Pensions keep desperate Spanish families afloat

The National, 19 October 2012

In a community hall in one of Madrid’s most impoverished districts, a group of grandmothers share their stories of how Spain‘s economic crisis has turned their pensions into a lifeline for entire families.

The recession, which has ravaged much of Europe, has destroyed the fundamental hope of those who built neighbourhoods such as Orcasitas out of nothing – that they could give their children opportunities they never had.

“My son is a builder but he’s been unemployed since January,” said Concha Sanchez, a 67-year-old retired secretary. “He gets unemployment welfare, but he has a disabled son and between his mortgage payments and the cost of care, he cannot afford to live.

“The family survives off my pension. I buy the nappies and medicine for the baby.”

Another woman speaks up. Her 59-year-old brother – a lorry driver for a construction firm – has not been paid for over a year and is now owed €50,000 (Dh240,000) in back pay and expenses, most of it from local government jobs. “He has three sons and cannot afford to eat,” said Manoli Sanchez, 63. “He’s still working and lawyers are trying to get the money, but there are 50 other people in the same position.

“I keep the family going with my pension. It is the same for all of us – we are all giving money to the next generation.”

The women nod in agreement. Each has a similar story to tell – of entire generations of people out of work, of sons and daughters going unpaid for months at a time.

Read the rest here…


UK relations with Saudi Arabia and Bahrain worsening over human rights concerns

The National, 19 October

LONDON // Saudi Arabia and Bahrain have objected strongly to criticism from British Members of Parliament who accuse the David Cameron government of failing to promote human rights in key Gulf allies.

A report published on Wednesday by parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee criticised the British government for its reaction to unrest in Bahrain last year, and is the latest in a series of moves by back bench MPs seeking a review of relations with Gulf states.

“Given the Bahraini authorities’ brutal repression of demonstrators in February and March 2011, we believe that Bahrain should have been designated as a country of concern in the [Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s] 2011 report on human rights and democracy,” the report stated.

It went on to accuse the government of hypocrisy for failing to encourage a boycott of the Bahrain Grand Prix while enforcing a boycott of the group stages in this year’s football European Championship in Ukraine over human-rights issues.

Bahrain has rejected the report, saying the British government made the right choice in leaving the decision up to Formula One organisers.

Read the rest here…

Exploding Ammo Dumps

The Economist, Sep 29th 2012

[Video from Congo-Brazzaville where explosions at an ammo dump ultimately killed 250 people in March]

TAKING stock of an ammunition depot can be a deadly task. Earlier this month it led to an explosion at a weapons storeroom near the Turkish town of Afyonkarahisar, killing 25 soldiers. Such blasts are frequent—and deadly. They have killed 4,600 people since global record-keeping started in 1995. Last year was the worst yet, with 442 victims from 46 explosions. One of the biggest ever happened in March this year: an accident in Congo-Brazzaville that killed 250, showering munitions over a two-mile radius.

Thousands of ill-run weapons stores are in restless parts of Africa and the Middle East, often near towns or cities. The end of the cold war left unneeded weapons all over the Soviet empire. Moldova spends a quarter of its defence budget guarding obsolete munitions. Ukraine alone has half a million tonnes.

Read the rest here…

For more information on ammo dump explosions, visit the Small Arms Survey here. And check out the work of the Mines Advisory Group, one of several organisations trying to convince countries to sort out their ammo depots. They had warned Congo-Brazzaville about their depots prior to the explosions that killed 250 people earlier this year.

Catalan independence ‘impossible to stop’

The National, Sep 29, 2012

BARCELONA // In a small office in central Barcelona, surrounded by boxes overflowing with the red-and-yellow Catalan flag, a young political activist can smell victory.

“Catalonia has to become an independent state, and it is almost impossible to stop now,” said Ignazi Termes, a member of La Assemblea Nacional Catalana, an umbrella organisation of pro-independence outfits.

The Spanish government is already struggling to cope with 25 per cent unemployment, violent protests against spending cuts, and the prospect that it will have to seek a bailout from euro-zone partners. It can scarcely afford to deal with rebellious provinces, yet this is the moment when Catalonia, its wealthy northeastern state, has decided to strike off on the road to independence.

Read the rest here…

Politics in Nepal: a hopeless mess or beacon of hope?

From The National, Sep 9, 2012

Nepal’s politicians may not look like they have much to teach the rest of the world. The Maoists, who are the largest party, were once guerrilla insurgents whose 10-year war against the state up to 2006 led to the deaths of thousands. The peace process has dragged on interminably, with four different prime ministers in as many years and four deadlines missed for writing a new constitution.

And since the end of May, the country hasn’t even had a parliament, and the election commission recently ruled that there is no legal framework for holding the elections scheduled for November.

Yet, amid all this chaos are signs of hope, since the crisis of recent months stems from a discussion about how to share power with Nepal’s marginalised ethnic communities that puts it leagues ahead of other countries in its neighbourhood and beyond.

Read the rest here…

Political chaos in Nepal

Maoist activists in Kathmandu (Credit: AP)

Below is the conclusion to an article I’ve written for the next issue of Jane’s Intelligence Review on the political and social crisis facing Nepal. It looks at possible scenarios but concludes that the situation could go in a number of directions right now. Resolving the crisis comes down to whether the leading parties can forge an agreement on the vexed question of federalism, or whether that issue will have to be decided at the polls. Whatever happens is likely to leave many communities and interest groups unhappy, so further instability is to be expected.

The process of drafting the constitution has been tortuous and beset by political infighting, with several leaders now openly admitting that they failed to address many important issues, such as federalism, during the early stages of negotiations when there was less political fragmentation.

However, the scale of the task that was put before Nepal’s lawmakers when the Constituent Assembly was first formed in 2008 should not be underestimated. For a desperately poor country to manage the transition from a centralised, authoritarian monarchy to a democratic, federal republic, while also dealing with the aftermath of a civil war, was a difficult challenge. Added to that has been the awakening of long-suppressed claims to political representation by the country’s myriad ethnic and social minorities. Following the departure of the UN Mission to Nepal in January 2011, and given the suspicion with which India’s involvement is regarded by many Nepalese, this transition has been undertaken without significant external support during the latter stages.

In that light, it is worth noting the considerable progress that has been made by Nepal’s political leaders. The majority of issues involved in drafting the constitution have been resolved, including the difficult question of demilitarising former Maoist cadres. There has been tentative agreement on how powers will be divided between the president and parliament, although these remain poorly specified and vulnerable to further disputes.

With no legislature and the patience of the public almost exhausted, the leading political parties may be forced into new compromises. The UCPN-M [Maoist party] has already shown itself to be responsive to the complaints of minority communities following flawed agreements on federalism in recent months. The conservative parties will need to appreciate the fundamental changes that have taken place in Nepal in the past two decades and accept that marginalised communities will no longer tolerate the dominance of upper caste elites that has characterised the country for centuries.

Read the full article here…

What is the threat from the Indian Mujahideen?

The bombing of the German Bakery in Pune in February 2010 killed 17.

Last week was not a good one for India, as the world’s largest ever blackout plunged 600 million into darkness, shining a light on the continuing holes in its development story. But overshadowed by the gloom was one piece of good fortune that saved the country from added trauma, as a serial bombing in the city of Pune failed to go off as planned.

It was pure chance that Pune, in central Maharashtra state, experienced particularly heavy rains in the run-up to the attack on 1 August, with nearly 84 mm rain landing in 48 hours. Combined with an oppressive humidity, the damp degraded the ammonium nitrate before the bombs, which were hidden in cake boxes, went off in a busy restaurant and shopping area. Only one person was injured. The police say the explosives were effectively rigged and could have caused considerably more death and destruction.

Attention immediately turned to the Indian Mujahideen as the suspected perpetrators of the attack. However, “attention” in this case refers to the largely unsubstantiated finger-pointing of the media, whose evidence rests on some pretty vague similarities being drawn by the police to previous attacks (“evening was the chosen time to trigger blasts, bombs were planted on bicycles, bustling market places were targeted”).

The term “Indian Mujahideen” has become the go-to term anytime a bomb goes off in urban India. But the name gives the impression of a well-structured and purely domestic organisation that arguably no longer applies, if it ever did.

The name was first used in November 2007 in a press release claiming responsibility for multiple bomb attacks in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh which killed 17. The network had already been involved in a spate of major attacks killing hundreds since 2005, but had never given themselves a name. A young IT whizz, Mansoor Peerbhoy, was drafted in by the brotherly duo that spearheaded the terrorist network, Riyaz and Iqbal Shahbandri, to organise their public relations. They apparently dropped initial plans to call themselves ‘Isabah’ – an Arabic term referring to companions of the prophet Muhammad – in favour of something that would work better in the media.

The PR effort backfired, helping investigators to track down members of the network by their web signatures and contributing to a blitz of arrests and shoot-outs in late 2008 that decimated the terrorist cells it had established around the country.

After a lull in 2009, terrorist attacks in India’s heartland resumed in 2010. But they were a shadow of previous incidents. Attacks such as the drive-by shooting in Delhi ahead of the Commonwealth Games or the explosion in Varanasi that killed a one-year-old girl, looked frantic and poorly planned. Last week’s fizzled-out bombings in Pune might have been more effective if the perpetrators had learned lessons from an attempted attack on a Bangalore cricket stadium in April 2010, which was similarly doused by rain.

The attacks grew deadlier last year – with a triple bombing in Mumbai in July that killed 22 people, and a bomb planted at the High Court in Delhi that killed 15 (the latter helped by a failed practice run the previous April). But while police have received emails from senders claiming to be the Indian Mujahideen following some of these attacks, the claims have lacked the credibility and professionalism of earlier emails. They have been suspected as hoaxes, such as the competing claims of responsibility from both the Indian Mujahideen and HUJI-Bangladesh that followed the High Court bombing.

The idea of a home-grown Islamist terrorists was once anathema to the Indian establishment after years of blaming Pakistan for such problems. It was reluctantly accepted after the press releases began arriving in 2007 and 2008. But now the pendulum appears to have swung too far in the other direction. The term “Indian Mujahideen” is trotted out by politicians, police and the media far more than it appears to be used by the terrorists themselves. That risks overplaying the scale of the threat, and downplaying Pakistan’s central role in the continuing violence.

The frequent, unqualified use of the name “Indian Mujahideen” gives the impression of a sprawling, regimented underground organisation embedded in India’s Muslim communities. It has reinforced a trend by the security forces of targeting – often wrongly – former members of the Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), which was banned shortly after 9/11 and is seen as a precursor to the Indian Mujahideen. Almost all those linked to recent attacks have indeed had a history of involvement in SIMI, but they represented a tiny radical fringe within that group. SIMI’s leaders often used dangerous rhetoric but ultimately rejected violence.

It has also drawn attention away from the fact that recent attacks really are little more than Pakistan-based militancy with a few Indian passports thrown in to make things easier. The term “home-grown terrorism” is bandied about, despite the fact that all the key leaders are now thought to be headquartered in Karachi, including the Shahbandri brothers. Convicted American-Pakistani terrorist scout David Headley confirmed the existence of a ‘Karachi Project’ in which LeT-linked militants sought to radicalise and orchestrate terrorist cells within India. Even those who took part in the earlier, deadlier phase of India’s “home-grown terrorism” were dependent on training and logistical support from across the border. Pakistan’s failure to crack down on anti-India militants in its midst remains the deciding factor.

The one aspect of this ongoing terrorist campaign that remains truly home-grown is that every confession or claim of responsibility has pointed to violence by Hindu nationalists as their motivation – particularly the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque in 1992 and the anti-Muslim pogroms in Gujarat in 2002, in which officials are considered complicit.

But it is a testament to the strength of India’s multi-cultural identity – and the lack of connection between general grievances and Islamist terrorism – that so few of India’s Muslims have become militant recruits. Only a few dozen, at most, appear to have joined the jihad and the quality of recent attacks suggests difficulty in finding new recruits.

On paper, India should be a terrorist paradise – many Muslim communities are ghettoized and face widespread discrimination; they fall far below others on almost every development indicator; there are vast and remote areas devoid of police and government oversight; and thousands of tonnes of explosives go missing every year. Yet, as the immediate aftermath of the 2002 riots has faded, so too has the terrorist threat and without the succor of India’s troubled neighbour, would perhaps not exist at all.