Zimbabwe polls result sparks global ire

Zimbabwe came under mounting pressure Saturday after the long-delayed result of a contentious presidential poll showed Morgan Tsvangirai trouncing Robert Mugabe but falling short of an absolute majority.

As Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) rejected the official result showing their leader winning 47.9 percent against Mugabe’s 43.2 percent, world capitals called for a credible run-off and an halt to poll violence.

The European Commission spokeswoman underscored the need for “free and fair second round that is conducted in a proper manner.”

“We are therefore calling for international observers from the moment this process starts,” she told AFP.
Canadian Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier called the results of the March 29 presidential vote “contested,” and said Tsvangirai had “a clear lead” over Mugabe, in power since 1980 when Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain.

Zimbabwe’s electoral commission on Friday said in the absence of an absolute majority by Tsvangirai, there should be a run-off on a date yet to be announced.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman said the results had “rather serious credibility problems” and doubted a run-off would be free and fair.

British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said Mugabe had “clearly lost,” adding: “His campaign of violence and intimidation over the last month must stop immediately.”

US-based rights watchdog Human Rights Watch echoed the call.
“Since the elections, the ruling ZANU-PF party, the army and so-called war veterans have conducted a brutal state-sponsored campaign of violence, torture and intimidation against MDC activists and supporters,” it said.

“The long delay in announcing the results of the presidential elections and the government’s politically motivated arrests of more than 100 presiding election officers around the country raises serious questions about the official tally.”

The MDC’s number two, Tendai Biti, said the electoral commission, whose leaders are appointed by the president, had inflated the number of votes for Mugabe by 47,000 and deflated those for Tsvangirai by 50,000.

“Morgan Tsvangirai is the president of the republic of Zimbabwe to the extent that he won the highest number of votes,” he said, adding: “Morgan Tsvangirai has to be declared the president of Zimbabwe.”

Under the terms of the Zimbabwean constitution, Mugabe would be declared the automatic winner if Tsvangirai refused to take part in a second round.

A senior Mugabe aide meanwhile accused the commission of deflating the figures for the incumbent but said the octogenarian leader would contest a run-off.
Mugabe’s ZANU-PF party is challenging another 52 results from elections in which it lost control of parliament for the first time since 1980.

Mugabe has remained silent on the outcome of the presidential vote, but his control of the security apparatus has led the MDC to conclude that he will seek to intimidate voters into giving him a sixth term.
But the hero of the 1970s war against white minority rule has found himself increasingly isolated since election day with an international outcry over an upsurge in violence.

No Western observers were allowed to oversee the ballot and a team from the Southern African Development Community (SADC) was widely criticised for giving it a largely clean bill of health.

However in a report released Friday after a follow-up mission to monitor a recent partial recount, SADC expressed alarm at rising levels of violence that the MDC claims has left 20 of its supporters dead.

Meanwhile South African President Thabo Mbeki, a continental heavyweight who has been trying to defuse the political and economic crises in Zimbabwe, told religious leaders in Pretoria that he will send a mission to probe political violence in Zimbabwe, the SAPA news agency reported.

“He assured us that he would do everything to ensure that a second round of the run-off election happens in an atmosphere of peace,” Nyansako Ni-Nku, head of the All-Africa Conference of Churches, was quoted as saying.
“In order to achieve that, the president said that right away they will despatch a team to check every allegation of violence,” he said.

A one-time regional model, Zimbabwe now has the world’s highest rate of inflation at 165,000 percent. Unemployment stands at over 80 percent, basic foodstuffs are scarce and life expectancy has dropped to 36 years.


             US religious rights panel wants Vietnam, Pakistan blacklisted           

WASHINGTON, (AFP) – A US religious freedom watchdog on Friday asked the State Department to include Vietnam, Pakistan and Turkmenistan in its global blacklist of religious freedom violators, and maintained Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, on a watchlist.

In its recommendation to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom also wanted Myanmar, China and North Korea to be kept in the department’s “country of particular concern” blacklist together with Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Eritrea and Uzbekistan.

The independent commission, set up by US law to monitor religious freedom across the globe, also maintained Afghanistan and Bangladesh in its watchlist together with Belarus, Cuba, Egypt and Nigeria.

The 10-member panel was divided whether to downgrade predominantly-Muslim Iraq, where widespread persecution of Christians has been reported, to the blacklist from the watchlist, saying it needed more time to make the decision.

The commission makes an annual recommendation to the State Department ahead of its compilation of its annual report on international religious freedom.

The panel wanted Vietnam to be reincluded in the department’s blacklist, saying the government continued to imprison and detain dozens of individuals advocating for religious freedom reforms in the communist-led state.
Vietnam was removed from the list in November 2006 on the eve of a visit by US President George W. Bush to the former battlefield enemy nation.

The State Department admitted Friday that there were still “a number of issues” on religious freedom in Vietnam.
But “the actions that the Vietnamese government has taken to address some of our concerns makes them a country that does not merit being included on the CPC or the countries of particular concern list,” said Tom Casey, a department spokesman.
Commission member Leonard Leo said the panel’s view differed from that of the department.

“We continue to find that lifting the CPC designation for Vietnam was premature,” he told a news conference.
Ethnic minority Buddhists and Protestants in Vietnam “are often harassed, beaten, detained, arrested and discriminated against and they continue to face some efforts to coerce renunciation of faith,” the report said.

Commission members traveled to Vietnam last fall and were able to meet individuals detained under house arrest or in prison, such as Buddhist monk Thich Quang Do, and Catholic priests Phan Van Loi, Nguyen Van Dai and Li Thi Cong Nhan.
In Pakistan, the commission said it did not see major improvements in religious freedom even though the country had gone through a democratic transition following landmark elections.

“Despite the dramatic events in Pakistan in the past year, the commission finds that all of the serious religious freedom concerns, including violence, on which it has previously reported, persist.”

The panel said concerns over Indonesia remained, citing communal violence and the government’s “inability or unwillingness to curb it” as well as what it called the forcible closures of places of worship of religious minorities.

It also referred to growing political power and influence of religious extremists “who harass and sometimes instigate violence” against moderate Muslim leaders and members of religious minorities.

“There are persistent fears that Indonesia’s commitment to secular governance, ethnic and religious pluralism, and a culture of tolerance will be eroded by some who promote extremist interpretations of Islam,” it said.


British peace experts to help Philippine negotiations

MANILA (AFP) - Britain will send experts in peace negotiations to the Philippines to help re-start stalled peace talks between Manila and Muslim separatist guerrillas in the south, diplomats said Saturday.

Experts who were involved in the peace talks in Northern Ireland will consulted over contact between the Philippines government and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), said British ambassador Peter Beckingham.

Beckingham said the experts would not be involved in the actual negotiations but would instead “talk with the government and the MILF and try and get ways in which the peace process can move along in the right direction.”
“The MILF and the Philippine government said they’d welcome someone who could talk about what happened in Northern Ireland and because there are similarities,” he added.

The plan which will see three or four experts dispatched to this country in the coming weeks, he said.
Beckingham said Philippine President Gloria Arroyo and then-British prime minister Tony Blair first agreed to the scheme when they met last December.

Beckingham said he met with MILF leaders a few weeks ago and they were also in favour of the idea.
The 12,000-strong MILF has been fighting to set up a separate Islamic state in the southern third of the largely-Christian Philippines since 1978.

The Philippines and the MILF signed a ceasefire in 2003 to open peace negotiations but the talks have been stalled over the issue of “ancestral domain” where the MILF would exert authority.
In the latest blow to the talks, last month, Malaysia, which had been hosting the negotiations, announced that it was pulling out a team that had been monitoring the ceasefire in the south.

Just days ago, Muslim gunmen, including MILF fighters, forced hundreds of Christians to abandon their farms in the south, saying this was part of their ancestral lands.


Cuba lifts ban on home computers

The first legalised home computers have gone on sale in Cuba, but a ban remains on internet access.

This is the latest in a series of restrictions on daily life which President Raul Castro has lifted in recent weeks.

Crowds formed at the Carlos III shopping centre in Havana, though most had come just to look.

The desktop computers cost almost $800 (£400), in a country where the average wage is under $20 (£10) a month.
But some Cubans do have access to extra income, much of it from money sent by relatives living abroad.

Since taking over the presidency in February, Raul Castro has ended a range of restrictions and allowed Cubans access to previously banned consumer goods.

In recent weeks thousands of Cubans have snapped up mobile phones and DVD players.
But only now have the first computer stocks arrived.

Internet access remains restricted to certain workplaces, schools and universities on the island.
The government says it is unable to connect to the giant undersea fibre-optic cables because of the US trade embargo. All online connections today are via satellite which has limited bandwidth and is expensive to use.

Cuba’s anti-American ally, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, is laying a new cable under the Caribbean.
It remains unclear whether, once the connection is completed, the authorities will then allow unrestricted access to the world wide web. (BBC)


Russia says Iranian enrichment freeze is sole demand

MOSCOW (AFP) - Russia on Saturday said that world powers concerned about Iran’s nuclear programme were asking Tehran only to suspend uranium enrichment during a period of talks.

Following a meeting on Iran in London of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council plus Germany, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said no mention had been made of new sanctions and that Tehran must be made to see the advantages of cooperation.

“Our first conditions are the freezing, suspension of uranium enrichment. The approach of the six (powers) is that Iran should suspend enrichment only for the period in which talks continue,” Lavrov told the Interfax and ITAR-TASS news agencies.
“There wasn’t anything about new sanctions although our American colleagues take the view that pressure on Iran must be maintained.

“It’s necessary to explain to Iran the advantages it would receive from agreeing to start talks, on the basis of one condition -- the freezing of uranium enrichment,” Lavrov said.

Western powers fear Tehran wants to use its nuclear programme to make atomic weapons but the Islamic republic insists the drive is peaceful and solely aimed at providing energy for a growing population.

The six have been using a mix of incentives and sanctions to try to persuade Iran to rein in its nuclear work.
Following Friday’s talks in London, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the powers had “reviewed and updated” an offer made to Iran in June 2006, but that the contents of the new proposal would only be disclosed to the Islamic republic.
The proposals are in the areas of energy, trade and investment and regional security, Lavrov said.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said on Friday the proposals were more “precise and detailed” than before.
The six powers have offered technical, political and economic rewards to Tehran for suspending its nuclear programme.

At the same time, the UN Security Council has adopted three resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran for its refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment activities.
Russia has relatively close ties to Iran despite historical tensions and has generally taken a softer approach on the sanctions issue than the United States.

Russia has coordinated its position with neighbouring China, a fellow UN Security Council member.
Analysts say Moscow is keen to keep a check on Iranian influence in mainly Muslim southern Russia and in the ex-Soviet states of Central Asia, but has mainly done so through “soft” diplomacy.

Russia is building Iran’s first nuclear power station at Bushehr under a deal by which Moscow has supplied enriched uranium and will remove the fuel after use.
Deliveries of the enriched fuel were started last December and completed in January under a process designed to persuade Iran that it has no need to enrich fuel itself.


Saudi sheikh bans alcohol at Cairo Grand Hyatt Hotel

CAIRO (AFP) - A luxury Cairo hotel has stopped the sale of alcoholic drinks on the orders of its Saudi Arabian owner, who is a practising Muslim, the assistant manager said on Friday.

Owner Sheikh Abdel Aziz Ibrahim bin Ibrahim visited the five-star Grand Hyatt Cairo on Saturday and ordered all alcohol stocks be destroyed and banned its sale to conform with Islamic law, which forbids alcohol consumption.

No alcohol has been sold since the start of the week, assistant manager Nivine Sami told AFP.
“But the decision has not definitively been made yet. Discussions on this subject are ongoing between the hotel chain and the owner,” she added.

A tourist official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the hotel could be stripped of three stars if it continued to not serve alcohol, as three-, four- and five-star hotels were obliged to serve alcoholic drinks.