavy-taxing big government that affects your income — it’s bad government.

The idea that anyone who works hard enough can become rich is a powerful one; for Americans, it’s not just appealing but central to national identity. The problem is that this vision of social mobility doesn’t hold true within the United States — and on a global scale, it’s just plain silly. The reason you earned as much as you did last year has far less to do with how hard you worked than with where and to whom you were born. In the United States, of those children born to parents in the bottom 10 percent of incomes, around one-third remain at the bottom as adults, and over half remain in the bottom 20 percent. Only one out of 77 children born into the bottom 10 percent of incomes reaches the top 10 percent as an adult, according to Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis writing in the Journal of Economic Perspectives.

But the advantages of being born rich rather than poor in America — large though they are — pale in comparison with the advantages of being born in a wealthy country rather than a developing one. The average rural Zambian will enjoy a lifetime income of about $10,000, compared with a lifetime income of around $4.5 million for the average resident of New York City. That’s not because Zambians are all soulless and corrupt. It’s because a Zambian with the same skills, intelligence, and drive earns a lot less in Zambia than she would in the United States — as is made abundantly clear every time a Zambian moves to the United States and starts earning a lot. The same people doing exactly the same job earn much, much more if they move from a poor to a rich country to do that job. In 1995, a construction carpenter’s wage in India was $42 a month. In Mexico, it was $125 a month. A South Korean carpenter, by contrast, made almost 10 times what his Mexican counterpart did; an American one made almost 20 times more.

For those of us lucky enough to be living in a rich country, are taxes really holding us back from a life of ease? In a word, no. Over the (not very) long term, it isn’t tax rates that decide how much money you take home — it is rates of economic growth. If a British person in 1984 paid no taxes at all, receiving as manna from heaven infrastructure, health care, education, policing, pensions, welfare benefits, and all the other services that the state provides, his or her take-home income (adjusted for inflation) would still be below that of post-tax Britons today. The same would be true of an American in 1988. People in the West are lucky enough to have been born in — or nearly as lucky to have moved to — countries that have seen a lot of economic growth over the past two centuries. That’s the reason they’re rich.

 Of course, an anti-tax advocate would respond that low taxes and a correspondingly small government are the secret to a country’s riches — an idea that is appealing, widespread, and very wrong. The last 100 years or so have seen the fastest rates of global economic growth in history; they’ve also seen the biggest governments of all time. From William Easterly and Sergio Rebelo writing for the National Bureau of Economic Research to Ross Levine and David Renelt in the American Economic Review (as well as numerous other analyses), economists have consistently failed to find robust cross-country evidence that a government’s size — measured by tax take or spending as a percentage of GDP — has any bearing, positive or negative, on its economic growth. Want further proof? Many developing countries see personal income tax receipts that would make a Tea Partier tip his tri-cornered hat in admiration, amounting to less than 2 percent of GDP. If a small income tax burden really was the determining factor in driving growth, those countries would all be richer than Luxembourg.

But while there isn’t a proven link between government size and economic growth, there is an important relationship between the quality of government and growth. If a government can’t ensure a basic level of security, stability, fair dealing, and public goods like infrastructure and education, whether it’s large or small is irrelevant — that country will be poor. If the government is providing those basic requirements, it doesn’t matter if it’s also blowing 10 percent of its GDP on bridges to nowhere, high-tech bombers for the last war, or corporate subsidies for ethanol production — that country will be rich. Better government equals richer people — it is as simple as that.

So why do rich people think it is all about effort rather than the luck of the draw? For one thing, there’s the oft-repeated finding from social psychology that people blame their own failures on circumstances beyond their control (“I was fired because the boss never liked me”) and the failures of others on personal flaws (“He was fired because he never did any work”). The reverse also holds: People take far more credit than they should for successful performance as part of a group, particularly if they do not know other group members personally. All of us — not only the rich — are just incredibly narcissistic by nature.

The second factor is that when we make comparisons it is usually to our peers, not the world as a whole. And our peers tend to have gone to the same type of school, work in the same field, and live in the same part of the world. Within these narrow groups, income differences — however small on a national or global scale — are more likely to be about ability and hard work. The fact that you earn more than your colleague who joined the firm at the same time as you did probably does have something to do with your different personal characteristics. The fact that you earn more than a peasant farmer in Lesotho doesn’t. At the same time, you rarely stop to care about how much a peasant farmer in Lesotho earns — despite the fact that the income gap between you and the farmer is many multiples larger than the gap between you and your colleague. However powerful our psychological foibles and narrow frames of reference may be, though, they are beside the point when it comes to public policy.

There are lots of reasons to hate current tax codes — not least because they are ridiculously complex and stuffed with loopholes for groups that can afford the best lobbyists. And governments the world over remain wasteful and spendthrift — including America’s, of course. Especially in poor countries, people ought to be focused on making government more efficient, equitable, and transparent — an effort that will entail lower government revenues in some cases and less government regulation in lots of cases. But the focus should be on better government, not smaller government. And the idea that taxation takes money that is rightfully ours alone, or that if only we managed to reduce the tax burden by a few percentage points we’d all be rich, is laughable. If you are in a wealthy country and it is tax time, be thankful you live somewhere where government works — and pay up.

BBC: Jimmy Carter Critical of U.S. Cuba Policy


Former US president Jimmy Carter – on a visit to Cuba – has criticised US policy towards the island. Mr Carter said the decades-long US trade embargo and travel ban damaged the Cuban people and hindered rather than helped reform. He also urged the Cuban government to move towards democracy and allow complete freedom of speech.

During his three-day visit Jimmy Carter held talks with the Cuban leader Raul Castro, as well as leading dissidents. He also met the jailed US contractor Alan Gross, but did not secure his release.  “We should immediately end the trade embargo which the US has imposed on the people of Cuba,” Mr Carter told a news conference before leaving Havana. He also said a US travel ban on American citizens visiting Cuba and keeping Cuba on a list of state sponsors of terrorism were counterproductive.

‘Old friends’

Mr Carter – who met leading dissidents including several who have recently been released from jail – said he was optimistic that Cubans would gain more freedom. “My own hope is that in the future, there will be a complete freedom for all Cuban people for speech and for assembly and for travel; that all the internationally adopted standards for human rights will be enforced in Cuba,” he said.

Mr Carter added that he hoped Cuba would release the jailed US contractor Alan Gross and that the US would also free five jailed Cuban intelligence agents. Raul Castro hailed Mr Carter as an “honest man” and said the visit had helped address “common problems”. “It was a good visit, for him from his perspective and for us from our own,” Mr Castro said.

He added that the Cuban government was ready for dialogue with the US, but only if it was “without conditions”. Mr Carter also met Raul Castro’s brother Fidel, and said he and the veteran communist leader and talked like “old friends”.

Unexpected visit

Mr Carter, 86 – who is on his second trip to Cuba – is the only serving or former US president to visit Cuba since the revolution in 1959. His three-day visit at the invitation of the Cuban government was only announced on Friday.vThere had been speculation that he had come seek the release of Alan Gross, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison earlier this month for providing satellite communications equipment to Jewish groups in Havana. But although Mr Carter met the contractor in prison and called for his release, he said his main aim was to try to improve relations between Washington and Havana.

His visit came a week after the Cuban authorities released the last of the “Group of 75” dissidents arrested in a crackdown on opposition activists in 2003. Their release had been a key condition set by the US and EU for any improvement in relations. But Washington has also said there can be no easing of tensions until Mr Gross is also freed.

Cuban dissidents pose for a photo before meeting Jimmy Carter in Havana

Mr Carter met some of Cuba’s leading dissidents