Saturday, February 07, 2004


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By William Fisher

Last month, after many months of wrangling -- and following considerable pressure from the United States and other major financial donors -- the Egyptian Government established its National Council on Human Rights. (NCHR). This move by the Mubarak regime – a key element of a high-profile effort led by Mubarak’s son, Gamal, to create a more transparent and equitable Egyptian society -- has met with mixed responses. Many long-time human rights advocates believe the move is essentially cosmetic. Those more closely identified with Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party see the move as an important first baby step in an infant Egyptian reform process.

The NCHR’s functions include developing a national plan for the protection of human rights, verifying citizens' complaints regarding human rights abuses, ensuring honest implementation of international treaties on human rights, coordinating with local and international human rights organizations, fostering a culture of human rights, and presenting an annual report on the human rights situation to the president, the Shura Council -- a kind of House of Lords with no legislative authority -- and the Egyptian parliament, the People's Assembly. Notably absent from this Mission is any authority to enforce its findings. The NCHR will be “affiliated to” the Shura Council, which will appoint the NCHR’s 27 members for renewable terms of three years. The NCHR members include former ministers, human rights activists, the head of the journalists’ syndicate, the president of the bar association, and legal experts.

The Government gave the Council high profile status from the outset. It appointed Boutros Boutros-Gali, former UN Secretary General, to head the body. A former deputy prime minister and minister of trade, Boutros-Gali is a Christian. The symbolism of his selection was likely directed toward many who charge that Egypt systematically discriminates against the 6% of Egyptians who are Coptic Christians.

The London-based rights group Amnesty International cautiously welcomed the new council. "This is a positive step. Nevertheless, we have to see if the body will effect any real change," said the organization's Middle East spokeswoman.

Egyptian critics of the NCHR contend it is designed to muffle criticism from the United States, the United Nations, and numerous local and international human rights groups. One Egyptian activist dismissed the council as “window-dressing”. Another, Gasser Abdel Razzak, a board member of the country’s oldest human rights group, the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights (EOHR), said there has been “…no change of policy toward human rights,” citing the government’s continuing arrests of both Islamists and liberals, its ‘brutal’ crackdown on protests against the US-led war in Iraq, and its renewal last year of the decades-old state of emergency. Independent MP Mortada Mansour characterized the NCHR as " a toothless body aimed at giving some kind of political prestige to certain public figures…to provide Egypt with a sort of democratic camouflage." Another human rights group, Al Nadim, which specializes in treatment of victims of violence, said: “If this council is about convincing the international community that Egypt is an oasis of democracy, we shall not participate in this theatrical play... (our) position…(is)…exposing the dirty laundry is not harmful. What is harmful is to leave it to rot, like the rotting of victims’ wounds in the darkness of Egyptian prison and police station cells.”

But according to Justice Minister Farouk Seif El- Nasr, the proposed NCHR is "a striking new example of democratic reform in the Arab world". It was significant, he said, that a law rather than a presidential decree would create the NCHR. "This is necessary to ensure the permanence of its activities," the minister said. However, he made it clear that the NCHR is a consultative council -- "a watchdog commission with no powers (that) issues recommendations rather than gives binding orders." He noted that Saudi Arabia had recently set up a human rights group and that other Arab countries were taking similar initiatives. He cited Jordan’s recent parliamentary elections allowing opposition Islamic candidates to regain a foothold after boycotting the 1997 elections, and Morocco’s parliamentary elections that reserved nearly 10 percent of seats for women.

The establishment of the NCHR was part of a much heralded package of measures that includes scrapping the 1980s Law 108 on state security courts, and abolishing the hard labor penalty in the penal code. Law 108 allows security courts to try civilians on criminal charges before state security courts, giving prosecutors the power to hold defendants in custody for as long as six months, pending investigation of certain charges Independent MPs described the revocation of hard labor as cosmetic since the penalty has not been applied in Egypt since 1983. Mubarak opponents have called repeatedly for repeal of the entire Emergency Law, initially enacted in the 1980s to curb radical Islamists following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat and renewed last year.

The NCHR faces formidable challenges. It does not report to the President. It was established with little or no consultation with opposition politicians, human rights groups, or other NGOs. Its scope and authority are still unclear. Groups like Amnesty, Human Rights Watch, and the US State Department have continually criticized Egypt’s human rights record, most recently for practicing torture in Egyptian prisons. Amnesty claims that seven people died in Egypt last year as a result of systematic and widespread torture by state security officials and police officers, including electric shocks, beatings, whippings and other abuses. Not least among the Council’s challenges is a law that imposes harsh restrictions on NGOs, and its relationship to the myriad of draconian regulations established under the so-called Emergency Law.

Egypt justifies much of its repression on the need to curb radical Islamists. Nonetheless, the world will be watching carefully to see whether the country can successfully walk the tightrope of dealing with terrorists while improving fundamental civil liberties. In this effort, it is not alone. Its principal critic, the United States, is currently struggling to achieve the same balance.


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Steven Hatfill had just about disappeared from American media attention until last August. That was when the former US Government virologist filed suit against Attorney General John Ashcroft and the US Justice Department for carrying out an unprecedented campaign of harassment, invading his privacy and ruining his reputation.

You may recall that the Justice Department named Dr. Hatfill “a person of interest” in the still-unsolved 2001 anthrax attacks. As a result, his suit contends, he has been under 24-hour surveillance and the subject of wiretaps by the FBI. Hatfill has denied any role in the attacks and has never been charged with any crime. His lawsuit seeks to clear his name and recover unspecified monetary damages.

Hatfill once worked as a researcher at the US Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Maryland. Hatfill says he never worked with infectious diseases such as anthrax, however. His lawyers contend that the government linked him to the attacks to make it seem that the investigation was making progress. The attacks consisted of anthrax-laced envelopes being sent to government and media offices. Five people died and 17 others were sickened.

In August 2001, Hatfill lost his security clearance after a CIA-administered polygraph test yielded inconclusive results. After losing his clearance, Hatfill appealed the decision, but his employer terminated him in March 2002 as the FBI intensified its scrutiny.

According to the lawsuit, Hatfill is still under 24-hour surveillance, leaving him unable to freely talk to his girlfriend, family or friends. "He has been a target of a coordinated campaign to publicly implicate him in a crime he did not commit," Hatfill's attorney told a news conference. Hatfill also said the Justice Department was responsible for his firing last August from a job directing bioterrorism research at Louisiana State University. The lawsuit says he's been unemployed since and that other potential employers have been scared off from hiring him because he is followed by a team of five to seven FBI agents. His lawyer said federal authorities "have trampled Dr. Hatfill's constitutional rights and they have destroyed his life."

Citing the ongoing criminal investigation and concerns about national security, the Justice Department has sought to have Hatfill’s suit dismissed and, meanwhile, is trying to persuade a Federal judge to delay it. Disclosure of what the FBI knows about the deadly attacks could enable terrorists to engineer biological weapons to escape detection, the FBI says. Richard L. Lambert, the FBI inspector in charge of what is being called the "Amerithrax" investigation, says in a court document that Hatfill's lawsuit could jeopardize the probe and expose national secrets related to US bioweapons defense measures.

The judge hearing Dr. Hatfill's suit said he "is not convinced that allowing (the suit) to proceed will endanger the FBI's investigation of the anthrax letters". He said the government has not persuaded him to postpone the suit until the anthrax case is solved, as Justice Department lawyers requested. "Is Mr. Hatfill still a suspect? Are there any suspects? ", The judge asked. He added: " At some point…if Mr. Hatfill did not commit this crime, he should get his life back." The judge is expected to issue a written ruling on the government's request to freeze the lawsuit or hold an additional hearing.

According to Jonathan Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, even if the case gets to Court, Hatfill faces an uphill battle. Prosecutors are allowed to publicly identify a person they are seeking to interview in a criminal investigation. Therefore, Hatfill would have to prove that his name was singled out with malicious purpose, Turley said. That usually requires a so-called "smoking gun" document that rarely exists, he said.

Meanwhile, a Federal grand jury has been empanelled and, in recent months, many of Hatfill's friends and colleagues and his former employers report that they have provided documents under grand jury subpoena. In its court filings responding to Hatfill’s suit, the FBI stopped short of saying that Hatfill is still being investigated, and other Federal officials have said Hatfill is not a suspect and that they have no evidence directly linking him to the attacks

Frustrated FBI officials say the anthrax investigation is still ongoing – a frustration doubtless made even more intense by the recent discovery of the poison toxin Ricin in the mailroom of the Senate Majority Leader. The FBI insists that every investigative technique available to them has been employed in the anthrax investigation, including: round-the-clock surveillances; eavesdropping and searches conducted under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act; agents conducting 5,000 interviews and serving more than 1,700 grand jury subpoenas; hundreds of polygraphs; agents compiling minute-by-minute chronologies of the lives of some subjects, examining their whereabouts when the letters were sent; involvement by 40 of the FBI's 56 field offices and many of its 44 overseas legal attach├ęs; establishing 112 separate databases to store information about the case; and offering a reward of $2.5 million. The FBI also has hired a former Hatfill colleague, who provided the bureau with information about him. Legal experts have characterized this as an unusual move that could pose an appearance of conflict of interest if the government tries to use the employee as a prosecution witness.

Whether or not he is ever charged with or convicted of anything, the Hatfill saga is a chilling reminder of what can – and does -- happen to ordinary US citizens during times of extraordinary national fear and anxiety. “Temporary” suspension of Constitutional protections have occurred many times in US history. Over time, most -- though not all – of these abuses have been corrected. But ‘over time’ offers little consolation to people whose names are widely publicized but who are never charged. That is why the Constitution provides for specific charges and speedy trials. It is time to prohibit law enforcement from using the phrase ‘person of interest’. That language does not establish guilt or innocence; it does not even designate a person as a suspect. Rather, it places the victim in a kind of legal limbo tantamount to having been accused, tried and convicted. It is time for the Justice Department to either charge Dr. Hatfill, or publicly apologize to him and let him get on with his life.



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By William Fisher

“Exporting Jobs” through outsourcing has become a hot story in the US media – and among presidential hopefuls on the campaign trail. But outsourcing has been a practice of rich-nation companies for decades. And it has been encouraged by successive administrations in Washington -- both Democrat and Republican – as a way to create jobs and stimulate economic development in poor countries.

So why are we treating outsourcing as something new?

First, the US economy is in bad shape, and failing to create jobs. So exporting any job is likely to attract attention and criticism.

Second, the nature of outsourcing has changed. Back in the Reagan years, US companies were encouraged to open plants or find subcontractors in developing countries. Investment Promotion was a major goal of US aid agencies – remember Reagan’s Caribbean Basin Initiative? The US Government flooded the ‘third world’ with consultants to help poorer countries attract US investment by providing them with factories and industrial parks, conducting campaigns to woo likely sectors of US industry, developing laws and regulations offering investors long tax holidays and other incentives, and streamlining the investment approval process. However, back then, it was blue-collar jobs that were being exported: mostly low-paying assembly-line type jobs. US companies that moved part of their production abroad got high marks and tax breaks from Washington – cold comfort to the thousands of textile and other workers who lost their jobs in the process. Today, outsourcing means the shipment of higher-paying white-collar high-tech jobs to countries with well-educated but much lower-paid workers.

Third, the nature of world trade has changed. The motivation of companies that turned to outsourcing was never about job creation in the developing world. It was about cutting costs and increasing profits -- and it still is. Two decades ago, these companies faced devastating competition from producers in countries like Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea. These countries had enormous reservoirs of low-cost, trainable labor, quite capable of sewing a garment, making a toy, or assembling a small motor. Today, these and many other developing countries have developed sizable cadres of highly educated business managers and employees capable of performing far more skilled operations, including designing and manufacturing computer software and other high-tech products. The earlier assembly-line skills have moved to even poorer countries, and continue to attract business from US employers who require these kinds of lower-level skills. Moreover, parts of the world once valued only for their cheap labor have become markets for the products of US and other producers. Like outsourcing, this is nothing new; US companies have been setting up operations in promising markets since before World War II. Today, the Internet and other technologies have made the process is faster and accessible to many more companies. Today we call it ‘globalization’, but it’s been around a long time.

Fourth, the recent spate of US corporate scandals has riveted public and media attention on the relentless ‘bottom line’ orientation of American management. The pay packages of many US CEOs are tied directly to company profitability and stock exchange share price. We are – and should be – outraged by
Enron-type criminal fraud and deception. But why should we be surprised that companies are constantly seeking to lower costs and increase profits? That used to be lauded as ‘efficiency’; today, it is dismissed as ‘greed’. If we see every US company as Enron, we are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Fifth, in today’s anti-corporate environment, critics almost invariably ignore a key element in the equation: stockholders. Stockholders determine share price, Board members, demand ever-greater returns on their investments, and create the environment that encourages CEOs to seek ever-larger remuneration packages. Surely this group bears some responsibility for exporting jobs.

The fact is that only a small fraction of the jobs lost over the past few years were ‘exported’ or ‘outsourced’. Most were lost to competition from other countries, to increases in our own productivity, and to layoffs during a recession. Most of them will never return. But we can’t become competitive again by protecting the steel industry or even making outsourcing illegal. Our strategy has to be to do what the American private sector has always done best: creating new industries that will provide new kinds of jobs. This cannot be a fast-track process, and people without jobs will continue to hurt for some time. But opportunities to build new industries are many, particularly in the life sciences. Taking advantage of them requires ideas, innovation, new skills, vision, capital – and the confidence to invest. Today, it is only confidence we lack. Yet these opportunities will be lost to others unless we are prepared to overcome our post-dot-com risk aversion.