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Turning terror into terrines

South China Morning Post, 24 Aug 2014.   Anti-terrorism expert and social entrepeneur Noor Huda Ismail tells Jo Baker about attending school with a future Bali bomber and helping jihadists to reform A GOOD MUSLIM I was born in Yogyakarta, in Indonesia, and brought up in a strong Javanese culture. My dad is a Muslim but was raised in a Catholic family, and my mum comes from Muslims but her father was a puppet master, so knew a lot of Hindu stories. I was sent to Islamic boarding school when I was 12 to become a "good Muslim". This changed my life forever because a number of the students went on to be notorious Islamic militants who brought atrocities to the region. The founder of the school started (militant terrorist organisation) Jemaah Islamiah, and its members were involved in the ... Read the full article

Making scents: saviours of the incense tree

Agarwood feature Credit Nico Zurcher (26)

South China Morning Post Magazine, 9 Mar 2014. The heady fragrance of agarwood gave Hong Kong its name, but it has become so valuable its source is under threat. As Jo Baker discovers, though, there are those for whom the incense tree is worth more than money. Ho Pui-han makes her way along the fringes of a country path, through a patch of trampled undergrowth and then points to a deep gash at the base of a tree. "You can see where they've cut the wood as a test," says the conservationist. "They'll be back in a month to check and, if it's the right tree, they'll just chop it down and carry it across the border." Close to extinction in the mainland and internationally protected as a species, Hong Kong's dwindling stands of Aquilaria sinensis, commonly called the incense tree, have become a ... Read the full article

Thrills and Kills: Interview with Frederick Forsyth

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South China Morning Post, 3 November 2013.  Forsyth’s latest political thriller – cold war intrigue made new for the age of Al Qaeda – is heavy on the thrills and light on the politics. He speaks of spooks, Snowden and Cyberspace with Jo Baker. AT 74, FREDERICK FORSYTH allowed himself a small concession in researching his latest book. In Mogadishu, he hired a bodyguard. “I’ve only done it once before,” says the veteran novelist, reclining at a desk his Hong Kong hotel suite. “We didn’t stay inside what’s called The Camp – a kind of sandglass-walled and barbed wire enclave used by most foreigners – but in a hotel in the city. Which was... interesting. My wife said I was a stupid old fool, but I felt like if I was going to describe it I had to see it!.”   Fans ... Read the full article

Uyghur battles to escape painful past while rebuilding life in Albania

Abu Bakker Qasim ARTC Tirana (5)

South China Morning Post, 28 September 2013. Abu Bakker Qassim was tortured in China and wrongly incarcerated in Guantanamo – but is finding a semblance of peace in a small Balkan state, writes Jo Baker For a loaded question, it gets an understated reply. “Back in time?  I would tell myself not to get involved in politics,” says Abu Bakker Qassim, wryly. “Not unless I knew what I was doing.” Meeting in the leafy, low-lying Albanian capital, this one of Tirana’s more politically controversial residents is now far from the Americans who held him incommunicado at Guantanamo Bay Detention Camp for more than four years. He is far too, from the Pakistanis who sold him and others of the Uyghur ethnic minority to the Americans for 5,000 dollars ... Read the full article

No Woman’s Land: a new book recalls the frontline experiences of female reporters

UN Women, 2 May 2012 “I have never thought of myself as a female journalist. I think of myself as a journalist full-stop.” So says award-winning Egyptian reporter, Shahira Amin, in a new book on frontline reporting by female correspondents, supported by UN Women. “No Woman’s Land”, released this spring by the International News Safety Initiative, compiled by Hannah Storm and Helena Williams, features the voices of over 30 journalists as they recall episodes of harrowing assault and inspirational bravery in contexts from conflict to civil unrest. The reflections were collected shortly after the violent sexual assault of CBS correspondent Lara Logan by a crowd of men as she reported from Cairo’s Tahrir Square in February 2011. Logan, who wrote the foreward to the book, has been credited for voicing concerns that many female reporters have formerly suppressed, out of fear for ... Read the full article

Hit the Ground Running

Bottle School, The Philippines

South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 22 April 2011 A humanitarian design group is redefining crisis response across the globe, writes Jo Baker. Twelve years ago a designer caught in a disaster zone might have been at rather a loss at how to pitch in; but when the quakes hit Japan last month it took very little time for the architects to rally. There were readymade chapters in Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto with access to a global network of nearly 5,000 volunteer design professionals, a template for crisis response, and an online bank of designs, all relevant to post-crisis reconstruction and free for the download. And joining all these dots was the only international humanitarian-oriented organization to have pioneered design as a tool to fight disaster: Architecture for Humanity (AFH). Throughout the last month AFH has been working to link ... Read the full article

The World’s Forgotten

‘The World's Forgotten', Asia Sentinel Hong Kong, 19 April 2010, reprinted as an Op-ed in the Jakarta Globe, Indonesia Millions of detainees across the globe remain in filthy, crowded and unsanitary prisons (See online version here) As the UN's top investigator into torture and punishment prepares to end his term later this year, he has focused on a group people whom he has long called the globe's "most vulnerable" to discrimination and to neglect. Detainees, says Dr Manfred Nowak, have become the world's forgotten. The theme has become central to the Austrian professor's six-year tenure, and in the most recent session of the Human Rights Council this March he strongly reiterated his call for a new convention to protect them. Where other forms of discrimination are strongly represented in global social movements, the plight of those considered "criminal" tends ... Read the full article

Man on a mission for women’s justice

 March 8, 2009, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong   Nasir Aslam Zahid has led the struggle for equal rights in Pakistan, where women remain in chains. But the former judge vows to fight on. For a free man, Nasir Aslam Zahid spends a lot of time in jail. “It does sometimes baffle callers,” says the Pakistani in clipped, wry tones, at the Asian Legal Resources Centre in Hong Kong. “Most of my phone calls these days are taken from prison.” The former chief justice runs LAO, a legal aid organization based out of Central Prison Karachi, which helps women and children incarcerated across his home province, Sindh. These days he is more worried about the renovation of toilets, administering of medicine and arranging of bail than passing judgments, but both roles  have exposed him to the glut of problems facing women in his ... Read the full article

The Great Land Grab

The South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 7 October 2008: SCMP land grab (PDF) 15,000 Cambodians are at risk of eviction from their homes as developers exploit a corrupt system which fails to protect property rights. In June 1975 waves of black-clad guerilla fighters entered Phnom Penh and emptied it – by persuasion, coercion and violence – in just a few days. The Khmer Rouge north had beaten the south, and as a first step, more than two million bewildered people were banished from the city and sent to live in the countryside. Today, facing the prospect of its first skyscraper, a rash of Special Economic Zones and numerous foreign-backed developments, Cambodia is boasting of a new era. Yet some things haven’t changed. “See that tree?” asks Son Chhay, a bespectacled Cambodian minister, as we stand on the steps of the new ... Read the full article

Pakistan’s Persecuted Minority

Asia Sentinel , Hong Kong, 30 September 2009; also carried in the World Politics Review Ahmadis face serious danger and death, some of it possibly fomented by the government Last month Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari observed the country's National Minority Day by calling minority groups "a sacred trust for Pakistan" and lamenting the 'extremist elements' responsible for their insecurity in the country. But his words fell flat for Pakistan's Ahmadis, for whom a fresh surge of hostile incidents, some linked to the state itself, is capping decades of persecution. The issue was taken up this month by Iqbal Haider, the co-chair of NGO, The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan: "Ahmadis are the worst victims of such discrimination and deprivation, mainly because they refuse to regard themselves as non- Muslims," he said to Daily Dawn's political magazine, the Herald. "The ... Read the full article

A Thankless Task

August 22, 2009, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong August 27, Sri Lanka Guardian, Sri Lanka, and and as ‘Thankless tasks: Rights defenders in Sri Lanka & Pakistan’ in Selected Articles on politics, human rights & the rule of law in South Asia, Article 2, Vol. 08 - No. 03, September 2009 (PDF) As a truth commission secretary MCM Iqbal helped gathered evidence on thousands of forced disappearances in Sri Lanka, only to see it disappear itself As President Mahinda Rajapaksa speaks of ushering Sri Lankans into a new era of peace, a slight, bespectacled man in his sixties watches him from across an ocean with the weariness of a man who has tried and failed to call his bluff. MCM ... Read the full article

Civil Action

Anjana Fernando

July 5, 2009, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Reprinted in human rights periodical Article 2, Hong Kong In Sri Lanka, victims of police torture are harassed, intimidated and even killed for speaking out against their tormentors. But a new witness protection bill may make walking the legal path a little safer. Caught on a rare tea break, Father Nandana Manatunga bats at the 'tsunami' flies that whirl around his head and ponders a Sri Lankan newpaper headline: "Witness protection bill boost to human rights". You get the feeling he'd like to be batting at something - or someone - else. Manatunga and his small team at the  Kandy Human Rights Office are preparing for a  biannual “victims’ get-together”, a mix of Buddhists and Christians, ethnic Sinhalese and Tamil, refugees from sexual abuse and police brutality – far from the conflict-ridden north ... Read the full article

Inside Burma

June 26, 2009, Guardian Weekly, UK Reprinted in the Burma Digest, and Euro-Burma Fred Taino is a Burmese-speaking human rights defender who regularly visits Burma. Following a recent trip to Burma's biggest city, Yangon, he describes the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, how locals are fighting repression, human rights abuses and how tourists have deserted the country. Yangon looks different after Nargis. About 70% of the big trees collapsed so the view of the city has changed; much more is revealed. The tragedy is remarkable for the fact that many either lost their entire families in the cyclone, or they lost no one. I haven't come across anyone who just lost an uncle or grandfather because in the places that were hit nearly everyone was ... Read the full article

Can Sri Lanka’s Civil Society Be Rebuilt?

May 20, 2009, Asia Sentinel, Hong Kong Murders and assaults allegedly perpetrated by an increasingly authoritarian government make it look unlikely. With the rebel Tamil Tiger leader Vellupillai Prabhakaran finally dead and the military declaring total victory after 26 years of war, Sri Lanka's traumatized citizens are hoping that their society can finally be regenerated. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, in a Tuesday speech in Parliament, promised the formerly Tiger-controlled areas would be reconstructed and that the rights of Tamils would be respected and protected. Probably 100,000 of Sri Lanka's 20 million people have been killed since the war began in 1983, a pace that picked up considerably in the past few weeks as the army closed in on the Tiger rebels, blasting civilian and refugee ... Read the full article

‘It was a whole traumatised society’

May 21, 2009, Guardian Weekly, UK May 29, 2009, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong International criminal lawyer Carla Ferstman works for human rights organisation Redress. She talks about her experience of seeking justice for victims of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the rights of torture victims, and why she prefers not to talk about work at weddings. I was a criminal defense lawyer in Vancouver for two and a half years after graduation and I was looking for a little bit of a diversion, and a friend of mine told me they were looking for prosecutors to go work in Rwanda. I went out in ‘95 with the UN High Commission for Human Rights without any international experience. I’m from Montreal and they were looking for criminal ... Read the full article

Raising the Bar

May 18, 2008, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong Jo Baker meets a lawyer who backed Pakistan’s rebel judiciary, and lost more than his freedom People have given up all kinds of things for their country, but Pakistani lawyer Muneer Malik’s forfeit was both brutal and peculiar. The more predictable sacrifices had already been made – his family were harassed, his colleagues beaten and his freedom temporarily taken away – but in solitary confinement in Pakistan’s notorious Attock Fort last November, Malik’s jailers chose to deprive him of one more thing: working kidneys. Who exactly was behind his poisoning, whether it was deliberate and whether, as some people believe, it was a murder attempt, has yet to come to light. Earlier that year the Pakistan courts had been in disarray. Cases for ‘disappeared’ persons were piling up, corruption scandals were ... Read the full article

Hope for Sri Lanka’s child victims

January 1, 2009, Guardian Weekly, UK Torture has become a familiar feature of criminal investigations in Sri Lanka, where children as young as seven have experienced abuse under interrogation. At a small human rights unit in Kandy city, a Catholic priest has created a vital support system for the victims of police brutality. Father Nandana Manatunga relates the – often tragic – cases he has tried to help with. Our torture act passed 1994, but until about 2000 there was not a single case filed against anybody for torture in Sri Lanka. I opened my human rights office five years ago and since then we have cared ... Read the full article

Election pledges a matter of life or death for inmates

October 22, 2008, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong There will be little sleep tonight for the inmates of Adiala jail’s death cells, but though the rooms in Pakistan’s notorious northern prison are concrete, cold and small –they measure about eight by five feet – discomfort is currently a side issue. This is because for the first time in years the men and women on Pakistan’s death rows have been given some hope about their futures. On 25 August a letter reached a Pakistan news agency from the prisoners at Adiala. It warmly congratulated the new President on his appointment and it carried the reminder of a promise. “You had spoken on the floor of National Assembly that our government wants to ... Read the full article

Losing Ground

October 7, 2008, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong, 150,000 Cambodians are at risk of eviction from their homes as developers exploit a corrupt system which fails to protect property rights Losing Ground In June 1975 waves of black-clad guerilla fighters entered Phnom Penh and emptied it – by persuasion, coercion and violence – in just a few days. The Khmer Rouge north had beaten the south, and as a first step, more than two million bewildered people were banished from the city and sent to live in the countryside. Today, facing the prospect of its first skyscraper, a rash of Special Economic Zones and numerous foreign-backed developments, Cambodia is boasting of a new era. Yet some things haven’t changed. “See that tree?” asks Son Chhay, a bespectacled Cambodian minister, as ... Read the full article

Courage under Fire

July 7, 2008, South China Morning Post, Hong Kong A Catholic priest is helping to give hope to young human rights victims With a rakish side parting and a smile behind his eyes, it’s hard to imagine Father Nandana Manatunga at work, not because his job involves kids – for that he seems well suited – but because of the situations his wards come to him in. Dancing eyes seem at odds with the grim task of torture rehabilitation. The small island nation off the coast of India often hits the news for the long-waged and bloody war between its government and the Tamil Tiger separatists, but there are domestic issues that affect the populace even more deeply. Father Nandana runs the Kandy Human Rights Office, ... Read the full article