SKS, world's largest microfinance service, drives debtors to suicide

The Associated Press has obtained portions of a suppressed independent investigation into the role that debt collectors working for microfinance giant SKS played in the suicides of desperately poor borrowers in the Indian province of Andhra Pradesh. SKS made global headlines when it received backing from a US venture capital firm, the Boston-based Sandstone Capital, and then had a highly successful IPO. The independent investigation, commissioned by SKS itself (though the company has disavowed it) documents a pattern of usurious practices by vicious debt-collectors working for the company that drove several borrowers to grisly suicide.

The interview videos were shown to the AP by Uma Maheshwari, who said she was present during one set of recordings and visited several of the families personally. She left SKS in July.

In one video, the daughter of borrower Dhake Lakshmi Rajyam cries, gasping as she talks to an investigator in Tadepalligudem, Andhra Pradesh.

Rajyam was unable to pay off $2,400 owed to eight different companies. Employees of microfinance companies, including SKS, urged other borrowers to seize the family's chairs, utensils and wardrobe and pawn them to make loan payments, her family told investigators. Unable to bear the insults and pressure of the crowd of borrowers who sat outside her home for hours to shame her, Rajyam drank pesticide on Sept. 16, 2010, and died, the family says.

"We have lost my mother," her daughter says. "Nobody will support us."

The investigator's conclusions lay the blame on SKS employees, saying they failed to comply with company policies "and even basic moral rights."

Vautrey said he sent the case studies to three top managers, including Rao.

Read the rest

Teen survivors of American religious brainwashing camps speak

On the off-chance that your blood is in need of boiling on this fine Sunday, I present a Reddit discussion started by a teen survivor of a religious brainwashing school that practiced "education" techniques (aimed at instilling religious belief) that included protracted solitary confinement, starvation, and physical punishment. The comments from fellow survivors only make it that much more infuriating.

These places exist IN AMERICA, they're completely legal, and they're only growing. It's the new solution for parents who have kids that don't conform blindly to their religious and political views, let me explain: After the initial shock of what I thought was a kidnapping, it was explained to me that my parents had arranged for me to attend Horizon Academy (http://www.horizonacademy.us/) because I admitted to them that I was atheist and didn't agree with a lot of their hateful views. Let me give you a detailed run-down of my experience here: To start off it's a boarding school where there is literally no communication with the outside world, the people who work here can do anything they want, and the students can do absolutely nothing about it. The basic idea is that you're not allowed to leave until you believably adopt their viewpoints and push them off on others. The minimum stay at these places is a year, an ENTIRE YEAR, that means no birthday, no christmas, no thanksgiving etc.; my stay lasted 2 years. The day to day functioning of this facility is based on a very strict set of rules and regulations: you eat what they give you, do what they tell you (often just pointless things just to brand mindless submission in your brain), and believe what they tell you to believe.

Read the rest

Pogue on Foxconn: hey, at least it's not rice farming or prostitution!

A job seeker yawns as he queues outside Foxconn recruitment center in Shenzhen, Guangdong province February 22, 2012. REUTERS/Joe Tan

New York Times tech columnist David Pogue sure has an interesting take on the Foxconn/worker's rights debacle.

One point I agree with: it's a mistake to focus solely on Apple. Many, many Western technology companies work with Foxconn, and with factories where conditions are worse. From the January 25 NYT piece on Foxconn:

Foxconn Technology [is] China’s largest exporter and one of the nation’s biggest employers, with 1.2 million workers. The company has plants throughout China, and assembles an estimated 40 percent of the world’s consumer electronics, including for customers like Amazon, Dell, Hewlett-Packard, Nintendo, Nokia and Samsung.

Let that sink in. Foxconn outputs nearly half of all the world's consumer electronics.

Few tech companies have taken the kinds of early steps Apple has to try and improve matters, and share information about the process.

And while Pogue doesn't explicitly address this point, I'll throw it out there: cheap overseas labor in rotten conditions with poor labor law standards are part of what keeps gadget prices where they are. If we mean what we say about wanting better lives for the men and women who make our consumer electronics, are we willing to change consumer culture, and pay more? I'm not optimistic.

What do you think? And is there *any* reality-based model that could lead to some of those manufacturing jobs coming back to the US (or, name your labor-friendly nation here) in our lifetimes? Read the rest

Meet more western companies that arm dictators and torturers with network spyware

Last week, the Electronic Frontier Foundation profiled FinFisher and Amesys, two of the companies that had been caught selling network spying tools to despotic regimes around the world, including Hosni Mubarak's Egypt and Muammar Qaddafi's Libya. This week, EFF continues the series with profiles of Italy's Area SpA (which sells electronic tracking software to Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria) and Germany's Trovicor (which sells spyware to a dozen countries in the Middle East and North Africa).

In 2011, at the same time that news of Syria’s violent crackdown on democratic protests graced the pages of the world’s newspapers, an Italian company called Area SpA was busy helping the Syrian’s dictator Bashar al-Assad electronically track the dissidents his army was firing upon in the streets. Area SpA had begun installing “monitoring centers” that would give the Syrian government the ability “to intercept, scan and catalog virtually every e-mail that flows through the country” as well as “follow targets on flat-screen workstations that display communications and Web use in near-real time alongside graphics that map citizens’ networks of electronic contacts.”

Worse, as the violence in Syria escalated in mid-2011, “Area employees [were] flown into Damascus in shifts” in the government’s push to finish the project, according to a report from Bloomberg News.

Spy Tech Companies & Their Authoritarian Customers, Part II: Trovicor and Area SpA Read the rest

Meet the western technology companies who sell network snooping technology to torturing dictators

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has begun to publish a series of informative corporate biographies of technology companies that make network spying equipment and sell it to torturing dictators like Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Qaddafi. These companies' publish sales material advertising their use of tools created for the express purpose of breaking domestic and international law, and operate from countries like the UK (FinFisher) and France (Amesys). EFF urges prosecutors in these countries to investigate the spyware companies for complicity in human rights abuses.

The Wall Street Journal has since reported about FinFisher’s techniques and its technology’s dangerous capabilities. It works much the same way online criminals steal banking and credit card information. Authorities can covertly install malicious malware on a user’s computer without their knowledge by tricking the user into downloading fake updates to programs like iTunes and Adobe Flash. Once installed, they can see everything the user can. The FinFisher products can even remotely turn on the user’s webcam or microphone in a cell phone without the user’s knowledge.

FinFisher doesn’t pretend to market their products for solely lawful use. In 2007, they bragged that they use and incorporate “black hat (illegal and malicious) hacking techniques to allow intelligence services to acquire information that would be very difficult to obtain legally,” according to a report by OWNI.

Spy Tech Companies & Their Authoritarian Customers, Part I: FinFisher And Amesys Read the rest

Apple and Foxconn to engage in Fair Labor Audit

Foster Kamer at Betabeat writes: "Apple released an announcement today explaining that the Fair Labor Association will be conducting an independent audit that is 'unprecedented in size and scale' in the electronics industry. As part of it, they contend that they’ll be interviewing thousands of Foxconn employees, and that the FLA will be taking the 'unusual' step of identifying the individual factories audited in their report." Read the rest

The invisible genocide of women

Video Link.

The recently-launched Women Under Siege website is a new project of the NYC-based Women’s Media Center, and features a number of powerful essays and features by women, about sexual violence against women. There's an account by CBS News correspondent Lara Logan, who survived a sexual assault while covering uprisings in the Middle East; another about covering sexualized war in Congo by Lynsey Addario, who survived the same.

In this post, I'd like to draw special attention to a feature on the site about a subject with which I have personal familiarity: violence against indigenous women in Guatemala. Though the country's long civil war is over, the femicidio is not. Snip:

More than 100,000 women were raped in the 36 years of the Guatemalan genocide in which at least 200,000 people died. In this video, photojournalists Ofelia de Pablo and Javier Zurita interview survivors and document the ongoing forensic and legal investigation that has just indicted former Guatemalan President Efraín Ríos Montt.

There are so many powerful stories on the Women Under Siege website. Below, a photo by Ms. Addario, from Congo: "Lwange, 51, with her daughter, Florida, who had been raped the week before this photo was taken in 2008. The child had screamed at the time, then bled. With her vagina and her young psyche damaged, Florida would no longer speak."

Read the rest

Interpol accused after Saudi Arabia arrests journalist over Muhammad tweet

Saudi Arabia is reported to have used Interpol's "red notice" system to locate and arrest journalist Hamza Kashgari, 23, (image at left) over tweets perceived as an insult to the Prophet Muhammad.

The international police organization denies involvement.

On the day observed as the Prophet's birthday, Kashgari published three tweets that described an imaginary meeting with the Prophet.

The one that caused all the hysteria (including "arrest him!" campaigns on Facebook and Twitter):

"I have loved things about you and I have hated things about you and there is a lot I don't understand about you … I will not pray for you."

[translation via AFP].

Kashgari later apologized, removed the tweets, then fled the country as calls for his arrest grew.

More from the Guardian:

Police in Kuala Lumpur said Hamza Kashgari, 23, was detained at the airport "following a request made to us by Interpol" the international police cooperation agency, on behalf of the Saudi authorities. Interpol later denied that its notice system had been involved in the arrest of Kashgari.

A spokesperson said: "The assertion that Saudi Arabia used Interpol's system in this case is wholly misleading and erroneous."

Kashgari's tweets are said to be blasphemy, and blasphemy is punishable by execution in Saudi Arabia. Read the rest

Iran attacks internet access on Islamic Revolution anniversary

At Hacker News, a user named "Sara70" posts:

I'm writing this to report the serious troubles we have regarding accessing Internet in Iran at the moment. Since Thursday Iranian government has shutted down the https protocol which has caused almost all google services (gmail, and google.com itself) to become inaccessible. Almost all websites that reply on Google APIs (like wolfram alpha) won't work. Accessing to any website that replies on https (just imaging how many websites use this protocol, from Arch Wiki to bank websites). Also accessing many proxies is also impossible. There are almost no official reports on this and with many websites and my email accounts restricted I can just confirm this based on my own and friends experience. I have just found one report here. The reason for this horrible shutdown is that the Iranian regime celebrates 1979 Islamic revolution tomorrow.

Jake Appelbaum and the Tor Project folks confirm that Iran is partially blocking encrypted network traffic, and they are trying to help ensure free and safe access for activists (and everyone else inside the country).

More at Washington Post, at CNET, and The Next Web.

(via @jadi)

PHOTO: Iranian schoolgirls chat online at an internet cafe which is exclusively for females, near the city of Karaj, 60km (38 miles) west of Tehran, May 24, 2007. REUTERS. Read the rest

Three Tibetan herders burn themselves alive in protest

The crisis among ethnic Tibetans in Sichuan Province continues: "three livestock herders set themselves on fire to protest what they saw as political and religious repression at the hands of the Chinese authorities," reports the New York Times, bringing the total number of such self-immolations over the past year to 19, "an unprecedented wave of self-inflicted violence among the tiny ethnic minority in China." Read the rest

VA state senator attaches rectal exam amendment to anti-abortion bill

"To protest a bill that would require women to undergo an ultrasound before having an abortion, Virginia State Sen. Janet Howell (D-Fairfax) on Monday attached an amendment that would require men to have a rectal exam and a cardiac stress test before obtaining a prescription for erectile dysfunction medication." (thanks, Antinous!) Read the rest

Tibet: China's bloody crackdown on Tibetan protesters escalates, as self-immolations continue

Ethnic Tibetans throughout Tibet this week held some of the largest demonstrations against Chinese rule in four years. Chinese forces responded by shooting protesters. Up to 5 are said to have been killed and more than 30 wounded, according to Tibetan advocacy groups.

On January 9, a 42-year-old monk became the latest in a continuing string of desperate protesters who burned themselves alive to protest Chinese military rule and cultural repression.

A New York Times report gathered accounts from a number of human rights groups. NPR's Morning Edition today aired an extensive report on the worsening human rights crisis in Tibet (MP3 link).

Details are hard to confirm, as foreign press access to the areas involved is all but impossible. Free Tibet has more, and Radio Free Asia has compiled various reports.

Dr. Lobsang Sangay of the Tibetan government-in-exile in Dharamsala, India, issued a statement on the conflict, published in video on YouTube (and embedded above).

Read the rest

Report: North Carolina aviation company handled extraordinary rendition flights for CIA

From Physicians for Human Rights: "A report (PDF) prepared by professors and students at the University of North Carolina School of Law states that the CIA has been relying on Aero Contractors, Ltd., a North Carolina operated civil aviation company to transport detainees to international destinations for detention, interrogation and torture." Read the rest

One more response to Boing Boing post on "Police Pad" gadgets in Georgia, by Some Guy from Georgia

People walk past graffiti on a street in the Georgian capital Tbilisi, Jan. 13, 2012. (REUTERS)

Editor's Note: In response to an anonymously-sourced wisecrack we published about police corruption in former Soviet states, the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs responded with a statement, which we published in full. A Boing Boing reader from Georgia also asked to respond to the anonymously-sourced wisecrack, with which he takes issue. Like the wisecracker, this person requests anonymity.

The police in Georgia are definitely not fat or lazy. They are not corrupt on the street level, either. But the whole system still retains elements of corruption  (in enforcement, in the judiciary, and in the legislative realm). The problem lies more in the definition of corruption: the fact that you can no longer bribe the policeman in the streets or at the sovereign borders does not mean everything is crystal-clean.

The fact that citizens are still afraid  of police in Georgia as if they were monsters is still an expression of the damage of corruption. The fact that you can be imprisoned for smoking pot weeks before actually being tested by cops (because you might seem suspicious to them, not because you've been caught smoking pot) is a kind of corruption, I believe.

There is a terrible feeling of vulnerability in Georgia. Police are still used as a tool to terrorize people and make money, but these days, paying bribes to individual policemen is no longer normal.

Georgian policemen stand to attention during a daily shift change at the Interior Ministry in Tbilisi, Jan. Read the rest

Torture common again in post-Saddam "democratic" Iraq

"Iraqi state security officers are systematically arresting people on trumped-up charges, torturing them and extorting bribes from their families for their release." Guardian UK via Richard Engel. Read the rest

Response to Boing Boing post on "Police Pad" gadgets in Georgia, from the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia

Editor's Note: In response to an anonymously-sourced wisecrack we published about police corruption in former Soviet states, the Georgian Ministry of Internal Affairs has responded with a statement, which we are more than happy to publish in full.

Georgian Police: Model for Successful Transformation

The article published on [Boing Boing on] January 12, 2012, about the initiative by the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Georgia to introduce new portable field computers (so called “Police Pads”) ends with an anonymous quote declaring that "100% guaranteed those crooked, fat, lazy cops will be using these devices primarily for porn and Russian gambling services."

Stereotypes like this are easy to toss out—but are quite simply incorrect. This quote does not reflect the productivity, effectiveness, transparency, and reliability of the police force in Georgia today, but rather the bygone era of the 1990s, a reality that has drastically changed thanks to an ambitious and successful reform process.

The reform process in Georgia began immediately after the 2003 Rose Revolution. The new government inherited a completely corrupt and bloated law-enforcement system. The systemic corruption and the high level of crime throughout the country resulted in a very low level of public trust: fewer than 10% of Georgians had confidence in the police, according to 2003 polls. And the very low average policeman's salary (approximately $68 per month) made the soliciting of bribes routine. 

Georgia has since made the creation of an efficient and modern police force a national priority, undertaking a series of reforms that sought to rebuild the national police force literally from the ground up. Read the rest

Muslim student claims sexual harrassment, school ignores, she's falsely reported as a terrorist, FBI shows up at her door

Balayla Ahmad, an observant African-American Muslim student at the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut, has filed a federal lawsuit claiming she was sexually harassed by a male student in 2009 for months on end, but that university officials showed "deliberate indifference" to her repeated complaints—and that she was then reported to the FBI in revenge for having complained. From the Associated Press:

When she complained to a teacher, she was told that the university generally doesn't get rid of students right away over such incidents, the lawsuit said. Another teacher asked her if she were married and asked her not to report it to the dean because he would speak with the harasser, the suit said.

Ahmad then reported the harassment and fears for her safety to the university's president and dean, who promised to meet with her. But she said when she met with the dean, he said, "My hands are tied. What do you suggest I do?"

After reporting the sexual harassment in April 2009, Ahmad said she was approached by two university security directors who told her someone had made allegations against her and they threatened to call the FBI and have her arrested.

Later, two FBI agents knocked on Ahmad's apartment door, questioned her and left a business card, according to the lawsuit. She said she learned that her harasser or his associates had fabricated a story falsely accusing her of being a terrorist in apparent retaliation for having made a sexual harassment complaint against him.

Read the rest

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