Friday, 21 February 2014

Mohammad Asghar

According to many media reports (see here and here) a court in Rawalpindi, Pakistan has sentenced a 70-yr old British National, Mohammad Asghar, to death for blasphemy.

Asghar had become embroiled in a property dispute with a local man, who later raised a case of blasphemy and provided the (unsent) letters to the Police in 2010, at which point Asghar was arrested.

During his trial his legal team were dismissed, and the state nominated replacement presented no evidence in his defence.

Asghar, who is from Edinburgh, Scotland has been diagnosed in the UK as a paranoid schizophrenic and has a history of mental illness, although this evidence was not accepted by the court.

There have been a number of campaigns for his release:

Amnesty International

Open Letter to Pakistan Persident Mamnoon Hussain by a number of UK orgs

Petition on Change.Org

Article by Sadiq Khan, Shadow Justice Secretary

BFTF has signed the petition, Tweeted a thank you to the ISB for signing the Open Letter and asked the MCB why they didn't sign it too.

Related Content
Challenging government on "double tap" airstrikes
The Shaykh 'n Bake Shame Grenade

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

"Barefoot in Baghdad" by Manal M Omar

There is an Iraqi-Turkmen proverb that goes "Walk barefoot and the thorns will hurt you" and is often used as a warning to those who challenge societal norms.

That proverb was the inspiration for the title of " Barefoot in Baghdad" (SourceBooks), an account by Manal M Omar of her year spent in Iraq as a humanitarian aid worker.

This post is based on Manal's comments in the book, together with some additional information, linkage and images from parts of Baghdad.

Born in Saudi Arabia of Palestinian parents who then moved to the US, Manal was one of the first humanitarian aid workers to enter Iraq following the US invasion in 2003, entering with a small team from "Women for Women International", including founder Zainab Salbi. Manals mix of identities allowed her almost unique access to both the US military structures and the homes of ordinary Iraqis.

She comments in the introduction to "Barefoot in Baghdad" that, at the time of the US invasion, "International journalists marvelled over the fact that women who were covered head to toe walked side by side with women with orange coloured hair and wearing tight jeans…the mosaic of identities inside Iraq was not hypocritical or schizophrenic; it was what made the country powerful"

For the previous 30 years, any form of organisation had been banned in Iraq, with membership often being punishable by death. This had left the focus of life being the home and "trust had completely disappeared"

Mutanabi Street, 2009

Working in some of the most impoverished parts of Baghdad, Manal found that many Iraqis openly blamed Saddam for the state of their country, and felt their Arab neighbours had been complicit by their silence. Indeed "many Iraqis went so far as to see the Americans as liberators and defenders of freedom" – in contrast to Manals view that the US military was an occupying force.

Indeed, Manal comments that she interviewed many Iraqi women who "believed the end of the dictatorship symbolised a new beginning for them, an end to the hopelessness that had enveloped most Iraqis under Saddam. I met women from all walks of life who lives began to blossom after the war."

Manals experience of the introduction of Resolution 137 (which threated to curtail womens rights, and which was later repealed) was that "although all women were against Resolution 137, the rhetoric of defending women's rights became divisive. International women's groups began to attack core Islamic values. The secular elite from within Iraq joined their voices…

…At the same time, women in conservative areas believed they were being pushed into a defensive position. They believed firmly in Islamic law , and they were confident that Islamic Law was the best vehicle to protect their rights…and called for all personal status laws to be rooted in Islamic Law.

Manal commented that both of the above views were in the minority and that the majority of Iraqi women were torn on the issue. One effect of this was that, increasingly, the diverse range of people in the women rights movement began to attack each other based on their attire (as a proxy for their perceived religiosity / support for Western values).Manal also comments that a big problem was that the specific Sharia laws that would be applicable were not defined.

[A very different view of Resolution 137, penned by Haifa Zangana, can be found here.]

Things changed further in 2004, the first wave of US troops, who had initially been well received by the local population, and with whom Manal had made many contacts, were rotated out and replaced by fresh faced replacements. These new soldiers did not arrive to a welcoming public, but to a population demanding to know when they would get water, jobs, electricity. The US army was beginning to be viewed not as liberators but as occupiers.

The Insurgents knew that electricity generation was a key part of providing security, so they targeted the electrical generating and transmission infrastructure weekly, thus undermining confidence in the CPA and Iraqi government.

Al-Rasheed Street, 2008

By this time Manals project was progressing well, with some 500 participants in its skills training programme. In order to engage with women in any particular neighbourhood, Manal first had to meet with the senior male elders, who would question Manal about her background and the project. Manal invariably found that basing her responses on Islamic principles and examples would reassure the male elders.

But just as the programme was gathering momentum, the security situation was becoming worse. Manal had to move to a safer home and was transported around by a variety of drivers and cars, for security reasons. Other NGO's were leaving and Women for Women wanted Manal to move to Jordan.

April 2004 was a particularly bad month, with the US siege of Fallujah and the release of the Abu Ghraib pictures. The images had a bad effect on the morale of US forces, to the extent that Capt Anne Murphy, a key contact for Manal, began to wear civilian clothes as she had become ashamed of the military uniform.

Surprisingly, security considerations resulted in Manal sharing a (large) house with four male members of her team, with the blessing of their and her families! Relatives of the team members would often drop by with food and Manal described the situation as a "G-rated Iraqi version of MTV's "Real World" – only in a war zone"

But the security situation continued to deteriorate and Manal had to leave for Jordan – she was on the last flight out before the airport closed for three weeks.

Manal returned a few weeks later but commented that "by the end of the summer of 2004…a hundred international aid workers, contractors and journalists had been kidnapped and 23 had been killed. And countless Iraqis had died… A couple of years later 2004 would be labelled as a stable time with the years between2005 and 2007 deemed as Iraq's dark ages."

Families around Manal were being torn apart. The Mayor in Shawaka dead, along with his two sons, a friend had her son kidnapped for ransom, a neighbour widowed.

Sadr City 2005

By September 2004, the kidnappings had become more brazen, and Manal left again for a few weeks before returning, but by now the security precautions that Manal had to work to meant that there was very little that she could usefully do for the project, and aid workers such as Margaret Hasan from Care International were still being kidnapped.

When the Government announced that Baghdad airport and all roads into Iraq were to be closed, Manal realised that she needed to leave, perhaps for good. On the day of her flight, on a US military plane, she was the only covered Muslim woman amongst the uniformed military, and had to field questions such as Why do they hate us? Why won't they let us help them? Why are they protecting Al-Zarqawi?

Manal then learnt that Margaret Hasan had been killed. A Jordanian friend "chastised me for crying over a foreigner while so many Iraqis were dying…Like so many others her ability to empathise with human loss had been replaced with political zeal"

The book continues with a description of what happened after Manal left Iraq, which almost left tears in BFTF's eyes.

Barefoot in Baghdad also contains stories of some of the women who Manal helped during her time in Iraq. It was moving to read about the relentless way Manal worked to help those in dire need , despite tight time contraints, poor infrastructure and many cultural restrictions that limited the options for helping women.

Some more information about Manal, and some of the other strong, brave people mentioned in the book is shown below:

Fern Holland(Assassinated with assistant Salwa Ourmashi and others)
Khanim Latif (founder of Asuda)
Salama Al-Khafaji
Ashraf al-khalidi

Al-Khadiman Mosque, pre2006

Image Sources Mutanabi Street, Al-Rasheed Street, Sadr City, Kadhimayn Mosque

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Unintended Consequences....

Fascinaing FT article giving examples of how, even with the best intentions, providing too much information can have unintended adverse consequences...

Traffic Light countdowns
Turns out that this story is reported much more comprehensively in than in the Financial Times ! Who'd have thunk it? But anyway:

A number of cities around the world have pedestrian crossings that give a "countdown" of how many seconds are left until the "green man" turns red, and Toronto joined the club when it began installing the countdown signals across the city.

When economists Sacha Kapoor and Arvind Magesan examined the data they found that, surprisingly, the new signals caused MORE accidents between cars, especially rear-end collisions, and suggested that this was due to drivers being able to see the countdown timer - some drivers then slowing down while others accelerated in the hope of making it through before the timer hit zero.

Heart Operation Report Cards
The FT article also reported on a study (here) by David Dranove, Daniel Kessler, Mark McClellan and Mark Satterthwaite which assessed the "report cards" used in two US states to report on the success rates of doctors and hospitals.

Focussing on the reports for cardiac surgery, the researchers found that the fact the sucesss data was to be published meant that hospitals now had a powerful incentive to only operate on those patients most likely to survive - so patients with complicated problems became more likely to have their surgery postponed.

End result : More people died of heart attacks.

As the authors say in their report :
"We conclude that,at least in the short run, these report cards decreased patient and social welfare."

Saturday, 1 February 2014

4th EU Anti-Money Laundering Directive

David Cameron is clamping down on "phantom firms" in the UK, with urging the govenment to:
"...deliver on the Prime Minister’s ambition, committing to make public information about who owns and controls companies, trusts and similar legal vehicles established in the UK, its Crown Dependencies and Overseas Territories. This information should be available as open, machine-readable data, available free of charge, in line with the G8 Open Data Charter, in a public register, maintained by Companies House"

Meanwhile, in the international arena, comments that:
"Evidence from the World Bank demonstrates the role that such elusive entities play in facilitating corruption and money laundering, with more than 70% of corruption cases analysed found to involve anonymous shell companies. At a country level, by way of example, the Africa Progress Panel found that the Democratic Republic of Congo lost over $1.3bn – the equivalent of almost twice its combined health and education budgets – between 2010 and 2012 as a result of five dodgy deals in the mining sector, with those deals facilitated by Phantom Firms incorporated in the British Virgin Islands, along with other companies based in Bermuda, Jersey, Gibraltar and the UK."

What's petition is campaigning for is for MEPs to support the introduction of transparency legislation (to show publically who owns and controls companies and trusts) into the 4th EU Anti-Money Laundering Directive:
* Give citizens and journalists in developing countries access to the data they need to follow the money and root out corruption;
* Help to improve data quality by enabling more people to scrutinise the data, identify, check and correct inaccuracies;
* Enable banks and other financial institutions to perform due diligence more effectively;
* Ensure that businesses know who they are doing business with; and
* Contribute to more effective law enforcement – investigations, prosecutions and the return of stolen assets.

Apparently, France is also a supporter of these measures whilst Germany is against them.

BFTF signed the petition, emailed local MEP's asking for their stance on the issue, emailed the French Embassy to say thank you; and emailed the German Embassy to ask what they were playing at.

More info here

List of East Midlands MEPs here


Derek Clark MEP(UKIP)
Responded with a communication that said it was unlikely that UKIP would support these aspects of the legislation because British laws already had the relevant measures in place and he did not think Europe could improve things. He explained the rationale for this view thus:

"There have been several issues over the last few years where we have voted against what seems to be a desirable directive. I have in mind for instance a recent measure regarding the protection of the victims of crime and another on the protection of children. We voted against both of those. That is because the UK already has those protections in place and the EU proposals would have brought about a lower level of protection. That means that those MEPs from Britain who supported those measures, and many did, were going for a reduction in the protections concerned."

Bill Newton Dunn MEP(Lib Dem)
Replied saying:
Presuming that the final (as amended) version is satisfactory, I definitely intend voting for it, as does my party.

Glenis Willmott MEP (Labour)
Replied with:
Labour MEPs strongly support the work of leading NGOs such as Christian Aid, Global Witness and the ONE campaign amongst others to introduce EU wide rules for public registries of beneficial owners of companies which will ensure companies are transparent and accountable to their local communities, particularly in the developing world.

My Labour colleague, Arlene McCarthy MEP, as Labour lead for Economic affairs in the European Parliament and Vice President of the Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, submitted amendments calling for these public registries. The report is due to be voted on in the Committee later this month and Labour, together with our Socialist and Democrat colleagues, will be working hard to get a majority in favour of this position. Support from Liberal Democrats, Conservative and UKIP MEPs will be key in getting a broad majority. Pressure also needs to be kept up on the UK Government to ensure its continued support of public registries in discussion with the other 27 member states.
Emma McClarkin MEP (Conservative)
Replied with:
"...This legislation is currently going through LIBE/ECON Committee and I hope that it will be adopted at plenary level before the European Elections this May...

...I wholeheartedly support the Prime Minister's efforts in this area....We are debating the exact nature of these registers and we will try to agree a text at the end of this month. If all goes according to plan we hope to begin inter-institutional negotiations in the Spring...

...Greater transparency is the key to tackling tax evasion and money laundering, but it must be done sensibly. I am interested in the criminal and justice aspects, such as closing legal loopholes, and closer cooperation at EU and International level. The benefits for law enforcement and the increased accountability are indeed positive, but we must balance that carefully in order to respect the new data protection rules which have also been agreed at Committee level late last year. We must also find a way in order to coordinate the registers at an EU level as effectively as possible...

...My Conservative colleague Timothy Kirkhope MEP is the co-Rapporteur on the Regulation and Shadow Rapporteur on the Directive that currently make up the 4th Anti-Money Laundering Package. Should you have any further questions please do not hesitate to contact either Mr Kirkhope or myself"
Further Communication:

Feb 2014 : Asked MEPs McLarkin,Wilmott and Dunn whether UKIP were right in saying that the EU proposals would result in a LOWER level of transparency in the UK.

Glenis Willmott MEP (Labour) tweeted back that "An EU law would bring the other 27 countries up to British standards: UK Gov already bringing in public company registers."