Indian Anti-Corruption Laws Enacted; Attacks on NATO Spike in Afghanistan; Two Shiite Mosques Hit in Pakistan
Indian anti-corruption laws enacted, Hazare breaks fast
The Lokpal and Lokayuktas Bill 2011 was passed into law on Wednesday by India's Lok Sabha (lower house of parliament), ending a more than five-decade fight to create the anti-corruption watchdogs (Economic Times, Times of India, Wall Street Journal India Realtime). The Samajwadi and Shiv Sena parties continued to oppose the bill, while the Congress Party's Rahul Gandhi called for the creation of an "anti-corruption code" and asked that the Lokpal act be supplemented by six more anti-corruption laws, ranging from streamlining public procurement to protecting whistleblowers, in order for the government to be effective at tackling graft. Gandhi also sought an extension of the current winter session to further legislate on these issues. The bill's passage prompted anti-corruption activist Anna Hazare to call off his hunger strike and he thanked several political parties, as well as supporters of his movement, though Indian media outlets made a note of the absence of erstwhile aide and current Aam Admi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal in his speech.
U.S. confirms Khobragade was strip-searched
The outcry over the treatment of India diplomat Devyani Khobragade, who was taken into custody last week on charges with visa fraud, continued in the Indian press on Wednesday. The Times of India quoted an email Khobragade sent to her colleagues at the Indian Foreign Service (IFS), in which she wrote that she was not only handcuffed, but also subjected to a strip search, DNA swabbing, and cavity searches, and broke down several times as she was going through the process (Times of India). The email implored the Indian government to ensure her and her children's safety and preserve the dignity of the IFS, which she said was "unquestionably under siege." The U.S. Marshals Service (USMS) confirmed that Khobragade was strip-searched, saying that officials used the same search procedures for Khobragade as for other arrestees within the Southern District of New York (Indian Express). A USMS spokesman added that standard intake procedures had been followed.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Nisha Desai-Biswal said the United States was looking into its internal procedures to see if appropriate steps were followed, and that it recognized that the issue had caused much agitation in India (Times of India). On Wednesday, the Indian government transferred Khobragade to the Indian permanent mission to the United Nations to help ensure that she has full diplomatic immunity (Times of India).
Central bank keeps rates steady despite inflation
India's central bank surprised markets on Wednesday by keeping its key lending rate steady at 7.75 percent, citing uncertainty surrounding the short-term path of inflation and the weak state of the economy (Indian Express, NYT, WSJ). Analysts widely expected the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) to raise its key repurchase rate at its meeting, after it lifted the rate by 0.25 percentage points at each of its previous two meetings in October and September. In a policy statement, the RBI called the policy decision "a close one." Current inflation in India is too high, the statement said, but given the uncertain path of inflation, the weak economy, and the long lags needed for monetary policy to take effect, "there is merit in waiting for more data to reduce uncertainty." Executives and political leaders have been asking the central bank to lower interest rates to help revive the economy, but persistant inflation has prevented the bank from doing so. Soaring food prices drove annual growth in consumer price inflation to 11.24 percent in November, up from 10.17 percent the previous month.
Come out, come out, wherever you are
India is sending more than 2,000 trained tiger spotters into the field to perform its four-year tiger census (BBC, The Hindu). The spotters will employ sensors, camera traps, tracking techniques, and what The Hindu euphemistically terms "ungulate encounter rates" in an effort to determine whether a recent increase in the tiger population is being sustained. The last census, in 2010 and 2011, saw tiger numbers rise to 1,706 from 1,411 four years before. However, the tiger population is still under severe threat from poachers and habitat destruction. Data compiled by the Wildlife Protection Society of India showed that poaching of tigers in 2013 was the highest in the past seven years, with 39 cases recorded this year compared to 31 in 2012 (Times of India).
-- Ana Swanson and Shruti Jagirdar
NATO incidents rapidly rise
One Afghan police officer died and three were wounded in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province on Wednesday in a gun battle with militants that followed a suicide attack on NATO fuel trucks near the Torkham Gate border crossing (AP, Pajhwok, RFE/RL). Police officials reported that three suicide bombers detonated a car bomb outside the gate of a parking lot at a NATO outpost near the crossing, destroying several tankers that were inside. Attackers dressed in Afghan National Army uniforms then stormed the compound; all of them were killed, though no casualty numbers have been given. Zabiullah Mujahid, a spokesman for the Afghan Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Six U.S. soldiers were killed in Afghanistan's Zabul province on Tuesday when the helicopter they were traveling in crashed in the province's Shajau district; the cause of the crash is still under investigation (AJAM, BBC, Pajhwok, Post, VOA). One person survived the incident, which was the largest loss of life for foreign troops in a single incident since June (NYT, Reuters). While the Afghan Taliban immediately claimed that they had downed the aircraft, NATO released a short statement saying there had been "no enemy activity in the area" at the time of the crash (LAT, RFE/RL). The crash came as the U.S. Department of the Defense said 2,278 American service members "have died as a part of the Afghan war and related operations" (NYT).
Afghan civilian death toll increases in 2013
Jan Kubis, the U.N. special representative to Afghanistan, to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday that the organization had recorded 2,730 Afghan civilian deaths and 5,169 Afghan civilian injuries in attacks during the first 11 months of 2013, an increase of 10 percent over 2012 (RFE/RL). Kubis said armed opposition groups such as the Taliban are predominantly responsible for the rise in civilian casualties, and expressed concern about "increasing conflict" in Afghanistan's once quieter northern and western provinces. While he noted that Afghanistan is continuing to make progress towards its future stability, Kubis added his voice to those calling on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to sign the stalled Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States, as a post-2014 security "vacuum" could ensue if all coalition troops were to withdraw at the end of next year (Pajhwok). Afghanistan's U.N. ambassador, Zahir Tanin, responded to Kubis by simply responding that the security pact would "be signed in a timely manner" (AP, Pajhwok).
Foreign detainees in Afghanistan coming to U.S.?
The Washington Post reported on Tuesday that the Obama administration is actively considering bringing a Russian who was captured several years ago in Afghanistan fighting alongside the Taliban, and has been held at a detention facility near Bagram Airfield ever since, to the United States to face a military tribunal (Post). While not much is known about the man except his nom de guerre -- Irek Hamidullan -- he is suspected of being involved in several attacks in 2009 that killed or wounded U.S. troops. Should the move happen, it would "mark the first time a post-Sept. 11 detainee was brought before a military tribunal" in the United States and, as the Post notes, could lead to a clash with a Congress that has barred similar transfers of detainees held to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Disfigured Afghan woman to receive reconstructive surgery
A woman known only as Sitara, who was brutally attacked and disfigured by her husband last Friday, traveled to Turkey on Tuesday to receive reconstructive surgery for her injuries (BBC, RFE/RL). According to reports, Sitara's husband Azim is a heroin addict and ordered his wife to sell her jewelry so he would have money to buy more drugs. When she refused, he attacked her, cutting off her nose and lips. Neighbors found Sitara hours later in her home in Afghanistan's Herat province and immediately rushed her to a hospital, where she was stabilized. As word of the attack, the country's Interior Ministry launched a manhunt for Azim, who fled after the incident. While Sitara survived the attack, human rights advocates say hers is one case of many and that violence against women in Afghanistan increasing, despite the 2009 passage of the Elimination of Violence Against Women law.
Shiite mosques attacked
At least four people were killed and 14 were injured in Rawalpindi on Tuesday evening in a suicide attack on the crowded Imambargah Isna Ashra (ET, Pajhwok, RFE/RL). According to Akhtar Umar Lalika, a local police officer, a suicide bomber blew himself up when he was stopped at the first police checkpoint around the Shiite mosque. Lalika added that around five pounds of explosives, laced with ball bearings, were used in the attack.
The attack in Rawalpindi was followed on Wednesday by one at an imambargah in Karachi that left one woman dead and two others injured (ET). News reports say an explosion occurred after a guard fired upon two women who were attempting to enter the Shiite mosque with homemade explosives. No one has claimed responsibility for either incident.
Court orders review of Afridi case
A Pakistani court issued a retrial order on Wednesday in the case of Dr. Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor who was recruited by the CIA to launch a vaccination drive in Abbottabad that many incorrectly believe led to information about Osama bin Laden (AP, Dawn, ET). Afridi is currently in jail serving a 33-year sentence after being convicted in 2012 of "conspiring against the state" for allegedly giving money and providing medical treatments to Islamic militants, charges he has repeatedly denied. The tribunal sent the case back to the Frontier Crimes Regulation commissioner, ruling that he had not been clear on whether Afridi would be retried under general Pakistani laws, or those that govern the country's more autonomous tribal regions. Afridi has also been charged with murder for allegedly killing a patient eight years ago; that trial is set to begin on Friday.
Climb ev'ry mountain
Samina Baig, who became the first Pakistani woman to climb Mount Everest this May, joined her brother, Mirza Ali, to become the first Pakistani mountaineers to summit Mt. Aconcagua in Argentina on Friday (Dawn). At 22,837 ft., the mountain is the tallest peak in both the Western and Southern hemispheres. The pair's climb was part of the Alpine Club of Pakistan's Adventure Diplomacy, which is aimed at projecting a positive image of Pakistan around the world. Baig and Ali left Pakistan in November in an attempt to summit the world's highest mountains. Mt. Aconcagua was their first stop; next up, Mt. Vinson in Antarctica and Mt. Kilmanjaro in Tanzania.
-- Bailey Cahall
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