The South Asia Channel

Human Rights Lawyer Killed in Pakistan; Protests Erupt in Varanasi; Afghan Taliban Announce Start of Spring Offensive

Bonus Reads: "The Road to Delhi Runs Through Uttar Pradesh," Jyoti Malhotra (SouthAsia); "Pakistani Taliban Push in Punjab," Fahd Humayun (SouthAsia).

Pakistan 

Human rights lawyer killed by gunmen

Rashid Rehman, a prominent human rights lawyer in Pakistan, was shot and killed by unidentified gunmen posing as clients in the southern city of Multan on Wednesday for defending a professor accused of blasphemy; two other people in the office at the time were seriously injured (BBC, ET, Reuters). According to reports, Rehman had been representing Junaid Hafeez, an English lecturer at Pakistan's Bahauddin Zakariya University who was accused by hardline students of making blasphemous remarks against the Prophet Mohammed last March. Hafeez had not been able to find a lawyer until Rehman agreed to represent him in February.

While no one has claimed responsibility for the incident, Zulfikar Ali, a senior police officer, told the New York Times that Rehman had received death threats in open court on April 9 for his work on Hafeez's case, and that the initial investigation would focus on that connection (NYT).

Lawyers in Multan went on strike on Thursday to mourn Rehman and protest his murder (AFP). Sher Zaman Qureshi, the president of the District Bar Association in Multan, also called on police to arrest Rehman's killers immediately. 

Blast kills security forces in North Waziristan

At least nine members of the Pakistani Army were killed and more than a dozen others were injured early Thursday morning when a powerful explosion hit their convoy in North Waziristan (Dawn, ET, Reuters). According to a local security official that spoke to the New York Times, the convoy "came under attack while carrying troops to a checkpoint near the border with Afghanistan" (NYT). No one has claimed responsibility for the incident, though security forces have cordoned off the area and an investigation is underway.

FBI agent freed on bond

Joel Cox Eugene, an FBI agent who was detained at Karachi's Jinnah International Airport on Monday for trying to board a plane with 15 rounds of ammunition and a knife, was released on bail Thursday (Dawn, ET). According to Rao Anwaar, a local police official, a Karachi judge directed Eugene to submit a surety bond of one million rupees ($9,800) to the court (AP). Eugene was in Pakistan as part of a multi-agency effort to help Pakistani security forces fight corruption, and had apparently forgotten about the contraband in his bag.

-- Bailey Cahall 

India

Protests in Varanasi after Modi denied rally 

Protests erupted in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh on Wednesday after India's Election Commission withdrew its permission to prime ministerial hopeful Narendra Modi to hold a rally in the city, citing security concerns (BBC, Indian Express, NDTV). Varanasi is one of two constituencies where Modi is standing for election, the other being Vadodara in his home state of Gujarat. Party workers from Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) gathered outside the Benaras Hindu University in the city and chanted slogans of protest.

Modi and BJP leader Arun Jaitley accused the district election officer, Pranjal Yadav, of bias, as Congress rival Rahul Gandhi had addressed a rally in Varanasi last Saturday. BJP workers also began protesting outside the commission's headquarters in New Delhi. As a result, Modi will now be addressing a rally outside the city's limits. Communist Party of India leader Sitaram Yechury argued that the BJP's rally was a bid to incite communal frenzy in the city (NDTV). 

In a sudden turn around, however, Yadav reportedly granted permission late Wednesday night to Modi to carry out election activities other than a rally, but the BJP said it was "too little, too late." 

Varanasi, regarded as one of the holiest Hindu cities, will vote in the final phase of elections on May 12, and will decide the electoral fate of Modi, the current chief minister of Gujarat and, according to some polls, a frontrunner in the election, as well as that of Arvind Kejriwal, who founded the Aam Aadmi Party, one of the nation's newest parties, on an anti-corruption platform. 

In other election-related news around Uttar Pradesh, Gandhi was heckled outside election booths in his constituency of Amethi, with voters reportedly chanting pro-Modi slogans upon seeing him (Indian Express). When asked about the incident, Gandhi said the sloganeers were likely from rival parties and that: "they do not have anger only for my family but for the entire nation." Preeti Sahay, Gandhi's sister's secretary, was also asked to leave Amethi after the BJP's Smriti Irani, a rival candidate, alleged that she was attempting to influence voters (Indian Express).

44 Indians shortlisted for one-way trip to Mars 

Forty-four Indians, including 17 women, have made it onto a shortlist of 705 people for the Netherlands-based Mars One project, which will send four people to inhabit the red planet in 2024 (The Hindu). An astounding 20,000 Indians had applied for the position in the first round. The selected candidates have reportedly passed health checks and will now have one-on-one interviews with the group running the program.

-- Shruti Jagirdar 

Afghanistan

Taliban ready to launch spring offensive

Members of the Afghan Taliban announced on Thursday that they will launch their annual spring offensive next Monday, May 12, and "pledged to continue fighting even if only a small number of U.S.-led forces remain in the country after their mandate expires in December" (WSJ). According to the Wall Street Journal, the Taliban said they would focus on foreign troops, "diplomatic centers," and contractors, as well as Afghan government officials, parliamentarians, and judges, though they didn't provide any specific targets.

Maj. Gen. Antonio Satta, an Italian soldier assisting U.S. commander Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., said the violence would likely increase after Afghanistan's poppy harvest comes to an end in a few weeks, and as the Taliban tries to disrupt the second round of voting in the country's 2014 presidential election. With the election's first round being relatively secure, Satta said that: "They lost credibility, so we are expecting them to try to prove they are still able to achieve something."

U.S. State Department issues more visas for Afghan interpreters

The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that the U.S. "State Department has dramatically ramped up the approval of resettlement visas for Afghan military interpreters this year under a program that a bipartisan group of lawmakers is seeking to extend and expand, arguing that the system has failed many linguists who remain in mortal danger" (Post). The bill, which members of the House and Senate will introduce Thursday, would extend the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program -- which is set to stop receiving applications this fall -- until the end of 2015 and open it up to 3,000 more petitioners. It would also "enable Afghan interpreters who have been approved for resettlement to immigrate with parents, siblings, and adult children who can independently demonstrate that they are in danger." If the bill becomes law, Afghans who worked for American news outlets, nongovernmental organizations, and coalition troops would be eligible for resettlement.

Speaking to the Post's Ernesto Londoño, lawmakers said they felt compelled to do more to help Afghans who are at risk for helping the United States. "Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), who is sponsoring the House version of the bill with Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-Ill.), a former Air Force pilot who served in Afghanistan," told Londoño that: "'We have frankly fallen short of the mark.'"

-- Bailey Cahall 

Edited by Peter Bergen.

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