The South Asia Channel

Modi Chooses Varanasi for Political Stand; Karzai: Afghanistan Doesn’t Need U.S. Troops; CIA Spy Shakil Afridi Sentence Reduced

Bonus Read: "For Ski Break Without Crowds (or Rebels), an Afghan Town Beckons," Rod Nordland (NYT).

India 

Modi chooses Varanasi for parliamentary stand

Narendra Modi, the main candidate for India's opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), will stand for parliament from the northern city of Varanasi, the BJP announced Saturday (Guardian). Analysts said the choice of Varanasi, one of the most sacred sites for Hindus in India, was an effort to emphasize Modi's Hindu nationalist credentials (Economic Times, WSJ). For months, Modi's campaign has remained focused on economic development, rather than Hindu nationalist rhetoric. However, the choice of Varanasi may help galvanize his party's right-wing supporters.

The decision was also likely based on tactical considerations: Varanasi is in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state where the BJP hopes to make a breakthrough in the polls. Uttar Pradesh and the neighboring state of Bihar account for 120 of the 543 seats in the lower house of the parliament. BJP President Rajnath Singh will contest the high-profile seat in Lucknow, the state's capital. 

On Sunday, Arvind Kejriwal, the leader of the newly formed Aam Aadmi ("Common Man") Party, said he would contest Modi in Varanasi, though only if the people of Varanasi endorsed his decision at a political rally in the city later this month (Mint, Economic Times, NDTV, WSJ). The choice would set Kejriwal up for a tough battle in the city, a BJP stronghold. "I don't care about winning or losing, I am here to struggle," Kejriwal said from a rally in Bangalore. 

United States re-indicts Khobragade

A New York grand jury on Friday re-indicted Devyani Khobragade, the Indian diplomat accused of mistreating her housekeeper, on two counts of visa fraud and making false statements (FT, BBC, Telegraph). The announcement came two days after a U.S. judge threw out a previous case on the grounds that Khobragade was granted full diplomatic immunity when India appointed her to its U.N. mission after her arrest. However, the judge invited the government to refile its case, since Khobragade's immunity vanished when she left the United States and no longer held her position at the U.N.

The new 21-page indictment paints a "devastating picture" of the lengths Khobragade, then deputy consular general of India in New York, took to infringe U.S. laws, the Telegraph reported. Prosecutors accuse Khobragade of forcing her maid to work 100 hours or more a week for $1.42 or less an hour. The indictment also accuses Khobragade of presenting false information to obtain a visa for her housekeeper and coaching her to lie to U.S. Embassy officials. A warrant was also filed on Friday, meaning if Khobragade returns to the United States from India without immunity she will be arrested again.

Daniel Arshack, Khobragade's lawyer, refused to comment on the re-opening of the case, saying: "The government of India will respond in due course." Khobragade's Dec. 12 arrest outside her children's school and subsequent strip-search enraged the Indian government and public, sparking a diplomatic row between the two countries.

Study: Indian arms imports almost triple China, Pakistan

India remains the biggest importer of arms in the world, a report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, a Swedish think tank, said Monday (NDTV, Times of India). According to the report, India bought nearly three times as many weapons over the past five years as China and Pakistan, its nearest competitors. 

India is in the middle of a defense-spending binge, fueled by China's military modernization and a volatile South Asian neighborhood. Indian imports rose by 111 percent over the last five years compared to 2004-2008, while its share of global arms imports increased from seven to 14 percent, the report said. The main supplier of arms to India in the last five years was Russia, accounting for 75 percent of all imports, though India has lately looked to the United States to diversify its sources.

Death sentence stayed for two in Delhi gang rape case

India's Supreme Court on Saturday stayed the death sentences of two of the four men found guilty of raping and murdering a woman on a New Delhi bus in 2012 (BBC). The hangings of Mukesh Singh and Pawan Gupta will be put on hold until after Mar. 31 while the court hears their appeals. The other two accused, Vinay Sharma and Akshay Thakur, are also expected to appeal. The order came after M.L. Sharma, an attorney for the two men argued that the forensic evidence used to support the conviction was "problematic" (WSJ). 

The case, in which six men raped a 23-year-old woman repeatedly and beat her male companion, sparked protests and cast a spotlight on what some call an "epidemic" of rape in the country. The young woman later died of her injuries in a Singapore hospital. Last September, a trial court sentenced four of the suspects to death by hanging. Another suspect died in custody, while the sixth, a teenager at the time of the crime, is currently serving a three-year sentence. 

-- Ana Swanson

Afghanistan 

Karzai: Afghanistan doesn't need U.S. troops

In his final address to parliament on Saturday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the country did not need U.S. troops or any other foreign troops to remain in Afghanistan once the NATO combat mission ends in December since the Afghan military already protects 93 percent of the country and is ready to take over entirely (RFE/RL, TOLO News). During the hour-long address, Karzai reiterated his stance that he will not sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States, which would allow a small contingent of troops to remain in the country to help train the Afghan security forces (VOA). He also said the last 12 years of war had been "imposed" on Afghanistan, and that the United States could bring peace to the country if it went after countries that supported terrorism, a veiled reference to Pakistan where Afghan militants have often found refuge (AP). Bonus read: "What's Driving Hamid Karzai?," Kai Eide (SouthAsia).

Karzai's comments came as the British army continued to prepare for its withdrawal from Afghanistan and pulled back troops to just two bases, both in Helmand province (BBC). According to reports, at the height of the war, more than 10,000 British soldiers controlled 137 bases across Afghanistan. Now, there are 4,000 troops and they are only operating at the British headquarters at Camp Bastion and an observation post called Sterga 2. Speaking about the British experience in Afghanistan, Brig. James Woodham, the commander of Task Force Helmand, said "history would judge" the success of the mission, but that progress had been made and "it's really powerful stuff" (Telegraph). Bonus read: "Saying goodbye to Camp Bastion," Jonathan Beale (BBC).

Wardak drops out of presidential race

Former Afghan Defense Minister Abdul Rahim Wardak withdrew from the presidential race on Sunday, becoming the second candidate in less than a month to drop out; Qayum Karzai, President Karzai's brother withdrew earlier this month (AP, RFE/RL, TOLO News). While Wardak gave no reason for his decision, he also said that he would not endorse any of the remaining nine presidential contenders. Afghans will head to the polls to choose Karzai's successor on Saturday, April 5. 

With the election rapidly approaching, the Taliban have threatened to "use all force" to disrupt the vote and have warned voters to stay away from the polls, a threat Human Rights Watch called "as despicable as it is unlawful" on Sunday (Pajhwok). In a statement released by the international rights organization, Asia Director Brad Adams said: "That threat highlights the responsibility of the Afghan government and its security forces to take all necessary measures to protect campaign activities and voters." According to Mohamad Najib Nikzad, a spokesman for Afghanistan's interior minister, about 400,000 Afghan soldiers and policemen are ready to deploy across the country to secure election stations and "deter any threat to the democratic process" (VOA). 

Judge, police officer shot and killed in Herat

Unidentified gunmen shot and killed Karukh District Judge Abdul Latif and one of his bodyguards in Herat province on Monday (AP, Pajhwok, TOLO News). According to reports, the incident took place in the morning as Latif headed to his office. No one has claimed responsibility for the incident, though an investigation is underway. 

Pakistan

Sentence reduced for Dr. Shakil Afridi 

Qamar Nadeem, a Pakistani judicial official, reduced the 33-year sentence for Dr. Shakil Afridi -- the 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 -- by 10 years on Saturday after he dismissed the charge of "waging war against Pakistan" (AP, BBC, NBC News, RFE/RL). Along with reducing Afridi's sentence, Nadeem also reduced his $3,500 fine to $1,000 (CNN).

In May 2012, Afridi was found guilty of giving aid to Islamic militants, charges he has repeatedly denied. But last August, Pakistani officials set aside that conviction and ordered a retrial. 

According to the New York Times, Nadeem's decision took Afridi's lawyers and family members by surprise. Samiullah Afridi (no relation), one of the doctor's lawyers, said his client wanted a retrial, not a review of the earlier case (NYT).

New arrest warrant issued for Musharraf

A special court in Islamabad issued a new arrest warrant for former president Pervez Musharraf on Friday, after he failed to appear in court for proceedings in a treason case against him (AP, NYT). The court order said the warrant would take effect on Mar. 31 and is "non-bailable," which means the ex-military ruler cannot apply for bail and will be arrested if he does not show up to his court hearing that day. Faisal Chaudhry, one of Musharraf's lawyers, said: "We will review the court decision and then decide whether to challenge it or not." 

Musharraf, who is facing a number of charges related to his time in office, is currently residing at a military hospital in Rawalpindi and has frequently missed his scheduled court appearances, citing medical and security concerns. His latest no-show came a few days after Pakistani intelligence agencies warned that he could be targeted by al Qaeda or Taliban militants on his way to court. 

-- Bailey Cahall 

Edited by Peter Bergen. 

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