High voter turnout in J&K elections

In Jammu & Kashmir, a re-run of record polling in the first phase saw a 71 per cent voter turnout registered in the second phase of incident-free Assembly elections on 2 December, as the electorate again ignored calls for a boycott from separatist groups.

The first phase of the five-phase polls for 15 seats on November 25 witnessed a record 71.28 per cent turnout, and a total of 65.46 per cent of votes were cast in 20 of the 81 assembly seats in this second stage.

Dealing a serious blow to separatist politics, enthusiastic voters stood in serpentine queues at several polling stations waiting for their turn.
‘The latest figures that we have for the second phase of polls in Jammu and Kashmir is 71 per cent. We expect these numbers to go up by 1-2 per cent further,’ Deputy Election Commissioner Vinod Zutshi told reporters in Delhi.

This second phase involved an electorate of 15.35 lakh. A total of 175 candidates, including four sitting ministers and 11 other sitting MLAs, were in the fray, and there was tight security in Kulgam and Kupwara districts following recent back-to-back attacks by militants on two sarpanches, in which one was killed.

Of the 18 constituencies, Handwara in the north Kashmir Kupwara district was in focus as separatist-turned-mainstream politician Sajad Gani Lone is making a debut in Assembly elections after unsuccessfully contesting the Lok Sabha polls in 2009.

Putin Visit Takes Indo-Russian Relations to New High

Indo-Russia relations reached a new high with visiting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Narendra Modi presiding over the signing of a “vision” document setting out a roadmap for cooperation in the sphere of nuclear power. The two sides signed billions of dollars of deals in nuclear power, oil and defence. While Russia will build 12 nuclear reactors in India, Russian oil major Rosneft signed a 10-year crude supply deal with Essar Oil. India signed a contract to assemble 400 Russian multi-role Ka-226T twin-engine helicopters a year. A 1,000-megawatt reactor is already operating at the Russian-built Kudankulam power station in Tamil Nadu, with a second due on-stream in 2015. Indian officials said a total of six reactors will be built at Kudankulam. A further six will follow at a site to be determined. Putin said Russia could eventually supply India with 20 nuclear reactors. Other strategic deals covered infrastructure and increase in direct diamond sales to India by Russia’s state-owned Alrosa. The two sides agreed to move ahead with long-delayed projects to develop a joint fifth-generation fighter jet and multi-role transport aircraft. Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke after a one-day summit that sought to revive a relationship that peaked in the Soviet era. “Even if India’s options have increased, Russia remains our most important defence partner,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi after the one-day summit. He told President Vladimir Putin that Russia will remain India’s top defence supplier “We highly appreciate the friendship, trust and mutual understanding with Indian partners,” added Putin. President Putin’s India visit comes at a time when the Kremlin grapples with sliding oil prices and an economy that has been undermined by Western sanctions over the Ukraine imbroglio.

US repatriates senior Taliban commander to Pakistan

A senior Pakistani Taliban commander, Latif Mehsud, has reportedly been handed over to Pakistan by the US from Afghanistan.

The US military confirmed it ‘transferred custody’ of three Pakistanis, but did not reveal their identities. The Afghan government was not involved in the transfer, the US said.

Repatriation of a senior Taliban figure is extremely unusual but could relate to attempts to improve Afghanistan-Pakistan ties, some correspondents are saying.

While the US did not confirm Latif Mehsud was among those transferred, Pakistani officials said Latif Mehsud had been ‘released’. Several senior officials said that the commander had been secretly flown to Pakistan earlier this week.

Latif Mehsud was second-in-command to the former Pakistan Taliban chief Hakimullah Mehsud, who was killed in a US drone strike last year. Mehsud was seized by the Afghan army in October 2013 in eastern Afghanistan, close to the Pakistani border, then held by US forces at Bagram airbase in Afghanistan.

The identity of the other two men, also held at Bagram airbase, is not yet known.

The office of the US Forces in Afghanistan said that the transfer took place after talks between the US and Pakistan.

‘In making a decision to transfer a detainee, we take into account the totality of relevant factors relating to the individual and the government that may receive him, including but not limited to any diplomatic assurances that have been provided,’ the US military said in a statement.

Alarm at increased IS radicalisation among Afghan students

A new, alarming form of radicalism is taking root in Afghanistan, with indications that a number of the country’s students are set to join Islamic State (IS) in Syria to fight for the establishment of a global caliphate in Afghanistan.

Although IS is not believed to have operations in Afghanistan, its influence is growing in a country that has become accustomed to daily bombings and attacks by Taliban insurgents. Several hardline insurgent groups in tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan have pledged allegiance to IS and some local commanders are said to have met IS members.

A few dozen students have set up an underground group a few months after IS started making inroads into Central and South Asia earlier this year and some have already travelled to Syria.

Abdul Rahim, a student at Kabul University, asked ‘When hundreds of foreigners, both men and women, leave their comfortable lives and embrace Daish, then why not us?’ ‘Daish’ is a word for Islamic State common in the region.

Kabul University has long been a melting pot for radical views — both under Soviet occupation when students sided with rebels and later when the hardline Taliban took control in the 1990s. Rahman and another male student said they wanted to fight in Syria and Iraq because IS does not yet have enough presence in Afghanistan to challenge national and foreign armed forces. They say they have abandoned support for the Taliban because it has moved away from religious doctrine in the pursuit of power and is more closely aligned with Pakistan’s national interests than their religious ideals.

The Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), denied the existence of ‘systematic and organised networks’ among Kabul students, but admitted IS was trying to build support. IS has declared an intention to bring Afghanistan, Pakistan and India under its control.

Afghanistan: US/NATO combat officially ends but troops to maintain active role

American and NATO troops closed their operational command in Afghanistan on October 8, lowering flags in a ceremony to mark the formal end of their combat mission in a country still mired in war 13 years after the US-led invasion toppled the Taliban regime for harbouring those responsible for 9/11.

The closing of the command, which oversaw the day-to-day operations of coalition combat forces, is one of the final steps in a transition to a support and training role that begins on January 1 next year. But with President Barack Obama’s recent move authorising US forces in Afghanistan to carry out military operations against Taliban and al-Qaeda targets, America’s longest war will in fact continue for at least another two years.

Obama’s decision to give American forces a more active role than previously envisioned suggests the US is still concerned about the Afghan government’s ability to fight. And agreements signed by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to allow US and NATO troops to remain in the country are seen as a red line by the Taliban, further narrowing any hope of peace talks.

Not only are the Taliban a resilient insurgency, a new generation of extremists inspired by Osama bin Laden threatens the entire region. American forces are now also involved in a burgeoning military campaign against Islamic State group militants in Syria and Iraq, where Obama had hoped to end combat operations three years ago.

As NATO’s International Security Assistance Force’s Joint Command lowered its flag in the capital, the Taliban carried out yet another bloody attack, this time killing a police officer and four civilians at a police station in southern Afghanistan.Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said that the group would continue to fight ‘until all foreign troops have left Afghanistan.’

From January 1, the coalition will maintain a force of 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, down from a peak of about 140,000 in 2011. By the end of 2015, however, American officials say the US troop total will shrink to 5,500, and to near zero by the end of 2016.

Report says persecution of Pakistan’s religious minorities on increase

Violence and discrimination against Pakistan’s religious minorities such as Ahmadis, Christians and Hindus have intensified to a level where many live in daily fear of violence or harassment, a report by rights groups said on October 9.

The report by the London-based Minority Rights Group and the Islamabad-based International and Sustainable Development Policy Institute said the government’s failure to protect these communities was encouraging perpetrators to act with impunity. Religious minorities, which also include Shi’ite Muslims, make up to 20 per cent of the 180 million (mainly Sunni Muslim) population, said the report’s researchers.

They said there was a surge in violent attacks against the Ahmadi sect and Hindu communities in 2014 and hundreds of Hindus are believed to have fled Pakistan during the past year as a result of religious persecution.

In November, a mob beat a Christian married couple to death for allegedly desecrating a Koran and the previous month a Pakistani court upheld the death penalty against Asia Bibi, a Christian woman accused of blasphemy. The report’s authors called on the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to take immediate steps to stop violence against minorities and ensure justice for victims.

Uncertainty looms over Gilgit-Baltistan government

The Gilgit-Baltistan (G-B) legislative assembly met on the first day of its 41st and last session on October 8 amidst clouds of uncertainty over the region’s future.

With The G-B government’s five-year term ending on December 10, very little is known about if and how an interim set up can take over; and the federal government’s silence over the lack of a provision in the G-B Empowerment and Self-governance Order 2009 for a temporary system to run state affairs is steadily adding to suspicions of a possible constitutional breakdown.

Rahmat Khaliq, a lawmaker from Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), said, ‘We are being kept in the dark about our future. I suggest the Chief Minister dissolve the assembly and announce a date for elections.’

Mirza Hussain of Pakistan Muslim League-Quaid (PML-Q) said the G-B Governance Order allows the governor to reappoint the existing Chief Minister, Mehdi Shah, for a certain period but he will have to take a fresh oath. But Law Minister Ali Madad Sher said the Order does not require the swearing in, adding that a letter has been written to the Prime Minister for an amendment in the Governance Order but as yet no reply had been received.

Pakistan People’s Party lawmakers Abdul Hameed and Ayub Shah tabled a resolution condemning Federal Information Minister Pervaiz Rasheed’s statement about G-B’s constitutional status, in which he recently said, ‘Geographically Gilgit-Baltistan is a part of Pakistan, but legally it is not part of the country.’

Reading out the resolution that was passed with a majority vote after a prolonged debate, Shah said: ‘To say G-B isn’t a constitutional part [of Pakistan] is tantamount to insulting the sacrifices made by its people for Pakistan.’ Aside from Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and nationalist leader Nawaz Khan Naji, the other assembly members all voted in favour of the resolution.

PM Modi says India’s soldiers are guarding democracy in Kashmir

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has defended India’s decades-long military presence in the disputed Kashmir region, saying troops were there to safeguard the country’s democracy against separatist rebels. He deplored a series of rebel attacks on October 5 that killed 21 people, including eight Indian soldiers and three police officers.

‘Our soldiers have sacrificed their lives to safeguard democracy,’ he told a campaign rally in Samba town in the disputed Himalayan territory, which is holding local elections this month. ‘Now you must vote to safeguard their sacrifices.’

Modi was in Kashmir for the third time in a month, hoping to help his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party win a first-ever majority in India’s only Muslim-majority state, where rebels have been fighting against Indian rule since 1989.

Pro-India Kashmiri parties promise to boost development and infrastructure if they win, while separatists say the polls are an illegitimate exercise under a military occupation that dates back to India’s independence in 1947.

Following his appeal, Modi travelled later the same day to Kashmir’s main city of Srinagar, visiting the Indian army headquarters for a wreath-laying ceremony to honour the soldiers killed in the October 5 attacks before speaking at another election rally. Modi promised that his government would help the region by repairing towns devastated by extreme flooding in September, building tourism, launching hydroelectricity projects and tackling endemic graft.

Nigeria’s parties pick presidential candidates

In a no-contest vote, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan was nominated as the ruling party’s leader for the February 2015 elections on December 11, while the opposition coalition was still voting for a candidate to take him on. The upcoming presidential race is expected to be the closest fought since the end of military rule in 1999.

Close to 3,000 delegates for the ruling People’s Democratic Party (PDP) gathered in the capital Abuja to celebrate with dance and song. The vote was only a formality since the party’s board had already approved the president as sole candidate.

‘I stand before you to accept your nomination as the candidate of our great party. I am greatly honoured… I will not fail the party. I will not fail our nation,’ Jonathan told the crowd.

A southern Christian, Nigeria’s leader has come under fire for a mounting insurgency by Boko Haram Islamists and faces a tough re-election battle. Underlining the country’s security woes, a suicide bomber killed four in Kano on December 10.

Two political heavyweights lead the five-strong field for the opposition All Progressives Congress (APC) ticket — former military ruler Muhammadu Buhari and ex-vice president Atiku Abubakar. Both men are Muslims from the country’s north.

Buhari is the frontrunner. He has huge grassroots support and is seen as one of the few leaders in the country’s history who was tough on corruption after he seized power in a 1983 coup. He was deposed less than two years later.

Earlier on December 10, traffic ground to a standstill in the commercial capital Lagos as eight thousand delegates for the APC entered the national stadium to cast their ballots to the sound of beating drums and cheers.

Thailand denies hosting any secret CIA prisoner centre

Thailand has never allowed the United States to detain or torture terrorism suspects on its soil, a senior Thai official has said — contradicting reports that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) ran a secret prison in the country.

A US Senate report released on December 9 revealed torture by the CIA at sites around the world and could have legal consequences for governments and officials involved.

‘We have never allowed the US to use our space for detention or torture and there have never been any requests to do so,’ said Paradorn Pattanathabutr, a former National Security Council chief who advises Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha.

The redacted US Senate report did not identify the countries where CIA agents carried out torture, which included sleep deprivation, mock executions and simulated drowning or ‘water boarding’.

The Thai government has repeatedly denied that the CIA operated a secret prison in Thailand, despite numerous international media reports over the past decade in which US intelligence officials have identified the country as the host of a so-called black site.

‘We confirm that there are no secret prisons,’ Suwaphan Tanyuvardhanam, a minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, told reporters. ‘have never conducted any illegal activities with the US,’ said Suwaphan, a former chief of Thailand’s National Intelligence Agency.

The US Senate report details the role of Thai authorities in capturing Indonesian militant leader Hambali in Ayutthaya, Thailand, in 2003. Hambali was the head of the al-Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah militant group and is suspected of involvement in the 9/11 attacks on the US and the Bali bombing the following year.

Hambali’s capture is often touted by the US intelligence community as evidence that hard interrogation produces results, although the Senate report quotes the head of the CIA as saying the agency ‘stumbled’ upon him.

 News in Brief

Palestinian Territories: minister dies after confrontation with Israeli soldier
The Palestinian Authority’s settlement minister, Ziad Abu Ein, has died after an altercation with Israel Defence Forces (IDF) soldiers in the West Bank. According to Palestinian reports, the minister collapsed after a soldier struck him in the chest with a gun. He was transported to hospital in Ramallah, where he died. Abu Ein was reportedly ill, and his illness could have been a factor in his death, Ynet news said. IDF soldiers had been in the area to calm a dispute between Palestinians and Jewish settlers. Israeli settlement programs in the West Bank have been controversial, and several Palestinian leaders are using this incident to call for their end, while the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade is calling on Palestinians to respond in a ‘congruent’ manner to what it says was an assassination. The IDF is reportedly investigating the incident and is on high alert for a possible upsurge in violence.

Egypt: death sentence for 4 Muslim Brotherhood members
An Egyptian court has sentenced four members of the Muslim Brotherhood to death for killing 12 protesters in 2013. The defendants allegedly killed the protesters when they stormed the Muslim Brotherhood’s headquarters shortly before the government was overthrown. Some 90 other people were injured in the violence. Decisions on 14 other Muslim Brotherhood defendants are expected to be announced on February 28. Egypt’s Islamist faction remains fragmented after the fall of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Nobel Peace winners stress education for all
Nobel Peace Prize winners Malala Yousafzai from Pakistan and Kailash Satyarthi of India have stressed the importance of uniting people across borders and religions by educating children and freeing them from poverty. Malala, shot in the head two years ago for insisting that girls have as much right to education as boys, says it is ‘not only the right but the duty of children’ to be educated, while Satyarthi said that even if a single child is denied education ‘we cannot say we are enlightened.’ The two were speaking to reporters in Oslo a day before being presented their awards on December 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death in 1896.

China: top official sentenced to life in prison
The deputy director of the National Development and Reform Commission, China’s key economic planning body, has been sentenced to life in prison. Liu Tienan, who was also the head of the National Energy Administration, is one of many top-level officials who have been targeted in Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign.