Afghan women brave rockets for rights

By Rina Chandran

KABUL (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – In the decade since launching a radio station in northern Afghanistan, Sediqa Sherzai has braved mines and rocket attacks as the Taliban seeks to silence her. But she has kept going.

Fawzia Koofi, the country’s first female deputy of the lower house of parliament, has survived assassination and kidnap attempts. Last year, she was banned from running for re-election – so she set up her own party.

Women have made huge strides in the conservative country since a ban during Taliban rule of 1996 to 2001 from school, work, politics and going outside without a male relative.

While growing numbers of women now complete education and work in previously male bastions, they continue to face harassment and hurdles, human rights activists say.

“Women are half the population, and should have the same rights and opportunities as men in this country,” said Sheila Qayumi, a programme coordinator at Equality for Peace and Democracy, which advocates for more women in politics.

“But women are still denied education, forced to marry young, kept from working, and treated no better than animals in the provinces,” she said.

Four decades of war, from occupation to internal fighting, have destroyed the economy, rendering it among the poorest in the world, with few jobs for a mostly young population.

Women occupy a particularly precarious place, as they face cultural barriers and hostility – not just from conservative family members, but also hardline Islamist groups – for pursuing financial independence and greater equality, Qayumi said.

OPEN MINDS

Nearly half of Afghan women would rather leave their war-torn country permanently if they could, citing poverty and limited opportunities, according to a Gallup poll in September.

On her radio broadcasts in Kunduz, Sherzai discusses issues from education to independence, domestic violence, inheritance rights and women’s right to vote – and stand for elections.

Most women are not aware of their rights, or are too scared to exercise them, said Sherzai, whose staff are mostly women.

“My goal is to educate women on their rights, and open their minds,” she said, speaking through a translator.

“I want to convince families to let their daughters study, to not marry them off young, and to respect their choices.”

Funding for the station is uncertain, and her family fears for her safety, but she has never thought about quitting, she said, even when she had to broadcast from home after the station was attacked and her equipment stolen.

“My dream is that Afghan women can be safe and free to do what they wish to do, without men stopping them,” Sherzai said in an interview on a visit to the capital.

She asked that her picture not be taken for safety reasons.

Across the country, efforts are underway to make public spaces safer and more open to women.

While Afghan women lag on many measures, a quota that reserves 68 of 250 seats in the lower house of parliament gives them a higher representation than the global average of 24%.

The quota makes it easier for women to enter politics, but they lack money and run greater security risks, said Koofi.

“Being a female politician is hard everywhere – we are scrutinised for our looks and our clothing, and we are not taken seriously,” she said in an interview in her office.

“In Afghanistan, men don’t accept women in the public sphere, and our views are not respected even in parliament.”

MAYORS, DE-MINERS

An international aid effort that arrived with foreign forces in 2001 prioritised girls’ education and women’s empowerment.

From a female de-mining team in Bamiyan province to street singers in Kabul, women have since won more independence.

But there are fears that a final withdrawal of U.S. troops, the winding down of international engagement and the re-emergence of the Taliban may reverse gains.

Turnout of women voters in September’s presidential election was low amid security threats and concerns over facial recognition technology.

In the provinces, the challenges are still greater.

Zarifa Ghafari, 26, mayor of Maidan Shahr in restive Wardak province, has said she expects to be assassinated. She was recently named on BBC’s list of 100 women of 2019.

Khadija Ahmadi is the only other female mayor in the country, in the city of Nili in the remote Daykundi province.

It has taken her a while to assert authority locally and to get federal authorities in Kabul to allocate resources.

“The men would not listen to me at first. Many have come around after they realised I am persistent and can get the work done,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Yet women are constantly thwarted.

Last year, Koofi was one of several members of parliament disqualified from contesting the elections for allegedly running private armed militias and possessing illegal weapons – charges she denied and challenged.

Koofi recently set up a political party, Movement of Change for Afghanistan, becoming the first Afghan woman to do so.

The 44-year-old also took part in so-called intra-Afghan talks aimed at bringing together Taliban representatives and other Afghans to find a way to end the war.

Women were also included for the first time in the Taliban delegation at the peace talks, as the militant group projects a more moderate image.

“Women have been the worst victims of the war, so we must have a say in the future of this country,” Koofi said.

“It’s not enough to just fill a quota; we have to bring women to the forefront of politics, to leadership positions, and be a part of national decision making,” she said.

(Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

Factbox: ‘Fake News’ laws around the world

Commuters walk past an advertisement discouraging the dissemination of fake news at a train station in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer

SINGAPORE (Reuters) – Singapore’s parliament on Monday began considering a law on “fake news” that an internet watchdog has called the world’s most far-reaching, stoking fears the government could use additional powers to choke freedom of speech and chill dissent.

Governments and companies worldwide are increasingly worried about the spread of false information online and its impact on everything from share prices to elections and social unrest.

Human rights activists fear laws to curb so-called “fake news” could be abused to silence opposition.

Here are details of such laws around the world:

SINGAPORE

Singapore’s new law would require social media sites like Facebook to carry warnings on posts the government deems false and remove comments against the “public interest”.

Singapore, which ranks 151 among 180 countries rated by the World Press Freedom Index, defines “public interests” as threats to its security, foreign relations, electoral integrity and public perception of the government and state institutions.

Violations could attract fines of up to S$ 1 million ($737,500) and 10 years in prison.

RUSSIA

Last month, President Vladimir Putin signed into law tough new fines for Russians who spread what the authorities regard as fake news or who show “blatant disrespect” for the state online.

Critics have warned the law could aid state censorship, but lawmakers say it is needed to combat false news and abusive online comment.

Authorities may block websites that do not meet requests to remove inaccurate information. Individuals can be fined up to 400,000 rouble ($6,109.44) for circulating false information online that leads to a “mass violation of public order”.

FRANCE

France passed two anti-fake news laws last year, to rein in false information during election campaigns following allegations of Russian meddling in the 2017 presidential vote.

President Emmanuel Macron vowed to overhaul media laws to fight “fake news” on social media, despite criticism that the move was a risk to civil liberties.

GERMANY

Germany passed a law last year for social media companies, such as Facebook and Twitter, to quickly remove hate speech.

Called NetzDG for short, the law is the most ambitious effort by a Western democracy to control what appears on social media. It will enforce online Germany’s tough curbs on hate speech, including pro-Nazi ideology, by giving sites a 24-hour deadline to remove banned content or face fines of up to 50 million euros.

Since it was adopted, however, German officials have said too much online content was being blocked, and are weighing changes.

MALAYSIA

Malaysia’s ousted former government was among the first to adopt a law against fake news, which critics say was used to curb free speech ahead of last year’s general elections, which it lost. The measure was seen as a tool to fend off criticism over graft and mismanagement of funds by then prime minister Najib Razak, who now faces charges linked to a multibillion-dollar scandal at state fund 1 Malaysia Development Berhad.

The new government’s bid to deliver on an election promise to repeal the law was blocked by the opposition-led Senate, however.

EUROPEAN UNION

The European Union and authorities worldwide will have to regulate big technology and social media companies to protect citizens, European Commission deputy head Frans Timmermans said last month.

EU heads of state will urge governments to share information on threats via a new warning system, launched by the bloc’s executive. They will also call for online platforms to do more to remove misleading or illegal content.

Union-level efforts have been limited by different election rules in each member nation and qualms over how vigorously regulators can tackle misleading content online.

(Reporting by Fathin Ungku; Editing by Clarence Fernandez; and Joe Brock)

Israeli fire kills Palestinian at Gaza border, with more frontier protests ahead

Palestinian protesters carry tires to burn them during clashes with Israeli troops at Israel-Gaza border, in the southern Gaza Strip April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli fire killed a Palestinian at the Gaza border on Thursday and another died of wounds suffered several days ago, health officials said, bringing the number of Palestinian dead in a week of frontier protests and violence to 19.

The Israeli military said one of its aircraft targeted an armed militant near the security fence along the Gaza Strip.

Tens of thousands of Palestinians began a six-week-long protest last Friday in tent encampments along the fenced border of the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip, an enclave of two million ruled by the militant Hamas Islamist group.

The demonstrators are pressing for a right of return for refugees and their descendants to what is now Israel.

The latest deaths are likely to add to international concerns over the violence, which human rights groups have said involved live fire against unarmed demonstrators posing no immediate threat to life. Israel says it is doing what is necessary to defend its border and prevent it from being breached.

Sixteen Palestinians died after being shot by Israeli troops on the first day of the protest, Palestinian medical officials said, and another was killed on Tuesday.

A 33-year-old man, hit by Israeli fire a few days ago near one of the tent cities, died on Thursday, the health officials said.

The military said that during the protests its troops had used live fire only against people trying to sabotage the border fence or rolling burning tyres and throwing rocks.

Some of the dead were identified by Palestinian militant groups as members.

LETHAL FORCE

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has called for an independent investigation into Friday’s deaths and appealed to those involved to refrain from any act that could lead to further casualties or place civilians in harm’s way.

U.N. deputy political affairs chief Taye-Brook Zerihoun, commenting on the violence, has said lethal force should only be used as a last resort.

Israel’s defence minister, Avigdor Lieberman, described most of those killed as “terrorists …active in the armed wing of Hamas and Islamic Jihad”. The two groups advocate the destruction of Israel, which along with the West, regards them as terrorist organizations.

Many of the demonstrators who turned out for the start of the protest campaign returned to their homes and jobs over the week. But organizers expect large crowds again on Friday, the Muslim sabbath.

Hamas announced on Thursday it would pay $3,000 to the family of anyone killed in the protests, $500 to Palestinians critically wounded and $200 to those who sustain more minor injuries.

Israeli leaders have said payments by Palestinian authorities to the families of militants killed or imprisoned by Israel encourages attacks on Israelis. Palestinians revere brethren killed in the conflict with Israel as martyrs.

Visiting the frontier this week, Lieberman warned protesters “against continuing the provocation and said that “every person who comes close to the fence is endangering their lives”.

Protesters have been stocking up on tyres and say they intend to burn thousands of them at the border and also use mirrors and lasers to distract Israeli sharpshooters across the frontier on Friday.

Speaking on Army Radio, Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said: “We are prepared for every scenario, even an attempt to cause sharpshooters to lose focus.”

The protest action is set to wind up on May 15, when Palestinians mark the “Naqba”, or “Catastrophe”, when hundreds of thousands fled or were driven out of their homes during violence that culminated in war in May 1948 between the newly created state of Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Israel has long ruled out any right of return, fearing it would lose its Jewish majority.

Israel-Palestinian peace talks have been frozen since 2014.

The Palestinians are furious at U.S. President Donald Trump’s Dec. 6 decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and to move the U.S. Embassy to the city. Its eastern half was taken by Israel in a 1967 war and is wanted by Palestinians for the capital of a future state.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller, Editing by William Maclean)

After four months jail, Turkey’s Amnesty director says trial is ‘surreal’

Idil Eser, the director of Amnesty in Turkey, poses during an interview with Reuters in Istanbul, Turkey, October 31, 2017.

By Ece Toksabay

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Amnesty International’s Turkey director, freed from four months detention but still facing trial on terrorism charges, said the case against her and other human rights activists was “absurd and surreal”.

Idil Eser was one of eight activists freed last week on bail, in a case which has become a flash-point in Turkey’s tense relations with Europe. Their trial has brought condemnation from rights groups and some Western governments concerned by what they see as creeping authoritarianism in the NATO member state.

The activists were detained by police in July as they attended a workshop on digital security and information management on an island near Istanbul.

The charge against them, of aiding a terrorist organization, is similar to those leveled against tens of thousands of Turks detained since a failed military coup by rogue soldiers in July 2016, in which at least 240 people were killed.

“I cannot even find words to describe the absurdity, the surreality of the situation. It’s total nonsense,” Eser said when asked about the charges. She was speaking to Reuters in her first interview since being released.

Turkey rejects foreign criticism of the trials and says its judiciary operates independently of the government.

“Turkey is a state of law and our judges are independent and impartial,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag told reporters earlier this week when asked about the case.

At the time of the activists’ detention, President Tayyip Erdogan said the eight had gathered on the island for a meeting “that might be considered as a follow-up” to last year’s failed coup, which he has cast as part of a foreign-backed plot.

Erdogan was quoted by several Turkish newspapers on Thursday as telling reporters on his plane that the judiciary was acting independently in the case. “We cannot know how the court will rule in the end,” the Hurriyet newspaper quoted him as saying.

 

JAIL SENTENCES

The indictment also brought charges against Swedish national Ali Gharavi and Peter Steudtner, a German, prompting an angry response from Berlin, which threatened to put curbs on economic investment in Turkey and said it was reviewing arms projects.

The day after their release last week, Steudtner and Gharavi left Turkey, but the trial continues on Nov. 22. Prosecutors have sought jail sentences of up to 15 years for all of the defendants.

Steudtner and Gharavi told the court during the trial that they were shocked by the allegations against them. They could not immediately be reached for further comment.

Authorities have jailed more than 50,000 people pending trial in a crackdown following the abortive coup. Erdogan says the purges across society are necessary to maintain stability in Turkey, a NATO member state bordering Iran, Iraq and Syria.

European allies fear he is using the investigations to check opposition and undermine the judiciary.

Eser said her time in jail had marked a turning point in her life. Less than a week after her release, the 54-year-old made an appointment at a tattoo parlor in central Istanbul.

“With other defendants, we had decided to go to a Turkish bath when we got out, and the other decision was to get a tattoo,” she said. “So I started right away.”

 

(Additional reporting by Orhan Coskun; Editing by Dominic Evans and Nick Tattersall)