One million protest abortion liberalisation in Madrid

AFP – More than one million people took to the streets of Madrid Saturday to condemn plans by the socialist government to liberalise the abortion laws in the overwhelmingly Catholic country, organisers said.

In a fiesta atmosphere and under warm sunshine, the crowd marched across the city behind a banner reading “Every Life Matters” to protest the plan, which would allow women 16 and over to undergo abortions without their parents’ consent.

They gathered in the central Plaza de Independencia, where 300 white helium balloons were released.

“The presence of each of you here today in this demonstration is a commitment to the fight for life,” Benigno Blanco, the head of the Forum for the Family, one of the chief organisers, told the crowd.

“Those of you who govern us must listen to the voice from the streets,” he said.

A spokesman for another of organisers, HazteOir (Make Yourself Heard), said 1.5 million people attended the march and rally, while the Madrid regional government estimated the crowd at 1.2 million.

Organisers said 600 buses and several planes were used to bring the supporters of 42 Spanish anti-abortion and Catholic associations to the capital for the protest, which is also backed by the conservative opposition Popular Party and the Roman Catholic Church.

The protesters, including former PP prime minister Jose Maria Aznar, carried red and white banners or flags saying “For Life, Women and Motherhood” and “Women Against Abortion” and “Madrid 2009, Capital of Life.”

“This new law is a barbarity. In this country, they protect animals more than human beings,” said Jose Carlos Felicidad, 67, a retired naval technician who came to capital from the southern town of Algeciras with his wife and three grown-up children.

“The government takes no notice of public opinion,” said Alberto, a 17-year-old student who came to Madrid for the rally by bus from the northern city of Santander. “It must justify laws that are against human life.”

The proposed abortion law, approved by the cabinet last month, would allow the procedure on demand for women of 16 and over up to the 14th week of pregnancy, and up to 22 weeks if there was a risk to the mother’s health or if the foetus was deformed.

Women could also undergo the procedure after 22 weeks if the foetus had a serious or incurable illness.

The existing law introduced in 1985, a decade after the death of right-wing dictator Francisco Franco, only allows abortion under more limited conditions.

The proposed new legislation, which is based on laws in place in most other EU countries, is to be debated in parliament in November.

An opinion poll published in ABC Friday said 42 percent of Spaniards believed there was no overwhelming popular support for the reforms, compared to 38 percent who believed there was.

A poll released earlier this month in the centrist Catalan newspaper La Vanguardia said a narrow majority of Spaniards opposed the reforms.

Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has defended the reforms, saying the state should not “intervene in the free and private decision of a woman, who is the one who has to take on the responsibility of a pregnancy during her entire life.”

Zapatero has passed a series of sweeping liberal social reforms since coming to power in 2004 that have angered the Roman Catholic Church, including measures to legalise gay marriage, allow for fast-track divorces and give increased rights to transsexuals.

HazteOir also said abortion opponents also planned demonstrations Saturday in front of Spanish embassies in other countries, including Italy, France, Poland, Ireland, the United States, Nigeria and in several Latin American nations.

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Three sentenced to death over election protests

AFP – Three people arrested after Iran’s disputed presidential election have been condemned to death despite a global outcry over trials of people who claimed Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s re-election was rigged.

“Three people who were accused (for their role) in the post-election incidents have been sentenced to death,” said Zahed Bashiri Rad, media officer at the justice ministry, quoted by ISNA news agency on Saturday.

Bashiri Rad, giving only the initials of the convicts said that “MZ and AP were convicted for ties with the Kingdom Assembly of Iran and NA for ties with the Monafeghin (exiled opposition group commonly known as the People’s Mujahedeen).”

Massive street protests broke out in Iran following Ahmadinejad’s re-election.


About 4,000 people were initially arrested and 140, including senior reformers and journalists, have been put on trial on charges of seeking a “soft” overthrow of the regime and inciting protests.

On Thursday, a reformist website reported that a member of a group seeking to restore Iran’s monarchy has been sentenced to death for his involvement in the unrest, identifying him as Mohammad Reza Ali Zamani.

Judiciary officials were not available to confirm if he was the “MZ” mentioned by ISNA on Saturday.

On Friday, Amnesty International urged Tehran to lift the death sentence on Zamani. A member of the Kingdom Assembly of Iran, he was among scores of arrested people in the post-vote mass demonstrations, it said.

Amnesty condemned such “show trials” as a “mockery of justice”.

Bashiri Rad said the death sentences were “not final and they can still be appealed to the supreme court.”

Under Iranian law, convicts may appeal their sentences, which must be upheld by both the appeals court and the supreme court before they are carried out.

Bashiri Rad also said some other defendants received their sentences and they have appealed, but did not give the details of the verdicts.

“Appeals of 18 of defendants that have been convicted over the recent riots will soon be sent to the Tehran appeals court,” Bashiri Rad said.

Tehran prosecutors have denied a report that 20 people, among them prominent reformists, including Iranian-American scholar Kian Tajbakhsh and reformist politicians Mohammed Ali Abtahi, Mohammad Atrianfar, Shahab Tabatabaei, Saeed Shariati and Abdollah Momeni will soon be freed on bail.

Bashiri Rad did not specify if among the 18 convicts there were any prominent reformists.

West African bloc names Guinea ‘facilitator’

AFP – The Economic Community Of West African States has named Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaore as “facilitator” to ease tensions in Guinea after junta troops there massacred opposition demonstrators.

“We came to see the president (Compaore) with a message from (Nigerian) President Umaru Yar’Adua, current ECOWAS chairman, who named President Compaore as facilitator in the Guinean crisis,” ECOWAS president Mohamed Ibn Chambas told journalists.

Guinea has been in turmoil since Monday, when troops of Captain Moussa Dadis Camara’s military junta opened fire on opposition demonstrators, killing 56 according to the junta and more than 150 according to the United Nations and a Guinean human rights organisation.

ECOWAS wants Compaore to “work on the Guinean file, see how he can help find ways to lower tensions, re-energise the transitional process in Guinea, resume dialogue between the authorities and (the opposition) and also see how we can move towards credible and transparent elections in Guinea,” Chambas said.

The United Nations, European Union and African Union have already condemned the massacre in a Conakry stadium, while former colonial power France has withdrawn military cooperation and said it is considering other forms of cooperation.

Compaore, in power since 22 years, has previously mediated crises in Ivory Coast and Togo.

Opposition rejects junta call for unity government

Guinean opposition leaders rejected on Thursday the ruling junta’s offer of a national unity government and called for foreign intervention to prevent more bloodshed after the killing of protesters on Monday.

Junta chief Captain Moussa Dadis Camara, facing the threat of international sanctions after security forces killed scores of anti-government protesters, wants to ease tensions in the world’s biggest exporter of the aluminium ore bauxite.

But Camara gave a new indication in a radio interview that he planned to stay in power, and opponents greeted his proposal of a unity government with scepticism.

“This does not interest me in the slightest,” Sidya Toure, an ex-prime minister and leader of the opposition Union of Republic Forces (UFR), said of Camara’s offer late on Wednesday.

“At the moment we are more interested in burying our dead,” he said of killings which a local human rights group said claimed at least 157 lives. Hundreds were injured.

An umbrella group of Guinean opposition parties, Le Forum des Forces Vives de Guinea, said on Thursday it was calling on the African Union and ECOWAS, a regional West African grouping, to send peacekeepers to protect the public from a military “that the head of the junta admits he can’t control.”

Earlier Mouctar Diallo of the New Forces of Democracy party dismissed Camara’s proposal as a “diversion”.

“Moussa Dadis Camara is no longer credible to lead a transition (to democracy),” Diallo told reporters. “He has massacred his own people, and he has lost all credibility. We are not interested in this type of proposal.”

Camara’s National Council for Democracy and Development (CNDD), which seized power in a bloodless coup last December, called for an African leader to be appointed mediator in talks on a unity government.

It also proposed U.N.-backed investigations into Monday’s violence, which Camara has blamed on uncontrolled army elements, and into a February 2007 crackdown on opponents of late President Lansana Conte in which more than 180 died.

COUNTER-COUP?

Camara stepped into the power vacuum that opened after Conte died, promising to allow a transition to civilian rule in an election now set for Jan. 31. But in the latest of several recent hints that he now intended to remain in power, Camara said on Tuesday there might be a new coup if he stood down.

“The army have taken me hostage. They tell me ‘if you step down then we’ll take over’,” he told French RFI radio.

Monday’s violence, the worst since the CNDD came to power, drew broad international condemnation. Former colonial power France said it had cut military cooperation with Guinea and would discuss further measures with European partners.

The African Union has given Camara until mid-October to confirm he will stay out of presidential elections on Jan. 31, and threatened to impose sanctions if he misses the deadline.

“There is too much at stake for the international actors to allow Guinea to enter a downward spiral like Guinea Bissau,” Yale anthropologist and West Africa specialist Mike McGovern said of Guinea’s tiny neighbour, a narcotics hub for Europe characterised by some analysts as close to being a failed state.

“If Guinea goes down, it puts the rest of the region at risk,” McGovern said of its strategic position surrounded by fragile states such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast.

Despite the unity call, Camara has taken a tough line on opponents since the violence, banning all “subversive” meetings and threatening to punish any opposition troublemakers.

Senior opposition figure Cellou Dalein Diallo, who suffered five broken ribs in Monday’s violence, was prevented by the junta from leaving the country late on Wednesday to receive medical treatment in France, an aide told Reuters.

Protests grow in favour of Zelaya

Protests mounted here Saturday, as thousands of supporters of deposed President Manuel Zelaya took to the streets 90 days after his ouster and hopes faded for a way out of a tense standoff in the nation’s capital.

After thousands marched to the Brazilian embassy where Zelaya has been holed up since Monday, hundreds more took part in a vehicle protest, hanging out car windows, honking horns and waving Honduran flags as they drove through a main axis of the capital, Tegucigalpa.

A top diplomat leaving the Brazilian embassy denounced the state of “siege,” with troops lined up around the compound.

“It’s the only place in the world where there’s an embassy under siege,” said Francisco Catunda, the Brazilian charge d’affaires, as he left the building for the first time since Zelaya appeared there at the start of the week.

“You can’t imagine how many papers, checks and negotiations I had to undergo so that I, the charge d’affaires of Brazil, could leave,” Catunda told reporters indignantly.

Most people inside the embassy were in good health, Catunda said, adding that one Brazilian diplomat told him he had smelled gas the previous day, after Zelaya accused the army of trying to poison him and some 60 people still inside the compound by pumping noxious gases into the building — a charge roundly denied by Honduran officials.

The UN Security Council on Friday warned the de facto authorities not to harass the embassy.

Demonstrators have come daily to the embassy compound, which is surrounded by anti-riot police and soldiers, to show their support for the embattled head of state.

“Thanks, Brazil, for protecting Mel from this vile regime,” one banner read, using the popular nickname given to Zelaya.

Many said that Zelaya’s surprise return to the country on Monday — nearly three months after he was ousted in a dispute over his plans to change the constitution — had strengthened his support.

“The coup leaders have more pressure to negotiate” now, union leader Juan Barahona told AFP.

European Union countries however decided to send back their envoys who were withdrawn after the coup, the Swedish EU presidency said Saturday.

It added that the return of the ambassadors of France, Germany, Italy and Spain would in no way imply recognition of the country’s de facto government.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said Friday that Zelaya “could stay as long as necessary for his safety” in the Brazilian embassy.

The de facto leaders have insisted the compound will not be taken by force and denied they were responsible for initial power and water cuts.

A daytime curfew was lifted Thursday and airports reopened, allowing businesses to resume and providing relief to an increasingly frustrated public. A nighttime curfew remained in place.

Initial hopes after tentative offers for dialogue by both Zelaya and de facto leader Roberto Micheletti have quickly faded, and on Saturday, at a meeting of African and South American leaders taking place on Venezuela’s Isla Margarita, Brazil’s president cautioned against “backsliding” on democracy in Honduras and throughout Latin America.

“We fought hard to sweep military dictatorships into the trash can of history, we can not allow these kind of setbacks in our continent,” he said.

“This is an important issue for us South Americans at the dawn of a century shaped by democracy and multilateralism,” he told the gathering of leaders from 60 Latin American and African nations.

The United Nations on Wednesday froze its technical support for presidential polls scheduled for November, which appeared increasingly challenging to organize. Zelaya’s term ends in January.

A police spokesman told AFP Wednesday that two people had been killed in pro-Zelaya protests since the start of the week, and rights groups have voiced concern about clampdowns on demonstrators and local media.

Hitmen on a motorcycle shot dead a mayoral candidate from a small centrist party in the Honduran capital Saturday, a police spokesman told AFP. The police ruled out a link with the country’s political unrest.

Zelaya, a rancher who veered to the left after his election and alliance with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, was ousted from power in a military-backed coup in June.

Pro-Zelaya protester killed in clash

A man was shot dead in a clash between police and supporters of ousted Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, as international pressure mounted on the de facto government to allow the leftist back in power.

It was the first reported death in political violence since Zelaya, who was forced into exile by a June 28 coup, slipped back into Honduras this week and sought refuge in the Brazilian embassy.

The man, a Zelaya supporter aged 65, was killed in the poor Flor del Campo district of the capital  on Tuesday night, a source at the coroner’s office said. Five other pro-Zelaya protesters were shot and wounded in another part of the city, a doctor at the Escuela hospital said.

Zelaya snuck back into Honduras on Monday, ending almost three months of exile after he was toppled in the coup and bringing the world’s attention to his cause again.

Hundreds of soldiers and riot police, some in ski masks and toting automatic weapons, have surrounded the Brazilian embassy where Zelaya is sheltering with his family and a group of about 40 supporters.

Brazil and Venezuela called at the United Nations for Zelaya, a former rancher and timber magnate who took office in 2006, to be returned to power.

Troops and police, some firing tear gas, cleared away pro-Zelaya demonstrators from around the embassy on Tuesday and security forces’ helicopters flew over the building throughout the night. Witnesses said soldiers blasted loud noise from speakers toward the embassy to try to keep Zelaya and his backers inside awake.

The government that has ruled Honduras since Zelaya’s overthrow relaxed a curfew that had been in effect day and night since Monday.

Large lines formed at stores in the capital as residents stocked up on water and basic foods. State-run television broadcast frequent messages from the de facto government warning that Zelaya would be responsible for any violent acts.

“We ask the whole population to maintain calm and keep order and peace throughout the country,” it said in a communique read out with the blue and white Honduran flag waving in the background.

Honduras is a major coffee producer but output has not been affected by the crisis.

“5 to 10 years”

De facto leader Roberto Micheletti said Zelaya could stay in the embassy “for 5 to 10 years” if he wanted, hinting that the pro-coup administration is getting ready for a long standoff. Electricity and water was briefly cut to the embassy on Tuesday but food was sent in, witnesses said.

The United States, the European Union and the Organization of American States have urged dialogue to bring Zelaya back to office in the Central American country.

The Honduras crisis has been U.S. President Barack Obama’s most serious challenge so far in Latin America and he has been criticized by regional governments for not taking a tough enough stance to reverse the coup despite cutting some aid.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva called at the U.N. General Assembly in New York for Zelaya to be reinstated.

“The international community demands that Mr. Zelaya immediately return to the presidency of his country and must be alert to ensure the inviolability of Brazil’s diplomatic mission in the capital of Honduras,” Lula said, drawing applause from the hall.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, a socialist ally of Zelaya, told reporters in New York that the United Nations should demand Zelaya be put back in power.

A U.S. official said the de facto government in Honduras signaled it was willing to allow a visit by an Organization of American States mission to try to resolve the crisis, but the pro-coup rulers have insisted they will not allow Zelaya back to power.

“Zelaya will never return to be president of this country,” Micheletti said in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday.

The leaders of the coup, backed by the country’s military, Supreme Court and Congress, insist Zelaya must face trial for violating the constitution, and have said Brazil must turn him over to Honduran authorities or give him political asylum outside the country.

“I’m really worried about the situation because it doesn’t seem like they are resolving anything through dialogue. Instead there is just disorder and chaos,” said 32-year-old Tegucigalpa resident Karen Agustia.

Soldiers toppled Zelaya at gunpoint and sent him into exile in his pajamas after the Supreme Court ordered his arrest, saying he had broken the law by pushing for constitutional reforms that critics say were an attempt to change presidential term limits and extend his rule. Zelaya denies the allegations.