Iraqi Refugees Turn to Desperate Means

    The UN estimates that 1.2 million Iraqi refugees have entered Syria since the beginning of the Iraq war.  However, the Syrian government’s numbers put the number of refugees to be higher.  As violence increased in Iraq in the recent months, there has also been an increase in unaccompanied women refugees and women-headed households entering Syria.  These women, many supporting families, are living in a country where the cost of living and unemployment rates are both increasing.  Many of these women find that their only marketable asset is their bodies.  They face a difficult choice – engage in prostitution or be forced to return to Iraq.   

     Prostitution is a forbidden topic by the Syrian government.  However, in recent months the government has been acknowledging this growing problem.  The Syrian government is sympathetic to these women and is careful not to deport them.  However, little else is being done to help these women or to offer alternatives to prostitution.

For more information please see:
NY Times:  “Desperate Iraqi Refugees Turn to Sex Trade in Syria”  29 May 2007.

No Changes in Somalia

By Myriam Clerge

Impunity Watch, Africa

“Once again Somalia has failed to emerge from the upheaval[s].” This thought sums up the present circumstances in Somalia. The country is still unable to feed its people and there continues to be war. The humanitarian crisis in Somalia has not reached this stage since clan warfare nearly 16 years ago. This time the war is between allies of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) and Ethiopian forces- in support of the Transitional Federal Government.

Roughly 430,000 to 350,000 have fled from Mogadishu, the capital of Somalia, since the fighting began. According to the UN’s Central Emergency Response Fund, one million Somalis are in need of aid and protection and 71 % of the population is malnourish.

To make matters worse, pirates have hindered the transport of food and aid to displaced Somalis. Earlier in the month, a ship carrying tons of UN relief refused to leave the port of Kenya because of piracy. On Tuesday, pirates released a vessel and its crew after the cargo owners agreed to pay the $100,000 ransom. The United Nations has appealed for international support to secure the waters off Somalia.

Besides humanitarian aid the United States objective is to prevent Somalia from becoming a safe haven to terrorist. Somalia has been without an affective government for 16 years. Although the Ethiopian forces overthrew the Union of Islamic Courts, the US is fearful extremist of the Islamic Court may harbour members of al-Qeada.

Ethiopia has vowed to retain troops in Somalia until African Union forces are at an effective level. Five Somali civilians died and three were injured yesterday after an attack on a convoy forced Ethiopian soldiers to open fire. As Islamists increasingly adopt guerrilla tactics, the likelihood the fighting will end soon seems daunting.

For more information please see:

BBC – Five Die in Somalia Convoy Attack – 30 May 2007

Yahoo – Somali Pirates Release Ship, Crew – 30 May 2007

BBC – Somalia – ‘A Depressing Prospect’ – 14 May 2007

BBC – Country profile: Somalia – 6 March 2007

Emergency Contraception Debated in South America

In Ushuaia, Argentina a judge recently restricted access of poor women and adolescents to emergency contraceptive pills. The ruling suspended the free distribution of these pills through the public health sector. Opponents of the ruling argue it was made on scientific ignorance and will greatly affect the well being of poor women in Argentina.

The debate centers on the question of whether or not the emergency contraceptive pills induce abortion. Those supporting the ruling argue that the pill does induce abortion and therefore violates the constitution’s right to protect life from the moment of conception. However, opponents of the ruling, and the scientific community, argue that the pill does not induce abortion but rather it delays and inhibits ovulation and does not violate the constitution. Many other South American countries with strict abortion laws, such as Brazil, still allow the distribution of the pill to the public. Opponents continue that the restriction of emergency conception discriminates against poor women and adolescents because it discourages them from seeking medical care thus increasing the risk of pregnancy.

The poor and young women, as well as rape survivors, are vulnerable as many might seek illegal abortions as an alternative to the pill. Abortions are illegal in every case in Argentina and they are the leading cause of maternal mortality in Argentina. About 500,000 abortions occur annually throughout the country. Legislatures have consistently stated their opposition to modern birth control methods such as the emergency contraceptive pill and this position was reinforced with the recent ruling in Ushuaia.

In addition to Argentina, Chile has seen similar debates with regards to the distribution of emergency contraceptive pills.  Chile’s medical protocols, under the Ministry of Health guidelines, currently allow health services to provide emergency contraceptive pills. However, some members of the parliament are attempting to change this by asking the Constitutional Court to issue an injunction against these guidelines. They argue that the pills induce abortion and that access to the pill interferes with the rights of parents to educate their own children. Others argue that the injunction should be deny because it would result in the pills not being available to anyone, not matter what her age or circumstances are.

Access to these pills is vital for the poor, rape survivors and adolescents because 90% of women in Chile rely on public health for pregnancy prevention. Without such prevention available to them through public health programs, many women have unwanted pregnancies or seek other illegal and unsafe prevention measures. In Chile, 15% of births are to girls between 10 and 19 years of age. Other countries, such as France and Great Britain, have lowered their pregnancy rates because adolescents have access to healthcare services and information.

For more information, see:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abortion_in_Argentina

http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/05/16/chile15949.htm

http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/05/24/argent15999.htm

http://hrw.org/women/abortion/argentina.html

Yemen Closes Two Rivals of the State News Network

        Yemen has closed two independent news networks. The networks www.al-shoura.net and www.aleshteraki.net were shut down because they did not follow government regulations. They were shut down without a court ruling, and are the latest in the government’s growing restrictions on the information about the conflict. Previously, it has silenced television and radio stations, as well as NGOs.  Yemen Journalist Syndicate Secretary-General Marwan Dammaj said, “The Ministry of Information has issued instructions to journalists and editors not to cover the war in Sa’ada in a way that runs counter to the official media’s reporting.”

        The war between the Shiite rebels and the Yemen government has destroyed the Sa’ada region. It has displaced nearly 35,000 people from their homes casting them out to desperate situations. In May 2005, the Yemen government estimated that the conflict caused 552 deaths, almost 3,000 injuries and nearly $270 million dollars of economic damage. The rebel movement began in 2004, by Hussein Badr al-Din al-Houthi, Yemen’s head of the Zaidi sect of Shia Islam. His followers are called the “Shabab al-Mu’minoon,” which translated means Believing Youth. The rebels disagree with the government’s close alliance with America and Israel. Although its vision is unclear, it is clear that the Believing Youth do want to overthrow the government and replace it with the Zaidi imamate, who was ousted in 1962. According to estimates, the Believing Youth have enrolled over 3,000 fighters into their cause.

        The two stations reported the fighting and the human tragedy in the area, and contradicting the state sponsored news sites. This action raises concerns, especially since the government just launched an attack of 30,000 soldiers to defeat the “terrorists.” If the government exclusively controls the information of the media then it is likely that the true conditions of the residents of suffering in Sa’ada may not be known.

Middle East Online. Yemen censors two opposition news websites. 28 May 2007.

Reuters Online. Yemen President says he will consider rebels demands. 22 May 2007.

World Press. Yemen: Fighting in North Hampers Humanitarian Work. 6 May 2007.

UN Imposes Sanctions on Sudan

By Impunity Watch Africa

President George Bush announced yesterday the imposition of new economic sanctions against Sudan targeting government-run companies involved in the oil industry and three individuals, including a rebel leader suspected of being involved in the Darfur conflict.   In announcing the new measures, Bush stated that the US would no longer turn its eyes from the crisis called its “rightful name” by his administration: genocide.  The United Nations has estimated that 200,000 people have been killed and 2 million made homeless since the conflict broke out four years ago.  Sudan has disputed these estimates, and claim that only 9,000 people have died.

Sudan’s government immediately criticized the action, calling it “unfair and untimely” and based solely on politics.  One official stated that Sudan was counting on its “friends” such as China, which takes sixty percent of its oil exports, to avert the economic hurt caused in the long run by the sanctions.   Sudanese officials further stated that US sanctions will have little effect due the fact that they have no direct trade ties with the US.

While many humanitarian organizations welcomed the new sanctions, they also cautioned that it might be too little, too late.  Save Darfur Coalition director David Rubenstein cautioned President Bush to “set a short and firm deadline for fundamental changes in Sudanese behavior, and prepare now to implement immediately further measures should Khartoum continue to stonewall.”  Amnesty International stated that without the support of the international community, unilateral sanctions against Sudan would do little.

Britain quickly stated that it is behind the US actions, fully supporting the sanctions and the US efforts to address the situation in the Security Council of the UN.  A UN resolution would apply new international sanctions against the government, would seek to impose an expanded embargo on arms sales to Sudan, prohibit Sudan’s government from conducting offensive military flights over Darfur, and strengthen the US ability to monitory and report any violations.  A resolution from the Security Council may take some time however, due to the longstanding opposition from China. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated yesterday that he needed more time to promote negotiations and to persuade the Sudanese government to accept more peacekeepers.

For more information, please see:

allAfrica – Sudan: US Sanctions welcome but too late – 30 May 2007

BBC – US Sanctions ‘won’t help Darfur’ – 30 May 2007

Reuters – Amensty doubts Sudan sanctions, urges Arab pressure – 30 May 2007

MSNBC – Bush imposes new sanctions on Sudan – May 2007

Yahoo – Sudan: US sanctions to have little fiscal impact – May 2007

Yahoo – Sudan shrugs off US ‘genocide’ sanctions as political – May 2007

Yahoo – Britain backs US on Darfur sanctions – May 2007

Paramilitary groups a dangerous, influential force in Colombia

In early May, Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, wrote a letter to Colombian President álvaro Uribe, explaining that “Colombian paramilitaries pose a grave threat to Colombia’s democracy, the rule of law, and human rights.”

This week, there is proof that some of Colombia’s most influential leaders in politics, business, and the military assisted with the creation of an anti-guerrilla movement “that operated with impunity, killed civilians and shipped cocaine to U.S. cities,” according to the Washington Post.

Although human rights groups have long alleged that Colombian leaders have supported paramilitaries, it was recently confirmed by several top paramilitary commanders in recent days, one even remarking to the Washington Post that “paramilitarism was state policy.” These commanders named army generals, entrepreneurs, foreign companies and politicians who worked hand in hand with fighters and bankrolled their operations.  Salvatore Mancuso, now incarcerated, testified before special tribunal that Chiquita, Del Monte and Dole paid paramilitary forces over the last several years.  Chiquita has agreed to pay a $25 million fine.

Ivan Duque, a strategist for the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), a paramilitary organization, stated that the AUC had alliances with influential people in every region they were located. He estimates that the AUC alone had 17,000 armed fighters and over 10,000 other associates.

The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), another paramilitary group, kidnapped former presidential candidate Ingrid Betacourt in 2002.  An escaped prisoner told the Associated Press she is chained by the neck in a cell earlier this month. FARC is also responsible for kidnapping a Swedish citizen, Erin Larson, who was working on a hydroelectric damn in Cordoba province.  This also occurred this month.

Colombia’s paramilitary movement began in the mid 1900’s to counter a growing Marxist guerilla force. It became an irregular army that funded its operations with cocaine trafficking. These groups have since been responsible for massacres and assassinations. The attorney general’s office estimates that 10,000 people were killed by paramilitary fighters from the mid-1990s until present. The AUC and FARC are on the U.S. State Department list of terrorist organizations.

More on the activities of these organizations as stories develop. For more information, please see:

Colombia: Companies Paid Paramilitaries” United Press International: http://www.upi.com/NewsTrack/Top_News/2007/05/18/colombia_companies_paid_paramilitaries/9942/. 18 May 2007

“Colombia: Paramilitaries’ Power Threatens Democracy” Human Rights Watch: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/05/02/colomb15834.htm. 2 May 2007

“Paramilitary Ties to Elite in Colombia are Detailed” Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/21/AR2007052101672.html. 22 May 2007

“Betancourt held ‘chained by neck’” CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/americas/05/19/Colombia.betancourt.ap/index.html.
19 May 2007

“Colombia Rebels Kidnap Swedish Citizen” CNN:
http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/americas/05/18/colombia.kidnapping.reut/index.html 18 May 2007

Birth Control Subsidized in Brazil

Just weeks after Pope Benedict spoke against government sponsored birth control measures; Brazil announced on Monday that they will subsidize birth control to reduce cost for the poor.  The announcement laid out a plan to discount birth control up to 90% at 3,500 government authorized pharmacies across the country as a means to decrease unwanted pregnancies.

Brazil has programs in place to hand out free condoms and birth control at pharmacies.  However, the poor of the country do not have access to these pharmacies.  By subsidizing the pills, the government is offering them at significantly reduced prices, about 20 cents in US dollars.  Current retail price for the birth control ranges from $2.56 to $25.60.  The number of stores offering the pills is intended to reach 10,000 by the end of the year.  The government hopes to distribute 50 million supplies of pill each year, an increase from the current 20 million distributed.

The program could decrease the amount of illegal abortions performed in Brazil as a result of unwanted pregnancies.  About 4,000 women die each year from the illegal procedures making illegal abortions the fourth leading cause of maternal death in the country.  Other methods to reduce unwanted pregnancies include increasing the amount of free vasectomies performed.

Some women’s advocates worry that the government will not follow through with this new program as there is a lack of political will.  However, Brazilian president Lula da Silva favors a national debate on the issue of abortion laws and on birth control.  Congress is also expected to take up the issue in the family planning policy finding ways for women to be given the ability to decide.

The debate on birth control is also present in Argentina where recently a judge in Ushuaia prevented poor women and adolescents to have access to emergency contraceptive pills.  Opponents of the judge’s actions argue that preventing free access to the pills, while pharmacies sell the products, discriminates against poor women and adolescents.  This decision reinforced the economic constraints women face in making choices regarding their own health.

For more information, see:

http://www.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/americas/05/28/brazil.birth.control.ap/index.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/28/AR2007052800637.html

http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/05/24/argent15999.htm

http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/N28276199.htm

Myanmar lengthens Nobel winner’s sentence

Suu Kyi, winner of the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize, will spend another year under house arrest in her Myanmar home, according to the Associated Press. After spending 11 of the past 17 years in confinement, the Myanmar government was due to release her this week.

The government has held Suu Kyi because they claim that she threatens public order. As head of the Myanmar’s National League for Democracy party, her party won the general election in a landslide in 1990. After the victory, the military government refused to hand over power.

Although the United States, the United Nations, and the European Union have strongly condemned her continued sentenced, the Myanmar’s military junta continues to hold her and approximately 1,200 other political prisoners.

This week, National League for Democracy party supporters held a 300 to 500-person rally for her release. In response, the military government stepped up security around Suu Kyi’s home.

For more information, please see:

Myanmar military rounds up Suu Kyi supporters

http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/afp_asiapacific/view/276485/1/.html

Myanmar extends Suu Kyi’s house arrest

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070525/ap_on_re_as/myanmar_suu_kyi_5

Rwandan Hutu Rebels Suspected of Killing 29 in DRC

By Meryl White
Impunity Watch Reporter

In Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, between Saturday night to Sunday morning, more than 29 people were killed by suspected Rwandan Hutu Rebels. Seventeen bodies were found in three villages in South Kivu province, while another twelve bodies were found in the forest. The murderers slashed their victims with machetes during a night attack.

Ignace Murwanashyaka, the leader of the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda (FDLR) has denounced responsibility for the attacks. Furthermore, Murwanashyaka claims that it will be impossible for law enforcement to identify the perpetrators because the attack took place at night.

The United Nations Mission in DR Congo is now investigating the attack in the Kanyola district. However, locals in the South Kivu province have been disappointed by both the UN and the army. One resident said, “They roll past in their armoured vehicles here but are incapable of puttng an end to the exactions and disarming the groups that are spreading terror throughout the region.”

Saturday’s attack is the most gruesome in South-Kivu since May 23, 2005, when a militia killed 19 civilians in Nindja. On July 9, 2005, almost 40 civilians were burned to death by suspected Rwandan Hutu rebels who wanted to punish civilians for backing a UN offensive against them.

For more information, please see:

BBC – Rwanda Rebels’ in DR Congo Raid – 28 May 2007

Yahoo – UN Probes DRC Massacre of up to 30 Villagers – May 2007

Justice in Rwanda

By Myriam Clerge
Impunity Watch, Africa

Francois-Xavier Byuma, a prominent civil rights activist, was sentenced for 19 years in prison by a grassroots genocide court for his involvement in the 1994 massacre in Rwanda. On Sunday May 24th, Byuma was convicted of conspiring with criminals and beating a woman during the massacre in 1994. In response, Byuma, a member of the Rwandan League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, a playwright and head of a children’s rights group, claimed the trial and conviction were designed to settle a score between the judge and himself and intends to appeal.

The 1994 mass murder was one of Africa’s worst genocide. During the 100-day killing spree at least 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis, were massacred by extremist members of the Hutu ethnic group. The Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) later regained control of the country, which led to nearly 2 million Hutus migrating to nearby Congo. Some of the fleeing Hutus were participants of the Rwanda massacre.

Although Rwanda signed a peace treaty with eastern Congo in 2002, tension and conflict remains between the ethnic groups within the two countries. On Sunday May 24th Rwandan rebels, based in Congo, attacked a Congolese village with machetes and spears killing 17 and wounding dozens. The rebels are suspected of being Hutu members of the Democratic Liberation Forces of Rwanda. The UN commission in Congo has not confirmed the attack, but as of April has launched a military offense to push back Rwandan rebels from eastern Congo.

For more information please see:

Yahoo – Rwandan Rights Activist Sentenced for Genocide Role – 28 May 2007

Yahoo – Rwandan Rebels Kill 17 in Congo Village – 27 May 2007

BBC – Country Profile: Rwanda – 04 May 2007

Chavez closes “threatening” TV station

By Christopher Gehrke

Impunity Watch Senior Desk Officer, South America

Radio Caracas Televisión (RCTV), Venezuela’s oldest television station, was taken off the air May 27th after 53 years of broadcasting. The decision not to renew RCTV’s lease was made by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who said that RCTV “became a threat to the country” and that he had a “responsibility” to shut it down.  RCTV’s news programs regularly disparage President Chavez’s socialist-leaning transformation of Venezuelan government. Chavez defended his decision by claiming that the station supported a coup against him in 2002. The station will be replaced by the state-sponsored Venezuelan Social TV (TVES). The other two national stations, Venevision and Televen, have already removed all content critical of the government from their programming.

Reactions

RCTV supporters say that Chavez is stomping on freedom of expression by silencing a channel that is often critical. José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch agrees, and stated that Chavez is “misusing the state’s regulatory authority to punish a media outlet for its criticism of the government.” Gonzalo Marroquín, the president of the Inter-American Press Association said in a statement that Chavez’s decision was intended to “standardize the right to information, and results in a very bleak outlook for the whole hemisphere.” The U.S. Senate and E.U. Parliament also criticized RCTV’s closure.

The government argues that the station violated broadcast laws and transmitted violent and morally degrading programs. The government’s “White Book on RCTV”, which details the allegations made against the station, accuses RCTV of “inciting rebellion,” showing a “lack of respect for authorities and institutions,” as well. Human Rights Watch points out that the White Book does not present any final judicial or administrative rulings that establish that RCTV had committed any of these offenses, nor was the criteria on which this decision was based available beforehand.

Demonstrations

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets Sunday, some celebrating the decision, some protesting it. Police claimed that shots were fired in their direction and that 11 officers were injured by protesters hurling rocks. A protest rally made their way to the headquarters of the broadcasting regulator to voice their disapproval. The crowd was dispersed by police wielding tear gas, water cannons, and plastic bullets.

For more information, see:

“Venezuela police repel protests over TV network’s closing” NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/28/world/americas/28venez.html (free login required) 28 May 2007.

“Venezuela Shuts Down TV Network” NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/reuters/world/international-venezuela-rctv.html (free login required) 28 May 2007.

“Venezuela: TV Shutdown Harms Freedom of Expression” Human Rights Watch: http://hrw.org/english/docs/2007/05/22/venezu15986.htm. 28 May 2007.

“Rallies as Venezuelan TV closes” BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6696699.stm. 28 May 2007.

“TV row widens Venezuela’s rift” BBC News: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6697575.stm. 28 May 2007.

Birth control crackdown in rural China sparks riots

China launched its one-child per couple policy in 1980 to try to maintain swift economic growth and feed and control the country’s growing population of 1.3 billion people. Recently, however, the central government in Beijing announced it was time to strictly enforce the one-child policy. In Bobai County of the Guangxi Province, primarily a rural, farming village, family planning officials threatened families who failed to pay fines for having more than one child. Some officials have even been accused of forcing women to submit to abortions or sterilizations. In response, however, thousands of peasants and townspeople gathered at government and birth control centers, clashing with police. Twenty-eight people have been arrested for instigating riots against China’s one-child policy.

Locals in Buffalo Village, however, have managed to beat China’s system. The records at the county maternity hospital are filled with lists of multiple pregnancies.  Mothers have used fertility drugs to get around the one-child policy by having twins, triplets, quadruplets, and even quintuplets. China does not impose fines on a mother who has multiple children at a time.

For more information please see:

Washington Post – Birth Control Crackdown Sparks Riots In Rural China – 23 May 2007

BBC News – Chinese Challenge One-Child Policy – 25 May 2007

Channel News Asia – China arrests 28 in family planning riots – 23 May 2007

Pope makes first visit to Brazil, angers Indians

Pope Benedict made his first visit to Brazil convening a 19 day conference of Latin American Bishops. Brazil is the largest Catholic country in the world and is also a country where there is a clear challenge to the church. In his speeches, Pope Benedict warned against moving away from Catholic values and suggested that those values are the answer to present social and economic issues.  He blamed the gap between the rich and the poor on Marxism and capitalism in the region as well as the growth of Protestantism. The Pope drew a lower turnout then expected, reflecting the decreasing influence of the Catholic Church as well as the weaker appeal of this Pope in comparison to Pope John Paul II.

In response to the Pope’s visit and statements, Indian leaders stated they were outraged and offended by the Pope’s “arrogant and disrespectful” comments regarding the imposition of the Church on the indigenous people. Pope Benedict said that the indigenous people welcomed the arrival of European Priests and were “silently longing” for Christianity. However, millions of Indians died from slaughter, disease or enslavement as a result of the European colonization supported by the Catholic Church. Today, Indians still struggle for survival as they have been deprived of their traditional ways of life.

Brazil is home to over 450,000 Indians who mostly inhabit small reserves with few opportunities to make a living.  Many Indian groups sent an open letter to the Pope asking for support in defending their ancestral lands against the government as they have suffered a “process of genocide” since the first colonization began. The letter stated that the assassination of Indian leaders was still occurring from people who invaded their lands. Jecinald Satere Mawe, of the Amazon Indian group Coiab, stated that it was arrogant and disrespectful of the Pope to “consider our cultural heritage secondary to theirs.” In addition to Indian groups being outraged, the Pope also angered Catholic priests who have joined the struggle of the Indians. Sandro Tuxa, who heads northeastern tribal movement, stated that the Pope had been poorly advised and that his statements were offensive and frightening. Cimi, Catholic Churches own Indian advocacy group in Brazil distanced itself from the Pope after his comments.

For more information see:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/13/AR2007051300316.html

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6651890.stm

http://www.reuters.com/article/worldNews/idUSN1428799220070514?feedType=RSS

http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/6643581.stm

http://www.alertnet.org.thenews/newsdesk/N10185934.htm

Iran Charges Iranian-American Scholar

        Haleh Esfandiari was prevented from returning to the US in December 2006, arrested on May 8, and recently accused of working to disrupt Iranian sovereignty.  Esfandiari, who holds both Iranian and American citizenship, works as the director of the Middle East program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, in Washington DC.  Part of her job includes planning conferences for Iranian leaders, civil, academic, and governmental, in the US on issues involving Iran.  Last December, while en route to the Tehran airport, her luggage, which held both passports, was confiscated; effectively preventing her from leaving the country.  Since December 2006 and her arrest in early May 2007, Esfandiari was repeatedly interrogated and denied access to legal counsel.  In addition to Dr. Esfandiari, two other Iranian-Americans (Ali Shakeri and Kian Tajbakhsh) are in currently in Iranian prison and a fourth, Parnaz Azima, had her passport confiscated and as a result she is prevented from leaving Iran.

        There are various theories as to why Iran is currently detaining four Iran-American citizens.  First,  that the hard-liners in the Iranian government are hoping to derail US-Iranian talks regarding the war in Iraq.  Second, that the Iranian government hopes to use the detainees as leverage to negotiate a prisoner trade to guarantee the release of the five Iranians arrested in northern Iraq in early January 2007.  Regardless to the reason behind Esfandiari’s and the other Iranian-Americans’ detentions, analysts agree that there is no rational basis and that the detainees should be released.

For more information, please see:

CNN:  “Iranian-American political prisoners”  25 May 2007.

Human Rights Watch:  “Iran: Another Iranian-American Scholar Detained”  24 May 2007.

CNN:  “Iran imprisons 4th Iranian-American”  23 May 2007.

NY Times:  “Iran Accuses American of Revolution Plot”  22 May 2007.

BBC:  “Iran accuses US-Iranian scholar”  22 May 2007.

BBC:  “US-Iranian academic detained in Iran”  9 May 2007.

A rival political party in Egypt

          Egypt has allowed for the creation of a new political party to rival the President Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. The Democratic Front will be headed by Osama al-Ghazali, a former NDP leader. He split ways with the National Democratic Party over the constitutional amendments passed in March. He was an academic political affairs writer who left the party and the council because he believed that the party leadership was not committed to political reform. The party is planning to focus on a free market economy and fully democratic nation.

         This is a major development in the Egyptian politics because it legitimizes the Egyptian elections. Previously, Mubarak’s party had basically run unopposed and so was able to unilaterally push its own agenda under the cover of the Egyptian constitutional democracy. The only check on the party was through protest and through the rival party of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood had been outlawed, but recently the brotherhood have had key members tried before a military tribunal. According to the BBC, the maxim of the Muslim Brotherhood is “Islam is the solution.”

        According to the government, the amendments fought terrorism and promoted democracy. The amendments were pushed by the government as the end of the emergency powers, which were enacted after President Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981.  It fought terrorism by allowing the president to send a terrorist case to any judicial authority that the president deems necessary, including military tribunals. Human rights groups are fearful that the unchecked authority given to the president for the prosecution of terrorists will allow for abusive enforcement. Also, it promoted democracy by recommending a multi-party system, but limited those parties by prohibiting a party with a religious affiliation. 

        Opponents believed that the amendments did not end the emergency power, but rather made those powers permanent. It believed that some of the amendments perpetuated the rule of the National Democratic Party, and set up Gamal Mubarak to be the next ruler of Egypt. The amendments further undercut the Muslim Brotherhood, because it did not allow them to organize as a political group, and allowed for the president to prosecute them in any manner the president desires.

        The new liberal party may present a sign of true democracy in Egypt, by creating the tension necessary for the nation to be more accountable to the people. If however, the party does not grow into an actual rival party to the National Democratic Party, then despite its opponents efforts the National Democratic Party may continue to enforce its will unopposed.

BBC News: A Permanent Emergency. 27 March 2007.

BBC News: Egypt Allows New Political Party. 24 May 2007.

Al-Jazeera: Egypt New Opposition Party. 24 May 2007.

Sunday Times New Zealand. Egypt Approves New Party. 25 May 2007.