Pakistan Arrests Senator Over Anti-Military Tweets  

Authorities in Pakistan arrested an opposition senator Sunday for launching what they said was a “highly obnoxious campaign of intimidating tweets” against the country’s outgoing military chief and other officers.

Azam Khan Swati, who represents the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in the upper house of parliament, was picked up early morning by operatives of the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) from his residence in the capital, Islamabad.

The 75-year-old senator, charged with sedition charges under a controversial cybercrime law, used foul language in his tweets while referring to the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who is set to retire Tuesday.

An FIA criminal complaint described Swati’s comments against Bajwa and state institutions at large as a “mischievous act of subversion to create [a] rift between personal of armed forces to harm the state of Pakistan.”

It was the second time in less than two months that the veteran politician, a close aide of former Prime Minister Imran Khan, was taken into custody over the same allegations.

Swati was arrested in October and released on bail days later. But he has since consistently claimed he was tortured and stripped while in custody, accusing a senior general of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of doing so at the behest of Bajwa.

The senator has also been urging the country’s Supreme Court to investigate and punish those responsible for the custodial torture.

“I am shocked & appalled at how rapidly we are descending into not just a banana republic but a fascist state,” Khan said on Twitter in his reaction to Swati’s arrest.

“His justifiable anger & frustration at the injustice meted out to him…So he tweets & is arrested again. Everyone must raise their voice against this state fascism,” the former prime minister wrote.

On Saturday, the senator, along with Khan, was among speakers at a massive rally in the neighboring garrison city of Rawalpindi to demand early general elections.

Swati asked Bajwa in his brief televised speech, to tell the nation what assets the military chief has accumulated during his six-year tenure.

Last week, an online Pakistani investigative website, Fact Focus, revealed that the military chief’s immediate and extended family members have accumulated assets worth more than $56 million since he took office in 2016.

The news outlet claimed— citing leaked tax records and wealth statements submitted to the Federal Board of Revenue — that Bajwa’s wife has increased her assets from zero to nearly $10 million during the period in question.

The report prompted Pakistan Finance Minister Ishaq Dar to order an immediate investigation into what he denounced as the “illegal and unwarranted” leak of the confidential tax record of the army chief’s family in violation of tax laws. Dar recently told local media the FBR had traced the identities of the officials behind the leak, but he shared no other details.

For the first time Sunday, the Pakistan military’s media wing refuted the claims of unusual increases in wealth for Bajwa and his family as “misleading” and exaggerated. “It is totally untrue and based on blatant lies and malice,” the Inter-Services Public Relations division said in a statement.

The Fact Focus website remained completely inaccessible in Pakistan for more than 20 hours after it published the investigative report, said Reporters Without Borders, a global watchdog known by its French acronym RSF.

“With this investigation, Fact Focus has put precise and sourced numbers to a reality that many Pakistanis have sensed without knowing it,” claimed an RSF statement. It went on to state “Pakistan’s armed forces rarely tolerate any form of scrutiny by the media.”

The watchdog called on Pakistan’s civilian authorities to ensure respect for its citizens’ right to journalism in the public interest.

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India’s Top Court to Consider Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage

Four years after India’s Supreme Court scrapped a law criminalizing gay sex, it has agreed to hear petitions seeking legal recognition of same-sex marriages, raising hopes of securing another significant right for the country’s LGBTQ community.

One of the two petitioners is a gay couple based in Hyderabad who held a commitment ceremony last December to cement their nearly decade long relationship.

Supriyo Chakraborty and Abhay Dang’s ceremony had all the trappings of a regular, colorful Indian wedding — the couple exchanged vows and rings and participated in a string of traditional rites along with their parents, relatives and friends.

The ceremony was important to them, especially for Chakraborty, for whom getting married had always been one of his childhood dreams.

“It was after the COVID-19 pandemic. We had both tested positive and after we recovered, suddenly we realized, what are we waiting for?” he told VOA.

But in real terms, the “wedding” ceremony did not change their status.

“We still can’t say we are legally married. On any public platform I cannot introduce Abhay as my husband. Marriage is important to an Indian family and I want my mother to be able to say that her son is married to Abhay,” said 32-year-old Chakraborty. “I have to still fill my status on all official forms as single, but I want the same rights and security that flow from legal marriages for straight couples. We don’t have any of that.”

Lack of legal recognition also leads to a host of hurdles for same-sex partners such as the right to make health care decisions for spouses or rights to inheritance. Chakraborty and Dang for example had to take out separate health care policies.

Besides Chakraborty and Dang, a Delhi-based gay couple, who said they have been in a relationship for 17 years, have also petitioned the top court for recognition of gay marriages. A batch of petitions on the same subject that are pending in lower courts will be transferred to the top court.

A bench led by chief justice D.Y. Chandrachud on Friday asked the government to file its response within a month.

Chandrachud, who took over as chief justice in November, is known for a string of progressive judgements on LGBTQ and women’s rights. In 2018, he was part of the five-judge bench that delivered the landmark judgement setting aside the colonial-era law criminalizing gay sex, calling it indefensible.

In August, he said the decision to decriminalize all consensual sex among adults must be accompanied by changes in attitude.

“Equality is not achieved with the decriminalization of homosexuality alone but must extend to all spheres of life including the home, the workplace and public places,” Chandrachud said at an event in New Delhi.

It remains to be seen what stance Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, whose support base includes many Hindus, takes on the sensitive issue of legalizing gay marriages.

Last year, the government told the Delhi High Court, which was hearing a petition on the same subject, that marriage necessarily depends upon “age-old customs, rituals, practices, cultural ethos and societal values,” and that same-sex marriages would “cause complete havoc with the delicate balance of personal laws in the country.”

While some of Hinduism’s most ancient texts talk of same-sex relations as natural, homosexuality has long carried a stigma in India’s traditional society and for years most political parties have failed to make clear commitments on the issue of LGBTQ rights.

There has been a shift in attitudes among the urban middle classes in recent years, though. Some gay celebrities have come out openly about their orientation and Bollywood films based on stories exploring gay issues have been hits.

Chakraborty’s family is an example of the slow but growing societal acceptance.

“I belong to a very traditional family, but my story is not one of struggling to win acceptance,” he said.

“I came out to my mother after my partner Abhay told me I should do so. True, she was not very happy in the beginning, and it took her some time to understand and educate herself. But since then, she has been a pillar of support and I am really so proud of my parents.”

The Supreme Court’s decision to accept the petition seeking legalization of gay marriages marks the first step in a process that could take years, although LGBTQ rights advocates see it as a huge step in their struggle.

However, it is not a goal in itself, Manak Matiyani, a New Delhi resident and LGBTQ rights campaigner, said.

“I think everyone should have the freedom to get married if they want without discrimination. However, marriage should not be the only option to access rights such as inheritance, insurance nominations and bank account holdings. One should have the right to decide on these outside marriage also,” he said.

Most of the countries that recognize same sex marriages are in Europe or America — Taiwan is the only Asian country to do so.

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Tidy Japanese Fans Clean Up at World Cup

The sight of Japanese fans at a World Cup bagging trash after a match — win or lose — always surprises non-Japanese. Japanese players are famous for doing the same in their team dressing room: hanging up towels, cleaning the floor, and even leaving a thank-you note.

The behavior is driving social media posts at the World Cup in Qatar, but it’s nothing unusual for Japanese fans or players. They are simply doing what most people in Japan do — at home, at school, at work, or on streets from Tokyo to Osaka, Shizuoka to Sapporo.

“For Japanese people, this is just the normal thing to do,” Japan coach Hajime Moriyasu said. “When you leave, you have to leave a place cleaner than it was before. That’s the education we have been taught. That’s the basic culture we have. For us, it’s nothing special.”

A spokesperson for the Japanese Football Association said it’s supplying 8,000 trash bags to help fans pick up after matches with “thank you” messages on the outside written in Arabic, Japanese, and English.

Barbara Holthus, a sociologist who has spent the last decade in Japan, said cleaning up after oneself is engrained in Japanese culture.

“You’re always supposed to take your trash home in Japan, because there are no trash cans on the street,” said Holthus, the deputy director of the German Institute for Japanese Studies. “You clean your classroom. From a very young age you learn you are responsible for the cleanliness of your own space.”

Many Japanese elementary schools don’t have janitors, so some of the clean-up work is left to the young students. Office workers often dedicate an hour to spruce up their areas.

“It’s partly cultural, but also the education structures have been training you for a long time to do that,” Holthus added.

This is Japan’s seventh straight World Cup, and their cleanliness began making news at their first World Cup in 1998 in France.

Prior to the 2020 Olympics, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike cautioned that visiting fans would have to learn to clean up after themselves. However, the problem never materialized after fans from abroad were banned from attending the Games because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tokyo has few public trash receptacles. This keeps the streets cleaner, saves municipalities the costs of emptying trash cans, and keeps away vermin.

Midori Mayama, a Japanese reporter in Qatar for the World Cup, said that fans collecting rubbish was a non-story back home.

“Nobody in Japan would report on this,” she said, noting the same clean-up happens at Japanese professional baseball games. “All of this is so normal.”

It may be normal to Japanese, but Alberto Zaccheroni, an Italian who coached Japan from 2010 to 2014, said it’s not how most teams act when they travel.

“Everywhere in the world players take their kit off and leave it on the floor in the changing room. Then the cleaning staff come and collect it,” he said. “Not the Japanese players. They put all the shorts on top of the other, all the pairs of socks and all the jerseys.”

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Ousted Pakistan PM Says Party to Quit Provincial Legislatures 

Pakistan’s ousted Prime Minister Imran Khan said Saturday that his party has decided to resign from several regional legislatures in the latest twist in months of political turmoil in the country.

Khan made the unexpected political move while addressing tens of thousands of supporters of his opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

The populist 70-year-old former prime minister has been leading big protest rallies across the country to push his successor, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, into holding snap general elections. Khan was ousted in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence in April.

“We wouldn’t be [a] part of this system anymore. We have decided to quit all the assemblies and get out of this corrupt system,” Khan told the cheering crowd gathered just outside the capital, Islamabad.

He said he would soon hold a meeting of senior party leaders to decide on a timetable for all PTI lawmakers to resign en masse from regional legislative assemblies.

No march to Islamabad

Khan had vowed to march on the Pakistani capital with his supporters but announced Saturday he had decided to end that campaign.

“We could have created a situation like Sri Lanka. I have decided against marching on Islamabad because I don’t want destruction and chaos in the country,” he said.

The cricket-star-turned-politician was attending his first public rally since being shot and wounded in the legs in an assassination attempt at an anti-government rally earlier this month in Punjab, the most populous province ruled by a PTI-led coalition.

Khan blames Sharif, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and a senior general of the country’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), accusing them of being behind the November 3 shooting that left a PTI worker dead and wounded at least a dozen others.

The government has denied allegations that it had anything to do with the attack.

Leaving legislatures

The PTI controls two of Pakistan’s four provinces, including northwest Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It also governs and commands a majority in the legislative assemblies of what is known as the Gilgit-Baltistan territory and the Pakistan-administered part of Kashmir. Archrival India administers two-thirds of the disputed Himalayan region.

Khan rejects the April no-confidence vote as an unlawful action, blaming Sharif and Pakistan’s outgoing military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa for colluding with the United States to topple his government.

Islamabad and Washington deny the allegations.

Khan’s party resigned from the National Assembly, the lower house of the national parliament, after he lost the vote and Sharif replaced him as the new prime minister.

The Pakistani government has also rejected his demand for early elections, saying the next polls in the country will be held as scheduled in October 2023.

Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto Zardari described Khan’s protest rally Saturday as a “face-saving flop show.” He said on Twitter: “Unable to pull revolution crowds, failed at undermining appointments of new chiefs, frustrated, resorts to resignation drama.”

Sharif appointed General Asim Munir as the new army chief. He is to take charge from Bajwa on Tuesday.

The government alleges Khan organized Saturday’s protest to try to block Munir’s appointment.

Military influence

The military wields outsized influence over the national politics, and political parties say the institution’s backing is key for the survival of elected governments in Pakistan.

The military has directly ruled the nuclear-armed country for about half of its history since gaining independence from Britain in 1947. Former prime ministers say the army continues to dictate matters related to foreign and security polices, and orchestrates the toppling of governments if they don’t fall in line.

Pakistan’s political turmoil comes as Sharif’s coalition government grapples with critical economic challenges amid ever soaring inflation, depleting foreign exchange reserves and declining foreign investments.

Officials say the country’s economic troubles were exacerbated by the catastrophic floods this summer that severely undermined growth and caused at least $40 billion in damage and affected 33 million Pakistanis.

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UN Experts: Taliban Curbs on Women Amount to Crime Against Humanity 

A group of independent experts at the United Nations has warned that Taliban restrictions on women’s rights and freedoms in Afghanistan could amount to a “crime against humanity.”

The experts demanded in a joint statement Friday that the Taliban treatment of women and girls “should be investigated as gender persecution” under international law.

Taliban government spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid on Twitter promptly rejected the allegations as “disrespect to the sacred religion of Islam and against international rules.”

Since returning to power in August 2021, the Taliban have ordered women to cover their faces in public and not undertake long road trips without a close male relative. They have instructed many female government staff members to stay at home.

Teenage girls have been banned from attending school beyond the sixth grade across most of Afghanistan. This month the Taliban banned women from entering parks, amusement parks, gyms and public baths across the country.

“In recent months, violations of women and girls’ fundamental rights and freedoms in Afghanistan, already the most severe and unacceptable in the world, have sharply increased,” the U.N. experts said. “Confining women to their homes is tantamount to imprisonment and is likely leading to increased levels of domestic violence and mental health challenges.”

The experts do not speak for the world body, but they are mandated to report their findings to the United Nations.

‘Erasure’ of women, girls

“Men accompanying women wearing colorful clothing, or without a face covering, have been brutally beaten by Taliban officers,” the experts’ statement noted. “We are deeply concerned that such actions are intended to compel men and boys to punish women and girls who resist the Taliban’s erasure of them, further depriving them of their rights, and normalizing violence against them.”

The U.N. statement came after the Taliban said Wednesday that authorities in eastern Afghanistan had flogged 14 people, including three women, in front of hundreds of onlookers in a football stadium for purported “moral crimes.”

This was the second time in less than two weeks the Islamist rulers administered the punishment to people accused of adultery, false allegations of adultery and theft. On November 11, Taliban authorities in the northeastern Takhar province lashed 10 men and nine women in the presence of elders, scholars and residents.

The public flogging is the latest sign of the Taliban’s application of their strict interpretation of Islamic law, known as Shariah, to criminal justice, and restoring harsh polices of their rule from 1996 to 2001 in much of Afghanistan.

The Taliban reject criticism of their governance, saying their policies are in line with Afghan tradition and Shariah.

Taliban Foreign Ministry spokesman Abdul Qahar Balkhi in written comments to VOA also pushed back against Friday’s assertions by U.N.-appointed experts, and in turn he urged the United Nations to investigate alleged “war crimes” against Afghans by U.S.-led foreign troops during their 20 years of “occupation” of the country.

“[The] current collective punishment of innocent Afghans by the U.N. sanctions regime all in the name of women rights and equality amount to war crimes and crimes against humanity that must be given priority and those involved in the previous and current crimes all prosecuted under international law,” Balkhi said.

Punishing sanctions

The Taliban took over Afghanistan after almost 20 years of insurgency against U.S.-led NATO troops and their Afghan partners. The international troops withdrew from the country days after the Islamist group captured the capital, Kabul.

Many senior leaders in the Taliban administration are under U.N. travel and financial sanctions stemming from the time the group was waging its insurgency.

The sanctions, the international isolation of the Afghan banking sector and suspension of financial assistance have pushed the economy of the largely foreign-aid-dependent country to the brink of collapse since the Taliban takeover.

No country has formally recognized the Taliban government over human rights and terrorism-related concerns. The lack of legitimacy and suspension of foreign financial aid has exacerbated an already bad Afghan humanitarian crisis, with millions of people facing acute food shortages.

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UN Experts Denounce Taliban Treatment of Women as Crime

The Taliban treatment of women and girls in Afghanistan may amount to a crime against humanity and should be investigated and prosecuted under international law, a U.N. team of experts said Friday.

The Taliban promptly rejected the allegation.

The statement by the U.N.-appointed experts followed a confirmation from the Taliban that three women were among 12 people lashed on Wednesday in front of hundreds of spectators at a provincial sports stadium. It signaled the Taliban’s resumption of a brutal form of punishment that was a hallmark of their rule in the 1990s.

And on Nov. 11 in Taloqan in northeastern Takhar province, 10 men and nine women were lashed 39 times each in the presence of elders, scholars and residents at the city’s main mosque after Friday prayers. They were accused of adultery, theft and running away from home.

The U.N. experts said the latest Taliban actions against women and girls have deepened existing rights violations — already the “most draconian globally” — and may constitute gender persecution, which is a crime against humanity.

The U.N. experts do not speak for the United Nations but are mandated to report their findings to the global body, Agence France-Presse reported.

The Taliban overran Afghanistan in August 2021 as American and NATO forces were in the final weeks of their pullout from the country after 20 years of war. Despite initially promising a more moderate rule and allowing for women’s and minority rights, they have restricted rights and freedoms and widely implemented their harsh interpretation of Islamic law, or Sharia.

They have banned girls from middle school and high school, restricted women from most employment, and ordered them to wear head-to-toe clothing in public. Women are also banned from parks, gyms, and funfairs.

Lashings in public, as well as public executions and stoning for purported crimes were common across Afghanistan during the first period of Taliban rule, from 1996 until 2001, when they were driven out in a U.S.-led invasion following the September 11 terrorist attacks. The Taliban had sheltered al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden.

The experts’ statement did not specifically mention the cases of public lashings but said the Taliban have beaten men accompanying women wearing colorful clothing or without a face covering.

“We are deeply concerned that such actions are intended to compel men and boys to punish women and girls who resist the Taliban’s erasure of them, further depriving them of their rights, and normalizing violence against them,” it said.

It urged the Taliban to reinstate the rights and freedoms for Afghan women, release activists from detention and restore access to schools and public spaces.

The expert team, appointed by the U.N. Human Rights Council, includes Richard Bennett, special rapporteur on human rights in Afghanistan, and Farida Shaheed, special rapporteur on the right to education.

The Taliban-appointed spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abdul Qahar Balkhi, rejected the experts’ statement and fired back at the U.N. for sanctioning the former insurgents who now rule Afghanistan.

Balkhi, in a message to The Associated Press, listed what he said amounts to war crimes and crimes against humanity by the world body, including the “current collective punishment of innocent Afghans by the U.N. sanctions regime, all in the name of women’s rights and equality.”

Sanctions on Taliban officials and the freezing of billions in foreign currency reserves have restricted access to global institutions and outside money that had supported Afghanistan’s aid-dependent economy before the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces.

No country in the world has recognized the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban call their administration, leaving them internationally and financially isolated.

The International Committee of the Red Cross said Thursday it was seeing a spike in cases of child pneumonia and malnutrition, with the poverty level increasing compared to previous years, as humanitarian conditions plummet and the country braces itself for a second winter under Taliban rule.

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India’s Adani Defends Media bid After Press Freedom Fears

Indian tycoon Gautam Adani said Friday that media should have the “courage” to support the government when warranted, after his hostile takeover bid for one of the country’s top broadcasters sparked press freedom fears.

Adani, 60, is the world’s third-richest person, with an estimated net worth of $134 billion and interests ranging from Australian coal mines to India’s busiest ports.

He is also seen as a close acolyte of Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi, often publicly supporting his policies.

A company from his Adani Group revealed in August that it had indirectly bought 29 percent of NDTV, against the wishes of the broadcaster’s management, and is moving to buy a majority stake next month.

In a wide-ranging interview with the Financial Times, Adani said his foray into media was a “responsibility” rather than a business opportunity.

He added that it was time for India to have a global news conglomerate on par with Al Jazeera and said the channel should support the government when appropriate.

“Independence means if government has done something wrong, you say it’s wrong,” Adani told the British broadsheet.

“But at the same time, you should have courage when the government is doing the right thing every day. You have to also say that.”

NDTV’s two channels, one in Hindi and one in English, stand out among India’s myriad rolling news broadcasters for inviting on critics of the government as well as their hard-hitting reporting.

It has already been hit by a slew of lawsuits that its owners said stemmed from its reporting.

Under Modi, India has slipped 10 places in the Reporters Without Borders global press freedom ranking and is now 150 out of 180 surveyed countries.

Reporters who are critical of the government can find themselves behind bars and hounded on social media by supporters of Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Aggressive expansion

Self-made billionaire Adani, 60, this year overtook fellow Indian Mukesh Ambani to become Asia’s richest man.

Like Modi, Adani hails from western Gujarat state, and his conglomerate has expanded aggressively in recent years, including into new areas like airports and renewable energy.

But its growth into capital-intensive businesses has raised alarm, with analysts from Fitch Group’s CreditSights warning in August that the group was “deeply overleveraged”.

On Friday, the group’s Adani Enterprises approved plans to raise $2.45 billion through a follow-on public offer – set to be India’s biggest ever, subject to regulatory approval.

The fresh funds will be key to reducing debt and fueling further business expansion for the flagship entity, shares in which have surged nearly 1,000 percent over the past two years.

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In Pennsylvania, Afghan Refugees Celebrate First Thanksgiving

Judith Samkoff needed a bigger dinner table for Thanksgiving this year.

The 65-year-old Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, resident helped resettle an Afghan refugee family of eight, and because this is their first holiday in the United States, Samkoff invited them to her father and sister’s home for Thanksgiving.

“Because they have a larger dining room table and more dining chairs than I have,” she said, adding, “Our meal is not completely traditional in that we’re vegetarians.”

In different homes around the U.S., Jewish volunteers who helped resettle Afghans are welcoming them for their first Thanksgiving dinner on U.S. soil.

One of Samkoff’s guests is Hadia, a 24-year-old Afghan refugee whose family fled Afghanistan in November 2021.

“We got a call and they said we had to go to the airport right away,” Hadia said of her family’s escape from Kabul. Because of security and safety concerns, VOA is sharing only her first name.

In Afghanistan, Hadia had a bachelor’s degree in public administration from Balkh Province. She also volunteered to help displaced people from other countries.

When Kabul fell to the Taliban, her family had to quickly make plans.

The U.S. completed its withdrawal in August 2021 and helped evacuate more than 130,000 Afghans in a chaotic few weeks after nearly 20 years of war.

“We decided to leave our country because my father had a military background,” she said.

Hadia’s father served in the Afghan army and worked directly with U.S. forces.

She did not disclose who helped her family leave Afghanistan, but they were part of a group of people who were able to go to Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

They lived there for four months before receiving authorization to travel to the United States in March 2022.

Pennsylvania was the place the U.S. government chose for the family to rebuild their lives.

“We [didn’t] know anyone here. We [were] worr[ied],” she said, adding, “It’s really hard when we [first arrived] … how can we manage, you know, it’s really hard to start from zero. You left everything behind in your country. When you come here you must start from zero.”

That is where Samkoff and the other volunteers come in. They help recently arrived Afghans like Hadia and her family settle in and give them the resources they need to be successful in their new homeland.

Samkoff said she became a volunteer after talking to a friend who was helping to resettle another Afghan family.

“And I said, ‘You know, sign me up. How do we do this?’” Samkoff told VOA.

Goodwill

Samkoff is one of 1,866 volunteers in the Jewish Federations of North America network, which in partnership with the Shapiro Foundation launched a $1 million refugee resettlement initiative to support local communities around the country, including the Jewish Family Service of Greater Harrisburg (JFS).

The network has resettled 19,163 Afghans across the country and is prepared to resettle more as they arrive.

Darcy Hirsh, associate vice president public affairs at Jewish Federations of North America, said volunteers play an important role in helping refugee families resettle.

“A lot of it is really goodwill. … Our model allows each community to respond in a way that makes the most sense to them. … I’ve been really proud of [the] engagement we’ve seen in communities,” Hirsh said.

Hirsh said volunteers help find apartments and homes for Afghans. They also work together to furnish the new place, help them enroll children in school, find transportation to job interviews and teach them English.

“The support services we have at the agencies will help any Afghan that walks through the doors, but we’re working very closely in coalition with many of the resettlement agencies … to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act that would not only help adjust status but provide an easier pathway for those that are remaining in Afghanistan,” she said.

The Afghan Adjustment Act is bipartisan legislation that would allow eligible Afghans to apply for lawful permanent residence in the United States. It was introduced in both chambers of Congress in August.

“So we’re hoping that bill will be attached to legislation that passes Congress by December,” Hirsh said.

First Thanksgiving

At the table, the family and friends had Tofurky, a plant-based, meat substitute made from tofu.

Hadia said she tried to explain to her mother what the national holiday day means to the United States.

“It’s like they meet [and] appreciate people with thanks. … So it’s really good. In our culture [it’s] also like that. We don’t have any specific date to say thanks but we say thanks [to] everyone,” she said.

Hadia said she looks forward to the future and hopes to one day work as a diplomat helping other refugees to find safety as she has. In Harrisburg, she is working as a social service worker and is volunteering to assist other refugee families.

She told VOA her family is still adjusting to the new country.

“The United States is very busy. … Everyone is busy here. … [But] we have lots of opportunities here. During the morning I can work and during the evening I can take my classes,” she said.

Samkoff said helping Hadia’s family is a blessing and makes her feel “really good.”

“I don’t have any grandchildren of my own. I feel like if anybody asks me if I have any grandchildren, I would say, ‘Yes, I have seven. One of them is in Germany. I haven’t met him in person yet, but he’s coming,” Samkoff told VOA. That is Hadia’s brother, who is waiting to resettle in the U.S.

“My family is always excited when Judith [Samkoff] invites us [to come over] or other volunteers. You know, when we came here, we didn’t have any family. Now they’re my family. I call Judith my grandmother,” Hadia said.

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US Slams Taliban for Publicly Flogging Afghan Men and Women

The U.S. special envoy for women, girls and human rights in Afghanistan has sharply criticized the ruling Islamist Taliban for organizing public floggings of people, including women, accused of “moral crimes” such as theft and adultery.

“This is both appalling and a dangerous sign that the Taliban are becoming more defiant in showing the world that they are embracing the policies of the past,” Rina Amiri said on Twitter. 

Her reaction came a day after the Taliban Supreme Court said that 11 men and three women had been flogged “for different sins, including adultery, robbery and other forms of corruption” in a football stadium in the country’s east.

The announcement noted that the punishment was administered Wednesday morning “in the presence of respected scholars, security forces, tribal elders and local residents.”

It is the latest sign of the Taliban applying their strict interpretation of Islamic law, known as Sharia, to criminal justice, and restoring polices of their previous rule from 1996 to 2001, when flogging was taking place in much of Afghanistan.

“It didn’t end up well before and it will once again take the country on a perilous path,” Amiri warned.

Earlier this month, reclusive Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada ordered senior judges to apply Sharia punishments in cases already concluded. Taliban authorities have since implemented public floggings in at least two provinces for crimes such as adultery, false accusations of adultery, theft, banditry, alcohol consumption, apostasy and sedition.

The Supreme Court said about two weeks ago that 19 people, including nine women, were lashed in northeastern Takhar province for adultery, theft and running away from home. They all were lashed 39 times each, it said.

The Sharia legal system is derived from Islam’s holy book, the Quran, and the deeds as well as sayings of the Prophet Muhammad.

The Taliban returned to power in August 2021 after almost 20 years of insurgency against U.S.-led NATO troops and their Afghan partners. The international troops withdrew from Afghanistan just days after the Taliban seized power.

No country has yet to formally recognize the Taliban rule over human rights and terrorism-related concerns. The international community has been pressing the Islamist rulers to reverse restrictions on Afghan women if they want legitimacy for their men-only government.

Since they seized power in August 2021, the Taliban have ordered women to cover their faces in public, not undertake long road trips without a close male relative and ordered many female government staff members to stay at home. Women are banned from visiting gyms, parks and public baths.

While public and private universities are open to women across Afghanistan, teenage girls are not allowed to attend secondary schools from grades seven to 12.

U.S. envoy Amiri also criticized the Taliban for dissolving the Afghan Independent Bar Association in November of last year, saying it was a model of gender inclusion.

“Now women are sidelined from practicing law & many women judges & lawyers are forced to beg for food for their children rather than use their skills. Such injustice,” she said in a separate tweet Thursday.

The Taliban defend their governance, saying it is in line with Afghan culture and Islamic law.

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The Afghan Woman Leader Who Stayed Under Taliban

August 15, 2021 was a normal workday for Nilab Mobarez, secretary-general of the Afghan Red Crescent Society (ARCS), a national humanitarian organization of more than 2,000 employees and several thousand volunteers across Afghanistan.

“We did our managerial meeting at 11am followed by some administrative routines,” Mobarez recalled, her last day at work.

At about 12 p.m., a colleague showed her a text message on his mobile phone, “The Republic has collapsed. The Taliban are in town,” it read.

What followed was a complete breakdown of the institutions Afghanistan had managed to build with unprecedented international assistance. From 2002 to 2021, the U.S., European Union and many other countries and organizations spent billions of dollars to create and strengthen viable state institutions for Afghanistan.

A surgeon and public administrator by education, Mobarez was appointed secretary-general of the ARCS in 2017, a position that allowed her to operate on both sides of the war and deliver humanitarian assistance even in areas under Taliban control.

On the day of the collapse, most senior government officials — ministers, lawmakers, judges and governors — ran to the airport to follow suit with President Ashraf Ghani, who had fled in a helicopter with his wife and close associates, but Mobarez decided to stay put.

“What happened at Kabul airport in August last year was an egregious affront to our national dignity,” she said about the chaotic evacuation of tens of thousands of Afghan nationals in U.S. military flights.

U.S. officials have described the evacuation — the largest by the U.S. military thus far — as a successful operation, saying that the evacuated Afghans were protected from possible Taliban persecution. Despite declaring a general amnesty, the Taliban have been accused of targeting some members of former Afghan security forces — a charge the Taliban contest.

“How could a foreign military fly thousands of citizens of a country without passport and visa under such humiliating circumstances?” Mobarez said, adding that she was offered her own evacuation from Afghanistan but she refused.

“This is my country and if I don’t stick with it in difficult times who would?”

Invisible

Living under Taliban rule for more than a year, jobless and taking care of her elderly father, who served as a deputy minister in the former Afghan government, Mobarez still defends her decision not leaving the country.

“Taliban officials have not contacted me,” Mobarez said “but in meetings with ARCS employees they have asked how could a woman lead a large organization?”

The Taliban leadership and cabinet is made up of men only and they have imposed many restrictions on women’s education and work.

The Taliban’s Afghanistan is the only country where girls are banned from secondary schools, public parks, sport centers, and appearing on television without a facemask.

Recently, a friend told Mobarez that a Taliban official rejected, without any explanation, her application for a renewal of her driving license but she still drives in Kabul with the expired license.

The Taliban have not officially announced a ban on female drivers, but it is understood that if girls are not allowed into secondary schools they are also not allowed to be in the driving seat.

“The Taliban don’t look at us as if we don’t exist for them…sometimes I feel like I’m invisible.”

Human rights activists say the Taliban have effectively erased women from the public space in Afghanistan.

“But my mere presence here gives hope and courage to some women. It’s like a proof that I live it here with them rather than criticizing it from the outside.”

Like few other Afghan women’s rights activists, Mobarez says any fundamental change to the status of Afghan women needs to come from inside Afghanistan.

“Only a real Loya Jirga [grand assembly] with at least 30 percent women participation will be able to chart a constitutional path for the future of Afghanistan,” she said.

Such a path, however, appears unlikely under current Taliban rule because Taliban leaders claim they only need Islamic legitimacy, not votes from citizens, to govern the country.

“It’s going to be a long and difficult path, but we can only make it with perseverance and commitment,” Mobarez said.

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Pakistan Names New Army Chief amid Political Turmoil

Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif Thursday nominated the former head of Inter-Services Intelligence, or ISI, the country’s main intelligence agency, as head of the powerful military amid deepening political turmoil in the country.

Officials said Sharif chaired a meeting of his cabinet to pick General Asim Munir from a list of six senior generals to replace General Qamar Jawed Bajwa, set to retire next week, as the new chief of army staff.

Defense Minister Khawaja Asif announced the decision in a post-meeting statement, saying it has already been sent to President Arif Alvi for his mandatory approval.

Munir will take command of Pakistan’s nuclear-armed military from Bajwa on Nov. 29 at a ceremony at the general headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi, adjacent to the capital, Islamabad.

As well as heading the ISI, Munir has commanded Pakistani troops in areas bordering Afghanistan and arch-rival India.

The nomination of the new military chief comes amid an intensified debate over the even deepening interference of the institution in political affairs.

Bajwa’s leadership, in particular, has exposed the powerful military to severe public criticism lately, led by former Prime Minister Imran Khan.

The 70-year-old politician alleges Sharif and Bajwa colluded with the United States to orchestrate the toppling of his government in April through a parliamentary no-confidence vote. The cricket-star-turned populist deposed leader has not offered any evidence to substantiate his claims.

However, Khan has lately toned down his anti-Bajwa rhetoric, saying that even if the general had not been involved in his removal he could still have saved his government.

On Wednesday, Bajwa formally rejected Khan’s allegations in his last nationally televised address to families of fallen soldiers at the Pakistan military headquarters.

“A fake and false narrative was concocted to create a state of hysteria in the country,” stated the 62-year-old general.

But Bajwa admitted his institution had been meddling in national politics for decades, occasionally exposing it to public criticism.

“I believe the major reason has been the military’s interference in politics for the past 70 years, which is unconstitutional,” the outgoing general said. “Therefore, in February last year the military decided after a lot of deliberation that it would never again interfere in any political matter in future.”

Bajwa did not, however, explain what prompted the military to disengage from politics, and critics swiftly questioned his claims.

Pakistan has experienced four military coups against elected governments since gaining independence in 1947, leading to more than three decades of dictatorial rule.

Bajwa became army chief in 2016 for a mandated three-year term and was given an extension for three years in 2019 by then-Prime Minister Khan.

“I would take Bajwa’s plea for the Army to get out of politics with many grains of salt,” said Michael Kugelman, the director of South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, when asked for comments on claims by the incumbent military chief.

“The institution has been so entrenched in Pakistan’s political fabric for so long, that it would be well-nigh impossible to engineer such a sharp shift,” Kugelman said in written comments to VOA.

Pakistani politicians have long accused the military of orchestrating the removal of elected governments that do not fall into line with the powerful institution, particularly when it comes to making foreign and security policies or questioning the military’s commercial interests.

Khan remains the most popular leader in Pakistan and his popularity has skyrocketed since his removal, with his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party sweeping national and provincial by-elections in recent weeks.

Since his removal from office, he has been leading massive protest rallies across the country, with tens of thousands of party supporters attending them.

Khan is pressing Sharif to dissolve his coalition government and announce early general elections in the country. The government has rejected the demand, saying elections will be held only after it completes its constitutionally mandated term by next August.

The deposed prime minister has also accused  a senior ISI general along with Sharif and Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah of plotting a shooting attack on his rally earlier this month that left him wounded in the leg and killed one of his supporters. The government and ISI reject the allegations.

On Saturday, Khan plans to lead tens of thousands of supporters in Rawalpindi to push for his demand.

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Kashmiri Journalists Named on Militant ‘Traitor’ List Quit

Collaborator. Stooge. Traitor. These are the terms a militant group used to describe a dozen journalists in Indian-controlled Kashmir, in a list published online.

The list published on a blog linked to the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and its affiliate, The Resistance Front (TRF), had an immediate effect. At least five of the journalists named publicly announced they are quitting their jobs.

Journalists and media analysts say the list underscores the dangers for Kashmiri media professionals, who risk being attacked or threatened from extremist groups on one side and accused by authorities of supporting or promoting terrorism on the other.

The pressure on journalists in the disputed region has only increased since India revoked Kashmir’s special status granting it autonomy in 2019.

“You have a situation where extra-territorial militant interests now find it easy to issue intimidatory threats to established newspapers based in the region and declare them as collaborators of the Indian government,” Pamela Philipose, public editor at the Indian news website The Wire, told VOA.

A female journalist in Kashmir, who spoke on condition of anonymity, told VOA, “It’s very tough to be honest. It consistently makes one overthink about the situation.”

The list of journalists was published on Kashmir Fight, a blog believed to be run or affiliated with Lashkar-e-Taiba, which is listed by India and others as a terrorist group.

Access to the blog is blocked in Kashmir, but screenshots have been shared widely online.

A version viewed by VOA shows the names and accusations leveled against 12 journalists, along with initials of their news outlet. The text reads, “They are already listed and their time/fate sealed.”

Since then, at least five journalists, including from the English-language daily Rising Kashmir and the ANN News media agency, have resigned.

Some posted their resignations via Twitter, including one who announced he was quitting as a cameraman and disassociating himself from his former media outlet.

Anuradha Bhasin, executive editor of Kashmir Times, said, “Journalists are certainly accountable to their readers, but not to a band of cowards cowering behind a shady blog and announcing death threats. This is pathetic and condemnable.”

Bhasin and the DIGIPUB News India Foundation, a trade body of digital media organizations, both said in social media posts that journalists in the region face pressure from both militants and authorities.

Police in the city of Srinagar are investigating the threat.

In a statement, the police said a case has been registered against suspected members of “LeT & its offshoot TRF for online publication & dissemination of a direct threat letter to journalists (and) reporters based in Kashmir.”

As part of that investigation, police on Saturday carried out raids, including at the homes of six journalists and of lawyers who represent people accused of militancy. One former journalist, Sajad Ahmad Kralyari, was detained for questioning and his cellphone and laptop seized, the Reuters news agency reported.

An unnamed police official told Reuters that police conducted searches at 10 locations “in connection with the investigation of the case related to recent threats to journalists.”

Police in Kashmir did not respond to a VOA email requesting further comment and detail on the investigation, including what led to the raid on journalists’ homes.

Philipose of The Wire said that the capacity of the Kashmiri media to stand up to the challenge of reporting difficult stories in a climate awash with mistrust, fear, and repression has been steadily undermined.

She said that journalists in the region have said they feel numb. “It is tragic the situation in which they are now forced to function,” she said.

Manoj Joshi, a fellow at the Delhi-based group the Observer Research Foundation, told VOA via email, “Militants have always posed risks to the media, but so does any over-reaction on the part of the authorities.”

Joshi said that the risks “have not been as high as in other conflict zones,” and that he found the police raids “troubling.”

Since the revocation of Article 370, which had granted the region autonomy, Kashmir has seen internet and communication blocks and restrictions, and journalists have been detained or questioned for alleged national security violations.

That environment and uncertainty makes working in media difficult, local journalists say.

“We have no idea what’s happening with journalists whose homes have been raided. There is absolutely no communication. Obviously, this all is very threatening and working around such pressures is not easy,” the anonymous female journalist said.

Speaking about the raids Saturday, Philipose said that the Kashmir police seemed less interested in creating a climate that enables journalists to do their work.

Instead, she said, they launched “raids on several local journalists, holding them responsible for these threats.”

The threat from militants led some in Kashmir to cite the need for the region’s press club to be reopened. The club closed in January when authorities revoked its license to operate.

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Meta Report: US Military Behind Online Influence Campaign Targeting Central Asia, Middle East

People associated with the U.S. military created fake accounts on more than seven internet services as part of a “coordinated inauthentic” influence operation targeting people in Central Asia and the Middle East, according to Meta, the parent of Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, in its report out this week.

Although the people behind the operation “attempted to conceal their identities and coordination,” Meta said, its investigation “found links to individuals associated with the U.S. military.” 

The U.S. Department of Defense had not yet responded to a request for comment late Wednesday from VOA.

However, the Department of Defense told BBC News it was “aware of the report published by Meta.”

“At this time, we do not have any further comments on the report or potential actions that may be taken by the department as a result of the report,” it told the BBC.

Meta’s report adds more credence to the theory that the U.S. military was behind the operation, first reported in August by researchers at Graphika and the Stanford Internet Observatory.

The August report shed light on what was believed to be the first time Facebook and Twitter reported a pro-U.S. operation using methods — including fake personas and coordinated memes — that countries such as Russia and Iran employ to sow disinformation in the U.S. and elsewhere.

In its report, Meta said it had taken down 39 Facebook and 26 Instagram accounts that were part of a coordinated campaign focused on countries such as Afghanistan, Algeria, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Somalia, Syria, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Yemen. The campaign operated not only on Meta’s Facebook and Instagram but also on YouTube, Telegram, Russia social media site VKontakte, and Odnoklassniki, a social media site based in Russia and used in former Soviet states.

The fake accounts, which posted on themes such as sports or culture, emphasized cooperation with the U.S. and criticized Iran, China and Russia, Meta said. The postings, mostly made during U.S. East Coast business hours, were primarily in Arabic, Farsi and Russian. They praised the U.S. military and included COVID-19 content, which Meta removed for “violating our misinformation policy.”

Facebook’s automated system detected and disabled some of the posts, the firm said. The campaign’s overall impact did not appear to catch on in local communities. “The majority of this operation’s posts had little to no engagement from authentic communities,” Meta said.

After the initial revelations about the operation, the Pentagon launched a review of its clandestine psychological operations, according to The Washington Post. 

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Outgoing Pakistan Army Chief Admits Involvement in Politics

Pakistan’s outgoing military chief acknowledged Wednesday that decades of “unconstitutional” interference in national politics by his powerful institution had periodically exposed it to public criticism.

General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who is due to retire next week, made the admission in a nationally televised address to families of fallen soldiers at the military headquarters in the garrison city of Rawalpindi.

The 62-year-old general also rejected as “fake and false” claims by populist deposed prime minister Imran Khan that the United States had played a role in toppling his government in April this year.

“Our army, which is busy serving the nation day and night, is subjected to criticism from time to time. I believe the major reason has been the military’s interference in politics for the past 70 years, which is unconstitutional,” Bajwa said. “Therefore, in February last year the military decided after a lot of deliberation that it would never again interfere in any political matter in future. I assure you we are strictly committed to it.”

Bajwa did not, however, explain what prompted his institution to disengage from politics in Pakistan, where four military coups against elected governments led to more than three decades of dictatorial rule in its 75-year history.

Skepticism

Critics remain skeptical whether the Pakistan military will end its meddling in national politics.

“I would take Bajwa’s plea for the Army to get out of politics with many grains of salt,” said Michael Kugelman, the director of South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington.

“The institution has been so entrenched in Pakistan’s political fabric for so long, that it would be well nigh impossible to engineer such a sharp shift,” he said in written comments to VOA. “Not to mention, in the immediate term, the next army chief will likely be viewed as a key actor to help reduce the tensions between the government and Imran Khan, in order to reduce political instability.”

Pakistani politicians have long accused the military of orchestrating the removal of elected governments that don’t fall in line with the powerful institution, particularly when it comes to making foreign and security policies or questioning the military’s commercial interests.

“The military will have to really conduct a sober, far-reaching review of whether there is a need to revisit the role that it has acquired over the past 75 years, the need to consciously draw back” from politics, said Javed Jabbar, a former Pakistani information minister.

Jabbar spoke last week at a seminar organized by an Islamabad-based government-funded research organization, and he was responding to recent assertions by other senior army officials that the army had stopped interference in political matters.

“Officially [the military] has said that it has drawn back but we know that factually it has not. The military has a very potent role to play but it should not allow the political sphere to be resonant with this perception that everything happens because of the military. It is doing itself damage,” Jabbar asserted.

Pakistani politicians are also accused of secretly forming alliances with the military to destabilize and eventually topple governments of their rivals.

US ‘conspiracy’

Khan was removed from power in a parliamentary vote of no-confidence. He rejected the move as unlawful, alleging, without naming Bajwa, the military colluded with his political rivals to facilitate what he claimed was a U.S.-backed vote.

Islamabad and Washington both vehemently reject the allegations.

“It is impossible that if there were an external conspiracy in the country and the armed forces would sit by idly,” Bajwa said in his speech Wednesday while responding to Khan’s allegations.

“A fake and false narrative was concocted to create a state of hysteria in the country,” the army chief stated.

Khan has lately toned down his rhetoric, saying that even if the military had not been involved in his removal it could still have prevented the toppling of his government.

The former prime minister has been leading a massive protest campaign across Pakistan since his removal to press his successor Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif to dissolve the coalition government and announce early general elections.

Sharif has rejected the demand, saying the next elections will be held only after his government completes its constitutionally mandated term by August next year.

Bajwa became army chief in 2016 for a mandated three-year term and was given an extension for three years in 2019 by then-Prime Minister Khan.

Sharif has already initiated the process of picking a new army chief from a list of six most senior lieutenant generals the military sent to the government earlier on Wednesday.

On Saturday, Khan plans to lead tens of thousands of supporters in Rawalpindi, near the capital Islamabad, to push for his demand. The government has alleged the protest rally is being organized only to influence the appointment of Pakistan’s new army chief in favor of the ousted prime minister.

Bajwa wealth investigation

On Sunday, an online investigative news portal FactFocus published a story about the accumulation of wealth and property worth nearly $56 million by Bajwa’s family members since he took office six years ago. The news outlet shared confidential tax documents to substantiate its claims. It alleged that the general’s relatives had exponentially expanded their domestic and foreign property as well as businesses.

Pakistani Finance Minister Mohammad Ishaq Dar on Monday ordered an immediate probe into what he said was an “illegal” and “unwarranted leakage” of the information in breach of tax laws. Dar’s statement, critics said, stopped short of confirming the FactFocus story.

The minister instructed the investigation team to submit its findings by Tuesday evening. He has since disclosed to a local television channel that he has received initial findings of the probe but did not elaborate.

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Convicts on Death Row for Killing US Blogger Escape From Bangladesh Court  

Two Islamist militants convicted of killing Avijit Roy, an American blogger critical of Islamic fundamentalism, and his Bangladeshi publisher, escaped from a crowded court in Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, Sunday.

Suspected members of the al-Qaida-inspired local militant outfit Ansarullah Bangla Team, or ABT, sprayed toxic chemicals into the eyes of police officers and whisked away the convicts on motorcycles as they were leaving an anti-terrorism tribunal, Harun Ur Rashid, chief of the Detective Branch of Dhaka Metropolitan Police said.

“Men came on bikes, and they sped away taking along the two convicts, after spraying some toxic substance,” Rashid said. “Strict security measures are usually maintained when the militants are brought to court. Sunday’s incident was unexpected. We have set up an inquiry to find out what went wrong that day.”

A CCTV video clip from a Sunday broadcast on television channels showed three men fleeing on a motorbike, followed by one rider on another bike. The two riders on the first motorbike were the two escaped death row prisoners, police said.

After analyzing the CCTV footage, the investigating officers reported Tuesday that at least 10 members of ABT used eight motorbikes during their action Sunday.

“We have launched a hunt for the escaped convicts. Special police check posts have been set up across the country,” police officer Rashid added. “Red alerts have been sent to border checkpoints. We are hopeful that we will be able to arrest the escaped convicts and those who helped them escape, and all will be brought to justice.”

The police authority has also announced a reward of $19,450 (two million takas) for anyone providing information to trace the convicts.

Roy, a Bangladesh-born U.S. citizen and secular blogger, was hacked to death with an axe in Dhaka, in February 2015. In October of that year, Faisal Arefin Dipan, one of Roy’s publishers, was also hacked to death. The Islamist militant group ABT claimed responsibility for both killings.

In February last year, an anti-terrorism special tribunal in Dhaka sentenced eight ABT militants, including Moinul Hasan Shamim and Abu Siddiq Sohel, the two who escaped from the court Sunday, for killing Dipan.

A week later (in February 2021), six members of ABT were convicted for Roy’s murder. Five of the militants, including Sohel and sacked army major Syed Ziaul Haque — who was accused of leading the assailants — were handed out death sentences. One was sentenced to life in prison.

Between 2013 and 2016, a series of deadly attacks violently targeted atheist bloggers and other secular activists. Domestic militant groups aligned with Islamic State and al-Qaida claimed responsibility for those attacks. Around half a dozen of them, including Roy, were murdered by the militants and dozens of others fled the country, scared for their lives.

In December 2021, the U.S. State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, through its Rewards for Justice [RFJ] office announced a reward of up to US$ 5 million for information leading to the arrest or conviction of anyone involved in the killing of Roy. Haque and another militant convicted in the case still remain at-large.

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US Backing for Kazakhstan Remains Firm Despite Flawed Election

The United States reaffirmed Tuesday its support for the independence and territorial integrity of Kazakhstan despite the findings of international observers that a weekend presidential election fell well short of democratic standards.

“We look forward to working with President [Kassym-Jomart] Tokayev and his government to advance our common objectives,” said State Department spokesman Ned Price in a statement released two days after Tokayev cruised to victory against only token opposition with more than 81% of the vote.

“The United States also reiterates its unwavering support for Kazakhstan’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity, which has been the bedrock of our partnership for over 30 years,” Price said.

While pledging to work with Tokayev, whose country represents the largest U.S. business partner in Central Asia, the State Department concurred with the findings of an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe observer group that judged the election seriously deficient.

The OSCE observers noted that Tokayev, who took over in 2019 from post-Soviet strongman Nursultan Nazarbayev, “stood as the joint candidate of all parliamentary parties and, in effect, was not meaningfully challenged in a low-key campaign.”

Tokayev will now serve a seven-year term at the helm of the strategically located Central Asian nation bordering Russia and China.

The OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) assessed political participation in the election as “significantly constrained, with limitations on fundamental freedoms.” The group’s preliminary statement noted that democratic safeguards were disregarded in voting and counting, undermining transparency.

Kazakhstan’s Foreign Ministry denounced the ODIHR report as “biased conclusions, demonstrating a complete unwillingness to recognize the development of the internal situation in our country.”

“The content of the OSCE/ODIHR’s statement demonstrates a lack of desire to develop long-term and constructive cooperation with Kazakhstan authorities, which will, undoubtedly, be taken into account,” Astana warned.

U.S.-based independent analysts joined the OSCE in expressing disappointment with the election, in which five other candidates for president were on the ballot, but none of them directly challenged Tokayev. He also did not debate any of the other candidates.

“This election was rushed,” said Gavin Helf from the U.S. Institute of Peace at a Caspian Policy Center discussion in Washington, stressing that “Tokayev’s guaranteed reelection is not going to help with external legitimacy in the West.”

William Courtney, America’s first ambassador to Kazakhstan, now at the RAND Corporation, said Tokayev has raised expectations at home and abroad with public promises of democratic reform. But this election, he said, changes nothing.

“Is government keeping up with civil society or is the gap between expectations and reality widening?” Courtney asked. “The election is a missed opportunity in the West, seen as fundamentally no different than other elections — snap election, no meaningful choices.”

Kazakhstan still lacks democratic institutions and an independent judiciary, he added, factors that are “important for investors as well as those interested in the political development of Kazakhstan.”

Experts saw parallels to balloting in neighboring countries, such as Uzbekistan, where President Shavkat Mirziyoyev was reelected in a similarly uncompetitive fashion last year. ODIHR has never called an election in any of the former Soviet republics of Central Asia free and fair, except for noting relative democratic progress in Kyrgyzstan.

Nevertheless, the United States is anxious to encourage reform in the oil-rich nation and perhaps exploit growing concerns about Russian territorial ambitions following Moscow’s attempt to forcibly annex parts of Ukraine, another former Soviet republic.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed support last month for a reform agenda introduced by Tokayev following anti-government protests in January that, according to Kazakhstan’s Chief Prosecutor, left 232 dead and hundreds detained.

The government did not permit an independent investigation, but Tokayev promised accountability, which Human Rights Watch and other groups say he has yet to deliver.

“Our country must shun a close-minded, inward-looking strategy, and look toward the future,” Tokayev wrote in Politico two months ago, claiming “a democratic mandate to implement a vision for a fairer, more open Kazakhstan.”

He added that Kazakhstan “has always been a bridge between East and West, lying at the heart of the Silk Road. We have a 7,600-kilometer border with Russia, an 1,800-kilometer border with China, and extensive trading links with Europe and the rest of the world.”

Tokayev has promised “to decentralize decision-making, strengthen rule of law, increase international competitiveness, and ensure equal opportunities for every citizen.”

He claims a “new Kazakhstan” will leave its super-presidential system behind, elevate parliament and local administrations, and ease the registration of political parties, abolishing constraints on opposition.

But Western observers do not yet see the signs of progress.

“I think Tokayev very likely wants a more functional state, which ‘listens’ more to its population,” Helf, of the U.S. Institute of Peace, told VOA, but “this weekend’s election and the campaign that preceded it show that he’s not interested in meaningful political competition.”

“Tokayev would have won against any candidates who wanted to challenge him. His mandate would have been even more legitimate if he had allowed some opposition,” Helf said.

Richard Hoagland, a former U.S. ambassador to Kazakhstan, called at the Caspian Policy Center forum for deeper engagement with the country.

“If we want to raise our influence, the simplest way to do it is through high-level visits,” said Hoagland, who urged leading members of Congress and Cabinet secretaries to tour the region. No U.S. president has ever been to Central Asia.

“I don’t think we fully understand the background and mindset of these countries,” he said.

“There’s a tendency in Washington to keep fitting the situation through the prism of another issue: what Russia does in Central Asia, China’s influence in Central Asia, or the possibility of the Taliban expanding its influence through Central Asia,” rather than viewing the region on its own terms.

Wilder Alejandro Sanchez, president of Second Floor Strategies consultancy, noted that maintaining a strategic partnership with Washington is just of one of several competing foreign policy priorities for Kazakhstan.

He said these include managing deep ties with Russia and the implications of its war in Ukraine, not least migration of Russians to Kazakhstan; Chinese political and business pressure; and renewed interest from the European Union.

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‘Kite Runner’ Actor a Two-time Refugee

The Afghan actor Ali Danish Bakhtyari, who played the role of an orphan in the 2007 film “The Kite Runner,” has fled the Taliban rule in his home country twice: first in the late 1990s, and then in 2021, when the United States withdrew its forces from Afghanistan. Keith Kocinski has the story from New York.

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US Campaigners Raise Funds for Afghan Blast Survivor

The explosion at Kaaj educational center in Kabul was so powerful that it lifted 17-year-old Fatima Amiri off the ground before thrusting her slim body several meters away.

“I did not faint,” Amiri told VOA over the phone from her home in Kabul. 

“I ran to a nearby hospital on my own,” Amiri said as she described the September 30 explosion, which killed 54 people and injured 114, mostly ethnic Hazara students who are repeatedly attacked by the Islamic State group in Afghanistan.

That she managed to walk to a hospital does not minimize the severity of Amiri’s injuries. She has lost one eye and still has shrapnel in parts of her face. 

“I can’t hear in my injured ear, and I can’t eat properly because my jaw hurts badly.” 

Despite being traumatized and suffering from her injuries, Amiri last month took what is known as the Kankor exam, an annual test for entry to public universities in Afghanistan. She scored in the top 10 among thousands of applicants. 

Amiri’s performance on the exam has secured her admission to Kabul University to study her favorite subject, computer sciences, and gave her hopes for a better future in Afghanistan – a country often reported as the worst place for women. 

The Taliban, which returned to power in August of last year, have banned secondary education only for girls with no explanation as to why the ban was imposed and when it will be lifted; however, primary and middle schools as well as universities are open to males and females.

Amiri’s ability to graduate from the four-year study program will largely depend on how much she will be able to heal from the injuries she suffered in September.

Funding campaign 

Doctors have told Amiri that she will regain hearing in her left ear only if she can travel abroad for treatment because advanced medical services are not available inside Afghanistan. 

She also needs delicate surgery to have the shrapnel removed from her face, repair her jaw, and restore tissue inside her ear. 

Like a majority of Afghans, Amiri’s family lives in poverty and cannot afford to send her out of the country for treatment. 

Aid agencies say nearly all Afghans have been pushed to poverty over the past year largely due to international sanctions against the Taliban government as well as the cataclysmic social, economic and political changes Afghanistan has seen since the Taliban’s return to power in 2021. 

On November 9, a Virginia-based Afghan couple launched a US$30,000 crowdfunding campaign for Amiri’s treatment and support. As of November 22, the campaign has received more than $33,000 from hundreds of contributors from around the world, according to the organizer, Farhad Darya. 

While the campaigners have raised more funds than expected, they still face obstacles implementing their goals.

Sending the funds to Amiri’s family in Kabul will be extremely complicated because of international financial sanctions imposed on Afghanistan. 

Securing a passport, visa and flight tickets for Amiri also comes with hurdles because most embassies are closed in Afghanistan and Taliban authorities have restricted passport issuance. 

“We are tirelessly working to get her to India or Turkey, but Afghanistan has diplomatic relations with no country and this is time-consuming and not easy,” Darya told VOA. 

Uncertain future 

Under the Taliban, the young Amiri, a Hazara, suffers double discrimination because of her gender and ethnicity. 

“Women have been erased from public life and their civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights disregarded,” Richard Bennett, U.N. special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Afghanistan, reported last month. 

The ethnic Hazaras, a religious minority, have long complained about discrimination and even persecution in Afghanistan.

“I have still not lost all my hopes for the future,” Amiri said in Dari, one of the two official languages in Afghanistan in addition to Pashto.

“I have a lot of aspirations to serving my country in the future.” 

It is, however, not clear what work opportunities will be available for a young Hazara woman after Amiri’s expected graduation from Kabul University in 2027. For now, the ruling Taliban have set up a men-only government and banned women even from going to public parks and sport centers. 

Taliban officials say their restrictions on women’s rights are based on Islamic laws – a claim challenged by many Muslim scholars inside and outside Afghanistan as erroneous.

“This will change too,” Amiri said about the current situation facing Afghan women.

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World Cup 2022: Families Mourn Thousands From Decade of Construction 

As the 2022 FIFA World Cup games play out in Qatar, VOA reports on the families of some of the thousands of migrant workers who died building Cup-related facilities over the past decade. They say they will never recover. VOA’s Heather Murdock has more from Dhanusha, Nepal. Camera: Yan Boechat

 

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Rights Group Accuses Turkey of Mass Afghan Deportations 

The U.S.-based Human Rights Watch accuses Turkish authorities of carrying out mass deportations of Afghan refugees, including those most at risk. For VOA, Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul.

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