Transitions

Riots in Senegal, stubborn Serbs in Kosovo, and more protests in Tibet

Americas

For the first time in years, the Venezuelan opposition united to choose a single candidate to run against President Hugo Chavez in elections scheduled in October. After some initial disagreements, the opposition succeeded in destroying the lists of who had voted in order to assure confidentiality and safeguard the voters against possible reprisals.

In Ecuador, a court sentenced a columnist and three executives of the El Universo newspaper to three years of prison and $40 million dollars in damages for libeling President Rafael Correa.

Meanwhile, there was growing political turmoil in Panama, with violent clashes reportedly stemming from President Ricardo Martinelli's growing authoritarianism. Indigenous people in the highlands of western Panama have been protesting government plans for huge new copper mines and hydroelectric dams.

Africa

In Zimbabwe, riot police brutally assaulted members of a leading advocacy group and detained one of its members as she was leaving a meeting of the committee that is supposed to be monitoring a 2008 power sharing agreement. Zimbabwe also suspended 29 NGOs in what could be the first sign of a crackdown before scheduled elections. Under the 2008 deal, the next presidential election will take place only in 2013, once a new constitution has been approved.

In a particularly fair election, a ruling party candidate in Nigeria was elected governor in the oil-producing state of Bayelsa, ending months of political uncertainty.

Meanwhile, deadly clashes and demonstrations continued in Senegal ahead of the presidential elections scheduled for the end of the month. (The photo above shows a Senegalese policeman firing tear gas at demonstrators.)

In Malawi, an outspoken critic of President Bingu wa Mutharika was arrested and placed in a maximum security prison.

Asia

A Tibetan nun died on Saturday after setting herself on fire to protest Chinese rule in Tibet. She was reportedly the sixth Tibetan to die from self-immolation in a week. The Buddhist leader Thich Quang Do, under house arrest in Vietnam, sent a message of solidarity to the Dalai Lama and the people of Tibet. Interestingly, one Tibetan-majority area, Gartse, is relatively calm at the moment. Unlike other areas, local authorities have allowed the monks there to protest in peace.

The chief peace negotiator in Burma (Myanmar) said he expected to reach ceasefire deals with all of the country's ethnic minority rebel armies within three months. In another hopeful sign, the national election commission announced that it was lifting restrictions on campaigning in the upcoming parliamentary by-election shortly after a public complaint by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Rival factions in the Maldives appeared to have reached an Indian-brokered agreement to hold early elections in an effort to resolve the political crisis. In India, meanwhile there have been growing fears that the freedom of expression is under attack.

There was little surprise in the presidential election in Turkmenistan, where President Berdymukhamedov was re-elected with 97 percent of the votes.

Europe

Ethnic Serbs in northern Kosovo overwhelmingly rejected rule by Pristina in a referendum. The government in neighboring Serbia fears that the result could complicate its bid to join the EU.

North Africa

In Morocco, a young student was sentenced to three years in prison for criticizing the king in a YouTube video.

Libyans celebrated the one-year anniversary of the start of their uprising, and political parties started getting organized for elections in June. Commentators did not fail, however, to point out the many difficult challenges ahead: militias roaming with impunity, a judiciary in tatters, and tensions between the eastern and western regions of the country. A human rights group found evidence of human rights abuses, including widespread torture in militia-run detention centers, and urged the interim government to rein them in. There were reports of violence between tribes in the far southeast of the country. In Niger, one of Qaddafi's sons, Saadi Qaddafi, warned of a coming uprising in a TV interview before authorities confiscated his communications equipment.

Middle East

In Egypt, there was continued uncertainty amid wrangling between SCAF and the parliament over the country's vague transitional roadmap and the timing of the presidential elections and the drafting of a new constitution. There was a very low turnout for the second round of elections to the Shura Council, the parliament's upper house, which has little power but will oversee the selection of a committee to write the new constitution.

The UN General Assembly overwhelmingly passed a non-binding resolution demanding that Syria end its bloody crackdown and endorsing the Arab League plan for a political transition. Belarus, Bolivia, China, Cuba, Ecuador, Iran, Nicaragua, North Korea, Russia, Syria, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe voted against. A "Friends of Syria Group" is scheduled for Feb. 24. President Bashar al Assad announced that a referendum on a new constitution would be held on Feb. 26. Meanwhile, violent attacks continued around the country. Reports from the ground supported the view that is still little central leadership within Syria's armed opposition.

Bahraini activists and security forces clashed on the anniversary of the first demonstrations last year. The opposition reiterated its demands for fundamental change and called for direct talks with the king.

In Yemen, security was being tightened around election committee offices in advance of next week's election. On Tuesday a suicide bomber blew himself up near one of the offices.

In Iran, silent demonstrations were reported in Tehran and other big cities. The government deployed large security forces to suppress them.

And finally, this week's ecommended reads:

A report analyzes the effects of poor community policing in Indonesia (International Crisis Group) and a commentary argues for the importance of supporting police reform in Egypt and Tunisia (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace).

A commentator explores the impact of economic growth on the survival of new democracies (Dart-Throwing Chimp).

A management expert contends that 2011 was a turning point in the fight against corruption (Foreign Affairs).

Two journalists present five lessons to be drawn from the rise of the BRICs (The Atlantic.com).

An online symposium produces a range of views on possible action to be taken against Syria by the international community (The New Republic). And a leading website on the Middle East offers a new Syria page (Jadaliyya).

-- by Chloé de Préneuf

SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images

Democracy Lab

An Indonesian atheist puts freedom of religion to the test

The debate about God's existence is as old as mankind itself. Such questionings have set many a man on a spiritual journey to search for the truth. Some find God, and what they believe to be the truth. Others find nothing, and they become atheists. In Indonesia, where 88 percent of its 240 million people are Muslims, merely posing that question in public can land you in deep trouble.

The Indonesian police decision to arrest a man for posting the statement "God does not exist" in a Facebook message amounts to tampering with his freedom to inquire and seek the truth. Police say they were acting in response to public complaints. It is clear to all -- except those blinded by their faith -- who the sinner is here.

Alexander Aan, a 31-year old civil servant in Padang, the capital of the devoutly Muslim province of West Sumatra, faces charges of blasphemy for "insulting a major religion," an offense that carries a maximum five-year jail term. He was already the target of physical attacks by a group of radical Muslims before his arrest. He may as well stay in custody. There are people on the outside who are literally are clamoring for his head.

Although the Indonesian constitution guarantees freedom of religion, it also stipulates that every citizen must believe in one supreme god. Monotheism rules, at least technically. Indonesia is home to all the major world religions, but many of its people practice home-grown beliefs, including animism, at times in combination with their Islamic or Christian faiths. But while the nation appears to tolerate polytheism, there seems to be zero tolerance towards atheism.

The constitutional stipulation of monotheism was a compromise struck in the early days of the republic after Indonesia proclaimed independence from Dutch colonialism in 1945. Islamist politicians had earlier pushed for a theocratic state, but they eventually settled for the next best thing, the requirement that everyone must have a religion. This turned out to be a powerful and effective weapon to fend off the threat of communism, which was gaining a lot of traction in the nascent country. Rightly or wrongly, atheism was always closely associated with communism.

With the threat of communism as a political ideology in Indonesia now long gone, atheists are slowly coming out of the closet. Thanks to the proliferation of social media, many have turned to Facebook to build online communities in the country.

Alexander Aan is one of the few who have ventured out to publicly proclaim his belief that God does not exist. He runs a community of people who share his views called Ateis Minang. (The photo above shows a reader perusing the site.) Now he is paying a heavy price for his activism. Unlike their equivalents in the West, atheists in Indonesia shy away from attacking religions. They simply pose questions about their lack of freedom. In a country that professes to respect all types of freedom and human rights, people should not be persecuted for choosing to deny the existence of god.

His trial, if and when it begins, should rekindle the debate in Indonesia about whether the constitutional requirement to follow a religion is consistent with the notion of the freedom of faith itself. The article also happens to be a violation of one of the first principles in Islam -- that "there shall be no coercion in matters of faith." It also negates the idea of free will, which Islam and most other major religions also recognize as God-given.

As applied to the state, this notion of the freedom of religion also implies the freedom not to believe. A separate law in Indonesia requiring people to adhere to one of the six religions recognized by the state (Islam, Christianity, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism) would also seem to violate the freedom of religion.

Free will and freedom are the essence of Islam and most major religions.

Since the question "Does God exist?" (which is another way of saying "God does not exist") is the starting point of a genuine search for truth, I would personally put my money on the likes of Alexander Aan finding God. Those who persecute him have, in all likelihood, blindly and unquestioningly accepted their faith. They will not find God, but God will surely find them.

ROMEO GACAD/AFP/GETTY