Pakistani children go back to school following Peshawar massacre

Pakistani children returned on January 12 to the school where Taliban gunmen killed 150 of their classmates and teachers last month, clutching their parents’ hands tightly in a poignant symbol of perseverance despite the horrors they had endured.

It was the first time the school had reopened since the assault, and security was tight. The nation has been reeling from the December 16 terrorist attack in Peshawar — one of the worst Pakistan has experienced. The violence carried out by seven Taliban militants heaped pressure on authorities to end the stubborn insurgency that kills and maims thousands every year.The massacre also horrified parents across the nation and prompted officials to implement tighter security at schools.

A ceremony was held at the school to mark its reopening, with classes due to resume on January 13. Security was tight, part of a countrywide effort to boost safety measures at schools in the wake of the attack. Schools around Pakistan have raised their boundary walls, added armed guards and installed metal detectors, although many have questioned why it took such a horrible attack to focus attention on school safety.

Sri Lanka’s Rajapaksa defeated in election by former ally

Sri Lanka’s presidential election has resulted in defeat for the country’s long-time leader Mahinda Rajapaksa. Maithripala Sirisena, a former ally of Rajapaksa, won 51.3 per cent of the vote, according to official results.

Mr Rajapaksa, in office since 2005, said on Twitter that he looked forward to a peaceful transition of power. His supporters credit him with ending the civil war and boosting the economy, but critics say he had become increasingly authoritarian and corrupt.

Mr Sirisena had already received promises of support from Tamil and Muslim leaders before the election. But the result shows he also picked up a significant portion of the majority Sinhalese vote, most of whom solidly supported Mr Rajapaksa in previous elections.

Mr Sirisena, due to be sworn in at 18:00 (12:30 GMT) on January 9, was surrounded by supporters and photographers as he left his offices.
‘We must allow all Sri Lankans to enjoy this victory, therefore avoid hurting or insulting people,’ he said.

John Kerry urges strengthening  of US-India trade links

US Secretary of State John Kerry has called for stronger US-Indian trade ties at an international investor conference ahead of President Barack Obama’s visit to India this month.

Mr Kerry said better economic ties would help boost India’s growth and fight climate change. Bilateral foreign direct investment now stands at nearly $30bn (£19bn).

Mr Obama will be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day ceremony in the capital on 26 January.

Speaking at the investment conference in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad on January 11, Mr Kerry described Indian PM Narendra Modi as a ‘visionary prime minister’.

‘Together, we can create an environment where all of our companies play leading roles in bringing cutting-edge technologies, equipment, capital, and know-how not just to India but to countless countries that need this growth and development now,’ Mr Kerry told the meeting.

At the meeting, Mr Modi pledged to cut red tape, pursue predictable policies, ensure stable taxes and make India the ‘easiest place’ to do business.

Mr Kerry also travelled to Pakistan on January 12 to meet Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, where security was high on the agenda after last month’s attack on a school in the city of Peshawar where more than 150 people, mostly school children, were killed.

Charlie Hebdo to publish ‘survivors’ issue’ featuring  Mohammed cartoon

Charlie Hebdo will feature a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed in a special ‘survivors’ issue’ of the magazine produced after the January 7 massacre in Paris.

The illustrated image will show the bearded figure with a tear in his eye under the message ‘All is forgiven’. A total of three million copies of the magazine, due to go on sale January 14, will be printed in several languages – instead of its usual 60,000. It is the first edition since two Islamist gunmen stormed Charlie Hebdo’s headquarters in Paris on 7 January and killed 12 people, in apparent revenge for the publication of cartoons featuring the prophet. Cherif and Said Kouachi claimed they belonged to the jihadist group al Qaeda in Yemen. They were killed on January 9, along with accomplice Amedy Coulibaly, who claimed to belong to rival group Islamic State. Coulibaly murdered a policewoman and then four Jewish shoppers the following day during a hostage drama at a kosher supermarket in the French capital.

The hunt continues for Coulibaly’s partner, Hayat Boumeddiene, who can be seen in CCTV footage of her arriving at Istanbul Airport on her way to Syria. French authorities have announced the deployment of thousands of soldiers to boost security in the country in the wake of the attacks.

At least 3.7 million people joined a unity march on January 11 in Paris and around France to honour the victims of the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

They were joined by the leaders of more than 50 countries, including France, Britain, Germany, Ukraine, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

India proposes special  police units to probe crimes  against women

India’s home ministry has proposed setting up 150 special police teams across the country to probe crimes against women and ensure victims get justice, the government said.

The Investigative Units on Crimes Against Women (IUCAW) would be deployed in India’s 29 states with the aim of strengthening the criminal justice system by conducting thorough probes, leading to stronger prosecutions and higher convictions.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh has written to the chief ministers of all the states asking them to examine the IUCAW proposal, said a government statement on January 5. The units’ responsibilities would include policing, intelligence gathering, tackling organised crime, monitoring implementation of laws, spreading awareness and promoting public participation in checking crimes against women, it said.

The annual cost of the IUCAW project will be 840 million rupees (9 million pounds) with 2,250 officers for the 150 units, according to the statement. A third of the officers will be women to help instil confidence and encourage victims to come forward.

The home minister has also asked states to set up fast-track courts specifically for gender crimes, adding that this would help ensure speedy justice.

Reports of crimes against women in India increased by 26.7 per cent to 309,546 in 2013 compared to the previous year, according to the National Crime Records Bureau. The government statement said, ‘The objective of these units will be to investigate cases (and) augment the investigative machinery of the states in relation to the heinous crimes against women, especially rape, dowry deaths, acid attacks and human trafficking.’

Bangladesh opposition leader  Zia calls for blockade

B angladeshi opposition leader Khaleda Zia has called on her supporters to enforce a transport blockade after four protesters were killed in clashes with police and pro-government crowds.

She urged members of her Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) to halt road, rail and river transport indefinitely.
The deaths came on the first anniversary of disputed general elections won by the Awami League. Both parties have called for rallies despite a ban on demonstrations.

Security forces are preventing Ms Zia from leaving her party offices in the capital Dhaka. Police say they want to stop violence. The opposition leader was forced to issue her call for mass protests from inside the premises, having been stopped from leaving since police cordoned off the area on the night of January 3.

Ms Zia and her arch rival, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, have frequently called for general strikes and blockades when in opposition.

The prime minister for her part accused the BNP of trying to create chaos in its efforts to overthrow the government. ‘I am urging the BNP leader to stop these bomb and grenade attacks, these acts of sabotage, and killings, of arson and damage to property,’ she said in a televised address to the nation.

The BNP and other opposition parties boycotted last year’s election, saying it would be rigged. They were angry that Sheikh Hasina, who has been in power since 2009, refused to stand aside to make way for a neutral caretaker administration to oversee the election.

The two leaders have alternated in power for most of the last two decades when the army has not been in government.

Israeli military divided over  Gaza war probes

A fierce debate is raging within Israel’s military over the extent to which soldiers should be held legally accountable for their actions during last year’s Gaza war, with commanders increasingly at odds with military lawyers.

The dispute has set off a firestorm in Israel, where many say the legal threat would shackle soldiers in any future battle, lower their morale and shatter a sacred trust on which Israel’s compulsory military service relies. But with the Palestinians signing up on December 31 to membership of the International Criminal Court, the decision to investigate has become all the more pressing: Palestine would be able to submit war crimes claims against Israel, but if Israel can show the court it has carried out its own investigation in good faith, it could avoid an outside probe.

Israel’s Gaza operation launched on July 8 was aimed at halting relentless rocket fire by Hamas militants. During 50 days of fighting, more than 2,100 Palestinians were killed, most of them civilians, according to the Hamas-run Health Ministry and the United Nations, while 66 Israeli soldiers and 6 Israeli civilians died. Israel defended the operation as an act of self-defence but critics have pointed to the heavy Palestinian civilian death toll and questioned whether Israel’s response was proportionate.

Israel has also come under fire from critics who say it fails to thoroughly investigate its military operations or prosecute soldiers for abuses.

Israel says it does investigate its actions, but those inquiries rarely lead to criminal punishment. Brig. Gen. Udi Simhony, a retired
military commander, warned that investigating the soldiers could lead them to lose motivation and conceal evidence from the battlefield to protect themselves.

China’s anger after Taiwan flag raised  in Washington

C hina has protested to the United States after Taiwan’s de facto embassy in Washington hoisted a Taiwanese flag on New Year’s Day, and urged the United States to respect the ‘One China’ policy, the foreign ministry said on January 5.

The US State Department said it had not been notified in advance of the ceremony and that it was inconsistent with US policy.

China deems Taiwan a renegade province and hasn’t ruled out the use of force to take it back, particularly if the island makes a move toward independence. The One China policy holds that there is only one China and that Taiwan is part of it.

Taiwan’s China Post newspaper reported on January 3 that the ceremony in Washington was the first time the Taiwanese flag had been raised in the United States in 36 years since Washington switched recognition from Taiwan to Beijing in 1979. More than 100 people attended the New Year’s Day ceremony, including Taiwan’s top envoy to the US, Shen Lyushun.

The incident is the latest involving Taiwan to upset relations between the United States and China. Beijing lodged a protest with the United States in December after President Barack Obama signed into law legislation authorising the sale of up to four Perry-class guided missile frigates to Taiwan.

China and Taiwan have been ruled separately since defeated Nationalist forces fled to the island at the end of a civil war with the Communists in 1949. While Taiwan and China have signed a series of landmark trade and economic agreements since 2008, political and military suspicions still run deep, especially in democratic Taiwan where many fear China’s true intentions.

US think tank urges Obama to push on  pan-Pacific trade pact

Acentrist US think tank on January 5 urged President Barack Obama to ramp up efforts to win support for a pan-Pacific trade pact, saying without it Asian nations will be sceptical of the administration’s foreign policy pivot toward the region.

The Center for Strategic and International Studies said if Obama can work with Republicans and address divisions within his own Democratic party over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, legislation to facilitate the pact could be passed midyear, enabling TPP’s conclusion by autumn 2015
Since last year’s November elections that saw Democrats lose control of the Senate, Republican party leaders have identified trade as a potential area of cooperation with Obama, but divisive politics and strong opposition to TPP among many Democrats and labour unions still stand in the way of a deal. It would create the largest free-trade area in which the United States participates.

In a year-ahead look at US policy toward Asia, the think tank said in a report that more leadership from Obama to win over Congress would resonate among the other 11 governments negotiating TPP, especially Japan, which is reticent on opening up its farming and auto sectors. It also urged Japan, where the government just won a new term, to reach agreement on TPP.

Delays in finalising the pact and instability in the Middle East have raised doubts over whether Obama can follow through on his attempt to shift more attention toward Washington’s engagement in the Asia-Pacific.

Saudi blogger publicly flogged for insulting Islam

A Saudi blogger convicted of insulting Islam was brought after Friday prayers to a public square in the port city of Jiddah and flogged 50 times before hundreds of spectators, a witness to the lashing said.

Badawi was sentenced last May to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes. He had criticised Saudi Arabia’s powerful clerics on a liberal blog he founded. The blog has since been shut down and he was also ordered to pay a fine of 1 million riyals or about $266,600.

Rights activists say Saudi authorities are using Badawi’s case as a warning to others who think to criticise the kingdom’s powerful religious establishment from which the ruling family partly derives its authority. Badawi has been held since mid-2012, and his Free Saudi Liberals website is now closed. The case has drawn condemnation from rights groups. Badawi’s lawyer Waleed Abul-Khair was sentenced in July to 15 years imprisonment and barred from travelling for another 15 years after being found guilty by an anti-terrorism court of ‘undermining the regime and officials’, ‘inciting public opinion’ and ‘insulting the judiciary’.

London-based Amnesty International said Badawi would receive 50 lashes once a week for 20 weeks. Saudi Arabia’s close ally, the United States, had called on authorities to cancel the punishment. In a statement after the flogging, Amnesty called the flogging a ‘vicious act of cruelty’ and said that Badawi’s ‘only “crime” was to exercise his right to freedom of expression by setting up a website for public discussion.’

News in Brief

Pakistan legislature approved military courts against terrorism
Pakistani lawmakers have passed a constitutional amendment that would allow the military to set up courts to try terrorism cases for two years. The measure is the latest government push to combat terrorism following last month’s Taliban massacre at a military-run school in Peshawar that left 150 people dead, mostly children. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also reinstated the death penalty after the attack; authorities have already hanged several terrorism convicts and plan to execute hundreds more. Sharif has said Pakistan faces an existential threat from terrorist and extremist forces, and ‘extraordinary’ measures are required to meet the challenge.

Bangladesh protest claims three more lives
Three more people have been killed in Bangladesh during protests over last year’s disputed election, bringing the total deaths to seven since the demonstrations turned deadly earlier this week. Two people were shot dead when police and armed protesters faced off in the southern district of Noakhali on January 7, police said. Bangladesh’s main opposition party, Bangladesh Nationalist Party, said the victims were its supporters, but police said they were just bystanders. In a separate incident, an auto-rickshaw passenger was attacked and killed by protesters in Sirajganj on January 7, while four people were killed January 5.

Myanmar: new cardinal leads fight against religious hate
A human rights champion has been welcomed home after becoming the country’s first Roman Catholic cardinal. He was one of 20 cardinals named by Pope Francis on January 4. Charles Maung Bo, archbishop of Yangon, has led calls for religious tolerance in a country where minority Muslims are targeted by Buddhists. Other religious leaders from Myanmar, including Orthodox, Buddhist and Muslim, have praised the choice of Bo, who has called on leaders to ‘counter hate speech with good speech’.

Yingluck impeachment case begins
The impeachment case against former Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra began on January 9 and could result in banning her from politics for five years.

The former premier has been accused of mishandling a controversial rice subsidy and is expected to appear before the National Legislative Assembly to deliver a defence statement. Meanwhile, Thailand’s government has urged supporters to stay out of Bangkok during the impeachment hearing.

Boko Haram seizes major military base
Boko Haram extremists have seized a key multinational military base on Nigeria’s border with Chad, after killing scores of soldiers and civilians. The Islamist fighters fired rocket-propelled grenades, automatic assault rifles and hurled explosives – burning businesses, homes and part of the base in Baga, Borno state, to the ground. Residents took to canoes and some drowned in Lake Chad trying to escape across the border. Others were able to take refuge in a village in Chad. The overpowered troops from Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon and Niger, who received no reinforcements, fought on January 3 until they ran out of ammunition.