Taliban Rebuff UN Calls for Reversing Rules on Afghan Women

The Afghan Taliban have turned down renewed calls by the United Nations for the Islamist rulers to reverse restrictions on the human rights of women in Afghanistan, saying they are in line with local religious and cultural values.


The hard-line group’s foreign ministry issued a statement Friday rejecting U.N. concerns as “unfounded.” It urged the global community “not to pass verdicts based on malicious and antagonist reporting of some media outlets or propaganda” by Afghan opposition forces.


In consecutive statements this week, the U.N. Security Council and the world body’s special observer on the human rights situation in Afghanistan expressed “deep concern” and sharply criticized the latest Taliban order for women to cover up fully in pubic, including their faces.


The Taliban’s Ministry for Vice and Virtue, tasked with interpreting and enforcing the Taliban’s version of Islam, also bound female presenters on Afghan TV channels to cover their faces when on air.  

The male-only interim Taliban government has also suspended girls’ secondary education, prevented most female employees from returning to government jobs, barred women from traveling alone and strongly advised them to stay at home.


Friday’s Taliban statement noted that the “government considers the observance of Islamic hijab to be in line with the religious and cultural practices of society and aspirations of majority of Afghan women.” It went on to stress that “nothing has been imposed on the Afghan people that runs counter to the religious and cultural beliefs of the Islamic society.”


The Taliban urged the international community to “show respect” for Afghan values, insisting it believed in resolving problems through dialogue.


Following meetings with Taliban leaders Thursday, the U.N. special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, Richard Bennett, said the group’s polices were “making women invisible” across the country.


“The de facto authorities have failed to acknowledge the magnitude and gravity of the abuses being committed, many of them in their name and their responsibility to address them and protect the entire population,” Bennett told reporters in the capital, Kabul, at the end of his 11-day trip to the country.   

The U.N. expert cautioned that the Taliban “stands at a crossroads” and the Afghan society under their rule will either become more stable and “a place where Afghans enjoy freedom and human rights, or it will become increasingly restrictive.”


On Tuesday, the 15-member U.N. Security Council renewed its call on the Taliban to adhere to their commitments to reopen schools for all female students without further delay and “swiftly reverse” restrictions on Afghan women’s fundamental freedom and access to public life.


The international community has not recognized the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan, saying the issue would come under consideration only after the Islamist group adheres to its pledges to protect the human rights of all Afghans, especially those of women.


The Taliban seized power from the Western-backed former government in August when the last U.S.-led international forces withdrew from the country after almost 20 years of war with the Islamist group.

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Indian Novel ‘Tomb of Sand’ Wins International Booker Prize

Indian writer Geetanjali Shree and American translator Daisy Rockwell won the International Booker Prize on Thursday for Tomb of Sand, a vibrant novel with a boundary-crossing 80-year-old heroine.

Originally written in Hindi, it’s the first book in any Indian language to win the high-profile award, which recognizes fiction from around the world that has been translated into English. The $63,000 prize money will be split between New Delhi-based Shree and Rockwell, who lives in Vermont.

Translator Frank Wynne, who chaired the judging panel, said the judges “overwhelmingly” chose Tomb of Sand after “a very passionate debate.”

The book tells the story of an octogenarian widow who dares to cast off convention and confront the ghosts of her experiences during the subcontinent’s tumultuous 1947 partition into India and Pakistan.

Wynne said that despite confronting traumatic events, “it is an extraordinarily exuberant and incredibly playful book.”

“It manages to take issues of great seriousness — bereavement, loss, death — and conjure up an extraordinary choir, almost a cacophony, of voices,” he said.

“It is extraordinarily fun, and it is extraordinarily funny.”

Shree’s book beat five other finalists including Polish Nobel literature laureate Olga Tokarczuk, Claudia Pineiro of Argentina and South Korean author Bora Chung to be awarded the prize at a ceremony in London.

The International Booker Prize is awarded every year to a translated work of fiction published in the U.K. or Ireland. It is run alongside the Booker Prize for English-language fiction.

The prize was set up to boost the profile of fiction in other languages — which accounts for only a small share of books published in Britain — and to salute the often-unacknowledged work of literary translators.

Wynne said the prize aimed to show that “literature in translation is not some form of cod liver oil that is supposed to be good for you.”

Tomb of Sand is published in Britain by small publisher Tilted Axis Press. It was founded by translator Deborah Smith — who won the 2016 International Booker for translating Han Kang’s The Vegetarian — to publish books from Asia.

The novel has not yet been published in the United States, but Wynne said he expected that to change with “a flurry of offers” after its Booker victory.

In Britain, “I would be gobsmacked [astonished] if it didn’t increase its sales by more than 1,000% in the next week,” Wynne said. “Possibly more.”

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UN Observer Says Taliban Policies Making Afghan Women Invisible

A senior United Nations observer Thursday expressed serious concern about the “erasure of women from public life” across Afghanistan since the Islamist Taliban seized power in August. 


“Afghanistan is facing a plethora of critical human rights challenges that are having a severe impact on the population,” Richard Bennett, the U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, told a news conference in Kabul at the end of his 11-day maiden trip to the country.  

“I urge the authorities to acknowledge the human rights challenges that they are facing and to close the gap between their words and their deeds,” he stressed.  


The insurgent-turned-ruling group’s male-only government has suspended Afghan girls’ secondary education, prevented most female employees from returning to government jobs, barred women from traveling alone, ordered them to cover up fully in public, including their faces, and strongly advised them to stay at home. 


Bennett said the policies “fit the pattern of absolute gender segregation and are aimed at making women invisible in society.” 


“The de facto authorities have failed to acknowledge the magnitude and gravity of the abuses being committed, many of them in their name and their responsibility to address them and protect the entire population,” Bennett noted.  


The U.N. expert met with Taliban leaders, members of Afghan civil society, including women human rights defenders, journalists, minorities and victims of human rights violations.  


The U.N. expert spoke on a day when Taliban forces in Kabul reportedly disrupted a women’s protest that called for the reopening of girls’ schools.  


“Civil society space and media freedom is critical for a peaceful society in which rights are respected,” Bennett said.  


Bennett said he was able to visit a prison, hospitals, schools and mosques in several places in the Afghan capital, and northern Mazar-i-Sharif, as well as southern Kandahar cities.  


Bennett noted the Taliban had extended their invitation for him to access the entire country and to visit sensitive locations “in a crucial commitment to ensure that transparent monitoring can be undertaken.”  


The international community has not recognized the Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan, saying the issue would come under consideration only after the Islamist group adheres to its pledges to protect the human rights of all Afghans, especially those of women.  


The Taliban seized power from the Western-backed former government in August when the last U.S.-led international forces withdrew from the country after almost 20 years of war with the Islamist group.  


“The Taliban stands at a crossroads. Either the society will become more stable and a place where every Afghan enjoys freedom and human rights, or it will become increasingly restrictive,” Bennett cautioned. He will present the findings of his first report to the September session of the U.N. Human Rights Council. 

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India Defends Wheat Export Ban

India has defended its decision to ban exports of wheat after initially saying it would help ease a global supply crunch created by the war in Ukraine.

The Indian government imposed the ban two weeks ago amid concerns that an early heat wave has blighted harvests in the country and caused domestic prices to surge to a record high.

Indian Commerce and Industry Minister Piyush Goyal said Wednesday that officials were worried about the “price stability” of the staple grain.

“Today, 22 countries of Europe have regulations on exports to protect their food security. Different countries in different points in time had to take extraordinary measures in public interest,” Goyal told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

The export ban aims to cool domestic prices as India, which like other countries, is battling inflation, which at 7.8 percent in April, was the highest in eight years.

The government on Wednesday also announced that it would restrict exports of sugar to 10 million tons – another move that aims at keeping domestic prices stable. India is the world’s biggest producer of sugar and second biggest exporter after Brazil.

Such restrictions are being seen as a part of “food protectionism” at a time when world supplies are tightening, and the United Nations has warned about the specter of a global food shortage in coming months.

But it is the ban on wheat that has raised most concerns and prompted calls to reconsider it.

In an interview to broadcaster NDTV, International Monetary Fund chief Kristalina Georgieva urged India to reverse the ban, saying that the country could play a key role in international food security and global stability.

“I would beg India to reconsider as soon as possible because the more countries step into export restrictions, the more others would be tempted to do so and we would end up as a global community less equipped to deal with the crisis,” she said at Davos.

However, Minister Goyal has said that India’s export regulations on wheat will not impact global markets. “India’s wheat exports are less than one percent of global trade,” he said. “We continue to allow exports to vulnerable countries and neighbors.”

India, which is the world’s second biggest wheat producer, has not traditionally been a big supplier of wheat to global markets.

But the government had announced targets of increasing exports to about 10 to 15 million tons this year and had made upbeat statements about helping countries facing shortages.

“We already have enough food for our people, but our farmers seem to have made arrangements to feed the world,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in April.

Just two days before announcing the ban, the government had announced that it would send delegations to nine countries to promote wheat exports.

Several agricultural experts in India have called the abrupt reversal a “knee jerk reaction.”

“This kind of a flip-flop dents India’s credibility in the world. You announce a policy and then do just the opposite,” says Harish Damodaran, agriculture editor at the Indian Express newspaper. “While the reasons may be justified, I think they could have restricted exports in a gradual way. In the long term, this will hurt the country’s ability to build markets for its agricultural crops.”

The sudden decision came after the government, which purchases vast quantities of wheat for a massive food security program that reaches some 800 million people, procured lower quantities of the staple crop this year.

That was partly due to lesser crop output and partly because farmers sold more wheat this year to private traders, who were buying at higher prices as they looked ahead to buoyant exports.

While estimates vary, farmers say the heat wave that struck early in March shriveled their harvests by 15 to 20 percent.

The ban has also hurt farmers who had this year hoped to benefit from higher global prices. “It was a double whammy for them. They have been hit because their harvests were affected and now they also cannot benefit from higher global prices,” pointed out Damodaran.

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Pakistan’s Ex-PM Khan Gives Government 6 Days to Announce Election

Ousted Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told thousands of supporters Thursday that if the government failed to announce snap elections in six days, he will return to Islamabad to stage a sit-in protest with hundreds of thousands of people.

Khan led a massive convoy of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party into the capital in early morning, where he delivered the ultimatum before peacefully disbanding the protest march.

The cricketer-turned-politician denounced Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government for a massive police crackdown on his supporters before and during the protest march since it set off Wednesday morning from the northwestern city of Swabi, about 100 kilometers from the capital.

Khan, 69, claimed the police action had killed five of his party workers while many more were wounded.

“I am giving you six days. You announce elections in six days and dissolve the Parliament. I will return to Islamabad with my entire nation if you don’t do that,” he warned from atop a truck after he and his convoy reached Islamabad just before dawn.

The former prime minister had originally planned to stage a sit-in protest in the capital and stay put until the government announced a date for snap elections.

“I had decided that I will sit here until the government dissolves assemblies and announces elections, but of what I have seen in the past 24 hours, (the government) are taking the nation toward anarchy,” he said.

Khan was ousted following a parliamentary no-confidence vote last month, toppling his nearly four-year coalition government headed by his PTI party. Sharif replaced him and formed a new multiparty unity government.

Khan has repeatedly alleged that the United States conspired with his political opponents to topple him and denounced the Sharif administration as an “imported government.” Khan has not offered evidence to substantiate his claims.

Washington has from the outset rejected Khan’s allegations as untrue. Sharif has also dismissed the so-called foreign conspiracy claims as a “pack of lies.”

Authorities had blocked entry routes into Islamabad with scores of shipping containers and deployed thousands of police as well as paramilitary forces to keep the rally from the city. The government also ordered the deployment of troops at key installations, including the Parliament, the Supreme Court and the diplomatic enclave housing foreign embassies.

The top court ordered the government Wednesday night to remove all the blockades and to arrange an open space for Khan’s supporters to hold their rally in line with their democratic rights and disperse peacefully.

The protesters defied the judicial orders, however, and reached the heart of the capital and police used heavy tear gas and batons for several hours to try to disperse the crowd before Khan’s convoy entered the city and joined them, forcing police to cease their operation.

Officials said protesters had set fire to trees, vehicles, shops, and a bus station. Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb said at least 18 police and paramilitary troops were wounded in clashes with protesters.

Clashes between PTI supporters and police had also taken place elsewhere in Pakistan, including in central Punjab province and the largest southern port city, Karachi, since Khan’s convoy began its march on Wednesday.

Television footage showed police clashing with Khan’s supporters, beating them, and, in some areas, breaking their vehicles’ windshields and bundling them into police vans.


Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah confirmed at a news conference in Islamabad Wednesday that police had raided nearly 4,500 PTI homes, offices and protest rallies across the country, arresting around 1,700 people.

The political crisis has deepened Pakistan’s economic woes. The government was in weeklong talks with the International Monetary for Fund, which ended Wednesday, for the resumption of a $6 billion bailout package but failed to secure a deal, adding to the pressure on beleaguered Sharif.

In a statement, the IMF said its team had held “highly constructive” discussions with Pakistani authorities, aimed at reaching an agreement on policies and reforms.

“The team emphasized the urgency of concrete policy actions, including in the context of removing fuel and energy subsidies and the FY2023 budget, to achieve program objectives,” the statement said. Experts said the removal of subsidies would increase inflation and could fuel public anger.

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Planned Bangladesh Law Raises Freedom of Expression Fears 

Bangladesh is planning to introduce legislation, almost certain to be enacted, that experts say would curtail freedom of expression and the press and result in an effective government seizure of digital media.

The government, led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s Awami League Party and in power since 2009, has already passed controversial laws, such as the Digital Security Act, in 2018, which has been used to put politicians, journalists and ordinary citizens in jail and, according to multiple human rights groups, to curtail freedom of expression.

The proposed Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission Regulation for Digital, Social Media and OTT Platforms legislation would establish an aggressive set of rules for digital platforms.

The draft has been published on the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission website for public comment before being considered within the government and then sent to Bangladesh’s parliament, the unicameral House of the Nation, where it is expected to pass.

Under the proposal, no social media, digital platform or OTT platform – “over-the-top” platforms stream content directly to customers over the web – could display content threatening the “unity, integrity, defense, security, or sovereignty of Bangladesh, and its friendly relations with foreign states.”

The law would also ban from digital platforms content that criticizes the 1971 Liberation War of Bangladesh that established the country, formerly East Pakistan, the spirit of the war, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the architect of independence, the national anthem or flag, or anything that threatens to reveal government secrets.

The draft regulation would allow the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission to direct social media and other digital service providers to remove or block content. Providers would have to comply within 72 hours or face fines and imprisonment.

These restrictions are identical or strikingly similar to some sections of the narrower Digital Security Act 2018.

The government claims the law is necessary to govern online content, prevent fraud and threats to public tranquility, and to discourage piracy and obscenity.

Posts and Telecommunication Minister Mostafa Jabbar told VOA the proposed legislation is needed and said it has been prepared for “better governance.”

“If you look at the provisions in the proposed legislation, you will find that we formulated it to make the global tech giants and social media companies more accountable. We have seen how hate speech and misinformation were spread through platforms like Facebook in Bangladesh,” he said, referring to past incidents of communal violence triggered by rumors spread over social media.

“These social media giants barely comply with our requests when we ask them to take down vicious content. Now we want to make them accountable through our own law,” he said.

Fears of a ‘surveillance-based’ nation

Some experts say that if the new legislation were passed in its current form in the parliament, it would, for all practical purposes, turn Bangladesh into a “surveillance-based” nation.

The organization Society for Media and Suitable Human-Communication Techniques, which analyzed some 250 cases filed under DSA, said only 18% were for what could be described as digital crimes. The rest were filed for expressing opinions online or sharing news content, the group said.

Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust, a public interest legal services organization, said that, like DSA, the proposed legislation’s provisions are broad in scope.

“If passed as currently drafted, it will have a chilling effect on freedom of expression. It sets out to prohibit the creation and dissemination of a wide range of online content on digital and social media. The language used in the draft Regulation also has the potential to impact marginalized communities and dissenting voices,” a spokesperson for the organization, who asked not to be named, said in an email to VOA.

The draft legislation, meanwhile, would require intermediaries, such as WhatsApp, Telegram and Signal, to enable traceability and identification of the first originator of any information.

Anti-graft watchdog Transparency International Bangladesh termed the proposed bill “anti-constitutional,” and said Bangladesh would become a “surveillance-based nation” if it were passed.

Iftekhar Zaman, executive director of TIB told VOA, “The draft regulation makes it mandatory to disclose the identity of message sender and receiver in encrypted platforms. It also enforces arbitrary and indiscriminate removal of content and repressive action. Both of these actions are against freedom of speech, the plurality of opinions and right to privacy.”

In an email to VOA, a spokesperson for Facebook owner Meta, who asked not to be named, said, “We cannot comment on the legislation since this is still not finalized. However, we hope that any new rules for the internet in Bangladesh will respect international best practices on safety, privacy, and freedom of expression, and create an environment conducive to innovation, investment and growth.”

Similar act draws flak in India

Journalist Shayan S. Khan compared the proposal to legislation in India that has been criticized by the United Nations and others.

“If you look at the relevant section of the draft regulation, that outlines what sort of content will be prohibited,” he said, “you will find it is literally a word-by-word copy of the Indian IT Rules 2021.”

“The similarities between the Indian law and the Bangladeshi draft make the Indian experience relevant to foreseeing how it might go for us. So in June 2021, a month after the law came into effect, three U.N. special rapporteurs wrote a joint letter to the Indian government saying that the law, in its current form, does not conform with international human rights norms,” Khan said.

The similarities between the Bangladesh Draft Regulation and the Indian IT Rules prompted the Global Network Initiative to write to the BTRC expressing alarm. The group’s members include Meta, Microsoft, Uber, Zoom, Telenor Group, Yahoo, Google, Nokia, Vodafone, Verizon, Human Rights Watch, Wikimedia, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and others.

“There are several areas of the draft regulation,” the group wrote, “where we saw clauses that were incomplete, important terms left undefined, or areas transposed from India’s Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021, that seemingly failed to account for differences in the regulatory environment, adding to our concerns about the rushed deliberation processes.”

“We encourage the BTRC and the government more broadly to reconsider its approach to consultation on this bill, helping to build an evidence base for the draft regulation to address the regulation’s stated concerns in a rights-respecting fashion,” GNI said.

The Indian rules are currently facing multiple legal challenges before Indian courts, where at least three high courts have issued interim orders instructing the government to not enforce significant portions of the rules.

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Blasts in Kabul Mosque, Northern Afghanistan Kill at Least 14

A series of explosions shook Afghanistan on Wednesday, the Taliban said, including a blast inside a mosque in the capital of Kabul that killed at least five worshippers and three bombings of minivans in the country’s north that killed nine passengers. 

The Kabul Emergency Hospital said it received 22 victims of the mosque bombing, including five dead. There were no further details on the blast that struck the Hazrat Zakaria Mosque in the city’s central Police District 4, according to Khalid Zadran, a Taliban police spokesman in Kabul. 

“The blast took place while people were inside the mosque for the evening prayers,” Zadran said, adding that they were waiting for an update. 

The minivans were targeted in the northern city of Mazar-e-Sharif after explosive devices were placed inside the vehicles, according to Mohammad Asif Waziri, a Taliban-appointed spokesman in Balkh province. He said the explosions killed nine and wounded 15. 

All the victims in Mazar-e-Sharif were from the country’s minority Shiite Muslims, according to a police official who spoke on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to give details to the media. 

No one immediately claimed responsibility for the explosions, but they had the hallmarks of the regional affiliate of the Islamic State group, known as Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K. 

ISIS-K, which has been operating in Afghanistan since 2014, is seen as the greatest security challenge facing the country’s new Taliban rulers. Since their takeover, when they seized power in Kabul and elsewhere in the country last August, the Taliban have launched a sweeping crackdown against the IS headquarters in eastern Afghanistan. 


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Pakistan Police Fire Tear Gas at Imran Khan’s Anti-Government Rally

As former Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan led an anti-government rally to Islamabad on Wednesday to press his demand for fresh elections, police used tear gas and batons and detained hundreds of his protesters in a bid to disrupt the march.

Khan said that tens of thousands of his supporters planned to stage a sit-in protest in the national capital and stay put until the government announced a date for snap elections.

The cricketer-turned-politician was ousted following a parliamentary no-confidence vote last month, ending his nearly four-year coalition government headed by his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. Khan’s chief political rival, Shahbaz Sharif, replaced him as prime minister of a new multiparty unity government.

The government late on Wednesday authorized the deployment of troops at key installations, including parliament, the Supreme Court and the diplomatic enclave housing foreign embassies.  

The announcement came shortly after Khan entered Islamabad.

Authorities have deployed thousands of police and paramilitary forces in key areas, including parliament, and blocked all entry routes into the city to prevent protesters from converging on Islamabad.

Entry and exit points were also blocked to and from all major cities in the most populous province, Punjab. The political turmoil has brought life in the province and Islamabad to a standstill, with schools shuttered and examinations suspended.

Despite heavy shelling with tear gas, a few thousand defiant protesters reached the famous D Square in Islamabad by late evening, the venue where Khan promised to stage the sit-in.

“No amount of state oppression and fascism by this imported government can stop or deter our march,” Khan tweeted as his convoy moved closer to Islamabad. The convoy began its journey from the northwestern city of Swabi, about 100 kilometers from the capital.

“We will remain in Islamabad till announcement of dates for dissolution of assemblies & elections are given,” Khan later wrote on Twitter.

The Sharif government has denounced the protest march as illegal and accused Khan of seeking to bring protesters to Islamabad with “evil intentions.”

Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah confirmed at a news conference in Islamabad that police had raided nearly 4,500 PTI homes, offices and protest rallies, mostly in Punjab, arresting around 1,700 people.

“We haven’t stopped anyone from exercising their constitutional right to hold a rally or take part in democratic politics, but we can’t allow anyone to sow violence and chaos,” Sanaullah maintained.

Television footage showed police clashing with Khan’s supporters, beating them and in some areas breaking their vehicles’ windscreens and bundling them into police vans.

Eyewitnesses and officials confirmed that at least two people, including a policeman, were killed and dozens more were wounded since the police raids and anti-government protests erupted in Pakistan on Tuesday.

Shah Mehmood Qureshi, a senior PTI leader and former foreign minister, spoke to the local ARY channel late Wednesday, alleging that that the police action had killed at least five party workers.

There was no immediate reaction from the government to his allegations.

The political crisis has deepened Pakistan’s economic woes amid ongoing talks between the Sharif government and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for the resumption of a $6 billion bailout package that Khan’s ousted government had negotiated with the agency.

The weeklong talks in Qatar, which concluded Wednesday, failed to produce an immediate agreement, adding to the pressure on the beleaguered Sharif government.

In a statement, the IMF said its team had held “highly constructive” discussions with Pakistani authorities, aimed at reaching an agreement on policies and reforms.

“The team emphasized the urgency of concrete policy actions, including in the context of removing fuel and energy subsidies and the FY2023 budget, to achieve program objectives,” the statement said. Experts said the removal of subsidies would increase inflation and could fuel public anger.

Khan has rejected the no-confidence vote against him as illegal, alleging that the United States conspired with his political opponents to plot his ouster to punish him for pursuing an independent foreign policy for his country. Since his ouster, he has held massive protest rallies condemning the Sharif administration as an “imported government.” Khan has not offered evidence to substantiate his claims.

Washington has from the outset rejected Khan’s allegations as untrue. Sharif has also dismissed the so-called foreign conspiracy claims as a “pack of lies.”

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Indian Court Sentences Kashmiri Leader to Life in Prison

An Indian court sentenced a Kashmiri separatist leader to life in prison on Wednesday after declaring him guilty of terrorism and sedition, triggering a clash between protesters and police and a partial shutdown of businesses in the Indian-controlled portion of Kashmir.

Mohammed Yasin Malik, 56, led the banned Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, one of the first armed rebel groups in the Indian-held area, but later shifted to peaceful means in seeking the end of Indian rule.

Muslim-majority Kashmir has been divided between India and Pakistan since British colonialists granted it independence in 1947. Both countries claim the region in its entirety and have fought two wars over its control.

Malik was arrested in 2019 and was convicted last week on charges of committing terrorist acts, illegally raising funds, belonging to a terrorist organization and criminal conspiracy and sedition.

Before Wednesday’s sentencing, dozens of Kashmiris gathered at Malik’s home in Srinagar, the largest city in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Some marched through the streets, chanting “We want freedom” and “Go back India.” Government forces fired tear gas at the marchers, who threw stones.

No injuries were immediately reported.

Shops and businesses closed in the main centers of Srinagar.

Prosecutors said the judge rejected their request for a death sentence.

The government banned Malik’s organization in 2019, accusing it of funding terrorism and blaming it for the deaths of minority Hindus in the Himalayan region.

Malik protested the charges during the trial and said he was a freedom fighter.

“The terrorism-related charges leveled against me are concocted, fabricated and politically motivated,” he said.

“If seeking azadi (freedom) is a crime, then I am ready to accept this crime and its consequences,” he told the judge.

Pakistan Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif condemned Malik’s sentencing, and its Foreign Ministry said it summoned India’s top diplomat in Islamabad.

“Today is a black day for Indian democracy & its justice system,” Sharif tweeted. “India can imprison Yasin Malik physically but it can never imprison idea of freedom he symbolizes. Life imprisonment for valiant freedom fighter will provide fresh impetus to Kashmiris’ right to self-determination.”

In the late 1980s, Malik joined a group of young people who traveled to Pakistani-controlled Kashmir for arms training, seeking independence for all of Kashmir from India and Pakistan.

By 1989, Indian-controlled Kashmir was in the throes of a full-blown rebellion, with Malik and his comrades conducting attacks against the Indian security establishment and pro-India Kashmiri politicians.

India responded with a massive militarization of Kashmir, saying it was fighting a Pakistan-sponsored proxy war. It unleashed a brutal counterinsurgency campaign, and soldiers were given broad impunity and allowed to shoot suspects on sight or detain them indefinitely.

Malik was arrested during a raid by Indian troops in 1990 and was released in 1994. He took over control of the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front, shifting away from armed rebellion and seeking the end of Indian rule over the territory through peaceful political means.

In 2003, Malik and his associates began collecting signatures of Kashmiris seeking the right to self-determination. They traveled for two years to hundreds of villages and towns, gathering over 1.5 million signatures.

He helped lead an anti-India uprising in 2008 with large-scale protests that marked a shift from armed struggle to non-violent resistance. He continued to lead large public gatherings in subsequent years seeking an end of Indian rule.

Malik held several unsuccessful rounds of talks with the Indian government, including with two prime ministers. He is married to a Pakistani artist, Mushaal Hussein, and they have a 10-year-old daughter.

Most Muslim Kashmiris support the rebel goal of uniting the territory, either under Pakistani rule or as an independent country. Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have been killed in the conflict since 1989.

The All Parties Hurriyat Conference, a coalition of anti-Indian Kashmiri political groups, said Malik was “being punished for his political beliefs” and was “convicted in invented cases under draconian laws.”

The group urged the Indian government to release all Kashmiri political prisoners and resolve the Kashmir conflict through dialogue.

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US State Department Walks Back Biden’s Unusually Strong Comments on Taiwan 

U.S. President Joe Biden and the State Department said that nothing has changed in U.S. policy toward Taiwan after Biden’s unusually hardline statement Monday of military support for the self-governed island prompted anger from China and gave a boost to the western Pacific island where many worry about an attack from Beijing.    

“Our One China Policy and our commitment to peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait of course remains,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price, who reiterated the U.S. commitment to provide the island with “military needs to defend itself.”   

“That is where we were then; that is where we are today,” Price said

The State Department’s clarification comes after Biden said “yes” when asked by a reporter in Tokyo whether he was willing to get involved militarily for Taiwan’s defense, if needed. U.S. leaders normally leave that option open, as allowed by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act, without making any firm commitment.  

The White House walked back Biden’s comments on Taiwan last year over a similar comment. 

China claims sovereignty over Taiwan, although the two have been separately ruled since Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communists and retreated to the island.  Beijing has not renounced the use of force if needed to bring Taiwan under its flag. The U.S. does not have official diplomatic ties with Taiwan but sells arms to Taiwan and maintains aircraft carriers in the Pacific.  

Biden added at the news conference, which he attended with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, that China lacks “the jurisdiction to go in and use force to take over Taiwan.” 

Taiwan response 

Taiwan welcomed Biden’s comments. 

“This is a very important message, meaning that the United States will take very concrete steps to respond to any kind of military escalation in this area,” said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies think tank in Taiwan.   

Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed “sincere welcome and thanks” in a statement Monday on Biden’s remarks.   

“Our government will not change its resolve to protect Taiwan’s freedom, democracy and security and will continue stepping up self-defense,” the statement says. “We will keep deepening our cooperation with the United States, Japan and other like-minded countries to safeguard security in the Taiwan Strait.”  

The U.S. leader’s remarks will raise “confidence” in Taiwan, said Wang Wei-chieh, Taiwanese co-founder of the FBC2E International Affairs Facebook page. Given today’s tensions between China and Taiwan, Wang said, many Taiwanese people will think Biden means the United States can now send troops.  

China response   

In China, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Wang Wenbin said his government was “resolutely opposed” to Biden’s comments on Taiwan and that it would take self-protection measures. He called Taiwan a domestic matter with no place for “foreign intervention.”  

“We urge the U.S. side to avoid severe damage to peace in the Taiwan Strait and to Sino-U.S. relations,” Wang told a scheduled news conference in Beijing. “The Chinese side will make resolute moves to protect its own sovereignty and security rights, and we do as we say.”  

Chinese officials are taking the Biden remarks “seriously,” said Liu Yih-jiun, a professor of public affairs at Fo Guang University in Taiwan. He expects China to follow up with action, though without starting a military conflict.  

Biden not alone  

It is not the first time a U.S. president has been asked about Taiwan and spoken unambiguously, despite the U.S. policy of “strategic ambiguity” — meaning intentionally vague about Taiwan — with no formal diplomatic ties yet friendly with and selling weapons to the island. 

Former President George W. Bush had raised questions in 2001 as Biden did this week. He was asked in an ABC interview if Washington had an obligation to defend the Taiwanese in case of an attack by China: “Yes, we do … and the Chinese must understand that,” he was quoted as saying.    

“I believe that in reality it’s still hard to predict whether the U.S. is going to send troops or no given the complexity of U.S. domestic politics and other calculations,” Wang said.   

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Biden Ends Asia Trip with Warning to China

Ending his six-day trip to Asia, U.S. President Joe Biden used the war in Ukraine to signal a warning to China to uphold fundamental principles of the international order. White House Bureau Chief Patsy Widakuswara has this report from Tokyo.

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As Afghans Try to Resettle in America, A Vietnamese Refugee Sees Parallels with Her Traumatic Past 

Mina Le has a slight smile in the faded photograph. In it, she is 8 years old and has just landed in the United States with her parents and eight siblings. They arrived from Vietnam with nothing except the knowledge that they had escaped the war in their homeland.

Today, Le remembers the many years that passed before her family and other Vietnamese refugees became self-sufficient, often because of the trauma they carried.

“From the years during the war in our country, the trauma from coming here, losing everything, starting over again and all that trauma we hold inside of us — and it manifests itself in many different ways.”

Saigon, Kabul

When Le watched videos of Afghans desperately crowding the airport in Kabul in August 2021 to escape, she had flashbacks. The parallel with the hasty U.S. pullout from Vietnam in 1975 prompted her to action. More than 40 years after her arrival in the U.S., she is helping another generation of refugees — new arrivals from Afghans.

Le and Ismail Khan, a former U.S. military interpreter in Afghanistan who arrived in the U.S. in 2014 on a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) and is now a U.S. citizen, co-founded the Afghans of Puget Sound Alliance to assist new Afghan arrivals.

Since August, 3,000 Afghans have arrived in Washington state, and more than two-thirds have settled in the Seattle area. Those who assisted the U.S. during the war in Afghanistan may qualify for an SIV.

‘They will be homeless’

The SIV is a complex and highly vetted immigration process intended to take nine months, but now has a backlog of three or four years. If granted, visa holders and their immediate family are given permanent residency upon arrival.

Others who evacuated Afghanistan were given humanitarian parole for up to two years.

On May 16, the Biden administration granted temporary protected status (TPS) of 18 months to those already in the U.S. who pass a background check.

Neither option provides a path to citizenship. Afghans can apply for additional parole time, but Khan worries the humanitarian parole designation will expire before the government is able to approve the thousands of asylum or family or work sponsorship applications that have already been submitted.

“They will not be able to work,” predicts Khan. “Not being able to pay their bills, they will be homeless.”

The Afghan Adjustment Act, which allows some Afghans to apply for permanent residency, is the solution, supporters say. It would protect them from deportation and give them permission to work while the applications are being processed.

The Biden administration requested the measure be included in a supplemental spending bill that gave $39 billion in emergency aid to Ukraine. Opponents blocked the addition, citing concerns over vetting and required expediency to get money to Ukraine. It failed to be included in the measure and is now in limbo. One of its proponents, Democratic Senator Chris Coons, wants the measure reintroduced, saying, “Our nation’s moral and global leadership depends on us taking up and swiftly passing” the bill.

For now, government resettling agencies assist evacuees with basic needs until 2023.

But Le says the organizations are short-staffed and lack “the infrastructure to absorb this amount of refugees in such this short a time.”


‘You are not welcome here’

Many new refugees like Liaqat Bahar were left overwhelmed with no ongoing support. Upon landing in the U.S., he and his brother were sent to a Miami, Florida, hotel for two months, where he was told by his caseworker, “You are not welcome here.” He became ill and was bewildered.

“How do I make an appointment? And where do I go to see the doctor?” he wondered.

A friend contacted Khan, who flew the Bahar brothers to Seattle because “I was in their shoes once, and I can see how much help they need,” Khan said.

The Afghans of Puget Sound Alliance was created to supplement assistance from U.S. government agencies.

The alliance organizes help for new arrivals through a group of Seattle volunteers, often former Vietnamese or Afghan refugees, to assist families with specific needs.

Khan and Le meet regularly with the male heads of the families to help them file job applications. The first priority is language skills, Khan explained.

“If someone speaks English, they go right to college to get those certifications and those degrees. And for those who don’t speak English, we introduce them to ESL classes,” Khan said.

From embassy nurse to stacking pistachios

Mohammad Mushtaq Azizi stacks clear containers of dates on the shelf next to the saffron pistachios at the 786 Market in Kent, Washington.

“This is not my permanent job,” said Azizi, acknowledging he must improve his language skills before moving to another job. He makes a minimum wage of $14.50 an hour for his family of five, including a newborn. It is a big contrast to his previous job as a nurse at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul that he had held for years. Azizi will study for a nursing certification to work in a U.S. hospital.

Most new arrivals were forced to leave extended family members — parents and siblings — in Afghanistan because the immigration status includes only immediate family. With technology, the Afghans in the U.S. hear their struggles daily through video calls and emails.

Le says it’s something she’s familiar with — the struggle to balance a new life with what is left behind.

“They have an eye toward the future. But their whole body is tilted toward their (home) country, because that’s where their family is,” she said.

Aline Barros contributed to this report.

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Taliban Allow UAE Company to Run Operations at Key Afghan Airports

The Taliban government signed an agreement Tuesday with a state-run United Arab Emirates aviation company to allow it run “ground-handling” operations at three airports in Afghanistan, including Kabul.

Taliban Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and officials of the UAE-based GAAC Solutions attended the signing ceremony in the Afghan capital.

Addressing the event, Baradar said he hoped the deal would give confidence to all international airlines to return to Afghanistan in peace and lead to increased trade with other countries.

“Afghanistan has been affected by wars and extreme poverty, and now we are rebuilding it,” he said. “We seek good relations with all countries and urge them to invest in Afghanistan to help its strife-torn people.”


The Taliban leader assured investing nations his government will provide them with all facilities, cooperation and security so they can invest in all Afghan sectors, including mining.

Under the 18-month contract, control and management of airports in the southern city of Kandahar and western city of Herat will also be handed over to the UAE company.

The GAAC was handling ground operations in Kabul until August 15, 2021, when the Taliban insurgency seized power from the now defunct Western-backed government.

The last U.S. and NATO troops withdrew from Afghanistan later that month, ending almost 20 years of war with the Taliban.

Taliban officials noted they renegotiated the existing agreement directly with GAAC, with certain amendments, and clarified that the deal was with only the company and not with the UAE government.

The UAE’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment, according to wire news reports.

Razeq Aslam Mohammad Abdul Razeq, GAAC’s managing director, sounded optimistic that the renewed deal would signal the return to Afghanistan of business, trade, commerce and people-to-people contact after months of disruption.

“We are hoping that they would come back to us in terms seeing the continuity of the same people who handled them before the events of August 2021,” Razeq said during Tuesday’s event.

The global community has not yet recognized the Taliban government, citing a lack of inclusivity and concerns related to human rights and terrorism.

The Islamist group has increasingly curbed women’s rights since returning to power despite global outcry and warnings that such measures would discourage donor nations from establishing political and economic ties with Kabul.

Qatar and Turkey had sent temporary technical teams to help airport operations and security after the Taliban takeover of Kabul last year.

A Qatar-Turkey consortium has been in talks with the Taliban aviation ministry for months over airport operations in Kabul, Kandahar, Herat, and Mazar-i-Sharif as well as the southeastern city of Khost.

Those talks could not make headway because the Taliban reportedly insisting that their forces, not foreigners, would guard the airports. The fate of the dialogue is unknown and Taliban officials Tuesday declined to comment on the subject.

Some information for this report comes from Reuters. 


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Pakistani Journalists Face Criminal Proceedings for Criticizing Military

Police in Pakistan have launched criminal proceedings against at least six journalists and political talk show hosts in retaliation for their work, defense attorneys told a high court Monday.

A string of identical complaints has been registered with police in several Pakistani cities by so-called “patriotic citizens” over the past couple of days, accusing the journalists of spreading hate against the army and state institutions in their reporting.

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan described the cases as “political retaliation” and accused the government of being behind the slew of complaints.

News of the criminal proceedings coincided with a statement issued Monday by Pakistan’s Electronic Media Regulation Authority (PEMRA), warning digital news outlets and broadcasters against airing content that “ridicules” state institutions, particularly the judiciary and army. A federal institution, PEMRA, which is responsible for the regulation and issuing of broadcast, print, and electronic media licenses, warned that violations could be met with immediate broadcast suspensions and fines.

Pemra had issued a similar warning on May 9.

If formally charged and convicted, the journalists could face up to seven years in prison and fines.

Unprecedented scope

Pakistan ranks 145 out of 180 on the most recent World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Pakistani journalists are routinely subjected to violence, harassment and intimidation, but never before have so many media personnel collectively faced criminal proceedings.

Some of the journalists in question, including Arshad Sharif, host of a popular political talk show on private ARY channel, petitioned a court in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, through their attorneys to seek judicial protection against arrest.

Their attorneys told reporters that they had argued during Monday’s hearing at the Islamabad High Court that the police cases against their clients were solely aimed at harassing and discouraging them from objectively reporting political events.

The chief judge, Athar Minallah, ruling on the multiple petitions, barred federal police from taking into custody any of the journalists working out of Islamabad and advised provincial courts to take similar steps.

The judge also ordered federal authorities to submit details of the police complaints registered in cities across Pakistan when the court reconvenes next month.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif’s government and provincial authorities have not yet commented on the cases but media watchdogs and journalists denounced them as an assault on freedom of the press in Pakistan.

The U.S.-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) slammed the registration of cases, or the First Information Reports (FIRs), against Pakistani journalists.

“Journalists should not have to face legal harassment for critical comments on the military or any other institutions in Pakistan,” Steven Butler, CPJ’s Asia program coordinator in Washington told VOA. “These multiple FIRs should be withdrawn at once.”

CPJ identifies Pakistan as one of the most dangerous countries for journalists where successive civilian governments and military-led security agencies, commonly referred to as the “establishment,” are routinely accused of intimidating and harassing reporters.

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3 Lantos Human Rights Prize Winners Vow to Work for Women in Afghanistan

Three Afghan women leaders have been awarded the 2021 Lantos Human Rights Prize this week in Washington. But they say the award doesn’t mean their work is done. Sahar Azimi has the story.

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India’s Savage Heat Extracts Its Heaviest Toll From Those Working Outdoors 

Pradeep Kumar can earn nearly eight dollars a day selling the traditional Indian drink with cumin and lemon that he makes at his cart in a popular market in New Delhi — supposed to cool the body, the beverage has been much in demand in recent months as north India reeled under a brutal heat wave.

But on some days, he says he could not summon up the energy to set up his cart as the punishing temperatures took a heavy toll on those working outdoors.

“I am exhausted every night after standing under the sun. Sometimes I fall sick due to the heat and then I need to rest for a few days,” said Kumar. “Once I could not come for a week.”

It is not surprising — while temperatures are normally high in May and June, the heat spell began unusually early this year. Temperatures in March shattered a 122-year record, April was the hottest month on record in north and central India and this month the mercury has topped 45 degrees Celsius on several days.

In a city where tens of thousands work as construction labor, rickshaw pullers, hawkers or at pavement stalls, many like Kumar have lost income due to the weekslong searing heat. Although temperatures eased Monday, the respite is likely to be brief.

India suffers the highest loss of productivity in the world due to extreme heat — it lost more than 100 billion hours of labor every year between 2001 and 2020, costing the country billions of dollars, according to a study published in Nature Communications by Duke University.

The heat waves are a huge health hazard — most of those working outdoors cannot heed a government advisory to avoid being out between noon and 3 pm on hot days.

“Heat strokes are the second biggest natural force which is killing people in India after lightning,” said Avikal Somvanshi, senior program manager of Urban Lab at the Center for Science and Environment citing government data. “In fact, more than 20,000 people have died in last 20 years because of heat stroke and over half of them are men aged between 30 to 60 who are working outdoors. This is not just exhaustion or discomfort. It is actually killing people.”

The impact is worsened by what is called the “heat-island effect” — the concentration of concrete buildings and roads that leads to much higher temperatures in city centers compared to suburban or rural areas.

Divyanshu Pratap, who has come to New Delhi from his village to work at a pavement stall for the first time, has experienced it firsthand.

“When I am standing and the sun blazes on my head, I get dizzy spells. Then I feel weak and fall down,” he said. “It was also hot in my village, but nothing compares to this.”

Homes in densely packed urban slums provide little respite at night — not only are they unbearably hot, but the situation is worsened by the long power outages that India has experienced this year as the intense heat triggered higher demand.

The situation for these workers could worsen in the coming years as studies warn that climate change will make such heat waves even more frequent.

A recent analysis by Britain’s Met Office said that record-breaking temperatures in northwestern India and Pakistan have become 100 times more likely due to climate change. Scientists said that heat waves could happen every three years whereas such extreme events would be expected only every 300 years in the absence of climate change.

“Extreme climate events will become increasingly normal if we continue to see inaction in bringing down global temperatures,” said Abinash Mohanty at the Council on Energy, Environment and Water in New Delhi. “Cities will face the brunt of climate extremities — Delhi might have more severe heat waves, while others like Mumbai may face flooding if we do not put in more aggressive climate action.”

The Health Ministry last month issued an advisory to employers asking them to install temporary shelters and limit hours for new workers. Several cities in India have put in place a Heat Action Plan that focuses on raising public awareness and reserving beds in hospitals for victims of heat stroke.

“This does not stop the exposure. It is like an emergency response to a tragedy that has already happened,” pointed out Urban Lab’s Somvanshi. “As far as adaptation, mitigation, or building resilience to this heat, no concrete plan has been made in India. Even globally, governments are just coming to recognize that rising temperatures pose a big challenge.”

Those involved in manual labor face the grimmest situation. Virendra, a rickshaw puller ferries customers over short distances of about two kilometers but keeps a look out for a tree to sit under after the ride is over.

“It is unbearably hot. My throat keeps getting parched and I worry that I will fall sick,” he said. “It takes much more energy to ride the rickshaw in summer.”

Although the work is hard, Virendra said he has no choice — he makes more money as a rickshaw puller than he would doing unskilled labor.

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India’s Extreme Heat Extracts its Heaviest Toll from Those Working Outdoors

The most devastating impact of a deadly heat wave that has wracked India for more than two months is felt by people who work outdoors in its vast cities. From New Delhi, Anjana Pasricha reports on the hardship such extreme climate events are having on vulnerable populations.

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Pakistani Ex-PM Khan Calls for Anti-Government March in Islamabad

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan announced Sunday he would lead a massive anti-government “peaceful march” on the national capital, Islamabad, later this week to press his demand for fresh elections.

Khan asked supporters of his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and Pakistanis at large to reach the city to join his rally starting Wednesday, saying it would ultimately turn into a sit-in protest and continue until his demands are met.

An opposition-led alliance ousted the cricketer-turned-politician from office last month in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence, ending his nearly four-year-old government. Khan’s staunch political rival, Shehbaz Sharif, replaced him as the head of a new ruling coalition.

“We will never under any situation accept this government,” Khan told a televised news conference in the northwestern city of Peshawar, while announcing his plan for the march. He warned authorities against forcefully blocking the rally.

“No matter how long we have to remain in Islamabad we will remain there until they dissolve the assemblies and announce a date for transparent elections that are without any foreign interference.”

Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb criticized Khan’s call for the protest march and rejected his demand for early elections, saying he “cannot bully the government to announce general elections at a time of his choice with his threats.”

Aurangzeb said the new elections would be announced by her government in “collaboration and consensus with all allies.”

Khan has addressed massive public rallies across the country since his downfall in a bid to garner support for the May 25 march. He dubbed it as a move to ensure Pakistan’s political and foreign policy matters are guarded against external interventions.

The 69-year-old former leader Sunday renewed his accusations that the United States had conspired with his political opponents to bring down his government, charges Washington has rejected, along with Prime Minister Sharif.

Khan maintains he was punished for pursuing an independent foreign policy and ignoring Washington’s advice against visiting Russia. Khan met with President Vladimir Putin on February 24, when Russian troops invaded Ukraine.

“We are not going to let propaganda, misinformation, and disinformation – lies – get in the way of any bilateral relationship we have, including with the bilateral relationship we have with Pakistan, one we value,” State Department spokesman Ned Price told a regular news conference earlier this month.

Political tensions have increased in Pakistan at a time when the nascent Sharif government is struggling to deal with a deepening economic crisis, which stems from rising inflation.

The political uncertainty has led stocks to tumble. The Pakistani rupee is at a record low and foreign exchange reserves have rapidly depleted, adding pressure on the beleaguered coalition government.

Pakistan is trying to negotiate the remainder of a suspended $6 billion financial bailout package with the International Monetary Fund that’s needed to help shore up dwindling foreign exchange reserves.

The IMF wants Islamabad to withdraw fuel and power subsidies as part of any agreement for financial assistance, a move that could fuel inflation and public anger against the government.

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Afghan Female TV Anchors Forced to Cover Faces on Air

Female program presenters in Afghanistan went on the air Sunday with their faces covered to comply with a fresh decree by the country’s Islamist Taliban rulers.

Since seizing power nine months ago, the male-only interim Taliban government has subjected women and girls to a series of onerous curbs, drawing international criticism.

Last week, the Ministry of Vice and Virtue, charged with interpreting and enforcing the Taliban’s version of Islamic Sharia law, ordered all Afghan television channels to ensure that female presenters start covering their faces while on screen.

On Sunday, female presenters and journalists aired news bulletins across leading channels, including TOLO news, Ariana Television, Shamshad TV and 1TV, wearing full hijabs and face-covering veils that left only their eyes in view. The Taliban had previously required women presenters to wear a headscarf.

Female staff at the TOLO news said they had initially resisted covering their faces, but the Taliban pressured their employer, asking them to remove those who defy the order.

Khpolwak Sapai, the TOLO news deputy director, said his channel was told to strictly follow the Taliban order and force staff to comply with it.

“I was called on the telephone yesterday and was told in strict words to do it. So, it is not by choice but by force that we are doing it,” Sapai said.

Male colleagues at TOLO news also wore face coverings in solidarity with female staff.

“We are in deep grief today,” Sapai lamented in a social media post.

Afghan TV channels have already been barred from broadcasting dramas and soap operas featuring women.

The Vice and Virtue ministry spokesman dismissed media claims, however, that the Taliban were against women presenters working in the channels.

“We have no intention of removing them from the public scene or sidelining them or stripping them of their right to work,” said Mohammad Akif Sadeq.

Earlier this month, the Taliban decreed that Afghan women must wear head-to-toe garments covering their faces when in public. Male guardians of those not complying with the decree could be sentenced to jail for three days or more.

The edict empowers authorities to fire women government employees if they fail to follow the dress code while male staff also risk suspension from work if their female relatives fail to comply.

The Taliban have told most women not to return to their workplace or undertake long road trips unless accompanied by a close male relative. Secondary school girls over the age of 12 have not been allowed to resume classes.

The crackdown on women’s rights has outraged Afghan activists and the international community. Even leaders within the Taliban have begun questioning some of the restrictions, including those related to female education, underscoring growing internal rifts.

The Taliban have defended the measures as in accordance with Afghan culture and Islamic tradition, a position repudiated by some Islamic law scholars who say the gender-specific dress codes are inspired only by rural Afghan norms.

But in a rare public criticism of his government women-related policies, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, a central Taliban leader and deputy foreign minister, said Sunday Afghan women have not yet been given their due rights. His remarks underlined persistent internal rifts on the level of access women should have to education and work.

“No one has yet given women the right to education. Where will women go to learn Islam and Shariat? Obviously, they will learn it in schools and seminaries,” Stanikzai told a big gathering of Taliban leaders in the capital, Kabul.

“Half of Afghanistan’s around 40 million population are women. Women must be given the rights, which the Almighty, the holy Prophet and our Afghan culture have given them,” said the Taliban leader, who negotiated the February 2020 troop withdrawal pact with the U.S.

During two decades of the U.S.-led foreign military intervention in Afghanistan, which ended last August with the return to power of the Taliban, women and girls had made marginal gains in the deeply patriarchal South Asian nation.

Tom West, the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, and Rina Amiri, U.S. envoy for Afghan women, girls and human rights, spoke to Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi on Saturday to convey “unified international opposition to ongoing expanding” curbs on women’s role in society.


“Girls must be back in school, women free to move & work w/o restrictions for progress to normalized relations,” West posted on Twitter while sharing details of the discussions.


West said the dialogue with the Taliban will continue “in support of Afghan people and our national interests.”

Amiri wrote on Twitter that she had raised U.S. concerns regarding the dissolution of several rights bodies by the Taliban and stressed that “this contradicts demands of Afghans for greater accountability & needs to be remedied.”

Last week, the Taliban dissolved the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and four other bodies protecting rights of Afghans, saying they were not needed anymore in the face of a $500 million annual budget shortfall.

The international community has not recognized the new Taliban government. It requires the Islamist group to deliver on its pledges to fight terrorism, rule the country inclusively and uphold the rights of all Afghans, including those of women, before considering Kabul’s calls for granting it diplomatic legitimacy.

Information from AFP was used in this report

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8 More Bodies Found in Kashmir Tunnel Collapse, Toll at 9

Rescuers on Saturday found the bodies of eight more workers in Indian-controlled Kashmir, officials said, taking the death toll to nine after part of a tunnel collapsed in the Himalayan region.

The tunnel is part of a mountainous highway tunnel system that was under construction when it collapsed Thursday night in the southern Ramban district.

The body of one worker was recovered Friday.

Aamir Ali, an official at the government’s disaster management department, said one worker was still missing. Emergency crews were using earthmovers to clear the wreckage and find the trapped worker.

Officials said the section that collapsed was an approach tunnel used for ventilation and moving supplies and equipment to the main, under-construction tunnel.

The tunnel is part of a vast network of bridges and tunnels on the strategic highway that connects two key cities, Srinagar and Jammu, in the disputed region.

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