Boko Haram, a militant Islamist group responsible for more than 2,000 deaths in northern Nigeria, is apparently not interested in amnesty. In rejecting an offer (before it was actually put on the table) by Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, the group appeared to respond with its own offer of sorts: "It is we that should grant you [a] pardon," said a man who sounds like Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in a recording translated by AFP. "Surprisingly, the Nigerian government is talking about granting us amnesty. What wrong have we done?"
In 2011, Boko Haram rejected a similar amnesty offer from Kashim Shettima, then governor-elect of Nigeria's Borno state, on the grounds that the group did not recognize the Nigerian constitution, only the laws of Allah. (No counteroffer of amnesty was made at that time.)
This time around, Boko Haram seems to have taken its cue from the Congolese Rally for Democracy, a rebel group active in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo during the Second Congo War, which greeted an amnesty offer from President Laurent Kabila with a similarly flippant riposte.
"Kabila is the one who deserves amnesty in the first place," the rebel group's vice president said in 1999. "Kabila should seek forgiveness from the rebels and all Congolese people. The only way to do so is to quit power and leave the Congolese in peace."
For what it's worth, the reverse-amnesty strategy was also tried (under slightly different circumstances) by the leader of a breakaway splinter of the Tamil Tigers in 2004. After receiving a "ridiculous" amnesty offer from the group's northern leadership, a spokesman for the rogue colonel, Vinayagamoorthi Muralitharan, said, "It is they who should think of being forgiven by our people [in the east] for the sacrifices made to protect the land and the people of Wanni [in the north]."
Indonesia has a witchcraft problem. Belief in the supernatural is widespread in the Southeast Asian archipelago -- and not just among the underclasses. But like many post-colonial societies, its inherited legal system leaves victims of sorcery unable to seek judicial relief. That may be about the change, however, if the country's parliament OKs a number of amendments to its Dutch colonial-era criminal code. The Financial Times has more:
Indonesia would make it illegal for anyone to "declare the possession of mysterious powers" or "encourage others to believe that by their actions they can cause mental or physical suffering of another person." The crime would be punishable by a jail sentence of up to five years and a fine of up to Rp300m ($30,700).
The amendments, which have been in the works since 2008, would put an end to the perceived bias of the state in favor of witches and sorcerers (the difference: witches possess innate mystical powers, whereas sorcerers have come to acquire them). Critics have denounced this kind of bias not only in Indonesia, but also in numerous other post-colonial societies that have since moved to outlaw black magic. As Michael Rowlands and Jean-Pierre Warnier explained in a 1988 article about witchcraft in Cameroon:
Cases of sorcery were to be brought to court. But the courts dismissed them for lack of evidence against the accused. Once acquitted, the latter often sued the defendants for libel and won their case. The sorcerers were thought to go unchecked and the victim felt betrayed by the colonial authorities who appeared to side with the sorcerers.
Unchecked sorcery has become a major issue in Indonesia, where hundreds of people have been killed by anti-witchcraft vigilantes who have taken the law into their own hands. Even President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono claimed in 2009 that ''[m]any are practising black magic. Indeed, I and my family can feel it.''
But not everyone is in favor of outlawing the dark arts. Indeed, one of the country's best known warlocks has proposed harnessing the power of black magic to solve other, more pressing problems. "This is the heritage from our ancestors and we need to preserve it," he told the Financial Times. "Rather than banning it, we should use black magic to punish those who are corrupt."
American gun culture is exceptional -- that much we know. The United States has more guns than any other country (300 million) and more guns per person (9 guns for every 10 people). It also has the highest firearm homicide rate in the developed world (and the highest rate of unintentional firearm deaths.) But what of the constitutional apparatus that sustains American gun culture? How exceptional is the Second Amendment, which protects the right of Americans to "keep and bear Arms"?
The 2A, it turns out, is also pretty anomalous. As Zachary Elkins explains in today's New York Times:
It is actually quite unusual for gun rights to be included in a constitution. In our historical study of constitutions, my colleagues and I identified only 15 constitutions (in nine countries) that had ever included an explicit right to bear arms. Almost all of these constitutions have been in Latin America, and most were from the 19th century. Only three countries - Guatemala, Mexico and the United States - have a constitutional right to arms. Of the 15, ours is the only one that does not explicitly include a restrictive condition. Of course, many Americans, and a minority of the Supreme Court, believe that our "militia clause" amounts to one such a restriction - an interpretation the court rejected in 2008 when it ruled that the Second Amendment protected the individual right to bear arms.
So what are the other countries that have offered constitutional protections for gun ownership? Bolivia, Costa Rica, Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Mexico, and Liberia have also, at various times, enshrined the rights of gun owners in their constitutions. (Bloomberg has a handy chart with date ranges.) Interestingly, almost all of these constitutions -- including those of Guatemala and Mexico, the only two that still guarantee a right to bear arms -- were modeled off the U.S. example.
Of course, the right to bear arms dates back before the 1st United States Congress, when the first 10 amendments were ratifed, to the English Bill of Rights from 1689, which guaranteed, among other things, that Protestants could bear arms "as allowed by the law." Indeed, in striking down a Washington, D.C. handgun ban in 2008, the Supreme Court ruled that the right to bear arms derives from a "pre-existing" right to self-defense established after England's Glorious Revolution. From Justice Antonin Scalia's majority opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller:
Between the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution, the Stuart Kings Charles II and James II succeeded in using select militias loyal to them to suppress political dissidents, in part by disarming their opponents...Under the auspices of the 1671 Game Act, for example, the Catholic James II had ordered general disarmaments of regions home to his Protestant enemies...These experiences caused Englishmen to be extremely wary of concentrated military forces run by the state and to be jealous of their arms. They accordingly obtained an assurance from William and Mary, in the Declaration of Right (which was codified as the English Bill of Rights), that Protestants would never be disarmed: "That the subjects which are Protestants may have arms for their defense suitable to their conditions and as allowed by law."...This right has long been understood to be the predecessor to our Second Amendment.
So, exceptional? Yes. Original? No.
It occurred to me that I perhaps pick on Saudi Arabia unfairly on this blog, having previously harped on its nasty habit of beheading and crucifying convicts (now apparently imperiled by a dearth of qualified swordsmen) as well as its record of flogging and executing blasphemers. But then I ran across this story about Ali Al-Khawahir, a Saudi Arabian 20-something who has been sentenced to surgical paralysis for his role in a stabbing 10 years ago, and I realized it's the Saudi government that bring this upon itself.
Amnesty International has more:
Recent reports in Saudi Arabian media have brought to light the case of 24-year-old Ali al-Khawahir, who was reportedly sentenced to qisas (retribution) in the town of Al-Ahsa and could be paralysed from the waist down unless he pays one million Saudi riyals --US$ 270,000 -- in compensation to the victim.
Ali al-Khawahir had allegedly stabbed his friend in the back, rendering him paralysed from the waist down in or around 2003. Ali al-Khawahir was 14 years' old at the time.
Other "eye-for-an-eye" punishments reportedly carried out by Saudi Arabia include tooth extraction, eye-gouging, and, of course, death, according to Amnesty International. But paralysis breaks new ground for insensitivity, even in the gruesome world of Saudi Arabian criminal justice.
After his appearance on a BBC radio program Monday, British Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith probably wishes he could eat his words -- because now he may not be eating much of anything for a year. Smith said in the interview that he could survive on £53 ($80) a week -- the amount one welfare recipient complained he was forced to survive on after his housing stipend was cut -- and now Britons are asking him to prove it. As of Wednesday morning, roughly 350,000 people had signed a petition on Change.org urging the secretary to make good on his pledge.
The petition calls on Smith to stick to the budget for "at least one year," thereby helping to "realise the conservative party's current mantra that 'We are all in this together.'" Doing so would require him to take a 97-percent salary cut while living in London, one of the world's most expensive cities.
Smith has been less than enthusiastic about the petition, which he called a "complete stunt" in an interview with the Wanstead & Woodford Guardian. The demand "distracts attention from the welfare reforms which are much more important and which I have been working hard to get done," he said.
If he warms to the idea, however, Smith won't be the first politician to take a trial run on the dole. In 2012, Jagrup Brar, a member of British Columbia's Legislative Assembly, spent a month living on $610, the province's welfare rate for a single, unemployed adult. After the last night of the month, which he spent "couch surfing," Brar was 26 pounds lighter and $7 in debt -- even after selling his backpack to buy a train ticket home.
Cory Booker, mayor of Newark, N.J. pulled a similar stunt several months later, living on the equivalent of food stamps for a week. The mayor was forced to cut caffeine out of his diet, eat "singed" yams for lunch, and consider "making a meal out of mayonnaise and salsa."
As appealing as it sounds, Smith may not be interested in the politics of empathy, having already gone through two real periods of unemployment in the 1980s. As he said in an interview Tuesday, "I know what it is like to live on the breadline."
For the time being at least, the Saudi Arabian jewel thieves slated for execution Tuesday appear to have dodged a bullet -- or multiple, for those who were sentenced to go before a firing squad. In the case of Sarhan al-Mashayeh, the lead defendant in the case, the news that the executions would be delayed by at least a week meant avoiding a three-day crucifixion.
Ironically, it may have been the grisly practice itself that bought the defendants their extra week, as the flurry of media attention no doubt played into the Royal Court's last-minute decision to stay the executions. After all, the entire story of the thieves' conviction -- which involved the alleged torture of minors -- is not one the Kingdom wants to see plastered on broadsheets all over the world. Topping it all off with a three-day crucifixion was only asking for a media drubbing.
So how exactly does Saudi Arabia typically carry out its crucifixions? Back in 2009, the Telegraph's Damian Thompson explained what fate awaited a similarly unlucky subject: "he will be beheaded first, and his head will be stuck on a pole separately from his crucified torso."
Sends a message, I guess, but not one that wins King Abdullah many points in Washington. Anyway, hasn't it been a bad enough news day for Saudi Arabia's royal family?
Vogue Editor in Chief Anna Wintour is reportedly under consideration to replace Louis Susman as the next ambassador to the United Kingdom. Bloomberg reports:
Wintour, 63, may have some competition for the London posting; Matthew Barzun, finance chairman of Obama's presidential campaign, also is interested in the job, officially known as ambassador to the Court of St. James's, said the people, who requested anonymity when discussing possible personnel moves.
Both Wintour and Barzun were among Obama's biggest bundlers of donations in the campaign, with each raising more than $500,000 to help re-elect the president.
If tapped for the job, the British born fashionista wouldn't be the only envoy with, er, unusual credentials -- the current U.S. ambassador to Ireland is probably best known as the former owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- but she would be the first to have been mockingly portrayed by Meryl Streep in a popular film. Wintour, who is known colloquially as "Nuclear Wintour," assured CBS's Morley Safer back in 2009 that "if sometimes one comes across as cold or brusque, it's simply because I'm striving for the best."
It is, no doubt, all that striving that earned her the Walter Duranty Prize for journalistic mendacity this year. She and Vogue writer Joan Juliet Buck were jointly awarded the satirical prize for the 2011 cover story "Asma al-Assad: A Rose in the Desert," which came out just as the Syrian regime began to brutally massacre its people. (The article was later scrubbed from Vogue's website.)
If Wintour's British posting goes smoothly, and if Bashar al-Assad is still kicking in a few years, why not Ambassador to Syria?
In the spirit of diplomacy and Christmas, not necessarily in that order, the U.S. State Department tried to explode a large, coniferous tree today. Actually, it was contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang who tried to explode it, following a ceremony in which he and four other artists received the U.S. State Department Medal of Arts. The intent, the Los Angeles Times reports, was to create a "tree image in floating black smoke that will serve as an ethereal doppelganger for the real one."
Whether or not the effect was achieved is, I suppose, a matter for art critics to hash out. I, however, was not that impressed. The spectacle, which took place outside the Smithsonian Institution's Freer Gallery of Art, consisted of much counting-down and several muted explosions that left the tree intact. (It was unclear if the tree was supposed to vaporize.)
Given Cai's penchant for pyrotechnics -- this is the same guy who designed the special effects for the opening and closing ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics -- viewers would have been justified in expecting a little more firepower. But alas, the explosions were decidedly understated, (perhaps explaining why the National Parks Service approved Cai's application to hold the event in under two weeks.)
The diplomatic value of Cai's work is more difficult to assess. According to the Smithsonian's website, his works "aim to establish an exchange between viewers and the larger universe around them." But as Sean Carman points out over at the Huffington Post, it may be that "in addition to his conceptual artistic ambitions, he really just likes to blow things up."
Either way, I think this home video of an exploding Christmas tree from 2007 does Cai one better.
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