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Hilary Clinton’s trip to Latin America this week has ended in disappointment after Brazil’s president, Lula da Silva, rejected U.S. pleas to support tougher sanctions on Iran. This firm stance in the face of Western pressure is not simply meant to be a slap in the face to U.S. diplomacy. Rather, it symbolizes a geopolitical power shift where an increasingly important Brazil seeks a central space for itself on the world stage – as a superpower with an equal status to other global giants.

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Since the Christmas Day plot in Detroit, there has been a strong focus on Al Qaeda activities in Yemen. Reports of safe havens and training camps have led many to believe that Al Qaeda members, hounded out of Afghanistan and much of Pakistan, have sought refuge in an ungoverned area of the Middle Eastern nation, using the name Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Essential though this focus may be, the global nature of the fight means that concentrating efforts in one place means neglecting enemy forces gathered in another. This is exactly the case with another branch of Al Qaeda in North Africa – one which has gone largely unnoticed and whose increased capacity to attack presents a real threat to security in Europe and the U.S.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb emerged in the early nineties, and was originally called the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). The group was formed as an angry response to the Algerian government’s cancellation of the 1992 elections that would have handed victory to a coalition of Islamic moderates and militants. GSPC operated in a largely ungoverned area of the Sahara desert, along Algeria’s southern and Mali’s northern border, and launched attacks on Algerian government employees and institutions. The group then began to receive funding and training from Al Qaeda towards the end of the decade, and the alliance was made official in 2006 when Al Qaeda’s no. 2, Ayman al-Zawahri, announced the “blessed union” in a video published on the fifth anniversary of 9/11. Since then, the group has been known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and has claimed responsibility for its actions under its new name.

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It was a quintessentially cold night in Moscow when Anna Politkovskaya arrived back at her flat with her shopping on October 7, 2006. As she took the elevator down for the last bag of groceries, she was confronted by a gunman who shot her twice in the chest and once in the head. She died instantly. Ms. Politkovskaya’s murder sparked worldwide outrage because she was a prominent journalist and an outspoken critic of Vladmir Putin, the Russian government and its polices in Chechynya. Her death has come to personify the long, lamentable list of journalists killed in Russia, whose murders remain unsolved.

It is estimated that over 300 journalists have died or disappeared in Russia since 1993 as a result of their work.  This figure is all the more shocking when we consider that the impune murder of journalists is acknowledged as a sign that a country does not observe the fundamental right to freedom of speech and is the reason that Russia is ranked by the CPJ (Committee to Protect Journalists) as the third-deadliest country in the world for journalists. Despite the fact that current Russian President Dimitri Medvedev came to power last year promising to end the legal nihilism that peremeates the country’s judicial system, the Russian government’s unwillingness to prosecute many of the cases has persisted. While justice lags, the murders continue unabated, as demonstrated by the murder this year of Stanislav Markelov, and Natalia Estemriova.

The international community has reacted in typically futile fashion. The EU keeps its mouth closed for fear that Russian criticism will adversely affect its gas supply, something Ukraine experienced last winter. Meanwhile, the Obama adminstration is eager to reset relations with Russia and is therefore reluctant to make demands, given that it needs Russia’s cooperation on Iran and nuclear proliferation. On a trip to Russia last month, U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was pushed by Russian journalists to make a statement on the Russian Government’s refusal to comprehensively investigate the murders of their colleagues. Clinton responded by commenting that the situation “is a matter of grave concern”.

Yet it is clear that merely paying lip service to human rights groups will not be enough to end this wanton wave of violence. It is high time that the U.S. and the E.U. pressurized Russia into taking action on this matter. Medvedev, Putin and co. must realize that while they may not be pulling the trigger, they are ultimately responsible for the failures of the justice system. Although the days of Gulags and communist repression are long gone in Russia, blood remains on the hands of those in the Kremlin.

Michael Collins, November 2009


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