Thursday, January 31, 2008

Kambakhsh Update

Further details have emerged in the case of Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh, the Afghan journalism student sentenced to death for blasphemy. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR) quotes Kambakhsh testifying that he was coerced into confessing to his "crime":

“I was held in a small room which was very dirty,” he told IWPR. “I was held in that room for eight days, and the security guys were constantly coming to see me. They interrogated me several times a day, and told me they were going to hang me. They told me to prepare myself for death.

“I had no contact with my family, and I was under a lot of psychological pressure. On the eighth day, the NDS officer came with a piece of paper in his hand. He told me to write that I had downloaded the document from the internet and that I had added several sentences to it. They told me that if I wrote this, they would release me.”

Kambakhsh's uncle, Sayed Yasin Peroz, has also gone on the record as saying that the trial was rigged against his nephew.

Kambakhsh's brother, Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, is a journalist who works for IWPR. He is convinced that this case was brought as punishment for his candid reporting on the abuses of local warlords. According to IWPR, his suspicions are more than justified:

Rahimullah Samander, head of the Afghan Independent Journalists’ Association, corroborates Ibrahimi’s assessment.

“When [Kaambakhsh] was arrested, IWPR’s offices in Mazar were searched by the NDS, and [Ibrahimi’s] notebooks were taken, which contained contact numbers for the sources in his stories,” he said. “This clearly indicates that the government’s problem was with Yaqub Ibrahimi, not with Parwez Kaambakhsh. But they could not arrest Yaqub. This was a good way of pressuring Yaqub and his family.”

If additional proof were needed, added Samander, one need only consider the position taken by religious scholars around the country. The Ulema or clerical councils of Balkh and Kunduz provinces have issued condemnations of Kaambakhsh. Others have remained silent.

“Why have only the Ulema in Balkh and Kunduz been provoked?” he asked. “It is all due to jihadi [faction] connections. The judges and the prosecutors of Balkh all belong to a specific party, and the administration up there is a dictatorship that abuses its religious and governmental power.”

Unfortunately, the central government of President Hamid Karzai is still too weak to rein in the local authorities in places like Balkh. The only answer is to mount enough external pressure to force Karzai to intervene on Kambakhsh's behalf. The Committee to Protect Journalists has already issued an open letter asking him to ensure that the appeals process remains "free of influences outside the jurisdiction of the courts." An even more encouraging sign was a small demonstration in Kabul demanding that Kambakhsh be freed.

In stark contrast to such positive developments, Afghanistan's senate has released a statement supporting Kambakhsh's death sentence and condemning internal and external critics of his prosecution. Still, as IWPR points out, it seems that few officials are truly eager to see the sentence carried out. This offers some cause for hope.

There is, of course, one major exception to this reluctance:

About the only ones calling for Kaambakhsh’s death are the Taleban, who carried a virulent attack on the young man on their website,

Condemning Kaambakhsh’s “dirty statement,” the Taleban called on “jihadi and brave Afghans to administer severe chastisement to the perpetrator of this action.”

Marines Not Wanted in Berkeley

Free speech is under threat in a certain town in California. By an 8-1 vote, the city council has decided to align itself with a private effort to force an organization espousing unpopular views to leave the community. The city in question is Berkeley and the group they are seeking to drive from the community is the United States Marine Corps.

The Contra Costa Times provides the details:

Hey-hey, ho-ho, the Marines in Berkeley have got to go.

That's the message from the Berkeley City Council, which voted 8-1 Tuesday night to tell the U.S. Marines that its Shattuck Avenue recruiting station "is not welcome in the city, and if recruiters choose to stay, they do so as uninvited and unwelcome intruders."

In addition, the council voted to explore enforcing its law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation against the Marines because of the military's don't ask, don't tell policy. And it officially encouraged the women's peace group Code Pink to impede the work of the Marines in the city by protesting in front of the station.

In a separate item, the council voted 8-1 to give Code Pink a designated parking space in front of the recruiting station once a week for six months and a free sound permit for protesting once a week from noon to 4 p.m.

For a "peace" group, Code Pink shows little qualm about inflicting collateral damage:

Even though the council items passed, not everyone is happy with the work of Code Pink. Some employees and owners of businesses near the Marines office have had enough of the group and its protests.

"My husband's business is right upstairs, and this (protesting) is bordering on harassment," Dori Schmidt told the council. "I hope this stops."

An employee of a nearby business who asked not to be identified said Wednesday the elderly Code Pink protesters are aggressive, take up parking spaces, block the sidewalk with their yoga moves, smoke in the doorways, and are noisy.

"Most of the people around here think they're a joke," the woman said.

"Most of the people" are right. Obstructing the sidewalk with yoga? What can I possibly say to make that sound any more ridiculous than it already does?

Unfortunately, what is not a joke is the willingness of Code Pink to claim the right to deny free expression to others in the name of a higher morality. As one of their members puts it:

"This is very serious," Rachel said. "This isn't a game; it's mass murder. There's a sickness of silence of people not speaking out against the war. We have to do this."

"Mass murder"? No, "mass murder" is what will ensue if Code Pink gets its way and the forces of jihadist barbarism are allowed to roam unchallenged in Iraq, Afghanistan and who knows where else. Still, this is America. If the members of Code Pink really want to metaphorically drop trou and relieve themselves on those who risk their lives to defend our freedom, that is their right. What is not acceptable is the Berkeley City Council choosing to give official sanction to their efforts.

As the lone dissenting voice in council noted (and dissent is patriotic, after all), the city government has chosen to not only take sides in a public debate, but to openly assist one side in trying to silence their opponents. This has disturbing free speech implications.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Censoring the Cairo Book Fair

The annual Cairo Book Fair is the largest literary festival in the Arab world. Sadly, one of the traditional features of this event is the willingness of Egyptian authorities to ban certain works from being offered. While secular books are frequently banned from the festival, Islamist texts and a charming little volume called Mein Kampf are prominently displayed.

It appears that this year's Cairo Book Fair will be no exception, as Agence France Presse reports:

Egypt has banned a number of Western and secular books from the 40th Cairo International Book Fair, including works by Czech author Milan Kundera and Morocco's Mohamed Choukri, publishers said on Monday.


"The Egyptian authorities have given no explanation, we were neither informed nor consulted about this measure and the books have not been returned to us," said Rana Idriss, director of Lebanese publishing house Dar al-Adab.

She said that four works by Kundera, including "The Unbearable Lightness of Being" and "The Book of Laughter and Forgetting," were barred from the fair.

Germany's Al-Jamal publishers said the authorities had seized copies of Moroccan author Mohamed Choukri's autobiographical "For Bread Alone" which contains references to teenage sex and drug use and is banned in several Arab countries.

The taboo-busting "Love in Saudi Arabia" by young novelist Ibrahim Badi has also been banned, along with "Women of Sand and Myrrh" by Lebanon's Hanan al-Sheikh.

The story deals with the position of women in the Gulf and mentions homosexuality.

Elias Khoury, a renowned Lebanese writer who describes himself as atheist, secular and left-wing, had his "As If She Were Sleeping" seized.

It is a telling commentary on the dismal state of intellectual freedom in the Middle East that the region's major book fair is subject to official censorship.

Friday, January 25, 2008

A Petition for Cuban Dissidents

Barbara Dillon Hillas, an American blogger living in Poland, reports that Lech Walesa and several other prominent individuals have organized a petition drive on behalf of Cuba's imprisoned dissidents. Here is the text of the petition in English:

We are appealing to the Cuban government to free all political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Cuba. Their continued imprisonment violates the fundamental humans rights. During her own enslavement, Poland experienced a great deal of solidarity from the free nations of the world. It is our moral duty to support the pro-freedom aspirations in Cuba.

This appeal, with the list of signatories attached, shall be handed over to an officer of the Cuban Embassy in Warsaw, with a request for it to be submitted to President Fidel Castro.

Please see Dillon Hillas's post for details on this effort.

(Link via Instapundit)

Quote for the Day

Former Rolling Stone Bill Wyman, in Saturday's Times of London:

“The 15 years since I left the band have been the best years of my life. I should have been a museum curator or a librarian because I like that better than being a ‘rock star’.”

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Kambakhsh Update: "this is how Islamists deal with those who oppose them"

It appears that this week's blasphemy conviction of Afghan journalism student Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh was an effort to punish his brother, journalist Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi. The Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), Ibrahimi's employer, quotes him to this effect in their lengthy summary of the case:

Speaking about his brother’s ongoing detention in December, Yaqub told IWPR he was convinced that his brother was being targeted in reaction to his own revelations about the power of political and armed factions in the north.

In the four years that Ibrahimi has reported for IWPR on Afghanistan’s northern region, he has consistently covered issues of extreme sensitivity, such as continuing abuses by strongmen who maintain paramilitary forces and undermine the rule of law in defiance of the central government’s disarmament efforts.

At the time, he said that he had himself been repeatedly warned off controversial reporting, but that “the people who are threatening me had nothing official against me. There was nothing they could use to arrest and imprison me”.

Kambakhsh's conviction was based on his possession of an article titled "The Koranic Verses That Discriminate Against Women". He reportedly downloaded the essay from the web site of the author, an Iranian exile who writes under the pseudonym Arash Bikhoda. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty has an interview with Bikhoda:

Bikhoda, speaking to RFE/RL’s Radio Farda, confirmed that it was his website -- and his article. He also expressed sadness over what has happened and appealed to the Afghan government to ensure the death penalty is not carried out.

“But from a legal and moral point of view I don’t feel responsible,” Bikhoda says. “In the rules of my websites, it has been written that many people consider the articles blasphemous and that they might seem insulting. The publishing and use of these articles in Islamic countries is usually not in line with the laws in these countries, and it is also written that the articles contain the personal views of the authors.”

According to RFE/RL, the fact that Kambakhsh didn't actually write the article should make a difference under Islamic Sharia law. Unfortunately, the Afghan authorities who tried and convicted him don't seem to be bothered by such trivial details.

Bikhoda makes the crucial point that this case is about far more than the persecution of a single individual and transcends the specific issues involving Kambakhsh and Ibrahimi. Rather, it is yet another example of a pattern that regular readers of this blog will be very familiar with:

But while expressing concern over Kambakhsh’s fate, Bikhoda says he is also heartened to see that Afghanistan has people brave enough to express their views -- even at great personal risk. “I am happy that people such as Kambakhsh live in Afghanistan,” he says. “Now there will be more world attention on the issue of intolerance toward intellectuals in Islamic societies -- that this is how Islamists deal with those who oppose them. Instead of giving them a logical answer, out of weakness they use violence and death sentences against them.”

(Emphasis added-DD)

While Kambakhsh's blasphemy conviction may have been an act of second hand retaliation, it was both inspired and enabled by Islamism's deep seated hatred of intellectual freedom. It was also motivated by a desire to punish Kambakhsh's brother Ibrahimi for what he had written.

Bikhoda may sound a little bit blase about Kambakhsh's fate, but ultimately he is correct. He is not to blame for writing and posting his essay, nor is Kambakhsh "guilty" for reading it. Rather, the fault lies with those who believe that reading the "wrong" material is a suitable reason to condemn someone to death.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Price of Dissent in Venezuela

Thor Halvorssen has a must read piece at Pajamas Media about a recent attempt to murder a former Venezuelan judge and outspoken critic of Hugo Chavez. The attack on Judge Monica Fernandez occurred on January 4 in Caracas and is described in detail by Halvorssen. The Venezuelan police have labeled the incident a botched robbery. Halvorssen is justifiably skeptical:

Really? The night before she was shot, Judge Fernandez was the target of a television program called “La Hojilla” (The Razor) used by the government as its public pillory. It is on La Hojilla that the party faithful and the media learns who is in and who is out of Chavez’s favor. In a studio adorned with portraits of Lenin, Mao, Marx, Stalin, and Che Guevara, the program’s host, Mario Silva, attacks all of those who disagree or oppose the government’s actions. From Tony Blair to human rights groups like HRF and Freedom House, the government-funded program is ruthless. On January 4, Judge Fernandez was the mark and her image appeared as viewers were reminded that she is an enemy of the state, a coup-plotter, and a fascist.

Judge Fernandez’s troubles with the Venezuelan government began in April of 2002. A criminal court judge, she had avoided most of the politicization affecting the Venezuelan judiciary. She found herself in a political tempest after President Chavez was removed from office by his own defense minister in April of 2002. A group of civilians from the opposition carried out a coup and appointed themselves the new government. In the confusion that gripped Venezuela, Judge Fernandez received a request for a search warrant from a local prosecutor and police department. The neighbors of what was thought to be an abandoned house had reported seeing unusual activities inside the house: they told police they saw a man moving boxes, assault rifles, and bullet proof vests. Judge Fernandez issued the warrant. Inside the house, the police located Ramon Rodriguez, the Chavez government’s Minister of Justice, who had been hiding out during the coup.

Judge Fernandez did not order his arrest but rather sent him to his home with a police escort. The country was in disarray and nobody knew what would happen next. Chavez returned to power several hours later and Rodriguez subsequently resigned. Fernandez, however, was now considered an enemy of the state.

The High Price of Crossing Hugo

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Blasphemy and Barbarism

Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh, the Afghan journalism student arrested for possessing an article critical of Islam, was convicted by an Afghan court of the charge of blasphemy and sentenced to death. The Associated Press provides some background:

Kambaksh's family and the head of a journalists group denounced the verdict and said Kambaksh was not represented by a lawyer at trial. Members of a clerics council had been pushing for Kambaksh to be punished.

The case now goes to the first of two appeals courts, Wahab said. Kambaksh, who has been jailed since October, will remain in custody during appeal.

Wahab said he did not immediately have the details of the paper that Kambaksh circulated, other than that it was against Islam. Kambaksh discussed the paper with his teacher and classmates at Balkh University and several students complained to the government, Wahab said.

Kambaksh's brother, Yacoubi Brahimi, described Tuesday's proceeding as a "secret trial," saying the family did not know it had been scheduled. Some have accused Kambaksh of writing the paper in question, but Brahimi said that his brother printed it off the Internet.

The article also explains the legal basis for Kambaksh's prosecution:

Rhimullah Samandar, the head of the Kabul-based National Journalists Union of Afghanistan, said Kambaksh had been sentenced to death under Article 130 of the Afghan constitution. That article says that if no law exists regarding an issue than a court's decision should be in accord with Hanafi jurisprudence.

Hanafi is an orthodox school of Sunni Muslim jurisprudence followed in southern and central Asia.


Clerics in Balkh and Kunduz province arranged a demonstration in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif last week against Kambaksh, calling on the government not to release him.

Reporters Sans Frontieres has of course condemned this travesty and appealed to Afghan President Hamid Karzai to intervene on Kambaksh's behalf. Their statement reveals several even more disturbing details:

At a news conference yesterday, Hafizullah Khaliqyar, the deputy provincial prosecutor in charge of the case, threatened to imprison all journalists who support Kambakhsh, adding that “Kambakhsh has confessed to the crime and must be punished.”

Kambakhsh was supposedly arrested because of a controversial article commenting on verses in the Koran about women, although it has now been established that he was not the article’s author. Rahimullah Samandar, the head of the Afghanistan Independent Journalists Association, said he was in fact arrested because of articles written by his brother, Ibrahimi, criticising the provincial authorities.

Believe it or not, I actually agree with the Afghan prosecutor and judges that blasphemy was committed in this case. It's just that they are the ones who are guilty of it. A young man has been sentenced to death because of what he was reading. That is the only blasphemy here.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Syrian Author Gets Death Threats from Al Qaeda

Posted at the invaluable MEMRI blog on January 17:

Syrian writer and researcher Nabil Fayadh has announced that he will emigrate to Europe following death threats and following the posting on Al-Qaeda websites of fatwas calling for his assassination.

The threats and fatwas followed the publication of a book by Fayadh that included stories of disputes between the wife of the Prophet Muhammad, 'Aisha, and Caliph Uthman bin 'Afan Ali bin Abu Taleb.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Editor Jailed for Publishing Mohammed Cartoons

On Thursday, the editor of a weekly magazine was sentenced to three years in prison for republishing the Danish Mohammed cartoons. Which Muslim country did this occur in? None. It didn't even happen in Alberta. Instead, this travesty took place in the neo-Soviet eastern European dictatorship of Belarus.

Reporters Sans Frontieres provides the details:

Reporters Without Borders is outraged by the three-year prison sentence passed today by a court in Minsk on Alyaksandr Zdvizhkou, former deputy editor of the weekly Zhoda, for reprinting cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed that first appeared in a Danish newspaper. He was found guilty of “inciting racial hatred” under article 130 of the criminal code at the end of a trial behind closed doors.(JPEG)


Originally published in the Danish daily Jyllands-Posten in September 2005, the cartoons were reproduced by Zdvizhkou in the 18 February 2006 issue of Zhoda to illustrate an article about protest movements in the Muslim world. The issue had a print run of 3,050 copies but only 25 per cent were distributed as the editor stopped distribution as soon as he became aware of the cartoons’ inclusion.

The Belarusian KGB immediately raided the newspaper, seizing four of its computers, and judicial proceedings were initiated a few days later. Zdvizhkou, who said the measures were “politically motivated” was originally to have been tried in June 2006, but he fled the country and remained aboard. He was finally arrested on 18 November 2007 when he returned to visit his father’s grave in Barysau, near Minsk.

Why would a secular regime governing a country with only a small Muslim population care about offending Islamic sensibilities? Unfortunately, it appears that this was just a pretext to enable the regime to crackdown on an opposition media outlet. The Committee to Protect Journalists explains:

“Clearly this is just a pretext to punish an independent journalist even after shutting down his publication,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on the Belarusian authorities to immediately release Aleksandr Sdvizhkov.”

Aleksei Korol, Zgoda’s former editor-in-chief, told CPJ he was shocked by the sentence given to his former colleague. “The court ruling is disproportionate to his actions,” said Korol, whose recently established newspaper Novy Chas—Zgoda’s successor—has also been subject to government prosecution. Korol said he disagreed with Sdvizhkov’s decision to reprint the cartoons alongside the paper’s article chronicling the uproar, adding that Zgoda’s staff apologized to the Belarusian Muslim community at the time.

Belarusian Islamic leader Ismail Voronovich said he wanted authorities to reprimand the journalist, not jail him. “I thought that this case was closed and the newspaper was back working,” The Associated Press quoted Voronovich as saying today.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Responding to Reader Feedback

One of the downsides of having a blog devoted mostly to long-winded posts on esoteric topics is the lack of interesting criticism. It is a rare and glorious occasion indeed when it does happen. Fortunately, my recent post on the aspiring Afghan journalist charged with blasphemy has yielded such a response. As usual when this happens, I feel obliged to respond to the concerns expressed therein.

Let's begin:

I just stumbled upon your blog and couldn't resist sharing with you how amused I am finding you supporting freedom of expression for Afghan journalist Parwez kambakhsh. In view of your diatribes against the left or the liberals in this country.. I guess as long as the jailed journalists have spoken out against muslim doctrine and not against the US, you support their release. But, it's a start. We actually have something in common.

Well, where do I begin? First, allow me to thank you for your interesting and delightfully fact-free response. I'm pleased I could be a source of some amusement. After all, everyone knows that liberals and leftists stand unreservedly for free expression. This is why conservative speakers are so frequently invited to speak at left of center college campuses and are never harassed when they do so. Even more important, Right Wing Death Beasts like myself who dare to use our right of free expression to criticize the views of many on the Left obviously support censorship.

BTW, who are the journalists who have been imprisoned for condemning the U.S. government and where are they being held? Please return and share this information with the group.

As a member of AIUSA, I suggest you check out the work we do on behalf of people like Parwez, not because of what he rails against,but because we believe he should be able to express whatever beliefs, as long as they do incite others to using violence. I wonder if i can count on your support if next time someone there gets jailed for speaking out against the US forces private jails. or will you conveniently sweep it under the carpet as blatant lies?
And for your information, the Taleban has been heavily criticized by Amnesty International if you care to track our reports.

Yes, I've actually cited the work of Amnesty International, directly and indirectly, a number of times on this blog. I also criticized AI in 2005 when it made the morally obscene and intellectually vacuous comparison of Guantanamo Bay with the Gulag.

I was intrigued by your statement that "we believe he should be able to express whatever beliefs, as long as they do incite others to using violence." First, I assume you meant to say that you support free speech "as long as they do not incite" to violence. Which is interesting, since that's virtually similar to what I've said when arguing against efforts to ban Islamist writings here in the West. As I put it in one post: "The point of standing up to the Islamists is to defend free expression, not deny it."

See, that's something else we have in common. All you had to do to find it out was search my archives.

As for your request for support "if next time someone there gets jailed for speaking out against the US forces private jails", again, please feel free to actually point out when and where this has happened. Also, what do you mean by "private jails"? If the facts are as you describe them, I will unreservedly condemn such occurrences. Just recently, I condemned Somalia's U.S. supported transitional government for brutally cracking down on that country's independent media. Again, this is something you would already know had you simply scrolled down a few posts.


Thanks and looking forward to your response,

RSF on Imprisoned Cuban Journalists

There's nothing I can add to this press release from Reporters Sans Frontieres:

Reporters Without Borders today reiterated its call for the release of 24 detained Cuban journalists as the population prepared to vote - but not choose, as there is no choice - its representatives in national and provincial assembly elections to be held on 20 January.

In a news conference yesterday in Madrid, the press freedom organisation voiced concern about the especially alarming situation of some of the journalists held since the “Black Spring” crackdown of 18 March 2003. One of the victims of that crackdown who is now an exile in Spain, Cuba Press agency found Raúl Rivero, described the current plight of four of these journalists who are seriously ill.

The four are Normando Hernández González, the director of the Colegio de Periodistas Independientes de Camagüey (CPIC), José Luis García Paneque, the director of Libertad, a small independent news agency, and Adolfo Fernández Sainz and Ivan Hernández Carrillo of Patria, another independent news agency.

“The state of health of these four journalists, as indeed the situation of all the dissident journalists jailed in Cuba, justifies at the very least the suspension of their sentences and their release on humanitarian grounds,” Reporters Without Borders said. “If the government agreed to this, it would show a minimal respect of human rights, in which there has been no progress since Fidel Castro handed over to his brother in July 2006.”

The organisation added: “The 20 January elections should not raise any hopes. Political pluralism is not on the agenda and the only candidates that Cubans will be able to vote for are the already-designated 614 representatives of the Communist Party of Cuba, the only political party that is permitted.”

Friday, January 18, 2008

Censorship and "Human Rights" in Alberta

I'm late in getting to this, but I have to comment on the case of Ezra Levant. Levant is the former publisher of a right-wing Canadian opinion magazine named The Western Standard. When the Danish Mohammed cartoons became an issue in early 2006, the Standard republished them. In a piece for Pajamas Media, Heather Cook describes what happened next:

On the very day that the Western Standard with the infamous cartoons was being printed, Levant appeared on Calgary radio to debate Syed Soharwardy, an imam trained at an anti-Semitic Saudi university, who advocates Sharia law in Canada. The debate centered around the cartoons and all the accompanying shouldas, wouldas and couldas. Soharwardy did not know that Levant was about to publish the cartoons (a.k.a. offend Mohammed), but that did not matter. Levant was the clear winner in the debate and that offended Soharwardy, who marched down to a Calgary Police station and demanded that they arrest Levant for offending him during the debate and simply discussing the cartoons in the media.

After the officers explained that they didn’t do that in Canada, Soharwardy filed a complaint with the Alberta Human Rights Commission. The Commission is made up of individuals appointed by the government to hear human rights complaints. The commissioners are a mish-mash of lawyers, nurses, politicians, engineers, who may or may not have direct legal experience. It costs nothing to file a complaint, so Soharwardy could avail himself of it at no charge while the defendant bears the cost of his defense.

(Emphasis added-DD)

Unfortunately, Soharwardy has a record of wishing to suppress views that offend him. In addition to the complaint he filed against Levant, he also called, in the words of Niaz Salimi, for "changes in Canada's Hate Laws that would make it possible to jail writers who, in their opinion, insult or mock religious beliefs."

A week ago today, Ezra Levant was forced to appear before a representative of the AHRC to answer Soharwardy's complaint. In a now famous You Tube clip, Levant eloquently defended his right of free expression:

Levant has posted the text of his statement to his blog. The following passage is well worth quoting:

But even if the commissions had some statutory fig leaf for their attempts at political and religious censorship, it would still be unlawful and unconstitutional.

We have a heritage of free speech that we inherited from Great Britain that goes back to the year 1215 and the Magna Carta. We have a heritage of eight hundred years of British common law protection for speech, augmented by 250 years of common law in Canada.

That common law has been restated in various fundamental documents, especially since the Second World War.

In 1948, the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to which Canada is a party, declared that, quote:

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The 1960 Canadian Bill of Rights guaranteed, quote

1. “ human rights and fundamental freedoms, namely,

(c) freedom of religion; (d) freedom of speech; (e) freedom of assembly and association; and (f) freedom of the press.

In 1982, the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms guaranteed, quote:

2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:

a) freedom of conscience and religion;

b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication;

Those were even called “fundamental freedoms” – to give them extra importance.

For a government bureaucrat to call any publisher or anyone else to an interrogation to be quizzed about his political or religious expression is a violation of 800 years of common law, a Universal Declaration of Rights, a Bill of Rights and a Charter of Rights. This commission is applying Saudi values, not Canadian values.

There is something deeply disturbing about a publisher being compelled to appear before a government bureaucrat to defend his right to publish what he wants. That this is happening in a democracy is especially shameful. In a free society, the state has no business punishing people for expressing "hurtful" or "outrageous" opinions. It is frankly impossible for a society to have open and meaningful debate without someone saying something that will offend others. The idea that the state should act against those who state views that others find hurtful is anathema to the principle of free expression.

(Thanks to Harry's Place for the links, and also to a reader who emailed me about this case.)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Afghanistan's Blasphemy Law

Afghanistan today enjoys much more freedom than it did under the Taliban, but sadly the country still has a long way to go. Last October, an Afghan journalist was arrested and charged with blasphemy for distributing "anti-Islamic" literature. The young man faces the death penalty if convicted.

This press release from the Committee to Protect Journalists has the details:

The Committee to Protect Journalists is greatly concerned by the detention and upcoming trial of Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh in Mazar-i-Sharif, Balkh province, northern Afghanistan. The 23-year-old journalism student and brother of prominent journalist Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi will be tried in a religious Islamic court on charges of blasphemy, according to Rahimullah Samander, head of the Afghan Independent Journalists Association and the Committee to Protect Afghan Journalists. The court has already issued a statement recommending that Kambakhsh receive the death sentence, Samander said.

Ibrahimi, Kambakhsh’s brother, has been the focus of escalating pressure over sensitive reports he has written criticizing local officials and warlords, according to his employer, the Institute of War and Peace Reporting. It and other Afghan sources say they fear that the charges against Kambakhsh are a pretext meant to stop his brother from reporting.

“We are deeply concerned by reports that Sayed Parwez Kambakhsh is being threatened with the death penalty under Sharia law as a pretext to intimidate his brother and fellow journalist from reporting on matters that embarrass powerful political interests,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on the authorities to drop all charges against him immediately.”

Kambakhsh was arrested on October 27 for distributing what official said was anti-Islamic literature. A journalism student at Balkh University, Kambakhsh also reports for the local daily Jahan-e-Naw. He was detained by National Directorate of Security (NDS) forces after downloading and giving to friends an article that said the Prophet Mohammed ignored women’s rights, according to Samander and Reuters. He is also accused of possessing anti-Islamic books and starting un-Islamic debates in his classes. While Kambakhsh admits to circulating the article, he denies the accusations of blasphemy, which is punishable by death under Islamic law, Samander said.

(Emphasis added-DD)

Ibrahimi's employer, the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, has more on this story. Ironically, Ibrahimi co-wrote an article for IWPR published this past December, which made the case that 2007 was "the worst year so far for Afghan journalists, say media watchers":

Afghanistan’s media have enjoyed remarkable degree of freedom over the past six years, making this one of the most visible achievements of the post-Taleban era,. But increasingly, as security deteriorates and the public mood sours, media outlets are coming under pressure from government and other powerful elites.

In addition to intimidation and assault, reporters face obstruction from officials who routinely deny them access to information, in clear violation of the law.

Unfortunately, as the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has documented, this is not the first time that someone has been charged with apostasy or blasphemy in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Under the terms of that country's 2004 constitution, Islamic Sharia courts are empowered to enforce both strictures. This is nothing short of a barbarous holdover from the days of the Taliban. It literally punishes free expression with death and gives corrupt, brutal officials a tool with which to silence their critics. It is a worrisome sign of the hold that Islamist sentiments still have in that country.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Not Reading Lolita in Tehran

In a January 6 piece for The Observer, Iranian literary critic Saeed Kamali Dehghan reveals the disastrous impact that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Islamic Cultural Revolution is having on Iran's publishing industry:

There was a time when great Persian poets such as Hafez, Rumi or Khayyam were present in people's daily lives, permeating their speech even in the very rural regions, but now books scarcely figure in a country once recognised by its literature. Today, you are unlikely to see signs of literary life in Iran. Writers face immense challenges in getting their works read. Crackdowns imposed by Ahmadinejad's government have plunged publishing into crisis.

'They [the governmental authorities] have not only made the publishers stop working, but also have put writers in a situation in which they have no inclination to write,' says Mahmoud Dowlatabadi, author of the Persian 10-volume bestseller Kelydar, who refuses to give his next book to a publisher as a protest against the government's clampdown.

After the 1979 Islamic revolution, the government imposed strict rules on book publishing. Since then, the Ministry of Culture has been charged to vet all books before publication, mainly for erotic and religious transgressions. All books, including fiction, are required to conform to Islamic law.

Iranian literature showed brief signs of resurgence during the cultural thaw that took place when Mohammad Khatami became President in 1997. Khatami created a more open cultural atmosphere by allowing a huge number of books to be published. But the literary spring of Khatami's era was fleeting.

A new regime of censorship began when Ahmadinejad took office. The cultural ministry imposed rules requiring renewed permits for previously published books. As a result, many books have been deemed unsuitable for publication or reprinting.

A November 26 article from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty confirms the growing wave of book banning in Iran since Ahmadinejad became president and offers a more detailed look at the censorship process:

From the moment that Islamic Culture and Guidance Minister Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi took office in 2005, the list of prohibited books in Iran started growing.

A quick look at the books on the list confirms that there has been an increase in the intensity and recklessness of censorship in all areas.

The wide range of the banned literature includes Persian classical literature and gnosticism, a wide array of academic university books, some of the best-known world literature, and books illustrating a number of famous people from the Islamic world.

In the two years since Harrandi took office, more than 70 percent of previously published books have been banned from being republished, even though each and every one of those books had initially been given permission from the pre-Harrandi Culture Ministry to be published the first time.

The Culture Ministry's "special examiners" have made decisions on the legitimacy of books based on the country's current political atmosphere and their own political, ideological, or personal interests. But their decisions have no basis in the law.

Because of this, prohibiting the publication of officially authorized books has also become a common phenomenon.

Both articles confirm that censorship and book banning are crucial elements of Ahmadinejad's project to transform Iranian society in accord with the totalitarian Islamist vision of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Appeal for an Imprisoned Cuban Librarian

Steve Marquardt sent me the following urgent message via e-mail:

Dr. José Luis García Paneque is the director of the Carlos J. Finlay Library, which specializes in medical information. He is serving a 20-year prison term. His life is in danger as a result of a failure to
provide health care for chronic rectal bleeding and other health
problems. Dr. Garcia Paneque has been named as a prisoner of
conscience by Amnesty International, which along with other human
rights groups is calling for his immediate release.

To help save the life of Dr. García Paneque, it would be appreciated if librarians around the world would send immediate appeals on his behalf - asking for immediate provision of necessary medical care and for his release from prison as a nonviolent prisoner of conscience - to Cuba's "official" library association, known by the acronym ASCUBI, which has influence with Cuban government officials. The e-mail address of ASCUBI is: ( Please send COPIES of your message to: ( ) and (

You can also send an airmail (90 cents) letter to:
Raúl Castro Ruz, Presidente Interino
Los Consejos de Estado y de Ministros
La Habana

Dr. José Luis García Paneque received his medical degree in 1987. He is a plastic surgeon by training and a member of the unofficial Colegio Médico Independiente de Cuba, Cuban Independent Medical Association.

For his dissident activities, he was expelled in 1997 from the Ernesto Guevara hospital in Las Tunas. In 1998 he joined Libertad, an independent news agency of the Nueva Prensa Cubana project and was a member of unofficial Sociedad de Periodistas, Journalists' Society, "Manuel Marquez Sterling." In 2002, he was reportedly arrested and detained together with other journalists, but was later released.

José Luis García was detained on 18 March 2003. Following a search of
his house, materials, correspondence and medical equipment were reportedly confiscated. He was charged and tried under Law 88 and Article 91 of the Penal Code, and given a 24-year sentence, even though the prosecution had called for a lesser sentence of 18 years. He is held in the El Yayal (Cuba Sí) prison.

Dr. García Paneque's weight has dropped from 86 46 kg. (100 pounds) due to the development in prison of intestinal malabsorption syndrome, a disease that causes him to suffer from severe chronic diarrhea and continuous hemorrhagic colitis. He also suffers from severe pain in the abdomen. The Cuban government sometimes withholds
medical care from prisoners of conscience as a form of punishment.

Additional information about this case is available at:

click here

I thank you for your support for human rights and the freedom to read, and for your response to this appeal.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Shooting the Messenger in Somalia

In 2006, an Islamist movement with links to al Qaeda called the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) came to power in Somalia. After seizing control of most of the country, they began putting in place a repressive Taliban-like despotism that murdered journalists, closed radio stations and sought to prohibit any form of expression or entertainment deemed "un-Islamic".

In December 2006, a U.S. backed Ethiopian invasion deposed the ICU and restored Somalia's transitional government to power in Mogadishu. Unfortunately, the ICU was able to survive and has launched a brutal insurgency against the new regime. Unable to cope with the Islamists, the Somali transitional government has now literally resorted to shooting the messenger. An article from the January 3 Washington Times explains:

Somalia's fledgling national government has targeted reporters in an apparent bid to suppress reports of fighting between national forces and Islamic insurgents in Mogadishu, the capital.

Government forces have shut down three of the city's 10 independent radio stations and arrested scores of locally based reporters. As many as five journalists remain in detention weeks or months after their arrests.

Last month, some radio stations were permitted to transmit again, provided they submitted to government censorship. The harassment and death threats continue nonetheless.

The crackdown began in September, when armored vehicles shot up the headquarters of Radio Shabelle during a morning news meeting on the pretense that someone inside had thrown a hand grenade.

Staff members cowered in their offices for five hours, frantically trying to call the Information Ministry — which like the rest of government has fled to the relative safety of Baidoa, 150 miles north — while government troops attempted to breach the radio station's thick walls.

The attackers eventually gave up. There were no serious injuries.

A month later, the government ordered Shabelle shut down. Two other radio stations also were closed.

This brutal crackdown on the media is both vile and counterproductive. The ICU won't go away just because the media are unable to talk about them. More importantly, by crushing free expression the transitional government is showing itself to be just as brutal as the Islamists yet not as good at maintaining order. By giving Somalis a choice of either repression and chaos or repression and order, the regime is all but guaranteeing that the ICU will eventually retake control of the country.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Of Che Guevara and "Constitutional Rights"

During the holidays, I broke down and actually read Naomi Wolf's new book , The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot. Its only redeeming quality was that it was a fairly quick read. Still, that's five hours of my life I won't be getting back.

I'll be posting an excruciatingly long winded review of the book very soon. In the meantime, there is one particular aspect I wanted to address. In her essay, Wolf spends a lot of time talking about the U.S. detention facility for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. She compares the prison to a Nazi concentration camp, which exists for the sole purpose of producing "false confessions by brown people with Muslim names".(p.71)

Wolf's discussion of Guantanamo is little more than a regurgitation of the talking points of a lawyer named Michael Ratner. She cites him by name and quotes him extensively in the text. Ratner is president of an innocuous sounding organization named the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). According to their web site, the CCR is "dedicated to advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed by the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights." Ratner and the CCR have spearheaded the legal campaign in support of the Guantanamo detainees. In order to assess the credibility of Wolf's claims about Guantanamo, a look at Ratner and the CCR is warranted.

Unfortunately, Ratner's legal career reveals that he is anything but a disinterested advocate for human rights. In particular, there have been two constants to Ratner's work: one, he is reliably opposed to whatever policy the US government is pursuing; two, he is almost always on the same side as the regime of Fidel Castro.

In 1996 Ratner represented a pro-Castro crank who vandalized New York street signs dedicated to anti-Castro pilots shot down and killed by the Cuban Air Force. During the Elian Gonzalez saga in 2000, Ratner forcefully demanded the boy's return to Cuba, going so far as to travel to Havana and meet with high-ranking Castro regime officials. The best indicator of Ratner's real attitude towards "constitutional rights", however, lies in his choice of hero: one Ernesto "Che" Guevara.

"Bearded, bald, and fond of quoting Che Guevara". This is how author Brandt Goldstein describes Ratner in his 2005 book Storming the Court. In 1997, Ratner co-edited a book containing declassified U.S. government documents about Guevara. He and his colleague, Michael Steven Smith, announced the book's official release at a press conference in Havana.

Back in June 2005, Rocco DiPippo documented Ratner's long record of using the law as a tool in support of his radical leftist ideology. According to DiPippo, Ratner's introduction to the Che volume includes the following passage:

…for many of us seeking to change our society, Cuba was a desirable model. And it was Ché Guevara, more than any other figure, who embodied both that revolution and solidarity with peoples fighting to be free from U.S. hegemony…Ché has remained my hero ever since.

(Emphasis in provided quote-DD)

A look at the man Ratner calls his "hero" reveals a great deal about the sincerity of his commitment to human rights and civil liberties. Of particular interest is Guevara's performance as head of La Cabana prison in Havana in the early months of the Castro regime. While there, he was responsible for the execution of hundreds of prisoners, who were condemned without the benefit of habeas corpus or due process. Alvaro Vargas Llosa's aptly titled July 2005 essay "The Killing Machine" quotes a chaplain at La Cabana discussing his experiences with Guevara:

there were about eight hundred prisoners in a space fit for no more than three hundred: former Batista military and police personnel, some journalists, a few businessmen and merchants. The revolutionary tribunal was made of militiamen. Che Guevara presided over the appellate court. He never overturned a sentence. I would visit those on death row at the galera de la muerte. A rumor went around that I hypnotized prisoners because many remained calm, so Che ordered that I be present at the executions. After I left in May, they executed many more, but I personally witnessed fifty-five executions. There was an American, Herman Marks, apparently a former convict. We called him “the butcher” because he enjoyed giving the order to shoot. I pleaded many times with Che on behalf of prisoners. I remember especially the case of Ariel Lima, a young boy. Che did not budge. Nor did Fidel, whom I visited. I became so traumatized that at the end of May 1959 I was ordered to leave the parish of Casa Blanca, where La Cabaña was located and where I had held Mass for three years. I went to Mexico for treatment. The day I left, Che told me we had both tried to bring one another to each other’s side and had failed. His last words were: “When we take our masks off, we will be enemies.”

(Emphasis added-DD)

A lawyer named Jose Vilasuso who was involved in the La Cabana tribunals has also testified to the blatantly rigged nature of the process and the key role played by Guevara:

At the beginning, the Tribunals were composed of civilian and military lawyers, under the direction of Captain Mike Duque de Estrada and Lieutenants Sotolongo and Rivero (who later went crazy), and the prosecutors Tony Suarez de la Fuente (Pelayito) also known as “Pool o’blood” (Charco de Sangre) among others. Then, most of us quit given the excesses. Later, others without any legal training occupied our positions.

There were relatives of victims of the previous regime who were put in charge of judging the accused.

The first case on which I worked was that of Ariel Lima, a former revolutionary who had gone to the government side. His fate was sealed. He was dressed in prison uniform. I saw him handcuffed with his teeth chattering. According to the Law of the Guerrillas the facts were judged without any consideration to general juridical principles. The right of Habeas Corpus had been suspended.

The statements of the investigating officer constituted irrefutable proof of wrongdoing. The defense lawyer simply admitted the accusations and requested the generosity of the government in order to reduce the sentence. In those days, Guevara was visible in his black beret, cigar in mouth. Cantinflas-like face and bandaged arm in sling. He was extremely thin and his slow and cold tone demonstrated his “posse” of “gray eminence” of the Revolution and total adherence to Marxist theory. Many people congregated in his office and engaged in lively discussions about the revolutionary process. However, his conversation used to be full of irony, he never showed any alteration in temperament or paid any attention to different opinions He reprimanded in private more than one colleague; in public, he chastised us all: “Don’t delay these trials. This is a revolution, the proofs are secondary. We have to proceed by conviction. They are a gang of criminals and murderers. Besides, remember that there is an Appeals Tribunals”

This Appeals Tribunal never decided in favor of the appeal. It simply confirmed the sentences. It was presided by Commander Ernesto Guevara Serna.

(Emphasis added-DD)

Michael Ratner demands that the suspected jihadists held at Guantanamo be granted habeas corpus, yet he supports a regime that in 1992 eliminated the same right from the Cuban constitution after many years of ignoring it altogether. Ratner denounces the military commissions at Guantanamo as unfair, yet he embraces as a hero a man who oversaw the execution of hundreds after convicting them in kangaroo courts. Ratner heads an organization that claims to support "advancing and protecting the rights guaranteed" in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, yet he collaborates with a regime that burns this document and imprisons those who distribute it.

For Michael Ratner, upholding human rights means filing lawsuit after lawsuit against the U.S. government and allies such as Israel, while not lifting a finger on behalf of the victims of radical and Marxist regimes like Cuba's. He is many things, but a champion of "constitutional rights" is not one of them.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Blasphemy in Britain?

It is hard to believe, but the United Kingdom still has a law against blasphemy on the books. Even worse, this ridiculous anachronism was used by a conservative Christian group just last November to press charges against the BBC. The offending incident was the network's televising of Jerry Springer-The Opera (no, I am truly not making this up). Fortunately, the case was thrown out by the courts in December.

The one good thing that has come out of this incident is that it has prompted calls to do away with this archaic statute. Norm Geras links to one such appeal, which was published in the January 8 Daily Telegraph. The authors of the letter, a mix of secular and religious intellectuals, do an excellent job of pointing out the problems with the law:

Sir - In the light of the widespread outrage at the conviction of the British teacher for blasphemy in Sudan over the name of a teddy bear is it not time to repeal our own blasphemy law?

The ancient common law of blasphemous libel purports to protect beliefs rather than people or communities. Most religious commentators are of the view that the Almighty does not need the "protection" of such a law.

We are representatives of religious, secular, legal and artistic opinion in this country and share the view that the blasphemy offence serves no useful purpose. Yet it allows partisan organisations or well-funded individuals to try to censor broadcasters or intimidate small theatres, print media or publishers.

Far from protecting public order - for which other laws are more suited - it damages social cohesion.

It is discriminatory in that it only covers attacks on Christianity and Church of England tenets and thus engenders an expectation among other religions that their sensibilities should also be protected by the criminal law (as with the attempt to charge Salman Rushdie) and a sense of grievance among minority religions that they do not benefit from their own version of such a law.

As the Law Commission acknowledged in 1985, when it recommended repeal, it is uncertain in scope, but lack of intention is no defence, and the law is unlimited in penalty.

This, together with its chilling effect on free expression and its discriminatory impact, leaves it in clear breach of human rights law. In the end, no one is likely to be convicted under it.

"Tolerance has vanished from Sudanese life"

On December 2, a Sudanese newspaper columnist named Khaled Fadhel published a scathing attack on the rise of Islamist fanaticism in his country and the regime's fostering of this trend in order to suppress free expression. Courtesy of MEMRI, here are some excerpts:

"[After a Sudanese] court imposed a prison sentence on the British schoolteacher... for insulting the Prophet Muhammad, thousands of Sudanese expressed their opinion in rowdy demonstrations in the streets of Khartoum. For the British, the right to demonstrate - as part of human rights and freedom of expression - is [a concept] that is taken for granted and which arouses neither anger nor surprise.

"But in a country like Sudan, freedom of expression is reserved for [opinions] that are in line with the positions of the [ruling] National Congress Party. [To wit,] when one hundred Sudanese students from the University of Khartoum demonstrated against the tragedies taking place in Darfur... - they were brutally put down and persecuted by the authorities!...

"The important question is whether Sudanese society, particularly the Muslim [society], has become extremist. It is clear that religion-based prohibitions and accusations have become rampant - so much so that it is difficult to imagine leading a normal life in such circumstances... It has reached a point where even thoughts can be grounds for accusations of heresy, for making one's killing licit, and [even] for attempted murder...

"Tolerance has vanished from Sudanese life... to such an extent that [even] the civil war [3] has been relabeled 'jihad,' [implying that the members of] one side were sacrificing their lives for the sake of Allah, while the others were destroyed for clinging to falsehood and [worshiping] idols. The paradox is that, although both sides included Muslims, Christians and followers of the African religions, the war has been described as 'Islamic jihad' against the loathsome infidels! This is a saddening and shameful fact, that ends all hope for tolerance in Sudan.

(Emphasis added-DD)

Fadhel specifically addresses the September 2006 murder of newspaper editor Mohammed Taha:

"The most dangerous phenomenon - among all of the extremist [tendencies] and religious and ethnic tensions [created] by the Islamist regime - is the lack of rational thought, and the blatant dominance of emotion [over reason], even among the educated [circles], or those who consider themselves educated... The Sudanese Muslims have become easily incited. [They respond] to any call, without thinking or examining the situation from all its aspects. Emotional outbursts and lack of rational thought [create] an optimal climate for the extremists to act and take control [of society].

"The late [editor of the Sudanese daily Al-Wifaq] Muhammad Taha [who was murdered in September 2006] fell victim to a malicious campaign... [waged] from pulpits of the mosques. [4] With my own ears I heard a preacher urging the worshippers to attend the trial of the 'one who cursed the Prophet,' though he knew full well that the entire incident was [based on] a mistake... But climate of madness, and the dominance of emotion [over reason], won the day.

Fadhel also describes how this mentality has led to the genocide in Darfur. Flemming Rose at Pajamas Media notes another example of how the Sudanese regime has linked its intolerance of free expression to its campaign in that region:

Sweden and Norway were ready to deploy 400 soldiers in Darfur to support the UN peacekeeping forces, but due to the cartoon crisis in 2006 the regime in Khartoum has refused to accept troops from Scandinavia.


Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir stated in November that he won’t accept soldiers from Scandinavian countries, where newspapers published cartoons of the prophet Mohammed.

”No one who speaks blasphemeous of the prophet will be allowed to set foot on Sudan soil,” said President al-Bashir.

The Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of Mohammed in September 2005, and the Norwegian newspaper Magazinet reprinted the cartoons in January 2006. None of the big Swedish newspapers published the cartoons, but in the fall of 2007 they reproduced drawings of Mohammed as a dog by Swedish artist Lars Vilks that were censored by several Swedish art institutions.

Sudan is a horrific case study in how the Islamist war on intellectual freedom leads ultimately to terrorism and genocide.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Cuba Under Raul

I had the pleasure of hearing Cuba specialist Brian Latell speak at the 2006 Raleigh Spy Conference. I found his views on how the ascension of Raul Castro to power will change the Cuban system to be quite interesting.

On Monday, Mr. Latell discussed this topic in the Wall Street Journal. According to him, Raul is trying to implement a form of Cuban glasnost and perestroika. Unfortunately, this openness will probably not apply to dissidents and democracy activists, including independent librarians:

On his watch, Raúl has broken some previously sacred crockery as well. He has admitted that Cuba's many problems are systemic. In his disarmingly accurate view, it is not the American embargo or "imperialism" that are the cause of problems on the island, as his brother always insisted, but rather the regime's own mistakes and mindsets. He has called on Cubans, especially the youth, to "debate fearlessly" and help devise solutions for the failures. Candid discussions at the grassroots level have proliferated.

Yet like his brother, Raúl has no intention of opening Cuba to free political speech or participation. While the number of Cubans willing to voice their discontent publicly is on the increase, so too is the brutality of government reprisals against would-be leaders of the dissident movement. By acknowledging state failures, Raúl is playing with fire, and if the lid is going to be kept on, those challenging the regime have to pay a price. As to his own future, in the leadership realignments he plans, he will probably move up one rank and assume command of the Communist Party as first secretary.

(Emphasis added-DD)

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Two Profiles of Saad Eskander

Two excellent profiles of Iraqi National Library Director Dr. Saad Eskander have appeared yesterday and today. The first comes via the BBC's Jane Beresford. She notes the disastrous state of the library and its collections when Dr. Eskander assumed leadership of the institution in December 2003. The looting and arson that occurred with the fall of Saddam's regime was responsible for much of this damage, but not all of it:

Sixty percent of the archival materials and 95% of the rare book collections had been destroyed or were missing.

Most had been lost in the aftermath of the invasion but others had gone missing long before.

"During Saddam's regime all Jewish schools and synagogues were closed down and the Ministry of the Interior confiscated all of these books," says Mr Eskander.

"So when I was appointed, the first thing I did was to search for the remaining Hebrew books and we did succeed in saving a huge number, some of them published in the 17th and 18th Centuries."

Ms. Beresford describes the often horrific conditions that Dr. Eskander and his staff confront on a daily basis. According to him, they are indeed targeted by radical Islamists because they are librarians:

He believes his work makes him and his colleagues targets.

"Archivists like me represent secular culture and they want to stop normality and disrupt our daily lives," he says.

The piece also discusses the jihadists' most horrific assault on intellectual freedom in the new Iraq:

His darkest day was when al-Mutanabbi Street, known in Baghdad as the Street of Booksellers and where the Inla buys 95% of its new material, was bombed.

"For decades under Saddam's regime al-Mutanabbi was the place were illegal books were copied underground," he explains.

"It was a symbol of resistance. After the downfall of Saddam new publications started to emerge on that street, especially progressive books on sociology and so on.

"It represented the new Iraq and that was why it was targeted."

The second article appears in today's Christian Science Monitor, and adds further details about the situation confronting Dr. Eskander and the library:

Like most librarians, Saad Eskander, director of the Iraq National Library and Archive in Baghdad, has to deal with a number of disturbances: people speaking loudly in the study area, lost books, and the occasional sniper fire or Katyusha rocket attack.

"Our building was rocketed a few times," says Dr. Eskander, in the same level tone he might use to describe a trip to the grocery store. "It was mortared and part of our fence was destroyed.... Stray bullets and sometimes snipers' bullets smashed some windows as well, including my office."

Though none of Eskander's staff have been injured in these attacks, five have been killed in sectarian violence, and death threats have displaced dozens of his 300-plus staffers.

As the Monitor article points out, the security environment near the library has improved substantially in the last few months. In addition, Dr. Eskander and his staff have made major progress in restoring the library and its collections despite all the dangers. Still, residual terrorism and sectarian violence plus bureaucratic corruption pose significant challenges for the library.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

What "true religious bigotry" Looks Like

In a terrific article from the December 31 Weekly Standard, Terry Eastland discusses the surprisingly successful presidential campaign of former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee. The following paragraph illustrates the style of passive aggressive demagogy that Huckabee has used to appeal to many on the Religious Right:

As for his opponents, they include not just the Republican establishment but also evangelical leaders he regards as part of the establishment; the "chattering class" of both old and new media; and secularists hostile to expressions of faith in public life. In Cedar Rapids, before a gathering of the Iowa Christian Alliance, Huckabee defended the TV Christmas ad in which he mentions "the birth of Christ." He remarked on "the level of true religious bigotry that exists in our culture--that for those of us who are people of faith, it's okay to have it but please keep it to yourselves."

As I have stated previously, I consider the view that religion is under attack in America to be as absurd as claims that "our freedoms are under attack" from the Bush Administration. Criticism of evangelicals or Christianity in general is not an assault on religion any more than criticizing the Dixie Chicks was an effort to "crush dissent".

Ironically, the very same issue of the Standard contains a piece by Paul Marshall on the persecution of Christians worldwide. Governor Huckabee and his supporters would be well served to read it and see what the standard for "true religious bigotry" really is:

In purely numerical terms, Christianity is the world's fastest growing religion. Two-thirds of Christians and four-fifths of active Christians live outside the West, so Christianity now may well be the world's largest non-Western religion.

But for probably hundreds of millions, Christmas is shadowed by pain and fear, since this is usually the peak season for anti-Christian attacks in Pakistan, India, Sudan, Nigeria, and beyond. It is also a time when the Chinese and Vietnamese governments are prone to arrest their unregistered believers.

Violence continues in Nigeria, where tens of thousands have died in conflicts around the spread of Islamic law. Nigerian Christians are also often the victims when others produce allegedly blasphemous drawings. During the 2006 "Danish cartoon riots," Muslims rioting in Borno State killed 65 and destroyed 57 churches and 250 businesses. Persecution continues in Laos, India, Iraq, Turkey, Ethiopia, Sudan, Belarus, and elsewhere. Some Christian leaders in Gaza have been murdered while others have had to flee. Even in Britain, newspapers are reporting threats to Muslim converts to Christianity: Many remain in hiding, and one has had to move 45 times.

Other examples could be given, but two of the worst, Burma and Eritrea, receive scant attention because their repressions do not fit any wider international political agendas, hence their victims are among the world's most forgotten people.

Do They Know it's Christmas? Not in Burma or Eritrea.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Taslima Supporters Threatened in India

According to a December 21 UPI report from India, a recent letter threatened bomb attacks against the offices of the All-Assam Students Union and a Hindu fundamentalist political party. The reason given for the threats was that both organizations have publicly supported embattled author Taslima Nasreen:

Officials say the handwritten letter from eight persons claiming to be from Pakistan's ISI and al-Qaida cited the World Trade Center attacks in the United States as an example of what could happen.

"Your offer to (Bangladeshi writer) Taslima Nasreen to stay in Assam is against Islam and its tenets," The Hindustan Times reported the letter saying. "If you don't stop your activities immediately a powerful bomb will be exploded in your main office."

The letter, received Thursday, was allegedly written in the Bangladeshi style known as Assamese and was dated Dec. 11.

Local police have been notified and are investigating.