Pakistani Activists Troubled by Mysterious Disappearances of Secular Bloggers
Authorities in Pakistan have reported no progress in finding at least four secular activists and bloggers who mysteriously went missing a week ago from different cities, including the national capital of Islamabad.
Interior Minister Nisar Ali Khan told reporters Saturday that security and intelligence agencies are “fully focused” on the issue, and making efforts to determine the motives and whereabouts of the missing men as quickly as possible so they could return to their families.
“You all must realize, particularly relatives of the [missing] persons, that when a serious incident like this happens, it takes time to resolve it,” Khan said in response to growing criticism of a lack of progress in the investigations.
The minister would not confirm reports of another blogger allegedly abducted from Islamabad earlier this week.
The apparent abductions took place between January 4 and January 7. No group has since claimed responsibility.
Local and international human rights groups suspect the activists have been taken away either by religious extremists, or personnel of the Pakistani security forces for disseminating views through internet-based social media that are critical of Islamist groups and the government’s counter-extremism policies.
Officials, however, have denied they are holding the men.
The most prominent of them is Salman Haider, a university professor and poet, who went missing in Islamabad on January 6. He is well-known for accusing Pakistan’s military of being behind long-running instances of forced disappearances of activists in the southwestern province of Baluchistan.
The country’s independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, or HRCP, reiterated its demand Saturday for authorities to rescue the activists without delay, warning of a climate of increased insecurity and fear among bloggers and activists following the alleged abductions.
“Even if any of the missing bloggers are suspected of any wrongdoing, their apprehension in this manner cannot be justified. If such is indeed the case, law must be followed and courts should have a chance to examine the case against them,” said HRCP chair person, Zohra Yusuf.
Three of the bloggers were picked up from in and around the eastern city of Lahore, and they also are well-known for disseminating liberal views and promoting religious freedom through social media. Additionally, rights activists have taken to the streets in Pakistan to press authorities for their early recovery.
“Their near simultaneous disappearance and the government’s shutting down of their websites and blogs raises grave concerns of government involvement,” noted Human Rights Watch, a global watchdog group.
The United States has expressed concern over the disappearances, saying it is taking the issue “very seriously” and “will continue to monitor the situation in Pakistan.”
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How Trump’s Cabinet Nominees Disagreed with the Incoming Boss
From Russia to Iran, and from Pacific trade to nuclear proliferation to climate change, President-elect Donald Trump’s nominees to lead his government this week staked out sharply different positions than those taken by candidate Trump.
Many of the disagreements covered the signature issues the New York businessman rode to the White House, and seemed to leave in doubt whether Trump will govern as a populist outsider or adopt more traditional Republican Party policies.
“It is highly unusual for Cabinet nominees to express their disagreements with their president or president-elect so openly and fully,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
On Russia, for example, nominees for the State Department, Defense Department and the Central Intelligence Agency took a tougher approach than the president-elect, who tweeted January 7, “Only ‘stupid’ people, or fools, would think that it [relations with Russia] is bad.”
But Trump’s choice for secretary of defense Thursday named Russia as one of the nation’s three most important adversaries.
“I think it [the United States] is under the biggest attack since World War II,” said retired Marine General James Mattis, testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
WATCH: Mattis, Pompeo Tough on Russia
“It [Russia] has invaded the Ukraine, including the taking of Crimea, and supported Syrian forces that brutally violate the laws of war,” Rex Tillerson told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The nominee to be secretary of state, however, refused to accuse Russian President Vladimir Putin of war crimes despite sharp questions from Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida.
Trump praised Putin during the campaign and afterward as a strong leader.
“I always knew he was very smart,” Trump tweeted about the Russian president, after Putin decided not to respond to the Obama administration’s decision to expel Russian diplomats for the country’s election-year hacking. Putin was similarly upbeat on Trump, saying his success in business showed that he is a “clever man” who will quickly understand his new responsibilities as president.
The president-elect sharply criticized U.S. intelligence agencies who accused Russia of interfering with the presidential campaign, favoring Trump over Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.
Yet the nominee to lead the Central Intelligence Agency contradicted the stance Trump took for months.
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“It is pretty clear about what took place here, about Russian involvement in efforts to hack information and to have an impact on American democracy,” testified Republican Representative Mike Pompeo, the CIA director-designate. “I am very clear-eyed about what that intelligence report says and I have every expectation we can continue to develop the facts.”
The week of open disagreement with the future boss left some political analysts puzzled.
“Clearly, they have been given permission by Trump or his transition team to do so,” Sabato said. “One can only speculate about why this is happening.”
As the domestic news media began pointing out the inconsistencies, Trump defended his nominees. They “are looking good and doing a great job” he tweeted. “I want them to be themselves and express their own thoughts, not mine!”
Iranian nukes, trade deals
Trump’s picks also indicated they would back two measures roundly criticized by the president-elect during the campaign, including the Iran nuclear deal — called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) — and the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP).
“I do not oppose TPP,” Tillerson said, responding to questions. “I share some of [Trump’s] views regarding whether the agreement that was negotiated serves all of America’s interests the best.”
Trump has consistently declared the massive trade pact signed by 12 Pacific Rim nations to be a bad deal that hurts the American worker and kills U.S. jobs.
While Trump has blasted the Iran nuclear deal, calling it “incompetently negotiated,” Pompeo vowed the CIA would remain neutral under his leadership. He indicated he would assess Iran’s compliance objectively.
“While I opposed the Iran deal as a member of Congress, if confirmed my role will change,” he said.
During the presidential campaign, Trump said he would re-establish interrogation techniques such as waterboarding. In a November rally, Trump reiterated his stance.
“Believe me, it works,” he said. “And you know what? If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing.”
Days later, Trump backed away from such stark rhetoric after a meeting with the defense nominee.
“If you were ordered by the president to restart the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques that fall outside of the Army Field Manual, would you comply?” Senator Dianne Feinstein, a Democrat from California, asked at the Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.
“Senator, absolutely not,” Pompeo responded. “There’s no doubt in my mind about the limitations it places not only on the DoD and the Central Intelligence Agency, and I’ll always comply with the law.”
Senator Jeff Sessions, nominee for U.S. attorney general, also called waterboarding “absolutely improper and illegal.”
Nuclear proliferation, climate change
Despite Trump’s position that the U.S. “must greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability,” his likely future secretary of state said: “I do not agree.”
“We just simply cannot back away from our commitment to see a reduction in the number of these weapons on the planet,” Tillerson said.
Tillerson also contradicted Trump’s typical Republican position on climate change, saying the “risk of climate change does exist” and “action should be taken.”
The contradictions were largely unexplained in the Trump camp, though his press secretary was quoted as saying that after the inauguration, it would be the future president who would decide policy.
As to why Trump would allow nominees to take such divergent views, Sabato could only speculate.
“Maybe Trump is signaling that he’s considering a change in his positions. Or perhaps he is trying to muddy the waters to help the nominees get confirmed,” the political analyst said.
Confirmation hearings will continue next week, and the Senate is expected to take the first votes to confirm Trump’s Cabinet.
Obama to Hold Final News Conference Wednesday
President Barack Obama will hold his final news conference as the U.S. leader on Wednesday, two days before he leaves office.
The White House announced the press event on Friday as it revealed Obama’s public schedule for his last week as president.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama will begin the week Monday by hosting the Chicago Cubs baseball team to celebrate its World Series victory. He will also attend a Martin Luther King Jr. Day service event on Monday, a national holiday.
A day for packing
Earnest said Obama will spend Thursday, his last full day as president, packing up. On Friday’s Inauguration Day, he and first lady Michelle Obama will host President-elect Donald Trump for tea at the White House.
After Trump is sworn in, Obama and his wife will depart the Capitol by helicopter for Andrews Air Force Base, where he will bid farewell to staffers who worked in his administration. The White House said Obama will then fly on the presidential aircraft one last time to a location that has not been announced.
Obama to live in Washington
Obama has rented an eight-bedroom home in Washington to live in after he leaves the White House. He announced earlier this year his family plans to stay in Washington until his younger daughter, Sasha, completes high school. The Obamas also own a home in Chicago, Illinois.
Obama gave a farewell address on Tuesday in his hometown of Chicago, saying the country is a “better, stronger place” than when he took office in 2008. He pointed to the reversal of a recession, passage of his landmark health care program and the legalization of gay marriage as achievements the American people have won through his message of change.
Iranian Women Arrested for Riding Motorcycle; Video Fuels Backlash
Iranian police have arrested two women for riding a motorcycle in a western city — an incident that went viral when images appeared online and sparked a social-media backlash against the country’s political and religious authorities.
State news agency IRNA said the two women were detained Sunday in Dezful, whose law enforcement chief, Ali Elhami, accused them of committing an “ugly” act that breaks the “religious norms” of the conservative Islamic-led nation.
IRNA quoted Elhami as saying he ordered the women’s arrest after online images of the two women riding the motorcycle and being surrounded by male onlookers at a local park prompted complaints about the women’s dress, appearance and interaction with the men. The women, who were not identified, were handed over to judicial authorities.
Women in Iran are barred from obtaining licenses to drive motorcycles in public.
Iranian investigative journalist Masih Alinejad, who hosts VOA Persian’s TV program Tablet, shared images of the incident on her Facebook page and her Instagram account.
The 34-second video, apparently filmed by a witness with a mobile phone, shows two women riding a motorcycle on a street with a group of male motorcyclists riding behind them, while onlookers yell and whistle. After a few seconds, the video shows the women standing in the midst of a group of male motorcyclists who gesture at them and hold up their phones to take pictures. The women walk away from the men and the video stops.
What happened next is not clear from the posted video.
On Alinejad’s Facebook page, some users criticized the male onlookers for shameful and harassing behavior. Others criticized the arrest of the female motorcyclists as part of what they see as Iran’s oppression of women.
Iran does not ban all women from motorcycle riding. Off-road motorcycle racer Behnaz Shafiei was among a group of women granted official permission to practice on off-road circuits in 2015. In March of that year, Iranian newspaper Jamejam published photos of her practicing. At the time, she also told The Guardian newspaper that she hoped to be allowed to compete in motocross competitions.
VOA’s Persian service contributed to this report.
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