Indicted Indian Diplomat Leaves U.S.; Top Cop Buried in Karachi; Afghanistan to Release Taliban Prisoners
Khobragade returns to India with charges still standing
A month-long diplomatic stalemate between India and the United States came to a conclusion on Thursday after Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade was allowed to withdraw from the United States without the charges against her being dropped (AP, BBC, CNN, Economic Times, Guardian, The Hindu, Post, Reuters, Times of India, VOA). A statement by India's Ministry of External Affairs confirmed that Khobragade had left the country and said she would be transferred to the ministry's headquarters in New Delhi. The departure was made possible after the U.S. State Department changed Khobragade's visa status on Thursday, in response to India's request to transfer her from the Indian Consulate in New York City to its U.N. mission; the change awarded Khobragade full diplomatic immunity. For the record, the State Department formally asked New Delhi to waive Khobragade's newly acquired immunity and allow her to face charges. After New Delhi refused, Washington requested her departure from the United States.
Khobragade had been indicted by a federal grand jury on one count of visa fraud and one count of making false statements about the compensation given to her housekeeper, Sangeeta Richard. Federal prosecutors alleged that Khobragade promised in Richard's visa application to pay her at least $9.75 per hour for no more than 40 hours per week; however, Richard actually received less than $3.31 per hour and worked much longer hours. Khobragade reaffirmed her innocence as she left the United States.
India was outraged when the diplomat was arrested and strip-searched on Dec. 12, 2013, following a complaint by Richard. The United States justified the diplomat's arrest and search by contending that, as a consular officer, Khobragade had partial rather than full diplomatic immunity. The charges will remain pending until Khobragade faces them in court, either through a waiver of immunity or returning to the United States without immunity status. The issue remains unresolved however, the reports said, since Khobragade is married to a New York-born Indian-American professor of philosophy, and the couple has two children attending school in New York.
The incident soured relations between India and the United States, leading to the postponement of two visits to India by senior U.S. officials and another by a U.S. business delegation. In response, India downgraded privileges for U.S. diplomats and asked the U.S. embassy to close a club for expatriate Americans in New Delhi. As Khobragade left the United States, Indian authorities at the Ministry of External Affairs showed no signs of easing these restrictions, indicating that they may even deepen (WSJ). In fact, Indian officials asked the United States to remove the immunity of an American officer in Delhi who had used his diplomatic privileges to book tickets tax free for Richard's family to travel to the United States in November 2013.
Khobragade's father, Uttam Khobragade, thanked the Indian government on Friday for its support and said that his daughter had been vindicated (AP). However, the BJP, India's main opposition party, called the indictment a "defeat" for the country, citing that the case against her will remain in America (NDTV).
Samajwadi party time?
Leaders from Uttar Pradesh's ruling Samajwadi party have drawn harsh criticism for lavish spending on foreign junkets and a performance by Bollywood actors, even as victims of communal riots in Muzaffarnagar continue to suffer (BBC, DNA, Hindustan Times). The ‘Saifai Mahotsav' is a two-week long celebration in honor of Mulayam Singh Yadav, the Samajwadi party's founder (and the father of the current chief minister) and will culminate in a stage performance by Bollywood actors Salman Khan and Madhuri Dixit. The party banned television crews from entering the celebration on Tuesday in response to criticism and asked the media to refrain from questioning Bollywood guests about the riots (Hindustan Times). Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav dismissed claims that Rs. 300 crore ($484 million) had been spent on the event, but declined to provide an estimate. The Uttar Pradesh government has also received criticisms for sending its legislators on a ‘study tour' to the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, the Netherlands, Turkey and Greece (CNN-IBN). Conditions for riot victims were made worse when several were forced to leave relief camps by district officials. Some have refused to go back to their villages and have opted instead to live in makeshift roadside settlements (India Today).
Indians to compete under Olympic flag in Sochi
Indian athletes will compete under the Olympic flag rather than their national flag at next month's Winter Games in Sochi, after their national Olympic body failed to schedule elections before the start of the Olympics on Feb. 7 (Post). The International Olympic Commission (IOC) suspended the Indian Olympic Association in December 2012 for electing officials with corruption charges against them, but said it would lift the suspension once new elections have been held. However, the Indians set their Olympic general assembly for Feb. 9, two days after the opening of the games. Three Indians qualified for the games, including Shiva Kesavan, a 32-year-old luger who is appearing in his fifth Olympic games. Kesavan told Indian media that not competing under the national flag was "shameful and pathetic."
Investments worth $3 billion cleared in first week of 2014
In his first week as Minister of Environment, Veerapa Moily has cleared investments worth Rs. 19,000 crore ($3 billion), the Economic Times reported on Friday (Economic Times). Several major infrastructure projects had been stalled due to a lack of environmental clearances and many believed this was the reason for Jayathi Natarajan's dismissal as environment minister. Projects approved by Moily included two power projects with over 2,100 MW capacity, two coal mines, a port in Andhra Pradesh, and a crude oil pipeline from Chennai port. One of the bigger projects cleared by Moily included the Rs. 52,000 crore deal ($8 billion) with Korean steelmaker Posco to set up a 12-million-ton-capacity steel plant in Odisha. A lack of environmental clearances and as yet unresolved protests by inhabitants over land acquisition had stalled the project for over eight years (Times of India).
The ministry's move is seen as part of a larger effort by the Congress-led government to shake up the economy ahead of national elections this May. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has assumed charge of a cabinet committee on investments and has thus far given clearances to projects worth Rs. 6 lakh crore ($96.8 billion).
India nuclear safety worse than China, Pakistan: U.S. think tank
The Nuclear Threat Initiative released a report on Wednesday ranking India's capacity for nuclear safety lower than neighbors China and Pakistan, The Hindu reported on Friday (The Hindu). The "2014 Nuclear Materials Security Index" lists India as 23 out of 25 countries with weapons-usable nuclear materials. The report cites India's amorphous regulatory environment -- which relies on guidance as opposed to requirements -- the lack of an independent regulatory agency, corruption in the enforcement of security measures, and an increased risk perception in the possibility of officials colluding in the theft of nuclear material as reasons for its low ranking.
-- Shruti Jagirdar and Ana Swanson
One of Karachi's top police officers laid to rest after assassination
Chaudhry Aslam Khan, the head of Karachi's anti-terrorism unit, was laid to rest on Friday after being killed in a powerful roadside explosion on Thursday (BBC, Dawn). According to several media reports, around 200 kgs. of explosives were used in the attack, which also killed Khan's driver and another security officer, and injured at least 11 other people (ET, NYT). Khan, who had survived at least nine previous assassination attempts, was known for being one of Karachi's toughest police officers, or as Britain's Telegraph noted, Pakistan's "Dirty Harry" (AP, BBC, Telegraph). Sajjad Mohmand, a spokesman for the Mohmand faction of the Pakistani Taliban, claimed responsibility for the attack and said Khan was targeted for killing and torturing Taliban fighters. Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif condemned the attack, telling reporters that: "these cowardly acts by terrorists cannot crush the will of the nation" (RFE/RL). Khan was 51 years old (WSJ).
Tributes pour in for Pakistani student who stopped suicide bomber
Pakistani police recommended on Friday that Aitzaz Hassan, a 15-year-old boy who died on Monday after tackling a would-be suicide bomber in Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, receive Pakistan's highest civilian honor posthumously for his actions (AFP, RFE/RL). According to reports, the bomber tried to attack Hassan's school in the province's Hangu district, but Hassan confronted him when he seemed suspicious, stopping him at the school's gate where he detonated his explosives-packed suicide vest; Hassan died from injuries sustained during the attack. Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, an outlawed Sunni militant organization, has claimed responsibility for the incident (VOA).
While the Pakistani government has not publicly commented on the attack, many Pakistanis feel Hassan, "the male answer to Malala Yousafzai," should be honored in some way (BBC, NYT). Yousafzai, who was shot by Taliban militants in October 2012 for her outspoken stance on girls' education, released a statement onFriday about Hassan, saying: "I feel saddened that violence took another child's life in my country; I feel proud that I belong to a country where many brave and courageous people like Aitizaz Hasan are born" (ET). She also said she would give Rs. 500,000 (approximately $4,742.00) to Hassan's family. For his part, Mujahid Ali Bangash, Hassan's father, told reporters that he feels pride, not sadness, at his son's death because he sacrificed his life for his country and saved the lives of hundreds of students (AFP, AP).
Kabul to release 72 prisoners deemed dangerous by U.S.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced on Thursday that his government will release 72 of 88 high-profile detainees from a detention facility at Bagram Airfield, saying that the evidence collected against them by Afghanistan's National Directorate of Security and the U.S. military was insufficient to warrant formal trials against them (Fox News, NYT, Post, RFE/RL, TOLO News, VOA, WSJ). Since word of the releases emerged last week, U.S. officials have argued that the prisoners pose a threat to both Afghan security forces and coalition service members, and have been linked to attacks that have killed scores of people (BBC, Pajhwok, RFE/RL). The releases, which are expected to occur in a matter of days, add further strain to the rapidly deteriorating relationship between Kabul and Washington (Reuters).
Tensions between the two countries also increased on Friday when Afghan officials alleged that U.S. forces accidentally shot and killed a 4-year-old boy on Wednesday in Helmand province (Reuters, RFE/RL). Omar Zwak, a spokesman for Helmand's governor, said that U.S. Marines mistakenly shot the child due to poor visibility, thinking that he was a militant fighter. A spokesman for the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force said that an investigation into the incident would be conducted, and reiterated that all possible measures are taken by coalition troops to avoid civilian casualties.
Karzai unlikely to meet BSA deadline, U.S. envoy says
Amb. James B. Cunningham, the current U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and the lead American negotiator in talks regarding the stalled Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), has privately warned the Obama administration that its efforts to persuade Karzai to sign the security pact will likely fail, the Washington Post's Karen DeYoung, Ernesto Londoño and Kevin Sieff reported on Thursday (Pajhwok, Reuters, TOLO News). In a classified cable, Cunningham said he did not think the Afghan president would agree to sign the BSA, which will determine the size and scope of any post-2014 U.S. troop presence in the country after the NATO combat mission ends in December, before the presidential elections scheduled for April. With relations between Afghanistan and the United States being so acrimonious, some Afghan observers are concerned that the assessment "could raise the chances of a hasty and messy troop withdrawal by the end of the year" (Post).
Though the BSA remains stalled, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the U.S. commander in charge of the NATO presence in Afghanistan, reiterated his stance on Thursday that: The BSA is the way to peace in Afghanistan and a way to increase peoples' hope for their future" (Pajhwok, TOLO News). He added that signing the agreement will help the country's political and security transitions this year.
Ground explosion behind NATO helicopter crash in December
Western media outlets reported on Thursday that a helicopter crash in Afghanistan's Zabul province on Dec. 17, 2013, that killed six American troops on board was caused by an explosion on the ground, though an investigation into the incident is still ongoing (CNN). According to U.S. military officials, "the helicopter was in a low-hover position when a blast from the ground below caused it to crash," adding that it was not shot down by enemy fire, nor were there any enemy forces on the ground in the vicinity of the crash (NBC News). The incident was the single deadliest day for U.S. forces in Afghanistan since another helicopter crash that killed seven Americans and four Afghans in August 2012.
On Friday, NATO released a statement saying that two coalition service members and one civilian employee were killed in another "aircraft mishap" in eastern Afghanistan, but provided no further details about the accident or the nationalities of those killed (AP, Pajhwok).
Life along the border
The de-facto border dividing the disputed territory of Kashmir between India and Pakistan is one of the most militarized borders in the world, with thousands of troops facing off across the Line of Control (LoC). Photographer Abid Bhat traveled along the LoC in Indian-administered Kashmir for the BBC, capturing images that show what life is like for soldiers and civilians in the contested area. The photo gallery of his images can be found here.
-- Bailey Cahall
Edited by Peter Bergen.