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US: Europe biased against Muslims

(Al-Jazeera) The annual report of US State Department on human rights has warned of increasing concern that discrimination against Muslims was on the rise in Europe.
The human rights report for 2009 cited Switzerland’s ban on the construction of minarets on mosques enacted in November, as well as continued bans or restrictions on head scarves and burqa worn by Muslims in France, Germany and the Netherlands.
The report said, “Discrimination against Muslims in Europe has been an increasing concern.”
Germany and the Netherlands have prohibitions against teachers wearing head scarves or burqa while on the job and France bans the wearing of the religious garb in public, the report said.
The report particularly focussed on problems in the Netherlands where Muslims number about 850,000, saying that Muslims face societal resentment based on the belief that Islam is not compatible with Western values.
The report blamed right-wing politicians for playing a role in fuelling the resentment. 
It said, “Major incidents of violence against Muslims were rare, but minor incidents including intimidation, brawls, vandalism and graffiti with abusive language were common.”
It added that the department’s annual human rights report is mandated by Congress to allow MPs to factor the issue into decisions on allocated aid to foreign countries.
Among other countries, the report most critically faulted human rights practises in Belarus, China, Cuba, Iran, Myanmar, North Korea, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Syria and Russia.
The report criticised China for crackdowns on Uighurs and in Tibet as well as increased restrictions to the internet and other forms of information and news.
Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner said, “The Chinese government’s human rights records remain poor and worsening in some areas including increased cultural and religious repression of ethnic minorities and increased detention and harassment of activists and public-interest lawyers.”
The State Department also focused on Iran and the repression of demonstrators who took to the streets following June’s presidential election. Dozens of people were killed and thousands were detained, some facing prosecution.
Posner said, “An already poor human rights situation (in Iran) rapidly deteriorated after the June elections. It is a place where we are continuing to see severe repression of dissent and are continuing to pay great attention.”
The report also cited the increased toll in conflicts in some countries inflicted on the civilian population in 2009, including in Afghanistan, Sudan, Sri Lanka and Pakistan.
There remain ‘significant human rights challenges’ in Pakistan, the report said of the important US ally in the war on terrorism. The report said there were extrajudicial killings, torture, and disappearances.

The State Department cited reports the military carried out up to 400 killings during counterinsurgency operations against the Taliban in North West Frontier Province and the Swat Valley.



Why ElBaradei?

(Al-jazeera) (STRAPLINE) The return of Mohammed ElBaradei,the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to Egypt has created political controversy centred around the likelihood of his running as a presidential candidate next year.
But it also gave the Egyptian people something they have not felt in a long time - hope for political change.
Years of stagnant social development have created two main political camps in Egypt today: A camp that lost hope in change, and hence in a better future for the country, and another that still retains a glimmer of optimism. 
The first camp is dominant; just ask any Egyptian these days about current conditions and you will only hear complaints and cynicism. 
Arguably, the whole Egyptian psyche revolves around the glories of past - sometimes ancient - achievements. They lament how they have lost their prestige and regional power, and how current socio-economic circumstances are crushing their dreams for a better future. 
Some prominent Egyptian sociologists such as Galal Amin, the author of the bestselling Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?, have tried to explain the root causes of Egyptian pessimism.
Amin argues that the forces of domestic political authoritarianism, Egypt’s defeat in the 1967 war, the global culture of consumerism, and foreign hegemony have since the 1960s contributed to crushing the Egyptian middle class. 
The result was a fractured Egyptian middle class that no longer understood itself or trusted its own ability to lead the country forward. 
The pessimistic camp has vocalised its prophecies of gloom rather loudly in the plethora of local talk TV shows and the press.
They offer, rather philanthropically, reasons why ElBaradei, and the socio-political movement he has inspired, do not count in today’s political structure.
They say the Egyptian regime, which has been in power for 30 years, has successfully resisted all pressures - domestic and foreign - for change and political reform. 
Flirting with flights of conspiratorial fancy, they believe that the government only sanctions toothless opposition, and hence may allow ElBaradei to play politics for some time, in a bid to show that Egypt is politically transparent and liberal.
But, at the right moment the regime will strike back and crush ElBaradei and his supporters as it has defeated many prior political opponents. 
Four of Egypt’s main opposition parties, including al-Wafd, al-Tagammu, and al-Araby al-Nasseri, have criticised ElBaradei and the political movement around him.
They are particularly irked by his readiness to work with and integrate the banned Muslim Brotherhood movement despite his purported secular platform. 
They question ElBaradei’s legitimacy as a political proponent of any sort citing his absence from the country for three decades; he has no party, no serious grassroots support, or even a possible chance to run for president under the current constitution, they say. 
On the other hand, the campaign built around ElBaradei is nevertheless a poignant reminder that there are many in Egypt, notably among the elite, who retain a semblance of hope that the country will inevitably evolve. 
Saad Eddin Ibrahim, a known Egyptian opposition figure, who has been living abroad for the last three years fearing prosecution if he returns to Egypt, wrote in the daily independent newspaper AlMasry AlYoum, that ElBaradei’s announcement of readiness to run for president if the constitution is amended, has ‘changed the Egyptian political scene qualitatively and psychologically in an unprecedented way since 1952’.  
Ibrahim argues that a melange of independent groups, credible political activists and writers, youth, and middle class citizens had for some time been establishing a ‘social movement’ under the political surface in Egypt.  
Ibrahim believes the movement declared itself at Cairo Airport by showering the returning ElBaradei with a populist hero’s welcome.
ElBaradei returned to Egypt at the right moment to pick the fruits of such mobilisation.
Prior to his return to his home country, ElBaradei was one of a very small number of Egyptians who held international stature.
As the head of the UN nuclear agency for 12 years and a winner of the Noble Peace Prize (2005) for his efforts to defuse tensions over Iran’s nuclear programme, ElBaradei also earned the government’s praise.
In 2006, Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian president, awarded him the Nile Collar, the country’s highest civilian merit. 
And during a press conference with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor in Berlin, Mubarak welcomed ElBaradei’s entry into local politics provided he abide by the rules of the constitution.
Despite his detractor’s protestations, ElBaradei’s 30-year absence from his home country is more to his advantage than detriment. While some may argue that he has been isolated from socio-political developments in the country, his distance has also protected him from being trapped inside Egyptian politics which have been dominated by stagnant, partisan and undemocratic parties.
So, when ElBaradei now takes on the political system, he can easily rise above Egypt’s partisan politics and call for unity among its disputing political groups. 
He may lack the charisma of an eloquent speaker such as Barack Obama or Tony Blair, but he speaks in a commanding calm voice that is genuine and emphatic of global democratic values.
ElBaradei wants to modernise Egypt’s laws and constitution in ways that will bring them up to date with international standards. He wants transparent elections, democratic rule, freedom of press, and a constitution that does not prevent religious minorities from running for Egypt’s highest political office. 
His appeal has garnered the support of a wide and diverse coalition of political activists and intellectuals. It has also gained him opponents within the ruling party and political opposition groups alike. 
No one seems to underestimate the difficulties lying ahead of ElBaradei and his call for change. But, we should not also underestimate the power behind his appeal. 
In just a matter of a few weeks, ElBaradei was able to remind many Egyptians of their deeply rooted love for their country and hope for a better future. 



(AFP) In a rare sharp rebuke, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chided Israel for plans to build new settler homes, saying it sent a ‘deeply negative signal’ about Israel’s ties to its top ally.
In unusually harsh words, Clinton told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Washington strongly objected to the announcement made during a landmark trip to Israel by US Vice President Joe Biden.
“The United States considered the announcement a deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship,” the top US diplomat told Netanyahu in an early Friday morning telephone call.

Her comments were backed by the Middle East Quartet -- made up of the European Union, the United States, Russia and the United Nations -- which said in a statement it “condemns Israel’s decision to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem. “Related article: Middle East Quartet condemns Israel settlement plan
Clinton added the Israeli move ran ‘counter to the spirit of the vice president’s trip,’ State Department spokesman Philip Crowley told reporters.
Clinton heaped further scorn on the Jewish state’s announcement after speaking with Netanyahu.
“The announcement of the settlements, the very day that the vice president was there, was insulting,” she told CNN in an interview.

“I mean, it was really just an unfortunate and difficult moment for everyone.”
It was an unusually strong rebuke from the United States for its main regional ally, and almost unprecedented in decades of strong ties.
In June 1990, secretary of state James Baker, frustrated by the intransigence of Israel’s then-prime minister Yitzhak Shamir, told the Israelis, “When you’re serious about peace, call us.”
But while today’s frustration also stems from the stalemated Middle East peace process, the political landscape is completely different, analysts said.

“Clinton and Biden are very close friends to Israel. Bush and Baker weren’t so close,” the analyst said, asking to remain anonymous, referring to the former president George H.W. Bush.
A member of Clinton’s close entourage said she was clearly ‘frustrated’ by the announcement which came just as the US was hoping to coax the two sides back to the negotiating table.
The Israeli interior ministry announced Tuesday during Biden’s visit that 1,600 new settler homes would be built in predominantly Arab east Jerusalem triggering swift fury among Arab and Palestinian leaders.
Clinton told Netanyahu that ‘she could not understand how this happened particularly in light of the US strong interest in Israel’s security,’ Crowley added.

“And she made clear that the Israeli government needed to demonstrate not just through words, but through specific actions, that they are committed to this relationship and to the peace process.”
Netanyahu, who is due to address the powerful pro-Israeli American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual conference in Washington from March 21-23, has apologised for the timing of the announcement.
The Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of their promised state while Israel, which seized it in the 1967 Six Day War and later annexed it in a move not recognised by the international community, considers the city its eternal and indivisible capital.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas said earlier he would not enter into any negotiations with Israel until the Jerusalem settlement project was frozen, while the Arab League withdrew its support for indirect talks.
Crowley acknowledged that top US regional envoys George Mitchell and Jeffrey Feltman had spent the past 24 hours calling Arab leaders in a bid to keep the peace talks on track.
“We have reached out to a range of leaders. And I think we jointly remain committed, you know, to this process, acknowledging that, obviously, it is a difficult environment, given the Israeli statement,” Crowley said.
And Crowley made it clear that while Washington accepted Netanyahu’s apology, they held him accountable.
“We accept what Prime Minister Netanyahu has said. By the same token, he is the head of the Israeli government and ultimately is responsible for the actions of that government,” Crowley said.


Suicide bombers strike Pakistani market, killing at least 43

(Miami Herald) In the fifth terrorist attack this week in Pakistan, extremists set off twin suicide bombs Friday in the eastern city of Lahore, killing at least 43 people, a reminder of the continued threat to the country despite an overall fall in violence.
The bloodiest strike in Pakistan this year saw twin attackers, on foot and wearing suicide jackets, detonate themselves in a busy market in a high-security military district in Lahore. The target appeared to be passing military vehicles but most of the victims were civilians.
Children crossing the road and people waiting at a bus stop were among the casualties of the blasts, which also ripped apart shops in the market. Witnesses said that bodies, some with missing limbs, were scattered across the area. Some 10 soldiers were among the dead, according to Lahore Police Chief Parvaiz Rathore. About 100 people were wounded.

“There were about 10 to 15 seconds between the blasts. Both were suicide attacks,” a senior local government official, Sajjad Bhutta, said at the site. “The maximum preventative measures were being taken, but these people find support from somewhere.”
The bombers struck at 1 p.m., around the time of Friday prayers in the cantonment area of Lahore, home to the local army garrison and one of the city’s most affluent residential districts. Lahore is the bustling cultural hub of Pakistan which had enjoyed a period of relative peace in recent weeks. It’s also the capital of Punjab province, the country’s most densely populated area and its political heartland.

Five low-intensity blasts in Lahore in the evening, in different locations in a residential area across town, sent panicky locals running through the streets, but damage was reported to be minor.
The authorities regularly assert that the Taliban and other extremist groups have been smashed as a result of military operations, a claim that was repeated Friday.
“We broke their networks,” provincial Law Minister Rana Sanaullah said. “That’s why they have not been able to strike for a considerable time.”
It was the second bombing this week in Lahore, however, after the car bombing Monday of a police interrogation center which killed 14 people. The other attacks in Pakistan this week included a gun and grenade assault on the office of World Vision, a U.S.-based Christian aid agency, in the North West Frontier Province, killing six Pakistani nationals on its staff.

The extremists “are trying to project their power, telling the government that they are still alive,” said analyst Imtiaz Gul, the author of the book “The Al Qaeda Connection.” “They are still far from broken. It’s going to be a long haul.Lahore was fully dragged last year into Pakistan’s bloody insurgency - which claimed around 3,000 lives in 2009 - with a series of spectacular attacks, including a gun assault on the visiting Sri Lankan cricket team. The last major attack in Lahore was in December, when a market was bombed, killing at least 49 people.
Last year, Pakistani security forces took on the homegrown Taliban for the first time. There was an operation to clear extremists from the Swat valley, in the northwest, then a campaign in October in South Waziristan, on the Afghan border, the base of the Pakistani Taliban that provoked a spate of terrorist reprisals. The country had been relatively peaceful this year, however.

Pakistani Taliban from the northwest have joined with militant groups from the Punjab, all closely allied to al-Qaida to form teams that can strike anywhere. Many of the attacks claimed by the Taliban are thought to be carried out by these groups, such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, a former sectarian organisation. While there’s been concerted action against the Taliban, the Punjabi groups have been left relatively untouched.

Women on pill ‘may live longer’

Women, who have taken the contraceptive pill, are less likely to die of cancer and heart disease, a study has found.
The research, which studied 46,000 women over almost 40 years, was led by Prof Philip Hannaford of the University of Aberdeen.
He said that earlier data from the study had suggested there was an increased risk from using the pill but this disappeared in the longer term.
The professor said, “I think it is really reassuring for women.”
The results are from the Royal College of GPs Oral Contraception Study, one of the world’s largest investigations into the health effects of the pill. The study was published online in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).
Prof Hannaford told BBC Scotland, “We have known for a while that whilst women use the pill they have a small excess risk of disease but that seems to wear off.
“What we have never known is, what are the really long-term effects?”
“This study, after following up a large group of women for 39 years, has shown there is no increased risk among women who have used the pill, in fact there is a small 12% drop.”
He said women, who had taken the pill, were less likely to die from cancer, heart disease or stroke.
The professor added, “There are some risks whilst you use it but you can minimise those risks by avoiding smoking, having your blood pressure checked, taking part in screening programmes.
“What we know now is once the pill is stopped those risks disappear and in the very long term there is no increased risk, in fact, if anything, a small benefit.”
He said the results of the survey related to the first generation of pills. Prof Hannaford said pills had changed over the years and methods of assessing risk were now different.
He added, “It would be wrong for me to say these results directly apply to today’s pills, today’s women, but from the few studies that have been done on the newer pills we are finding similar effects as the older pills. So, one would suppose that the overall benefit from the newer pills is equally as good.”

Blood pressure fluctuations ‘warning sign for stroke’
People with occasionally high blood pressure are more at risk of stroke than those with consistently high readings, research suggests.
Current guidelines focus on measuring average blood pressure levels to spot and prevent the chance of a stroke.
But research suggests doctors should no longer ignore variation in test results and give drugs that produce the most steady blood pressure levels. The Stroke Association called for national guidelines to be overhauled.
In the first of the series of studies published in The Lancet, UK and Swedish researchers looked at the variability in blood pressure readings at doctors’ checks.
They found those with fluctuating readings at different GP visits had the greatest risk of future stroke regardless of what their average blood pressure reading was. A review of previous trials also found that the differences in effectiveness of several blood pressure drugs could be explained by how well they kept blood pressure on an even keel.
Some drugs, in particular beta blockers, were shown in a separate study in The Lancet Neurology, to increase variation in a patient’s blood pressure.
Professor Peter Rothwell of the Department of Clinical Neurology at the University of Oxford, who led the research, said the findings have major implications for how GPs spot and treat people at high risk of stroke.
“At the moment, the guidelines for GPs say not to believe a one-off unusual reading, to bring the patient back and measure again, and as long as it’s not consistently high, there is no need to treat.
“What we’re saying is don’t discount that one-off high blood pressure reading.”
He added that GPs would also need to make sure they prescribe the most effective drug combinations - ideally one that lowers blood pressure but also stabilises it. It is not known exactly why occasional spikes would increase a person’s risk of stroke, but it is thought it puts undue stress on the system.

Obese drinkers face liver ‘double whammy’
Drinkers, who are overweight, face a ‘double whammy’ impact on their liver, research suggests.
Two studies of more than a million UK men and women suggest excess weight and alcohol act together to raise the risk of cirrhosis and other liver diseases.
Obese women, who drink little more than a glass of wine a day, have almost double the risk of liver disease than other women, the researchers said. A similar effect is seen in men, The British Medical Journal reported.
The authors of the research said ‘safe’ alcohol limits for the overweight may need to be redefined. Rates of liver disease and obesity are increasing in the UK.
Alcohol is a major cause of liver cirrhosis and there is mounting evidence that excess weight also plays a role.
In the first study, researchers at the University of Oxford, studied more than a million middle-aged women in England and Wales.
They found that being overweight or obese increased the likelihood of developing liver cirrhosis. Dr. Bette Liu of Oxford’s Cancer Epidemiology Unit said, “We estimate that almost 20% of liver cirrhosis in middle-aged UK women is due to excess weight, while almost 50% is due to alcohol consumption.”
The second study followed more than 9,000 men in Scotland.
Obese men, who said they drank 15 or more units a week, had the greatest risk of liver disease; almost 19 times higher than those who were slim. Writing in the BMJ, the authors said their findings have important health implications. They said lower body mass index (BMI) specific ‘safe’ limits of alcohol consumption may need to be defined.

(Source: BBC news)

Protesters head for Thai capital

(Al-jazeera) Tens of thousands of supporters of Thaksin Shinawatra, the deposed Thai prime minister, are heading to Bangkok, Thailand’s capital, preparing for mass rallies aimed at toppling the government.
The United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship - popularly known as the Red Shirts - staged early protests on Friday and said a ’million-man march’ was to be held during the weekend.
“Today, we had some small groups gathering, this is not yet a rally. We want to build sentiment before Sunday,” Jatuporn Prompan, a Red Shirt leader, said.
Friday’s protests passed peacefully and organisers have insisted the coming rallies will also be non-violent.
But concerns about possible unrest remain and the government is deploying a 50,000-strong security force. It has enacted a tough security law that allows authorities to impose curfews and limit movements.

Russia to build Indian atomic units

(Al-Jazeera) Russia will build 12 nuclear reactors in India, half of them by 2017, and sell an aircraft carrier and MiG fighter jets, officials say.Sergei Kiriyenko, head of Russia’s state nuclear corporation Rosatom, announced in New Delhi on Friday that six of the reactors would be built between 2012 and 2017.
Kiriyenko is accompanying Vladimir Putin, Russia’s prime minister on a visit to India to sign a series of lucrative arms and energy deals.“So far it is clear that it will be 12 (reactors). And this is not the final figure,” he said. Sergei Ivanov, the Russian deputy prime minister, said the reactor agreement covered the construction of ‘up to 16 nuclear energy units’ at three Indian sites. Two units are already under construction in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu and Russia won a deal to build four more in 2008.
It was unclear if the 16 reactors referred to by Ivanov included these six.



News in brief

Turkey warns Sweden over ‘genocide’ vote

(AFP) Turkey warned Sweden Friday of ‘serious’ damage to ties after the Swedish parliament recognised the massacres of Armenians by Ottoman Turks as genocide, only days after a similar vote by a US Congressional panel.
The foreign ministry summoned the Swedish ambassador to convey Ankara’s protests, while the Turkish envoy to Stockholm, recalled immediately after Thursday’s vote, arrived home for consultations.
“It is up to the government to decide, but I think (the vote) will have serious consequences on bilateral relations”, Ambassador Zergun Koruturk told reporters after landing in Istanbul.
She lamented that the vote came at a time when “we had excellent ties with Sweden and it was at the forefront of countries supporting our European Union membership process.”

Iraqi poll body rejects criticism

(Al-jazeera) The Independent High Electoral Commission of Iraq (IHEC) has fought back against its critics after a day of fielding accusations of fraud, malpractice and incompetence. The IHEC is responsible for counting the votes in the March 7 general elections and for investigating complaints about the voting process. In frank interviews with Al Jazeera, senior figures in IHEC expressed frustration and indignation at the slew of criticisms. They were fully backed up by officials at Unami - the United Nations Assistance Mission for Iraq (TK) - who are dismayed and disappointed at the allegations. Faraj al-Hayderi, the chairman of IHEC, lashed out at Struan Stevenson, a European MP, who had issued a statement claiming there were ‘suspicious delays’ in announcing the results, and that ‘widespread fraud during the elections amounted to a plan to drive Iraq into a crisis’. Al-Hayderi said the allegations were a ‘complete fabrication’, and that Stevenson had no professional contact with the many EU observers who had been stationed in Iraq for the vote.

No wish to ‘Americanize’ Somali conflict: US official

(AFP) A top US official on Friday denied reports of a boost in US military aid to Somalia’s transitional federal government (TFG), and said there was no intention to ‘Americanize’ the conflict in the horn of Africa.
“We have provided limited military support to the TFG... (but) the US does not plan, does not direct, and does not coordinate the military operations of the TFG,” said Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson.
He insisted that The New York Times inaccurately reported last week that US special operations forces could help the Somali government dislodge Al-Qaeda-linked insurgents Shebab from Mogadishu.
“We are not providing nor paying for military advisors for the TFG. There is no desire to Americanize the conflict in Somalia,” Carson said.
Asked to comment on the Somali government’s reconciliation strategy, he said the TFG should ‘broaden its base as much as possible, to bring in as much clan as possible.’
In Washington’s view, he added, ‘any moderate Islamists who are seeking peace, are denouncing el Shebab and want to be part of a peace process should in fact be considered for inclusion in the TFG government.