Australia should strengthen its privacy laws and remove exemptions for politicians


David Vaile, UNSW

As revelations continue to unfold about the misuse of personal data by Cambridge Analytica, many Australians are only just learning that Australian politicians have given themselves a free kick to bypass privacy laws.

Indeed, Australian data privacy laws are generally weak when compared with those in the United States, the United Kingdom and the European Union. They fall short in both specific exemptions for politicians, and because individuals cannot enforce laws even where they do exist.




Read more:
Australia’s privacy laws gutted in court ruling on what is ‘personal information’


While Australia’s major political parties have denied using the services of Cambridge Analytica, they do engage in substantial data operations – including the Liberal Party’s use of the i360 app in the recent South Australian election. How well this microtargeting of voters works to sway political views is disputed, but the claims are credible enough to spur demand for these tools.

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Greens leader Richard di Natale told RN Breakfast this morning that political parties “shouldn’t be let off the hook”:

All political parties use databases to engage with voters, but they’re exempt from privacy laws so there’s no transparency about what anybody’s doing. And that’s why it’s really important that we go back, remove those exemptions, ensure that there’s some transparency, and allow people to decide whether they think it’s appropriate.

Why should politicians be exempt from privacy laws?

The exemption for politicians was introduced way back in the Privacy Amendment (Private Sector) Bill 2000. The Attorney-General at the time, Daryl Williams, justified the exemption on the basis that freedom of political communication was vital to Australia’s democratic process. He said the exemption was:

…designed to encourage that freedom and enhance the operation of the electoral and political process in Australia.

Malcolm Crompton, the then Privacy Commissioner, argued against the exemption, stating that political institutions:

…should follow the same practices and principles that are required in the wider community.

Other politicians from outside the two main parties, such as Senator Natasha Stott Despoja in 2006, have tried to remove the exemptions for similar reasons, but failed to gain support from the major parties.

What laws are politicians exempt from?

Privacy Act

The Privacy Act gives you control over the way your personal information is handled, including knowing why your personal information is being collected, how it will be used, and to whom it will be disclosed. It also allows to you to make a complaint (but not take legal action) if you think your personal information has been mishandled.

“Registered political parties” are exempt from the operation of the Privacy Act 1998, and so are the political “acts and practices” of certain entities, including:

  • political representatives — MPs and local government councillors;
  • contractors and subcontractors of registered political parties and political representatives; and
  • volunteers for registered political parties.

This means that if a company like Cambridge Analytica was contracted to a party or MP in Australia, their activities may well be exempt.




Read more:
Is there such a thing as online privacy? 7 essential reads


Spam Act

Under the Spam Act 2003, organisations cannot email you advertisements without your request or consent. They must also include an unsubscribe notice at the end of a spam message, which allows you to opt out of unwanted repeat messaging. However, the Act says that it has no effect on “implied freedom of political communication”.

Do Not Call Register

Even if you have your number listed on the Do Not Call Register, a political party or candidate can authorise a call to you, at home or at work, if one purpose is fundraising. It also permits other uses.

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How do Australian privacy laws fall short?

No right to sue

Citizens can sue for some version of a breach of privacy in the UK, EU, US, Canada and even New Zealand. But there is still no constitutional or legal right that an individual (or class) can enforce over intrusion of privacy in Australia.

After exhaustive consultations in 2008 and 2014, the Australian Law Reform Commission (ALRC) recommended a modest and carefully limited statutory tort – a right to dispute a serious breach of privacy in court. However, both major parties effectively rejected the ALRC recommendation.

No ‘legal standing’ in the US

Legal standing refers to the right to be a party to legal proceedings. As the tech giants that are most adept at gathering and using user data – Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon – are based in the US, Australians generally do not have legal standing to bring action against them if they suspect a privacy violation. EU citizens, by contrast, have the benefit of the Judicial Redress Act 2015 (US) for some potential misuses of cloud-hosted data.

Poor policing of consent agreements

Consent agreements – such as the terms and conditions you agree to when you sign up for a service, such as Gmail or Messenger – waive rights that individuals might otherwise enjoy under privacy laws. In its response to the Cambridge Analytica debacle, Facebook claims that users consented to the use of their data.




Read more:
Consent and ethics in Facebook’s emotional manipulation study


But these broad user consent agreements are not policed strictly enough in Australia. It’s known as “bad consent” when protective features are absent from these agreements. By contrast, a “good consent” agreement should be simple, safe and precautionary by default. That means it should be clear about its terms and give users the ability to enforce them, should not be variable, and should allow users to revoke consent at any time.

New laws introduced by the EU – the General Data Protection Regulation – which come into effect on May 25, are an example of how countries can protect their citizens’ data offshore.

Major parties don’t want change

Privacy Commissioner Tim Pilgrim said today in The Guardian that the political exemption should be reconsidered. In the past, independents and minor party representatives have objected to the exemption, as well as the weakness of Australian privacy laws more generally. In 2001, the High Court said that there should be a right to sue for privacy breach.




Read more:
Why big data may be having a big effect on how our politics plays out


But both Liberal and Labor are often in tacit agreement to do nothing substantial about privacy rights. They have not taken up the debates around the collapse of IT security, nor the increase in abuse of the “consent” model, the dangers of so called “open data”, or the threats from artificial intelligence, Big Data, and metadata retention.

The ConversationOne might speculate that this is because they share a vested interest in making use of voter data for the purpose of campaigning and governing. It’s now time for a new discussion about the rules around privacy and politics in Australia – one in which the privacy interests of individuals are front and centre.

David Vaile, Teacher of cyberspace law, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Dastyari saga shows the need for donations reform, and for politicians to take more care


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Labor’s Sam Dastyari has been sacked from his position as deputy Senate whip for his poor judgement.
AAP/Lukas Coch

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

New South Wales senator Sam Dastyari has been appropriately disciplined by Labor leader Bill Shorten for exercising poor judgement in his interactions with a Chinese businessman who is not an Australian citizen.

Dastyari has been sacked from his position as deputy Senate whip. This is his second demotion in little more than a year after having fallen foul of acceptable standards of political conduct.


Read more: Dastyari demoted again – but government demands he leave parliament


On that first occasion – confirmed by the release this week of a tape recording – Dastyari contradicted his own party’s policy that is critical of China’s activities in the South China Sea.

Compounding his difficulties, he had also accepted a A$5,000 donation from the Chinese businessman mentioned above to meet personal legal obligations.

On this latest occasion, it’s alleged that Dastyari went to the businessman’s house and advised him that conversations between the two needed to be conducted beyond the range of their mobile phones so as to avoid eavesdropping by Australia’s intelligence services.

Dastyari insists that he was not passing on classified information, but the very fact he was alerting a foreign businessman to the possibility of his phone being tapped by the security agencies justifies his sacking.

This was an act of stupidity, if not disloyalty, for an elected representative who claims he has nothing to hide.

The episode also calls Shorten’s management into question. Dastyari should not have been returned to a leadership role so quickly after his first display of poor judgement.

After his earlier demotion he spent just five months on the backbench. He should now remain there for a long time.

Need for clarity

In all of this there is a much bigger issue, and one that requires urgent attention. This is especially so given China’s continued rise, and its persistent efforts to influence politics among its neighbours.

As an important regional player, Australia is far from immune from Chinese “money” politics.

What is required as a matter of urgency is legislation that bans all foreign political donations, along with a separate register of lobbyists who are operating on behalf of foreign entities.

The Dastyari episode should have brought home to the government of the day the need for clear-cut protocols to preclude the possibility of foreign money tainting the political process.

Labor and the Greens have proposed legislation that would ban all foreign political donations. The government is now saying – belatedly – that it will advance legislation in the new year to bring this about. No reasonable argument exists to delay this process.

At the same time, government and opposition should prioritise the establishment of a National Integrity Commission – similar to state-based independent commissions against corruption – to bolster public confidence in the political process, now at a low ebb.

In a research paper, the Parliamentary Library points out that Australia is “one of the few countries where donations from foreign interest political parties or candidates is not prohibited”.

In defining “foreign interests”, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance includes entities that “contribute directly or indirectly [and who] are governments, corporations, organisations or individuals who are not citizens; that do not reside in the country or have a large share of foreign ownership”.

That wording would seem to be a reasonable model for Australian legislation.

Of English-speaking democracies, only New Zealand allows overseas donations to parties, but these are capped at NZ$1,500.

Foreign influence

The Dastyari episode underscores the need for clear-cut rules to prevent those with links to foreign governments from using money to influence the political process.

The Chinese businessman in question, Huang Xiangmo, recently stepped down as chairman of the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China (ACPPRC), a front organisation for the United Work Department of the Chinese State.

The billionaire Huang, whose applications for Australian citizenship have been blocked by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, has deep connections in China’s ruling Communist Party.

None of this should be viewed as surprising, or necessarily cause for alarm, but what should be regarded as completely unacceptable is the use of money by foreign donors to influence policy in the service of a foreign government.

In Huang’s case, he withdrew a $400,000 funding pledge after Labor’s then-defence spokesman Stephen Conroy sharply criticised China’s territorial encroachments in the South China Sea.

What is required is clarity around foreign political donations. Politics and self-interest should not be allowed to stand in the way of reasonable steps to put in place regulations that ban all such donations.

In the Senate today, in several personal explanations, Dastyari insisted that he had not passed classified information to Huang, and that indeed he had never received briefings about relations with China that would have enabled him to do so.

That may well be the case, but perceptions in this case are fairly devastating.

Questions remain, such as:

  • Why did Dastyari need to go to the Chinese businessman’s house in the first place?

  • What did he need to tell Huang out of range of their mobile phones?

  • Who leaked the information about the encounter to Fairfax Media?

  • Was it leaked by a government agency for political purposes?

The point is this story has, potentially, some way to run, and may yet result in unexpected further developments.

What the whole unfortunate episode demonstrates is that public officials need to avoid carelessness in their interactions with anyone who might represent a foreign government. This is especially so in the case of a country whose methods of doing business politically are not aligned with those of Australia.

Finally, in his interactions with Huang, Dastyari may have served his interests better if he had familiarised himself with the example of the former Labor national secretary during the Gough Whitlam era.

David Combe served in the contentious period between 1973 and 1981, during which, it is alleged, he had sought financial assistance from Iraq for Labor’s losing 1975 election campaign. That support did not materialise, but revelations that it had been canvassed at all severely embarrassed Labor.


Read more: What is soft power? Hint: it’s not footing Sam Dastyari’s bills


After he relinquished his role as national secretary, Combe developed a lobbying business and in the process was befriended by a Soviet embassy official in Canberra whom it later emerged was a KGB agent.

In 1983, Prime Minister Bob Hawke expelled the Soviet official. A cloud descended on Combe, who was later found by the Hope royal xommission not to have compromised Australia’s security.

The ConversationHowever, if there is a lesson in the Combe and Dastyari episodes it is that those in positions of public trust cannot be too careful in the company they keep.

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australian Politics: 11 July 2013


Labelled a stunt by many and ignored by Tony Abbott, a proposed political debate between Kevin Rudd and Tony Abbott didn’t happen at the National Press Club today. The debate was proposed by Kevin Rudd, but Tony Abbott wanted nothing to do with it. So instead of a debate, Kevin Rudd delivered an address on the economy. The link below is to an article that reports on the address.

For more visit:
http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/jul/11/kevin-rudd-seven-point-plan


Meanwhile, in Queensland the great politicians pay rise debate has continued with the premier now taking ‘action.’


Then of course there was more Kevin Rudd bashing by all and sundry. This time over a Twitter photo. My take – what’s wrong with Kevin Rudd being human and normal. I think the whiners need to take a long cold shower.

Christians Decry Malaysia’s Detention of Bible Books


After stopping 5,100 Bibles in 2009, authorities withhold 30,000 Malay-language copies.

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia, March 14 (CDN) — The detaining of 30,000 copies of the New Testament, Psalms and Proverbs in the Malay language at Malaysia’s Kuching Port has “greatly disillusioned” the nation’s Christian community.

The books, imported from Indonesia by the local branch of Gideons International for distribution in schools, churches and longhouses in Betong, Saratok and other Christian areas in Sarawak state, have been detained at the Kuching Port since January.

Authorities told an unnamed officer of the importer on Jan. 12 that he could not distribute the books in Sarawak state, on the island of Borneo, since they “contained words which are also found in the Quran,” according to online news agency Malaysiakini. The officer was ordered to transport the books to the Home Ministry’s office for storage.

Last week, when the same officer enquired of the Home Ministry officials on the status of the Malay Bibles, authorities said they had yet to receive instructions on the matter.

This is not the first time government authorities have detained Malay-language Bibles, and Bishop Ng Moon Hing, chairman of Christian Federation of Malaysia, decried the action.

“The CFM is greatly disillusioned, fed-up and angered by the repeated detention of Bibles written in our national language,” Ng said. “It would appear as if the authorities are waging a continuous, surreptitious and systematic program against Christians in Malaysia to deny them access to the Bible in [Malay].”

An earlier consignment of 5,100 copies of the Good News Bible in Malay, imported by the Bible Society of Malaysia, was detained in Port Klang in March 2009. Together with this latest seizure, the total number of Bibles seized and remaining in possession of the Home Ministry amounts to 35,100 copies.

The CFM, representing a majority of Christians in Malaysia, released a statement on March 10 asserting, “All attempts to import the Bible in Bahasa Malaysia [Malay], i.e. the Alkitab, whether through Port Klang or the Port of Kuching, have been thwarted” since March 2009.

Prior to March 2009, there had been several such incidents, and “each time, tedious steps had to be taken to secure their release,” according to the CFM.

A significant 64 percent of Malaysian Christians are indigenous people from Sabah and Sarawak states who use the Malay language in their daily life. Christian leaders say having Bibles in the Malay language is crucial to the practice of their Christian faith.

Christians make up more than 9 percent of Malaysia’s nearly 28 million people, according to Operation World.

This latest Bible book seizure has irked Christians and drawn criticisms from politicians spanning both sides of the political divide.

The Sarawak Ministers Fellowship issued a statement registering its “strong protest,” describing the detention of the books as “unconstitutional” and in violation of the 18-point agreement for Sarawak in the formation of Malaysia.

Representing the opposition political party, People’s Justice Party (Sarawak Parti Keadilan Rakyat) Chief Baru Bian described the withholding as “religious harassment” and “a blatant disregard of our constitutional right as Christians in Malaysia.”

Chua Soi Lek, president of the Malaysian Chinese Association, a political party within the ruling coalition National Front, proposed that Malay Bibles be allowed to be printed locally. The deputy chief minister of Sarawak, Dr. George Chan, expressed the state government’s willingness to publish the Malay Bible locally.

Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein was quoted in The Star newspaper today as saying, “The issue … is being resolved amicably with the parties concerned,” though how this was taking place was not apparent. The home minister has reportedly said the books had been withheld pending an appeal over the use of the word “Allah” in The Herald catholic newspaper.

Secretary-General of Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement Mohamad Raimi Abdul Rahim has called for the government to enforce the ban on use of the word “Allah” by non-Muslims nationwide, including in Sabah and Sarawak.

In a controversial court ruling on Dec. 31, 2009, Judge Lau Bee Lan had allowed The Herald to use the word “Allah” for God in the Malay section of its multilingual newspaper. The Home Ministry filed an appeal against the decision on Jan. 4, 2010, but to date there is no indication as to when the case will be heard.

Report from Compass Direct News

Pakistani Officials Back Muslim Land-Grabbers, Christians Say


Senior district authorities accused of supporting desecration of 150 Christian graves.

LAHORE, Pakistan, March 9 (CDN) — Christians in south Punjab Province are accusing senior district officials of supporting local Muslims who allegedly demolished 150 Christian graves and desecrated holy relics – and are now threatening Christians seeking legal redress.

In the Kot Addu area of Muzaffargarh district, Waseem Shakir told Compass by telephone that an influential Muslim group last Nov. 6 took illegal possession of a 1,210-square yard piece of land designated as a Christian cemetery and set up shops on it. Official records state that the portion of land was allotted as a Christian cemetery, he said.

“Local Muslims demolished 150 Christians’ graves and desecrated the cross and biblical inscriptions on the graves in a bid to construct shops on the property,” said Shakir, a resident of Chak (Village) 518, Peer Jaggi Morr, Kot Addu. “Only five marlas [151.25 square yards] are all that is left for the Christians to bury their dead now.”

Shakir said that all Muzaffargarh area authorities, including the local politicians, were supporting the alleged land-grabbers even as Christians feared a mob attack.

“The situation has come to point where even the local police have warned their higher-ups that the tension could provoke a Gojra-type incident,” he said, adding that Muslim instigators were now openly trying to intimidate him and Boota Masih, who registered a case with police, into dropping the matter.

In Gojra on Aug. 1, 2009, Muslim hordes acting on an unsubstantiated rumor of blasphemy of the Quran – and whipped into a frenzy by local imams and banned terrorist groups – killed at least seven Christians, looted more than 100 houses and set fire to 50 of them. At least 19 people were injured in the melee.

Shakir said Christians had approached police and the district administration to register a case against the Muslims for desecrating their sacred relics and hurting religious sentiments, but authorities have shown little attention to their grievance. Masih registered the complaint on behalf of area Christians, but the station house officer of the Daira Deen Panah Police, Waseem Leghari, altered it to state that Muslims had only occupied a piece of the cemetery land, Shakir said.

“Leghari registered a case against the Muslims under Section 297 of the Pakistan Penal Code [trespass of a place for the dead], which is a bailable offense, despite the fact that a case under the blasphemy law should have been registered against the Muslims for desecrating the Christian holy relics,” Shakir said.

Police took no measures to arrest the 11 named suspects, he added.

“No one seems bothered over the desecration of our cross and biblical inscriptions,” Shakir said.

Section 297 of the penal code states, “Whoever, with the intention of wounding the feelings of any person, or of insulting the religion of any person, or with the knowledge that the feelings of any person are likely to be wounded, or that the religion of any person is likely to be insulted thereby, commits any trespass in any place of worship or on any place of sculpture, or any place set apart for the performance of funeral rites or as a depository for the remains of the dead, or offers any indignity to any human corpse or causes disturbance to any persons assembled for the performance of funeral ceremonies, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.”

Shakir said that, besides the 150 demolished graves, the illegal occupants had thrown garbage on another 50 graves. The police’s indifferent attitude towards the Christian community had been hurtful, he said, and Christians had repeatedly taken up the issue with District Police Officer (DPO) Chaudhry Manzoor and District Coordination Officer Tahir Khurshid.

They did not take the issue seriously, Shakir said.

DPO Manzoor rejected the Christians’ accusations.

“It’s not as serious a case as they are portraying,” he told Compass. “The people who have built shops on the land are not illegal occupants but the real owners.”

He said Christians were furious because the shopkeepers put some of their belongings on the graves.

“No one has desecrated any Christian holy symbol, book or grave,” he said. “Any fears that the issue could lead to another Gojra are baseless.”

Manzoor said the matter would be resolved amicably.

Napolean Qayyum, leader of the Minorities Wing of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), told Compass that open desecration of the Christian symbols and places and the police’s alleged support of the culprits showed the prejudice of the Punjab government towards minority groups.

“An application regarding this incident is lying in the Punjab chief minister’s secretariat, but it seems the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz’s [PML-N] government in Punjab wants another Gojra-like incident to take place in Kot Addu,” he said, adding that it was curious that all major violence against Christians usually takes place when the PML-N is in power in the province.

Qayyum said that he had taken up the matter with the PPP leadership.

“It’s a case of blasphemy, and the culprits should have been rounded up under Section 295-A,” he said. “I have contacted Farahnaz Ispahani, the political adviser to President Asif Zardari, and she has assured me of the federal government’s support in this matter.”

He added that stern action against local police and administrative authorities was necessary to set an example for others.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christians Suspect Cover-Up in Pastor’s Death in Orissa, India


Police refuse to follow leads pointing to murder.

NEW DELHI, January 21 (CDN) — Relatives of a pastor who was found dead in a secluded area in eastern Orissa state’s Kandhamal district last week have accused local police of a cover-up.

The body of Saul Pradhan, a 45-year-old independent pastor whose house was burned by Hindu extremists two years ago, was found near a pond in Pakala village in Kandhamal’s Raikia Block on Jan. 11 and bore marks of assault, Catholic activist Ajay Singh told Compass.

“I spoke to the widow of the pastor, and she told me that the hands and legs of the deceased looked twisted, and there was blood in his mouth. His pants were also torn,” Singh said by phone from Orissa’s capital, Bhubaneswar. “Why should it not arouse suspicion when Pastor Pradhan was last seen with two Hindu men, Marda Pradhan and Baiju Mallick, who were among the rioters who burned houses of Christians in 2008?”

A local activist with the Evangelical Fellowship of India said he visited the site after the body had been removed and saw blood stains on a stone.

Kandhamal witnessed two of India’s deadliest waves of anti-Christian violence in December 2007 and August-September 2008; the latter killed over 100 people, destroyed thousands of homes and displaced more than 60,000 others after a Hindu nationalist leader was killed by Maoists; Hindu nationalist groups blamed it on local Christians.

Christian residents of Kandhamal say the antagonism toward them by those who engaged in the attacks under the influence of extremist Hindu nationalists remains strong.

Singh said that the two Hindu men who burned houses of Christians in 2008, Marda Pradhan and Mallick, came to Pastor Pradhan’s house the evening of Jan. 10 and asked him to come out.

“The pastor’s wife was about to serve dinner and so asked him to wait,” he said. “But he said he wouldn’t take long.”

When the pastor did not return the next day, his wife went to the house of Marda Pradhan with a few villagers. Marda Pradhan’s wife told them her husband had been in the jungle for three days because of a leg injury, Singh said.

That afternoon, the pastor’s wife and the villagers again went to the house of Marda Pradhan, whose wife claimed he was not there. They could see him inside the house, however, and asked him to take them to the spot in the jungle where he had taken Pastor Pradhan the previous night. After walking for around half an hour, Marda Pradhan ran away, Singh said.

“The villagers got suspicious and began to look around,” he said. “That’s when they found the body lying near a pond.”

Some area residents told the villagers that they had heard loud quarreling the previous night.

Police, however, say they have found little reason to suspect foul play.

“There were no injury marks on the body of the man,” Inspector Ravi Narayan Barik told Compass, refuting the claims of the dead man’s family. “The doctor who performed the autopsy said it was just an unnatural death.”

According to police, Pastor Pradhan and two other men got drunk on the night of Jan. 10. The two others were able to return to their homes, Barik said, while the pastor could not and died in the cold.

“Drinking country-made liquor is normal behavior here,” said Barik, of the Raikia police station. “We called one of the two men who was with the deceased for interrogation but did not find anything suspicious.”

An official autopsy report was still awaited at press time.

Asked what sections of the Indian Penal Code or the Criminal Procedure Code were mentioned in the First Information Report or the formal police complaint, the official said, “None.”

“The family is spreading rumors about murder in hope of receiving compensation from the government, as many victims of the 2008 violence got compensated,” the inspector said.

Activist Singh said when the family went to police to report the suspected murder, officers were unwilling to listen.

“The police scolded them,” Singh said. “They said he must have died from the cold. When the family asked for an autopsy, the police asked them to collect the body, take it to the village and bring it to the police station the following day.”

But after the family insisted, the police asked them to bring the body the same day, he said.

“So the family and friends carried the body on a bicycle and brought it to the police station,” Singh said. Asked why police did not go to collect the body, Singh said, “This is how it happens here.”

Singh also said he heard that some local politicians from the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) visited the Raikia police station after the death was reported, though he added that he “could not confirm if that actually happened.”

Until March 2009, the BJP was a ruling party in Orissa in coalition with a regional party, the Biju Janata Dal, for 11 years.

Dr. Sajan George of the Global Council of Indian Christians called for an investigation by the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Press Trust of India (PTI) news agency reported on Monday (Jan. 17).

“The killing of Saul [Pradhan] seemed to be an organized crime by a section of people who had threatened him a few months ago, his family members alleged, adding that his house was also torched during the Kandhamal riots in 2008,” George told PTI.

Report from Compass Direct News

Indonesian Churches Wary of Islamist Offer of ‘Protection’


Following attacks, Islamic Defenders Front’s Christmas gesture rings hollow.

DUBLIN, December 21 (CDN) — In the wake of several attacks on worship services by Indonesia’s notorious Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), several Jakarta area church leaders rejected the FPI’s offer to help protect them over Christmas.

FPI leader Rizieq Shihab made the offer last week, saying he was working in cooperation with the Indonesian Communion of Churches and the Indonesian Bishops Conference. But several churches publicly rejected the offer, with online forums comparing FPI church protection to “foxes protecting a chicken coop.”

Jakarta’s police chief on Friday (Dec. 18) promised protection for every “registered” church in the area, The Jakarta Globe reported. Many Indonesian churches are unregistered, however, since they fail to meet the strict conditions of a Joint Ministerial Decree (SKB) governing places of worship.

The Indonesian public has harshly criticized FPI members for their role in multiple church attacks over the past year and faulted police and politicians for failing to intervene.

The most recent attack occurred last Sunday (Dec. 19), when more than 100 Islamists gathered outside the sealed home of the Rev. Badia Hutagalung of Huria Kristan Batak Protestan (HKBP) church in Rancaekek to disrupt worship services, sources said.

Another attack on Sept. 12 led to the arrest and detention of 13 FPI members, including Murhali Barda, leader of the FPI’s Bekasi branch. During the attack, assailants stabbed and critically wounded church elder Hasian Sihombing and beat the Rev. Luspida Simanjuntak over the head with a wooden beam. (See, “Indonesian Church Leaders Wounded in Attack,” Sept. 15.)

 

‘Christians Should Not Provoke Us’

After making the offer of FPI assistance at the Jakarta police headquarters on Dec. 14, Shihab told The Jakarta Post that “Islam is not allowed to disrupt other religions worship,” but he added the warning that “Christians should not provoke us.”

His offer came just two days after some 300 Islamists from FPI, the Indonesian Ulama Forum and the Islamic Reformist Movement, together with civil service police officers, raided and forcibly closed seven churches in Rancaekek. (See "Islamists Raid House Churches in West Java," Dec. 17.)

Sub-district head Meman Nurjaman on Nov. 16 had sent out a decree ordering 11 churches in Rancaekek to close, citing protests from the local community. Nurjaman later admitted that he had acted under pressure from Muslim hardliners living outside the housing estate, according to a Compass source, who added that Nurjaman had no legal authority to issue the decree.  

During the Dec. 12 raid, Islamists forcibly removed at least 100 worshipers from a residential building used by the HKBP Bethania church and several other churches, and they urged the local government to seal the building immediately because it was not a registered place of worship.

Hutagalung said the congregation only worshipped there because they could not meet the terms of the SKB, which requires proof of at least 90 church members, signatures of approval from at least 60 local residents, and approval from village officials and a local interfaith forum.

The mob also attacked six other house churches in Rancaekek on Dec. 12, forcing five of the seven to close.

A day after the raids, Adj. Sr. Comr. Hendro Pandowo, the Bandung police chief, said Christians in Bandung should refrain from putting themselves in harm’s way.

“If they pray in churches, I will protect them if anybody disturbs them,” he told the The Jakarta Globe. “If they pray in places they are not allowed to, they are breaking rules, so why would I protect them?”

Readers posting comments to the Globe article online said it was almost impossible for congregations to obtain a building permit under existing regulations, leaving them no option but to worship in private homes or empty building sites.

One reader, identified only by the log-in name of Aki-Amani, wrote, “Thank you Chief Hendro for your promise of protection – if we follow your dictates. However, don’t be surprised if we are found anywhere, everywhere … praying as we go about our daily activities at home and in the market place, whether you approve and will protect us or not.”

 

Christmas Security

Jakarta police on Friday (Dec. 18) met with leaders representing 1,600 churches in greater Jakarta to discuss security measures for the Christmas season.

Jakarta Police Chief Insp. Gen. Sutarman, identified only by a single name, said at least 9,000 security personnel would be deployed in and around churches in greater Jakarta as part of a total 87,000 security personnel stationed at houses of worship throughout Indonesia over the Christmas and New Year season, the Globe reported.

Police began providing Christmas security for churches after a series of 38 coordinated church bombings on Dec. 24, 2000, left at least 18 people dead and dozens injured across the nation. The bombings were organized by Jemaah Islamiyah, a local Islamic terrorist group.

“The Jakarta police guarantee that celebrations will be conducted peacefully across all churches registered with us in the city,” Sutarman reportedly said.

What that implies for unregistered churches remains to be seen.

Spokesmen from two unregistered churches told the Globe they would meet this Christmas despite explicit threats from the FPI to ransack “controversial” Christmas celebrations.

The congregation of HKBP Filadelfia in Bekasi will meet in a tent on the street next to their sealed church, despite the risk of further aggression or physical harm from the FPI, sources said.

Members of Gereja Kristen Indonesia Yasmin in Bogor, however, reportedly said they will break open the seals on their partially-constructed church, closed in September due to pressure from the FPI and other hard-line groups despite having a legal permit.

“We want to celebrate religious freedom in our church,” spokesman Bona Sigalingging told reporters, adding that police would not be asked to provide security.

Report from Compass Direct News

Links between Murders in Turkey and ‘Masterminds’ Expected


Witnesses previously barred will be allowed to testify.

ISTANBUL, December 20 (CDN) — Attorneys prosecuting the murder of three Christians in southeastern Turkey are making progress linking the knifemen who slayed them to the masterminds who put them up to it, an attorney representing the family of one of the victims said Friday (Dec.17).

Two witnesses, Veysel Şahin and Ercan Gelni – whose testimony the court previously blocked – will be allowed to testify about the plans behind the killings in Malatya. The judge changed his previous ruling blocking their testimonies because of new evidence that recently became available.

The court will also protect a witness whose testimony would have possibly put him in danger. The latest court hearing was on Dec. 3.

On April 18, 2007, two Turkish Christians, Necati Aydin and Ugur Yuksel, and German Christian Tilmann Geske, were bound, tortured and then murdered at the office of Zirve Publishing Co., a Christian publishing house in Malatya.

The suspects, Salih Guler, Cuma Ozdemir, Hamit Ceker, and Abuzer Yildirim were arrested while trying to escape the scene of the crime, as was alleged ringleader Emre Gunaydin.

 

Establishing Links

Prosecutors have contended that the killings were related to a larger conspiracy by the military and nationalists to destabilize the government by targeting minorities in Turkish society.

“The people responsible are not just confined to the young men caught at the crime scene,” said Orhan Cengiz, one of the attorneys representing the interests of the victim’s families in the case. “Everybody knows the youngsters have connections [to the nationalists].”

The new decision shows the court’s “willingness” to look into possible links between the killers and the gendarmerie, a special police force in Turkey that deals with internal security issues and is allegedly a key player in the destabilization plot, Cengiz said.

Suzanne Geske, widow of Tilmann Geske, said she wants the Malatya murder trial linked with the trial over the Cage Operation Action Plan, believed to be part of the Ergenekon “deep state” operation to destabilize the government.

“I want the Zirve Publishing House killings to be merged with the case into the Cage Operation Action Plan,” Geske told Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman. “I do not believe that those young men could have carried out the murders on their own. Some de facto links are evident. There are other influences behind these murders.”

Ergenekon is an alleged “deep state” operation referring to a group of retired generals, politicians and other key figures thought by some to be the true power brokers in Turkey.

The Cage Plan centers on a compact disc found a year ago in the house of a retired naval officer. The plan, to be carried out by 41 naval officers, termed as “operations” the Malatya killings, the 2006 assassination of Catholic priest Andrea Santoro and the 2007 slaying of Hrant Dink, Armenian editor-in-chief of the weekly Agos.

Newspapers have reported that the Cage Plan, aimed at Turkey’s non-Muslim minorities, not only contained a list of names of Protestant Christians who would be targeted, but also named some of their children.

“I believe that there is an ulterior motive behind the killings,” Geske reportedly said. “This may be linked to Ergenekon or another criminal group. I believe that the young men who carried out the murders were directed by criminal elements. I want those criminal elements to be exposed. Otherwise, the lives of those young men will be wasted while the real criminals will go unpunished.”

The next Malatya hearing is scheduled for Jan. 20.

Report from Compass Direct News

Iraqis Mourn Victims of Massive Attack on Church


Islamic extremist assault, security force operation leave at least 58 dead.

ISTANBUL, November 2 (CDN) — Amid questions about lax security, mourners gathered in Iraq today to bury the victims of Sunday’s (Oct. 31) Islamic extremist assault on a Syrian Catholic Church in Baghdad, one of the bloodiest attacks on the country’s dwindling Christian community.

Seven or eight Islamic militants stormed into Our Lady of Salvation church during evening mass after detonating bombs in the neighborhood, gunning down two policemen at the stock exchange across the street, and blowing up their own car, according to The Associated Press (AP). More than 100 people were reportedly attending mass.

A militant organization called the Islamic State of Iraq, which has links to al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, claimed responsibility for the attack. The militants sprayed the sanctuary with bullets and ordered a priest to call the Vatican to demand the release of Muslim women whom they claimed were held hostage by the Coptic Church in Egypt, according to the AP. The militants also reportedly demanded the release of al Qaeda prisoners.

“It appears to be a well-planned and strategic attack aiming at the church,” said a local source for ministry organization Open Doors.

About four hours after the siege, Iraqi security forces launched an assault on the church building, and the Islamic assailants blew themselves up. It was unclear how many of the 58 people dead had been killed by Iraqi security personnel, but the militants reportedly began killing hostages when the security force assault began. All who did not die from gunshots and blasts were wounded.

The dead included 12 policemen, three priests and five bystanders from the car bombing and other blasts outside the church. The Open Doors source reported that the priests killed were the Rev. Saad Abdal Tha’ir, the Rev. Waseem Tabeeh and the Rev. Raphael Qatin, with the latter not succumbing until he had been taken to a hospital.

Bishop Georges Casmoussa told Compass that today Iraqi Christians not only mourned lost brothers and sisters but were tempted to lose hope.

“It’s a personal loss and a Christian loss,” said Casmoussa. “It’s not just people they kill. They also kill hope. We want to look at the future. They want to kill the Christian presence here, where we have so much history.”

Casmoussa, who knew the priests who died, said that this attack will surely drive more Christians away from the country or to Kurdish administrated northern Iraq.

“Those who are wounded know that it is by the grace of God they are alive, but some of them don’t know exactly what happened,” said Casmoussa. “There is one hurt man who doesn’t know if his son is still alive. This is the drama. There are families that lost two and three members. Do I have the right to tell them to not leave?”

The attack was the deadliest one against the country’s Christians since Islamic extremists began targeting them in 2003.

“It was the hardest hit against the Christians in Iraq,” said Casmoussa, noting that no single act of violence had led to more casualties among Christians. “We never had such an attack against a church or Christian community.”

Memorials were held today in Baghdad, Mosul and surrounding towns, said Casmoussa, who attended the funeral of 13 deceased Christians including the dead priests.

“At the funeral there was the Shiite leader, the official spokesperson of the government ministers,” Casmoussa said. “All the discussion was flippant – ‘We are with you, we are all suffering,’ etcetera, but we have demanded a serious investigation. We can’t count on good words anymore. It’s all air. We’ve heard enough.”

The Rev. Emanuel Youkhana of the Church of the East told Compass that Iraqi Christians have been systematically driven out over the last five years. He said this attack came as no surprise to him.

“I’m not surprised, in that this is not the first time,” said Youkhana. “In the last five years, there has been a systematic terrorist campaign to kick out the Christians from the country. [They are saying] you are not accepted in this country. Christians should leave this country.”

Youkhana said that in the same way that the Jewish community has disappeared from Iraq, the Iraqi Christians, or Medians as they are called, “are in their last stage of existence” in Iraq.

The Iraqi government is to blame due to its lax security measures, Youkhana said.

“I’m ashamed of the minister of defense, who came on TV and said it was a successful and professional operation – 50 percent of the [congregation] was massacred,” said Youkhana of the assault on the Islamic terrorists by Iraqi security forces.

He said that in order for Christians to have any hope of staying in Iraq, the government must come up with a political solution and set up an independent administrative area, like that of the Kurdish administration in northern Iraq.

“Just now I was watching on TV the coverage of the funeral,” Youkhana said. “All the politicians are there to condemn the act. So what? Is the condemnation enough to give confidence to the people? No!”

It is estimated that more than 50 percent of Iraq’s Christian community has fled the country since 2003. There are nearly 600,000 Christians left in Iraq.

“More people will leave, and this is the intention of the terrorists: to claim Iraq as a pure Islamic state,” said Youkhana. “Our people are so peaceful and weak; they cannot confront the terrorists. So they are fleeing out of the country and to the north. This is why we say there should be political recognition.”

Five suspects were arrested in connection with the attack – some of them were not Iraqi, and today an Iraqi police commander was detained for questioning in connection to the attack, according to the AP.

“We can’t make political demands,” said Casmoussa. “We are making a civic and humanitarian demand: That we can live in peace.”

Following the funerals today, a series of at least 13 bombings and mortar strikes in predominantly Shiite neighborhoods of Baghdad reportedly killed 76 people and wounded nearly 200.

Report from Compass Direct News

Christians in Turkey Acquitted of ‘Insulting Turkishness’


But court heavily fines them for dubious conviction of collecting personal data.

ISTANBUL, October 19 (CDN) — After four years of legal battle in a Turkish court, a judge acquitted two Christians of insulting Turkey and its people by spreading Christianity, but not without slapping them with a hefty fine for a spurious charge.

Four years ago this month, Turan Topal, 50, and Hakan Tastan, 41, started a legal battle after gendarmerie officers produced false witnesses to accuse them of spreading their faith and allegedly “insulting Turkishness, the military and Islam.”

At the Silivri court an hour west of Istanbul, Judge Hayrettin Sevim on Thursday (Oct. 14) acquitted the defendants of two charges that they had insulted the Turkish state (Article 301) and that they had insulted its people (Article 216) by spreading Christianity. Sevim cited lack of evidence.

He found them guilty, however, of collecting information on citizens without permission (Article 135) and sentenced them to seven months of imprisonment each. The court ruled that the two men could each pay a 4,500 lira (US$3,170) fine instead of serving time, said their lawyer Haydar Polat.

Tastan expressed mixed feelings about the verdicts.

“For both Turan and I, being found innocent from the accusation that we insulted the Turkish people was the most important thing for us, because we’ve always said we’re proud to be Turks,” Tastan said by telephone. “But it is unjust that they are sentencing us for collecting people’s information.”

At the time of their arrests, Topal and Tastan were volunteers with The Bible Research Center, which has since acquired official association status and is now called The Association for Propagating Knowledge of the Bible. The two men had used contact information that individuals interested in Christianity had volunteered to provide on the association’s website.

Administrators of the association stated openly to local authorities that their goal was to disseminate information about Christianity.

The two men and their lawyer said they will be ready to appeal the unjust decision of the court when they have seen the official statement, which the court should issue within a month. Polat said the appeal process will take over a year.

“Why should we have to continue the legal battle and appeal this?” asked Tastan. “We are not responsible for the information that was collected. So why are they fining us for this? So, we continue our legal adventure.”

Still, he expressed qualified happiness.

“We are free from the charges that we have insulted the Turkish state and the people of Turkey and we’re glad for that, but we are sorry about the court’s sentence,” Tastan said. “We’re happy on one hand, and sorry on the other.”

The court hearing lasted just a few minutes, said Polat.

“The judges came to the court hearing ready with their decision,” Polat said. “Their file was complete, and there was neither other evidence nor witnesses.”

Polat was hesitant to comment on whether the decision to convict the men of collecting private data without permission was because they are Christians. He did underline, however, that the court’s decision to fine the men was unjust, and that they plan to appeal it after the court issues an official written verdict.

“This was the court’s decision,” said Polat, “but we believe this is not fair. This decision is inconsistent with the law.”

 

Christianity on Trial

The initial charges in 2006 against Tastan and Topal were based on “a warning telephone call to the gendarme” claiming that some Christian missionaries were trying to form illegal groups in local schools and making insults against Turkishness, the military and Islam.

In March 2009 the Turkish Ministry of Justice issued a statement claiming that approval to try the two men’s case under the controversial Article 301came in response to the “original” statement by three young men that Topal and Tastan were conducting missionary activities in an effort to show that Islam was a primitive and fictitious religion that results in terrorism, and to portray Turks as a “cursed people.”

Two of the three witnesses, however, stated in court that they didn’t even know Topal and Tastan. The third witness never appeared in court. Prosecutors were unable to produce any evidence indicating the defendants described Islam in these terms. At the same time, they questioned their right to speak openly about Christianity with others.

Polat and his legal partners had based their defense on the premise that Turkey’s constitution grants all citizens freedom to choose, be educated in and communicate their religion, making missionary activities legal.

“This is the point that really needs to be understood,” Polat told Compass last year. “In Turkey, constitutionally speaking, it is not a crime to be a Christian or to disseminate the Christian faith. However, in reality there have been problems.”

The lawyer and the defendants said that prosecuting lawyers gave political dimensions to the case by rendering baseless accusations in a nationalistic light, claiming that missionary activities were carried out by imperialistic countries intending to harm Turkey.

Tastan and Topal became Christians more than 15 years ago and changed their religious identity from Muslim to Christian on their official ID cards.

Initially accompanied by heavy media hype, the case had been led by ultranationalist attorney Kemal Kerincsiz and a team of six other lawyers. Kerincsiz had filed or inspired dozens of Article 301 court cases against writers and intellectuals he accused of insulting the Turkish nation and Islam.

Because of Kerincsiz’s high-level national profile, the first few hearings drew several hundred young nationalist protestors surrounding the Silivri courthouse, under the eye of dozens of armed police. But the case has attracted almost no press attention since Kerincsiz was jailed in January 2008 as a suspect in the overarching conspiracy trials over Ergenekon, a “deep state” operation to destabilize the government led by a cabal of retired generals, politicians and other key figures. The lawyer is accused of an active role in the alleged Ergenekon plot to discredit and overthrow Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party government.

Ergenekon has been implicated in the cases of murdered priest Andreas Santoro, Armenian editor Hrant Dink, and the three Christians in Malatya: Necati Aydin, Ugur Yuksel and Tilmann Geske.

In a separate case, in March of 2009 Tastan and Topal were charged with “illegal collection of funds.” Each paid a fine of 600 Turkish lira (US$360) to a civil court in Istanbul. The verdict could not be appealed in the Turkish legal courts. This ruling referred to the men receiving church offerings without official permission from local authorities.

Report from Compass Direct News