Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Abused, humiliated and abandoned. What really happens when the UK deports failed asylum-seekers

By Billy Kenber
On a sunny April morning earlier this year, a plane took off from Heathrow's northern runway at a little after 6.30am and turned towards the South coast. Unlike other flights, this one didn't appear on any of the airport's departure boards. Nor were those on board holidaymakers or businessmen.

Instead, this secret flight carried 15 failed asylum-seekers, who were being forcibly removed from the United Kingdom by 45 private security guards. One of those on board was Yves Yitgna Njitchoua, a 34-year-old from Cameroon. "People were screaming and crying because they feared for their lives," he said in an interview with The Independent. Mr Njitchoua says his wrists and legs were handcuffed for the whole flight. He was allowed to go to the toilet only with the door open and four guards standing outside.

Such flights are being used by the UK Border Agency (UKBA) with increasing frequency to return failed asylum-seekers. They are shrouded in secrecy, but an investigation by The Independent has put together details of the process, including the companies and airlines involved, the conditions on board, the techniques permitted, and the contracts of those paid to escort deportees. Though the records of activists, charities, befrienders, and the testimony of deportees themselves, it is possible to build up a picture of chartered and scheduled removal from Britain.

The Independent has found that:
*British Airways, BMI and other leading airlines are among those paid to transport failed asylum-seekers;
*A criminal record, even for assault, is not a barrier to someone becoming a private-security escort;
*Escorts are authorised to use a variety of techniques to restrain deportees including a "Goose Neck" lock and a procedure called "Nose Control";
*Escorts have a financial incentive to ensure removals are successful because the majority of their income is an hourly wage.

Yves Yitgna Njitchoua arrived in Britain and applied for asylum in 2005, claiming he had suffered persecution and been tortured by the police in Cameroon because of his political views. His brother, a local councillor, had been killed because of his involvement in the opposition party.

A medical report compiled for his asylum claim found evidence that he had been tortured on several occasions and had suffered scarring from cigarette burns as well as injuries to his testicles and legs. A UK immigration judge ordered his removal, however.

An attempt to deport him was made on 9 April. He was put on a Kenya Airways flight from Heathrow to Nairobi, from where he was scheduled to fly to Cameroon. He was accompanied by a male and a female escort officer, and a male medical escort; all three were provided by the private security company Group 4 Securicor (G4S).

In an interview Mr Njitchoua said: "At Heathrow I explained why I couldn't go back and [one of the escorts] said: 'For us it doesn't matter if you don't go to Cameroon but if we don't travel to Kenya, we won't get paid so let's go there and if you refuse to go to Cameroon we'll bring you back.'"

In a formal complaint to the UK Border Agency after the removal attempt, lawyers wrote: "They told him that if he went to Kenya they as escorts would earn more money. They told him that there was a 13-hour transit period in Kenya and that if he still did not want to return to Cameroon, they led him to believe that there was a prospect that he could return to the United Kingdom."

After flying through the night, Mr Njitchoua spent the day in Nairobi airport transit lounge, and at around 5pm the escorts asked him to move to the gate for the flight to Cameroon; he refused. Accounts of what happened next differ.

According to reports filed by the three G4S escorts, Mr Njitchoua became physically violent and punched the walls, shouting that somebody "will die today". Kenyan police were called.

Mr Njitchoua claims that one of the escorts went to speak to the Kenyan police: "She came back with a crowd of police officers and they told me you have to move to the gate and they began dragging me by my clothes. They handcuffed my right hand, then tried to join both hands behind my back but I just tried to use all my strength to not allow them to bring my hands together.

"They began pinching me and kicking. They dropped me to the floor and put their legs on my leg and tried to strangle me. I screamed and couldn't breathe so I said I give up and gave up my left hand so they could join them. I was bleeding on my nose and my mouth and my wrist was painful."

According to both accounts, Mr Njitchoua was taken to an immigration office where his handcuffs remained on for over an hour. The flight to Cameroon was suffering technical problems and had not yet departed, but the pilot refused to carry Mr Njitchoua because of his distressed state. Mr Njitchoua and his escorts spent the night on airport benches before flying back on a Virgin Atlantic plane the following morning.

Four days after the incident he was examined by a doctor from the charity Medical Justice who found bruising to the face and ribs, evidence that Mr Njitchoua had been held "tightly around his neck" and a loss of sensation to his right wrist. Dr Charmian Goldwyn concluded: "Overall the distribution of the injuries, the severity of the wrist and facial injuries are highly consistent with Mr Njitchoua's account of assault in Nairobi Airport and an innocent explanation is unlikely."

In statements during a subsequent investigation, all three escorts denied making claims that Mr Njitchoua would not be sent to Cameroon if he agreed to go to Kenya. However, for several years, campaigners have heard similar stories from deportees. While there is no bonus payment to escorts for successful removals, The Independent can confirm that many escorts have a financial incentive to ensure a removal is successful, because the majority of their wages (on top of what a G4S source called a "quite low basic salary") is paid by the hour.

While an overseas removal might last two or three days, an aborted attempt can involve only a few hours work and therefore far less pay, a G4S source acknowledged. When asked if the financial incentive had any effect on the measures taken by escorts to ensure a removal was successful, a G4S spokeswoman said: "Absolutely not. Everything is done professionally and above board. This set-up just helps us to have a flexible workforce."

A report by the Institute of Race Relations in 2005 documented 11 deaths during removals conducted by European countries since 1991. It noted that in each case the deportee suffocated while "control and restraint" methods were being used. The Council of the European Union's guidelines for removal by air state: "Coercive measures... should not compromise the ability of the returnee to breathe normally."

Mr Njitchoua claims that while being restrained on the floor in Nairobi airport he could not breathe because someone was holding his head down.

The Home Office does not publish documentation on the "control and restraint" methods used to effect a removal and the UK Border Agency's operating standards state only that: "When the application of force is deemed necessary, no more force than necessary will be applied and any such force must be reasonable."

However, documents exclusively obtained by this newspaper reveal the types of "control and restraint" techniques used by private detention and escorting officers. G4S requires all overseas escorts to fill in a "Use of Force" report when coercive measures have been used during a removal. The document lists the types of restraints that the company's escorts can use and these include "rigid bar", "chain link", and "double-locked" handcuffs, as well as leg restraints. Rigid bar handcuffs are used by some specially trained police officers to put pressure on an individual's wrist to force compliance.

The form also lists a number of control techniques including the "Goose Neck" wrist lock, and "thumb and straight arm locks", as well as "Nose Control Technique" - which can refer to pressure or a strike on the base of the nose - and "Head Control".

G4S declined to elaborate on what the techniques involved but a spokesperson said they were all approved by the Prison Service.

Amnesty International UK's arms programme director Oliver Sprague said: " 'Control techniques' and 'holds', despite their anodyne names, involve applying pressure to people's joints or strikes to their body to cause pain. Police officers in the UK undergo extensive training in the use of restraints and control techniques, and anyone else using them should be trained to the same standards."
Liz Jones, a spokeswoman for G4S, said that escort officers receive seven weeks' basic training and further specialist instruction in how to use "control and restraint" techniques to prevent violence. "We look for people that can talk, people that can calm situations down, general people skills," she said, adding that the company took employees from all walks of life.

Asked if previous criminal convictions would rule an applicant out, she responded: "Not necessarily, as long as it is declared. It depends on the circumstances for that conviction and how long ago it was. A major child offender, a murderer or a rapist would be ruled out but assault depends on the background details."

A formal complaint was made on 19 April on Mr Njitchoua's behalf by Refugee and Migrant Justice, a specialist charity which provided legal advice to asylum-seekers before going into administration last month.

One week later a UK Government lawyer wrote back with the results of an investigation into the incident.

They concluded that Mr Njitchoua's account was "entirely fictitious" and that he was "abusive from the start, made sustained threats of violence and death to his escorts, and carried out his threats of violence by attacking them using a metal barrier rail as a club".

However, such allegations of excessive force and violence are by no means unique. The UN has launched an investigation after asylum-seekers claimed they were beaten by their British escorts and Iraqi officials during the most recent removal flight from the UK to Iraq on 16 June.

Reports by charities including the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and Medical Justice have found multiple abuses both within detention centres and during the removal process.

In 2008, a Medical Justice report detailed 48 case studies of mistreatment during the removal process in the previous four years. They catalogued another 250 cases in which the detainee wished to remain anonymous and noted that "assault levels on detainees indicate systematic abuse".

The Independent can also reveal that some of Britain's biggest airlines are profiting from the transportation of failed asylum-seekers.

British Airways, BMI, and Virgin Atlantic have each transportedfailed asylum-seekers and their escorts on normal commercial flights in the past six months. British authorities are also believed to have chartered aircraft from Titan Airways, which describes itself as "specialising in VIP and corporate travel" and has been used by the former prime minister Gordon Brown and the Rolling Stones, and small foreign firms such as Hamburg International.

These charter flights can remove more than 100 failed asylum-seekers, foreign-national prisoners, and visa overstayers at a time, and also eliminate the possibility that passengers on commercial routes might complain about the presence of failed asylum-seekers, or witness any altercations.

In 2009, there were 64 charter flights from the UK deporting nearly 2,000 people to countries including Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Information released to The Independent under the Freedom of Information Act shows that charter flights cost the UK Border Agency more than £10m in the past financial year. In the same period, the cost of removing people on scheduled flights increased to £18m.

A total of 6,855 people have been forcibly removed on commercial flights and specially chartered planes in the past year. The removals between 2005 and April 2010 cost almost £110m.

All of the airlines mentioned above were asked if they wanted to comment. Only two replied. A spokesman for BA said: "We are legally obliged to remove 'deportees' from the UK if instructed by the Home Office to do so. If we refuse to comply, we would be in contravention of paragraph 10 (i) of Schedule 2 of the 1971 Immigration Act."

Janis Vanags, vice-president for communications for Air Baltic, said: "In general, we are non-discriminatory. We are a means of transport so we don't decide who can't go on our planes unless they are acting in a specific way that poses safety risks." He added: "We haven't had issues with it before but when we sign a contract in future we might consider it in more detail."

Many of the charter flights are jointly organised by a number of European Union nations under the auspices of the EU's border agency, Frontex.

Yves Yitgna Njitchoua's final removal on 28 April was on a Frontex-organised charterflight and he claims that conditions on board were "extremely distressing" with lots of people "screaming and crying out because they were in fear of their lives".

Earlier this year, on 3 February, Prince Ademola Babatunde Bakare, 37, was returned on a Frontex flight to Nigeria. He had fled to Britain after being tortured because of a dispute over his family's claim to a royal throne.

Unlike most of those on the Frontex flight - which landed in Ireland and Spain to pick up more deportees - he travelled voluntarily, saying he preferred to return to his torturers rather than remain in detention.

He claimed that there were many women and young children on the flight, and described "uncontrolled crying among the children because of the... shouting on the plane".

A spokesperson for Frontex said: "No case of 'beating' or excessive use of force was reported by any of the escorts in regard to this flight. Also no 'uncontrolled crying' was reported by our observer, [although] as return is a very emotional situation, returnees sometimes become very upset." The UKBA and G4S deny Prince Bakare's allegations.

Another deportee, Barzan Nasir, a 28-year-old Kurdish man from Kirkuk in Iraq was sent back to Baghdad on 2009. "They put us in two buses to Stansted airport," he said in an interview at Colnbrook detention centre near Heathrow. "There were two guards either side of us and we waited for two hours outside the airport before the bus drove straight to the plane. It was an old [former] Alitalia plane and there was no one around. They used three people to take you to the plane, two people holding you on either side and one person pushing you forward from behind.

"I can never forget that day. They treated us like prisoners, like we weren't human. We were handcuffed and people were crying and screaming that they didn't want to go back, they thought they would die. Security didn't seem to care. When you went to the toilet four people went with you and you had to leave the door half-open.

"We got to Baghdad airport at about two or three in the afternoon. I could see fighter planes and tanks but no normal planes. The got us to go to a reception area and then we were taken back to the plane and it flew to Italy.

"In Italy they started pushing people around. They were pissed off - I could see it on their faces. They put my mate on the floor and when I said: 'Why are you doing that?', they put me on the ground as well. Three or four people were on me and my chest was hurting, one of them pushed down on my head. They dragged me up and just said walk.

"Outside the plane, I was pushed so hard my head hit the side of the bus and they handcuffed me. Then seven or eight [G4S escorts] circled me on the bus and started pushing me. One of them, he had these massive hands, and he grabbed my neck and screamed: 'Shut up!' My hands were handcuffed behind my back but they were too tight and they were causing blood marks under the skin. The marks didn't go for three weeks."

The UK Border Agency's David Wood, strategic director for criminality and detention, replied jointly, on behalf of G4S as well, to the allegations made by Prince Bakare and Barzan Nasir. He rejected their claims entirely: "We do not accept the allegations of mistreatment made by these returnees. They are without foundation.

"The UK Border Agency had a manager on board both of these flights, and was satisfied that our escorts acted professionally at all times. Furthermore, Frontex had its own observer on the Nigeria flight who also reported no mistreatment."

The British government also charters removal flights to Afghanistan. These take place on Tuesday evenings every fortnight under the name Operation Ravel.

Jon Burnett, a researcher for Medical Justice, says that there are cases where escorts have used excessive force and points out that their actions are not open to public scrutiny.

"It's worrying that private companies are making profits from removals, with little semblance of public accountability", he said.

Dashty Jamal, general secretary of the International Federation of Iraqi Refugees, uses even stronger language: "You judge a country by how it treats the vulnerable and the least well off.
"In the last four years, I've seen people who have been beaten by their escorts, shouted at, sworn at, treated like they're not a human being. It's a shame on this country."

The goose neck

*Documents exclusively obtained by this newspaper reveal the types of "control and restraint" techniques used by private detention and escorting officers. G4S requires all overseas escorts to fill in a "Use of Force" report when coercive measures have been used during a removal. The document lists the types of restraints that the company's escorts can use and these include "rigid bar", "chain link", and "double-locked" handcuffs, as well as leg restraints. Rigid bar handcuffs are used by some specially trained police officers to put pressure on an individual's wrist to force compliance.

The form also lists a number of control techniques including the "Goose Neck" wrist lock, and "thumb and straight arm locks", as well as "Nose Control Technique" - which can refer to pressure or a strike on the base of the nose - and "Head Control".

G4S declined to elaborate on what the techniques involved but a spokeswoman said they were all approved by the Prison Service.

Amnesty International UK's arms programme director Oliver Sprague said: "'Control techniques' and 'holds', despite their anodyne names, involve applying pressure to people's joints or strikes to their body to cause pain. Police officers in the UK undergo extensive training in the use of restraints and control techniques, and anyone else using them should be trained to the same standards."

Escort officers' training

Liz Jones, a spokeswoman for G4S, said that escort officers receive seven weeks' basic training and further specialist instruction in how to use "control and restraint" techniques to prevent violence. "We look for people that can talk, people that can calm situations down, general people skills," she said, adding that the company took employees from all walks of life.

Asked if previous criminal convictions would rule an applicant out, she responded: "Not necessarily, as long as it is declared. It depends on the circumstances for that conviction and how long ago it was. A major child offender, a murderer or a rapist would be ruled out but assault depends on the background details."

Egypt destroys 400 Gaza tunnels

Egypt has destroyed hundreds of Palestinian tunnels across its border with the Gaza Strip as part of the joint Israeli-Egyptian blockade of the enclave.

Egyptian authorities on Sunday announced that they have destroyed some 400 tunnels since the beginning of 2010 to counter what it alleges to be smuggling of goods and weapons, Ma'an news agency reported.

This is while years of a crippling Israeli siege on the Gaza Strip has left its impoverished people with a network of cross-border underground tunnels as the last resort to push their basic needs into the territory.

Egypt conducts regular raids on what the Gazans see as "supply routes," and at times fills them with gas or water while it has erected a deep-based steel wall at the Rafah border to disrupt the excavation of such burrows.

Earlier this month, nine tunnels on the border with Gaza were attacked by Egyptian forces and a Palestinian was captured along with quantities of unspecified goods bound for the besieged territory.
Egypt has refused to open its Rafah border crossing - the only terminal not controlled by Israel - to the Palestinians in the Hamas-run region.

On May 31, a Gaza-bound aid convoy came under attack in international waters by Israeli soldiers, who killed nine activists on the blockade-busting Freedom Flotilla and injured scores more.

The deadly onslaught drew fresh, reinvigorated condemnations against the Gaza siege and the collective punishment of some 1.5 million Palestinians living in the populated coastal sliver.

In the wake of mounting criticism, Cairo decided to indefinitely open the Rafah crossing but only to sick people, students and those who are granted permits by the Egyptian security agency.

Israel said in June that Cairo had encouraged its blockade of Gaza, seeking to force the territory's impoverished population to rise up against the democratically elected Hamas government in the territory - a claim Cairo vehemently rejected.

Turkey to cut ties with defiant Israel

Turkey says it will sever diplomatic ties with Israel unless it apologizes over the attack on a Gaza aid convoy and the death of nine Turks in the deadly onslaught.

Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu renewed the call for a formal apology from Israeli leaders on Monday, saying his country's airspace will be closed to all Israeli military flights, AFP reported.

"Relations will be broken" unless Israel apologizes or accepts the conclusions of an international inquiry into the May 31 attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, the agency quote him as telling Monday's edition of the Hurriyet newspaper.

On May 31, Israeli navy commandos attacked the Gaza Freedom Flotilla in international waters as it was heading to the Palestinian territory to break Tel Aviv's years-long siege on the impoverished coastal sliver.

The attack killed eight Turkish activists and a Turkish-American teenage volunteer on board the six-vessel convoy and left some 50 others wounded.

Israel has managed to evade an international probe into the deadly attack despite repeated calls by Turkey and the rest of the international community and set up an internal inquiry with only two foreign observers.

However, Davutoglu said it would be sufficient if Israel's investigation commission "concludes that the raid was unjust and if they apologize insisting on Turkey's demand for compensation from Tel Aviv.

The remarks by the Israeli foreign minister comes days after Israel ruled out an apology over the lethal aid attack and defended the move as an act of "self-defense."

"Israel cannot apologize because its soldiers had to defend themselves to avoid being lynched by a crowd," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday.

But activists onboard the Freedom Flotilla have said the use of deadly force by the Israeli troops who stormed the Turkish-flagged vessel Mavi Marmara was totally unjustified.

UK: Parents' drinking scares 30 per cent of children according to new survey

By Daily Mail Reporter
Half of children think they have seen their parents drunk, according to a survey published today.
And 30 per cent feel scared when they see adults drinking, the study discovered.

Seventy-two per cent of the children questioned said their parents drink.

Of those, 70 per cent thought they had seen them drunk. That is 50 per cent of the total surveyed.
Enlightening: A new survey has produced some worrying results on how adults' consumption of alcohol can affect children

Forty-six per cent of the children surveyed thought that adults should not drink in front of children.
Another 32 per cent thought this was all right, and 22 per cent were not sure.

When given a list of words to describe how they felt when they saw adults drinking, 47 per cent said they were not bothered.

But 30 per cent of the children, who were aged ten to 14, said it made them feel scared, the study for CBBC's Newsround found.

Eighty-one per cent of children who had seen adults drinking said they noticed one or more changes in the way they behaved.

Of those, 24 per cent said it made adults act stupid or silly; 20 per cent said they became angry and aggressive; another 20 per cent said they became happy and funny; 19 per cent found them to act strangely or in a different way; 18 per cent said they became loud and swore; and 17 per cent said they became dizzy or fell over.

The results will be revealed today on CBBC's Newsround on BBC1 at 4.55pm as part of a wider exploration of the issue of alcohol and how adults' drinking affects children's lives.

Damian Kavanagh, controller of CBBC, said: 'There has been much discussion about levels of drinking but the social impact is rarely explored from a child's point of view.

'Alcohol is present in the lives of most of our audience in one way or another, yet it is something they may not feel confident talking about.'

The survey was conducted during April and May by Childwise, which carries out research into children and young people.

Using the Childwise schools panel online, 1,234 young people were asked for their views on alcohol and how adults' drinking affected them.

Nudge on Arms Further Divides the U.S. and Israel

WASHINGTON - It was only one paragraph buried deep in the most plain-vanilla kind of diplomatic document, 40 pages of dry language committing 189 nations to a world free of nuclear weapons. But it has become the latest source of friction between Israel and the United States in a relationship that has lurched from crisis to crisis over the last few months.

At a meeting to review the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in May, the United States yielded to demands by Arab nations that the final document urge Israel to sign the treaty - a way of spotlighting its historically undeclared nuclear weapons.

Israel believed it had assurances from the Obama administration that it would reject efforts to include such a reference, an Israeli official said, and it saw this as another sign of unreliability by its most important ally. In a recent visit to Washington, Israel's defense minister, Ehud Barak, raised the issue in meetings with senior American officials.

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scheduled to meet President Obama on Tuesday at the White House, the flap may introduce a discordant note into a meeting that both sides are eager to portray as a chance for Israel and the United States to turn the page after a rocky period.

Other things have changed notably for the better in American-Israeli relations since Mr. Netanyahu called off his last visit to the White House to rush home to deal with the crisis after Israel's deadly attack on a humanitarian aid flotilla sailing to Gaza in late May. His agreement to ease the land blockade on Gaza, which came at the request of the United States, has helped thaw the chill between the governments, American and Israeli officials said.

Meanwhile, the raft of new sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program, after the passage of the United Nations resolution, has reassured Israelis, who viewed Mr. Obama's attempts to engage Iran with unease. Mr. Obama signed the American sanctions into law on Thursday.

"The overall tone is more of a feel-good visit than we've seen in the past," said David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It has been more focused on making sure that the Ides of March have passed."

He was referring to the dispute during a visit to Israel by Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in March, when Israel approved plans for Jewish housing in East Jerusalem. Mr. Obama was enraged by what he perceived as a slight to Mr. Biden, and when Mr. Netanyahu visited a few weeks later, the While House showed its displeasure by banning cameras from recording the visit.

But despite the better atmospherics, some analysts said the nuclear nonproliferation issue symbolizes why Israel remains insecure about the intentions of the Obama administration. In addition to singling out Israel, the document, which has captured relatively little public attention, calls for a regional conference in 2012 to lay the groundwork for a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East. Israel, whose nuclear arsenal is one of the world's worst-kept secrets, would be on the hot seat at such a meeting.

At the last review conference, in 2005, the Bush administration refused to go along with any references to Israel, one of several reasons the meeting ended in acrimony, without any statement.
This time, Israel believed the Obama administration would again take up its cause. As a non-signatory to the treaty, Israel did not attend the meeting. But American officials consulted the Israelis on a text in advance, which they found acceptable, a person familiar with those discussions said. That deepened their surprise at the end.

Administration officials said the United States negotiated for months with Egypt, on behalf of the Arab states, to leave out the reference to Israel. While the United States supports the goal of a nuclear-free Middle East, it stipulated that any conference would be only a discussion, not the beginning of a negotiation to compel Israel to sign on to the treaty.

The United States practices a policy of ambiguity with respect to Israel's nuclear stockpile, neither publicly discussing it nor forcing the Israeli government to acknowledge its existence.

The United States, recognizing that the document would upset the Israelis, sought to distance itself even as it signed it.

In a statement released after the conference ended, the national security adviser, Gen. James L. Jones, said, "The United States deplores the decision to single out Israel in the Middle East section of the NPT document." He said it was "equally deplorable" that the document did not single out Iran for its nuclear ambitions. Any conference on a nuclear-free Middle East, General Jones said, could only come after Israel and its neighbors had made peace.

The United States, American officials said, faced a hard choice: refusing to compromise with the Arab states on Israel would have sunk the entire review conference. Given the emphasis Mr. Obama has placed on nonproliferation, the United States could not accept such an outcome.

It also would complicate the administration's attempts to build bridges to the Arab world, an effort that is at the heart of some of the disagreements between the United States and Israel.

Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Obama will have plenty of other things to discuss this week. After several rounds of indirect talks, brokered by the administration's special envoy, George J. Mitchell, the United States is pushing the Israelis and the Palestinians to begin direct negotiations.

A central question, analysts said, is whether Mr. Netanyahu will extend Israel's self-imposed moratorium on new residential construction in West Bank settlements, which expires in September. He is unlikely to take such a step unless the Palestinians agree to face-to-face talks, they said.

For Mr. Obama and Mr. Netanyahu, the most basic priority may be establishing trust between them - which is why the flap over the nuclear conference, though small, is potentially troublesome.

"Most American presidents who end up being successful on Israel manage to create, even amid great mistrust and suspicion, a pretty good working relationship," said Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East peace negotiator. "This has been a real crisis of confidence, which cuts to the core of how each leader sees his respective world."

Ulema condemn Data Darbar bombing

KARACHI: Strongly condemning the terrorist attack on the Data Darbar in Lahore, leading religious scholars have termed it a conspiracy to shatter peace and provoke sectarianism in the country.

They urged the government to arrest the culprits and expose the conspiracies hatched by forces opposed to Pakistan and the unity of Ummah.

In a statement issued from Jamia Darul Uloom Karachi on Saturday, nine leading ulema of the country maintained that the incident in which at least 43 innocent and helpless Muslims were killed and many others injured cannot be condoned.

They said that those who attacked mosques and other places of worship and shrines and killed innocent people cannot be Muslims because such a conduct was forbidden in the Holy Quran and Sunnah.

"If such heinous act is committed through suicide attack, then it becomes even more grievous and deplorable act and has serious ramifications in the light of Sharia."

They urged people to realise the grave threat to the country's integrity and foil such conspiracies.
The statement was issued on behalf of Maulana Saleemullah Khan, president of Wafaqul Madaris Al Arabia Pakistan and administrator of Jamia Farooqia Karachi; Mufti Mohammad Rafi Usmani, Mufti-i-Azam of Pakistan and president of Jamia Darul Uloom; Mufti Mohammad Taqi Usmani, vice president of Jamia Darul Uloom; Dr Abdul Razak Iskandar, administrator of Jamia Uloom-i-Islamia Binnori Town Karachi; Mufti Mahmood Ashraf Usmani of Darul Afta Jamia Darul Uloom, Mufti Abdur Rauf Sukkurvi; Maulana Azizur Rahman, Maulana Rahat Ali Hashmi and Mufti Mohammad Zubair Ashraf Usmani.

Peace sacrificed in shrine attack

By Syed Saleem Shahzad
ISLAMABAD - The twin suicide attacks on Thursday on the shrine of a Sufi saint in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore in which more than 40 people were killed and nearly 200 injured will most likely force the government to reluctantly take action against Punjabi militants while also derailing Washington's efforts to open dialogue with the Taliban through Pakistan.

The attacks in the capital of Punjab province - also known as the country's cultural capital - took place in the late evening, with the first bombing in the basement reserved for ablutions followed a few minutes later by one in the major prayer area. The shrine is dedicated to 11-century Persian Sufi saint Syed Ali Hajweri, also known as Data Gunj Baksh, who significantly contributed to the spread of Islam.

The attackers managed to penetrate a highly secured area to sow their destruction in the crowded shrine. Sufism, a mystical movement that relies on music, poetry and dancing to spread the word of Islam, includes Shi'ites and Sunnis. Radical groups consider it to be un-Islamic.

Asia Times Online earlier warned that in the wake of recent overtures between the Pakistani military establishment and Washington to initiate a dialogue process with the Taliban, al-Qaeda-led militants were desperate to attack Lahore, where recently police recovered a record 28,000 kilograms of explosives. (See Explosive mood in Pakistan June 30, 2010.)

Operation in Punjab looms
The attack on the very soul of Lahore leaves the military establishment and the government of Punjab, which have steadfastly refused to act, little option but to crack down on al-Qaeda-linked Punjabi militants

Their inaction, despite international pressure and calls from secular political parties, stems from fears of causing chaos in the country, which might create the grounds for foreign forces to intervene.
Now the masses are enraged against militants, and operations against their hideouts in southern Punjab along the Indian border can be expected. These militants are considered the most dangerous of all, with most of them having been trained by the Inter-Services Intelligence's India Cell to fight Indian forces in Indian-administered Kashmir.

After action in this disputed region was scaled back, the militants turned to al-Qaeda and now they are the main strength behind the Taliban-led resistance against foreign occupation forces in Afghanistan, where they have changed the dynamics of the war by adding a high level of sophistication.
Thursday's attack comes close on the heels of talks between former US commander in Afghanistan General Stanley McChrystal, Pakistani army chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kiani and Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The main topic was to get some Taliban leaders taken off a US terror list so they could set the ball rolling for talks in Pakistan and Afghanistan on a reconciliation process. This initiative would be complemented with increased action against al-Qaeda and its affiliates.

If indeed strong action does now take place against Punjabi militants, the resultant crisis in the country would stall any serious dialogue process with the Afghan Taliban.

Foreign footprints
Asia Times Online has learned from high-level security contacts that private US defense contractors want to operate in Punjab to trace militant networks and then make recommendations for penetrating them.

Despite intense opposition from the military establishment, a few days before the shrine attack over 50 foreign nationals, including officials of a private American defense contracting firm, arrived in Pakistan - even though they did not have security clearance from Pakistani intelligence agencies.
According to the contacts, these nationals had earlier been denied visas by the Pakistani embassies they first approached, including in the US, Britain and India. However, they were apparently subsequently given visas by the embassy in Abu Dhabi and the consulate in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. This was done without the prerequisite clearance from the Pakistani Ministry of Interior, the Defense Ministry and the security agencies.

"These included over a dozen US nationals who had already been denied visas by our embassy in Washington on suspicion of them having links to Blackwater [Xe Services]," a source told Asia Times Online, adding that the visas had been issued for periods of six months to two years, although usually visas are only give for 90 days.

Foreign Office spokesman Abdul Basit could not be reached for comment despite repeated attempts.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can be reached at saleem_shahzad2002@yahoo.com

US court seeks more evidence to hold terror detainees


By Olivia Hampton

WASHINGTON - US government prosecutors must present evidence that an Algerian detainee held at Guantanamo Bay for over eight years truly belongs to Al-Qaeda or release him, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The decision by the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia has broad implications for the credibility of evidence the administration of President Barack Obama has presented to justify holding terror suspects without trial.

It also overturned a rare win for the government in Guantanamo cases, reversing a lower court's decision to uphold the detention of Belkacem Bensayah, who was nabbed from Bosnia with five other dual Bosnian-Algerian nationals in 2001.

The men, who were sent to Guantanamo in January 2002, were accused of planning to head to Afghanistan to fight US forces.

In a partially redacted 17-page ruling issued Thursday, Judge Douglas Ginsburg said "the evidence upon which the district court relied in concluding Bensayah 'supported' Al-Qaeda is insufficient... to show he was part of that organization."

Ginsburg's decision sent the case back before District Judge Richard Leon. In 2008, Leon ruled that Bensayah could be held indefinitely without trial, but also ordered the five other Algerians seized in Bosnia to be freed.

The group includes Lakhdar Boumediene, who was the named plaintiff in a key Supreme Court ruling issued earlier that same year that established Guantanamo detainees' right to contest their detention in US courts through the ancient writ of habeas corpus.

In his decision, Ginsburg set a looser standard for holding terror detainees than proving suspects actively supported Al-Qaeda. He said the Pentagon can hold suspects simply for being "part of Al-Qaeda."

But he said the US government had failed to meet even that burden of proof.

"The government presented no direct evidence of actual communication between Bensayah and any Al Qaeda member, much less evidence suggesting Bensayah communicated with" any other individual to help facilitate travel for an Al-Qaeda member, Ginsburg added.

Developments that followed Leon's ruling undermined it, the court said, pointing to the Obama administration's decision to drop an argument that Bensayah could be held because he had provided substantial "support" to Al-Qaeda.

The government instead opted for a narrower definition under which Bensayah was considered "part of" the group.

After Leon's ruling, the Obama administration also decided to eschew a claim that a "senior Al-Qaeda operative and facilitator" was a witness against Bensayah.

Though details about evidence were blacked out of the ruling, Ginsburg noted that "the evidence, viewed in isolation or together, is insufficiently corroborative" of claims that Bensayah was part of Al-Qaeda.

The United States transferred two Algerian detainees from Guantanamo Bay to their native country in January as Obama slipped past his self-imposed deadline for shuttering the notorious facility.

According to US government figures, 181 detainees remain at the US military prison in southeastern Cuba, including dozens already cleared for release. Most have been held without charge or trial.

Greek volunteers in the Srebrenica Genocide

The genocide occurred over a couple of days during the scorching July 1995 summer when Bosnian Serb forces along with special forces belonging to the Serbian Ministry of Interior and the Yugoslav People's Army (which de facto and de jure belonged to neighboring Serbia) brutally slaughtered an estimated 9,000 Bosniak men and young boys at the UN-declared "safe haven" of Srebrenica and forcefully expelled the remaining 30,000 Bosniak women, children and elderly people. The UN-established International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has so far convicted three Bosnian Serb military leaders for genocide against Bosniaks in Srebrenica.

A more recent unfolding of events in Greece, however, sheds light on the less talked about role of Greek volunteers who in the name of Orthodox Christianity (along with Russian volunteers) flocked to help their Serb brothers-in-faith in their efforts to eliminate some of the last remnants of autochthonous European Muslims.

Takis Michas, a contributor to The Wall Street Journal and author of "Unholy Alliance: Greece and Milosevic's Serbia," a book that deals with Serbian-Greek relations and the role of Greek volunteers in the Bosnian war, is being sued by a Stavros Vitalis, a former Greek volunteer who along with other Greek volunteers in Bosnia and Herzegovina made up the Greek Voluntary Guard which was under the direct command of Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic, currently wanted for genocide by the ICTY. Vitalis, who is now a spokesman for the ultranationalist Panhellenic Macedonian Front, is suing Michas for referring to Greek volunteers in Bosnia and Herzegovina as "paramilitaries who took part in the slaughter of Srebrenica."

While Vitalis does not deny taking part in Srebrenica, he rebukes Michas for referring to him and his comrades as "paramilitaries" while claiming that Greek volunteers were in fact members of the regular Army of the Serb Republic who simply took part in the "re-occupation" of Srebrenica, as he puts it. Furthermore, Vitalis claims that the recruitment of Greek volunteers such as himself for the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina occurred with the implicit knowledge and approval of leading Greek politicians such as Andreas Papandreou and, to a lesser extent, Constantine Mitsotakis.

As Vitalis put it: "The whole of Greece knows that the Greek volunteers had the broad support of Greek society as a whole as well as the support of politicians, mainly belonging to PASOK [the Panhellenic Socialist Movement], because of the warm friendship between Andreas Papandreou and Radovan Karadzic. They also enjoyed the support of New Democracy, through the friendly diplomatic initiatives of Constantine Mitsotakis."

But this outright evidence of Greek participation and tacit approval of top Greek politicians did not seem to trigger any interest within the European Union or the "international community." On the contrary, the entire attention in the post-war years has been and continues to be on the presence of Muslim mujahedeen fighters who came from Arab countries. And while Bosniak military leaders have been sentenced by the ICTY for petty individual crimes committed by undisciplined mujahedeen fighters, no single member of the Greek Voluntary Guard has been prosecuted by the ICTY or by Greek courts. Instead, four of them have been awarded medals of honor by former Bosnian Serb leader Karadzic, currently facing charges of genocide at the ICTY.

Bearing in mind the power of the Greek "deep state" and the strong support of the Greek church and state for Serbs and for all that they have done in the past, it seems unlikely that any action will be taken against the volunteers anytime soon. After all, what is to be expected from a state which supported the genocidal campaigns of Milosevic, Karadzic, and Mladic and whose people continue to consider these war criminals as heroes?

In the meantime, instead of Greek volunteers taking their seat on the court bench, brave journalists such as Michas will be tried instead.

*Harun Karcic is researching Islamic revival in Bosnia and Herzegovina at the "Roberto Ruffilli" Faculty of Political Science, University of Bologna and is a member of the Sarajevo-based ISEEF group. The views expressed here do not reflect the views of the institutions the author is affiliated with.

US-led forces kill three Afghan civilians

US-led forces in Afghanistan have killed at least three civilians as their new commander General David Petraeus makes his debut in Kabul.

The civilians, including a woman, were killed in a NATO operation in the volatile southern province of Kandahar, a Press TV correspondent reported.

NATO has confirmed the attack. However, it claims that its soldiers only killed two civilians. The Western military alliance claims that its forces also accidentally injured another person.

The foreign troops also killed eight civilians inside their houses during an operation in Kandahar Province last week. NATO claimed the raid targeted militants.

The developments come as a big blow to the new commander of the US and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

General Petraeus promised that his top priority will be to minimize Afghan civilian casualties only two days before the killings.

NATO says that it will launch a probe into the deadly attacks.

Thousands of Afghan civilians have been killed in attacks carried out by foreign forces since the US-led invasion back in 2001.

According to official figures, more than 2,500 civilians were killed in NATO operations last year, undermining support for the presence of US-led forces in the country.