Monday, July 28, 2008 Will you help the Johnsons?

LaVena Johnson was a 19 year old private in the Army, serving in Iraq, when she was raped, murdered, and her body was burned--by someone from her own military base. Despite overwhelming physical evidence, the Army called her death a suicide and has closed the case.1

For three years, LaVena's parents have been fighting for answers. At almost every turn, they've been met with closed doors or lies. They've appealed to Congress, the one body that can hold the military accountable. But, as in other cases where female soldiers have been raped and murdered and the Army has called it suicide, Congress has failed to act.

Will you join Mr. and Mrs. Johnson in calling on Congressman Henry Waxman, Chairman of the House Government Oversight Committee, to mount a real investigation into LaVena Johnson's death and the Army's cover-up2? Will you ask your friends and family to do the same?

From the beginning, LaVena's death made no sense as a suicide. She was happy and had been talking with friends and family regularly3--nothing indicated she could be suicidal. And when the Johnsons received her body, they noticed signs that she had been beaten.4 That was when they started asking questions.

After two years of being denied answers and hearing explanations that made no sense, the Johnsons received a CD-ROM from someone on the inside. It contained pictures of the crime scene where LaVena died and an autopsy showing that she had suffered bruises, abrasions, a dislocated shoulder, broken teeth, and some type of sexual assault. Her body was partially burned; she had been doused in a flammable liquid, and someone had set her body on fire. A corrosive chemical had been poured in her genital area, perhaps to cover up evidence of rape.5

Still the Army sticks by their story. They refuse to explain the overwhelming physical evidence that LaVena was raped and murdered and continue to claim that she killed herself.

For many Black youth, and working class young people of every race, the military is seen as an option for securing a better future. LaVena came from a deeply supportive family, and while the military wasn't her only option, she was attracted by its promise to help her pay for a college education and the opportunity to travel around the world. She also thought that by joining she could continue her lifelong commitment to serving other people in need. She made a decision to serve in the military, with all its risks, and expected respect and dignity in return.

LaVena's death is part of a disturbing pattern of cases where female soldiers have been raped and killed, and where the military has hidden the truth and labeled the deaths suicides.6,7 In virtually all cases, Congress has been slow to investigate or hold the military accountable in any way. Unfortunately, most families simply don't have the resources, time, and psychological strength to push back.

We can help the Johnsons, and other families, by holding Congress accountable in the LaVena Johnson case and by demanding it investigate the pattern of cover-ups by the military.

Please take a moment to join those calling on Congressman Waxman to investigate the cover-up of LaVena Johnson's death:

Thanks and Peace,

-- James, Gabriel, Clarissa, Andre, Kai, and the rest of the team
July 28th, 2008


1. "The cover-up of a soldier's death?", March 6, 2007

2. "Is There an Army Cover Up of Rape and Murder of Women Soldiers?", April 28, 2008

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. "Suicide or Murder? Three Years After the Death of Pfc. LaVena Johnson in Iraq, Her Parents Continue Their Call for a Congressional Investigation," Democracy Now!, June 23, 2008.

6. See reference 2.

7. "2 Years After Soldier's Death, Family's Battle Is With Army," New York Times, March 21, 2006.

Other References:

"Justice for Pfc. LaVena Johnson," DailyKos, June 30, 2008

"Rapists in the Ranks, Los Angeles Times, March 31, 2008

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

CNN: Child bride divorces after rape, beatings

Nujood Ali, 10, has been chastised by some in Yemen for speaking out about her arranged marriage.

By Paula Newton

Editor's note: CNN does not usually identify children of alleged abuse, but in this case the girl and her family gave CNN permission to tell her story and use her name.

SANAA, Yemen (CNN) -- Nujood Ali is 10 years old, but she already has been married and divorced. It was an arranged marriage in which she said a husband three times her age routinely beat and raped her.

"When I got married, I was afraid. I didn't want to leave home. I wanted to stay with my brothers and sisters and my mom and dad," she said, speaking to CNN with the permission of her parents.

"I didn't want to sleep with him, but he forced me to. He hit me, insulted me."

As she plays marbles with her brothers and sister, Nujood is a portrait of innocence, with a shy smile and a playful nature.

But what happened evokes anger and shame. Asked if what she went through was torture, she nods quietly. Video Watch Nujod describe what happened »

Nujood's parents married her off in February to a man in his 30s whom she describes as old and ugly.

Her parents said they thought they were putting her in the care of her husband's family, but Nujood said he would often beat her into submission.

Nujood then turned to her family for mercy.

"When I heard, my heart burned for her; he wasn't supposed to sleep with her," said Nujood's mother, who asked not to be identified.

But, initially, she also told her daughter she could not help her -- that she belonged to her husband now.

Nujood's father, Ali Mohammed Ahdal, said he is angry about what happened to his daughter. "He was a criminal, a criminal. He did hateful things to her," he said. "He didn't keep his promise to me that he wouldn't go near her until she was 20."

When contacted by CNN, the girl's former husband declined to comment.

Nujood's parents, like so many others in Yemen, struck a social bargain when they decided to have their daughter wed. More than half of all Yemeni girls are married off before the age of 18, according to Oxfam International, a nonprofit group that fights global poverty and injustice.

Many times girls are forced to marry older men, including some who already have at least one wife, Oxfam said. According to tribal customs, the girls are no longer viewed as a financial or moral burden to their parents.

"There is always a fear that the girl will do something to dishonor the family: She will run away with a guy, she will have relations with a boy. So this is always the phobia that the families have," said Suha Bashren of Oxfam International.

Bashren calls the tradition of child brides in Yemen a national crisis. She works with young girls to protect them from early marriage, abuse and one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

The Yemeni government is holding legal and religious workshops to try to deal with the issue of early marriage. But experts say marrying off a young daughter is generally still seen as the right thing to do.

"A lot of people in the public don't think that this is wrong or that what happened to her was abuse," Bashren said.

In Yemen, there is nothing new or extraordinary about Nujood's story because children have been married off for generations. The country's legal minimum age for marriage was 15 till a decade ago, when the law was changed to allow for children even younger to be wed.

But what is most unusual is that this young girl took such an intensely private dispute and went public with it.

Nujood said she made up her mind to escape from her husband, describing how on a visit to her parents' home she broke free and traveled to the central courthouse across town and demanded to speak to a judge.

"He asked me, 'What do you want?' And I said, 'I want a divorce.' And he said, 'You're married?' And I said, 'Yes,'" she recalled.

What unfolded in those few days in April gripped the country on the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula.

Nujood got her divorce, but based on the principles of Islamic Sharia law, her husband was compensated, not prosecuted. Nujood was ordered to pay him more than $200. The human rights lawyer who represented her donated the money.

But for this determined spirit, it was still a sweet victory.

"I did this so that people would listen and think about not marrying their daughters off as young as I was," she said with a shy smile.

Now back at the family home, she said she won't go outside to play -- that all the attention bothers her. Some still condemn the young girl for speaking out, believing that she shouldn't have challenged convention.

Human rights advocates said it will take more than a generation if this practice is to change in Yemen for other children.

"These girls are living in a misery that no one is talking about," Oxfam's Bashren said.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Still in the passenger seat

Saudis on the highway to change

By Crispin Thorold
BBC News, Jeddah

See original article

Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world where women are not allowed to drive.

But some like the writer and activist Wajeha Huwaider are now publicly campaigning for a change to the law.

They were opposing women's education in the 1960s, but the government took the action and they made it a law
Wajeha Huwaider
She caused a media storm earlier this year by posting a film of herself driving in Saudi Arabia on the video sharing website YouTube.

We meet at a car showroom in Jeddah where she wanders around looking at the vehicles on sale.

Saudi women may be banned from driving cars but they are free to purchase vehicles.

"Look at these cars, it is amazing," said Ms Huwaider, who within minutes is sitting behind the wheel of an albeit stationary jeep.

"It feels great and sad at the same time because I know I cannot drive it.

"They were opposing women's education in the 1960s, but the government took the action and they made it a law. So now we want the same thing. We need brave decisions to be taken and to be taken soon."

Changing society

As the international oil price surges, so does wealth in Saudi Arabia. With the petrodollars are coming calls for social reform in parts of this kingdom.

The drive for liberalisation is being led by women and men in the Westernised urban elite.

People like the Jeddah Boyz, a gang of trendy young men in their 20s who modify or "pimp" sports cars.

Saudi auto enthusiasts pimp their rides

The Jeddah Boyz spend tens of thousands of dollars turning relatively bland vehicles into a boy racer's dream, but it's not just men who are getting cars pimped.

Spend long enough on the streets of Jeddah and you will notice a pink Hummer, encrusted with fake diamonds.

The princess who owns this Hummer has even fitted Gucci interiors. All this for a car that she cannot drive.

If the rumours in Saudi Arabia are to be believed, that may change soon. Leading members of the government and clerics have said that there is nothing in the Koran that prevents women driving.

Not a challenge

The challenge is getting society to accept a change in the law.

However leading Saudi businessmen believe that the focus on driving is obscuring greater challenges for women in the kingdom.

"This problem of women driving is an Anglo-Saxon question," said Saleh al-Turki, the Chairman of the Saudi Chambers of Commerce.

Wajeha Huwaider is keen to get on the road

Mr Turki argues that before the driving ban is lifted more women must enter the workforce. At the moment just one in 20 is employed.

"Once the rest of the society realise that allowing women to work is not a challenge to anybody, it is to the benefit of society, to the benefit of the family, driving will not become a problem in my opinion," said Mr Turki.

In the meantime, a small number of women's activists are using the internet to try to force change, quickly.

The film that Wajeha Huwaider posted on YouTube was the continuation of a campaign that started a year ago.

So far the government has not formally responded. Although it seems that the government is more relaxed about the YouTube video than it has been about dissent in the past - at least none of the campaigners have been arrested yet.

"It has nothing to do with religion," said Ms Huwaider. "So we don't know why they don't lift the ban."

"But we are still hoping that it will happen. I am sure that it is going to happen during [King] Abdullah's time."

This remains though a deeply conservative Muslim country dominated by tribes and a clerical establishment and until the government officially lifts the ban few other women are likely to get behind the wheel.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Michelle Obama: rock or "bitter" half?

Michelle Obama's America
Jul 3rd 2008
From The Economist print edition

Is Barack Obama's wife his rock or his bitter half?

THERE are two ways to be a political spouse. You can shun the limelight or you can grab it. Margaret Thatcher’s late husband, Denis, exemplified the former approach. He never upstaged his wife and though intelligent and rich, he was content to be viewed as a golfing, gin-swilling duffer. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the Clintons. Hillary was Bill’s closest adviser when he was president, and he would have done the same for her, had she been elected. Neither approach is right or wrong, but both have predictable consequences. If you keep your mouth shut, you are unlikely to stir up controversy. If you speak up, you may help your spouse, but you risk hurting him or her, too.

John McCain’s wife, Cindy, gazes adoringly at him on the stump but says little. If she has to introduce him, she says she loves him and hopes you will vote for him. She may favour pink skirt-suits over golfing trousers, but in her reluctance to say anything that might conceivably hurt her spouse she is unmistakably a (Denis) Thatcherite. Hostile bloggers half-heartedly accuse her of being a Stepford wife or make snide cracks about the fortune she inherited and her past addiction to painkillers. But she seldom captures the headlines and seems to like it that way.

Michelle Obama falls somewhere between the two poles. Unlike Bill or Hillary, she has never hinted that she expects to be co-president. But unlike Mrs McCain, she criss-crosses the country making fiery speeches on her husband’s behalf. In many ways, she is a huge asset to his campaign. She is clever, driven, beautiful and articulate. Even when he is not there, she draws large, avid crowds. Yet she still finds time to be supermum. She bought two laptops so her husband can see and talk to his daughters when he is on the road. She teases him about his snoring and makes him take out the rubbish. He calls her “my rock”.

Like her husband, she exemplifies the American dream, having risen from humble roots to Princeton, Harvard and a $275,000-a-year job handling “community and external affairs” and “business diversity” for a hospital in Chicago. But her story is otherwise quite different from his. His background is more exotic and chaotic. His mother was white, his father was Kenyan, they broke up when he was two and the young Barack later lived in Hawaii and Indonesia. Michelle’s family, by contrast, was hard-up but intact. It was also all-black, all-American and rooted in the South Side of Chicago. Michelle grew up knowing useful people: she was chummy with Jesse Jackson’s daughter and even baby-sat his son when she was a teenager.

When Barack was starting out as a politician, his rivals dismissed him as inauthentically African-American or even “the white man in blackface”. Having Michelle at his side helped reassure sceptical blacks that he was really one of them. Even the precise shade of her skin colour may have helped him at the polls. Famous black men often pick light-skinned or white wives. Some black women resent this. That Michelle is quite dark may have endeared Barack to black female voters who might otherwise have voted for Hillary Clinton.

Now that the primaries are over, the issues have changed. Blacks are solidly for Mr Obama, but many swing voters are unsure. Some Republicans think his wife’s habit of speaking her mind could prove a problem. For example, in February, as her husband’s campaign was catching fire, she said: “For the first time in my adult life, I am proud of my country, because it feels like hope is finally making a comeback.” Some Americans bristle at the implication that the only worthwhile thing any of them has done in the past quarter-century is to back Mr Obama.

Mrs Obama’s speeches rarely accentuate the positive. America, to her, is a “downright mean” country where families struggle to buy food, where mothers are terrified of being fired if they get pregnant and where “life for regular folks has gotten worse over the course of my lifetime”. But she was born in 1964, when Americans lived shorter, poorer lives and southern blacks couldn’t vote. Whereas her husband is magically skilled at not giving offence, Mrs Obama can be a blunt instrument. “Don’t go into corporate America,” she urges young people, denigrating what most Americans do for a living and biting the hand that pays for all the public programmes she favours. “Barack Obama will require you to work,” she says. “He is going to demand that you shed your cynicism. That you put down your divisions. That you come out of your isolation…Barack will never allow you to go back to your lives as usual, uninvolved, uninformed.” Some
people would rather decide for themselves how to live their lives.

The bitter bit
Conservative pundits have savaged her. One acerbic blogger calls her “Obama’s bitter half”. Others mock her occasional gripes about her personal finances and her solipsistic college thesis about the woes of black Princetonians. The National Review says she “embodies a peculiar mix of privilege and victimology, which is not where most Americans live. On the other hand, it does make her a terrific Oprah guest.”

Mr Obama says people should lay off his wife. Laura Bush agrees. And one has to sympathise with Mrs Obama. She was always a reluctant political wife. Her husband’s crazy hours and long absences impose a hefty burden on her and on their children. In dark moments, she fears for his physical safety. And all the while, both she and her husband are subjected to maliciously false gossip online.

But not all criticism is unfair. If Mr Obama is president, his wife will have the ear of the most powerful man on earth. So her political views matter. And if she expresses them forcefully in speech after speech, she can hardly cry foul when not everyone likes what she says. On June 30th she appeared on the front page of USA Today saying: “I don’t want to be a distraction.” For better or for worse, she is.

Ingrid Betancourt

This CNN video shows that, even though she came to doubt her own strength and intelligence during her captivity, Betancourt is a true heroine. We never doubted it.