In Other News

Israeli forces fire tear gas at Christian pilgrims

Dozens of Christian pilgrims suffered from excessive tear-gas inhalation on Good Friday, April 18, after Israeli troops fired gas canisters as they performed religious rites at the Tomb of Lazarus in al-Eizariya in East Jerusalem. Israeli soldiers reportedly refused to stop firing tear gas canisters despite the presence of pilgrims after clashes had broken out between local youths and Israeli forces in the area. Witnesses told Ma'an News Agency that a tour guide who was escorting the pilgrims asked an Israeli officer to stop firing tear gas canisters until pilgrims left, but the officer continued to fire. The pilgrims had to take shelter in a souvenir shop before they could complete their prayers. The owner of the souvenir shop also tried to convince the Israeli officer to stop firing tear gas so that the pilgrims could leave, but instead the officer "asked a soldier to fire tear gas canisters at the church and at the pilgrims," witnesses added. An Israeli military spokeswoman did not have any information regarding the incident. The village of al-Eizariya houses the Tomb of Lazarus who, according to the Bible, was miraculously brought back to life by Jesus days after he was buried.

Colombia: 'terrorist' attack on union headquarters

The offices of the Cali Municipal Workers Synidicate (Sintraemcali), located in the center of the Colombian industrial city, was attacked with hurled incendiary bombs April 16, causing damage to the facade and plumbing of the building. Sintraemcali called the bombing a "terrorist attack," and pledged to file a complaint with the Inter-American Human Rights Commission. The attack came five days after a judge in Bogotá ordered the president of the republic, Juan Manuel Santos, to issue a formal pardon to members of Sintraemcali, the Colombian University Workers Syndicate (Sintraunicol) and the Bogotá Telecommunications Workers Synidate (Sintratelefonos), who had been accused by former president Álvaro Uribe Vélez of being linked to terrorist groups and constituting a "Brotherhood of Terrorism." (Radio Caracol, Etorno Inteligente, April 16)

Ukraine and anti-Semitism: house of mirrors redux

More ominous headlines from Ukraine that only leave us wondering what to believe. Winning the prize for combining sensationalism with sloppy vagueness is (surprise) the New York Post, which warns: "Jews in east Ukraine forced to register with authorities." There are two serious problems with this headline. First, if you actually read the story, nobody has been "forced" to do anything—yet, at least. The demand was made in threatening leaflets, with no attempt at enforcement. Second, given the confused situation in east Ukraine, it is completely ambiguous who is indicated by the word "authorities." The "official" Urkainian government, or the Russian-backed separatists who claim to be in control? This is a rather critical point, given all the Russian propaganda about how the Kiev government is "fascist" and "anti-Semitic."

Saudi Arabia detains human rights lawyer

Notable human rights lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair was taken into custody in Saudi Arabia April 15 after a hearing at the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh. Abu al-Khair, founder and chief of the Saudi Arabia Monitor of Human Rights, faces charges that include inciting public opinion. Amnesty International (AI) condemned Abu al-Khair's imprisonment demanding his immediate release. In their press release AI criticized Saudi authorities stating that "Waleed Abu al-Khair's detention is a worrying example of how Saudi Arabian authorities are abusing the justice system to silence peaceful dissent. Nobody should be jailed for peacefully exercising the right to freedom of expression." According to AI, Abu al-Khair faces charges including breaking allegiance to and disobeying the ruler, disrespecting the authorities, offending the judiciary, inciting international organizations against the Kingdom and founding an unlicensed organization. In October Abu al-Khair was sentenced to three months in prison on similar accusations related to "ridiculing or offending" the Saudi Arabian judiciary.

Algeria: Berbers join call for election boycott

Algerian security forces on April 16 violently dispersed an attempt by opposition activists to stage a protest in the capital against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's run for a fourth term in this week's elections. Only a few members of the opposition alliance Barakat—President Abdelaziz Bouteflika—were able to assemble in central Algiers before police routed them. Barakat was able to hold a rally in a stadium, where some 5,000 gathered to chant "Boycott" and "The people want the regime out!" Mohsen Belabes, a leader of the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), told the crowd: "The people here are the people who have been excluded, who have been put aside, but this is the real Algeria. The regime will collapse, but Algeria will survive."

Syria: new chemical claims under investigation

The United States and Turkey have said they are following up on renewed accusations that the Syrian regime continues to use chemical weapons against civilians. If true, the government's use of such weapons would be a violation of its agreement with the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and the Chemical Weapons Convention, both of which it signed last September. Over the past few months, members of the Syrian opposition, including the main umbrella group the Syrian National Coalition, have accused the regime of using chemical weapons, mainly in the suburbs of Damascus, in areas such as Jobar and Harasta. "There have been at least four such attacks in recent months, involving high doses of chlorine and pesticides," said Sinan Hatehet, director of the Coalition's media office. He added that although the attacks only killed around 15 people, the chemicals were primarily being used as a psychological weapon.

NYPD disbands Muslim surveillance program

The new commissioner of the New York Police Department (NYPD) William Bratton announced April 16 the disbanding of a surveillance unit used to spy on Muslim communities. The Demographics Unit, established in 2003, utilized plainclothes detectives to map communities both inside and outside New York City, tracking the movements and conversations of Muslim individuals. According to the New York Times, the unit, composed of around 12 detectives, was created to look for "hot spots" of radicalization that could theoretically provide early warning of possible terrorist activities. Surveillance focused on 28 "ancestries of interest." At a pretrial examination (PDF) before the US District Court for the Southern District of New York, Commanding Officer of the Intelligence Division Thomas Galati admitted that the program had never generated a lead. The tactics of the unit had drawn significant criticism and generated two federal lawsuits.

Iraq temporarily closes Abu Ghraib prison

The Iraqi Justice Ministry on April 15 temporarily closed Abu Ghraib prison due to security concerns. Reports indicate that Iraqi authorities are concerned about the growing power of a Sunni-backed insurgency within the Anbar province, in close proximity to the prison grounds. A government official reportedly announced wednesday, however, that the prison's closure was temporary until security issues can be resolved. In the meantime, the government has transferred approximately 2,400 inmates to other high security prisons throughout the nation.

Egypt: Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis a terrorist organization

An Egyptian court on April 14 ruled that the militant organization Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (BBC backgrounder) be officially considered a terrorist group. Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, which means "Warriors of Jerusalem," has claimed responsibility for the majority of attacks on Egyptian military and police that have occurred since former President Mohamed Morsi was ousted in July. The US Department of State on April 9 also designated Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis as a terrorist organization. Egypt's military said that this designation will not change its strategy toward fighting the group, but it will make punishments more harsh for members of the group who are captured.

Colombia: pressure grows to expand drug decrim

An official from the capital district government of Bogotá on March 28 called upon Colombia’s national government to open debate on broadening the policy of cannabis decriminalization. "We really need leadership from the Congress and the government to regulate the medicinal and recreational use of marijuana," said the general secretary of the Bogotá's mayor's office, Susana Muhamad. Despite efforts by the previous government of President Alvaro Uribe to roll back the policy, since 1994 cannabis has been decriminalized in small quantitites—recently established by the judiciary as up to 22 grams. However, sale and cultivation remain illegal. Muhamad appealed to current President Manuel Santos to examine lifting these limitations.

Chile: water activist to be jailed for 'slander'

On April 7 a court in La Ligua, in Chile's Petorca province, Valparaíso region, convicted agronomist Rodrigo Mundaca of slander and sentenced him to 541 days in prison for accusing former government minister Edmundo Pérez Yoma of water usurpation. Mundaca, the secretary of the Movement in Defense of Water, Land and the Environment (Modatima), also faces a fine. According to current Modatima spokesperson Luis Soto, the court's decision won't stop the group's activist work. He said Modatima would take the case "to the Valparaíso Appeals Court, and if we aren't successful there, we'll go to the Supreme Court."

Argentina: general strike targets Fernández policies

A large part of Argentina's labor movement participated a 24-hour general strike on April 10 to demand increases in wages and pensions and to protest the economic policies of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. With support from the Automatic Tramways Union (UTA) and three airline workers' unions, the strike shut down surface trains, subways, air service, schools and businesses in many parts of the country. Union leaders said the action was 90% effective, and the Argentine business consulting firm Orlando Ferreres & Asociados S.A. set the losses for the day at almost $1 billion. Government officials and Fernández supporters downplayed the significance of the strike, charging that relatively few workers actively participated and that people stayed home only because transportation was cut off by the UTA and by roadblocks that leftist parties and groups had set up.

Mexico: HP fined in latest Pemex scandal

On April 9 the California-based technology company Hewlett-Packard (HP) announced that it was paying a $108 million fine to the US Justice Department and the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to end an investigation into subsidiaries in Poland, Russia and Mexico that allegedly paid bribes to officials. The HP subsidiaries "created a slush fund for bribe payments, set up an intricate web of shell companies and bank accounts to launder money, employed two sets of books to track bribe recipients, and used anonymous email accounts and prepaid mobile telephones to arrange covert meetings to hand over bags of cash," according to a statement by the Justice Department. HP said the corruption "was limited to a small number of people who are no longer employed by the company."

Cuba: did USAID KO deal for Gross release?

US citizen Alan Gross, serving a 15-year prison term in Cuba for his work there as a contractor for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), held a liquids-only hunger strike from April 3 to 11 to protest his treatment by both the Cuban and the US governments. According to Scott Gilbert, Gross's Washington, DC-based lawyer, the prisoner started his hunger strike after he learned about an April 3 Associated Press report on ZunZuneo, the "Cuban Twitter" service that USAID launched after his arrest in December 2009. Gross was charged with seeking to subvert the Cuban government by supplying dissidents with Internet technology, and ZunZuneo had the potential to damage his legal case.

Bolivia: cocaleros clash with eradication force

Coca-growers in Bolivia's lowland jungle town of Yapacaní on March 27 clashed with police in a protest against the construction of a new base of the Mobile Rural Patrol Unit (UMOPAR), the hated coca-eradication force. Protesters set up roadblocks in an effort to prevent construction crews from breaking ground on the new base. When National Police troops used tear-gas to break up the blockades, protesters replied by hurling rocks. Regional police commander Johnny Requena blamed drug gangs for the opposition to the base, which is being financed by the European Union to the tune of $1.3 million.