Pakistan: Taliban and government begin peace talks

Intermediaries from the Pakistan Taliban met with government negotiators in the capital Islamabad on February 4 to sketch out a strategy for peace talks.

The previous week Nawaz Sharif, the country’s prime minister, had announced one last attempt at a negotiated settlement with the terrorists, who have killed tens of thousands of people during their seven-year insurgency.

His move dashed hopes in some quarters that Pakistan had tired of waiting for the movement to come to the table and was about to launch a military offensive against militant havens in North Waziristan, close to the border with Afghanistan.

Speaking just before the two teams of negotiators were due to meet for the first time, Mr Sharif said he would personally supervise the talks process.

‘It is my utmost desire that the committees formed by the government and the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan make headway in the talks,’ he said.

Taliban commanders have circulated ten demands they will pursue, including the withdrawal of the army from tribal areas. Other militant figures have distanced themselves from those goals, while Imran Khan, who has led calls for peace talks, declined the invitation to join the team.

Opponents of talks point to a bloody campaign of bombings in January and insist the Taliban must lay down their arms before any negotiations can begin.

Afghanistan: Karzai and Taliban in secret talks

Afghanistan’s President Hamid Karzai has been holding secret talks with Taliban officials in the hope of persuading them to make peace with his government, it has been reported.

According to reports in the Western media, Karzai’s spokesman had confirmed contact had been made with the Taliban and described the past two months as positive. Officials, however, said that the Taliban-initiated talks had been fruitless so far, although they may help explain Karzai’s mounting public hostility to Washington.

In November — around the same time the secret talks reportedly began — Karzai announced his intention to avoid signing a bilateral security deal with the United States until after a presidential election in April. Karzai has served two terms and cannot run again.

President Barack Obama, frustrated by Karzai’s refusal to sign the accord, was due to meet top commanders at the White House on February 4 to discuss the future of the US mission in Afghanistan. Relations have deteriorated sharply over Karzai’s refusal to sign, weakening already scant support for the war in Washington, which has halved aid for civilian assistance in the fiscal year 2014.

Washington has signalled it could pull all troops out after 2014, unless a deal is signed soon. This would leave Afghanistan’s fledgling security forces to fight the Taliban insurgency alone and diplomats fear they would struggle to cope without US financial and military support.

The Taliban have vowed to derail the April 5 election and the recent increase in violence in the capital over January and February suggests secret talks with Karzai have made little difference to their stated intention to step up attacks.

Leading Muslim scholars back new report countering jihadism

Leading Muslim scholars — including one from al-Azhar in Cairo, Sunni Islam’s highest religious authority — have endorsed the Henry Jackson Society’s new report, A Guide to Refuting Jihadism, the first English-language handbook to comprehensively debunk the theological basis of jihadist aims and methods.

The killing of Fusilier Lee Rigby last year was a shocking reminder of the threat posed by violent extremism at home as well as abroad. Jihadist groups offer theological reasoning in support of their political ideology and violent activities.

By demonstrating that these arguments are not based on traditionally recognised interpretations of classical Islamic sources, A Guide to Refuting Jihadism provides a scripturally sound counter-narrative to al-Qaeda and like-minded groups.

The report examines the Islamist division of the world into Dar al-Islam (‘lands of Islam’) and Dar al-Harb (‘lands of war’) and counters key jihadist tenets, including re-conquering Islamic lands, rejecting peaceful relations and re-establishing the Caliphate.

A Guide to Refuting Jihadism also demonstrates the prohibition on jihadist methods, including non-state actors declaring jihad; jihad for conversion or domination; targeting non-combatants; suicide operations; and treachery towards one’s country.

British jihadist killed in Syria

A Briton has been killed while fighting rebel groups in Syria, according to his comrades in the field.

The jihadist, who used the nom de guerre Aby Layth, and who frequently tweeted and blogged about his experiences in Syria, is the seventh recorded Briton to have died in the conflict.

Shiraz Maher, a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, said the jihadist, who was of Afghan ethnic origin, had ‘ties to both the United Kingdom and the United States’. Little is known of Abu Layth’s true identity, or where he lived in the UK.

Abu Layth travelled to Syria to join the extremist group the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. He tweeted frequently and blogged on a Tumblr account, using language peppered with British slang.

Security officials say several hundred Britons are known to have joined the fight in Syria — eclipsing the number who travelled to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

US report shows 2013 upsurge in overturn of wrongful convictions

A near-record number of wrongful convictions in the US were overturned in 2013, a report released on February 4 has found. Out of almost 1,300 criminals whose convictions were overturned in the past 25 years, 87 were exonerated in 2013 alone, the fastest pace since 2009, according to the National Registry of Exonerations.

Contrary to what many people imagine, DNA is only involved in 20 per cent (one fifth) of exonerations, the registry found.

In 38 per cent of cases convicts were exonerated ‘at the initiative or with the cooperation of law enforcement,’ which could mean authorities are playing more active roles in exonerations, the report found. Fifteen of the 87 exonerations in 2013 (17 per cent) occurred with convictions where defendants had pleaded guilty, also a record number.

Innocent people sometimes ‘plead guilty because they were afraid that if they went to trial they’d be convicted and would get a prison sentence that is much longer than with a guilty plea,’ explained the report’s lead author Samuel Gross. ‘Perhaps even they’d be sentenced to death,’ he added, saying ‘they plead guilty to avoid that danger.’

The study found more than half of all exonerations — 56 per cent — were attributed to false accusations or perjury from witnesses. Another 46 per cent were attributed to official misconduct, while just over a third — 38 per cent — were due to mistaken eyewitness identification. Some exonerations were linked to more than one cause.

Saudi religious police chief to crack down on extremists

The head of Saudi Arabia’s religious police has admitted the presence of extremists within its ranks, labelling them ‘advocates of sedition’ and vowing to remove them, local media reported on February 4.

Sheikh Abdullatif al-Sheikh’s comments came the day after King Abdullah decreed jail terms of up to 20 years for citizens who travel to fight abroad or those belonging to ‘extremist religious and ideological groups, or those classified as terrorist organisations’, as the kingdom struggles to deter young Saudis from becoming jihadists. Supporting such groups, adopting their ideology or promoting them ‘through speech or writing’ would also incur prison sentences, the decree added.

Saudi officials have issued increasingly stern warnings against the scores of volunteers from the conservative Sunni Muslim kingdom heading to fight alongside the mainly Sunni rebels battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. The kingdom has been a key backer of the nearly three-year rebellion against Assad’s regime, which is dominated by the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Riyadh set up specialised terrorism courts in 2011 to try dozens of Saudis and foreigners accused of belonging to al-Qaeda or of being involved in a wave of bloody attacks that swept the country from 2003.

Iraq’s illegal detention and torture of women

Iraqi authorities are detaining thousands of women illegally and subjecting many to torture and ill-treatment, including the threat of sexual abuse, Human Rights Watch has said in a recent report.

Many women were detained for months or even years without charge before seeing a judge, HRW said, and security forces often questioned them about their male relatives’ activities rather than crimes in which they themselves were implicated.

In custody, women described being kicked, slapped, hung upside-down and beaten on the soles of their feet, given electric shocks, threatened with sexual assault by security forces during interrogation, and even raped in front of their relatives and children.

‘The abuses of women we documented are in many ways at the heart of the current crisis in Iraq,’ said HRW’s deputy Middle East and North Africa director Joe Stork in a statement accompanying the report, titled ‘No One Is Safe: Abuses of Women in Iraq’s Criminal Justice System’.

‘These abuses have caused a deep-seated anger and lack of trust between Iraq’s diverse communities and security forces, and all Iraqis are paying the price.’

A spokesman for Iraq’s Human Rights Ministry said the testimonies in the HRW report were ‘over-exaggerated’, but acknowledged that ‘we have some limited illegal behaviours which were practised by security forces against women prisoners’, which it said had been identified by the ministry’s own teams. These teams had referred their reports to the relevant authorities, ‘asking them to bring those who are responsible for mistreating female detainees to justice’, the spokesman said.

India denies UK role in Operation Bluestar

India has rubbished and rejected reports that the British government played a clandestine role during Operation Bluestar to flush out Sikh militants from the Golden Temple premises in Amritsar in June 1984.

External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid told the media in India that as per government records, there is no evidence to suggest that the British government or its defence ministry had a role to play in the operation.

‘Our records don’t indicate anything,’ he said, maintaining that the whole operation was managed by the army.

‘Lt Gen Brar has also clarified it was an army operation. The operation was planned by the army entirely,’ he said.

Khurshid’s statement came as British Foreign Secretary William Hague issued a statement that London did advise New Delhi on planning the deadly attack against separatists in the Golden Temple at Amritsar in 1984, which in turn has sparked off protests by Sikh bodies in India.

British prime minister David Cameron ordered a review into the matter last month after the government inadvertently released official papers suggesting that then prime minister Margaret Thatcher had sent an officer from the elite SAS special air service to advise India on the raid.

Libya congress sets February 20 for constitution assembly vote

Libya’s interim parliament has set February 20 as the date for a national election to choose a 60-member assembly to draft the country’s constitution, intended to advance a transition to democracy more than two years after a NATO-backed uprising toppled Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, the head of the interim parliament said on January 30.

‘We want all Libyan people and groups to reconcile and support these elections,’ Nouri Abusahmain, president of the General National Congress (GNC), said after announcing the date.

Once the constitutional assembly is elected it will have 120 days to draft a new charter, which would then be submitted to a popular referendum. If the document is approved, an election for a proper parliament would be held in late 2014.

Libya is mired in political chaos, with the GNC deadlocked between Islamists and the nationalist National Forces Alliance party, and its nascent army struggling to assert itself against unruly former rebels, tribal groups and Islamist militants.

Egypt’s al-Sisi moves towards presidency

On January 27, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi was named Field Marshal, Egypt’s highest military rank. Shortly after Egypt’s military-appointed interim president, Adly Mansour, announced the promotion, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces gave al-Sisi, who currently holds the portfolio of defence and serves as deputy prime minister, support to run for president.

These events confirm what has been increasingly evident since al-Sisi mounted the popularly backed military coup in July, toppling the government of President Mohammed Morsi: that the general would assume the presidency for himself instead of playing kingmaker. However, questions remain about how he will transition from military chief to civilian president.

Al-Sisi’s promotion is critical as it will allow him to try to control the military even after becoming a civilian president. Comparisons can be made with Pakistan in past decades, with al-Sisi following the examples of former Pakistani presidents Gen. Muhammed Zia-ul-Haq and Gen. Ayub Khan.
Like al-Sisi, Ayub was highly popular when he mounted a coup in 1958 after a series of failed civilian governments. At the time, he was defence minister for President Iskandar Mirza, who Ayub ousted before pursuing the presidency and recreating Pakistan’s political system. Most important, Ayub had himself promoted to field marshal, paving the way for his election in 1964.

Nevertheless, General al-Sisi will face a difficult situation. He will need to deal with the parallel challenges of containing Egypt’s political unrest and its growing jihadist insurgency while also inheriting a deeply troubled economy under heavy stress. Should he prove unable to manage the situation, the general could meet a fate similar to Ayub’s, since Egypt’s new military chief and the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will only support al-Sisi for as long as he can govern effectively.

Turkey’s strict new internet laws criticised

Turkey’s government is tightening controls on the internet, with MPs voting to allow the country’s telecoms authority to block websites without a court order.

The new internet laws will force internet providers to keep records on web users’ activities for two years and make them available to authorities without informing the users.

The controversial move has been criticised by European Commission spokesman Peter Stano who said the restrictions — including the blocking of webpages without a court order — raised ‘serious concerns’ and needed ‘to be revised in line with European standards’.

Turkey wants to become a member of the EU.

The introduction of the laws come as PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seen as trying to bring the judiciary and police under his control as they investigate a deeply embarrassing corruption case that has seen the dismissal of four government ministers.

This past summer’s anti-government protests were largely organised online and people also turned to social media such as Facebook and Twitter for news of the rallies as most media outlets initially shied away from covering the protests.

At the time, the prime minister called Twitter a social ‘menace’.

Opposition MP Faruk Logoglu from the Republican People’s Party said the measures were ‘nothing but a way to intimidate the people, to tell them “Big Brother is watching you”.’

The Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe has warned that the curbs could ‘significantly impact free expression, investigative journalism, the protection of journalists’ sources, political discourse and access to information over the Internet’.

India visa-on-arrival scheme to be extended

The Indian government has decided to extend the country’s limited visa-on-arrival scheme to tourists from 180 countries in an attempt to boost tourism and business. It plans to implement the scheme from October.

The only exceptions to the scheme will be nationals from eight countries, including Pakistan and Afghanistan.

India currently offers visa-on-arrival to tourists from only 11 countries, including Finland, Singapore and Japan. Tourism Minister K Chiranjeevi said the move would encourage visitors to India.

‘This is a very good step. The visa-on-arrival for 180 countries will definitely boost the foreign tourist arrivals in the country,’ he said.
Planning Minister Rajeev Shukla said he expected the rollout to be completed by the autumn.

‘It will take five to six months for the respective departments to put the required infrastructure in place. We hope to implement this from the next tourist session beginning October,’ he said.

He said the electronic visa-on-arrival would be available at 26 major airports in India and would be valid for 30 days from the date of the tourist’s arrival in India.

The government plans to set up a website enabling tourists to apply for the visa and pay the fee. The visa would then be available for collection on arrival at any airport after three days.

Mr Shukla did not state any reasons why nationals from Pakistan, Sudan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Somalia were not included in the scheme.