Category: Current affairs

Thrills and Kills: Interview with Frederick Forsyth

South China Morning Post, 3 November 2013.  Forsyth’s latest political thriller – cold war intrigue made new for the age of Al Qaeda – is heavy on the thrills and light on the politics. He speaks of spooks, Snowden and Cyberspace with Jo Baker. AT 74, FREDERICK FORSYTH allowed himself a small concession in researching […]

South China Morning Post, 3 November 2013.  Forsyth’s latest political thriller – cold war intrigue made new for the age of Al Qaeda – is heavy on the thrills and light on the politics. He speaks of spooks, Snowden and Cyberspace with Jo Baker.

IMG_5247[1]AT 74, FREDERICK FORSYTH allowed himself a small concession in researching his latest book. In Mogadishu, he hired a bodyguard. “I’ve only done it once before,” says the veteran novelist, reclining at a desk his Hong Kong hotel suite. “We didn’t stay inside what’s called The Camp – a kind of sandglass-walled and barbed wire enclave used by most foreigners – but in a hotel in the city. Which was… interesting. My wife said I was a stupid old fool, but I felt like if I was going to describe it I had to see it!.”

[Click here for the original article] 

Fans might have forgiven Forsyth for researching one of the world’s more dangerous cities, in Somalia, from a distance. But the British thrill master felt that his latest look into the world of modern-day terrorism, The Kill List, should be held to the standards that helped take his other novels to the top of bestseller lists.

Debuting as a novelist in 1971 with The Day of the Jackal, Forsyth has become known for his melding of fictional characters and plot lines with real political intrigues, using research techniques from his days as a journalist.

“I’ve always been intrigued in the things the establishment don’t tell us, rather than those they do.” he says with a smile. “Nowadays we think we know it all, and Mr. Snowden tells us, ‘oh no, you don’t know the half of it – what they’re listening to, eavesdropping on’.”

A journalist in the 60s and 70s, Forsyth has certainly developed a sense for the world’s lurking dangers and blind spots. Growing up in a small ‘one horse’ town in Kent with little money, he failed to secure the career he wanted with the RAF, but dreamed of travel. The idea of ‘diplomatic corp. cocktail parties’ was less than thrilling. “So the only alternative was the by-lines in Dad’s morning paper from cities with amazing names, like Hong Kong, Singapore and Beirut,” he recalls.

From the offices of a daily provincial paper, to London’s Fleet Street and then to the Reuters news agency, by age 23 Forsyth was reporting from Paris, covering the almost daily likelihood of an assassination attempt on president Charles de Gaulle by French extremists.  It was a ‘baptism by fire’ he says. This fire raged onward in the mid 60s, with two years in the thick of Nigeria’s civil war, first for the BBC and later – since he was unwilling to toe its editorial line and return to London – as a freelance reporter and writer.

At that time, few had attempted to blend modern-day politics with fiction, and the decision to use his experiences in France and skills as a reporter to write a political thriller, produced Jackal, his sleeper hit. Surprised but gratified, Forsyth continued to write his novels to a similar template, tackling subjects from the underground Nazi movement in Europe (1972’s Odessa File) to international drug cartels (2011’s The Cobra). In researching his books he was able to pursue the once-imagined thrills of a Kent boyhood, with ‘hairy moments’, as he calls them, galore. There was Afghanistan and Pakistan; Equatorial Guinea, where he blithely recalls almost losing a leg to septicaemia; and Guinea-Bissau – ‘a horrible place’ – where he came close to being caught up in a gruesome coup.

Each adventure produced new material for adrenalin-fuelled accounts of dark places and dastardly deeds, with a reporter’s eye for detail. “Travel was the main impulse for fifty years of my life,” he says. “And as an investigative journalist one learns where the knowledge reposes, and how to get at it. So that is how I approached fiction.”

The Kill List, which hit shelves in September, fits squarely into this oeuvre. As cold-war intrigue made new for the age of Al Qaeda, it follows a US government-sanctioned assassin on the trail of a charismatic jihadist, and takes readers into the administrative bowels of an American organisation tasked with tracking and killing ‘enemies of the West’. It then leads them across the gullies and firewalls of cyberspace to various havens of Islamic extremism, from London to Kismayo  Deftly paced, the thriller has been reviewed as the usual meticulous yet macho Forsyth romp: heavy on action and intrigue; light on moral complexity and character development.


IMG_5070IT WAS A NEWS REPORT on drone attacks that inspired Forsyth to pick up his pen again. Not long after the extra-judicial killing of Osama Bin Laden by US Navy Seals, the author became curious about how modern-day manhunts take place. Originally called The Tracker, the novel’s name was changed when his American publishers called – in high excitement, he says – to verify that such a list actually exists in the White House. Forsyth was able to tell them, rather smugly, that it does. In 2012 the US government had admitted publicly that it authorizes ‘signature strikes’ on certain targets, with the decision centred around the counter-terror chief in the White House.

Yet this batch of research posed a new kind of challenge. The author had covered the technicalities of espionage and warfare with the Arab world before, in the Fist of God and The Afghan. But for a 74 year-old who, until last year had refused to own a cell phone, and continues to churn out his 10 pages-per-day on a steel-cased portable typewriter, Cyberspace was an alien landscape.

Forsyth has joked that if his first novel had been set now rather than the 1960s, with photos that could be e-mailed and data instantly accessed, it would have been ‘a very short spy novel’. But in choosing the story of an Islamic terrorist, tracked via high-tech military surveillance systems (and with the help of a teenage hacker), The Kill List is an attempt to reconcile these two worlds.

“I had to go to people who are real cyber experts and ask them to explain as if to an idiot, what they were doing and why,” he recalls. “There was obviously a huge generation gap. A lot of the real, talented geeks are younger than my grandson!” Accordingly, the novel gives out a sense of both wonder and foreboding for technology. “The ones who are deeply into this cyber stuff I do find very strange,” he admits.  “But also tremendously talented.  These hackers can carve their way through firewalls in the databases of the Pentagon with something they bought at Computer World.”

With weapons technology and warfare, Forsyth is on more familiar ground. His grasp of the subject has grown with each novel, along with his little black book of experts to consult. And with each novel too, doors for the author have opened at ever-higher levels, aided perhaps by an Order of the British Empire (CBE), awarded in the late nineties. “When I was much younger, particularly for the first three books, the big bosses in the forces of law and order wouldn’t give me house room,” he says with a laugh. “I would have to go instead to the underworld. Now, if I say to someone fairly high up in, say, Scotland Yard that I’m writing a book on the cocaine trade, he’ll put me in touch with his head of narcotics.”

This has no doubt spared him a certain amount of trouble in recent years. Forsyth fondly tells an anecdote from the seventies that almost led to his untimely end, while he was researching his third novel, Dogs of War. He had needed to find out where and how mercenary groups in Africa bought their weapons. With the arms black market based in Hamburg, and being able to speak German, the author decided to masquerade as a South African on a buying expedition for a wealthy patron, he says. “I more or less used the plot of my book about a mining millionaire who wanted to topple an African republic,” he recalls. And all went well until one of the bosses, returning home from a meeting with Forsyth and others, reportedly saw his author’s photograph in the window of a book shop.  “I received a call from an insider friend in my hotel room, who said grab your passport and money and run like hell!” he says. “Fortunately I was in the train station hotel, so I ran across the square to station, vaulted the ticket barrier, and dived straight into the window of a departing train – into the lap of a German businessman who had a sense of humour failure.”

He didn’t go back to Hamburg for years. “The book came out in German with them very thinly disguised, and I hear they didn’t like it at all,” he says.  Compared to this, he admits, his recent ‘reccie’ in Mogadishu was more leisurely.

As a search-engine sceptic, Forsyth makes heavy use of industry publications, such as those from Jane’s Information Group. His books are populated with the likes of Ukrainian freedom fighters, French paramilitaries, Gulf War soldiers, Somali pirates and Al Qaeda – along with American and British Special Forces and spies. All are often locked in combat and armed to the teeth. Keeping up with the fast-moving world of weaponry is no small feat, particularly for his weapon of choice in The Kill List – drones. “These drones are being modernised and improved all the time, so the stuff used from just ten years ago is outmoded,” he explains. “But the information is mostly public domain. If you know where to go, there’s probably a technical publication that tells you exactly what it does.” At times his digs into the field have been met with warnings, he says, about breaking the UK’s Official Secrets Act. “I tell them, don’t worry – you can read all that in Avionics Today!”, he says with a chuckle.

Yet on the ethnics and legality of drone warfare, still hotly contested, Forsyth has less to contribute. Those who challenge their use, tend to question how any country can strategically use lethal force against individuals without a trial, and outside of a ‘symmetrical’ war. He doesn’t share these concerns. “I think there’s a lot of nonsense talked about the immorality of drones. If it’s a legitimate target, what’s the immorality in destroying it?” he asks. “We are in a defence posture against these terrorists, and when we find them we have a right to defend ourselves from them killing us.”

“I don’t recall that we declared war on Islam,” he adds. “But certain elements of Islam are at war, which they call Jihad, with the Christian-Jewish world.”.

Forsyth will acknowledge that in the UK, the Left has ‘given up’ on him, but he insists that his politics are ‘conservative with a small C’. He calls the euphemism ‘War on Terror’ – coined by the administration of George W. Bush – ‘manure’, and he claims no interest in the UK’s party politics. What he stands for, he explains, is more of a ‘traditionalist attitude’ to life.  “It seems to me our forefathers got an awful lot right,” he says. “And I’ve never seen why anyone should be ashamed of loving one’s own country. It seems modish now not to, and I rebel against that. And for it, I’m called right wing.” He has often lamented that he was born in the wrong era. Given the choice he would have lived through the Second World War and what he considers the height of its glory, the Battle of Britain.

This sentiment runs thick through his books. They vibrate with faith in the hard-boiled integrity of his mostly white, male government operatives; with reverence for men in combat and action over ambiguity; and with the cut-and-dry morality of good guys vs. bad guys. Plotlines are streaked with a boy’s thrill for heroism and love of aliases, acronyms and techno­speak – at the expense of inner dialogue or political nuance. He rarely uses anti-heroes he says, which tend to be less popular with his audience.

Yet he’ll be the first to explain this approach, in less ideological terms.  “I’ve never hidden the fact that if it didn’t pay, I wouldn’t do it.” he says of writing fiction. “It’s more about the bank than the message for me!” For Forsyth, the public’s consistent fascination with spies and terrorist hunters has fit neatly with his own interests and skill set, becoming a cash cow that he says he has been happy to milk.

And he’ll acknowledge, sometimes, where romanticism and reality part ways. “The problem is that 99% of espionage is bureaucracy, scanning communications and technical information. And there’s no James Bond wandering around out there,” he says, gesturing to the Hong Kong skyline. “There are probably a few spooks, but they’re probably rather shabby little people. So yes, there is a false glamour.”

Which his books perpetuate?  “Yes,” he laughs. “Or at least a bit; because most people have a banal existence, and it’s what they want. That’s not patronizing. It’s a fact of life.

Yet the size of Forsyth’s ‘conservative C’ seems to be larger, or at least becoming larger, than he will sometimes acknowledge on book tours. Touted as a ‘bestselling author and political commentator’ by UK newspaper the Daily Express, for whom he writes a column, his claim to not be sending messages through his work, seem disingenuous.

In his column, Forsyth has written passionately and divisively about those who hate the West, and the heroism of those who protect it. A few weeks ago, writing in support of the ‘spooks’ and special forces he has interviewed throughout his career, the author consigned whistle-blowers to the seventh circle of hell. “Revealing secrets that enable Jihadists to penetrate our defences, all the better to place bombs where you and I go shopping, that is traitorous,” he wrote of a ‘whingeing and whining’ Snowden. ““Dante reserved the seventh and innermost circle of Hell for the betrayers and he was right.”

Forsyth says that he spent substantial time researching the forms of Islam that feature in The Kill List, and he was keen to present the disdain of moderate Muslims toward fundamentalism. He describes long doctrinal discussions with a British imam, who became a Muslim voice of reason the plot – as a professor based out of Cairo’s revered centre for Islamic learning, Al-Azhar University. In researching the motives of young Jihadists, Forsyth consulted the cofounder and chairman of Quilliam, a counter-extremism think tank in London, who had once led an extremist movement and later reconverted. “So he could explain to me why the Jihadists think the way they do,” says the author. “I was trying to hear both viewpoints.”

Yet his grasp and representation of the religion and its politics has still left many cold. One Asian fan on a review site suggested that the religious aspect was unconvincing, and that the book would have worked better without trying to tackle it. “The author raises the question “Why do they hate Americans?” and answers this complex issue very superficially, almost offhandedly,” she or he comments. “The book is good [but] it’s not about Islamic fundamentalism. The flaws are perhaps more visible to Asian minds than to western ones.”

Indeed, there is a sense that The Kill List, with its parallel but polarised universe is not well placed to deliver the reality of terrorism, and rather reduces it, as one reviewer noted in the New York Times, to the world of movies and video games. For all its up-to-date technical wizardry, it still feels to this journalist, rather wistfully behind the times.

Yet a cash cow it remains, and Forsyth’s success and reputation as thrill master seems very secure. In 2012 the Crime Writers Association awarded him its Cartier Diamond Dagger for his body of work; and the Kill List has perhaps not surprisingly been embraced by Hollywood: it is due to be made into a film shortly, helmed by director Rupert Sanders.

But at 74, could this be an end to adventures in Mogadishu? Sitting in his hotel suite and preparing for lengthy anniversary celebrations in honour of his host, the Mandarin Oriental, Forsyth is tired. He has threatened to retire numerous times. Now, with 70 countries and more than 20 books under his belt, he feels that this could really be it.

“There are people who are compulsives, who are not fulfilled unless they’re writing. But I am not one,” he says. “I have to be dragged to my typewriter now. There are so many other things for me to do. And really – I don’t have a message for the human race.” This remains under debate, but the decision will no doubt leave legions of disappointed thrill-seekers in its wake.






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Uyghur battles to escape painful past while rebuilding life in Albania

South China Morning Post, 28 September 2013. Abu Bakker Qassim was tortured in China and wrongly incarcerated in Guantanamo – but is finding a semblance of peace in a small Balkan state, writes Jo Baker For a loaded question, it gets an understated reply. “Back in time?  I would tell myself not to get involved in […]

South China Morning Post, 28 September 2013. Abu Bakker Qassim was tortured in China and wrongly incarcerated in Guantanamo – but is finding a semblance of peace in a small Balkan state, writes Jo Baker

South China Morning Post

For a loaded question, it gets an understated reply. “Back in time?  I would tell myself not to get involved in politics,” says Abu Bakker Qassim, wryly. “Not unless I knew what I was doing.”

Meeting in the leafy, low-lying Albanian capital, this one of Tirana’s more politically controversial residents is now far from the Americans who held him incommunicado at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp for more than four years. He is far too, from the Pakistanis who sold him and others of the Uyghur ethnic minority to the Americans for 5,000 dollars a head. And he is perhaps farthest from his family in Xinjiang province, western China, who he feels certain that he will not see again.

[Click for original story in the Post] 

With seven years in Albania now behind him, Qassim’s days are defined by the slow burn of the unemployed. There’s morning coffee, Koran reading and a walk in the park with his small daughter; then searching for work, and training at a halal pizza parlour owned by a friend. He feels both frustrated, and lucky. He has certainly seen worse.

After participating in the well known ‘Ghulja incident’ – Uyghur demonstrations in 1997 which were violently dispersed by the Chinese military – Qassim was among those rounded up and detained by the Chinese police.  He was beaten, tortured psychologically and interrogated with electricity, he says. Released after seven months without charge but facing threats and harassment, he decided to try and reach Turkey, find work in a leather factory, and send for his family.

But the slow route through Central Asia and Pakistan put him in contact he says, with a ‘Uighur village,’ just across the border in Afghanistan.  Here he says he agreed to train to fight in return for food and accommodation while he waited for his Iranian visa to process. Post 9/11 bombings in 2001 sent Qassim and many of his companions into Pakistan’s then-freezing mountains, and it was almost a relief he says, to be handed to the Americans.

Except it then took four-and-a-half years before US officials decided that Qassim posed no threat to America, and could be released. By then he had spent six months on a US base in Kandahar, a full year in a 2x2Sqm isolation cell, three more years detained in communal accommodations with some 20 other Uyghur men;  and his family thought he was dead.  “We just had to be passionate,” he says. “And remind ourselves that the situation in China was bad too, so all we could do was wait and hope to be declared as innocent.”

Qassim has found some peace in Albania: a country with food, religion and customs similar to those that he knows, and where he gets by on free accommodation and a USD$300 government stipend. Yet ‘politics’ still weigh heavily on the Uyghur.  A seven-year promise for ID cards and passports by Albania’s Ministry of Interior has yet to materialise for he and the handful of other resettled dissidents, and they can’t find out why. Qassim speaks Albanian, but the ID card issue – along with public suspicion and generally high unemployment rates – leave him a permanent pizza trainee.

The trauma of leaving a family behind has yet to fade. He left a wife and three children in Ghulja, and his ageing parents remain closely monitored, and largely barred from using the internet he says. Although he can call them, with both they and he barred from travelling, he doubts he’ll ever see them again. Qassim’s appeal to have his wife and children join him in Albania failed when China allegedly refused to comply. He has since convinced his former wife to divorce him so that they could both marry again.

Abu Bakker Qasim ARTC Tirana (5)Yet he harbours little anger about his time in Guantanamo. “They know that they were wrong, and they acquitted us,” he says. And he explains that they ‘protected’ the Uyghurs from those they feared the most: the Chinese authorities – who visited the men in Cuba, and requested their extradition as terrorist suspects, (as they have done since without success from the Albanian government). “I can’t forgive,” said an Uzbek friend and fellow ex-Guantanamo survivor in Tirana, Zakir Hasan, who alleges worse treatment by the Americans. “But you’ve got to take into account where [Qassim] came from, what he experienced before.  Ill treatment is relative when you’re not aware of your rights.”

One former US deputy assistant secretary of state has called the situation of Guantanamo’s 22 Uyghur detainees as ‘nothing short of ‘tragic’. Three remain in Guantanamo, despite a US court order to release them.

Qassim now reads the news from home every day.  He laments the way that Uyghurs must “think like Chinese, act like Chinese, everywhere except inside the home.”  He thinks constantly of his parents, and he mentally urges the separatist movement to better organize themselves. But that’s the end of it, for him. These days, he just wants to find work.

“There’s a saying that’s almost the same, at home and Albania,” he says. “’It’s better to stand at your front door looking inside.’ It means, take care of yourself and your family first.”

Zakir puts it slightly differently. “There’s a saying in Uzbekistan that I’ve cleaned up for you. When the Prosecutor kills your father, who do you complain to?”

For now these political exiles are working on the battles they think they can win.



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No Woman’s Land: a new book recalls the frontline experiences of female reporters

UN Women, 2 May 2012 “I have never thought of myself as a female journalist. I think of myself as a journalist full-stop.” So says award-winning Egyptian reporter, Shahira Amin, in a new book on frontline reporting by female correspondents, supported by UN Women. “No Woman’s Land”, released this spring by the International News Safety […]
UN Women, 2 May 2012

“I have never thought of myself as a female journalist. I think of myself as a journalist full-stop.”

So says award-winning Egyptian reporter, Shahira Amin, in a new book on frontline reporting by female correspondents, supported by UN Women. “No Woman’s Land”, released this spring by the International News Safety Initiative, compiled by Hannah Storm and Helena Williams, features the voices of over 30 journalists as they recall episodes of harrowing assault and inspirational bravery in contexts from conflict to civil unrest.

The reflections were collected shortly after the violent sexual assault of CBS correspondent Lara Logan by a crowd of men as she reported from Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2011. Logan, who wrote the foreward to the book, has been credited for voicing concerns that many female reporters have formerly suppressed, out of fear for their professional freedoms and reputations. It signifies a new chapter of debate on the safety of women journalists in the changing landscape of media security.

The collection features correspondents’ experiences of sexual threat and hostile crowds; of dealing with protectionism from male editors, yet also the awareness of their differing vulnerabilities in global hotspots. Many are matter-of-fact about the challenges. “I felt vulnerable,” said freelance journalist Agnes Rajacic, who was also molested by male activists while covering the Arab Spring in Egypt. But, she adds, “I saw it as an unavoidable evil that one could face in any crowded European football stadium.”

Other female journalists have been frustrated by the overt and gender-specific focus on the threat of rape. Tina Susman, former bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times in Baghdad, writes that rape has long been the least of her worries, including during her three-week long captivity in Somalia. “Perhaps because rape is not a job-specific threat like bombs and missiles (and giant bugs), it doesn’t occupy my mind on assignments the way those other threats do,” she writes.  “Like our male colleagues, our main concerns are staying alive and keeping our brains and limbs intact.”

The common sense and security training most often used by female correspondents on assignment is directed at neither gender. However cultural norms, which restrict women’s mobility in many countries, can both help and hinder their work.  As many note, in very conservative contexts they may be shrouded and reliant on male colleagues, but here too they often gain access to women-only environments, and therefore a broader range of stories and perspectives.

Being underestimated at work – a major frustration – has also been used to many a female reporter’s advantage. Journalist Nisha Roshita recalls being assigned to conduct tough high profile interviews in Indonesia specifically, she says, because of her gender.  “And as a woman, it was easier to talk to local people without them becoming suspicious,” she adds.

Yet what emerges most strongly from these recollections is the diversity of experience among women reporters, and the need for a strategy that empowers their work instead of restricting it.

“Rather than questioning the wisdom of sending women into potential perilous duty or worrying for their safety, editors and news organisations should focus on preparing women (and men) for the threat of sexual violence and helping them avoid it.” says Susman. “I’ve rarely heard anyone say of men:‘They’re too macho and always run toward the action, so maybe we shouldn’t send guys into war zones.’“

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Hit the Ground Running

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 22 April 2011 A humanitarian design group is redefining crisis response across the globe, writes Jo Baker. [See PDF: AFH 2011] Twelve years ago a designer caught in a disaster zone might have been at rather a loss at how to pitch in; but when the quakes hit Japan […]

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 22 April 2011

A humanitarian design group is redefining crisis response across the globe, writes Jo Baker. [See PDF: AFH 2011]

Twelve years ago a designer caught in a disaster zone might have been at rather a loss at how to pitch in; but when the quakes hit Japan last month it took very little time for the architects to rally. There were readymade chapters in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto with access to a global network of nearly 5,000 volunteer design professionals, a template for crisis response, and an online bank of designs, all relevant to post-crisis reconstruction and free for the download. And joining all these dots was the only international humanitarian-oriented organization to have pioneered design as a tool to fight disaster: Architecture for Humanity (AFH). Throughout the last month AFH has been working to link the Japan Institute of Architects (JIA) and professional building associations with designers and funders across the world as they start the long rebuild of safe, sustainable housing and community structures; just as it has done before in Christchurch, and before that in northern Pakistan, in coastal Sri Lanka, in New Orleans, and numerous other trouble spots across the globe.

Yet twelve years ago AFH founder Cameron Sinclair had been one of those lost designers himself.  Disappointed by an industry awash with slick branding and star-struck developers, he wanted to explore the ‘re-humanising’ of architecture, and to try and apply good design principles to communities in the tradition of  legendary but long-gone modernists like Swiss architect, Le Corbusier. By 2005 Sinclair and his wife, journalist Kate Stohr, based in the States, had managed to convince hundreds of architects to donate designs for mobile health clinics, transitional houses, and for sports centres that doubled as HIV outreach clinics across the globe. By 2007 these were uploaded onto an online Open Architecture Network for anyone to use for non-profit work, anywhere in the world; and designers were devising schools made of bottles, homes out of straw bricks; there was even an ‘origami homeless shelter’ made out of a single sheet by architecture student Yossi Steinberger for victims of the Sichuan earthquake (as seen on You Tube). It was the materialization of Sinclair’s mission to “design without ego”, and a challenge to the idea that any prefabricated solution can be lumped upon people hit by crisis or extreme poverty. “The idea of using adaptation as opposed to repetition was a really big shift: saying, different neighbourhoods have different issues, adapt the building to that,” explains Sinclair.  “With an architect you can create something the community wants, rather than something they just get given.”

But although the AFH reach was expanding, with local chapters springing up from Detroit to Dhaka, Sinclair found that it had little control over the finished products. “We were doing everything right: the projects would be thoughtful, with integrated stakeholders, used the right materials and technologies,“ he recalls. “Then we’d hand it off and they’d just build crap.” So a few years ago AFH moved into construction management, and started to self fund. It sets up community advice centres, gives free design advice and creates programmes to boost construction standards by training local designers, masons and metalworkers. Soon, NGOs from Oxfam to Save the Children started asking to partner, as did Oprah, the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, Nike and The International Federation of Association Football – FIFA. In just over a decade AFH transitioned from a US$60,000 design services firm to a now, roughly US$6 million global powerhouse.

Yet in a large world with innumerable crises it is still necessary to pick and choose projects. Enter ‘urban acupuncture’: the rather slick-sounding strategy that directs the AFH focus on small-scale building projects, in a bid to knit torn communities together, and produce a ripple-effect of opportunity and change. In 2010 a London-based AFH architect, Susi Jane Platt, was shortlisted for one of the highest honours in the architectural world, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, for just such a project: a modest little village school in Sri Lanka set between a fishing village and a reservoir. Platt’s Yodakandiya Community Complex had not only moulded itself to the needs of the community around it – including built-in deterrents for rampaging elephants – but had done so via community meetings and training sessions that involved hundreds of villagers in its design and construction; Platt herself spent two years living there. This project also gave Sinclair another good reason to focus on schools: plagiarism. “The school in many instances is a 24-hour building, the heart of the community,” he says. “If we can improve design and construction quality in those schools, people will steal the best ideas locally.  It’s like open sourcing!” When designers returned to Yodakandiya after a few years they found that most of the homes around the facility had been influenced by its design, whether in the roof details, or the ventilation and rain-water catchment systems.

These projects also aim to go beyond local communities. According to Sinclair the organisation’s most dedicated core of global support is under eighteen years-old. The recent Students Rebuild: Haiti campaign rallied students and teachers around the globe in efforts to rebuild safer schools in the country. While much of the world may be looking elsewhere now, “high school kids are really the engine that is keeping us in Haiti,” he says. “We’re a fun organisation: donate 50 bucks and there’s a physical structure that you get out of it.”

Both concepts have influenced the AFH approach in Japan. While its head office has worked to raise funds for reconstruction and assessment efforts with the JIA, before starting to identify small scale building projects to work on, Students Rebuild and Do started to secure funding via the Bezos Family Foundation, which pledged $2 for every paper crane that was sent to them. A woven art installation will be created from the first 100,000 cranes, and will be sent to Japan as a symbolic gift from students across the world. Meanwhile in Christchurch AFH is doing the same: financially contributing to larger scale reconstruction while working with local chapters to find those who might have fallen through the cracks, such as indigenous community groups. It has not been as easy to secure funding for such a developed country, says Sinclair, but as he notes, “earthquakes don’t discriminate,” so neither do they.

In between the disaster calls, many AFH projects are attempting to restore dignity or cohesion to struggling communities through design. In China the Shanghai chapter is working with Compassion for Migrant Children to design educational facilities, while in the Philippines an entire school has been made out of discarded glass bottles.  Other architects are helping the social enterprise, Lulan Artisans, to create off-the-grid weaving centres in rural communities across South East Asia. Nike and FIFA recently become involved in response to AFH’s innovative ‘sports for social change’ facilities, which double as headquarters for local NGOs to tackle issues such as conflict resolution and HIV, from neighbourhoods in Afghanistan to Brazil.

For architects, the organization has been a chance to step up in a way rarely associated with the profession. In Pakistan during the floods, designers of a sluggish Karachi chapter woke up, flew into the Swat Valley and had helped clear 1,500 homes using the post-disaster recovery template, before the head office even knew about it.  Such professional interludes can be rewarding, but also importantly as Sinclair notes, humbling. “What an architect can’t do is go to a community and think they’re going to impose a solution… When you marry an international designer with a local designer – that’s when real magic happens,” he says. “You’re not only going to learn a new way of working, but learn how to work with a community who’s lost everything. That’s not something you learn at school.”

BOX: Winning Ways

Since Architecture for Humanity first made its mark in 1999 with a competition to design transitional housing for returning refugees in Kosovo, it has used designers’ competitive streaks to its advantage. Its competitions have produced the ultimate mobile health clinic for AIDS victims in Sub-Saharan Africa, a factory to connect indigenous chocolate producers in the Ecuadorian Amazon with the global marketplace, and many more. Each competition has garnered fame and funding, showing in travelling exhibitions and drawing a range of panellists, from architect Frank Gehry to actor Cameron Diaz. The blueprints are uploaded on the Open Architecture Network ( ) for use across the world, while the winning prototype is funded and built.

This may present an interesting challenge for the 2011 competition, which will ask architects to repurpose disused military installations for civic use. “They’re built with tax payers’ money – really well built – and just end up sitting there,” says executive director Cameron Sinclair. “These buildings can withstand natural disasters, and last a long, long time.” Finding such buildings could prove the first hurdle since, due to national security efforts, they are rarely plotted publicly; the second problem could be securing permission. Yet Sinclair and his team tend to enjoy a good challenge themselves, even the politically-flavoured ones; in Gaza, for example, where Palestinian dwellings are often demolished by Israeli forces, they once agreed to write a manual on how to rebuild one’s house, should ‘something’ happen to it. “We’re not a faith based or politically led organisation; we can work with anyone who invites us,“ says Sinclair. “We just have to keep our focus on the architecture. But I’m interested to see if anyone picks Guantanamo. The government are aware of this project, so we’ll see…”


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The World’s Forgotten

‘The World’s Forgotten’, Asia Sentinel [link] Hong Kong, 19 April 2010, reprinted as an Op-ed in the Jakarta Globe, Indonesia

Millions of detainees across the globe remain in filthy, crowded and unsanitary prisons (See online version here)

As the UN’s top investigator into torture and punishment prepares to end his term later this year, he has focused on a group people whom he has long called the globe’s “most vulnerable” to discrimination and to neglect. Detainees, says Dr Manfred Nowak, have become the world’s forgotten.

The theme has become central to the Austrian professor’s six-year tenure, and in the most recent session of the Human Rights Council this March he strongly reiterated his call for a new convention to protect them.

Where other forms of discrimination are strongly represented in global social movements, the plight of those considered “criminal” tends to raise much less interest and certainly less sympathy. Media coverage is sporadic. While it took sexually explicit photographs to raise interest in US-led abuses in Abu Ghraib, and a steep increase in suicides a few years ago in France (which remains infamous for its shabby prisons), headlines are even harder to make in many Asian countries. Here, accountability remains low and the death count in prison is generally high and poorly documented.

In Indonesia the issue flared up last year when a corruption task force discovered wealthy VIPs in a Central Jakarta prison who had been living in air-conditioned comfort for years, complete with LCD televisions and queen-sized beds, despite overcrowding in many of the country’s facilities. The Minister for Justice and Human Rights acknowledged last year that there are up to 130,000 prisoners in prisons built for 80,000; audits are now being undertaken across the country. Indonesia has featured on watchdog lists for its treatment of the incarcerated for decades, as noted in Caveat, an Indonesian human rights e-journal in a January 2010 article calling for transparency.

“Many of Indonesia’s prisoners are stripped of their rights,” it notes. “[They] are consequently forced to live in filthy unsanitary conditions; become subject to disease; are placed under sever levels of stress due to overcrowding”.

Cries for attention from prisoners in Sri Lanka have been less successful. One last year – in which inmates held a five-day hunger strike on the roof of Bogambara Prison, Kandy to demand that they either be tried or allowed bail – was covered by just one news outlet. The strikers are reported to have since been charged with violating prison rules. Many of Sri Lanka’s pre-trial inmates are housed along with convicted prisoners and can wait for a trial for years, often under the draconian (and with the war over, arguably redundant) Prevention Against Terrorism Act. “In general there is a belief or a mentality, even among judges and lawyers here, that the detainees deserve bad conditions as a kind of punishment, particularly those accused of being connected to the LTTE whether they’ve been convicted yet or not,” disclosed one Sri Lankan who works on humanitarian programmes in prisons. In short there is a widespread tolerance of the closed, often-murky machinations of prison systems that, in many countries, has encouraged standards to creep towards and beyond the inhumane. “As soon as they are behind bars, detainees lose most of their human rights and often are simply forgotten by the outside world” Nowak reiterated this March in Geneva.

A similar point was made by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay in 2008. “Some rights (such as the right to liberty) are necessarily restricted by detention,” she wrote during a campaign to highlight the issue. “But regardless of the reasons why they have been deprived of their liberty, individuals in detention are more vulnerable to human rights violations. The protection of the rights of those in detention is often not deemed a priority by the public, which in turn can dampen government efforts to increase protection.”

Nowak’s recent reports to the UN have been drawn from his missions to 15 countries, including encounters with detainees in Nigeria who had been penned in cells with more than a hundred other inmates and tortured in front of one another, and in Nepal and Sri Lanka where cells were so crowded that inmates couldn’t lie down to sleep at the same time. In Uruguay Nowak found conditions inhuman for both prisoners and guards, particularly in the maximum security Libertad Prison. Small metal containers had been built there as a tool of punishment for one person, yet were penning in three with barely any light or air (on his recommendation they were dismantled).

Also significant was the evidence that staff in some places of detention such as police stations don’t provide inmates with the basics for survival. In Asia the role of feeding or clothing remand prisoners often falls to family members, with countless cases documented of the ‘trades’ that result, involving goods from families being ‘taxed’ by police or prison guards.

The family of Bangladeshi NGO director and journalist Abdur Razzak, in a case reported and meticulously tabulated by the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in March last year, was obliged to provide Paikgachha police officers with nearly BDT30,000 and one goat, over 40 occasions during his 12-week detention, sometimes to allow in food and mosquito coils, others as protection against beatings and torture. Since his charges had been falsified he was later released, but not compensated. ( .

Reports from social workers in Cambodian facilities speak of prisoners who must pay to shower, and from India, of those who must either pay staff to be produced in court or be detained indefinitely (if they don’t have access to a lawyer). Without money or family support inmates can simply die, Nowak said, unless they abase themselves by performing ‘services’ for other prisoners or staff in exchange for provisions.

In Burma, where the military junta still bars the Red Cross from its prisons, this situation is systematically exploited. According to the AHRC and journalists at Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, political prisoners are nearly always placed in prisons that are hundreds of kilometers from their home towns and thus from any form of support.

In the Philippines the question of detainees’ right to health came up in 2008 and 2009 with the deaths from tuberculosis of two remanded labor rights activists. Melvic Lupe, 29, and Leo Paro, 25, had been fit two years ago when they were remanded in Cainta City Jail after striking against Karnation Industries and Export Inc, a home décor company. Their families accuse the prison authorities of criminal neglect, and say that they have been unable to find out whether the men had been medically treated, or to obtain a copy of the medical report. Like many in their situation the men had been essentially sealed away, though they had not yet even been convicted.

Indeed, thanks to immense delays in justice and widespread corruption, many of those imprisoned in developing countries have either not been subject to fair trial or been tried at all. According to the latest World Pre-trial Imprisonment List 2.5 million people were known to be held in pre-trial detention (and other forms of remand imprisonment) throughout the world in October 2007 (and about another quarter of a million are held in the countries on which such data can’t be gathered).

In Bangladesh the WPIL has documented that 68 percent of its prison population is such. In Thailand it put the pre-trial population at 33,000, and this number rises through Indonesia, Pakistan and the Philippines to India, where it rests at about 250,000 (though a decline is imminent now thanks to a initiative, announced in January 2010, to release 135,000 ‘under-trials in prisons across the country). Figures are hard to come by for China but the organization estimates that it may be holding as many as 100,000 untried prisoners.

Untried persons can be inside for years. Thailand’s Somphon Dechanuphap and Nen Mahavilai were in remand prison for seven years of a 15-year trial; they were convicted for a further 16 each in 2008 on allegedly trumped-up charges.

During his missions Nowak also discovered people being held for weeks without toilet access in police cells in Equatorial Guinea: they would defecate and urinate in the lunch bags and bottles sent in by their families. Cells in the backs of police stations may be equipped to keep suspects for a few hours but they are widely used to hold them arbitrarily for much longer.

“If more than 50 percent of all detainees, and in some countries up to 80 percent, are in pre-trial detention, something is wrong,” the March report noted. “It usually means that criminal proceedings last far too long, that the detention of criminal suspects is the rule rather than the exception, and that release on bail is misunderstood by judges, prosecutors and prison staff as an incentive for corruption”.

Many detainees, Nowak found, did not even know whether or not they had already been convicted by a court.

The rapporteur’s call for action this year therefore extends to the judicial systems – to the funding and political will needed to get them functioning credibly – as a way of ensuring that prison conditions are checked and challenged regularly. But his request for a convention is more specific. Unlike many of the existing international principles and guidelines for the treatment of prisoners, a convention would legally bind countries into a communication channel with experts on the issue; it would hold states regularly and comprehensively accountable if signed, and even if unsigned would encourage a measure of state self-reflection and review.

As Nowak’s five years or so of reports have shown, prisons tend to bring out the worst in people on both sides of the bars. Those who have lost their right liberty – validly or not – need their remaining rights protecting with even more vigilance.

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Man on a mission for women’s justice

 March 8, 2009, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong


Nasir Aslam Zahid has led the struggle for equal rights in Pakistan, where women remain in chains. But the former judge vows to fight on.

For a free man, Nasir Aslam Zahid spends a lot of time in jail. “It does sometimes baffle callers,” says the Pakistani in clipped, wry tones, at the Asian Legal Resources Centre in Hong Kong. “Most of my phone calls these days are taken from prison.”

The former chief justice runs LAO, a legal aid organization based out of Central Prison Karachi, which helps women and children incarcerated across his home province, Sindh. These days he is more worried about the renovation of toilets, administering of medicine and arranging of bail than passing judgments, but both roles  have exposed him to the glut of problems facing women in his country: from honour killings and sweatshops, to drug use and the high rate of domestic violence.  Also director of the Hamdard School of Law, Zahid has taught some of Pakistan’s top female ministers. Now in his seventies, his decades in the field – and three daughters – have made Zahid a keen observer of the path of women’s rights in Pakistan for at least half of its 61 year history.

It all began with the political trail-blazer herself. “I became federal law secretary for Benazir [Bhutto] in ’88; I was part of the small group that got the entire election held,” he says with pride, recalling the landmark election of the country’s first female prime minister. Back then Bhutto had placed Zahid at the head of a small working group called the Commission of Enquiry for Women, which included Asma Jahangir, now head of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. But if the country’s women had expected a big change with Bhutto’s appointment, Zahid believes that they were let down.

“Firstly, Benazir didn’t call for it, the whole senate did – and when we finished I think just one or two of our recommendations out of 400 were ever implemented,“ he remembers of the study, which took the group years to complete. “It was never officially published. If I want to see a copy I have to go to a women’s organization.” Bhutto had two opportunities to make a big change for women, Zahid notes (she was prime minster twice) but under her, he says, there was surprisingly little done.

In fact it was when military chief Pervez Musharraf seized power in 1999, and Zahid had moved from chief justice of the Sindh high court to a Supreme Court judge, that he says some progress came about. Musharraf, who stepped down last year, tripled the number of seats reserved for women in the national assembly (to sixty), and reserved 17% of seats in provincial assemblies, though these would be picked by their parties rather than directly elected. Musharraf’s era also saw the Women’s Protection Bill passed, which brought certain crimes involving women, such as rape, under the penal code rather than religious law. In the old system rape victims could be jailed.

“Before that we had many cases where the man accused his wife of an affair,” Zahid also remembers. “In one case I interviewed a woman in the jail and she told me: ‘I was not well, so husband took me to hospital, and he and his brother would come and see me. One day the brother brought his friend, and the friend stayed outside the door of the room. When they went away, my husband asked me, who was he?’ … The woman didn’t know, and the man took a case against her. She remained in jail for three years until she was acquitted.”

As the lone man in a family of women, and married to a doctor, Zahid has long struggled with his country’s views on women, so for him this was a singular triumph.  “Now such cases are almost extinct” he notes, with a deep satisfaction. But he adds that sex outside of marriage remains illegal for women, punishable with up to five years in prison if proven by pregnancy.

When the new government came to power last April, human rights watchdogs noted the boost given to civil and political rights, and many foresaw a similar lift for women. President Asif Ali Zardari is the widow of Benazir Bhutto, assassinated last year, and there are women prominently placed in his party. But a year on, Zahid has yet to see much real change from his place in the field. Though a sexual harassment and domestic violence bill are inching their way slowly through the parliamentary process, with more than 100 girls’ schools in the north demolished last year by religious radicals, and an estimated 80% of Pakistani women having experienced domestic violence, is this enough?

“If you are being mistreated by your in- laws or your husband in Pakistan, even now, you will not take this case to the provincial courts,” says Zahid. “Many judges have not been trained or sensitized to gender issues. They say, how is this woman allowed to come to court? The law has been made by men, courts are men, police are all male and when a court case involves a woman, everything is against that woman.” In Karachi prison Zahid estimates that 17 to 20% of the inmates are there for murdering their husbands. “They think it’s their only way out,” he says.

At the Legal Aid Office and its sister organization, the Women Prisoners Welfare Society, partly run by his wife Dr Farhat Nasir Zahid, women are given pro bono representation by sympathetic advocates. Before LAO, Zahid says, there was little effort made to arrange bail for the women or attend to their needs, and some might not hear news from the outside for months at a time, their cases dragging on for years. Some had their children in jail with them. Under LAO the prison population has gone from about 700 to 300 inmates, most released early or on bail.

But to be a woman alone in Pakistan is also a daunting prospect, Zahid notes, and he worries about the circumstances his clients go back to. Most of them, female and young, worked in the ‘informal sector’ before they were arrested – in factories or offices where they weren’t registered and received no benefits or protection from labour laws. Many are government-owned, he says. “Social empowerment is important, but unless women are economically empowered they will always remain under the control of the man,” he says. “They will always be vulnerable.”

Out in the country’s rural perimeters women walk a particularly perilous line. Here, tribal customs and radical Muslim principles have evolved apart from the liberalization of the cities, with community elders and religious leaders still preaching a fiery, misogynistic brand of Islam and ruling through unregulated tribal courts. It is from the ‘deep south’ in Balochistan and Sindh that details of horrific honour killings have been escaping. A combination of fear and religious rigour in these areas keeps most cases from court.  Zahid remembers a recent seminar on domestic violence, run by an NGO and attended by 17 district judges. “For two to three hours I listened to speeches. When my turn came I said, I would like to know how much experience is in this room?” he says. “The total in the room was about 200 years. I said, how many cases of domestic violence have you had: between you?” He pauses. “Not one! And I asked, how many cases of honour killings? Just one.”

Zahid believes that this mindset has little chance of being changed from the top down anytime soon. As well as its general inaction, Zahid and commentators across the country have noted at least two grave missteps on the part of President Zardari’s government. When five women were buried alive in Balochistan last summer, two of them girls on their way to be married, one federal minister (Senator Mir Israrullah Zehri) defended the acts in parliament as ‘custom’. Another minister was revealed to have helmed a tribal court ruling which saw five young children handed over between families as a compensation payment (they were later returned).  Not long after these incidents, both ministers received promotions and the latter, Mir Hazar Khan Bijarani, is now minister of education. Pakistan’s human rights community was horrified, and so was Zahid – he had taught Bijarani in law school.

“Why did mister Zardari accept them?” he asks. “What does that say? If you’re going to make compromises you’re not going to make any headway. It means that no change is going to come about as far as women are concerned in Pakistan.”

But back in Sindh province, no longer in court, Zahid takes satisfaction from the small victories. The Karachi jail has sixteen modern new bathrooms and an expanded outdoor area – there are even fans and TVs – and it has become a model for women’s prisons in the country. This has been managed, Zahid says with a grin, because most of the officials he has to deal with have appeared before him in the court at some time or another. He might have reduced the scope of his work but the former judge now gets to enjoy concrete, visible change. “There is a such a difference among the women. You can see it in their eyes that there is hope, “ he says. It’s a sentiment he would like to see move beyond the prison walls.

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The Great Land Grab

The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 7 October 2008: SCMP land grab (PDF)

15,000 Cambodians are at risk of eviction from their homes as developers exploit a corrupt system which fails to protect property rights.

In June 1975 waves of black-clad guerilla fighters entered Phnom Penh and emptied it – by persuasion, coercion and violence – in just a few days. The Khmer Rouge north had beaten the south, and as a first step, more than two million bewildered people were banished from the city and sent to live in the countryside. Today, facing the prospect of its first skyscraper, a rash of Special Economic Zones and numerous foreign-backed developments, Cambodia is boasting of a new era. Yet some things haven’t changed.

“See that tree?” asks Son Chhay, a bespectacled Cambodian minister, as we stand on the steps of the new national assembly building and look south. “Behind that there’s a company, 7NG Group, that’s trying to move 600 families more than 20km away. They’re literally building around them now, cutting off their entrances and exits. They have gangsters. A few of us have already had to physically step in in their defense.”

An opposition MP and a notorious thorn in the side of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, Son Chhay has been fighting land-grabbing since at least 2000, when he found out that a piece of property he’d owned for five years was being eyed by developers; it was just outside of Siem Reap and he had planned to turn it into an agricultural training centre. After a convenient declaration was issued by the Council of Ministers, earmarking the area for a ‘hotel development’ zone, Son Chhay, along with 150 families had been told that if he moved out quietly, he would get a decent rate for the property.

“Cambodian property laws state that if the government buys private land they should be using it for the public interest, and they must pay the market price,” Son Chhay stressed. “If it was for schools or a road it would be different, but hotels? Why do we need them to build hotels when we Cambodians can do that?”

The families were offered between US$0.3 to US$2 per square metre, and Son Chhay himself was offered fifty cents. His land back then, he says was easily worth US$50 per sq metre, and now, having passed from the government-appointed Apsara Foundation to the Sokha Hotel Resort company and morphing into the luxury Angkor Resort Hotel, it’s easily worth twenty times that. After a messy, protracted fight, a third of the families managed to walk away with a figure slightly better than the original offer.

Many in Cambodia have been far less lucky. Following a violent eviction from Sambok Chap in PHNOM PENH, nearly a thousand families were dropped off at a field 22km from the city, with no shelter, electricity or running water – except for frequent ankle-deep floods. NOW, two years later they still live in damp squalor. Other eviction victims have simply had to move on to the streets.

Perhaps more alarming is the dwindling democratic space left for Cambodians to protest in. While the government insists that Cambodia is a credible business environment, reports are on the rise of arbitrary arrests and beatings, residents being forced from their homes, and of property burned or confiscated. In Kampot province this June, eyewitnesses described a standoff between approximately 30 villagers and 100 military police; men and women were beaten unconscious and four were charged with stealing and willful damage to property (the result, say NGO reports, of a policeman’s mobile phone being grabbed, and land allotment signposts being pulled out from the ground).

In 2005 five people were shot dead during a forced eviction, as were two last November in Preah Vihear province, including the wife of a community representative. Those responsible are rarely charged. Ties remain uncomfortably tight between the ruling party and the tycoons that support it financially; it has been noted by the Asian Legal Rights Commission (ALRC) that 99% of judges in the country’s fledgling court system belong to the CPP.

Cambodia was one item on the agenda at the Human Rights Council’s Ninth session in Geneva last month and forced eviction topped many delegates’ list of concerns. “Land-grabbing is rife,” said the ALRC’s representative Michael Anthony, in his address. “In 2007 it affected more than 5,000 families who were forcibly evicted from their homes and land without just compensation. An estimated 150,000 Cambodians are currently at risk.”

The problem, says Dr Lao Mong Hay, former head of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, is how little organization there is in land ownership. After the war and Pol Pot’s four year course in intense and very bloody agrarian communism, those who had survived were given small plots of land to live from, but no title deeds. Sponsored attempts have been made to organize the land over the years but these, as Dr Lao discovered, come at a cost. “It was supposed to be free,” he says, when he went to register his own plot three years ago, “but at every step of the way, from the land officers to the registry office, a small bribe was needed, $10 here, then another $20, another $20. Then, to legalise the process it cost $70! The average Cambodian does not have that money.”

Villagers in rural areas are particularly vulnerable; whether along the south coast where the beaches are lucratively white and property has gone from $50 to $200 per square metre in the past year, or in remote rural areas, where space is snatched for logging and rubber plantations. In some cases businessmen have simply hired workmen to clear swathes of forestry land and threaten park rangers into submission. Few rural Cambodians know that they need to officially lay claim to their land and even if they did, the process is fraught with obstacles.

In Siem Reap – Cambodia’s second poorest province – an arm of the Cambodian NGO, LICADHO, tries to safeguard the rights of local farmers and residents through workshops. “They don’t really know their rights, so not many do complain,” says Sar Vannara, one of the four men in the small office, found along a dirt road near Angkor.  It’s a big job – the province has close to a million people – and it’s not the safest of vocations. When asked if they’d been threatened over the years, the group broke into gales of laughter. “Of course!” said one, on his recovery. “We are here opposing the government.”

In 2004, shortly before his re-election, Prime Minister Hun Sen declared war on land-grabbers, identifying many in his own party. Several high profile officials, including an army major, tycoons and provincial governors, were arrested or fined, and forced to return thousands of hectares of land. But little is being done to educated Cambodians on their land rights and since Hun Sen’s re-election arrests have dwindled and land continues to be cleared. “He acts as a safety valve,” says Dr Lao. “When the pressure gets too strong he’ll step in. It’s not consistent.”

According to the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) at least 70,000 people are still at risk of eviction in Phnom Penh alone, most in the government’s battle against ‘squatters’; many Cambodians have lived in the same ramshackle dwellings since the end of the war, and as Phnom Penh’s fortunes rise, they are less welcome.

Boeng Kak lake, in the north of the city, is one example. Last month bulldozers started to work among its stilted waterside houses, home to about 4,000 families, after the government leased the property to a private developer for 99 years.  The lake is to be filled in and turned into a tourism destination. Residents say they have been told little about what will become of their homes and businesses if this happens. Land laws in Cambodia state that in order for state public property to be leased it should be for a maximum of 15 years, and must keep its original function.

“If the government wishes to develop Boueng Kok Lake they should do so through a legal process,” says Dan Nicholson, Coordinator at COHRE. “The question is not just whether the level of compensation is adequate once people are forced off their land – it’s whether an eviction is justified in the first place.” Should this continue, both COHRE and Amnesty International warn that it could be the beginning of the biggest forced eviction since the Khmer Rouge lost power.

For things to change, says Dr Lao, land laws need to be respected. “Hun Sen needs to do more,” he says. “He should end the practice of using executive orders to adjudicate land disputes, and should instead utilize the due process of law. He should also cease his control of the courts of law, clean up their corruption, provide them with adequate resources and respect their judgments.”

Foreign investors, too, can make a difference, say the group at Licadho. They should ask more questions about where the land is coming from, and ask for proof that the original land owners were willing to sell.

But as Cambodia’s development continues to boom and little of the profit trickles down to Cambodians – the ones stuck in makeshift shelters on remote plots of land, or who wake each morning at home to the sound of encroaching bulldozers – Hun Sen may find it harder to ease the pressure indefinitely. “No one can rule forever,” says Son Chhay. “I have to be optimistic. Sooner or later the people will make decisions about the society they want, they will decide enough is enough. Then they will move to the streets.”

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Pakistan’s Persecuted Minority

Asia Sentinel [link], Hong Kong, 30 September 2009; also carried in the World Politics Review

Ahmadis face serious danger and death, some of it possibly fomented by the government

Last month Pakistan’s President Asif Ali Zardari observed the country’s National Minority Day by calling minority groups “a sacred trust for Pakistan” and lamenting the ‘extremist elements’ responsible for their insecurity in the country. But his words fell flat for Pakistan’s Ahmadis, for whom a fresh surge of hostile incidents, some linked to the state itself, is capping decades of persecution.

The issue was taken up this month by Iqbal Haider, the co-chair of NGO, The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan: “Ahmadis are the worst victims of such discrimination and deprivation, mainly because they refuse to regard themselves as non- Muslims,” he said to Daily Dawn’s political magazine, the Herald. “The state and the society are unwilling to let them have any rights, let alone the freedom to practice their religion. Pakistan has most oppressive laws when it comes to Ahmadis and the suspicion runs deep.”

Ahmadis are arguably the most vilified minority across the Islamic world. They are not considered Muslims by mainstream branches of the religion. Founded in the 1880s by a religious figure named Ghulam Ahmad, Ahmadis differ with the mainstream on the death and return of Jesus, the concept of jihad and, most controversially, the question of whether the Prophet Mohammad was the last messenger from Allah. Ghulam claimed to have received messages himself from god, making him a later prophet.

Pakistan is hardly alone in discriminating against Ahmadis. In Indonesia, where they are known as the Ahmadiyah, they have been terrorized regularly, with their places of worship attacked by fundamentalists and members being banned from taking part in the Haj in some parts of the country. Laws were passed in Indonesia last year restricting their activities and prohibiting them from proselytizing. In many parts of Kyrgistan, they have been told to cease worshiping.

The depredations in Pakistan have been particularly distressing. Since the mid 1980s, the Ahmadis have been dying in droves. Some 104 have been murdered in targeted attacks or lynchings and 117 others have escaped murder attempts, according to the community’s records. Other forms of harassment are also common: mosques have been demolished, set on fire and forcibly occupied and Ahmadi corpses have been dug up from Muslim graveyards.

Statistics tend to run from 1984 because that’s when a column started to appear on all official forms, asking whether or not a person believes in the ‘finality of the prophet;’ part of dictator Zia ul Haq’s ‘Islamization’ drive that cordoned off Ahmadis and other minorities from mainstream life. But recently things have become markedly worse, with at least eight Ahmadis murdered in the last year alone in Pakistan, according to the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), and many more falsely arrested. Doctors are a popular target, possibly because Ahmadis tend to be well educated (the group claims a 100 percent literacy rate for women) and at least seven have been murdered in the last three years.

Bouts of anti-Ahmadi or anti-Qadiani sentiment have long seemed to kick in with a ruler’s loosening grip on power.

“In Pakistan religion has been used by the political leadership to sustain their political agenda for a long time,” notes Khawaja Zafar Iqbal, a non-Ahmadi journalist and founder of the Kashmiri-based NGO, Press for Peace (currently in hiding due to a fatwa). “Even our former Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was considered very liberal, received considerable public support during his rule by declaring Ahmadis to be non-Muslims.”

Similarly, seven years into the reign of dictator Zia ul Haq in the 80s, when his power base was seen to be slipping, he strengthened specifically-anti Ahmadi legislation with an ordinance and a couple of amendments to the penal code. And these days a struggling President Zardari appears to be making no concrete commitment to combating public aggression against the sect, much of it linked to the Punjab Provincial Chief Minister, Muhammad Shahbaz Sharif and his ambitious brother and opposition party leader Nawaz Sharif.

In 2008 and 2009 a spate of vociferously anti-Ahmadi conferences (known as the Khatme-E-Nabwat movement) have gone ahead in Punjab, with street processions and two-storey billboards in town centres proclaiming ‘Friendship with Mirza (Ahmadis) is like the enmity of Allah’ (see image). One of the official sponsors in a number of these events was the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), the provincial ruling party; their insignia appears on the billboards and members of parliament attend. Ahmadi groups also point out that frontline PML-N politicians – including current Chairman Raja Zafura-ul-Haq and Pakistan’s former president Rafiq Tarir have belonged to aggressively anti-Ahmadi parties such as Jamaat Islamiah. For sect members in this province in particular, these conferences are a time to keep their heads down.

This seems particularly necessary when looking at the lack of help Ahmadis tend to get from the legal system; in a country already notorious for police corruption, violence against them can appear state sanctioned.

Late last year a guest on the religious program ‘Alam Online’ (hosted by the former federal minister for religious affairs) repeatedly and freely urged Muslims to kill Ahmadi sect members as a religious duty.

The next day a 45-year old Ahmadi doctor was shot 11 times on his hospital floor by six men, and a day later a 75 year old community leader was shot in the street in Sindh. In the former case although the shooters were seen sauntering casually out of the hospital’s front entrance, no one has been arrested and no official moves were made to hold the program accountable (a weak apology was made after much NGO lobbying).

No one has been arrested for the murder of a trader earlier this year, who died when three men asked him to identify his religion, then peppered his car with gunfire. Ahmadi groups say that little progress has been made in the prosecution of two madrassa students who tried to behead a sect professor this June, but were successfully fought off.

In fact the law for Ahmadis appears to be working inversely, blasphemy laws in particular being misused – it is estimated by the AHRC that 500 Ahmadis are currently charged with offences that vary from ‘impersonating a Muslim’ to desecrating the Quran, which is punishable with death, and in most cases little evidence is used to book them.

In Punjab early this year four teenagers and a teacher of theirs were arrested for writing the name of the Prophet on the walls of a toilet at a mosque in Layaah, though no evidence was given to link them to the mosque or the area itself; police later lamented pressure from fundamentalists groups to make the arrests and the judge trying the case himself became a target of street protests by Majlis-i-Ahrar-i-Islam lobbying for strong punishment. Media reports this week noted a fresh wave of police operations in Lahore to pull down Quranic verses or plaques from above Ahmadi shop doors. This official line has done little to set a positive example in the community.

“People are very loyal and lovely,” insists Munawar Ali Shahid, the General Secretary for Amnesty International in Lahore, an Ahmadi. “The problem is the politicians and political parties and their underground alliances with religious groups.” Nevertheless he talks of discrimination against his son at school – he was told not to drink from the same tap as other students by his teacher – and of reluctance to tell people of his religion.

Munawar Shahid

The feeling extends to the press, which commonly prints fatwas issued by religious groups against minorities (see image) yet refused across the board last year when Ahmadi group tried to place an advertisement explaining that they were boycotting the general election because of religious discrimination.

“All these beautifully constructed articles take a 180 degree turn while considering the status of religious minorities, especially Ahmadis in Pakistan,” says human rights lawyer Rao Zafar Iqbal, of the laws in the penal code that protect the right to religion. “The Zardari government [are] unable to do such things because they are playing in the hands of unseen powers who have their own priorities.”

Iqbal himself narrowly escaped assassination earlier this summer and is in hiding, after fatwas against him were published by the Daily Pavel newspaper, decrying his legal defense of minorities. “I think it’s the failure of the government that religious minorities, activists and human rights defenders protection is still a vague thought in Pakistan,” he says.

A start, says Munawar Ali Shahid, would be the repeal of the ordinance that enforces religious declarations on official documents. Next, he says, Ahmadis must have their right to vote along with the rest of the country, rather than in a separate electoral role (Muslims with Christians, Hindus and other minorities were united electorally under Musharraf, but not Ahmadis). At 46 years old Munawar has never been able to bring himself to vote as a ‘non-Muslim’.

At face value the Zardari government agrees. “This is a Pakistan People’s Party’s Government that is deeply committed to the protection of minorities and to accord them rights a full criticizes” said parliamentarian Sherry Rehman earlier this month. Yet it’s likely that the teenagers with the near-lethal graffiti convictions, the fatwa-burdened lawyer, the disenfranchised father and the professor who nearly lost his head this year, would all like to see a little more bite behind the bark.

Jo Baker is a Hong Kong based journalist and program coordinator for the Asian Human Rights Commission

Comments (11)add




Witness the peril of the “Latter Days”
written by Matin, Jameel , October 29, 2009

Great post


Witness the peril of the “Latter Days”
written by Abdul_Ahad , October 22, 2009

Writer Jo Baker: 

Thanks for an eye-opening article. Alas, one cannot awaken another who is determined to continue feigning sleep.
The mullahs in Pakistan are determined to run the country into the ground, as long as they can command some position/prestige in the crumbling entity that is their lamentable nation. The federal government there has become the supreme tyrant, by virtue of its unrelenting persecution of the peace-loving group, the Ahmadis. Incredibly, in this day and age, that government declared the Ahmadis to be non-Muslim by (of all excuses) majority vote in Parliament! It has allowed a reign of terror to be let loose against Ahmadis, documentation of which is available freely.
Yet the irony is this: it is the Ahmadiyya Community that is at the forefront of the immense task of introducing the superbly-benevolent qualities of Islam to the world at large. Ahmadis construct mosques emblazoned with the Kalima (the Islamic creed). People world-wide click on for authoritative expositions of Islamic beliefs; they turn to Ahmadi scholars for intelligent explanations of Islamic concepts; and they respect the fact that that highly-educated group, though relatively small, has produced a Nobel Prize winner and other leaders of our eternal struggle toward a more-peaceful existence.
Pakistanis, wake up! The nations around you are progressing by leaps and bounds! Cast off your stupor and your chains of servility to the demented mullahs in your midst! If not for the Ahmadis, then do it for your nation’s survival!

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Wonderful to see someone
written by waseem sayed , October 21, 2009

Members of the Ahmadiyah Muslim community are renowned the world over for their attachment to peace. They are taught from their infancy that they must be law-abiding citizens wherever they live. 

Their motto is: Love for all, hatred for none. They believe that faith devoid of good deeds and service of God’s creation is no faith at all. Thus, in every society where the Ahmadis are found, the communities bear witness to their unblemished record of peaceful, law-abiding nature and can show the good works they are involved in to improve the lives of the poor and disadvantaged members of the society.

The Ahmadiyah Muslim community has now built some 15,500 mosques, more than 500 schools and 30 hospitals. It has translated the Holy Koran into 60 languages.

It propagates the true teachings of Islam and the message of peace and tolerance through a twenty-four-hour satellite television channel (MTA), the Internet – – and print (Islam International Publications).

It has been at the forefront of disaster relief in the United States and worldwide through an independent charitable organization, Humanity First – It is strange that such totally harmless, indeed beneficial members of society should be made the target of attacks.

What is more alarming is that not just the authorities, but the vast majority of Pakistanis are totally blind to the deadly consequences of this persecution that they have seen unfold before their very eyes. If Bhutto and Zia the two masterminds of this ‘service to Islam’ had in fact done Allah’s work why would they and their nation have been flushed down the toilet after such magnificent service?

I fear the end will be the total destruction of the Country! God save us from this disaster.

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written by Atifa , October 16, 2009

hello, and thankssmilies/grin.gif its good to see that other people are realising the discrimination being done against ahmadies and other minorities…its quite amazing how politicians and mullah’s are educated but still illeterate…
you should also look into the more recent things the Mullahs have gotten upto.
there have been cases of kidnapping ahmadi children (one waseven, sadly murdered) and asking ransom money from Ahmadi communities OUTSIDE of Pakistan, since they know we live freely outside Pakistan.
its sad how the Mullahs and other people think they can kill us as they please. if they hate us as ahmadies they should atleast consider us as humans. wives have lost their husbands who are a support for them, children have lost their fathers.
it would be great if you could notify others aswell of these horrid acts against minorities in Pakistan. 

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written by Farooq , October 11, 2009

Good Article, keep it up 

More journalists need to take up the case of persecuted minorities such as Ahmadis in Pakistan to give them a voice with a view to bringing this to the attention of the World so that justice can be done

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written by Tarique Malik , October 09, 2009

Hello Jo, 

It’s a very nice articles, keep it up carry on this good work. We have to do something to stop this main stream Mullah of Pakistan to save not just Ahmadies( the peace loving ,the only loyal community of Pakistan even before the creation of Pakistan) Christians, Hindus, Sikh and other minorities in Pakistan. May Allah give you the best reward for doing this great work.smilies/kiss.gif

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written by Umar Rasheed , October 02, 2009

Hello Jo Baker,
Very good articles, keep it up carry on. 

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justice in Pakistan
written by Abu Luqman , October 01, 2009

this is good thing keep it up.only the ahmadies are not hatted in pakistan rather the minorities are also in dangers like Hindus chritians and many more.
Keep pakistan out of mullah s hand,if not concern cheef justice of pakistan to look into the matters.
thanks and thanks for ur brave ness. 

Abu Luqman
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written by ASU Rajput , October 01, 2009

Hello Jo,
It is good to see someone speaking the truth about the Ahmadis living in Pakistan. I would suggest you to investigate the following topics as well.
1. See what happened to the National Assembly that termed Ahmadis as Non-Muslim.
2. See the fate of the the most powerful political figure of Pakistan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto (ZAB), who was the leader of the house in 1974.
3. How the institutions in Pakistan depleted and corrupted ever since the doors on Ahmadis were shut.
4. How the extremism made Pakistan a threat to the whole world, the first bow-down to them was done in 1974 when the then government accepted their demands. 

There is a lot to investigate and you will come up with lot of surprises if you dig deep into this subject.


ASU Rajput

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Commander (Retd)
written by Munir Varraich , September 30, 2009

Hello Jo Baker, 

Good to know that someone talks about Ahmadis in the media. But what you write has been written many times in the press and the media.

I must make it clear that when we talk about Democracy then there is no majority and no minority. Whether it is Benazir’s PPP or whether it is Asif Ali Zardari’s PPP, first and foremost the policians of Pakistan and the society of Pakistan have to decide whether they want an Islamic Republic of Pakistan or a Democratic Republic of Pakistan.

If it is Islamic, then we can talk about Majority and minority in the religious context. Hard luck Ahmadis, in such an Islamic State the rule of Shariah (according to the Mullah) will be implemented. That means Blasphemy Law must be implemented with full Islamic vigour. In that scenario all Ahmadis MUST be killed to purify the Islamic State of Pakistan. Because Mirza Ghulam Ahmad has claimed that he is not only a prophet but has appeared after the Last Prophet who was Mohamad.

As afr as the Law of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan is concerned, the DEATH SENTENCE to all Ahmadis in Pakistan and all the Muslim countries in the world, is LAWFUL and LEGAL.

Hello Jo Baker, can you stop this “MURDER OF HERETICS” in the name of Democracy (here it means that majority vote is right and has the right to implement its decision) which goes on in the Muslim World?

If not then all this effort which you want to do is of no use. When madness which has been let lose for the last 400 years by the Church and which during the colonial times was copied, ney, monkeyed by the Muslim world, and when any sense was attempted into the blocked mindset, those very persons and communities was sent to the gallows or the stakes and in today’s world beheaded and their houses burnt. All in the name of religion.


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