30 November 2012

India hangs sole surviving Mumbai terrorist

Indiahas executed Pakistani national Mohammad Ajmal Kasab, the only terrorist to have survived the 2008 attacks in Mumbai that killed 166 people.

In August this year,India’s Supreme Court upheld Kasab’s death sentence, and on November 21, home ministry spokesman KS Dhatwalia announced: ‘Ajmal Kasab was executed at 7.30 am.’

Kasab’s death was almost universally welcomed inIndia. ‘Kasab deserved the extreme punishment… I think one sad, sorrowful chapter has come to an end,’ said P Chidambaram, who served as Home Minister following the attacks with a brief to reform the police and domestic intelligence agencies. He said victims’ families would now have ‘some sense of satisfaction that justice has been done in the case of the one perpetrator who we were able to capture alive’.

During interrogation, Kasab had said he belonged to the militant group Lashkar-e-Toiba (L-e-T). Speaking by phone fromPakistan, an L-e-T commander called him a ‘hero’ who will inspire more attacks.

Pakistan’s Taliban movement expressed shock overIndia’s execution of Kasab, calling it ‘very shocking news and a big loss that a Muslim has been hanged on Indian soil’.

But Smita Salaskar, wife of police officer Vijay Salaskar who died during the carnage, described the hanging as a ‘homage’ to her husband.

Foreign Minister Salman Khurshid said the government sent the news to a Pakistani address Kasab gave during his confessions. ‘We have allowed the rule of law to prevail,’ he told reporters. ‘Similarly we hope and expect the rule of law to prevail inPakistanas well.’

Pakistansaid it condemned terrorism ‘in all its forms’ and was willing to cooperate with other countries to eliminate it.

Imran Khan’s party seeks revenge following Kasab hanging

Angered by India’s ‘secret’ decision to hang 26/11 convict Ajmal Kasab, cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) has urged the Pakistan government to immediately hang Indian national Sarabjit Singh, who has been jailed in Pakistan for the last 22 years.

India hanged Kasab, a terrorist with roots in Pakistan, on November 21 without prior public information. Demanding retaliation, the PTI recently held a rally in Multan where a leader of the party demanded that Sarabjit Singh be executed without delay.

‘India only waited for less than a month following the final judicial order and we are protecting terrorists for eight years,’ said Naeemullah Khan, a PTI leader.

Another voice of revenge has come from the Pakistan Taliban, which has threatened to attack Indian targets to avenge Kasab’s death.

Following the hanging, the PTI leader said President Asif Ali Zardari had proved to be a hurdle in the execution of the terrorists on death row.

Sarabjit Singh has been on death row in Pakistan over espionage and charges of terror. He was captured by Pakistani forces in 1991 and has since been fighting to prove his innocence. His family and human rights groups have always maintained that this is a case of mistaken identity, and Indian calls for his freedom have never died down, with the Press council of India chairman Markandey Katju recently writing to the president of Pakistan to appeal for his release. Punjab’s deputy chief minister Sukhbir Badal also visited Pakistan and asked the chief minister of Pakistan’s Punjab province to press his government to free Sarabjit.

Qatada gets bail after winning latest appeal

Abu Qatada is to be freed after winning his latest appeal against extradition, in a major blow to UK Home Secretary Theresa May.

The Special Immigration Appeals Commission (SIAC) decided the radical cleric would not get a fair trial in Jordan because evidence obtained via torture could be used against him. This is despite the Home Secretary securing assurances from the country that this would not happen.

Qatada will be released on bail after Home Office lawyers failed to persuade SIAC judges he should remain behind bars. They insisted that the Palestinian-born Jordanian cleric, real name Omar Mahmoud Mohammed Othman, poses ‘an enormous risk to national security’.

But Edward Fitzgerald QC, for Qatada, declared: ‘Enough is enough. It has gone on for many years now. There is no prospect of deportation taking place within a reasonable time, in fact there is no prospect at present of deportation at all.’

The successful appeal is the latest twist in a battle that has lasted more than a decade. SIAC has already rejected the government’s application to challenge the decision but permission can still be sought at the Court of Appeal.

Home Secretary Theresa May announced to MPs in the House of Commons that she will contest the ruling.

Syrian blasts kill 38

Simultaneous car bombings have killed at least 38 people and left a trail of destruction in a town near Syria’s capital, as rebels downed a military aircraft for a second straight day.

The explosives-packed cars were detonated at daybreak in a pro-regime neighbourhood of the mainly Christian and Druze town of Jaramana. The blasts ripped through a central square near a petrol station, sending residents fleeing in panic.

The death toll mounted as the morning wore on, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights giving tallies of 20, then 29 and finally at least 38. The interior ministry put the count at 34.

‘Activists and residents in the town said most of the victims were killed when a suicide attacker blew up his car, just after an explosive device was used to blow up another car,’ said the Observatory.

Jarmana has now been targeted by four such bomb attacks in three months. It is home to predominantly Christians and Druze, an influential minority whose faith is an offshoot of Shiite Islam.

Sectarian divides are a key factor in Syria’s armed rebellion, with many in the Sunni Muslim majority frustrated at more than 40 years of Alawite-dominated rule.

The regime of President Bashar al-Assad, himself from the Alawite offshoot of Shiite Islam, insists it is fighting foreign-backed ‘terrorists’. The failure of international diplomacy has enabled it to press on with its all-out military campaign to crush the rebellion, and the fighting has resulted in more than 40,000 deaths, according to the Observatory.

US Af-Pak special envoy to quit

The US special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan is stepping down, an official said, in yet another shake-up of President Barack Obama’s foreign policy team.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, herself set to leave office early next year, had pulled envoy Marc Grossman out of retirement to take on the difficult job shortly after the sudden death of veteran diplomat Richard Holbrooke in December 2010.

Grossman’s spokeswoman Laura Lucas said that ‘after almost two years in the position, and with Secretary Clinton’s agreement, he will return to private life’.

Clinton had thanked Grossman for building ‘a diplomatic surge’ and an intense global focus which ‘have put in place a network of regional and international support for Afghanistan post 2014 and into the next decade’, Lucas added.

‘His work also helped set the conditions for an Afghan peace process that will enable Afghans to talk with other Afghans in pursuit of a negotiated settlement to end decades of conflict.’

Grossman, 61, has travelled relentlessly in the region, and his behind-the-scenes efforts helped persuade Pakistan to reopen its border crossings with Afghanistan to NATO convoys earlier this year. They had been closed amid a row over the killing of 24 Pakistani troops in a US air strike.

His work over the past two years had also supported Obama’s ‘objectives to disrupt and defeat al-Qaeda and ensure that Afghanistan can no longer become a safe haven for terrorists’, Lucas added.

Grossman will step down next month and Ambassador David Pearce, currently principal deputy special representative, will serve as the acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mass protest against Egypt’s president

More than 200 000 people have packed Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest against Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi’s new ‘pharaoh’ powers.

They accused the Islamist leader of seeking to impose a new era of autocracy after he issued a decree that expanded his powers and barred court challenges to his decisions.

The demonstration in the iconic plaza was as large as some of the protests during last year’s uprising that drove ex-president Hosni Mubarak from power. The same chants aimed against Mubarak have now been directed towards the country’s first freely-elected leader.

Police fired tear gas at stone-throwing youths in streets near the protest and there were clashes between Morsi’s opponents and supporters in a city north of Cairo.

Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, faces the biggest challenge in his five months in office.

‘The people want to bring down the regime,’ protesters in Tahrir Square chanted, echoing slogans used in the 2011 revolt.

‘We don’t want a dictatorship again… We had a revolution to have justice and freedom,’ said one demonstrator in Cairo.

Protesters also demonstrated in Alexandria, Suez, Minya and other Nile Delta cities, and two demonstrators have died since Morsi issued his decree.

The president’s administration has defended the decree as an attempt to speed up reforms and complete a democratic transformation. But opponents say Morsi is behaving like a modern-day pharaoh, a jibe that was also levelled at Mubarak.

Catalan ruling party says nationhood campaign still alive

Catalonia’s ruling party has vowed to hold a referendum on self-determination, spearheading a fight to split from Spain despite a recent election setback.

Still smarting from the November 25 vote, which slashed its majority, the governing Convergence and Union alliance said Catalans had nevertheless supported its proposal of a referendum.

Though votes for the ruling alliance fell, support for another pro-independence group surged.

‘There will have to be a consultation because it is a mandate from the people of Catalonia, we have to be true to the mandate,’ Catalan government spokesman Francesc Homs said.

The timing of the poll would be decided by the northeastern region’s government, Homs told local radio.

Catalan president Artur Mas’s centre-right alliance remained well ahead in the vote but its share of the 135 parliamentary seats plunged from 62 to just 50. Republican Left of Catalonia, a left-wing pro-independence party, surged from 10 seats to 21.

The results mean pro-sovereignty parties from right and left have a clear combined majority, but the prospects of them joining in battle for a new nation of 7.5 million people remain uncertain.

France to back Palestinian bid for enhanced UN status

France is to back a Palestinian bid for enhanced UN status at an upcoming General Assembly vote, a move hailed by the Palestinians as a ‘historic’ step in their quest for greater global recognition.

Triggering public disagreement from close ally the United States, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Paris had a ‘consistent position’ in support of recognising a Palestinian state.

He told the National Assembly that France, one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, would vote for ‘non-member observer state’ status for the Palestinians.

France is the first European power to voice its approval of the Palestinian move to upgrade its current permanent observer status. Switzerland, Denmark and Austria have also said they will vote for the upgrade, though Britain has said it will abstain on a vote unless the Palestinians commit to an immediate return to negotiations with Israel.

The proposal is set to sail through as it has the backing of the majority of the UN’s 193 member states. It will improve the chances of the Palestinians joining the International Criminal Court and UN agencies. The Palestinians want to launch legal action in The Hague-based court to challengeIsrael’s occupation of theWest Bank.

Thai government survives censure vote after clashes

Thailand’s government survived a recent no-confidence vote, just days after clashes in Bangkok between protesters and riot police in the largest demonstration against Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra’s 16-month-old administration.

Yingluck has enjoyed a period of stability after years of upheaval and her government’s better-than-expected performance in the debate, coupled with the low turnout for the November 24 protest which quickly fizzled out, strengthen her leadership while offering a reminder of Thailand’s stubborn political divisions.

Her Puea Thai Party and coalition partners dominate the lower house and comfortably survived the televised, three-day debate during which the opposition focused on a rice intervention scheme that it says is riddled with corruption.

‘We incurred losses trying to help Thailand’s poor farmers but the scheme is transparent,’ Yingluck said.

However, the opposition accused the government of allowing private companies with ties to it to benefit from the policy, and is still threatening to lodge a complaint with the National Anti-Corruption Commission over the rice policy.

Pakistan tests nuclear-capable ballistic missile

Pakistan has successfully test-fired a nuclear-capable ballistic missile that can hit targets up to 1 300 km (807 miles) away, the military has said.

The Hatf-V is a medium-range ballistic missile, capable of reaching targets in India.

‘The test consolidates and strengthens Pakistan’s deterrence capability and national security,’ the military said in a recent release.

Pakistan and India have been developing missiles of varying ranges since they conducted nuclear tests in May 1998. US intelligence estimates last year put the number of nuclear weapons developed by Pakistan at 90 to 110. Analysts say its nuclear arsenal is the fastest growing one in the world.

Pakistan, like neighbouring India, is not a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. It says its nuclear weapons capability is a deterrent against India’s much larger conventional military.

Ahmadinejad hints at readiness to continue supplying Hamas rockets

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has offered a qualified welcome to the truce between Israel and Hamas but has said he is ready to continue supplying rockets to Palestinian fighters in Gaza.

Iranian Fajr-5 missiles have been credited with adding a new dimension to the Hamas arsenal, their 50-mile range allowing them to threaten Tel Aviv andJerusalem during intense exchanges withIsrael.

‘These are fireworks,’ said Ahmadinejad during a news conference in the Pakistani capital Islamabad. ‘These are good things but war is a bad thing.

‘We should try to make sure there is no war. But defence is the right of every nation.’

A day earlier, Ali Larijani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, said Tehran was supplying military aid to Hamas, the Islamist group running Gaza, confirming long-standing Israeli and Western accusations.

At the same time, Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas, thanked Iran for its support during the conflict.

Mr Ahmadinejad was in Islamabad on 22 November to attend the D8 summit of mostly Muslim, developing nations.

He used his visit to welcome the recent ceasefire, but also said that nations should unite to stand against Israel. ‘Zionism is a serious threat for the world. They have a hand behind all subversive activities and terrorism, and Palestinians are being made victims of Zionist plans,’ he said.

Myanmar frees political prisoners on day of historic Obama visit

Myanmar’s government began releasing dozens of political prisoners as Barack Obama arrived for the first visit by a sitting US president to the former dictatorship.

Sixty-six prisoners were scheduled to be freed, two-thirds of them dissidents, according to prison officials and activists. They included prominent figures such as Myint Aye, a senior Prison Department said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

A third of those released were former military intelligence personnel who fell foul of the junta, according to the 88 Generation Students political group.

Myint Aye is arguably the most prominent dissident left in Myanmar’s gulag. He was one of dozens of activists arrested on what Amnesty International says were trumped-up charges and convicted in secret courts on flimsy evidence or confessions extracted under torture.

A former member of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, he was arrested for the ninth time in August 2008 for his alleged role in the bombing of an office belonging to a junta-backed political organisation.

Myint Aye confessed to the bombing after military intelligence officers forced him to watch the torture of his co-accused, said his lawyer.

‘I know they freed us just because of President Obama’s trip,’ Yan Shwe, who was convicted with Myint Aye, told Reuters in a telephone interview shortly after his release from Kale Prison in northwest Myanmar.

International human rights groups accused President Obama of ignoring abuses in Myanmar and Cambodia while honouring them with his first presidential visit since his re-election.

Obama denied his visit to Myanmar was an endorsement of the country’s government, but rather an acknowledgement of the progress made towards democratisation and abandoning its pariah status earned during 49 years of military rule.

Boko Haram member sends letter offering dialogue

A purported senior member of Islamist militant group Boko Haram has distributed a letter requesting talks with the government, a day after a double suicide bombing blamed on the sect killed 15 and wounded 30 in an army barracks in northern Nigeria.

The letter was signed by Sheik Abu Mohammed Ibn Abdulazeez, a man known by local security sources to be a sect member but considered to be a moderate.

If the letter is genuine, it would appear to mark a change of tack for the Islamists, who are waging an insurgency to try and impose Sharia law on Nigeria. Yet it fits ill with a spate of violent episodes, including the bombing of the military church on Sunday November 25. That bombing showed a degree of sophistication not seen from Boko Haram for months.

Nearly 3,000 people have died violent deaths related to the conflict since the sect launched its uprising in 2009, according to a count by Human Rights Watch. Boko Haram has replaced militancy in the oil-rich Niger Delta over that time to become the biggest security threat to Africa’s top energy producer.

The letter was handed to the national head of the union of journalists, Aba Kakami, who has often received and distributed statements from the sect, usually claiming attacks against high profile targets or warning of them.