The South Asia Channel

Visa Fraud Charges Dropped Against Indian Diplomat; Taliban Splinter Group Claims Death of Journalist; Drone Use Declines


Visa fraud charges against Khobragade dropped

In a sudden turn of events, a US district court has dropped all charges against Indian diplomat Devyani Khobragade, citing diplomatic immunity (BBC, Reuters, CNN). U.S. District Judge Shira Scheindlin's fourteen page judgement read "the government may not proceed on an indictment obtained when Khobragade was immune from the jurisdiction of the court."  

In December of last year, Khobragade, who was the then deputy consul general of the Indian consulate in New York, was arrested for obtaining a visa for her housekeeper under false grounds as well as paying her far less than the US minimum wage. The arrest and subsequent confinement of Khobragade, where she was strip searched, resulted in a bitter war of words between the United States and India and greatly soured relations between the two. The Indian government had attempted to shield her from further prosecution by transferring her to the UN Mission in New York, which automatically gave Khobragade diplomatic immunity.

While Khobragade's attorney Daniel Arshack released a statement saying "justice had prevailed," the reaction of the Indian foreign ministry has been more cautious. Syed Akbaruddin, spokesperson for the Indian Foreign Ministry said, "our lawyers will need to have a look at it and the implications" (WSJ India Realtime). Indeed, the U.S. has the option to re-indict Khobragade on charges of exploiting her housekeeper; WaPo quotes a spokesperson from the office of the Manhattan District Attorney saying they "intend to proceed that way" (Washington Post).

In further developments to the case, it was recently discovered by the Indian government that Khobragade's children, aged four and six, hold passports to the United States as well as India; according to Indian law, dual citizenship is illegal (Indian Express). It has also emerged that the housekeeper at the center of the case has recently filed for divorce from her husband (Indian Express).

Death sentence held for Dec 16 rape accused 

The Delhi High Court upheld the death sentence awarded to four men for the gruesome rape and murder of 23 year old Jyoti Pande, which took place in New Delhi on December 16, 2012 and sparked a massive, countrywide outcry that challenged India's age-old gender norms (The Hindu, BBC). Judges Reva Khetrapal and Pratibha Rani said the case fell under the "rarest of rare category" and justified the awarding of these sentences. Defense lawyers have said they have the option of approaching the Supreme Court, which has recently commuted several death sentences to life terms due to unexpected delays in granting presidential pardons. Of the six accused in the case, one was found dead in his cell and the other was a juvenile at the time according to Indian law and will be tried under separate terms.

A fridge too far

An Indian saint declared dead by authorities in Punjab was reportedly put into a freezer by his devotees under the belief that he is currently in a deep state of meditation and would someday return (BBC, NDTV). Ashutosh Maharaj, who led the 30 million strong Divya Jyoti Jagrati Sansthan (Divine Light Awakening Mission), was declared "clinically dead" on January 29, but according to other leaders in his sect, is in a state of "samadhi," the highest plane of meditation. His spokesman, Swami Vishalanand said, "he is not dead. Medical science does not understand things like yogic science. We will wait and watch. We are confident that he will come back." However, the move to freeze the holy man was challenged in court by a devotee who alleged an unresolved property dispute was responsible for the bizarre actions of the sect's leaders.

--Shruti Jagirdar


Group claims death of journalist

A little-known Islamist militant group claimed responsibility for killing a Swedish journalist, Nils Horner, in Kabul on Tuesday (NYT, The Guardian, RFE/RL). The militant group, which calls itself Feday-e-Mahaz, posted a statement on its website on Wednesday saying it sent gunmen to kill the journalist because they believed he was an intelligence agent working for M16, the British spy agency. Feday-e-Mahaz is a radical offshoot of the Taliban, but the Taliban has denied involvement in the attack. Officials are skeptical of Feday-e-Mahaz's claim since their statement did not become public until nearly 24 hours of news coverage detailing the killing of Mr. Horner had passed.  However, the group is believed to be behind the attack on the offices of the International Committee of the Red Cross in eastern Afghanistan last May (NYT) and the nominal leader of the group, Hajji Najibullah, is believed to have been behind the kidnapping of reporter David Rohde in 2008 (NYT).

U.S. General Gives Warning

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the top American commander in Afghanistan, said that al Qaeda would regroup and stage another attack on the West from Afghanistan if international troops completely withdrew from the country at the end of 2014 (NYT, Post, Pajhwok, RFE/RL, The Guardian). He said that as long as a the April elections in Afghanistan resulted in a new president being in place by August and a new security agreement signed that would allow a residual force of international troops, the long-term security of Afghanistan had a greater chance of success. His testimony echoed fears expressed by other military leaders and government officials that the complete withdrawal of troops could negate 12 years of American fighting in Afghanistan. "A withdrawal, in my mind, means abandoning the people of Afghanistan, abandoning the endeavor that we've been here on for the last decade, and then providing al-Qaeda the space within which to begin again to plan and conduct operations against the West," Dunford said.


Drone use declining in Pakistan

The number of U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan plunged last year, according to UN.N. special rapporteur Ben Emmerson (Post, AP, Aljazeera). Emmerson told reporters in Geneva on Wednesday that there had been "a very significant de-escalation" of U.S. armed drone use in Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Regions (FATA) - the number of strikes was 27 for 2013 and no civilian deaths were reported for the first time in nine years. The same can not be said for Afghanistan, where drone strikes and civilian deaths are intensifying; Emmerson said the number of civilian causalities from drone strikes tripled last year to 45 dead and 14 injured.  Yemen had suffered around 500 civilian casualties from drone strikes since 2009 - mostly because of incompetent targeting, he claimed.. Data by the New America Foundation estimates the number of civilian casualties in Yemen since 2009 to be much lower - between 74 and 85 deaths. Emmerson released a report earlier this week that examined drone strikes and called for independent investigations into civilian deaths.

Meeting about a meeting

The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) intermediaries flew via helicopter to North Waziristan on Thursday to meet with the TTP political shura (advisory council) to decide the time and venue for face-to-face talks between the new government negotiators and the TTP (ET, Dawn). Previously, the negotiations were held between committees from both sides but the government formed a new committee on Wednesday that would be able to hold direct talks with the TTP. The government has not provided details on the composition of the new committee, only confirmed its existence (ET). 

Going green to get some light

Residents in the Neelum Valley, a section of Pakistan's Kashmir region, have installed a small-scale turbine in a river to solve their ongoing energy shortage (VOA, Gulf News). Less than half of Neelum Valley's 200,000 inhabitants have access to electricity from the national power grid. But small turbines, called hydel machines, offer an affordable solution that also preserves the natural beauty of the valley. The machine, which cost around $3,000 and was purchased by 50 different families together, supplies enough electricity to light each family's home every evening through the force from the Neelum River. 

--Emily Schneider

Edited by Peter Bergen

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