Zooming In

November 26, 2008

Lashing Out at the Saudis

Gelf highlights overlooked coverage from local media around the world. In this edition: Weed wars in the Netherlands, England unearths asylum records, and China trades pandas for peace with Taiwan.

Joe Horton

Some of the most insightful writing from outside the US comes from local media. In this occasional feature, Gelf identifies noteworthy stories that haven't gotten much attention outside local borders.

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia

Middle East Times reporter Joseph Mayton details the 1,500-lash sentence doled out to an Egyptian doctor for allegedly addicting his patient, a Saudi princess, to painkillers.

Rule number one of the Saudi judicial system: be careful if you appeal. The Saudi appeals court judge doubled Raouf Amin’s original sentence—a mere 750 lashes and 7 years in jail—after the doctor asked the courts to reconsider his conviction. Now, after his lashings are completed, he’ll spend 14 years in prison.

Egyptian human rights groups, organized groups of protesters, and a doctors’ syndicate in Cairo have decried both the original conviction and the stunning appeals decision, noting that the princess voluntarily visited Amin’s practice, where he prescribed the same painkillers that she had been taking in the US for back pain.

Cairo-based reporter Joseph Mayton tells Gelf that the case is a clear instance of Saudi royals abusing their power. "This case highlights the conservative and often ridiculous nature of the Saudi government and its judicial system. Even conservative groups within Egypt have condemned the form of punishment as outdated and abhorrent," Mayton says. "The Egyptian government obviously does not want to alienate itself from Saudi, but after a number of demonstrations in front of the Saudi Embassy here in Cairo, the government was forced to do something in order to appease its citizens. Therefore, the government has banned all Egyptian doctors from working in private Saudi hospitals."

The Egyptian foreign ministry says it is attempting to secure Amin’s return to Egypt, but Mayton is skeptical. "Unfortunately, the Egyptian government has become so preoccupied with maintaining the status quo that I doubt much pressure has been placed on Riyadh over this matter. And I doubt there will be much. The Egyptian government probably hopes that the story will just pass through."

South Africa

South Africa

Dogfighting isn’t just for NFL stars. As former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick returned to Virginia this past week to reach a plea deal on the last outstanding charges relating to his state and felony convictions for bankrolling and participating in dogfighting, a rash of canine cruelty crimes have swept over South Africa.

According to the Cape Argus, who sent its photographer Leon Lestrade to cover a dogfight between two 10-month-old pups, dogfighting is a lucrative and widespread problem in Johannesburg and the Cape Town area. The puppies of champion fighters can sell for up to 8,000 rand, or about $760.

"In 15 years of photography, covering crime scenes, riots and violent protest marches and seeing dozens of bodies, I have never seen anything like this dog fight," Lestrade says in the report.

Dogfighting and drug abuse have created a nasty confluence of violence around Cape Town. Another Argus dispatch details a new hobby for drug-addicted teen gangs in the Cape Town suburb of Ocean View. "Tik-fueled teens" use their vicious pit bulls to attack neighbors, catch and kill puppies, and drag family pets from their homes. Tik, a common street name for crystal meth, has been a longstanding problem in South Africa and the subject of ongoing medical study reported by the Cape Times that suggests that an astounding 98 percent of the country’s methamphetamine patients come from Cape Town.



As reported by Reuters and the Bangkok Post, a celebrated Thai general who threatened to drop snakes on protestors from helicopters now has a new job—military aerobics teacher.

Major-general Khattiya Sawasdipol, best known by his countrymen as Seh Daeng first gained fame through his purportedly spectacular undercover exploits in Cambodia and Laos during the Cold War, and he;s been making even more headlines recently.

After Sawasdipol warned that bomb attacks would accompany any protests by the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy, a hand grenade killed one PAD supporter at a recent rally. Allegedly, he had also threatened to attack his boss, the army chief. Seh Daeng then refused to accept the mild rebuke of a military panel that felt his comments were hurting the image of the military and scaring the people.

"The army chief wants me to be a presenter leading aerobic dancers. I have prepared one dance. It's called the throwing-a-hand-grenade dance," said Seh Daeng.

Seh Daeng’s transfer may be coming at just the right time—he had been present at several rallies that later ended in violence, and it occurred just beforePAD’s new major protest actions took place at the Government House, Thai Royal Police head office, the Stock Exchange of Thailand and, of course, Seh Daeng’s house. Hopefully, they didn't interrupt his morning yoga classes.



The the battle over bud rages this week in the Dutch national psyche, as new regulations in Amsterdam have lit up a firestorm of controversy.

As detailed by Radio Netherlands and the UK/Irish Independent’s Dutch correspondent Vanessa Mock, the country is currently struggling to update its drug laws. Paradoxically, the possession of less than five grams of cannabis and its sale in so-called "coffee shops" is legal, but any cultivation of the drug and its supply to shops is banned. The more conservative national government, the Christian Democratic Appeal, is pushing for stricter regulation of cannabis and coffee shops, while local governments must often decide for themselves how much leeway to give some of Holland’s most famous establishments.

Some regulations, such as those recently passed by the city council in Amsterdam requiring one in five coffeehouses to be closed by the end of 2011 because they fall within 250 meters of a school, are selectively strident in their "soft-drugs" policy. In the outlying cities of Roosendaal and Bergen op Zoom, city officials have announced plans to close their coffee shops altogether to ward off drug tourism and criminal activity.

However, as Mock notes, the city of Eindhoven is proposing an alternative strategy, hoping to officially grow its own cannabis and supply its coffee shops directly. It remains to be seen if the Eindhoven plan will pass the Dutch cabinet, but the Dutch News cites a recent survey that found that nearly 60 percent of city mayors polled—including those of Amsterdam and Maastricht—were in favor of legalizing the entire soft drug supply chain. Recent polls also suggest that 80 percent of the Dutch public oppose coffee shop closures.



The sensational release of thousands of pages of patients’ records from the Victorian years of Broadmoor Hospital has shed new light on several of Britain’s most famous crimes, including a potential identity for Jack the Ripper.

Broadmoor, built in 1863 and operating now as the country’s oldest criminal psychiatric facility, has housed some of Britain’s most notorious malefactors, including the "Yorkshire Ripper," celebrity club owner/mob boss/murderer/schizophrenic Ronnie Kray, and "The Most Dangerous Prisoner in Britain" Charles Bronson (not that one). Other inmates, as reported by the Daily Telegraph, included watercolorist Richard Dadd and William Chester Minor, who during his stay contributed impressively to the Oxford English Dictionary when he wasn’t cutting off his own penis.

But last week’s unveiling shines the brightest light on Thomas Hayne Cutbush. As compiled by London’s Independent and Daily Telegraph, Cutbush worked as a clerk in London, apparently contracted syphilis and went mad in 1888 when the Ripper killings began. He was institutionalized in 1891, and though the Broadmoor records do not show any direct evidence linking him to the killings, they do include bizarre circumstantial similarities—Cutbush obsessively studied medical texts, went out late at night and returned covered in mud (or possibly blood) and threatened acquaintances with knives. He also nonfatally stabbed a woman during his short-lived institutional escape.

While some Ripper texts unequivocally name Cutbush as the most likely suspect, the Broadmoor files serve only to heighten the mystery surrounding the Ripper’s Whitechapel murders while painting a much broader picture of mental illness and criminal incarceration over a lurid hundred-year history.



The ongoing tensions over Taiwan’s nationalism are now shouldered by two pandas. Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan, roughly translating to "reunion" in Chinese, are the giant panda pair that was first offered by the Chinese government as a goodwill gift to the people of Taiwan in 2005. Former Taiwanese president Chen Shui-bian declined the offer, and the pandas have remained in mainland China.

But with a change of office comes a change of heart. Newly elected President Ma Ying-jeou took office in May and has accepted the offer. The pandas, as a "Grade One" endangered species, are subjected to quarantines and import and export permits, a matter complicated by the disputed nomenclature used to define China and Taiwan. The Taiwan News breaks down the possible export vs. import names: "the Republic of China vs. the People’s Republic of China," "Taiwan/Taipei vs. Sichuan/Chengdu," or "Taipei City Zoo" vs. "Wolong Panda Sanctuary."

"The giant panda is a treasure of the Chinese nation and it is a symbol of peace and auspiciousness," Chen Yunlin, president of the mainland’s Association for Relations Across the Taiwan Strait (ARATS), said to the state-run Xinhua news agency. "It is the sincere wish of the mainland compatriots that the giant panda could live and breed on the island." In return, Xinhua reports, the mainland will receive an "indigenous goat," and "spotted deer."

But an editorial in the Taiwan News, pegged to environmentalist Jane Goodall’s visit, neatly ties in her devotion to preserving the best possible lives for animals to the cause of nationalism. It suggests that honoring Goodall’s life work and philosophy means that Tuan Tuan and Yuan Yuan need to stay in China, as the acceptance of this politically motivated ‘gift’ will hurt Taiwan’s sovereignty

Article by Joe Horton

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