Thursday, December 20, 2012

SKorean president-elect vows deeper NKorea engagement, but Pyongyang may be wary

Park Geun-hye promises to reach out to North Korea with more humanitarian aid and deeper engagement after she moves into South Korea's presidential Blue House on Feb. 25. Pyongyang, however, may be in no mood to talk anytime soon.

Park's declarations ahead of Wednesday's election that she will soften five years of hard-line policy rang true with voters, even as they rejected her opponent's calls for a more aggressive pursuit of reconciliation with the North.

A skeptical North Korea may quickly test the sincerity of Park's offer to engage — possibly even before she takes office. She is both a leading member of the conservative ruling party and the daughter of the late anti-communist dictator Park Chung-hee, and Pyongyang has repeatedly called her dialogue offers "tricks."
Outgoing President Lee Myung-bak's tough approach on North Korea — including his demand that engagement be accompanied by nuclear disarmament progress — has been deemed a failure by many South Koreans. During his five years in office, North Korea has conducted nuclear and rocket tests — including a rocket launch last week — and it was blamed for two incidents that left 50 South Koreans dead in 2010.

But reaching out to North Korea's authoritarian government also has failed to pay off. Before Lee, landmark summits under a decade of liberal governments resulted in lofty statements and photo ops in Pyongyang between then-leader Kim Jong Il and South Korean presidents, but the North continued to develop its nuclear weapons, which it sees as necessary defense and leverage against Washington and Seoul.

Analysts said Park's vague promises of aid and engagement are not likely to be enough to push Pyongyang to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions, which Washington and Seoul have demanded for true reconciliation to begin. To reverse the antipathy North Korea has so far shown her, Park may need to go further than either her deeply conservative supporters and political allies or a cautious Obama administration will want.

"North Korea is good at applying pressure during South Korean transitions" after presidential elections, said Yoo Ho-yeol, a professor at Korea University in South Korea. "North Korea will do something to try to test, and tame, Park."

Even the last liberal president, Roh Moo-hyun, a champion of no-strings-attached aid to Pyongyang, faced a North Korean short-range missile launch on the eve of his 2003 inauguration.

North Korea put its first satellite into space with last week's rocket launch, which the U.N. and others called a cover for a test of banned ballistic missile technology.

Despite the launch, Park says humanitarian aid, including food, medicine and daily goods meant for infants, the sick and other vulnerable people, will flow. She says none of the aid will be anything that North Korea's military could use. She's open to conditional talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The aid won't be as much as North Korea will want, to be sure, and it won't be as much as her liberal challenger in Wednesday's election, Moon Jae-in, would have sent. Park's conditions on aid and talks also could doom talks before they begin.

Pursuing engagement with North Korea "really would have to be her top priority for her to be a game-changing kind of leader on the issue," said John Delury, an analyst at Seoul's Yonsei University. He added that Park is more likely to take a passive, moderate approach.

"In the inter-Korean context, there's not a big difference between a passive approach and a hostile approach," Delury said, "because if you don't take the initiative with North Korea, they'll take the initiative" in the form of provocations meant to raise their profile.

North Korea was not a particularly pressing issue for South Korean voters, who were more worried about their economic futures and a host of social issues. But it is of deep interest to Washington, Beijing and Tokyo, which had been holding off on pursuing their North Korea policies until South Korean voters chose their new leader.

The next Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, is a hawk on North Korea matters who has supported tighter sanctions because of the rocket launch.

The U.S. had attempted to warm relations with North Korea with an aid-for-nuclear-freeze deal reached with Pyongyang in February, but that collapsed in April when the North conducted a failed rocket launch.
Washington could use a new thaw on the Korean Peninsula as a cover to pursue more nuclear disarmament talks, analysts say, but the Obama administration will also likely want a carefully coordinated approach with Seoul toward Pyongyang.

Park's North Korea policy aims to hold talks meant to build trust and resolve key issues, like the nuclear problem and other security challenges. Humanitarian assistance to the North won't be tied to ongoing political circumstances, though her camp hasn't settled details, including the amount.

Park also plans to restart joint economic initiatives that were put on hold during the Lee administration as progress occurs on the nuclear issue and after reviewing the projects with lawmakers.

Park's statement that she's willing to talk with Kim Jong Un "practically means she's willing to give more money to North Korea," which is Pyongyang's typical demand for dialogue, said Andrei Lankov, a scholar on the North at Seoul's Kookmin University.

But the heart of the matter — North Korea's nuclear program — might be off limits, no matter how deeply the next Blue House decides to engage.

"North Korea isn't going to surrender its nukes. They're going to keep them indefinitely," Lankov said. "No amount of bribing or blackmail or begging is going to change it. They are a de facto nuclear power, period, and they are going to stay that way."

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Gillard still welded to surplus promise

Prime Minister Julia Gillard remains determined to deliver a budget surplus in the 2013 election year, despite ongoing signs of a sluggish economy.

The federal government believes the economic fundamentals remain strong, but admits there's downward pressure on corporate tax receipts due to weaker commodity prices and a high Australian dollar.

"Our last economic update had us at trend growth and that's why the last economic update had us with a surplus," Ms Gillard told ABC radio on Friday.

"We are still determined to deliver the surplus."

But shadow treasurer Joe Hockey said figures this week showing the economy expanded by just 0.5 per cent in the September quarter - for a sub-trend annual growth 3.1 per cent - undermines the prime minister's surplus commitment.

"Ever since the mid-year budget update the prime minister and the treasurer have been crab-walking away from their 2012/13 surplus promise," he said in a statement.

"Time and again they have refused to repeat their guarantee to deliver a surplus this financial year."

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott believes the government is building up to dump the projected $1 billion surplus.

"Yet another broken promise from a government which is just incompetent and untrustworthy to its core," he told reporters in Toowoon Bay, NSW.

However, the Australian Greens would welcome the government dropping the surplus and leaving the budget in deficit.

"You would be hard pressed to find an economist that says a surplus is a good idea," Greens senator Larissa Waters told reporters in Canberra.

"A surplus delivered off the back of single parents, off the back of an underfunded NDIS that won't start for years, that's not a surplus that benefits Australians."

The latest international trade figures for October released on Friday reflect the challenges facing the economy.

Australia's trade position deteriorated as lower commodity prices, particularly for coal products, and a high Australian dollar constrained export earnings.

The goods and services balance widened to a $2.09 billion deficit in October, from a downwardly revised $1.42 billion shortfall in September, marking the biggest seasonally adjusted trade gap since March 2008 when the global financial crisis hit.

The value of imports rose three per cent, but exports were flat and fell 9.5 per cent over the year, creating ramifications for the nation's terms on trade.

RBC Capital Markets strategist Michael Turner said the national accounts report released on Wednesday showed income measures were uniformly weak in the September quarter as a result of the four per cent fall in the terms of trade - which was almost 14 per cent lower over the past year.

"The early data for (the December quarter) suggest more of the same ahead, as activity shifts to a sub-trend pace," he wrote in a client note.

Capital imports rose by 13 per cent in October as business took advantage of the continuing strength of the dollar, while the currency dampened export revenue.

The Reserve Bank of Australia cut the cash rate again this week in anticipation of these dynamics.
"We think the adjustment process throughout the economy will require a lower cash rate still," Mr Turner said.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Tunisian Salafists Suspend Hunger Strike

The judiciary should be free from the pressure of "political parties, the media and social institutions" while dealing with the salafist file, the Tunisian justice minister says.
Two salafists arrested in connection with the September 14th US embassy attack were transferred to a Tunis hospital after suspending their hunger strike, AFP reported on Wednesday (November 21st).

Hassen Ben Brik and Ali Trabelsi decided to end their hunger strike in Mornaguia prison after a long discussion with a justice ministry representative, the ministry said in a communique.

Some 54 salafists suspended their protest last Sunday, according to TAP.

The news came a few days after two salafist inmates detained on the same charges had died in prison. Mohammed Bakhti was close to Abu Iyadh, the fugitive leader of radical salafist group Ansar al-Sharia and the alleged organiser of the embassy attack.

Bakhti died last Friday evening. Two days before, Bechir Golli had passed away after a 50-day hunger strike.

"We regret the death of any Tunisian," said Tunisian Justice Minister Noureddine Bhiri. "We attempted many times to persuade them to stop the hunger strike but they refused."

"The suspects were arrested based on evidence from the judicial police and judicial investigations. Some of them were caught by police with Molotov cocktails in hand and stealing from the US embassy and the American school of Tunis," he added.

Bhiri also regretted "interference" in the judicial affairs from "many political parties, the media and social institutions".

"The situation has the line of putting pressure on judges through various manifestations of protest and propaganda designed to secure a certain decision," he said.

"Actors involved in the judicial system distance their decisions from political and personal disputes, and treat the cases independently, impartially and professionally. They are also asked to refrain from spreading rumours and disseminating unconfirmed information."

"An independent judiciary is also a judiciary free from the pressure of public opinion, media and political parties, as much as it is independent from the rest of the authorities," Bhiri explained.

Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki last Saturday called for an inquiry into the deaths of two salafist prisoners. Speaking at a Carthage conference organised by salafist Sheikh Bechir Ben Hassen, Marzouki noted, however, that the "state would not yield to blackmail through hunger strikes".

But the statements failed to calm civil society, with some activists and politicians calling for Bhiri's resignation.
"It is unacceptable to have Tunisians die in prison because of a hunger strike after the revolution," Wafa Party MP Azad Bady said.

Tunisian League for Human Rights chief Abdessatar Ben Moussa called "for the resignation of the minister of justice after holding him responsible for the death of two young salafists from a hunger strike".

Dozens demonstrated on November 6th in front of the justice ministry demanding the release of salafists jailed in connection with recent violence in the country, including the US embassy attack, the Abdellia Palace art show desecration, and the ransacking of Nessma TV.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Tunisia Salafist chief calls for calm, warns of explosion

A Tunisian Salafist wanted for allegedly organising an attack on the US embassy called for calm yesterday, as troops and police deployed outside a flashpoint suburb of Tunis following deadly violence earlier this week.
But fugitive Abu Iyadh, chief of Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), warned that there could be another explosion of anger after two Salafists who took part in a Tuesday attack on police posts in the area lost their lives.

“It is possible that a lot of our youth will not be satisfied by an appeal for calm after the events in Douar Hicher,” Abu Iyadh said, referring to the quarter of the Manouba suburb.
“I call on you to heed the words of God and to rely upon patience and prayer,” the fugitive leader said in a video posted on the Internet.

But while calling for calm and highlighting what he said has been Salafist patience, Abu Iyadh warned the authorities of an “explosion of anger.”

“Our brothers who died as martyrs gave their lives for the Umma (worldwide Muslim community) … and you should be sure that the blood of our brothers will sooner or later bring about the installation of God’s law.”

Army, police and national guard vehicles and several dozen men deployed on roads leading to Douar Hicher before weekly Muslim prayers, and there were no reports of any unrest in the area.

Salafists, followers of a hardline branch of Sunni Islam, have used Friday prayers in the past to rally their faithful and carry out attacks.

One of those who lost his life this week was the imam of Manouba’s Ennour mosque. The man chosen by the congregation to succeed him, who does not have the government’s approval, declared war on the Islamist ruling party Ennahda during a television talk show on Thursday night.

“I am going to make war on these people because the interior minister and the leaders of Ennahda have chosen the United States as their god — it is the Americans who are writing the laws and the new constitution,” Nasreddine Aloui said in an appearance by video link on Ettounsiya television.

He urged the country’s youth to prepare their burial shrouds to fight against Ennahda, brandishing a white cloth himself and saying Ennahda and other parties want elections held on the “ruins and the bodies of the Salafist movement.”

Interior Minister Ali Larayedh and Human Rights Minister Samir Dilou, both members of Ennahda, were on the programme and replied sharply.

“This sort of talk is partly responsible for the bloodshed. You do not realise that your words are like bullets,” Larayedh said.

Dilou said: “You are not worthy to be an imam. This talk is an incitement to hatred.”

Religious Affairs Minister Nourredine el-Khadmi told a news conference on Friday that around 100 mosques in Tunisia were under the full control of Salafists. He rejected what he said was Aloui’s “call to violence.”

Abu Iyadh is wanted for organising an attack on the US embassy in September in which four of the assailants were killed.

Jailed under the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, he was freed following the revolution that ousted the former president last year and became the key figure in the Tunisian jihadist movement.
He was involved in organising the September 9, 2001 assassination of the Afghan nationalist warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Since the revolution that ousted Ben Ali in January 2011, radical Islamists have carried out a number of attacks, including against security forces and on cultural events.

The opposition accuses the government of failing to rein in violence by Salafists, a hardline branch of Sunni Islam.

But the authorities have vowed to crack down on Islamist violence in the wake of the attack on the US mission.

Last month, Tunisia marked a year since its first free elections in a political climate of tensions within the national assembly and a stalled new constitution.

In June, voters are due to go to the polls to elect a new president and parliament.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Mother of man who set off Tunisia revolt sentenced

The mother of the fruit-seller whose self-immolation touched off Tunisia's uprising has received a four-month suspended sentence Friday for "verbally assaulting" a judge, after being jailed for a week.

One of Manoubia Bouazizi's sons, Manoubia Bouazizi, touched off Tunisia's revolution - and ultimately the Arab Spring - when he set himself on fire after being slapped by a policewoman reprimanding him for selling fruit without a license.

The 61-year-old woman was jailed a week ago after the argument. Another son, Salem, has said the altercation was exaggerated. He said the judge bumped into her and they exchanged words, but that his mother did not know she was talking to a judge.

Mondher Bedhiafi, a spokesman for Tunisia's department of justice, said the sentence was reduced after the complaint was withdrawn.

Read more here:

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tunisian loses appeal over cartoons of Prophet

A Tunisian court yesterday upheld a seven-year sentence against a young Tunisian who posted cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad on Facebook, in a case that has fuelled allegations that the country’s new Islamist leaders are gagging free speech.

Jabeur Mejri (left) was convicted of upsetting public order and morals in a country where Muslim values have taken on a greater significance since a revolt last year ousted secular strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, ushering the Islamist Ennahda party into power.

The initial sentence was handed down on March 28 against Mejri, who is in jail, and against Ghazi Beji, who was sentenced in absentia. Mejri was able to appeal, but Beji remains on the run.

Mejri’s lawyer criticised the ruling which she said proved Tunisia’s judiciary was still subject to political interference some 18 months after the revolution.

“This is a very severe sentence and suggests that the Tunisian judiciary has not yet rid itself of political interference,” said Bochra Belhaj Hmida.

“We should at least seek to rule justly. This is unjust and has ruined the life of a young unemployed man. The judge showed no mercy and no consideration for this youth’s circumstances.”

Mejri did not have a major following on Facebook, she added, and his work, which is critical of religion, had drawn little public interest before the trial made headlines.

Tunisia electrified the Arab world in January last year, when protests forced Ben Ali to flee after 23 years in power.

But the revolution has created tension between conservative Muslims who believe their faith should have a bigger role in public life and secularists who say freedom of expression and women’s rights are now threatened.

The government says it has a duty to defend public decency, but its secularist critics say it is using the justice system to crack down on anyone who does not fall into line with religious orthodoxy.

The court decision comes two weeks after puritanical Salafi Islamists and others rampaged through Tunis and other cities in protest over an exhibition that showed art works they deemed offensive to Islam.

The head of private television station Nessma was also fined in May for broadcasting Persepolis, an award-winning animated film that includes a depiction of God, which outraged Islamists.

The film had been licensed for viewing in Tunisia several years earlier and the verdict drew US criticism.
In February, the publisher of a tabloid was jailed for eight days and fined after he printed a picture of a German-Tunisian footballer and his naked girlfriend on the front page.

“Political interference has just moved from one group to another. Nothing has changed,” said Hmida.