Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Going to school in Afghanistan

Why does the idea of girls learning to read upset some people so much?

A tip from normblog refers us to a piece in today's Toronto Star by Kieran Green, Communications Manager for CARE Canada ("The courage of Afghan schoolgirls"). Some highlights:
Last week, newspapers around the world reported how yet another school for Afghan girls was attacked. Some sort of gas was released, sickening numerous young girls. These sorts of attacks are becoming ever more common in Afghanistan. In 2008 there were about 670. That rose to more than 800 in 2009. For 2010 CARE estimates the stats will top 1,000.
[From the New York Times: According to a study by the Afghan Public Health Ministry and the World Health Organization, "Blood tests have confirmed that a mysterious series of cases of mass sickness at girls’ schools across the country over the last two years were caused by a powerful poison gas," described as "toxic but not fatal."]
Attacks are becoming all too common. Nevertheless, this particular attack came as a shock for me. Just the day before the attack, I had visited a health-care centre not only in the same district of Kabul as that school, but barely 200 metres down the road.

What really brought it home was learning the next day that several staff members from my organization, CARE, had children in that school. At CARE, in every country where we work, the vast majority of our staff are nationals — residents of that country. So when things happen, whether natural disasters like the Haiti quake or violence like this attack, it directly touches the lives of our staff in very real ways. And yet they always pick up and carry on.

I visited the home of Sakina, one of those staff members, and met her daughter Marwa, who was one of the girls directly affected by the attack. [....]

In a week or so, my own daughters will go back to school. The biggest things we’ll have to worry about are what we can and can’t put in their lunches, and if we have all the school supplies they’ll need. We don’t have to worry whether someone will spray poison gas into their classroom because they don’t think girls should have a right to go to school. So much we take for granted.

I do know this. Never again in my life do I want to hear a small girl say the words Marwa said to me today: “I’m very afraid of going back to school. Last time I became sick. Next time I think I will die.”
But read the whole thing.

(For another Afghan story, this one from 2009, see The bravery of Afghan schoolgirls,)

--Jeff Weintraub

Monday, August 30, 2010

Iraqi Poll: Majority do not want Americans to leave right now

Today marks the official end of the US combat mission in Iraq. Barack Obama will be giving a nationally televised address about it tonight; and Iraq's Prime Minister Maliki celebrated the occasion with a speech declaring that U.S.-Iraqi relations "have entered a new stage between two equal, sovereign countries."

Obviously, that formulation about "the end of the US combat mission" is misleading, to say the least, except in the most deceptively narrow ultra-technical sense. There are still almost 50,000 US troops in Iraq, down from over 130,000 in 2008 but still a substantial number. Officially they are transitioning from active combat operations to providing support and training for Iraqi forces, who are supposed to bear the main responsibility for maintaining order and security. But as long as violent conflict continues (which it does, albeit at much lower levels than in 2006-2007), at least some of those troops will be involved in combat (in "partnership" with Iraqi soldiers, as the US military puts it).

Nevertheless, this does constitute another milestone in the process of winding down the American war in Iraq. How do Iraqis feel about it? According to various pieces of information, including a recent survey of Iraqi public opinion, most Iraqis are nervous about the prospect.

Joel Wing, whose "Musings on Iraq" website is one of the best places to go for ongoing news and analysis about Iraq, has a nice piece about this (see below). Some highlights:
The U.S. is moving ahead with its withdrawal plans from Iraq. On August 24, 2010 the commander of U.S. forces in the country, General Ray Odierno, said that American troop levels had dropped to 49,700. A private Iraqi firm, Asharq Research Center, conducted a poll of 1,150 people, aged 18 and above in all of Iraq’s 18 provinces from August 15-23 about what they thought about it. The majority said that it was the wrong time for the Americans to leave.

The Asharq Research Center asked four questions of Iraqis. The first was whether it was the right time for the U.S. to withdraw. 59.8% said it was not appropriate at this time, while 39.5% said it was. Next they asked whether people were for or against President Obama’s decision to end combat missions within Iraq. Respondents were more evenly divided with 53.1% disagreeing, and 46.2% agreeing. The third question was about what affect the U.S. withdrawal would have on Iraq. 51% said it would be bad for the country, with 25.8% saying it would be positive. The last topic was whether President Obama was concerned about Iraq. Respondents had mixed views with 41.9% saying that he didn’t care about Iraq, 39.8% said he did, while 15.5% didn’t know. [....]
These results differ to some degree from polling results a few years ago, which suggested that most Iraqi respondents were more eager to press for the exit of US troops. In some ways, though, these shifting patterns are unsurprising. Ever since the 2003 invasion, most Iraqis seem to have been deeply, even ferociously, ambivalent about the US presence in Iraq--even leaving aside the fact that different groups of Iraqis have had sharply different attitudes about it at different times. The overall weight of evidence suggests that at first most Iraqis, on balance and with varying degrees of reluctance, welcomed the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath regime, even at the cost of a foreign invasion. Within a fairly short time, however, the Americans had worn out their welcome and made a mess of things--and, I would say, acquired some moral responsibilities to the Iraqi people. Not long ago, many Iraqis were probably convinced that the Americans never intended to leave, so their main concern was to avoid an open-ended occupation. Now they realize that, in fact, Americans very much want to get out of Iraq, so that concern is less pressing. Instead, they worry about the dangers of an overly hasty US withdrawal.
The August poll shows that Iraqis are quite apprehensive about the U.S. leaving Iraq.

With no new government five months after parliamentary elections, and insurgents picking up with their high profile operations such as on August 25 when simultaneous attacks were carried out in 13 different cities including Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit, Kirkuk, Kut, and Karbala, it’s no wonder why some Iraqis are asking whether this is the right time for the Americans to withdraw. Despite the problems and resentment that the invasion caused, it appears that a slight majority of those polled believe that the U.S. could help with at least security. That’s a view shared by the Iraqi military as the chief of staff of the armed forces recently said that the Americans should stay until 2020 to help with national defense. [....]

The problem is that the Obama administration is working on a Washington agenda that is caught up with the recession, the war in Afghanistan, keeping Obama’s campaign promises about Iraq, and the November elections. That means while U.S. troops will continue to work with their Iraqi counterparts on training, advising, counterterrorism, development, and governance, and a small contingent will probably remain past the 2011 deadline for them to be out, the period of massive U.S. involvement in every facet of Iraqi society is coming to an end, and nothing is likely to change that.
And this is almost certainly for the best, given the realistically available alternatives.

In retrospect, it's clear that if the US had decided to abandon Iraq back in 2007, at the height of civil war and inter-sectarian bloodbath in Arab Iraq--a possibility that seemed quite plausible around the end of 2006 and the beginning of 2007--the results would have been catastrophic. Instead, the US government reaffirmed and beefed up the US commitment, while authorizing a switch to the more activist counter-insurgency strategy championed and carried out by Petraeus and Odierno, who also caught some lucky breaks on the ground and took advantage of them effectively. That was a tremendous gamble, and one which might have failed disastrously; but in fact it managed to turn the situation around, prevent Iraq from going totally off a cliff, and create the possibility (no more than that) for Iraqi political forces to pull together some kind of decent and workable long-term settlement.

Iraq is still a mess in many ways, and faces enormous challenges and dangers. But as I noted earlier this year, whatever one thinks about the 2003 Iraq war, honesty should compel us to recognize that on the fundamental question as it was posed around the beginning of 2007--whether or not the right course was for the US to admit failure and abandon Iraq--Generals Petraeus and Odierno, John McCain, and even (let's give credit where it's due) George W. Bush turned out to be right, whereas Barack Obama, most Democrats, much of the top military brass, and a great many Republicans were wrong. Obama, to his credit, recognized that by the time he became President.

Nevertheless, in the long run that kind of US military commitment couldn't and shouldn't be maintained indefinitely. That was never in the cards. The pace and details of US military disengagement may be flexible in the coming years. But the overall process of disengagement won't be reversed. As Joel Wing concludes:
Iraqis are going to have to handle their own affairs with all the difficulties that entails whether they are ready or not.
Good luck to them, and let's stay tuned.

As nervous as the Iraqis, but hoping for the best,
Jeff Weintraub

==============================
Joel Wing - Musings on Iraq
Thursday, August 26, 2010
Iraqi Poll: Majority Do Not Want Americans To Leave Right Now

The U.S. is moving ahead with its withdrawal plans from Iraq. On August 24, 2010 the commander of U.S. forces in the country, General Ray Odierno, said that American troop levels had dropped to 49,700. A private Iraqi firm, Asharq Research Center, conducted a poll of 1,150 people, aged 18 and above in all of Iraq’s 18 provinces from August 15-23 about what they thought about it. The majority said that it was the wrong time for the Americans to leave.

The Asharq Research Center asked four questions of Iraqis. The first was whether it was the right time for the U.S. to withdraw. 59.8% said it was not appropriate at this time, while 39.5% said it was. Next they asked whether people were for or against President Obama’s decision to end combat missions within Iraq. Respondents were more evenly divided with 53.1% disagreeing, and 46.2% agreeing. The third question was about what affect the U.S. withdrawal would have on Iraq. 51% said it would be bad for the country, with 25.8% saying it would be positive. The last topic was whether President Obama was concerned about Iraq. Respondents had mixed views with 41.9% saying that he didn’t care about Iraq, 39.8% said he did, while 15.5% didn’t know.

The August poll shows that Iraqis are quite apprehensive about the U.S. leaving Iraq. With no new government five months after parliamentary elections, and insurgents picking up with their high profile operations such as on August 25 when simultaneous attacks were carried out in 13 different cities including Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, Fallujah, Ramadi, Tikrit, Kirkuk, Kut, and Karbala, it’s no wonder why some Iraqis are asking whether this is the right time for the Americans to withdraw. Despite the problems and resentment that the invasion caused, it appears that a slight majority of those polled believe that the U.S. could help with at least security. That’s a view shared by the Iraqi military as the chief of staff of the armed forces recently said that the Americans should stay until 2020 to help with national defense. Gen. Odierno made similar statements as well in the past few days. The problem is that the Obama administration is working on a Washington agenda that is caught up with the recession, the war in Afghanistan, keeping Obama’s campaign promises about Iraq, and the November elections. That means while U.S. troops will continue to work with their Iraqi counterparts on training, advising, counterterrorism, development, and governance, and a small contingent will probably remain past the 2011 deadline for them to be out, the period of massive U.S. involvement in every facet of Iraqi society is coming to an end, and nothing is likely to change that. Iraqis are going to have to handle their own affairs with all the difficulties that entails whether they are ready or not.

August 2010 Asharq Research Center Polling Results

Is it the right time for the U.S. to withdraw?
59.8% No
39.5% Yes

Do you agree or disagree with President Obama’s decision to end combat missions on August 31, 2010?
53.1% Disagree
46.2% Agree

How will the U.S. withdrawal affect Iraq?
51% Negatively
25.8% Positively

Does President Obama care about Iraq?
41.9% No, he doesn’t
39.8% Yes, he does
15.5% Don’t know

SOURCES

Agence France Presse, “Iraqis say ‘wrong time’ for US withdrawal: poll,” 8/24/10

Meek, James Gordon, “Gen. Odierno warns troops may stay in Iraq well beyond Obama's 2011 withdrawal target,” New York Daily News, 8/22/10

Shadid, Anthony, “Insurgents Assert Their Strength With Wave of Bombings Across Iraq,” New York Times, 8/25/10

Sakineh Ashtiani on death row: "they think they can do anything to women in this country"

Sakineh Ashtiani, who was sentenced to be stoned to death on (probably bogus) charges of adultery, may instead be hanged to death on (probably bogus) charges of murder. So far, that tactical shift--and the fact that she hasn't been executed yet either way--are the main responses of the Iranian regime and its legal system to the world-wide outcry of sympathy and protest on her behalf.

For some background, see here & here. For ongoing reports on the protest campaign against her execution, see here.

=> International journalists have had no access to Ashtiani in prison. But earlier this month, the Guardian published a report of an interview with her by a necessarily anonymous intermediary. Here's the gist of how Ashtiani saw the situation (as quoted or paraphrased by this intermediary):
In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, the woman whose sentence of death by stoning triggered an international outcry has accused the Iranian authorities of lying about the charges against her to pave the way to execute her in secret. [....]

In the interview, which took place through an intermediary who cannot be named for security reasons, she said: "They're lying. They are embarrassed by the international attention on my case and they are desperately trying to distract attention and confuse the media so that they can kill me in secret." [....]

Mohammadi Ashtiani said: "I was found guilty of adultery and was acquitted of murder, but the man who actually killed my husband was identified and imprisoned but he is not sentenced to death." [....]

"The answer is quite simple, it's because I'm a woman, it's because they think they can do anything to women in this country. It's because for them adultery is worse than murder – but not all kinds of adultery: an adulterous man might not even be imprisoned but an adulterous women is the end of the world for them. It's because I'm in a country where its women do not have the right to divorce their husbands and are deprived of their basic rights." [....]

She thanked campaigners for highlighting her case and said international pressure was her only hope for release. "For all these years, they [the officials] have tried to put something in my mind, to convince me that I'm an adulterous woman, an irresponsible mother, a criminal but with the international support, once again I'm finding myself, my innocent self."

She pleaded: "Don't let them stone me in front of my son." [....]
But read the whole article (below).

--Jeff Weintraub

===============================
The Guardian (London)
Friday, August 6, 2010
Iranian facing stoning speaks: 'It's because I'm a woman'
Exclusive: Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani accuses authorities in Tehran of lying about charges in attempt to execute her in secret

By Saeed Kamali Dehghan


Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, speaking through an intermediary, accused Tehran of trying to ‘confuse the media’ in order to kill her in secret. Photograph: AP


In an exclusive interview with the Guardian, the woman whose sentence of death by stoning triggered an international outcry has accused the Iranian authorities of lying about the charges against her to pave the way to execute her in secret.

Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, 43, was sentenced to death by stoning for adultery but it was commuted to hanging after an international outcry. Her initial sentence was for "having an illicit relationship outside marriage" but Iranian officials have claimed that she was also found guilty of murdering her husband and should still face death by stoning.

In the interview, which took place through an intermediary who cannot be named for security reasons, she said: "They're lying. They are embarrassed by the international attention on my case and they are desperately trying to distract attention and confuse the media so that they can kill me in secret."

Yesterday, Mossadegh Kahnemoui, a senior Iranian judicial official, told the UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination: "This lady, in addition to double adultery, is also found guilty of conspiracy to murder her husband."

Mohammadi Ashtiani said: "I was found guilty of adultery and was acquitted of murder, but the man who actually killed my husband was identified and imprisoned but he is not sentenced to death."

The accused, who has not been named, is not facing execution because Mohammadi Ashtiani's son pardoned him, but she was sentenced to death after a local prosecutor in Tabriz accused her of adultery.

"The answer is quite simple, it's because I'm a woman, it's because they think they can do anything to women in this country. It's because for them adultery is worse than murder – but not all kinds of adultery: an adulterous man might not even be imprisoned but an adulterous women is the end of the world for them. It's because I'm in a country where its women do not have the right to divorce their husbands and are deprived of their basic rights."

Mohammadi Ashtiani also revealed that at the moment the sentence was passed she did not understand the Arabic word used as the legal term for stoning.

"When the judge handed down my sentence, I even didn't realise I'm supposed to be stoned to death because I didn't know what 'rajam' means. They asked me to sign my sentence which I did, then I went back to the prison and my cellmates told me that I was going to be stoned to death and I instantly fainted."

Mohammadi Ashtiani fears that the exile of her original lawyer, Mohammad Mostafaei, has made her more vulnerable. "They wanted to get rid of my lawyer so that they can easily accuse me of whatever they want without having him to speak out. If it was not for his attempts, I would have been stoned to death by now."

Mostafaei volunteered to represent her for free and succeeded in bringing her case to world attention but fled to Turkey when Iranian authorities issued an arrest warrant for him. His wife is being held without charge in Tehran's notorious Evin prison.

Mostafaei, who was arrested on immigration charges in Istanbul, was released today and is on his way to Norway.

Describing life inside Tabriz prison, Mohammadi Ashtiani said she has been subject to constant mistreatment by prison guards. "Their words, the way they see me – an adulterous woman who should be stoned to death – is just like being stoned to death every day."

She thanked campaigners for highlighting her case and said international pressure was her only hope for release. "For all these years, they [the officials] have tried to put something in my mind, to convince me that I'm an adulterous woman, an irresponsible mother, a criminal but with the international support, once again I'm finding myself, my innocent self."

She pleaded: "Don't let them stone me in front of my son."

Twelve women and three men have also been sentenced to death by stoning in Iran.

How moral regulation works--or should work

Mark Kleiman, about whom I posted a few days ago, recommends a piece by David Kennedy about "Norms, Narratives, and Community Engagement for Crime Prevention" ... and sums up the larger sociological point with this acute and illuminating formulation:
Formal social control works mostly by leveraging informal social control: individual consciences and group norms.
At least, it generally works most smoothly, effectively, and humanely under those conditions. (That's a theoretical point emphasized, in slightly different ways, by Edmund Burke and Émile Durkheim--though one doesn't necessarily have to be either a conservative or a Durkheimian to find the idea convincing.)

The necessary caveat one has to add, and it's important, is that this is true if one assumes that the social norms in question aren't fundamentally inhumane--which one can't always assume, to say the least. (That complication brings us to the possible limits of a Burkean perspective, and it introduces a whole range of other moral and theoretical dilemmas, too.)

Moving back from general principles to concrete policies, Mark elaborates some practical implications for policing and crime control:
Respect and transparent fairness are the key. When the law enforcement system expresses hatred and contempt for offenders and the communities in which they live, that’s not just rude and stupid: it’s counterproductive. People who have been offenders are more likely to change their behavior if they can do so without sacrificing their self-respect.
That sounds plausible to me.

--Jeff Weintraub

Friday, August 27, 2010

Why not just give the crazies what they want? Isn't that being "realistic"?

On Thursday Greg Sargent's daily political-news-roundup blog for the Washington Post (Plum Line) contained the following item about the Cordoba House/Park51/"Ground Zero Mosque" affair. It hit the nail on the head.
* Convoluted argument of the day: New York's governor says the stabbing of the Muslim cabbie shows we need to move Cordoba House.

Ben Smith sums up: "The argument here: The mosque must be moved because its opponents are crazed, violent bigots who need to be appeased."
I agree, of course, that this kind of argument is foolish and pernicious--even when it's advanced by well-meaning people who just want to avoid the possibility of violence and other troubles. (Also gratuitously insulting to people who oppose the Cordoba House/Park51/"Ground Zero Mosque" initiative, not all of whom are simply bigots and/or political demagogues cynically exploiting that bigotry--though of course there are plenty of those.)

=> However, it's worth adding that arguments with precisely this logic are commonly made in debates about how Islamist terrorists (and their possible supporters, sympathizers, and enablers) might be provoked by US (or British) foreign policy, the Danish cartoon wars, the Salman Rushdie affair, and the like. Why not just avoid provoking or offending them by doing what they want? In those cases, the people making these arguments often think of themselves as "progressive" (or sometimes they're self-styled foreign-policy "realists," though nowadays those two categories overlap more than they used to). It would be all too easy to multiply examples, but here is one especially stupid pseudo-sophisticated examplar that comes to mind (which got a surprising amount of thoughtlessly favorable comment, but was effectively eviscerated here). Such arguments are equally foolish and pernicious.

To avoid any possible misunderstanding, my point here is not to continue the interminable but mostly unhelpful polemical games in which partisans of various camps try to score debating points by accusing each other of hypocrisy and inconsistency on these matters. As it happens, those accusations are often deserved, on all sides. But the solution is for everyone to recognize and avoid the seductive but fallacious and potentially dangerous logic that produces morally, politically, and intellectually stupid arguments of this sort.

=> On this point I'd like to quote the very intelligent left-liberal blogger "Hilzoy" (who has unfortunately retired from blogging, unless she resumed without my noticing).

Back in 2009, in the context of debates about anti-abortion terrorism by Christian-right extremists, Hilzoy took on various arguments suggesting or implying that while this violence was certainly deplorable, the sense of frustration behind it was in some sense understandable. (In using the word "understandable" here, I'm borrowing a formulation often used nowadays by British apologists for anti-semitism, terrorism against Israeli civilians, and so on). Hilzoy took the position that the morally appropriate and politically sensible response to terrorism is not simply to capitulate by doing what the terrorists and their supporters and sympathizers demand. On the contrary, it's a good idea, whenever possible, to send a clear message "that terrorism doesn't work" (or, to put it another way, "Terror Should Not Pay").

Hilzoy summed things up with this scornful remark:
Because, as we all know, giving terrorists what they want is the surest way to prevent more terrorism.
It seems to me that this formulation nicely captures the central issues. Either you think, as Hilzoy was implying, that this kind of argument is transparently foolish and pernicious ... or you think that it's sensible and realistic. Or, perhaps, you think it depends on circumstances. Or maybe, in effect, you find such arguments abhorrent and idiotic when they come from ideological sources you dislike, but sensible and humane when they come from sources with which you sympathize.

Think about it.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

Mark Kleiman explains what's wrong with the US criminal justice system

Or, at least, one important part of what's wrong with it. For those of you who haven't read any of Mark Kleiman's published work (including his latest book, When Brute Force Fails), and even for those of you who have ... this video clip from a recent interview does a good job of compactly delivering the gist of his basic message. I recommend watching it. I find that message generally convincing and compelling myself, but judge for yourself.

--Jeff Weintraub

(P.S. And if you want to follow that up, see James Q. Wilson & Mark Kleiman on crime & punishment and Mark's cogent assessment of "Law and order" as a political slogan.)

===================================
Mark Kleiman (The Reality-Based Community)
August 26, 2010
Less crime, less punishment, better production values

Zach Weissmueller of Reason.tv demonstrates that there is a level of production skill adequate to overcome my basic incompetence as an interviewee. The result is the best short version ever of When Brute Force Fails. All that’s left out is the details of the successful innovations such as HOPE and High Point.

Russia in color, a century ago

One reason I have been thinking lately about the old Russian Empire, before the First World War and the Russian Revolution swept it away, is that one of my cousins, the journalist Pamela Weintraub, has been reconstructing genealogical information about how my father's family--parents, grandparents, and others--managed to escape from it and emigrate to New York City back in 1902-1903. (And thank goodness they did!)

=> An item on normblog alerted me to a remarkable set of 34 color photographs taken across the Russian Empire between 1909 and 1912, in the years just before World War I. They're posted on the Boston Globe's photo blog. Alan Taylor, who runs the that website, explains:
With images from southern and central Russia in the news lately due to extensive wildfires, I thought it would be interesting to look back in time with this extraordinary collection of color photographs taken between 1909 and 1912. In those years, photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii (1863-1944) undertook a photographic survey of the Russian Empire with the support of Tsar Nicholas II. He used a specialized camera to capture three black and white images in fairly quick succession, using red, green and blue filters, allowing them to later be recombined and projected with filtered lanterns to show near true color images. The high quality of the images, combined with the bright colors, make it difficult for viewers to believe that they are looking 100 years back in time - when these photographs were taken, neither the Russian Revolution nor World War I had yet begun. Collected here are a few of the hundreds of color images made available by the Library of Congress, which purchased the original glass plates back in 1948. [Editor's Note: I will be on vacation for a bit. Next entry will be published on 8/27] (34 photos total)
The Russian Empire was quite vast, of course, and included a lot of non-Russians. All but a few of the photos in this particular set come from the eastern and south-eastern reaches of the Empire--Central Asia, the Caucasus, and Siberia. Here are some random examples (click on them to enlarge).

Jewish children with their teacher in Samarkand (now part of Uzbekistan) in 1910 (#16):

Isfandiyar Jurji Bahadur, Khan of Khorezm (now in Khazakhstan), 1910 (#7):

Prokudin-Gorskii, the photographer, rides along on a handcar on the Murmansk railway along Lake Onega (northwest Russia), 1910 (#23)

Armenian woman in national costume poses for Prokudin-Gorskii on a hillside near Artvin (which I assume would have been just across the border in the Ottoman Empire, now Turkey), circa 1910 (#1).

----------------------------------------------------
=> See the whole set of 34 photos, full-size, HERE.

[Update: An on-line compilation of the overall Prokudin-Gorskii Collection, with 2606 digitized images, is available HERE. Thanks to Pamela Weintraub for the tip.]

--Jeff Weintraub

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Further information about Fox News and Alwaleed Bin Talal

Jon Stewart correctly noted that Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal is the single biggest shareholder in News Corp., the parent company of Fox News. outside the Murdoch family (More crudely hypocritical propaganda from Fox News - Who is Alwaleed Bin Talal?). Further details below, for anyone who might be interested.

--Jeff Weintraub

==============================
DailyFinance
August 16, 2010 | Posted 1:40pm
News Corp., the Saudi Prince and the 'Ground Zero Mosque'
By Sam Gustin

Amid the howls of outrage over the proposed Islamic community center and mosque near Ground Zero, some political pundits on Fox News, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch's media conglomerate News Corp. (NWS), have been particularly vocal in their opposition to the project.

Last Thursday, popular Fox News host Sean Hannity said the proposed center's leader, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, a U.S. citizen who has spent 25 years working to improve relations between the Muslim world and the U.S., wants to "shred our Constitution" and install "Sharia law as the law of the land in America." Sharia is a body of law derived from the Koran and Islamic teachings.

In fact, in his book What's Right With Islam, Rauf writes that "many Muslims regard the form of government that the American founders established a little over two centuries ago as the form of governance that best expresses Islam's original values and principles." (Page 81.) He has never publicly advocated "shredding" the U.S. Constitution or replacing it with Sharia.

A Major Backer From the Muslim World

The stridency with which Fox News personalities attack the downtown Islamic center -- red meat for the millions who tune in each night -- is an example of the often uneasy relationship and occasionally diverging interests between many of News Corp.'s properties, in this case Fox News and its parent corporation.

For example, News Corp.'s second-largest shareholder, after the Murdoch family, is Prince Alwaleed bin Talal (pictured at left, and above right), the nephew of Saudi Arabian King Abdullah, and one of the world's richest men.

Through his Kingdom Holding Co., Alwaleed owns about 7% of News Corp., or about $3 billion of the media giant. He also owns 6% of Citigroup -- to which he was introduced by the Carlyle Group -- or about $10 billion of the giant bank. He's a part-owner of the famed Plaza Hotel in New York and has invested in many other prominent companies. (At one point he invested in AOL (AOL), the parent company of DailyFinance.)

Earlier this year, News Corp. invested $70 million for a 9% stake in Alwaleed's Middle Eastern media and entertainment company, Rotana, which "owns the Arab world's largest record label and about 40% of the region's movies -- most of which are Egyptian -- and operates 11 free-to-air television channels, two of which are through a partnership with News Corp.," according to Reuters. (Rotana broadcasts Fox movies and TV shows throughout the Middle East.) News Corp. has an option to double its stake in Rotana for another $70 million within 18 months.

"We Look Forward to Working Together"

Alwaleed has announced his intention to take Rotana public within the next two years, a move that could earn News Corp. a handsome return. In News Corp.'s 2010 annual report recently filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, Alwaleed is referred to only as, "A significant stockholder of the Company, who owns approximately 7% of the Company's Class B Common Stock." (Page 44.)

A News Corp. spokesman in New York declined to discuss the company's investment into Rotana and referred inquires to a colleague in London, who declined to comment. Attempts to reach Prince Alwaleed or a representative of his conglomerate, Riyadh-based Kingdom Holding Co., for comment, were not immediately returned.

But presumed News Corp. heir James Murdoch has publicly touted the company's investment in Rotana. James Murdoch, who's the chairman and CEO of News Corp.'s European and Asian operation, has said: "A stake in Rotana expands our presence in a region with a young and growing population, where [economic] growth is set to outstrip that of more developed economies in the years ahead. Rotana is a leading player in the Middle East, and we look forward to working together."

As usual with Murdoch, money trumps ideology. "News Corp. is a big company, and Murdoch makes decisions based on money and business," says Robert Thompson, a professor of TV and popular culture at Syracuse University. "This isn't a conspiracy of the right or the left. It's a conspiracy of money."

The Warren Buffett of Saudi Arabia

Routinely listed as one of the top 10 or 20 richest men in the world, Alwaleed has long cultivated deep personal and financial ties with the U.S., especially among powerful business and government officials. Just consider that in 2002, he donated $500,000 to help fund the George Herbert Walker Bush Scholarship at Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. Above all, Alwaleed is a businessman and a philanthropist, not an ideologue. He has been very generous to Islamic charities and other humanitarian efforts. Alwaleed is such an influential figure that he's been referred to as the Warren Buffett of Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia, which is ruled by Alwaleed's uncle King Abdullah, is, of course, an authoritarian petro-monarchy that actually is governed by Sharia law and is known as one of the top global sponsors of terrorism. A spokesperson for the Saudi embassy in Washington says that while Alwaleed is part of the royal family, he isn't a member of the government, but rather a private citizen.

Alwaleed, like Iman Rauf (pictured at right), professes a desire to build bridges of peace and understanding between the Islamic world and the West. One man is a multibillionaire, with far-flung investments around the world, and the other is a religious cleric, whose congregation happens to be in downtown Manhattan.

Many Fox News pundits seem to have a big problem with the idea that a foreign government or entity with ties to terrorism could help sponsor a mosque in lower Manhattan -- a legitimate concern. But as viewers listen to Fox News pundits rail against Rauf -- and question his center's funding -- they should keep in mind that Fox News is part of a company, News Corp., that has extensive business ties with the Muslim world.

It's just part of running a multinational media giant in today's global, interconnected economy, where alliances and business relationships are more nuanced than the black and white -- good and evil -- viewpoint that many Fox News pundits espouse.

More crudely hypocritical propaganda from Fox News - Who is Alwaleed Bin Talal?

Jon Stewart does it again. Following Stewart's exposé, done in a style that aficionados will recognize as a smoothly understated Glenn Beck parody, there is a pseudo-debate between two pseudo-media-analysts addressing the key question: Are the crew at Fox News stupid or evil? But do we really have to choose?

Anyway, it's hard to disagree with Stewart's conclusion: "If we want to cut off funding to the terror mosque, we must, as a nation, stop watching Fox."

--Jeff Weintraub

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P.S. I've been late in commenting on the Cordoba House/Park51/"Ground Zero Mosque" controversy ... but I plan to say something substantive about it soon.

P.P.S. By the way, back in 2001 Rudy Giuliani was right to refuse to accept Bin Talal's money after 9/11.

[Update: A P.S. about Rudy Giuliani, Alwaleed Bin Talal, and 9/11]

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Who is killing Afghan civilians? - A reality check

The UN mission in Kabul just released a report on Afghan civilian casualties during the first 6 months of 2010. Compare the last two figures in the following quotation (I've bolded them):
UN human rights workers recorded 1,271 civilians deaths over the period and 1,997 injuries. Of that total of 3,268, insurgent forces were responsible for 2,477 casualties, while Nato and Afghan government forces accounted for 386.
Overall, there has been "a 31 per cent increase in conflict-related Afghan civilian casualties in the first six months of 2010 compared with the same period in 2009," including a 55% increase in killed and injured children. But this increase is entirely due to the Taliban. In fact, "[c]asualties attributed to Pro-Government Forces (PGF) fell 30 per cent during the same period," due primarily to a new policy of limiting the use of air strikes. Casualties attributable to the Taliban, on the other hand, have escalated dramatically.
Analysis by UNAMA Human Rights Unit identified two critical developments that increased harm to civilians in the first six months of 2010 compared to 2009: AGEs [i.e., Anti-Government Elements] used a greater number of larger and more sophisticated improvised explosive devices (IEDs) throughout the country; and, the number of civilians assassinated and executed by AGEs rose by more than 95 per cent and included public executions of children.
(More detailed statistics here.)

=> Of course, some people will respond that there would be no war in Afghanistan, and thus no civilian deaths, if the US had not invaded the country in 2001 and overthrown the Taliban. Thus, even the deaths of children executed by the Taliban are ultimately the fault of the US and its NATO allies, and the solution is to "end the war" by pulling out US/NATO troops.

Such people would be wrong. Before the 2001 US invasion, Afghans had already experienced two decades of uninterrupted warfare on a catastrophic scale, including a devastating civil war during the 1990s that culminated in the takeover of most of Afghanistan by one of most viciously repressive, reactionary, and stultifying regimes on earth. During that period, over a million Afghans died and millions more fled the country as refugees. After 2001, millions of those refugees came back home. As bad as conditions have been in Afghanistan since 2001, even since the renewed upsurge in armed conflict since around 2005, it is simply undeniable that the levels of death, destruction, and general misery were much higher during the 1980s or the 1990s. (Even the rates of infant mortality have fallen dramatically since the overthrow of the Taliban regime--from horrifying to merely awful.)

Furthermore, it is worth remembering that when the US invaded Afghanistan in 2001, it intervened in an ongoing civil war. If US/NATO forces abandoned Afghanistan tomorrow, that would not mean an end to warfare in Afghanistan. Instead, the almost certain consequence would be a continuation of civil war along the lines of the 1990s. That's especially probable since support for the Taliban is almost exclusively limited to the Pashtuns, who constitute around 40% of the Afghan population, or about 12 million, plus another 25 million or so across the border in Pakistan. It is by no means clear that most Afghan Pashtuns would actually like to see a return of the Taliban regime, and considerable evidence suggests otherwise. But all serious analysts seem to agree that the non-Pashtun 60% of Afghans--Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and so on--overwhelmingly fear and oppose a restoration of Taliban rule and would resist it violently and tenaciously. And all sides would undoubtedly get aid and support from regional powers.

In short, people who try to pretend or insinuate that war and civilian suffering in Afghanistan began with the 2001 US invasion, and that pulling out US/NATO troops is equivalent to "ending the war" in Afghanistan, are not being intellectually or morally honest. (Andrew Exum and Spencer Ackerman are among those who have made this point especially well.)

So if the Taliban are killing large numbers of Afghan civilians (often, perhaps mostly, in ways that blatantly violate the laws of war), who should bear the blame for those deaths? Sophistry aside, the plain fact is that they are the responsibility of the Taliban (and of their foreign supporters, not least in Pakistan's security services).

=> A position like Andrew Sullivan's may or may not be correct, but at least he faces up honestly to the moral dilemmas involved, including the probable human costs if the US and its allies abandon Afghanistan:
[T]he vast majority of child murders are by the Taliban [....] I still favor withdrawal as soon as possible. I do not in any way discount the moral price. If I thought there was any way to win, my calculus might change. But I don't. And we're broke. And evil like this occurs tragically every day all over the world. The art of politics and warfare is the art of the possible within certain limits. We've reached them - and then some. It gives me no pleasure to say this, and my heart is torn. But politics is not the art of the heart in the end. It's the art of the mind.
Is it really that clear that further US/NATO involvement in Afghanistan is, realistically, a hopeless project? I'm not so sure. But that's a matter for a separate discussion. If Americans, Canadians, and Europeans decide it is in our interests to pull the plug on US/NATO involvement in Afghanistan, so be it. (I am not convinced by that position, but serious and plausible arguments can be made to support it.) However, we shouldn't pretend that we would be doing the Afghans a favor.

Meanwhile, even people who believe there are good reasons to favor a US/NATO abandonment of Afghanistan should face up honestly to the probable human costs of that policy and the moral dilemmas involved.

=> Norman Geras has usefully pulled together several recent reports, including this UN study, that highlight what is at stake for Afghans in this conflict. See below.

—Jeff Weintraub

==============================
Norman Geras (Normblog)
August 10, 2010
Taliban talk

Further to these recent posts, there's this today from behind the Times paywall:
A pregnant widow was flogged and killed in public after being convicted of adultery by the Taleban in a grim reminder of the militant group's six-year rule of Afghanistan.

The woman, named as Bibi Sanubar, was given more than 200 lashes before being shot in the head three times, police said...

Mullah Daoud, a senior Taleban commander contacted by The Times, said he sat on the panel that convicted the woman in a remote area of Badghis province which is under militant control. "There were three mullahs that passed this verdict, I was one of them," he said. "We gave this decision so that in future no one should have these illegal affairs. We whipped her in front of all the local people to show them an example. Then we shot her."

Afghan police said the body of the woman, who was said to be between 35 [and] 45, was later dumped in an area under government control. "She was shot in the head in public while she was still pregnant," Ghulam Mohammad Sayeedi, the deputy police chief in Badghis, said.
And there's this from the Guardian:
The Taliban's increasing use of homemade bombs and political assassinations has been responsible for a 31% increase in the number of civilians who have been killed or injured in fighting in Afghanistan this year, the United Nations said today.

The UN's Kabul mission released data showing that even as the number of child [casualties] has soared by 55%, strict rules on the use of airpower by Nato troops has led to a 30% drop in the number of deaths and injuries caused by foreign forces in the first six months of this year, compared to the same period in 2009.

UN human rights workers recorded 1,271 civilians deaths over the period and 1,997 injuries. Of that total of 3,268 insurgent forces were responsible for 2,477 casualities, while Nato and Afghan government forces accounted for 386.

"These figures show that the Taliban are resorting to desperate measures, increasingly executing and assassinating civilians, including teachers, doctors, civil servants and tribal elders," said Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch.
See also Shuggy here.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Further drama in the case of Sakineh Ashtiani

The international outcry about the imminent execution of Sakineh Ashtiani, convicted of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning in Iran, appears to have rattled the Iranian authorities. But their response so far has been a combination of intransigence and escalating repression. Iranian officials have opened up a new smear campaign against her, and her lawyer has been forced to flee the country.

=> Iranian officials now claim that Ashtiani is a convicted murderer as well as adulterer--but that her conviction for murder, oddly enough, had not been mentioned before now. According to the LA TImes's Babylon and Beyond blog:
In a surprise announcement, a judiciary official in provincial Iran said a woman who had been convicted and sentenced to stoning for adultery had also been convicted of murder.
A 2006 murder investigation into her husband's death had treated Ashtiani as a suspect, but in fact she was not convicted of those charges (another suspect was convicted) and was sentenced to death for adultery instead.
But on Sunday, Malek Ejdar Sharifi, head of East Azerbaijan Province's judiciary, told the official Islamic Republic News Agency (in Persian): "Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani has not been convicted of illicit sex only," he said. "She has been found guilty of numerous and extremely heavy offenses. She was sentenced to capital punishment [in 2006] in the criminal court in Tabriz, the center of the province, for committing murder, manslaughter and adultery." [....]

That's fresh news. Up until Sharifi's comments, Iranian officials and her lawyer said she was only convicted of adultery. [....]

Sharifi declined to outline Ashtiani's role in her husband's death, saying it would be just too darn shocking for the public.

"We can't express the details of her crimes due to moral and humane considerations," he said. "If the way her husband has been murdered is expressed, the brutality and insanity of this woman would be laid bare to public opinion. Her contribution to the murder of her husband was so harsh and heart-breaking that many criminologists believe that it would have been better for her to have decapitated her husband." [....]
We can probably assume that this a clumsy and implausible attempt at a last-minute smear. It is worth reiterating that Ashtiani's children are convinced that she is entirely innocent.

=> On Wednesday the International Campaign Against Stoning, which has taken up Ashtiani's cause, reported:
At today’s hearing regarding Ms Ashtiani’s case at Tehran’s High Court the chief of the 9th division, Davoudi, rejected a reopening of the trial and is instead considering Tabriz prosecutor Hossain Nobacht’s demand to execute Ms Ashtiani. Her case has now been transferred to the deputy prosecutor-general Saeed Mortazavi.

The High Court will confirm whether the execution of Ms Ashtiani can go ahead next week. [....]

Mina Ahadi from ICAS says: [....] "Putting Ms Ashtiani’s future in the hands of Saeed Mortazavi is a very bad sign. They are preparing Ms Ashtiani’s execution. [....]"

A confirmation of the execution order for Ms Ashtiani can mean that she might be executed very soon. ICAS calls on all human rights organisations, governments and individuals worldwide to continue putting pressure on the Islamic regime of Iran until Ms Ashtiani is freed.
=> Meanwhile, Ashtiani's legal situation has been complicated by the fact that she has lost her lawyer, Mohammad Mostafaei, one of Iran's most prominent human-rights attorneys.
Mohammad Mostafaei went into hiding after Iranian authorities detained three of his relatives and issued a warrant for his arrest. Mostafaei's brother-in-law and father-in law were subsequently released, but his wife remains in solitary confinement in Evin prison, although she has not been charged with any offence.
Mostafei managed to flee to Turkey--where he was arrested on immigration charges. He is now sitting in a Turkish jail and trying to obtain political asylum.









According to the Guardian's report:
Human rights activists expressed concern for Mostafaei's safety and the possibility that Turkey, an ally of Iran, might return him. [....] Mostafaei was concerned about his seven-year-old daughter who is with his wife's family in Iran.

The Guardian understands Norwegian and US officials met Mostafaei in prison and offered him asylum, but he was forced by Turkish officials to claim asylum with the UNHCR in Turkey or face extradition.

Amnesty International also expressed concern for his safety. Drewery Dyke of Amnesty's Iran team said: "We call upon the authorities to expedite Mostafaei's asylum request as he had a death threat in Turkey and is a target of the Iranian officials because of his involvement with Mohammadi Ashtiani's case."
And back in Iran:
Iranian authorites today told Mohammadi Ashtiani's current lawyer, Houtan Kian, that she still faces death by hanging. A final decision would be made next week.
Those of you who haven't done so might consider signing this international Petition to Save Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani.

--Jeff Weintraub

Do the Republicans have a serious economic program?

And, in particular, do the Republicans' economic proposals offer any serious, realistic prospect of reducing the long-term federal deficit--a problem about which they pretend to be terribly concerned, despite their conspicuous record of fiscal profligacy whenever they have been in control since 1980?

I think the answer is obviously no. But don't take my word for it--or Paul Krugman's, for that matter. A recent piece by the right-of-center columnist Clive Crook, who really is seriously concerned about bringing the long-term federal deficit under control, briskly explained why the Republicans' current positions on the relevant issues, expressed in both their talking-points and their actual votes, add up to a fiscal agenda that is transparently fraudulent and unserious. "Right now the party's position is to reject every meaningful spending cut and any and all tax increases. That is not fiscal responsibility. It is complete nonsense." To elaborate:
[....] I think both [tax increases and spending cuts] will be needed to get the long-term deficit back under control. Entitlement reform is indispensable.

Curbing spending on Social Security is relatively easy--technically, I mean, not politically. The retirement age should be raised. Getting a grip on long-term Medicare outlays, which is the real core of the problem, is much more difficult. I'm not optimistic that the Democrats' health-care reform, which I support for other reasons, is going to drive down costs. More likely the opposite.

I agree that spending [cuts] should be part of the solution; indeed, must be part of the solution. The current-policy path of Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security taken together is such that higher taxes by themselves will not suffice-- even if, as I advocated in the column, the base of the income tax is broadened and new taxes (such as a carbon tax or a VAT) are added in. The more diversified the remedies, the less drastic, hence less painful, individual tax hikes and spending cuts will need to be.

I can't help noticing, though, that most conservatives deny that any tax increases are needed while suggesting few if any specific spending cuts. "The government is spending too much," they say. No doubt. "Cut waste." Yes, that would be good. But I don't see the Republican party promising to raise the retirement age to curb Social Security spending, for instance. I don't see them promising to roll back Medicare outlays. The party's main line of attack on health-care reform was to say that the policy would cut Medicare, and that this was unacceptable. If you exclude tax increases and cuts in Social Security and Medicare, you aren't going to get very far on fiscal control.
Like some other people who should know better, Crook does see one exception to this picture.
The charge that conservatives have no ideas on fiscal reform certainly does not apply to Paul Ryan. His Roadmap for America is nothing if not radical. It proposes a complete overhaul--in effect, the dismantling--of Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. On the tax side, it slashes taxes on the wealthy and proposes a broad-based consumption tax.

Ryan is a good thing, and his Roadmap is very interesting. He is grappling with specific proposals, and his plan for long-term entitlement reform deserves a serious look. Note, though, that on plausible assumptions, it is not a deficit-reducing proposal: revenues would fall even more than spending.
This is far too generous to Ryan, even though it is true that he is (on the whole) less blatantly dishonest and hypocritical on these matters than most of the Congressional Republicans. His proposals are indeed radical. But as Ryan Avent and Brad DeLong, among others, have pointed out, when Ryan's ideas are examined with any care, they turn out to be questionable, incoherent, and generally unconvincing.

Furthermore, as Crook himself concedes, there is no plausible reason to expect that Ryan's proposals, if enacted, would actually reduce the deficit. "The problem," Brad DeLong observes,"is that Paul Ryan claims that his roadmap is a deficit-reduction plan [....] Since 1979 Republicans have regularly been offering deficit-exploding plans while claiming that they are deficit-reducing plans. Paul Ryan is simply the latest in a 31-year tradition of fiscal policy three-card-monte--and yet Clive Crook still praises it."

At all events, even Crook recognizes that Ryan is, at best, the exception that proves the rule.
More to the point, the party is not backing Ryan's proposals. If conservatives who say, "Don't raise taxes, cut spending," were willing to contemplate Ryan's approach to entitlement reform, well and good. Few are. The party as a whole is scared of it. Republicans in Congress understand how difficult it would be to get the country behind it. (If George Bush's plan for Social Security privatisation, timid by comparison, got shot down, what hope is there for Ryan's ideas?) Right now the party's position is to reject every meaningful spending cut and any and all tax increases. That is not fiscal responsibility. It is complete nonsense.
By pursuing an effective strategy of almost monolithic obstructionism, the Congressional Republicans have been able to do a great deal of harm despite having a minority of both Houses and no constructive policies of their own. If these people get control of Congress in the fall, which is not impossible, we are all in trouble.

--Jeff Weintraub

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Should Sakineh Ashtiani be stoned to death for (alleged) adultery?


My previous post on the case of Sakineh Ashtiani (Brazil offers asylum to an Iranian woman condemned to death by stoning) wound up being longer and more complex than I had expected. So in case the following appeal got buried in the details of the story, here is is again:

Please consider signing this international Petition to Save Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani ... and pass it on to other people who might be interested.

Thanks,
Jeff Weintraub

Brazil offers asylum to an Iranian woman condemned to death by stoning


At the end of this post I will come back to a PETITION that some of you might want to sign. But first, here is the story.

=> Like many other people around the world, I have just recently become aware of the case of Sakineh Ashtiani, an Iranian woman who is a widow and the mother of two children. Ashtiani was convicted in 2006 of having "illicit" sex as a widow and was sentenced to 99 lashes. Her son, then 17, was was present and saw her being whipped. Later that year, a different set of judges decided (apparently with no hard evidence) that she had committed “adultery while being married” and increased the penalty to death by stoning. She did confess to adultery during interrogation, but at her trial she retracted the confession and said it had been extracted by coercion, which sounds plausible. Otherwise, she has consistently denied all the charges, but to no avail. Her legal appeals have been exhausted, and her execution could now be carried out at any moment. (For some further details, see the report by Human Rights Watch.)

It's worth being clear about what this form of execution involves. A woman is buried up to her breasts with her arms bound (for men, it's up to the waist), and the men attending this public execution throw stones at her head until she dies. Iranian Sharia-based law specifies that the stones cannot be too small to cause serious damage, but also not so large that death would be too quick and painless.

Ashtiani's children, with help from others both inside and outside Iran, have launched a public campaign to keep their mother from being executed. This campaign has succeeded in attracting international attention. A July 2 article in the Guardian summed up the situation a month ago:
A 43-year-old Iranian woman is facing death by stoning unless an international campaign launched by her children forces the authorities to quash what her lawyer calls a bogus conviction.

In a case that highlights the growing use of the death penalty in a country that has already executed more than 100 people this year [JW: and a total of 388 in 2009, more than any other country except China]. Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani was convicted in May 2006 of conducting an "illicit relationship outside marriage."

Sakineh already endured a sentence of 99 lashes, but her case was re-opened when a court in Tabriz suspected her of murdering her husband. She was acquitted, but the adultery charge was reviewed and a death penalty handed down on the basis of "judge's knowledge" – a loophole that allows for subjective judicial rulings where no conclusive evidence is present.

Speaking to the Guardian, her son Sajad, 22, and daughter Farideh, 17, say their mother has been unjustly accused and already punished for something she did not do.

"She's innocent, she's been there for five years for doing nothing", Sajad said. He described the imminent execution as barbaric. "Imagining her, bound inside a deep hole in the ground, stoned to death, has been a nightmare for me and my sister for all these years." [....]

Five years ago when Sakineh was flogged, Sajad was 17 and present in the punishment room. "They lashed her just in front my eyes, this has been carved in my mind since then."

Mohammed Mostafaei, an acclaimed Iranian lawyer volunteered to represent her when her sentence was announced a few months ago. He wrote a public letter about her conviction shortly after. "This is an absolutely illegal sentence," he said. "Two of five judges who investigated Sakineh's case in Tabriz prison concluded that there's no forensic evidence of adultery." [....]

Mina Ahadi, a human rights activist in Germany who helped Sakineh's children to launch their campaign internationally has been in regular contact with Sajad and Farideh. [....]

Ahadi who has been following the stoning sentence in Iran over the past few years says that she is aware of the names of 12 other women who are sentenced to death by stoning in Iran at the moment.

"These are just the women I know, I estimate that at least 40 to 50 other women are waiting for the same destiny in Iran right now," she said. [....]
=> A few days ago this international campaign was reinforced by no less a figure than President of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who appealed to the Iranian government to let Ashtiani come to Brazil. What makes this intervention especially striking is that Lula's government has been building increasingly close diplomatic ties with Iran, and Lula himself, who visited Iran recently, claims to have a warm friendship with Iran's appalling President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But pressure from Brazilian public opinion seems to have forced Lula's hand--which does Brazilian society great credit.
President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has called on Iran’s president to send an Iranian woman facing execution by stoning to Brazil, where she would be granted asylum.

“If my friendship and affection for the president of Iran matters, and if this woman is causing problems there, we will welcome her here in Brazil,” Mr. da Silva said on Saturday in Curitiba while campaigning for his former chief of staff, Dilma Rousseff. “Nothing justifies the state taking someone’s life,” he added. “Only God can do that.”

His statement was an about-face. National and international campaigns on the Internet and via Twitter had failed to convince Mr. da Silva to intervene in the case of the woman, Sakineh Ashtiani, 43, who was convicted of adultery although she denied having had an “illicit relationship” with two men.

The Brazilian president, who has forged a close relationship with his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, over the past year, said earlier last week that Iran’s laws needed to be respected.

But an adviser said Sunday that Mr. da Silva had a change of heart after reflecting more on Ms. Ashtiani’s case. “He listened to his conscience and was moved by her story,” the adviser said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. Still, the adviser said, Mr. da Silva was wading into “turbulent waters,” since this marked the first time he has risked appearing to be meddling in Iran’s domestic affairs. [....]

Ms. Ashtiani’s case has attracted international attention from many people concerned about Iran’s human rights record.

In Brazil, Mr. da Silva was subjected to almost a month of public protests with slogans like “And Now, Lula?” and a document that drew 114,000 signatures, including those of Brazilian celebrities like the musician Chico Buarque and former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Folha newspaper reported.
Whatever combination of conscience and political calculation prompted Lula's decision, his public appeal on Ashtiani's behalf is both welcome and commendable--and not something that the Iranian government can simply ignore.

(The International Committee Against Stoning, among others, did welcome the Brazilian offer, but also reiterated its call "for an end to stoning and executions altogether." They shouldn't hold their breath.)

=> So far, the Iranian government's reaction to all this public attention has been recalcitrant. There have been a few ambiguous unofficial suggestions that Ashtiani might be executed by some technique other than stoning--hanging, perhaps. In itself, this is not a very satisfactory response, but it does show some sensitivity to international public opinion.

Meanwhile, the authorities have also taken more practical steps. This weekend they issued a warrant for the arrest of Ashtiani's lawyer, Mohammad Mostafaei, and when the police couldn't find him at home, they arrested his wife and brother-in-law instead. Mostafaei, who is currently in hiding, wrote an open letter to Tehran's Chief Prosecutor denouncing this act as "hostage-taking" and calling for the release of his family members. Instead, they arrested Mostafaei's father-in-law, too.

And today the Iranian Foreign Ministry formally rejected the Brazilian offer to give asylum to Ashtiani and her children.

=> None of that looks very encouraging. However, past experience indicates that an international outcry on behalf of individuals imprisoned in Iran can be genuinely helpful. (Granted, in the past the most successful outcomes involved people who were had either foreign or joint Iranian and foreign citizenship, which is not the case for Sakineh Ashtiani. But it's certainly worth a try.)

Therefore, I urge all of you to consider adding your names to an international Petition to Save Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani.

(That website includes a list of signatures so far, beginning with that of former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, and a statement by Ashtiani's children asking for "Help to save our mother." More information, along with statements by José Ramos-Horta, Bernard-Henri Lévy, Azar Nafisi, and others, is here.)

=> Iran is not the only country where Sharia-based law mandates death by stoning for adultery (Saudi Arabia is another example). But unlike the situation in some of those other countries, I think it's a safe bet that most Iranians would favor changing barbaric laws like this one, if they had the chance. (And if you think using the word "barbaric" in this context is "Orientalist" or otherwise politically incorrect, you should complain to Ashtiari's lawyer, Mohammed Mostafaei, since I'm quoting him.) So by signing this petition, you would be signaling your support for and solidarity with them, in addition to Sakineh Ashtiani and her family.

--Jeff Weintraub

P.S. And here is a recent CNN report on the case of Sakineh Ashtiani: