The new gulag: Letters from a Russian lawyer who died in prison last month were published in Russian newspapers this week, revealing appalling abuse in the prison system and sparking a rare public outcry. Sergei Magnitsky was jailed for a year awaiting trial on tax-evasion charges, which he said had been trumped up because he’d exposed embezzlement by government officials. He died at age 37 after prison officials denied him medical care for an intestinal illness. In letters from prison, Magnitsky described being racked by pain in cold, damp cells reeking of human waste and being pressured to give false testimony. “It was just stunning for us to read this documented humiliation of personal dignity and human rights,” said journalist Yevgenia Albats. “We had this in Stalin’s time.” The Kremlin has promised an investigation.
Cars for all: With car sales down in the U.S., China has emerged as the world’s largest market for automobiles, industry reports show. In November alone, Chinese consumers bought more than 1 million cars, nearly double the figure for last November. And the total sold in China this year is likely to hit a record 13 million. The demand is so great that it’s pushing up prices. A Toyota Camry that sells for about $22,000 in the U.S. goes for $29,000 in China. While China’s car craze is good news for the auto industry, it’s bad for the environment: China has already dethroned the U.S. as the world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, and it is home to 16 of the 20 worst cities for air quality.
Militants strike back: Militants under pressure by a Pakistani army offensive in the tribal areas struck back at the cities this week, killing at least 100 people in multiple bombings across the country. Terrorists attacked in Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Multan, among other cities, targeting mosques, markets, and government buildings. “The militants are going for civilian and security targets in a no-holds-barred manner and in a barbaric manner,” said security analyst Mahmood Shah. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for at least some of the bombings. Pakistan’s army has been battling the Pakistani Taliban in South Waziristan, near the Afghan border, since October.
Still committed: Defense Secretary Robert Gates made a surprise visit to Afghanistan this week to reassure Afghans alarmed at President Obama’s announcement that troop withdrawals would begin in 2011. “We will fight by your side until the Afghan forces are large enough and strong enough to secure the nation on their own,” Gates said. His visit came as attention refocused on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden, after a Senate committee released a report blaming bin Laden’s 2001 escape from Tora Bora on the U.S. refusal to send in more troops. Testifying before Congress, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top commander in Afghanistan, said the capture of bin Laden was essential to the defeat of al Qaida, because bin Laden has become an “iconic figure” whose survival serves as a jihadist recruiting tool. In an earlier interview, Gates acknowledged that it has been “years” since the U.S. has had any credible intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts.
Student revolt: Iranian forces cracked down hard this week as tens of thousands of students staged the latest in a series of demonstrations against the government. A massive force of thousands of Basij militia officers stormed Tehran University and attacked supporters of opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, who has become the face of the resistance since losing to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in June’s disputed election. The Basij members were armed with steel clubs and tear gas, and witnesses said they used those weapons freely. Authorities tried to suppress news of the protest by jamming Internet and cell phone transmissions and banning foreign journalists from the streets. But as with the “Green Revolution” protests over the summer, Iranian bloggers managed to get pictures of the mayhem out to the world.
Bombings rock capital: A series of car bombings killed scores of people in Baghdad this week, plunging the capital back into violence just as a date was set for parliamentary elections. At least 112 people were killed and 425 injured when five bombs went off just minutes apart in crowded areas around the city, including at several colleges. Authorities said the blasts appeared to be the work of the Sunni insurgent group al Qaida in Iraq and that more violence leading up to the election was expected. “It’s about to become worse,” said Teba Adeel, a medical technician who was at a teaching hospital when scores of victims were rushed in. After months of wrangling over balloting rules, the vote, originally scheduled for January, has now been set for March 6.