Follow by Email

Friday, April 15, 2016

More parents abroad register babies as citizens 14 April 2016

More Singaporean parents living abroad are registering their children as citizens.

There were 1,600 children born overseas to at least one Singaporean parent who were registered as citizens last year. They made up 8 per cent of the 20,815 total citizenships registered last year.

This is up from the 1,200 such children registered on average each year from 2006 to 2010, and the 1,400 registered on average each year from 2011 to 2015.

 Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings. Reproduced with permission.Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings. 

The increase is a result of more Singaporeans living, working or studying overseas for extended periods, Senior Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office Josephine Teo said yesterday.

There are 210,000 such citizens now, a 30 per cent rise compared with 160,000 a decade ago. "This shows how Singaporeans are increasingly mobile and welcomed by employers and educational institutions internationally," she said during the debate on spending plans of the Prime Minister's Office.

Mrs Teo, who oversees population matters, said the Government has kept a "calibrated pace of immigration" to prevent the citizen population from shrinking.

Apart from the new citizenships granted last year, there were 29,955 others given permanent residency.

 Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings. Reproduced with permission.Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings. 

Mrs Teo said more should be done to help new citizens deepen their sense of belonging here. She suggested they get involved in all aspects of local life, including learning to speak local languages and taking an interest in issues that concern fellow Singaporeans. "Most important of all, they must understand our roots as a multiracial and multicultural society," she said.

Agreeing with MPs Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio GRC) and Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC), she encouraged Singaporeans to remain open to people of diverse backgrounds.

Mrs Teo said immigration measures will not fully meet the country's growing workforce needs. But rather than grow the population more quickly through immigration, "we have decided to press on with the restructuring of our economy towards one that is less dependent on manpower for growth", she said.

As such, the growth of the foreign workforce has slowed considerably, she noted. The Government is also trying to equip Singaporeans with more skills so they can remain relevant through measures like SkillsFuture, she added.

 Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings. Reproduced with permission.Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings. 

"Our vision must be a Singapore that is cohesive and open, where Singaporeans feel a sense of connectedness wherever they are in the world... and at the same time, have the capacity to welcome new additions to our family whether for a period of time or for good."

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings. - See more at:

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

askST: Why do we redraw electoral boundaries every time we have a general election?

Reader Lin Yulong wrote to askST: "Why do we redraw electoral boundaries every time we have general elections?"  - 30 March, ST, 2016
Deputy News Editor (Political) Zakir Hussain answers. 
Electoral boundaries have been redrawn at every general election (GE) for several reasons.
The boundaries are determined by a committee appointed by the Prime Minister, who sets out guidelines - or terms of reference - for them. While the committee puts out a report on these changes, it does not go into detailed explanations on how it came about these decisions. 
But observers have identified three key considerations behind boundary changes.
One major reason is population shifts as a result of new housing developments, such as new flats in Punggol and Yew Tee.
When the Electoral Boundaries Review Committee came up with new boundaries ahead of GE2015, it was asked to "take into consideration significant increases or decreases in the number of electors in the current electoral divisions as a result of population shifts and housing developments since the last boundary delineation exercise". 
This explains why a new GRC was formed in the north-west of Singapore - Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC - and why several areas of GRCs in the north-east were also redrawn. 
A second reason is to address the political requirements spelt out in the brief to the committee.
For example, the Government had, ahead of the previous two GEs, promised to reduce the average size of  group representation constituencies (GRCs) and have more single-member constituencies (SMCs). 
So ahead of GE2011 and GE2015, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong directed the committee to reduce the average number of MPs in a GRC and ensure at least 12 SMCs.
Underpinning both the above reasons is the need for the 2.4 million eligible voters in Singapore to - more or less - have equal say in electing their MP or team of MPs. 
For the 2015 boundary redrawing, the committee worked on the basis of a range of 20,000 to 37,000 voters per MP. It was also mindful that a GRC with fewer MPs should not have more voters than a GRC with more MPs.
Observers also point to political considerations in the way boundaries are shaped.
On one hand, opposition-held seats have tended to not have their boundaries redrawn to minimise allegations of unfair play. Thus in the latest exercise, Aljunied GRC and Hougang SMC saw no changes to their boundaries. Even Potong Pasir, which had been in opposition hands for 27 years till GE2011, saw its boundaries left intact last year. 
But on the other hand, some constituencies that have seen close contests have been known to be redrawn. For instance, Joo Chiat SMC, which the PAP won by fewer than 400 votes in GE2011, was absorbed into Marine Parade GRC ahead of GE2015. 
But changes to constituency boundaries have affected fewer voters in recent electoral cycles.
Some of the more drastic boundary changes happened ahead of GE1988, GE1991 and GE1997 when three-member GRCs were introduced, followed by four-member GRCs and then five-and six-member GRCs in three consecutive elections.
Ahead of GE2011, some three in 10 voters found themselves in a new electoral division. At GE2015, only one in five voters were affected.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Dangerous Myths about Retirement

With the current cost of living, a fair number of Singaporeans can expect to be happily retired. Maybe by the age of, say, 162. Now there’s any number of external causes you can blame for that: inflation, growing household debt, inadequate pension plan, etc. But some of the causes are self-inflicted…like these myths we keep believing:

On the upside, older people need less sleep. So they may actually be able to make it through a whole investment seminar.

1. I Will Spend Less as I Grow Older

Consider how most of us spend more during a weekend.
Without work, our brain has trouble processing how much time there really is to muck about in. This effect is magnified when you’re retired, since every day becomes a weekend. And according to the MoneySmart Science department (i.e. me when I’m playing with magnets) you can lie in bed watching TV till 3pm maximum, before your legs drag you out the door.
The boredom makes us take up new hobbies, go on vacation, socialize more, etc. And since retirees combat boredom every day upon retirement, many will spend more during their initial retirement years.
On top of that, the cost of healthcare and insurance will increase. Don’t assume that, just because the mortgage is paid up, the extra cash will cover the difference.
You also have to factor the cost of replacing stuff every three to five years: you’ll need cash for home maintenance, replacing your guitar / computer / TV etc. Tabulate the cost of all that, and you’ll realize even $1,500 a month is a dangerously tight sum to retire on.

2. The House Will Make Me Rich

Irony: Not wanting retirement homes near our flats, because we need their property value for retirement.

First, I’m going to make the assumption that you’ll have no problems selling the house and downgrading. This is already a huge stretch, since the thought of it causes most retirees to flip the hell out.
(Oh, you don’t see why? Wait till you’ve spent 25 years of your life paying off the house you live in, and which your children and grandchildren grew up in. See how you feel about selling then).
The good news is Singapore’s property values tend to head up over time. And at present,  the government has a $15,000 silver housing bonus.
The bad news is there’s no predicting what it will cost to buy a new house by that point; even a smaller one. No one can guarantee that your specific house will bring huge gains, whatever the condition of the country’s property market.
Now I’m not suggesting you’ll end up homeless (because if prices are bad, you can just keep the house and not sell). All I’m saying is, don’t count on getting rich when you sell the house. The profit margin may not be as huge as you imagine.
If you want to ensure a luxurious retirement, invest in other asset classes besides your house. You might also want to follow us on Facebook for the next 30+ years, as we track the state of home prices in Singapore.
(Hey, can’t blame a blogger for trying).

3. Saving Money Alone is Enough

The good news is grandpa stashed his life savings in this Milo tin. The bad news is it’s now worth less than the tin.

To understand why we no longer stuff money into Milo tins, let’s look at something called the Consumer Price Index (CPI).
The CPI is an annual gauge of how much the prices of goods have risen. So a CPI of 4% means that, over the year, the prices of everything went up by 4%. That’s why a cup of kopi cost your grandma about a cent, and costs you around $1.20.
Now, grab your wallet and check the dollar bills. You will notice that, despite the prices of everything going up, the numbers on those dollar bills are not changing to compensate.
In effect, the money you have is worth 4% less. And every year, Singapore’s CPI reaches around 3% to 4%. Over the course of 20 to 30 years, you can expect inflation (the CPI) to utterly destroy your wealth if all you do is save.
In order to be safe, you should aim to beat the CPI by 2%. So you need to invest the money, and fetch returns of about 5% to 7%. There are plenty of ways to do this, from insurance policies to ST Index funds. You can check out investment basics in our other article.
And incidentally, the cost to get started can be as low as $100 a month. (Try POSBOCBC or Philip Securities)

4. Invest Only in Super Safe Assets to Ensure a Happy Retirement

gold bars
Our mattresses are harder, heavier, and clang. So I know Dad read another retirement article.

In general, safer assets tend to have lower returns. Take, for example, a safe investment option like your CPF: the returns are guaranteed, but they only yield 2.5% for the ordinary account, and 4% for the special account. Likewise, bank fixed deposits tend to hover around 1%, even though they’re safe as fortresses.
(As to why those returns are low, see point 3 about the CPI)
In effect, your investment guarantees may just be guarantees of poor returns. A more reasonable approach would be to diversify your portfolio: mix low and medium risk investments. The riskier investments provide higher returns, while the safer ones offset any losses.
It’s worth talking to a stock broker or independent financial advisor about it. Right now, while you’re young.

5. Retirement Happens at 62, I’ll Think About it Later

We’re giving him one candle for each year in the company, so make sure the fire department’s on standby.

Retirement happens when you have attained financial freedom.

Some people retire at 62, some people retire at 70, and I know a lucky few who retire in their 30′s. If you start to manage your finances as early as possible, you don’t have to base everything on your CPF draw-down age. And even if you don’t aim to retire at 30, there can be no harm in understanding how others have managed it.

When you insist on thinking of 62 as the magic age, you tend to put off your financial education. You don’t bother learning about stocks and bonds, you don’t build your emergency fund, you don’t invest, etc. You take the all too common route of blissful ignorance, and panicking only after your 40th birthday.

Don’t do it. Regrets aren’t worth a damn, and you don’t want to find yourself hauling cans to a recycling centre at 62 because you started planning too late.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Preah Vihear Temple: Disputed Land Belongs to Cambodia [A study in UN/ASEAN conflict resolution]

Preah Vihear temple: Disputed land Cambodian, court rules

Cambodia should have sovereignty over most of the disputed land around the Preah Vihear temple on the border with Thailand, the UN's top court has ruled.

The International Court of Justice in the Hague said Thailand must withdraw troops from around the hilltop temple.

But it did not give Cambodia all the disputed land, saying it had no jurisdiction to rule on a hill nearby.

Both governments welcomed the ruling, with the Thai prime minister calling on her people to accept the verdict.

In a televised address, Yingluck Shinawatra told Thais that both countries would work together to achieve peace.

Her Cambodian counterpart, Hun Sen, also addressed his nation, repeating a promise to work with Thailand to keep the border peaceful and "not do anything that will lead to tension".

"This is a significant step forward... towards a peaceful resolution," he said.

The BBC's Jonah Fisher in Bangkok says the ruling was a qualified victory for Cambodia, and the two sides will now have to negotiate.

The 900-year-old Hindu temple is perched on a cliff in Cambodia, but more easily accessed from the Thai side.
Fears of violence

The long-standing rift has previously led to clashes between the two nations, which both lay claim to the land.

A 1962 verdict by the court declared the temple to be Cambodian, but did not rule on the area around it.

Cambodia sought a clarification of the ruling two years ago, after fighting erupted.

Delivering the judgement, Peter Tomka, president of the International Court of Justice, said the court had decided "that Cambodia had sovereignty over the whole territory of the promontory of Preah Vihear".

"In consequence, Thailand was under an obligation to withdraw from that territory the Thai military or police forces or other guards or keepers that were stationed there," he said.

Both sides agreed to withdraw troops from the disputed area in December 2011.

On Saturday, the chief of Cambodia's military forces on the Thailand border called an emergency meeting after Thai aircraft were seen flying low around disputed land near the temple.

However, Cambodian regional commander General Srey Deuk told the BBC he expected no problems with the Thai military after Monday's verdict.

He said no troop reinforcements had been brought up to the temple.

But fears remain about possible violence in border villages, stirred up by nationalist groups.

One Thai nationalist group, the Thai Patriotic Network, has said it will reject any judgement from the ICJ, according to The Nation newspaper. The group has already petitioned the court to throw out the case.

The territory has been a point of contention for over a century.

The decision to award the temple to Cambodia in 1962 rankled Thailand, but the issue lay largely moribund due to Cambodia's civil war, which only ended in the 1990s.

It came to the forefront again when Cambodia applied for Unesco World Heritage status in 2008, which it won - angering Thai nationalists. Both sides began a build-up of troops in the area.

The ICJ ruling is an interpretation of the 1962 judgement and cannot be appealed.

Q and A

A row over territory around the 11th Century border temple of Preah Vihear continues to strain ties between Thailand and Cambodia. The BBC looks at the background to the dispute.

Who owns the temple?

The Hindu temple was awarded to Cambodia by a 1962 ruling at the International Court of Justice, which both countries accepted at the time. Thailand does not officially claim ownership of the temple - the dispute is over the area surrounding it. Thailand says the ICJ ruling did not rule on the border, only on the temple itself.

The geography of the area makes sovereignty a particularly complicated issue. The temple is perched on top of a cliff, hundreds of feet above the Cambodian jungle. It has direct transport links to Thai towns and cities, and tourists can visit the temple from Thailand without the need for visas.

In fact, until 2003 access from Cambodian territory was possible only via a gruelling hike through jungle and mountains. In 2003 a road opened connecting a Cambodian town to the temple.

How long has the dispute been running?

The temple has been at the centre of a border dispute for more than a century. Maps drawn by Cambodia's French colonial rulers and Thailand (or Siam, as it was then known) early in the 20th Century showed the temple as belonging to Cambodia, but in later decades Thailand said the maps were not official and were therefore invalid.

The ICJ granted the temple to Cambodia in 1962, but the decision rankled Thailand. The dispute was largely moribund for decades as Cambodia plunged into a civil conflict that lingered until the 1990s.

The issue escalated again when Cambodia applied for it be listed as a Unesco World Heritage site in 2008. Thailand wanted it to be a joint Thai-Cambodia listing, but eventually withdrew its objection. The decision enraged Thai nationalists and both sides began a build-up of troops in the area.

In April 2009, soldiers exchanged fire across the disputed border. More serious trouble flared in February 2011, when at least eight people were killed in several days of fighting. The violence moved westwards to another set of temples in April, before shifting back to Preah Vihear, as widespread clashes forced tens of thousands to flee.

Is anyone trying to sort out the dispute?

In February 2011 Cambodia took the case to the UN Security Council, which then referred it to regional bloc Asean. Indonesia, as then-president of Asean, led mediation efforts. Both sides said they would allow access to Asean monitors.

However, Asean could do nothing to prevent further fighting flaring up again in April and talks between the leaders of the two countries failed to break the deadlock.

In April, Cambodia returned to the ICJ and requested it clarify its 1962 ruling. In July, the ICJ designated a demilitarised zone around the temple and ordered troops from both countries to leave the area.

Hearings at the ICJ began in April 2013. The court is set to rule on 11 November 2013.

Why is the temple so important?

The Hindu temple was built mainly in the 11th and 12th centuries, by the same Khmer civilisation that built Angkor Wat. The Khmers dominated the region for five centuries. As Cambodia has a tragic recent history of genocide and civil war, politicians often look to the glorious distant past to inspire nationalist sentiment.

And Cambodian nationalists often use Thailand as a bogeyman to stoke nationalist fervour - charting a litany of wrongs such as the successive Thai invasions that helped destroy the once mighty Khmer empires and rendered the country defenceless against French colonial conquest in the 19th Century.

Thailand also took advantage of the chaos during World War II to occupy large chunks of western Cambodia, including the temples at Angkor Wat. It was forced to hand them back when the war ended.

The Thai military often treated Cambodian refugees who fled the civil wars of the 1970s and 80s harshly - and Thailand backed the remnants of the Khmer Rouge in their struggle against the Vietnamese occupation, so helping prolong the civil war.

On the Thai side, the Khmer civilisation profoundly influenced Thai culture, and there are many famous Khmer-style temples in Thailand. In recent years, a powerful nationalist lobby allied to the military has helped drive a more muscular foreign policy agenda in Thailand.

The temple is also only one of several areas where the two countries disagree on where the border is. The maritime border is the subject of a dispute - and one which affects the development of oil and gas reserves in the Gulf of Thailand. The two sides had reached agreement on joint development, but the deal was then scrapped by the administration of former Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

For a deeper understanding: download

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

9/11: The man who 'plotted' America's darkest day

By Tara McKelvey BBC News Magazine

Relatives of the dead gathered in New York to mark the 12th anniversary of 9/11. Meanwhile, 1,400 miles away, the man who says he masterminded the attacks awaits his trial.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed walked into a courtroom in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, one morning in August. The door stayed open for a moment and sunlight fell across the floor.

Laura and Caroline Ogonowski watched him from a gallery behind three plates of glass. They are daughters of John Ogonowski, the 50-year-old pilot of American Airlines Flight 11, the first plane that crashed into the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001.

Tom and JoAnn Meehan were also there. They lost their daughter, Colleen Barkow, 26, in the World Trade Center. Rosemary Dillard's husband, Eddie, 54, died in the jet that crashed into the Pentagon.

The room was quiet.

Mohammed adjusted his turban with both hands, as if it were a hat. He was short and overweight, and he walked in a jerky manner - like a Lego Star Wars character, someone in the gallery remarked later.

"He has a high voice," says the court illustrator, Janet Hamlin. "I expected a baritone. Darth Vader."

Mohammed and the other four defendants, Walid bin Attash, Ammar al-Baluchi (also known as Abd al-Aziz Ali), Ramzi Binalshibh and Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi are accused of helping to finance and train the men who flew the jets into the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field.

They face charges that include terrorism and 2,976 counts of murder, and they could be executed.

US v Mohammed has been described as the trial of the century. At the centre of the drama is the world's most notorious al-Qaeda member.

"If we were a different country, we might have taken him out and shot him," says a spokesman for the Guantanamo detention facility, Capt Robert Durand, during the hearing.

Ali Abd al-Aziz Ali, Waleed bin Attash, Mohammed, Mustafa Ahmad al-Hawsawi, Ramzi Binalshibh

The legal proceedings against Mohammed provide a chance for people in the courtroom and others to observe him and also to deepen their understanding of al-Qaeda. In addition, his public image reflects the different ways that people have looked at al-Qaeda over the years.

"History consists not only in what important people did," wrote David Greenberg in Nixon's Shadow: The History of an Image, a book that looks at the ways that President Nixon has been perceived over the years, "but equally in what they symbolised".

Mohammed, a 48-year-old mechanical engineer, is thought to be a mastermind of al-Qaeda violence and a brilliant, bloody tactician. He was captured in Pakistan on 1 March 2003, less than three weeks before US troops entered Iraq.

People in the US were on edge. They wondered when al-Qaeda would strike again. Meanwhile Pentagon officials were preparing for a military intervention in Iraq. Bush administration officials spoke of a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda. "The evidence is overwhelming," Vice-President Dick Cheney said in a television interview.

Like other widely-held ideas about al-Qaeda, this one turned out to be untrue.

In 2009, US Attorney General Eric Holder announced that Mohammed would be put on trial in New York, setting off a political firestorm. The controversy reflected an ongoing and emotionally charged debate regarding national security - is al-Qaeda a serious threat?

President Barack Obama and his deputies were trying to move the nation beyond an age of fear. Not everyone believed the threat had diminished, though.

Conservatives were outraged, saying Mohammed was a danger to Americans and should be tried in a military court. Holder eventually gave up his plans, and prosecutors in Guantanamo filed charges against Mohammed in 2011.

Since that time Mohammed has in the public eye become a comical figure, a man who attempted to re-invent the vacuum cleaner while in prison. "A shoo-in for the Gitmo science fair", said late-night television host David Letterman.

Meanwhile Mohammed and the other defendants were supposedly reading EL James' 50 Shades of Grey. This turned out to be a rumour.

Nevertheless the attempts to ridicule him show how the public's view of al-Qaeda has softened. An essayist for the Washington Post called him "the Kevin Bacon of terrorism", alluding to a parlour game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, in which players find different ways Bacon is connected with other actors.

Once an icon of terror, Mohammed has been turned into an object of derision.

Mohammed's image has also gone through a transformation within al-Qaeda. He was "popular" in the 1990s, according to the authors of The 9/11 Commission Report. (It was compiled by members of a bipartisan federal commission chaired by a former New Jersey governor, Thomas Kean, and a former Indiana congressman, Lee Hamilton.)The man who 'plotted' America's darkest day

Mohammed's colleagues described him as "an intelligent, efficient, and even-tempered manager", wrote the authors.

His reputation "skyrocketed" after 9/11, says Marc Sageman, a former CIA officer and the author of Understanding Terror Networks. When Mohammed was arrested, he became a "martyr". He can no longer communicate with al-Qaeda, though, and consequently has little influence on the organisation.

Attorney General Eric Holder said that Mohammed should be tried in a civilian court in New York

The man who 'plotted' America's darkest day

The legal proceedings against him are unfolding in a corrugated-metal building in a compound known as Camp Justice. Prosecutors want the trial to start in one year. Defence lawyers baulk, saying that it will take much longer to resolve the legal issues surrounding the case.

Mohammed's lawyers say that he was tortured while he was held in CIA-run "black sites", reportedly in Poland and Romania. The evidence against him is tainted by the brutality of these interrogations, the lawyers say, and therefore the charges should be dropped.

On a more fundamental level the defence lawyers say that the military commissions are not legitimate. The court, they claim, favours the prosecution.

Mohammed, suntanned and wearing glasses, rifled through legal papers in the courtroom during a hearing last month. He had an e-reader, and he seemed comfortable in the courtroom - and with his fate.

He is a "death volunteer", a capital defendant who wants to become a martyr, at least that is what he claimed in 2008. He has not entered a formal plea - though he has talked at length about his role as an al-Qaeda mastermind. The court treats the situation as if he has pleaded not guilty.

Al-Qaeda commanders aim to broadcast a message, whether through violence or other means. One of their most important weapons is propaganda.

As a PR director for al-Qaeda, Mohammed attempts to shape his own image and that of al-Qaeda. He dyed his beard reddish-orange with berry juice, and he wore a tunic and a military-style camouflage jacket.

Wearing "camo" sends a message - he is a soldier.

He grew up in a religious family in a suburb of Kuwait City. He is a citizen of Pakistan, though, and his relatives come from Baluchistan.

At age 11 or 12 he started watching Muslim Brotherhood programmes on television. Later he went to youth camps in the desert - and became interested in jihad.

His family sent him to the US to study. After earning an engineering degree from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University in 1986, he fixed hydraulic drills on the front lines in Afghanistan, according to a December 2006 US defence department report.

At the time he was helping the US-backed mujahedeen. He says he later became "an enemy of the US", according to the defence department.

"By his own account", wrote the authors of the 9/11 Commission Report, he hated the US not because of anything he saw during the years he lived in the US - but because of US policies towards Israel.

By this time the Muslim Brotherhood brand of jihad was too tame for him. He wanted violence, according to government documents. He chose targets for the 2001 attacks based on their capacity to "awaken people politically".

He had originally planned for the hijacking of 10 commercial jets, according to the authors of the 9/11 Commission Report. He wanted to land one of the jets himself.

"After killing all adult male passengers on board and alerting the media", he would then "deliver a speech excoriating US support for Israel, the Philippines, and repressive governments in the Arab world."

"This is theatre, a spectacle of destruction with KSM as the self-cast star - the super-terrorist," wrote the authors.

Several months after the attacks, the Wall Street Journal's Daniel Pearl arranged to interview a militant, Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, a former London School of Economics student, in Karachi. It was a ruse - Pearl was kidnapped and beheaded.

Mohammed says that he held the knife, "with my blessed right hand". He made this comment in court, testimony of how he had decapitated Pearl.

A memorial service was held for Daniel Pearl in New Delhi in February 2002

Mohammed spoke to another journalist about the 9/11 attack. "The attacks were designed to cause as many deaths as possible and to be a big slap for America on American soil," Mohammed told the journalist at a hideout in Pakistan.

Mohammed spoke proudly of his leadership role in the attacks, and an account of the conversation was published in the Sunday Times in September 2002.

Seven months later, Mohammed was seized in Rawalpindi and then taken to Poland. A group of men, wearing black masks "like Planet-X people", waited for him at an airport, he says, according to a leaked copy of an International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) report.

He was taken to a cell, "about 3m x 4m with wooden walls", in a CIA black site. During the interrogations, he worked as a propagandist, offering some insight into al-Qaeda, and a lot of misinformation.

"I later told the interrogators that their methods were stupid and counterproductive," he said, according to the ICRC report. "I'm sure that the false information I was forced to invent in order to make the ill-treatment stop wasted a lot of their time and led to several false red-alerts being placed in the US."

He had lied, exaggerating the threat that al-Qaeda posed to Americans. On other occasions he has been a stickler for accuracy. He is something of a control freak - and tries to ensure that messages are transmitted properly.

In military hearings, he corrected the spelling of his name.

Through his lawyer, he chided Hamlin for a sloppy drawing. "I was like, 'Oh, no, he's right,'" she says. She fixed his nose, working in pastel.

Mohammed also mentioned at one of the hearings that the journalist who had interviewed him for the Sunday Times had got things wrong.

"You know the media," he said.

He does not refute previous statements about his role in the 2001 attacks, though. Indeed, he has reinforced them.

"I was responsible for the 9/11 operation, from A to Z," he said in a March 2007 hearing. He described himself and other al-Qaeda members as "jackals fighting in the night".

Still, he says he feels remorse. "I don't like to kill people," he said. "I feel very sorry there had been kids killed in 9/11."

In the mornings during the August hearings he was escorted to the courthouse from his holding cell, "a little, one-person supermax", says a military official. Barbed wire stretched like a giant Slinky along the top of a fence. Green sand bags were scattered around, along with Joint Task Force barricades marked "restricted area".

Mohammed walked past an army officer with handcuffs tucked in his waistband. Soldiers with Internal Security badges hovered near the door

Mohammed took off his glasses and put them on the table. He had a prayer blanket folded over the back of his chair, and a box decorated with an American flag is on the floor.

He is "well-travelled", says one of his lawyers. According to government accounts, he has spent time in Qatar, Indonesia, India, Malaysia and other countries.

The authors of The 9/11 Commission Report described him as "highly educated and equally comfortable in a government office or a terrorist safehouse".

During the hearings he expressed sympathy to his lawyers because they have to spend time away from their families. "He's a very gracious individual," says one lawyer.

Dillard and the others who lost family members in the 2001 attacks sit behind sound-proof glass. They listen to an audio feed that is delayed by 40 seconds so officials can block statements that are classified. This includes information about the interrogations.

For a year or so after the 2001 attacks, US officials acted as though Mohammed and other suspects had super-human intelligence and strength, as if only individuals who were larger than life could carry out the attacks.

Before detainees arrived at Guantanamo, for example, Richard Myers, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff "warned that any lapses in security might allow the detainees, endowed with satanic determination, to 'gnaw hydraulic lines in the back of a C-17 to bring it down,'" wrote Karen Greenberg in her book The Least Worst Place: Guantanamo's First 100 Days.

This mythology can still be seen in the courtroom. Steel chains, each comprised of 12 links, were fastened to the floor near the detainees' chairs. Each of the chains was arranged in a straight line, and they were installed so that they could be used to restrain unruly detainees. The chains were heavy and thick, sturdy enough for a "super-villain", as one military official tells me.

In the courtroom Mohammed waved over a legal assistant, a woman with blonde hair tucked under a headscarf. He sliced his hand through the air. He had surprisingly thin wrists, and his "blessed right hand" was pale.

It is hard to imagine that he once cut off Pearl's head. Later I mentioned this to one of Mohammed's lawyers. He was sitting at a picnic table outside the courthouse, near a metal sign that said: "No classified discussion area".

"It's inconceivable that this person could do that," said the lawyer, nodding. "That sets up a number of scenarios for us to investigate."

The lawyer and his colleagues are exploring possibilities for their clients' defence.

Sitting at the picnic table, the defence lawyer made a case for Mohammed's innocence - he confessed to crimes he did not commit while "under the tender mercies of the CIA".

I pointed out that he has spoken freely about his role in the crimes - frequently, and with journalists and others who do not work for the CIA. I mention the beheading.

"You keep going back to that," said the lawyer, looking impatient. He said that Mohammed is not being charged with Pearl's murder.

Then he changes tactics. He says that if Mohammad had carried out these crimes, he would have had a reason.

Mohammed is a principled man, the lawyer explained. Someone like him might commit crimes if he believed they were in the service of a greater good. Moreover these acts would carry a personal cost.

"You're sacrificing your life, your family and any future happiness for what you perceive as the good of the defence of your community," said the lawyer.

Even if Mohammed did plan the terrorist attacks and murder Pearl, the lawyer said, these acts do not make him special. "You may have had the opportunity of being in a press conference with George W Bush. He's responsible for about 5,000 deaths."

Many people would like to close the chapter on al-Qaeda and the global war against terrorism. Yet not everyone is ready to move on - or has that luxury.

Dillard said that she wants both the defence and the prosecution to "be very, very careful to maintain the integrity of the trial - so that there's no space for an appeal".

On the last day of the hearing, Dillard walked to a makeshift media-operations centre in an aeroplane hanger. In front of a microphone, she talked about her husband - and about Mohammed and the other accused men.

"I don't want them to ever see the sunshine," she said. "I don't want them to have fresh wind hit their face." She walked back to the side of the room and stood with others who have lost family members.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Karbala: history's long shadow

Just like Bethlehem and Nazareth for Christians, Karbala is one of those places Muslim children hear about from when they are very young.

For many it takes on a mythical, unreachable status.

But here we were pulling up to the main security checkpoint of Karbala, being asked to park to the side while our papers were checked.

Many pilgrims were going through on foot.

As we carried on, the gold dome of the Imam Hussein mosque rose from the centre of the city, and soon we found ourselves standing at one of its many ornate doorways.

I watched a little girl pull back her mother by the hand and chastise her for not having kissed the entrance in respect.
Entrance to mosque The Imam Hussein mosque is ornately decorated

Her mother dutifully spent a moment pressing her lips against the huge wooden doors to the mosque, before going inside.

In the vast prayer hall with its gold and marble, its huge chandeliers and its intricate blue and white tiling, was an incongruous red neon sign.

It marks the spot where it is believed Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, was beheaded.

The area on which the mosque complex is built is thought to be the site of the Battle of Karbala, in which not only Hussein, but 72 followers and members of his family, including his infant son, were slaughtered.

When you see Shia Muslims, bloodied, whipping themselves in their annual processions, they are commemorating the events that took place in Karbala.

Because while Muhammad's grandson is revered by all Muslim sects, it is Shias who trace their beliefs directly to his teachings.

The Shrine of Hussein, in the centre of the mosque, is now circled by a constant stream of pilgrims; kissing the marble, praying, often shedding tears. For Shias, the shrine represents the greatest tribute to martyrdom.

hat battle of Karbala, in the 7th Century, in which Hussein was killed, is often cited as the moment Shia and Sunni Muslims were cleaved apart.

But Friday prayers in the Imam Hussein mosque looked almost the same as prayers in a Sunni mosque.

There are small differences in the rituals: at one point, for example, instead of crossing their hands over their stomachs, the lines of Shia devotees kept their hands by their sides.

But there is difference enough, it seems, that even to this day, some feel the need to continue the slaughter.

Sectarian violence

Over the last weeks, Iraqis have witnessed the kind of sectarian violence they had hoped was a thing of the past.

On one morning eight bombs went off in an hour in Shia districts of Baghdad. On another there were 11 almost simultaneously - again in Shia neighbourhoods.

There was an attack too on a Sunni mosque in Baqubah and another close to a funeral procession.

Speaking to Iraqis at the bombsites and in hospitals, what surprised me was the very apparent lack of hatred towards the other sect.

Instead, there appeared to be resigned consensus that Iraq's politicians were exploiting sectarian differences for their own gains - but that so too, were foreign powers.

It is something that has created a huge Sunni-Shia rift across the region: Iran the big power on one side; Saudi Arabia and Qatar on the other.

Other countries in the Middle East with mixed populations are feeling the effects, as Sunni and Shia groups within them start to align in what many now see as a holy war.

Syrian shrine

In Iraq, the links between Sunni militant groups, like al-Qaeda, and the fighting across the border in Syria have been much talked about.

But a couple of days before going to Karbala, we met a man who was involved in recruiting Shia fighters to go to Syria too: to fight not with the opposition, but alongside President Assad's forces.

And where, I asked, are the Shia fighters going in Syria? His answer took us right back to Karbala.
Devotees in the Imam Hussein mosque Karbala is a place of pilgrimage for Muslims

He said their main aim was to defend the shrine of Zainab, another of the Prophet Muhammad's grandchildren, whose brother and two children were among those killed in the battle of Karbala.

After which, Shia believe, she was taken to Damascus, where she later died.

Sunnis disagree and think she was buried elsewhere, and in recent months there have been many reports of attempts to attack the Shia shrine.

The fighter told me they would keep laying down their lives until the shrine of Zainab was safe.

As I left the mosque in Karbala, with the traditional memento of a small amount of earth from the grounds, it was hard not to reflect on the way an event there 1,400 years ago was shaping the world today.

Muslim leaders' Auschwitz visit boosts Holocaust knowledge Adam Easton By Adam Easton

Muslim leaders from around the world have taken part in an unprecedented trip to Germany and Poland to see and hear for themselves about the horrors of the Jewish Holocaust.

The 11 imams, sheiks and religious teachers from nine countries met a Holocaust survivor and Poles whose families risked execution to save Jews from the Nazis, in the Polish capital's Nozyk Synagogue as part of the tour.

They have been around museums, including the recently opened Museum of the History of Polish Jews on the site of the former Jewish Ghetto in Warsaw. And they also visited the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps.

"The main aim is to get Muslims who are leaders all over the world, particularly in the Middle East, to acknowledge the reality of what happened here and to be able to teach it to the people that they lead," said trip organiser Rabbi Jack Bemporad, who is executive director of the US-based Center for Interreligious Understanding.

He was standing underneath the red brick watchtower over the main entrance to Birkenau, the largest of more than 40 camps that made up the Auschwitz complex. This was where the Nazis installed four gas chambers and crematoria to speed up the murder and disposal of people, who were mostly Jews, from across Europe.
More understanding

Auschwitz-Birkenau, set up by the Germans in Nazi-occupied Poland, is largely intact and is now a museum. Historians estimate 1.1 million people were killed there - one million of them were Jews but there were also Poles, Roma, Soviet prisoners of war and others.

"I think that when someone wants to deny the Holocaust or think that it is exaggerated, which many of them do and certainly many of their followers do, when they come here and see it, their experience is such that they can no longer think that," Rabbi Bemporad said.

Beside the ruins of one of the gas chambers - the Germans blew them up as they retreated, in an effort to hide their crimes - the Muslim leaders paused for a moment's silence.

"You may read every book about the Holocaust but it's nothing like when you see this place where people were burned," said Mohamed Magid, president of the Islamic Society of North America.

"This is the building, the bricks. If they were to speak to you and I, they would tell you how many cries and screams they have heard."

Mr Magid, who is originally from Sudan, first visited Auschwitz-Birkenau during a trip organised for American imams in 2010. He said the experience had led him to hold an annual Seder, a Jewish ceremonial meal, at his mosque in Virginia where he invites people to listen to the story of a Holocaust survivor who was saved by a Muslim family.

"We go back more committed to human rights and more understanding of conflicts and how to resolve them, but also to be careful of a curriculum that teaches racism and hatred," he said

Earlier, the group had taken photos as they walked around an exhibition in the red brick barrack blocks at Auschwitz, about 2 miles (3kms) from Birkenau.

They made comments such as "Can you imagine?" and "It's beyond comprehension" as they saw a great pile of hair shorn from women prisoners that was used to make rudimentary textiles. They shook their heads as they saw faded children's shoes and dolls in glass cases.

After they had seen just two of the 14 exhibition blocks, some of the group asked for a break and they knelt in prayer beside the camp's execution wall.

Barakat Hasan, a Palestinian imam and director of the Center for Studies and Islamic Media in Jerusalem, said he "didn't know many details about the Holocaust" before the trip.

"I felt my heart bleeding when I was looking at all this. I was fighting back tears," he said through an interpreter. "As a Palestinian living under occupation, I feel sympathy for the pain and injustice that was inflicted on the Jews," he added.

Mr Hasan said he did not believe there were people in the Muslim world who denied the Holocaust happened, but he said there was discussion in his community about whether the commonly quoted figure of six million Jewish victims was correct.

"Maybe now after seeing what I've seen, maybe the numbers are correct also," he said, adding that he would write articles and mention his trip on Facebook.

As he walked along the railway line and unloading ramp at Birkenau - where the trains hauling cattle cars crammed with Jews arrived - Ahmet Muharrem Atlig, a Turkish imam and secretary general of the Journalists and Writers Foundation in Istanbul, said he wept when he saw a photograph that showed children looking scared as they got off a train.

"Unfortunately the Muslim communities and congregation don't know much about the Holocaust," he said.

"Yes, we've heard something. But we have to come and see what happened here. It's not just about Jews, or Christians, this is all about human beings because the human race suffered here."