The South Asia Channel

Pakistani Christian Sentenced to Death; Tensions Emerge Ahead of Afghan Elections; 5 Indian Soldiers Killed in Crash

Event Notice: "Rebuild Afghanistan Summit: Afghanistan 2014 & Beyond - Economic Growth and Stability," TODAY, 9:00 AM - 3:30 PM (SAIS).

Bonus Reads: "Why the Afghan Election Might Succeed," Hamid Arsalan and Scott Smith (SouthAsia); "Will Iranian Gas Help Solve India's Energy Crisis?," Manish Vaid and Tridivesh Singh Maini (SouthAsia).


Pakistani Christian sentenced to death

Sawan Masih, a Pakistani Christian accused of blasphemy, was convicted and sentenced to death in Lahore on Thursday, in a case concerning a massive riot in Pakistan's second-largest city (VOA). Last March, a Muslim man accused Masih of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, allegations that triggered a riot by more than 3,000 Muslims who torched about 100 Christian homes in the city's Joseph Colony (Guardian). Hundreds of Christian families fled the area at the time, but many have reportedly returned and rebuilt their homes (RFE/RL). 

Masih has repeatedly maintained his innocence, arguing that the real reason for the accusation was a property dispute between him and his friend (BBC, NYT). Nameem Shakir, Masih's lawyer, told reporters that they would be appealing the case to the Lahore High Court.

According to the Associated Press, Pakistan's blasphemy law was amended in the 1980s by Gen. Mohammed Zia-ul-Haq, who added the death penalty and singled out Islam as the one religion that may not be insulted (AP). However, the AP also notes that Pakistan has had a de facto moratorium on executions since 2008 and has never executed anyone under the law. Bonus read: "Q&A: Pakistan's controversial blasphemy laws" (BBC).

Peace talks deadlocked

Two days after the first face-to-face talks between the Pakistani government and the country's Taliban leadership, optimism is waning and concern is growing that the negotiations have hit a stalemate (Dawn). A source told Pakistan's Dawn newspaper that the militants have set two conditions for continuing the talks: creating a demilitarized zone in South Waziristan to allow greater freedom of movement, and the release of non-combatants. The source added that the militants wanted written guarantees before they would commit to extending their month-long ceasefire.

A government committee member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told Pakistan's Express Tribune that the issue of non-combatants could decide the future of the talks, with the Taliban insisting on the releases and the government maintaining that they aren't holding any women and children in custody (ET). 

Dawn also reported that the Taliban have refused to release the sons of former prime minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and slain Punjab governor Salman Taseer -- one of the government's requests -- though they have conditionally agreed to free Ajmal Khan, the former vice-chancellor of Peshawar's Islamia College University (Dawn).

U.S. bill would cut Pakistani aid

Washington's House Foreign Affairs Committee approved the Ukraine Support Act on Thursday, deducting a small amount of money from the aid it gives to Pakistan in favor of giving it to Ukraine instead (Dawn). While the $10 million earmarked for Ukraine is a fraction of the $1.5 billion given to Pakistan on an annual basis, Dawn argues that it reflects a shift in U.S. focus from helping people in Pakistan's tribal areas. The bill, which passed through the committee with overwhelming bipartisan support, will be used to expand the Balkan, Russian, Tatar, and Ukrainian language services of RFE/RL and Voice of America, at the expense of programs currently being broadcast in Pashto. It will now go to the full House for further action.


Tribal tensions emerge ahead of vote 

With just a week to go until Afghanistan's 2014 presidential election, violence is growing in Kandahar province, highlighting "a rift between Pashtun tribes that could tip the country back into civil war" (Reuters). Reuters reporters Hamid Shalizi and Jessica Donati note that the fate of Kandahar, the birthplace of the Taliban, is crucial and centers around Zalmai Rassoul, considered one of the top three contenders -- some Afghans fear a Rassoul loss could push the province's powerful Pashtun tribes to reject Kabul, while others fear a Rassoul win could lead to the same result.

While Tooryalai Wesa, the provincial governor, has doubled the size of the provincial army and driven the Taliban to the edge of the region, the militants were still able to attack a building housing an intelligence agency and kill his chief of staff last week. Speaking to Shalizi and Donati about the election, Wesa said: "If Kandahar is peaceful, Afghanistan is peaceful. The key of Afghanistan is here. The history and politics of Afghanistan have always belonged to Kandahar." 

These tensions are emerging in other parts of the country as well, with the Wall Street Journal reporting that supporters of Abdul Rashid Dostum, a powerful warlord, are ripping down campaign posters for Dostum's competitors and threatening their campaign teams in Jawzjan province (WSJ). Observers are also concerned that the likelihood of fraud is growing in provinces like Balkh and Herat, where local officials have been campaigning for different candidates, despite being banned from participating in those kinds of political activities. 

Dunford: Excess equipment is staying in Afghanistan

Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, rejected a recent Washington Post report that said surplus military equipment in the war zone was being given to Pakistan. Speaking to reporters in Kabul on Thursday, Dunford said: "These reports are not correct. United States Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) does not provide or intend to provide any such equipment, including MRAPs [mine-resistant ambush-protected vehicles], from Afghanistan to Pakistan" (Pajhwok). He added that: "Our commitment to the Afghan people and the Afghan National Security Forces is unwavering."

Dunford's comments come more than a week after Afghan officials said they felt Afghanistan's growing military should be given the equipment, dismissing U.S. concerns that they would not be able to use the equipment and that to prevent it from falling into the hands of militants, it needed to either be destroyed or given to someone else. They also contradict testimony he gave before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee earlier this March, telling senators that the United States was considering donating some of its 1,200 MRAPs to the Pakistani military, which has been heavily hit by militants in recent years (VOA).

The images of modern day Afghanistan

A new NBC News photo gallery showcases images of modern-day life in Afghanistan, highlighting the juxtapositions that still exist more than 12 years after U.S. troops entered the country and toppled the Taliban (NBC News). The photos, taken by Reuters' Morteza Nikoubazl, show Afghan vendors sitting in makeshift hovels under a massive billboard advertising a new Samsung Galaxy device, female athletes performing karate moves while wearing hijabs, and several teenage boys playing video games at an Internet café. According to opening text, the gallery illustrates that despite decades of conflict, Afghanistan's capital city "is home to a vibrant youth scene of musicians, artists, athletes and activists."

-- Bailey Cahall


Five killed in Indian air force cargo crash

An Indian air force plane, the Super C-130J Hercules, crashed during a routine mission on Friday, killing at least two wing commanders, two squadron leaders, and a fifth crew member who was on board (Post, Mint, NYT, Reuters). After taking off from Agra air force base, the plane crashed 27 miles west of the Gwalior air base in Madhya Pradesh. 

While the cause of the crash is not yet known, it follows a recent spate of deaths in the Indian armed forces due to accidents or equipment failures; this year alone, accidents have claimed the lives of an engineer at a submarine construction site, a naval commander aboard a destroyer that was under construction, and two others in a fire aboard a submarine (WSJ India Realtime).

Six planes in the Indian fleet, built by Lockheed Martin and purchased by the Indian government three years ago at a cost of $1.1 billion, have been used in several search and rescue operations lately, including the recent search to find missing Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 in the South Andaman Sea.

Suspected militant attack in Kashmir leaves one/two dead

Three men dressed in Indian army uniforms attacked an army camp in the Kathua district of Kashmir on Friday, killing at least one soldier (BBC, Times of India). The three suspected militants hijacked a car on their way to the base and proceeded to fire at the forces inside. Reports indicate that one Indian soldier was injured in the ensuing gun battle. The incident occurred hours after Narendra Modi, the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, visited Kathua, a garrison town bordering Pakistan.

Sri Lanka

U.N. begins war crime investigations into Sri Lanka

The U.N. Human Rights Council voted 23 to 12, with 12 abstentions, on Thursday to begin investigations into human rights violations that took place at the end of the Sri Lankan civil war in 2009 (AJE, Guardian, Reuters). The resolution, moved by the United States, allows the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights to monitor investigations on war crimes in the country. The countries that voted against the resolution included China and Pakistan, while India was one of the countries that abstained from voting.

A U.N. report found that at least 40,000 people had been killed in the war, though the Sri Lankan government rejects this figure. U.N. Human Rights Commissioner Navi Pillay said the Sri Lankan government had made "little progress" in accounting for the atrocities after that the war, and that new evidence against human rights abuses continued to emerge (NYT). 

According to the New York Times, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Mahinda Rajpaksa responded to the development by saying that the U.N.'s decision interferes with the country's own reconciliation process, which would continue regardless of the investigation. Ravinath Ariyasinghe, Sri Lanka's envoy to the U.N., said the move was a serious breach of international law and "set a precedence on the sovereignty of nations."

The U.N. move culminates years of pressure on Sri Lanka to ensure credible investigations into the final months of its civil war against the Tamil Tigers, who led a rebellion movement to create an independent state of Eelam in the northern part of the island.

-- Shruti Jagirdar

Edited by Peter Bergen.