News & Current Affairs

August 9, 2009

Saudis shut TV offices in sex row

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Saudis shut TV offices in sex row

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The Jeddah offices of a Lebanon-based TV station which broadcast an interview with a Saudi man boasting about his sexual conquests have been closed.

Saudi Arabian authorities said the offices had been shut by order of the country’s deputy prime minister.

The 32-year-old Saudi man’s interview shocked conservative Saudi society, prompting calls for him to be punished.

Mazen Abdul Jawad talked about his sexual conquests and how he picks up women in the kingdom.

A spokesman at the information ministry confirmed the decision to close the offices of the LBC TV station in the kingdom’s commercial capital.

“It was because of the interview with Mazen Abdul Jawad,” Abdul Rahman al-Hazzaa said, according to AFP news agency.

Discreet society

Saudi media say officials are considering whether to charge Mr Abdul Jawad over the interview, which appeared on a programme called Red Lines and challenged Saudi taboos.

The Saudi daily newspaper al-Watan said authorities had also closed other offices of the channel, which is mainly owned by Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal.

Pre-marital sex is illegal in Saudi Arabia and Mr Abdul Jawad could face imprisonment or flogging.

Saudi Arabia is not only the most conservative society in the Arab world, it is also the most discreet.

If people break its strict Islamic code they face punishment – lashes or imprisonment for drinking or non-marital sex.

These rules are flouted by locals as well as expatriates, correspondents say, but almost everyone who breaks the rules keeps quiet about it and hopes they will not be found out.

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July 20, 2009

November 20, 2008

Fatal blast hits Bangkok protest

Fatal blast hits Bangkok protest

Protesters react after the explosion in Bangkok, Thailand, 20 November 2008

The pre-dawn blast rocked an area where demonstrators had set up camp

An explosion in Bangkok has killed at least one anti-government protester and wounded more than 20.

The pre-dawn blast rocked an area where demonstrators had set up camp in the city’s Government House compound.

Protesters from the People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) group have occupied the area since late August.

They are demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat’s government, saying it is too close to ousted former PM Thaksin Shinawatra.

The demonstrators said a grenade had exploded near the main stage of their protest site at about 0330 (2030 GMT Wednesday).

The protests have seen some of the worst street violence since pro-democracy activists challenged Thailand’s army in 1992.

Abuse of power?

The PAD has proved a remarkably resilient movement, forcing the resignation of a prime minister and two cabinet ministers, and nearly provoking a military coup.

Anti-government rally in Bangkok on 30/10/08

Anti-government rallies have been held in Bangkok for months

While the protesters have been targeted by small bomb attacks in recent weeks, the latest explosion could herald the start of more aggressive efforts to dislodge them, our correspondent adds.

An alliance of conservative and staunchly royalist academics, activists and business people, the PAD accuses Mr Somchai and his recently-ousted predecessor, Samak Sundaravej, of simply being proxies for Thaksin.

The PAD wants to replace Thailand’s one-man, one-vote system with one in which some representatives are chosen by professions and social groups rather than the general electorate.

Thaksin, Mr Somchai’s brother-in-law, was forced from office in a military coup in 2006 and remains in exile overseas.

The new government says it wants to start negotiations with the PAD. But it is also pushing ahead with controversial plans to amend the constitution – a key grievance of the protesters who see it as part of a plan to rehabilitate Thaksin.

It accuses him of corruption and abuse of power while he was in office, and has suggested he and his allies have a hidden republican agenda – a serious charge at a time when the country is beset by anxiety over the future of the monarchy.

Thaksin was last month convicted in absentia of violating conflict of interest rules, and still faces several other charges.


Are you in Bangkok? Have you seen the protests? Did you witness the blast? Send us your comments

September 12, 2008

New Zealand leader calls election

New Zealand leader calls election

PM Helen Clark

PM Helen Clark may hope that a lengthy campaign could help her win

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark has called a general election for 8 November, aiming to win a fourth term in office.

However, Ms Clark’s Labor Party has trailed the opposition National Party in opinion polls for the past year.

Economic woes and a scandal-hit foreign minister have given the opposition its best chance of power in a decade.

But the country’s aversion to the Iraq war and strong anti-nuclear stance are unlikely to change, whoever wins.

Ms Clark, 58, a successful campaigner, told a news conference on Friday that the election would be about trust.

“It is about which leader and which major party we New Zealanders trust our families’ and country’s future with,” said the prime minister.

“What I see is that as the election nears people are focusing very much on what the real choice is. And at that point it comes down to what matters most to our families and our communities,” she said.

The latest date on which elections could have been set was 15 November, and some analysts have suggested Ms Clark’s choice of date will give her time to claw back support.

Correspondents say the nation’s economy is expected to be a key issue in election. A recent cut in interest rates may help Labour, and promised tax cuts are due to take effect in October.

Public opinion polls show the Labor Party trailing the main opposition National Party by at least 6.5 percentage points – an improvement on a 16-point gap earlier in the year.

Party problems

New Zealand’s voting system is mixed-member proportional representation, which shares power with smaller parties, in a 121-seat single-house parliament.

Ms Clark’s government has led a minority parliament in recent years, relying on parties such as United Future and New Zealand First for support.

New Zealand First leader, Winston Peters, has been her foreign minister but stepped down on 29 August as he is now under investigation for donations allegedly made to his party by wealthy business figures.

Ms Clark has distanced herself from Mr Peters in recent weeks.

Just before the election announcement, Ms Clark’s government passed a promised major piece of legislation to set up an emissions trading scheme.

Parliament will be dissolved on 3 October and nomination day is 14 October, allowing for a five-week campaign period.

“I do believe the future of New Zealand is at stake,” Ms Clark said.

“I believe that Labor has shown through its record in office that we can be trusted with the future of New Zealand.”

She said her Labor Party was “ambitious” for New Zealand, whereas the opposition party was “ambiguous”.

National leader John Key did not immediately comment.

September 10, 2008

Thai coalition looks for new PM

Thai coalition looks for new PM

Thai deputy PM and finance minister Surapong Suebwonglee (C) sits next to deputy PM Somchai Wongsawat (L) and justice minister Sompong Amornwiwat (R) during a meeting in Bangkok on 10 September 2008

The mood in Thailand was reportedly tense as the coalition met

Thailand’s political parties are meeting to discuss who should replace Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, a day after he was stripped of office.

Mr Samak has not been seen since the Constitutional Court ruled he broke the law by appearing on a TV cookery show.

Parliament is due to elect 73-year-old Mr Samak’s successor on Friday.

His People Power Party (PPP), the biggest in the six-member coalition, appeared to back away from an earlier pledge to re-nominate him as PM.

“What the party spokesman said yesterday was not the party’s resolution. Our resolution is the next prime minister must come from the People Power Party,” Reuters news agency quoted finance minister and PPP secretary general Surapong Suebwonglee as saying.

‘Fuel the fire’

Now that the dust has settled after the Constitutional Court’s astonishing decision on Tuesday, the bargaining has begun, according to the correspondent in Bangkok, Jonathan Head.

Party factions have been holding meetings throughout the day; some have been in contact with the exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who is still influential because of his continued financial support.

POLITICAL CRISIS
26 Aug: Protesters occupy government buildings, demand the government step down
28 Aug: PM Samak promises no use of force against the protesters
30 Aug: Samak rules out resignation, after meeting with Thailand’s king
1 Sept: A late-night clash between pro- and anti-government groups leaves one dead. Samak declares a state of emergency
4 Sept: Samak proposes a national referendum
9 Sept: Court orders Samak to resign for violating constitution

The PPP insists any replacement for Mr Samak must come from within its ranks, but its coalition partners are angling to get one of their own into the seat.

The second-largest of the partners, the Chart Thai Party, said the PPP should not re-nominate Mr Samak.

But Chart Thai’s leader, Banharn Silpa-Archa – who as prime minister a decade ago presided over a currency collapse that triggered an Asian economic crisis – told Reuters he had ruled himself out.

The opposition Democrats are proposing a new government of national unity as the best way out of the crisis – with the clear hint that their party leader should get the job.

Bangkok dangerous?

For the past two weeks, the Thai government has been paralysed by thousands of protesters who have occupied its headquarters, demanding Mr Samak quit.

Anti-government protesters at Government House in Bangkok on 10 September 2008

Protesters are still laying siege to Government House

They accuse him of being a proxy for Mr Thaksin, who was ousted in an army coup in 2006 amid accusations of corruption and abuse of power.

The demonstrators said they would continue to besiege Government House while waiting to see who parliament selects as the new prime minister.

They have already warned that they will continue their protests if Mr Samak or anyone else closely associated with Mr Thaksin is chosen.

The caretaker administration has anticipated the continued protests by proposing that ministers move their offices to the old international airport.

Deputy PPP leader Somchai Wongsawat is acting as a caretaker prime minister until the new premier is named.

Correspondents say his new role could fan Thailand’s political flames as he is the brother-in-law of Mr Thaksin.

August 14, 2008

Arkansas party leader shot dead

Arkansas party leader shot dead

Bill Gwatney (handout image courtesy of Arkansas Democratic Party)

Bill Gwatney was taken to hospital but died of his injuries

The chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party has died after being shot by a gunman at the US state’s party HQ.

Bill Gwatney, 49, was shot several times by a man who barged his way into his office near the state capitol building in Little Rock, police said.

The attacker was shot and killed after a police chase, officials said.

Democratic Party chairman Howard Dean said Mr Gwatney’s killing was a “senseless tragedy”. Bill and Hillary Clinton said they had lost a friend.

“We are deeply saddened by the news that Bill Gwatney has passed away,” the Clintons said in a joint statement.

He was, they said, ” a cherished friend and confidante”.

The couple lived for years in the Arkansas capital of Little Rock while former President Bill Clinton was governor of the state.

Barack Obama, who competed with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination to run for US president in November, also said he was “shocked and saddened” by news of the shooting.

Map showing Arkansas

Police have named the suspected gunman as 50-year-old Timothy Dale Johnson of Searcy, a town about 50 miles (80km) north-east of Little Rock, the Associated Press reported.

The motive for the shooting remains unclear.

A 17-year-old volunteer at the party headquarters building told AP that the suspect had pushed past staff to get into Mr Gwatney’s office.

“He said he was interested in volunteering but that was obviously a lie,” Sam Higginbotham said.

Mr Gwatney was taken to hospital in a critical condition and died of his injuries about four hours later.

He was a former state senator and was due to attend the Democratic Party’s national convention in Denver later this month as a super delegate.

He supported Mrs Clinton during the contest for the party’s presidential nomination.

Last December, a man who claimed to have a bomb strapped to his chest walked into Mrs Clinton’s campaign office in New Hampshire, prompting a hostage drama lasting several hours.

August 8, 2008

Bush dedicates new massive US embassy in Beijing

Bush dedicates new massive US embassy in Beijing

BEIJING – President Bush took another swipe at China’s human rights record Friday, the latest tit-for-tat salvo with Beijing before he put politics on hold and switched to fan mode for the Olympics’ gala opening ceremonies.

The past week has seen blunt language from both sides — with China clearly unhappy that its record of repression was being repeatedly aired even as it was seeking to revel in its long-anticipated debut on the world’s biggest sporting stage. But U.S. officials dismissed any suggestion of a widening rift.

“We’ve had these back-and-forths with China for years,” White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

As Bush opened a massive U.S. Embassy in Beijing on Friday, he prodded China to lessen repression and “let people say what they think.” The communist nation, which tolerates only government-approved religions, has rounded up dissidents ahead of the Olympics and imposed Internet restrictions on journalists that some say amount to censorship, all contrary to Beijing’s commitments when it won hosting rights for the games.

“We strongly believe societies which allow the free expression of ideas tend to be the most prosperous and the most peaceful,” Bush said at the vast American diplomatic complex, built at a cost of $434 million.

His comments came on the heels of a speech Thursday in Bangkok in which he urged greater Bangkok for the Chinese people. Beijing responded by defending its human rights record and saying Bush shouldn’t be meddling in its internal affairs.

But Bush also took care during the embassy ribbon-cutting to praise China’s contributions to society and embrace its relationship with the United States as strong, enduring and candid.

“Candor is most effective where nations have built a relationship of respect and trust,” Bush said. “I’ve worked hard to build that respect and trust. I appreciate the Chinese leadership that have worked hard to build that respect and trust.”

The new U.S. embassy is its second-largest in the world, only after the heavily fortified compound in Baghdad, and Bush said this is symbolic of China’s importance to the United States.

“It reflects the solid foundation underpinning our relations,” Bush said. “It is a commitment to strengthen that foundation for years to come.”

The ceremony took place with a heavy haze engulfing the Chinese capital despite concerted government efforts to slash pollution before the games. It was full of emotional resonance, with those attending including Bush’s father, former President George H.W. Bush, and Henry Kissinger, who was secretary of state during the Nixon presidency when the U.S. began a relationship with China.

It was the senior Bush, as chief of the U.S. liaison office during a critical period when the United States was renewing ties with China, who first brought his son to China in 1975. The current president fondly recalls biking around Beijing when that was the predominant form of transport.

Much has changed since. While there still are lots of bicycles, cars dominant the streets today. Skyscrapers have sprouted like mushrooms. And the proliferation of construction cranes shows the building boom is far from over — evidence of the country’s economic growth — though most of the work has ground to a halt to help the anti-pollution battle.

The American embassy, on 10 acres in a new diplomatic zone, is wrapped in freestanding transparent and opaque glass.

The dedication followed China’s unveiling of its own imposing new embassy in Washington last week. That 250,000-square-foot glass-and-limestone compound is the largest foreign embassy in the U.S. capital.

The number eight is considered auspicious in China — Friday is 8/8/08 on the calendar — so the embassy ceremony began at 8:08 a.m. local time. The opening ceremonies begin exactly 12 hours later at 8:08 p.m.

Bush, the first American president event to attend an Olympics on foreign soil, was to meet with U.S. athletes right before the ceremonies.

“I’m looking forward to cheering our athletes on,” Bush said. “I’m not making any predictions about medal counts, but I can tell you the U.S. athletes are ready to come and compete, in the spirit of friendship.”

Also Friday, Bush attended a lunch for world leaders hosted by Chinese President Hu Jintao in the Great Hall of the People.

His known schedule over the next three days is thin, with large gaps left open for Bush to cherry-pick sporting events to watch with the numerous family members who have accompanied him to Beijing.

On Saturday, he meets with Olympic sponsors and watch women’s basketball. On Sunday, he will attend a government-approved Protestant church and then speak to reporters about religious freedom, mirroring his practice during a 2005 trip to China. He then plans to take in some men’s and women’s Olympic swimming.

Business takes over briefly Sunday afternoon, with talks with Hu as well as China’s vice president and premier. But then it’s back to sports: the much-anticipated U.S.-China basketball game Sunday night and a practice baseball game between the U.S. and China on Monday. He returns to Washington Monday night.

August 7, 2008

Bush chides Beijing over rights

Bush chides Beijing over rights

US President George W Bush has expressed “deep concerns” over China’s human rights record in a speech on the eve of the Beijing Olympics.

“The US believes the people of China deserve the fundamental liberty that is the natural right of all human beings,” he said in the Thai capital Bangkok.

He praised China’s economy but said only respect for human rights would let it realise its full potential.

Mr Bush has been criticised by some campaigners for going to the Games.

He was due to fly to Beijing following the speech in Bangkok, a stop on his final trip to Asia before he leaves office in January.

The wide-ranging address, which included criticism of the regime in Burma, was more nuanced than Mr Bush’s past speeches on China.

It is unlikely to cause much offence in China, our correspondent says, and many people will see it more as a valedictory speech for Mr Bush’s record in Asia rather than an outline of future US policy.

‘Firm opposition’

President Bush said he was optimistic about China’s future and said change in China would arrive “on its own terms”.

Young people who grow up with the freedom to trade goods will ultimately demand the freedom to trade ideas…
George W Bush
US president

But his criticisms of China’s human rights record were clear.

“America stands in firm opposition to China’s detention of political dissidents, human rights advocates and religious activists,” he said.

When it was controversially awarded the games in 2001 by the International Olympic Committee, Beijing promised to make improvements in human rights, media freedoms and the provision of health and education.

But campaigners, such as Amnesty International, say Chinese activists have been jailed, people made homeless, journalists detained and websites blocked, while there has been increased use of labour camps and prison beatings.

In March, China suppressed violent anti-government protests in Tibet. Beijing said rioters killed at least 19 people, but Tibetan exiles said security forces killed dozens of protesters in the worst unrest in Tibet for 20 years.

The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled Buddhist leader, rejected Beijing’s claims he was behind the riots and said he expressed good wishes for the success of Games.

On Thursday, at least 1,500 Buddhists were holding a protest in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu against what they called China’s violation of religious freedom in Tibet. Correspondents say there have been scuffles with police.

In Beijing, police dragged away three US Christians who tried to demonstrate on Tiananmen Square in support of religious freedom.

Four pro-Tibet activists from Britain and the US were arrested and held briefly in the city on Wednesday after a protest close to the Olympic stadium.

Burma refugees

In his address, Mr Bush said the US recognised that the growth sparked by China’s free market reforms was “good for the Chinese people” and the country’s’ purchasing power was “good for the world”.

On foreign policy, he commended China’s “critical leadership role” in the negotiations to end North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, and the “constructive relationship” between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan.

He also called for an end to what he described as tyranny in Thailand’s neighbour, Burma.

Friday’s Olympic opening ceremony coincides with the 20th anniversary of a democracy uprising in Burma, which was crushed by the military.

First lady Laura Bush flew to the Thai-Burmese border to spend the day at the Mae La refugee camp where about 35,000 refugees live, having fled their homes.

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