Where justice is denied and criminals are safe: Is there such a country?

How would you like to live in a country where:

• A man with a police record of 70 murders has never had a conviction that stuck.
• Where the weakness of the state is matched by the strength of its criminals.
• Where a criminal commands a broad network of friends in and out of government who can be launched against his opponents, killing witnesses, threatening judges and intimidating the police, so that nearly all of the prosecutions against him collapse.
• Where the founder of a militant group that organized last year’s attacks in Mumbai, India, killing more than 160 people, will soon be released from jail.
• Where police have no forensics tools, so that the burden falls on witnesses, who, without a functioning protection program, routinely refuse to appear.
• Where the country’s intelligence agencies nurture militants as proxy forces who can intimidate the police.
• Where civilian victims, judges or even police officials, dare not buck the untouchable network of support for criminals by the intelligence agencies.
• Where the government spy agency supports a hard-line Sunni group committed to killing Shia of all kinds.
• Where only 3 percent of murder cases end in conviction.
• Where the police ask for money to pursue cases and fulfill illegal orders from higher-ups to make deals with criminals.
• Where an honest police officer spent three months persuading a telephone line repairman to testify as a witness, coaxing a handwriting expert to testify in court, facing the intimidation of his car being sprayed with bullets, only to have the conviction he achieved overturned by the Supreme Court.
• Where militant groups have linked up with Al Qaeda and the Taliban and criminal gangs have international ambitions.

Welcome to Pakistan. The people of that country deserve better.

[Click on the title above for a link to the source.]

Iran’s Embarrassing Abuse of Its Own: Mullah Abtahi

Farnaz Fassihi of the Wall Street Journal today provides “before and after” pictures of Muhammad Ali Abtahi that seem to reveal how much weight Abtahi has lost in prison. Abtahi holds the rank of Khojat ul Islam, second only to the rank of Ayatullah, and was a Vice President of Iran under former President of Iran Mohammad Khatami. Since being out of office Abtahi himself has been a familiar figure, as he blogged about affairs in Iran. As he is well connected his stories of conversations among the religious elite in Iran provide a glimpse of what that secluded world is like.

Owing to his involvement in the demonstrations against the regime he has been detained in an Iranian prison for nearly two months. He is now the poster boy for the regime’s claim that the election on June 12 was not rigged. His statement in court claims that the ring leaders of the opposition had been planning their activities for years Of course the regime’s claim that this is Abtahi’s personal statement is spurious. Who would suppose that after many weeks in prison and a loss of about a fifth of his weight Abtahi would come to this view on his own? Yes, he has lost more than 40 pounds. He is short and weighed at least 200 pounds when he visited us here in St Louis a couple years ago (a guest of Covenant Seminary, during which time he paid a visit to Washington University), so a loss of that much weight in so few days comes to about two or three pounds a day for over 20 days. Whatever they are doing to him includes starvation. Have a look at Fassihi’s photos and his report:

Brother of Afghanistan’s President threatens a reporter for enquiring into drug connections

Several sources on the drug industry in Afghanistan have accused the brother of Hamed Karzai, President of Afghanistan, of being a major figure in the illicit drug industry in southern Afghanistan where more than 90% of all the opium in the world is produced. Tom Lasseter of the McClatchy newspapers went looking into the question and directly confronted Ahmad Wali Karzai, head of Kandahar’s provincial council. The reaction was to threaten him.

Karzai grabbed my hand and used it to give me a bit of a push into the next room. He followed me, and his voice rose until it was a scream of curse words and threats.

I managed to record just one full sentence: “Get the (expletive) out before I kick your (expletive).”

I won’t describe the rest, because it involves the Afghans I was working with, none of whom wants to risk revenge in a country where feuds often end in blood.

Lasseter got out and can now tell the story, but I wonder about his assistants. One of the people who had informed on Ahmad Wali Karzi had subsequently been killed; perhaps there was no connection but one wonders . . . . In any case, if Lasseter was threatened, then the Afghans who work with him, who cannot leave, are still threatened.

The search for the truth is a more risky game than most us think about. But it turns out that in the modern world the truth is precious, for [to quote again from the wisdom of the ancients] “men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil; they would not come into the light lest their deeds be exposed.” Afghanistan’s drug industry has to be one of the most critical elements of the insurgency problem in the region, and discovering and revealing how it operates will be a perilous venture. [Click on the title for the original article.]

Another assassination in the Russian sphere of influence: What does it mean?

The assassination in Dubai of a former Chechen opponent of the current Kremlin chosen leader of Chechnya reveals how actively President Kadyrov is working to ensure there is no further question about his power. Chechnya, which fought so vigorously against Russian domination, twice in recent years, and many times before that, no longer exists: It is now part of Russia. And one wonders if that whole regime has gone into the hands of a kind of mafia organization, that cannot bear to have its reporters reveal what they know (and so have to exterminate Anna Politkovskaia) and cannot bear to have a remotely potential rival remain alive, even in another country (general, Sulim B. Yamadayev; his brother Ruslan; and Umar S. Israilov).
But there is another reason to wonder if not worry about this report: the Dubai source for this article was not revealed. Is there a risk of telling the truth there?

New York TimesMarch 31, 2009Another Foe of Chechen Leader Shot Dead Abroad
By MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ MOSCOW — A former general in Chechnya and foe of the republic’s Kremlin-backed president was shot over the weekend in the Persian Gulf emirate of Dubai, and the police there said Monday that he had died. The former general, Sulim B. Yamadayev, was shot at least three times outside an elite apartment complex in Dubai in what appeared to be an assassination, the police said. It was unclear exactly when the attack took place. The identity of the man who was killed was the subject of conflicting reports. Officials of the hospital in Dubai said that two Chechen brothers, whose names were not released, had been shot during the attack. One died, they said, while the other was in critical condition. The attack evokes others on Chechens, in Russia and abroad, who ran afoul of President Ramzan A. Kadyrov. The Kremlin has invested Mr. Kadyrov with almost unchecked authority in a bid to return stability to Chechnya after nearly a decade of bloody war and political turmoil. With Moscow’s blessing, Mr. Kadyrov has created a personality cult and imposed his own interpretation of Islamic morality in Chechnya, whose population is predominately Muslim. He has also built a powerful security force that has all but crushed Chechnya’s separatist movement, often, rights groups say, with the help of torture and extrajudicial killings. In January, a Chechen hit man tracked down and killed Umar S. Israilov, a former bodyguard of Mr. Kadyrov, who had received asylum in Austria after accusing the president, and officials in his circle, of kidnapping, torture and murder. Ruslan Yamadayev, one of Sulim’s brothers, was shot dead in his car last September as he waited in a traffic jam in Moscow just outside the White House, the government building where the offices of Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin are situated. Mr. Kadyrov’s government has denied responsibility for these deaths and others, and Alvi A. Karimov, Mr. Kadyrov’s spokesman, said Monday that the president had no information about the killing in Dubai. “We hope that the truth will be established and the guilty found,” Mr. Karimov said. Sulim Yamadayev, who until last year commanded his own heavily armed fighting force in Chechnya, was perhaps Mr. Kadyrov’s most powerful and well-known adversary and had often clashed with the president. A separatist fighter in Russia’s first Chechen war in the 1990s, Mr. Yamadayev, 36, switched allegiances and fought with pro-Moscow forces in the second war, which began in 1999. He was later named head of the Vostok Battalion, a contingent of former separatists, co-opted into the Russian Army, that became notorious for its daring raids on militants’ hide-outs and its callous disregard for civilian casualties. Mr. Putin awarded both Mr. Yamadayev and Mr. Kadyrov the Hero of Russia medal, the country’s highest honor. Mr. Yamadayev ultimately emerged as something of an independent power center in Chechnya. He was backed by Moscow, but his growing authority brought him into conflict with Mr. Kadyrov. Last April, an altercation on a country road between troops from the Vostok Battalion and guards from Mr. Kadyrov’s motorcade ended in gunfire. Some reports said Mr. Kadyrov had personally intervened to avoid bloodshed. Soon, Mr. Yamadayev was stripped of his command and charged with involvement in kidnappings and murders, though there have been persistent reports that he commanded his Vostok troops in fighting last August during Russia’s war with Georgia. According to Russian news reports citing relatives of Mr. Yamadayev, he, his wife and their six children left Russia in December and were living in Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. A reporter for The New York Times in Dubai contributed to this article.

Swat’s descent into chaos

The Pakistani government — which is essentially the army and the civilians it has deigned to allow to hold office — has been claiming to fight extremists for many years but the practice seems so different from the claims that one wonders if anything the Pakistan government says could be true. The harder they claim to be fighting extremism the stronger the extremists become. Shame. In the mean time there are many diligent and brilliant Pakistani journalists who have to put up with the double-dealing and distortions of truth that the army leaders have become notorious for. Until there is an attempt at honesty by the army of Pakistan the whole region is at risk, including the army itself. Here is BAsim Usmani in the Guardian on the topic. [Thanks to my friend S. for sending this to me.]

Taliban militants have taken the Swat valley in Pakistan – why is the
country turning a blind eye?
Basim Usmani Wednesday 4 February 2009 20.00

Swat, once a resort for Pakistanis on holiday, has fallen to the Taliban. The battle for Swat began in 2007, while the country was distracted by ongoing operations in the tribally administered northern areas and the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. Now, President Zardari’s preoccupation with the Mumbai attacks has given the militants in Swat, Tehreek-e-Taliban, a chance to rap up their bombing campaign of girls’ schools.

The Tehreek has blow up 170 girls’ schools in Swat to date. Oblivious to Swat’s descent into chaos, the government has been busy cracking down on Jamat-ud-Dawa, the humanitarian organisation that operates allegedly with militia in Kashmir, in a series of enthusiastic measures to abate Indian pressure post-Mumbai.

A week ago, the government took control of Jamat-ud-Dawa’s public schools in their headquarters in Muridke, a small pit-stop city economically dependent on neighboring Lahore, the capital of Punjab. The Dawa’s influence is striking: truckers coming through on the “Grand Truck Road” found no cigarettes or chewing tobacco, which have been banned from sale in accordance with the organisation’s edicts.

Despite Jamat-ud-Dawa’s standing, the protest that accompanied the government’s takeover only consisted of peaceful faculty staff and students. There were no death threats issued to prominent politicians in Punjab and administrators of the Dawa’s school system and adjacent hospital expressed hope that the change of heads would lead to more financial support from the government.

Interestingly, this is after the government handed over all girls’ schools in the Swat valley to the Taliban, after being complicit to the militant’s 15 January ban on female education. Currently, the “third phase” of military operations in Swat is taking place and live coverage of the military battling the Tehreek-e-Taliban is hopefully going to highlight the urgency of the situation. The military got wise to the media attention and the chiefs of the army, navy and air force held a meeting bright and early on Sunday morning where they praised their “operational readiness”.

Sadly, this readiness was nowhere to be found a week ago when the body of Pir Samiullah, a famous Swati and government loyalist who was purportedly encouraged by the military to organise a lashkar (independent army), was killed by the Taliban. After discovering the grave where Samiullah’s family secretly buried him, the Taliban exhumed his body and hung it from a major crossing in the area. Before that, the vice-president of the Awami National Party (the party with a majority in the North West Frontier Province, where Swat is located) was kidnapped and killed. Maulana Fazlullah, an influential Taliban spokesman, issued death threats over his pirate radio station that broadcasts throughout the valley, naming 40 politicians, who have mostly fled the valley.

Fazlullah warned of an army of suicide bombers to attack the Pakistani state if military operations continue, something that could find Zardari back-pedalling to the government’s position last May, when Asif handed over the valley to the Taliban to enforce their version of sharia law in return for a ceasefire. The Taliban then got organised, set up parallel courts and a brutal police force that has turned Swat into Kabul circa 2001. The spokesman for the military Major General Athar Abbas still blames the Taliban for flubbing up the May ceasefire. Those pesky Talibans, they always surprise you!

This inability to promptly drive the radicals out of Swat is reminiscent of Musharraf’s sluggish six-day siege of the Red Mosque. The militants began like those in Swat, with warnings against “un-Islamic” activities such as vending DVDs or being dressed inappropriately. In Islamabad’s case, the veiled and stick-wielding Jamia Hafza threatened transgressors with violence. Then they occupied a library, issuing edicts and promising suicide bombing. The government then waited for the group, which included many misguided teenage religious students, to set up a fortress in Lal Masjid, which had been stockpiled with weapons since the 80s by its imam, Maulana Abdul Aziz. When the siege was one day in, the country went into mourning. Musharraf’s drawn out Operation Silence gave the media ample time to project the human interest angle of a mosque filled with misguided religious students under fire. If the Swat operation continues to be as fumbling, with the 12,000 troops deployed there continuing to accrue their civilian death count in search of 3,000 fanatics, the Zardari government will be disgraced as Musharraf was. And a war of sentiments is what the fanatics are waging.

The public has not protested Swat yet. The only people who have protested are residents of Swat when children there were killed in crossfire and police opened fire on them. In place of the Taliban in Swat, people in every district of Lahore have protested the Israeli assault on Gaza. Shortly after Gaza was struck, the sectarian Imamia Students Organisation held a 3,000-strong protest down Mall Road, with posters of Hezbollah and Nasrullah on proud display. Some time last week, heavily made-up and westernised college students became a common sight at pro-Palestinian demonstrations, which were taking place multiple times a day. It seems popular to pick up Palestine the way Darfour became the issue of choice for university students three years ago.

After the government took control of Jamat-ud-Dawa’s school system in Muridke, the charity office they ran in Lahore was replaced. The new name for what was the Dawa office is Tehreek-e-Tahafouz-e-Qibla-Awal, and instead of collecting donations for Pakistani mujahideen they are asking for money for Gaza. Ostensibly, the office is run by the same people. Somehow Gaza remains a more passionate issue than Swat, which has yet to see any aid offered to its residents. Why are Pakistanis turning a blind eye? Is it because those who are killing Muslims in Swat claim to be Muslims themselves? Or is it because Lahoris are scared to speak up because they’re scared of being blown up?

If it’s the fear of being blown up that decides what Pakistanis do, then they can expect to do a lot less in the future. Bombs recently blew up outside al-Falah cinema, where Punjabi stage shows are held on Lahore’s Mall Road. Before that, the World Performing Arts Festival, three juice stalls and the only Punjabi-language radio station were hit by bombs. And don’t think Lahore, or any city in Pakistan, can’t be host to a Lal Masjid-esque debacle. In October, CD and DVD vendors in the main electronics market on Hall Road already enforced a ban on the sale of “inappropriate CDs” in accordance with an edict sent from local Islamists.

Lahore isn’t any less likely a target for the Taliban than Swat is. Maulana Fazlullah has already promised a new army of suicide bombers – words it looks like he will make good on. Lahoris need to speak out on behalf of Swatis living under the Taliban because they may need someone to speak out for themselves soon.

* guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2009

Arming journalists — a strange idea

This is from RT news. Journalists who are armed? In Russia perhaps it is conceivable.

Pen and sword: is it time to arm journalists? January 22, 2009, 19:18

The co-owner of a leading independent newspaper in Russia is considering asking the authorities to provide guns for his journalists. It follows the assassination of a Novaya Gazeta reporter by an unknown man on Monday.

Aleksandr Lebedev said on Thursday that his employees at the paper need to be armed for personal security, since ‘the FSB cannot protect them’.

He added that he is considering sending a letter to the Security Services asking them to provide small arms for the journalists, even though a similar request was earlier denied.

The sale of guns is strictly regulated in Russia. But some people, like State Duma deputies, are allowed to carry personal weapons to protect themselves.

Lebedev’s comment comes after Anastasiya Baburova, a journalist who worked for Novaya Gazeta, was killed by an unknown assassin along with the prominent lawyer Stanislav Markelov.

The double murder took place in a small street in central Moscow. Investigators said they had neither eyewitness to the attack nor a clear picture of the suspect.

Meanwhile, a Russian tabloid has published a CCTV image from a security camera at a metro station close to the scene of the shooting. The paper claims it shows the alleged assassin after he shot the pair.

The authorities have yet to comment on the publication of the photograph.

However, Russia’s “For Human Rights” organization says the image has all the hallmarks of a ‘leak’. One of the group’s leaders, Lev Ponomarev, says it’s still unclear whether the CCTV image was leaked for cash, or whether the leak was authorized from above, “aimed at saving the murderer”.

Uncovering the Deep State in Turkey

Many of us tend to look at Turkey as a progressive state that exemplifies what a society can become in the Middle East and Central Asia. Pakistan in some ways has modeled itself after Turkey. But there has always been an underside to Turkey in the sense that the military was a stabilizing force in Turkey’s affairs. But recent inquiries into an apparent attempted coup by “progressives” is uncovering the work of the “Deep State,” which is here defined as “a shadowy zone where state interests intersect with lawless and corrupt elements of the bureaucracy, military and the security establishment.” So there may be “a criminal apparatus within the state.” That such an inquiry is taking place reveals how truly progressive Turkey is, however — who would imagine it taking place in Egypt or Syria or Jordan or Saudi Arabia? EurasiaNet published this article today. [Click on the title for a link.]

Civil Society:
Yigal Schleifer: 1/22/09

An investigation into an alleged plot by secularist ultranationalists to overthrow the Turkish government has deepened with the recent arrest of senior military officers and the discovery of several weapons caches. At the same time, there is growing concern that the probe could lead to increased tension between the government and Turkey’s powerful military, as well as that the investigation — aimed at tackling long-standing anti-democratic forces in Turkish politics — is becoming dangerously politicized.

“You have to take [the investigation] very seriously and you have to be afraid of it,” says Andrew Finkel, a columnist with the English-language newspaper Today’s Zaman.

“This is an attempt to dismantle the unelected authority in the Turkish state, which has been responsible for militarism and a whole raft of serious anti-democratic practices. And, it seems like what is also happening is that the government is literally disarming its opponents.”

“This is a search for justice and it’s a search for power, and it doesn’t mean you can’t do one without the other,” he adds.

In an effort to ease the tension, Turkish President Abdullah Gul gathered on January 21 with top officials from the executive, legislative and judiciary branches for a lunch meeting. After the meeting, Gul released a statement calling for the country’s institutions to pay close attention to legal procedure in the case. “A rigorous attachment to the supremacy of law and its basic principles and maximum attention to procedural laws will make Turkey stronger and will consolidate the public’s trust,” the statement said.

The investigation into the coup plot, commonly known as “Ergenekon,” has already resulted in the arrest of some 130 people, among them retired four-star generals and prominent politicians, journalists and academics. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. According to an indictment, the plotters were hoping to bring down the Islamist-rooted Justice and Development Party (AKP) by sowing enough chaos, through terror attacks and high-level assassinations, that the military would be forced to intervene.

In recent weeks, following sketches found in the homes of some of the suspects, police have uncovered two weapons caches buried on the outskirts of Ankara. Among the weapons were hand grenades, plastic explosives and ammunition.

For many Turks, the investigation and the arrests — particularly of high-level military personnel — offer a chance to expose and unravel some of the work of the “Deep State,” a phrase used to describe a shadowy zone where state interests intersect with lawless and corrupt elements of the bureaucracy, military and the security establishment.

“I think this is a historic case. This is a good chance for Turkish political system to put a stop to military interventions and to clean its ranks of these illegal affiliations between state authorities and gangsters and mafia types,” says Sahin Alpay, a professor of political science at Istanbul’s Bahcesehir University.

But the case, launched in June 2007 after grenades were found in the Istanbul home of a retired military officer, is also creating new tensions between the AKP and the military, which sees itself as the ultimate guardian of Turkey’s secular tradition and which has forced out of power four governments in the past.

The recent arrest of three retired generals and nine active officers led to the armed forces chief General Ilker Basbug to call on Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a surprise meeting. The military also recently released a statement warning Turkey’s media not to “declare people and institutions guilty without trial.”

“From now on, responsible authorities and good-sensed media must fulfill their duties and take necessary measures, instead of using only rhetoric,” the statement added.

Other parts of Turkey’s secularist establishment, including the judiciary, are also crying foul, asserting that the government is using the Ergenekon investigation to take revenge against its political opponents. “We are witnessing a confrontation against the Republic’s core values,” Deniz Baykal, leader of main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) said at a press conference earlier in January.

Meanwhile, Turkey’s Judges and Prosecutors Association (YARSAV) and the Istanbul bar association have also strongly criticized the way investigation is being handled. “We are concerned about the rule of law (in Turkey), as these people [suspects] were detained . . . in a way that could be assessed as revenge,” Muammer Aydin, head of the Istanbul Bar, recently said.

But criticism of the case has not been limited to hard-line secularists. The large number of arrests, which include some of the AKP’s most vocal critics, and the dubious nature of the some of the evidence in the investigation, has some observers asking if the Ergenekon case has become tainted by politics.

Says Gareth Jenkins, a military analyst based in Istanbul: “[The Ergenekon investigation] started as a kernel of truth, but the AKP has seized on this as an opportunity to undermine the military and its secularist opponents. . . . With every step of the way it has become more politicized and anti-democratic.”

“If the prosecution continues as we seen it, we can have an extremely dangerous situation,” Jenkins adds. “You now have extreme distrust between the government and the military. What we don’t want is a situation where the military believes the government is out to get it.”

Government officials have rejected claims that the probe has gone off track, saying its critics are simply not accustomed to seeing the rule of law extend to what had previously been untouchable figures.

Still, observers say that the enormity and importance of the case requires the government to move carefully. “There really needs to be a scrupulous investigation. Everything has to be done by the book and in the right way,” says Emma Sinclair-Webb, a Turkey researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“On the other hand, you can’t just caricature this whole process as simply being about a power struggle,” she says. “It’s just too important of a chance for Turkey to grapple with a very dark history and get rid of a criminal apparatus within the state.”

Editor’s Note: Yigal Schleifer is a freelance journalist based in Istanbul.

A letter from the grave: The cost of revealing affairs as one finds them.

Steve Coll has just published in the New Yorker a notice of the assassination of a journalist in Sri Lanka, Lasantha Wickramatunga. Coll reproduces in full the letter written by Wickramatunga for publication in case he is assassinated.
What this report reminds us of is how precious authentic information is. We take journalists for granted and often we don’t like them because they don’t cover a story the way we think they should or that reveals details that offend. But journalism is one of the enduring great ministries to the world, a service and if done right, in a society like Sri Lanka’s and many other societies, a dangerous even sacrificial ministry.
We can give thanks for the zeal of this faithful public servant, who sought as he best knew how to tell the story as he found it. We grieve with and for all those who were close to him and who have lost someone they knew and loved. But we need to grieve for ourselves also because we cannot estimate how much might have been revealed if Wickramatunga had lived.
So how valuable is an authentic report in a society at war? How valuable is a story told among folks who cannot bear for it to be revealed?
I deliberately avoid here the word “truth” in order to recognize how problematic all reports are in a complex world — but when one’s life is at stake in the telling of a story, that story has to be considered precious beyond reckoning. [Click on the title above to link to the source.]

New Yorker January 12, 2009
Steve Coll: Letter from the Grave

Last Thursday, Lasantha Wickramatunga, who was fifty-two years old and the editor of a Sri Lankan newspaper called the Sunday Leader, was assassinated on his way to work by two gunmen riding motorcycles. The Leader’s investigative reporting had been fiercely critical of the government and of the conduct of its war against Tamil separatists; Wickramatunga had been attacked before. He knew that he was likely to be murdered and so he wrote an essay with instructions that it be published only after his own death. Some mutual friends in the region sent a copy to me today. Read it in full below. It is like nothing else you will read today, that I promise.

A very brief bit of context: Sri Lanka’s government, drawing support from the island’s Sinhalese ethnic majority, has been at war since the nineteen-eighties with various militant separatist groups representing the country’s Tamil ethnic minority. In recent years, the war has narrowed to a contest between government troops and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a group designated as a terrorist organization by the United States and others. The L.T.T.E. purports to speak for the aspirations of Tamil civilians, but it has conducted its campaign with child soldiers, suicide bombers, and other horrors. For its part, the Sri Lankan government has arranged for the disappearance and murder of uncounted numbers of Tamils, just as it “disappeared” and murdered thousands of its own Sinhalese citizens during an earlier period of counterinsurgency.

The country’s current president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is referred to in Wickramatunga’s essay, came to power emphasizing human rights and reform but has more recently pursued a military solution to his L.T.T.E. problem. Sri Lankan troops have lately marched deep into Tamil territory under a heavy veil of media censorship. Local journalists have been accused of disloyalty to the war, which has inspired or created a pretext for attacks against them and their offices. Wickramatunga believed that he would be killed, and the Sri Lankan government would be responsible for his murder.

According to media reports from Sri Lanka, the government has condemned Wickramatunga’s murder and ordered an investigation. Sri Lankan journalists and others today staged a silent march in Colombo, the capital, to protest his killing. Reporters Without Borders, a Paris-based group devoted to protecting journalists, issued a statement about Wickramatunga’s murder that said, “President Mahinda Rajapaksa, his associates and the government media are directly to blame because they incited hatred against him and allowed an outrageous level of impunity to develop as regards violence against the press.”

Here is his essay:

No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honor to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.

I have been in the business of journalism a good long time. Indeed, 2009 will be The Sunday Leader’s 15th year. Many things have changed in Sri Lanka during that time, and it does not need me to tell you that the greater part of that change has been for the worse. We find ourselves in the midst of a civil war ruthlessly prosecuted by protagonists whose bloodlust knows no bounds. Terror, whether perpetrated by terrorists or the state, has become the order of the day. Indeed, murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty. Today it is the journalists, tomorrow it will be the judges. For neither group have the risks ever been higher or the stakes lower.

Why then do we do it? I often wonder that. After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. I too have responsibilities and obligations that transcend my profession, be it the law or journalism. Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it is not. Friends tell me to revert to the bar, and goodness knows it offers a better and safer livelihood. Others, including political leaders on both sides, have at various times sought to induce me to take to politics, going so far as to offer me ministries of my choice. Diplomats, recognizing the risk journalists face in Sri Lanka, have offered me safe passage and the right of residence in their countries. Whatever else I may have been stuck for, I have not been stuck for choice.

But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.

The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 15 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning. Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognize that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are and not what we would like them to be. And democratic… well, if you need me to explain why that is important, you’d best stop buying this paper.

The Sunday Leader has never sought safety by unquestioningly articulating the majority view. Let’s face it, that is the way to sell newspapers. On the contrary, as our opinion pieces over the years amply demonstrate, we often voice ideas that many people find distasteful. For example, we have consistently espoused the view that while separatist terrorism must be eradicated, it is more important to address the root causes of terrorism, and urged government to view Sri Lanka’s ethnic strife in the context of history and not through the telescope of terrorism. We have also agitated against state terrorism in the so-called war against terror, and made no secret of our horror that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world routinely to bomb its own citizens. For these views we have been labeled traitors, and if this be treachery, we wear that label proudly.

Many people suspect that The Sunday Leader has a political agenda: it does not. If we appear more critical of the government than of the opposition it is only because we believe that – pray excuse cricketing argot – there is no point in bowling to the fielding side. Remember that for the few years of our existence in which the UNP was in office, we proved to be the biggest thorn in its flesh, exposing excess and corruption wherever it occurred. Indeed, the steady stream of embarrassing exposes we published may well have served to precipitate the downfall of that government.

Neither should our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the Tigers. The LTTE are among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organizations ever to have infested the planet. There is no gainsaying that it must be eradicated. But to do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting them mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dhamma is forever called into question by this savagery, much of which is unknown to the public because of censorship.

What is more, a military occupation of the country’s north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering “development” and “reconstruction” on them in the post-war era. The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will also have an even more bitter and hateful Diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity. If I seem angry and frustrated, it is only because most of my countrymen – and all of the government – cannot see this writing so plainly on the wall.

It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended. In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.

The irony in this is that, unknown to most of the public, Mahinda and I have been friends for more than a quarter century. Indeed, I suspect that I am one of the few people remaining who routinely addresses him by his first name and uses the familiar Sinhala address oya when talking to him. Although I do not attend the meetings he periodically holds for newspaper editors, hardly a month passes when we do not meet, privately or with a few close friends present, late at night at President’s House. There we swap yarns, discuss politics and joke about the good old days. A few remarks to him would therefore be in order here.

Mahinda, when you finally fought your way to the SLFP presidential nomination in 2005, nowhere were you welcomed more warmly than in this column. Indeed, we broke with a decade of tradition by referring to you throughout by your first name. So well known were your commitments to human rights and liberal values that we ushered you in like a breath of fresh air. Then, through an act of folly, you got yourself involved in the Helping Hambantota scandal. It was after a lot of soul-searching that we broke the story, at the same time urging you to return the money. By the time you did so several weeks later, a great blow had been struck to your reputation. It is one you are still trying to live down.

You have told me yourself that you were not greedy for the presidency. You did not have to hanker after it: it fell into your lap. You have told me that your sons are your greatest joy, and that you love spending time with them, leaving your brothers to operate the machinery of state. Now, it is clear to all who will see that that machinery has operated so well that my sons and daughter do not themselves have a father.

In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too, depends on it.

Sadly, for all the dreams you had for our country in your younger days, in just three years you have reduced it to rubble. In the name of patriotism you have trampled on human rights, nurtured unbridled corruption and squandered public money like no other President before you. Indeed, your conduct has been like a small child suddenly let loose in a toyshop. That analogy is perhaps inapt because no child could have caused so much blood to be spilled on this land as you have, or trampled on the rights of its citizens as you do. Although you are now so drunk with power that you cannot see it, you will come to regret your sons having so rich an inheritance of blood. It can only bring tragedy. As for me, it is with a clear conscience that I go to meet my Maker. I wish, when your time finally comes, you could do the same. I wish.

As for me, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man. And I have not travelled this journey alone. Fellow journalists in other branches of the media walked with me: most of them are now dead, imprisoned without trial or exiled in far-off lands. Others walk in the shadow of death that your Presidency has cast on the freedoms for which you once fought so hard. You will never be allowed to forget that my death took place under your watch. As anguished as I know you will be, I also know that you will have no choice but to protect my killers: you will see to it that the guilty one is never convicted. You have no choice. I feel sorry for you, and Shiranthi will have a long time to spend on her knees when next she goes for Confession for it is not just her owns sins which she must confess, but those of her extended family that keeps you in office.

As for the readers of The Sunday Leader, what can I say but Thank You for supporting our mission. We have espoused unpopular causes, stood up for those too feeble to stand up for themselves, locked horns with the high and mighty so swollen with power that they have forgotten their roots, exposed corruption and the waste of your hard-earned tax rupees, and made sure that whatever the propaganda of the day, you were allowed to hear a contrary view. For this I – and my family – have now paid the price that I have long known I will one day have to pay. I am – and have always been – ready for that. I have done nothing to prevent this outcome: no security, no precautions. I want my murderer to know that I am not a coward like he is, hiding behind human shields while condemning thousands of innocents to death. What am I among so many? It has long been written that my life would be taken, and by whom. All that remains to be written is when.

That The Sunday Leader will continue fighting the good fight, too, is written. For I did not fight this fight alone. Many more of us have to be – and will be – killed before The Leader is laid to rest. I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts. Indeed, I hope that it will help galvanise forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland. I also hope it will open the eyes of your President to the fact that however many are slaughtered in the name of patriotism, the human spirit will endure and flourish. Not all the Rajapakses combined can kill that.

People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted. An example that has inspired me throughout my career in journalism has been that of the German theologian, Martin Niemoller. In his youth he was an anti-Semite and an admirer of Hitler. As Nazism took hold in Germany, however, he saw Nazism for what it was: it was not just the Jews Hitler sought to extirpate, it was just about anyone with an alternate point of view. Niemoller spoke out, and for his trouble was incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945, and very nearly executed. While incarcerated, Niem0ller wrote a poem that, from the first time I read it in my teenage years, stuck hauntingly in my mind:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

If you remember nothing else, remember this: The Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled. Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed. Do not take that commitment for granted. Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried.

McClatchy: Kabul residents have more fear of gangs than of Taliban

McClatchy Newspapers: [Wednesday, December 17, 2008] are reporting that the real fear in Kabul is of kidnapping gangs.

by Nancy Youssef / MCT

Dr. Najib Ismat, 40, a cardiologist shown here with his family, suspects relatives pointed him out to a gang of kidnappers in Afghanistan. “Perhaps they received a small share of the ransom,” he said.

By Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
KABUL, Afghanistan — Ghulam Farooq Hussainkhel lives on the outskirts of the Afghan capital in the latest district to fall under Taliban influence. A teacher, Hussainkhel moved last year from a neighboring district after surviving three Taliban assassination attempts for opening two girls’ schools.
Taliban forces now occupy positions just five miles away from his home in Charasayab and terrorize his neighbors at night with demands that they house and feed their forces.
Hussainkhel, 53, fears they could one day force him to close the school system he now runs in the modest suburb south of Kabul, a one-street town at the base of the Hindu Kush mountain range. The Taliban, however, isn’t the biggest security threat, he said. It’s the criminal gangs who roam the capital, kidnapping middle-class citizens for ransom.
“Ordinary citizens are more afraid of the criminals than the Taliban. It takes a long time before the Taliban and the Islamic Party can control an area. But the criminal groups can move in right away. They want to harass the educated people,” said Hussainkhel, who has been a teacher for 31 years.
Kabul’s growing crime problem is more than a security issue — it’s a sign of a failing government. If government security forces — whom many charge with complicity in the crime wave — can’t protect the populace from thugs, how can they protect remote parts of the country from an increasingly armed, financed and organized Taliban, residents say. More U.S. troops around the capital may not be the answer.
Residents have lived under Taliban control before and they know how to measure its influence, they said. They can cut deals. Criminal gangs roaming the streets, however, are new.
Independent observers said that there have been roughly 200 kidnappings here so far this year, but that’s a fraction of the real total, since most go unreported. Some kidnappings are linked to the Taliban, the ransom financing their forces or arming their men.
“The kidnapping has helped finance the Taliban and at the same time damages the credibility of the government,” said Fazlullah Mujadidi, a member of parliament who represents Logar province, which borders Kabul and where the Taliban has made some of its biggest gains.
The Afghan government, however, refuses to admit there’s a problem. Gen. Alishah Pakteawal, the director of criminal investigations for the Kabul police, has been the target of several assassination attempts, including a botched poisoning by a suspected criminal gang. And in the past three years, at least seven of his bodyguards have been killed in bombings and shootings aimed at him in what most suspect are attacks by gangs.
According to Pakteawal’s statistics, only 10 people were kidnapped in Kabul in the first nine months of the year, eight of them released thanks to his police officers.
He scoffs at claims of police corruption and minimizes the fact businessmen in Kabul often walk only with armed bodyguards: “So what?” he said. “In every country, businessmen travel with guards.”
Pakteawal himself relies on private guards for protection — none in a police uniform: “Trust me, the police are getting better,” he said. “The people should trust them.”
However, frustration is growing and complaints are multiplying about a government that seems increasingly incompetent. Water pressure levels are at their lowest levels in years, electricity is down to a couple of hours a day and the lines of people outside the Iranian and Indian embassies desperate for visas are growing daily.
More barricades are going up around Kabul, most recently in front of the ministry of Culture and Information following a recent attack.
The U.S. plans to add 3,500 more troops to Logar and Wardak provinces on Kabul’s southern border, where the Taliban’s influence has soared in the last two years. Residents, however, said the security situation has worsened as the number of forces here has ballooned since the 2001 invasion. That year, the U.S. had roughly 2,500 troops here. In 2005, there were 17,800 and now there are nearly 32,000. In all, there are 60,000 international troops here.
The additional 3,500 “helps somehow but not enough to make a change,” said Abbas Noyan, a member of parliament who represents Kabul province. More troops won’t prosecute gangs, drug dealers and end rampant corruption, he said.
Few trust the police. Hussainkhel, the teacher, for example, didn’t contact police after someone threw an explosive device at his house in the first attempt on his life. When Taliban members planted another device on the route to his job, however, he reached out to Italian forces stationed nearby. He said they told him they couldn’t do anything for him, so he moved.
“My personal view is that if more foreign soldiers are deployed here, that will not be very effective. They should move the forces to the border and stop Taliban from entering,” he said.
At the root of the problem is that the Taliban and gangs can pay the Afghan police and army better than the Afghan government, though 40 percent of its budget comes from foreign aid. The average $100 monthly salary paid the Afghan army and police won’t support their families, but they can earn extra pay by facilitating kidnappings or smuggling ammunition to Taliban fighters or criminal gangs, parliament members said.
Dr. Najib Ismat, 40, a cardiologist, was driving home from his clinic on an August evening when a car veered in front of him. Four armed men jumped out and grabbed him, blindfolded him, stabbed him in the stomach and drove off with him. Ismat said police officers at a nearby checkpoint saw the men grab him but did nothing.
“I told the kidnappers I am only a doctor, and I run a clinic. I am not a big business man. They told me that they paid a lot of money at the police checkpoints to get me, and they were going to get something in return for it.” His family eventually paid a $150,000 ransom, and he was released after 19 days.
He suspects that relatives pointed him out to the gang. “Perhaps they received a small share of the ransom,” he said.
After he was released, a neighbor’s boy was snatched because his father is a businessman, he said. Another man was killed for his taxi. “These are not political kidnappings. This is for money. There is no security. What will 3,000 troops do?”
Ismat still runs his clinic but is training new doctors in the hopes he will one day get a visa to another country.
“Every moment I am there, I am terrified,” he said.
Residents in some parts of Afghanistan said they’re desperate for more troops, especially American troops. And U.S. military officials here are quietly just as frustrated as the Afghans.
“We are not moving fast enough for anyone, not the Afghans, not for Americans. It is frustrating,” said a senior military officer who asked for anonymity to speak candidly.
Retired Lt. Col. John Nagl, who helped craft the military’s new counterinsurgency doctrine for Iraq with then-commander Gen. David Petraeus, has pushed for more troops in Afghanistan, saying that American forces “can be a bridge” until the Afghan forces can stand for themselves. Nagl, a veteran of the Persian Gulf and Iraq wars, said that while he understands Afghans’ frustrations, more troops can help the deteriorating security situation.
The Taliban and criminal gangs are “taking advantage of the security vacuum. If there weren’t a security vacuum, they couldn’t move. This is why more troops matter,” Nagl said.

The Really Bad Apples were at the top

We are all reeling from the news that many in high places have swindled the public. But I am still grieving over the last great swindle, perhaps the greatest in American history, that betrayed America’s stated values and took the lives of thousands of faithful American warriors, all for a lie that was repeated over and over again.

Most of us, I suppose, who were alarmed about the invasion of Iraq without reasonable cause felt so helpless at the time. I at least felt betrayed by my duly elected government. Now the reality of the abuse of power and the misrepresentations of the truth that were promoted in order to justify it are coming out. But I fear that the public may not be able to hear it. Other news occupies the front pages.

The report issued yesterday by the Senate Armed Services committee at least stated for all to see that the lie, having been put into place, had many ramifications. Now Donald Rumsfeld is named for authorizing torture in the report produced by Carl Levin and John McCain on behalf of the Senate; the report is described as “the most thorough review by Congress to date of the origins of the abuse of prisoners in American military custody.”

Note that the report “explicitly rejects the Bush administration’s contention that tough interrogation methods have helped keep the country and its troops safe.”
“The report also rejected previous claims by Mr. Rumsfeld and others that Defense Department policies played no role in the harsh treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib in late 2003 and in other episodes of abuse.”

It says that the abuse of prisoners “grew out of interrogation policies approved by Mr. Rumsfeld and other top officials.”

In a sense, this is not news, as several publications by troopers on the ground made it clear that they were expected to torture prisoners (See, for example, Tony Lagouranis and Allen Mikaelian. 2007. Fear Up Harsh: An Army Interrogator’s Dark Journey Through Iraq. New York: New American Library). Those practices in the American military reveal what the military was encouraged to do. The American military is a well trained highly disciplined machine. That such things were taking place indicates that they were known and approved by higher ups. That those same officials denied that they had approved of torture was a betrayal of those under their authority. For them to claim that it was done by merely a few “bad apples” when these soldiers had been given orders to torture was a cowardly escape. It was a way that those in power could absolve themselves while getting things done their way. Pinochet and his generals who absolved themselves of all crimes in Chile was hardly worse.

Such a betrayal can break morale and discipline in an army that has has been trained faithfully to fulfill orders. Those young people who went to jail or were discharged dishonorably for obeying orders were betrayed by their own government. It is the yokels at the top who should have gone to jail. Rumsfeld was named here, but could he have given such orders without higher authority?

How much higher could the culpability go?