India Arrests Prominent Rights Activist, Triggering Outrage 

The arrest in India of a prominent human rights activist accused of criminal conspiracy and fabrication of evidence against Prime Minister Narendra Modi has triggered outrage across the global human rights community.

On Saturday, Gujarat police arrested activist Teesta Setalvad and former senior police officer and whistleblower RB Sreekumar. The two and another former police officer, Sanjiv Bhatt — who has already been jailed for life in a case of custodial killing — were named in a First Information Report (FIR) related to the Gujarat riots.

Setalvad is known for her fight in support of the victims of the 2002 riots in which more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died in communal riots when Modi was the chief minister of the western state.

During the riots, Gujarat state police were accused of sitting idle while Hindu mobs hacked and burned Muslims to death. India’s National Human Rights Commission then blamed Modi’s Gujarat government for not taking basic steps to prevent violence and failing to respond to specific pleas for protection during the riots.

In 2012, a court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) filed a report noting that there was “no prosecutable evidence” against Modi and his officials and exonerated all of them from complicity in the riots.

On Friday, India’s Supreme Court dismissed a petition that Setalvad and Zakia Jafri — whose husband and former member of Indian parliament, Ehsan Jafri, was burned to death during the riots — had filed challenging Modi’s exoneration by the SIT.

The next day, India’s home minister Amit Shah accused Setalvad of giving false information about the Gujarat riots to the police with an intention to defame Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party.

“The court has, in fact, established that the allegation that the riots were organized as part of a criminal conspiracy was a lie that was spread by a troika of NGOs, the opposition and ideologically driven journalists,” Shah said. “If those who leveled allegations have a conscience, they should apologize.”

Setalvad was picked up by the Gujarat police hours after Shah’s accusation against Setalvad was broadcast on national TV.

In dismissing the petition challenging Modi’s exoneration, the Supreme Court on Friday observed, “At the end of the day, it appears to us that a coalesced effort of the disgruntled officials of the State of Gujarat along with others was to create sensation by making revelations which were false to their own knowledge. … All those involved in such abuse of process need to be in the dock and proceeded with in accordance with law,” the court said.

Citing observations by the Supreme Court, the police have justified the filing of the FIR and launched investigations against Setalvad and the two former police officers.

Journalist-turned-activist Setalvad founded the rights group Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) to advocate for the victims of the Gujarat riots. In their petition, Setalvad, Zakia Jafri and CJP demanded a criminal trial of Modi and dozens of state officials, alleging criminal conspiracy to spread riots.

Arrest reflects ‘shrinking space for dissent, says supporter

Standing in support of Setalvad, rights activists and groups have condemned her arrest and demanded she be released immediately.

Calling her arrest “outrageous,” Govind Acharya, an India specialist at Amnesty International USA, said targeting human rights activists for their legitimate human rights work is “unacceptable.”

“The detention of Teesta Setalvad is a way to punish those who are brave enough to question India’s human rights record. Her arrest is part and parcel of the shrinking space for civil society and dissent in India,” Acharya told VOA.

Elaine Pearson, acting Asia director of Human Rights Watch, said Setalvad has long been recognized for her work supporting Muslim victims of the Gujarat riots and her pursuit for justice.

“It is her work, and those of other brave activists like her, that led to the Supreme Court monitoring the investigation and prosecution of scores of people that raped and murdered their neighbors during the riots,” Pearson told VOA.

“It is unfortunate that India’s Supreme Court chose to ignore the work that Teesta has done, despite repeated raids and cases filed against her by Gujarat authorities, perhaps in retaliation or to cover up the failures of the state to protect minority rights.”

Setalvad’s arrest shows how religious minorities and those standing for justice for Muslims are being targeted in India now, New Delhi-based civil rights activist Kavita Krishnan said.

“It’s also a shame that the Supreme Court of India for the very first time has not only failed to deliver justice to the Gujarat riots victims, but has encouraged the state to put the petitioners ‘in the dock,’” Krishnan told VOA.

“The Supreme Court judgment instigating criminalization of the petitioners for justice, followed by the vindictive prosecution by the Gujarat police in collusion with the Modi-Shah regime, is an attempt to chill civil liberties and human rights activism in India,” she said.

Delhi University teacher and social activist Apoorvanand said the arrest of Setalvad based on the direction of the Supreme Court to proceed against her and others is a dangerous signal to all human rights workers fighting to secure justice for the marginalized sections of society.

“It subverts the basic principle of justice that you don’t punish those who are fighting against the all-powerful state seeking justice. To criminalize the act of justice-seeking is a new low for the Supreme Court of India,” Apoorvanand told VOA.

Mary Lawlor, U.N. special rapporteur on human rights defenders, said in a tweet she was “concerned” by the news of Setalvad’s arrest.

“Teesta is a strong voice against hatred and discrimination. Defending human rights is not a crime. I call for her release and an end to persecution by #Indian state,” Lawlor said.

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UN Appeals for $110 Million for Afghan Quake Response  

The United Nations made an urgent appeal Monday for $110.3 million to provide livesaving assistance to more than 360,000 Afghans who were affected last week by a magnitude 5.9 earthquake that killed about 1,000 people, including 150 children.

The funding is required in the next three months to meet pressing humanitarian needs, prevent more deaths and help rebuild homes and communities shattered by the disaster.

The earthquake destroyed or damaged hundreds of homes in several districts in Paktika and Khost provinces, according to aid agencies and Taliban officials.

“I’m appealing to the world — please help. We need money. We need funding. We need support to resolve this tragedy,” Ramiz Alakbarov, U.N. resident relief coordinator for Afghanistan, said in a video message while visiting an area in Paktika province hard hit by the earthquake.

More than half of the appealed funding, if provided by donors, will be spent on emergency shelters and non-food items, while about $35 million will go to emergency food and health care needs.

Several countries in the region, including the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Qatar, Pakistan, India and China, have responded to the disaster with planes loaded with tents, clothes, medical supplies and food items. The United States has also pledged aid.

“U.S. humanitarian partners are already responding, including by sending medical teams to help people affected, and we are assessing other response options,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement June 22, the day the earthquake was reported.

The quake response appeal is separate from the 2022 Afghanistan humanitarian appeal of $4.4 billion, the largest single-country appeal the U.N. has ever launched. Halfway through the year, donors have pledged less than 34% of the humanitarian appeal. With a $459.6 million commitment, the U.S. is on top of the donor list.

Online funding temporarily on hold

Hours after the earthquake was reported, online campaigns appeared on social platforms calling for aid.

Over the past five days, at least 120 individual calls for funding have been launched on the crowdfunding platform GoFundMe, raising more than $500,000 from international donors.

However, some of the funds cannot be transferred to banks in Afghanistan due to U.S. sanctions on the Taliban.

“We’ve raised a lot of money thanks to the goodwill of people, but we cannot move the funds because of politics and bureaucracy,” Ajmal Ziarmal, who has raised more than $26,000 on GoFundMe, told VOA.

“People have lost their loved ones, their homes and everything they had, and they should not be further punished for politics,” he added.

A spokesperson for GoFundMe offered sympathies to the Afghan quake victims but said some of the funds raised on the platform are temporarily on hold.

“Where funds are temporarily on hold, it generally means that we are ensuring a clear path to a beneficiary has been established and that the fundraiser is compliant with GoFundMe’s Terms of Service and international laws and regulations,” the spokesperson told VOA.

The California-based for-profit platform has been encouraging donors to make their contributions to verified campaigners whose accounts are not subject to transfer restrictions. As of June 27, nine verified campaigners have solicited funds for the quake response.

The U.S. has issued humanitarian waivers for financial transactions with Afghanistan particularly when the aid does not directly benefit the Taliban. But aid agencies say they still face significant obstacles and delays in banking with the country.

“(T)he formal banking system continues to block transfers due to excessive de-risking, impacting payment channels and causing breakdowns in supply chains,” Martin Griffiths, U.N. emergency relief coordinator, told the Security Council last week.

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Taliban’s Alleged Extrajudicial Killings in Afghan District Worry UN, Rights Groups

Taliban authorities in Afghanistan are being accused of carrying out extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses as they attempt to quell an armed rebellion in a northern region.

The United Nations and rights watchdogs on Monday called reports of abuses in the turbulent Balkhab district in northern Sar-e Pol province alarming and demanded that the ruling Islamist group hold those responsible.

The accusations stemmed from recent Taliban military operations against loyalist-turned-rebel commander Mehdi Mujahid and his fighters in Balkhab.

Mujahid, an influential member of the Afghan ethnic minority Hazara Shi’ite community, served until recently as the Taliban’s spy chief for central Bamyan province. He was dismissed for unspecified reasons, prompting him to break away from the Sunni-based Islamist rulers.

“Amnesty International is gravely concerned by reports of summary executions and harm to civilians in Balkhab district of Sari-Pul province,” the global rights group tweeted Monday. “As the de facto authorities in Afghanistan, the Taliban has a primary responsibility to end the attacks against civilians and ensure justice and accountability.”

Richard Bennett, the United Nations special rapporteur on the situation on human rights in Afghanistan, described as “disturbing” reports of extrajudicial killings, civilian displacement, property distraction and other human rights abuses in the northern district.

“Regrettably verification hampered by info blackout, internet cut & denial of access to media & HR monitors,” Bennett tweeted.

The Taliban refuted the charges as propaganda.

“The situation in Balkhab has returned to normal. No one has been oppressed or persecuted. The people are living a peaceful and safe environment. The propaganda about mistreatment of civilians or casualties is not true,” the chief Taliban spokesman tweeted Monday.

Taliban officials maintained they had reportedly dispatched several delegations to Balkhab to unsuccessfully negotiate a settlement with Mujahid before ordering last week’s military offensive against his forces

The Defense Ministry in Kabul announced on Sunday that security forces had evicted Mujahid’s fighters from the district headquarters and surrounding areas, saying fleeing rebels had taken refuge in a nearby valley, and operations against them were continuing. VOA could not ascertain from independent sources the veracity of the official claims.

A video speech circulating on social media showed Mujahid among his fighters somewhere in Balkhab while one of his loyalists addressed the crowd, accusing the Taliban of sidelining Hazara Afghans from the national political space.

The insurgent-turned-ruling group seized power in Afghanistan last August as the United States and NATO partners withdrew their last troops from the country.

The Taliban installed an all-male interim Cabinet to govern the conflict-torn South Asian nation, imposing restrictions on women’s rights to work and education, and cracking down on dissent.

Critics say the new government in Kabul comprises members of the Pashtun-based Taliban group and doesn’t give representation to other Afghan ethnicities.

The lack of political inclusivity and respect for rights of all Afghans, including women, is keeping the global community from formally recognizing the Taliban as legitimate rulers of Afghanistan.

Taliban leaders reject criticism of their administration, officially called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, and maintain that their polices are in line with Afghan culture and Islamic tradition.

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Protesters in India Call for Release of Anti-Modi Activist 

Protesters in India’s financial capital Mumbai on Monday demanded the release of a critic of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who was arrested over the weekend on suspicion of faking documents about anti-Muslim riots in 2002.

Teesta Setalvad is accused of tutoring witnesses, forging the documents and fabricating evidence in cases pertaining to the riots in Gujarat when Modi was state chief minister, according to police documents seen by Reuters.

A lawyer for Setalvad could not immediately be reached for comment.

Modi was accused of failing to stop the rioting when at least 1,000 people died under his watch. He denied the accusations and was exonerated in an Indian Supreme Court inquiry in 2012. Last week, the Supreme Court dismissed another petition questioning his exoneration.

Setalvad, a leading rights activist, was detained from her residence in Mumbai on Saturday by police from Gujarat, taken to the neighboring state, placed under formal arrest and sent to police custody until July 2.

“Just because activists like her are fighting in the court of law, doesn’t mean they should be put behind bars,” Nooruddin Naik, a protester, told Reuters.

Protesters carrying placards and posters of Setalvad shouted slogans against Modi and his party, the BJP.

Meanwhile “Teesta” was a top trending topic on Twitter on Monday.

Her arrest was condemned internationally as well, and Mary Lawlor, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights Defenders, said she was “deeply concerned” over Setalvad’s detention.

“Teesta is a strong voice against hatred and discrimination. Defending human rights is not a crime. I call for her release and an end to persecution by Indian state,” she said in a tweet.

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The Bolsheviks to Putin: A History of Russian Defaults

In 1918, Soviet revolutionary Leon Trotsky told Western creditors aghast at the Bolsheviks’ repudiation of Russia’s external debt: “Gentlemen, you were warned.” 

He reminded them that the dismissal of Tsarist-era debt had been a key manifesto of the failed uprising in 1905. More than a century later, Russia stands on the brink of another default but this time there was no warning. 

Few expected the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine to elicit such a ferocious response from the West, which has all but severed Russia from global financial and payment systems. 

These are Russia’s major debt events over the past century: 

1918: Repudiation 

Just before the 1917 revolution, Russia was the world’s largest net international debtor, having borrowed heavily to finance industrialization and railways. 

But seeing the Tsarist industrialization drive as failing the working class, the Bolsheviks repudiated all foreign debt. 

“They said ‘we are not paying and even if we could, we wouldn’t pay.’ And that was a political statement,” said Hassan Malik, senior sovereign analyst at Loomis Sayles and the author of the book “Bankers and Bolsheviks: International Finance and the Russian Revolution.” 

Despite Trotsky’s reminder, the default shocked the world, especially France, whose banks and citizens suffered massive losses. 

“Investors didn’t take it seriously because they thought it would be so self-harmful,” Malik said, estimating the debt to be worth at least $500 billion at 2020 prices and possibly more. 

It took until the mid-1980s for Moscow to recognize some of that debt. 

1991: USSR to Russia 

Following the break-up of the USSR in 1991, Russia stopped servicing part of the overseas debt it inherited from former Soviet states. 

Andrey Vavilov, Russia’s deputy finance minister between 1994 and 1997, said the Russian Federation held around $105 billion in Soviet-era debt at the end of 1992, with its own debt amounting to $2.8 billion. 

For accepting the inherited debt, the Paris Club recognized Russia as a creditor nation, Vavilov wrote in his book “The Russian Public Debt and Financial Meltdowns.” And as Russia agreed with the group of nations to restructure $28 billion in debt in 1996, it was allowed to shift major Soviet-era debt payments to the next decade. 

But with a financial crisis around the corner, it would take until 2017 to clear the Communist-era arrears. 

1998: Rouble debt default 

By 1997, crashing oil prices slashed Russian export revenues. External debt, which stood near 50% of GDP in 1995, had swelled by 1998 to 77%, according to Vavilov, who blamed hefty IMF/World Bank loans for contributing to the pile. 

Russia raised very little tax revenue and relied on short-term Treasury bills known as GKO to cover expenditure. But it found it harder and harder to roll these over and was soon spending ever-increasing amounts to defend the rouble. 

“The more the government insisted that it would stand by the currency and repay its debts, the more investors concluded it was time to sell,” said Chris Miller in his book “Putinomics: Power and Money in Resurgent Russia.” 

A month before the default, the IMF put together a $22.6 billion aid package, but “the market was expecting the announcement of an additional $20 billion,” Martin Gilman, the IMF representative in Moscow at the time, wrote in his book “No Precedent, No Plan: Inside Russia’s 1998 Default.” 

On Aug. 17, 1998, Russia threw in the towel, devaluing the rouble, announcing it could no longer pay rouble debt and introducing a three-month moratorium on some external debt. 

Russian banks that had invested heavily in T-bills and had extensive foreign currency exposure soon went under. 

2022: A forced default 

Through dire financial straits in 1998, Moscow made sure to continue Eurobond payments. Now it has plenty of cash but may not dodge default. 

To sidestep sanctions, the Kremlin is suggesting foreign creditors open Russian bank accounts to receive payments in alternative currencies to the dollar. 

Non-U.S. investors can in theory agree, but U.S. bondholders cannot, after a U.S. Treasury license allowing them to accept Russian payments expired in May. 

Miller, author of “Putinomics,” said Russia would fight tooth and nail to dodge a Eurobond default.

“The officials on the central bank and the finance ministry have built their careers on restabilizing Russia as a creditor that can be trusted in international markets,” he said. 

“It’s built into their identity to make sure a default doesn’t happen again.” 

Reporting by Jorgelina do Rosario, editing by Sujata Rao and Nick Macfie

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Destruction Everywhere, Help Scarce After Afghanistan Quake 

When the ground heaved from last week’s earthquake in Afghanistan, Nahim Gul’s stone-and-mud house collapsed on top of him.

He clawed through the rubble in the pre-dawn darkness, choking on dust as he searched for his father and two sisters. He doesn’t know how many hours of digging passed before he caught a glimpse of their bodies under the ruins. They were dead.

Now, days after a 6-magnitude quake that devastated a remote southeast region of Afghanistan and killed at least 1,150 people by authorities’ estimates, Gul sees destruction everywhere and help in short supply. His niece and nephew were also killed in the quake, crushed by the walls of their house.

The United Nations has put the death toll at 770 people but warned it could rise further. Either toll would make the quake Afghanistan’s deadliest in two decades.

“I don’t know what will happen to us or how we should restart our lives,” Gul told The Associated Press on Sunday, his hands bruised and his shoulder injured. “We don’t have any money to rebuild.”

It’s a fear shared among thousands in the impoverished villages where the fury of the quake has fallen most heavily — in Paktika and Khost provinces, along the jagged mountains that straddle the country’s border with Pakistan.

Those who were barely scraping by have lost everything. Many have yet to be visited by aid groups and authorities, which are struggling to reach the afflicted area on rutted roads — some made impassable by landslides and damage.

Aware of its constraints, the cash-strapped Taliban have called for foreign assistance and on Saturday appealed to Washington to unfreeze billions of dollars in Afghanistan’s currency reserves. The United Nations and an array of international aid groups and countries have mobilized to send help.

China pledged Saturday nearly $7.5 million in emergency humanitarian aid, joining nations including Iran, Pakistan, South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar in dispatching a planeload of tents, towels, beds and other badly needed supplies to the quake-hit area.

U.N. Deputy Special Representative Ramiz Alakbarov toured the hard-hit Paktika province on Saturday to assess the damage and distribute food, medicine and tents. U.N. helicopters and trucks laden with bread, flour, rice and blankets have trickled into the stricken areas.

“Yesterday’s visit reaffirmed to me both the extreme suffering of people in Afghanistan and their tremendous resolve in the face of great adversity,” Alakbarov said, appealing for the repair of damaged water pipes, roads and communication lines in the area.

Without support, he added, Afghans “will continue to endure unnecessary and unimaginable hardship.”

But the relief effort remains patchy and limited due to funding and access constraints. The Taliban, which seized power last August from a government sustained for 20 years by a U.S.-led military coalition, appear overwhelmed by the logistical complexities of issues like debris removal in what is shaping up to be a major test of its capacity to govern.

Villagers have dug out their dead loved ones with their bare hands, buried them in mass graves and slept in the woods despite the rain. Nearly 800 families are living out in the open, according to the U.N.’s humanitarian coordination organization OCHA.

Gul received a tent and blankets from a local charity in the Gayan district, but he and his surviving relatives have had to fend for themselves. Terrified as the earth still rumbles from aftershocks like one on Friday that claimed five more lives, he said his children in Gayan refuse to go indoors.

The earthquake was the latest calamity to convulse Afghanistan, which has been reeling from a dire economic crisis since the Taliban took control of the country as the U.S. and its NATO allies were withdrawing their forces. Foreign aid — a mainstay of Afghanistan’s economy for decades — stopped practically overnight.

World governments piled on sanctions, halted bank transfers and paralyzed trade, refusing to recognize the Taliban government. The Biden administration cut off the Taliban’s access to $7 billion in foreign currency reserves held in the United States.

As he toured the disaster site, Acting Afghan Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi urged the White House to release the funds “at a time when Afghanistan is in the grips of earthquakes and floods” and to lift banking restrictions so charities can more easily provide aid.

Western donors have withheld longer-term assistance as they demand the Taliban allow a more inclusive rule and respect human rights. The former insurgents have resisted the pressure, imposing restrictions on the freedoms of women and girls that recall their first time in power in the late 1990s.

Now, around half the country’s 39 million people are facing life-threatening levels of food insecurity because of poverty. Most civil servants, including doctors, nurses and teachers, have not been paid for months.

U.N. agencies and other remaining organizations have scrambled to keep Afghanistan from the brink of starvation with a humanitarian program that has fed millions and kept the medical system afloat. But with international donors lagging, U.N. agencies face a $3 billion funding shortfall this year.

Reeling from war and impoverished long before the Taliban takeover, the far-flung areas hit by last Wednesday’s earthquake are particularly ill-equipped to cope.

Some local businessmen have swung into action. The Afghanistan Chamber of Commerce and Investment said on Sunday it had raised more than $1.5 million for Pakitka and Khost provinces.

Still, for those whose homes have been obliterated, the help may not be enough.

“We have nothing left,” Gul said.

 

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WHO Boosts Surveillance Amid Disease Outbreak Risk in Quake-Hit Parts of Afghanistan  

The World Health Organization said Sunday it was stepping up surveillance of infectious diseases in earthquake-hit areas of Afghanistan following warnings by local authorities that thousands of survivors are at risk of disease.

Afghan officials reported at least 1,150 people were killed, many more were injured, and thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed in Wednesday’s powerful quake.

The calamity caused most of the destruction in the southeastern Afghan provinces of Paktika and Khost, some of the poorest and remotest mountainous areas near the Pakistani border, which lack the infrastructure to withstand disasters of this scale.

“The people are extremely needy for food and clean water,” Afghan health ministry spokesperson Sharafat Zaman said Sunday. He added that officials had managed medicines for now but handling those who had lost their homes would be a challenge.

“We ask the international community, humanitarian organizations to help us… for food and medicine. The survivor might catch diseases because they don’t have proper houses and shelters for living.”

The WHO said in a statement that its response, and that of all health partners on the ground, is to treat the injured, save lives and minimize the risk of disease in the aftermath of this tragedy.

“WHO is increasing surveillance of infectious diseases such as acute watery diarrhea, measles, and COVID-19 by deploying disease surveillance and control officers and distributing medicines and supplies to health facilities in anticipation of an increase in cases.”

The statement noted that Afghanistan is one of the two remaining polio-endemic countries in the world, along with Pakistan, and polio staff are also contributing to relief efforts and supporting surveillance for other infectious diseases.

“The earthquake was yet another tragic reminder of the various risks facing the Afghan people and how critical that Afghanistan should not become another forgotten emergency by the global community,” said Luo Dapeng, the WHO representative in the war-torn country.

Hundreds of families were reportedly living in the open across several worst-affected districts. Those living in non-damaged and partially damaged buildings have also reportedly resorted to staying out in the open out of fear that there may be further tremors, according to U.N. officials.

The deadly earthquake is a major test for Afghanistan’s Islamist Taliban rulers, who seized power last August, but have not been granted formal recognition by the global community due to concerns about human rights, including those of women.

The United Nations and several neighboring countries have rushed aid to the devasted Afghan districts. But helping thousands of victims remains a challenge for foreign countries because of the suspension of aid and the imposition of financial as well as banking-sector sanctions on Taliban-governed Afghanistan.

Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi on Saturday urged Washington to roll back the sanctions and unfreeze billions of dollars in Afghan foreign assets, mostly held in the United States, to help aid groups smoothly bring in much needed assistance to quake victims.

Hours after Muttaqi’s statement, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre reiterated while speaking to reporters Saturday that the administration was working to resolve the issue through a series of processes.

“We are urgently working to address complicated questions about the use of these funds to ensure they benefit the people of Afghanistan and not the Taliban,” she said.

She added that the Biden administration was not going to wait to help the people of Afghanistan recover and rebuild from their devastating earthquake. “USAID and our partner humanitarian organizations are already providing immediate assistance on the ground where it’s needed the most.”

President Joe Biden issued an executive order in February that was aimed at freeing up half the $7 billion in frozen Afghan central bank assets on U.S. soil. The money would be used to benefit the Afghan people while the rest would be held for its possible use in terrorism-related lawsuits against the Taliban.

Some information for this report was provided by Reuters.

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Cover Stories and Burner Phones: How Myanmar Journalists Report Under Military Rule

From cover stories to burner phones, Myanmar’s journalists are resorting to unconventional methods to report on life under military rule.

The space for media has shrunk drastically since Myanmar’s military seized power in 2021. More than 120 journalists have been detained, the junta revoked licenses at about a dozen outlets, and other media groups and reporters now work in exile.

Those who remain say they are taking a range of precautions to stay safe under military rule.

The junta, which refers to itself as the, says media and activists are spreading “fake news.” And spokesperson Major General Zaw Min Tun told VOA in June the junta “never arrests any journalists for doing their job, as I have said repeatedly.”

But journalists who spoke with VOA described how they or colleagues have been targeted for arrest.

One of those is Win Zaw Naing, who works for the independent news website Red News Agency.

The military detained him briefly last year for his coverage of the coup. He later discovered the township police had a list of people to arrest.

“They are trying to arrest us because they want some of our sources,” Win Zaw Naing said. “They are investigating the neighborhood and the house where they [the sources] used to live.”

Under those circumstances, reporting takes careful preparation, said a journalist who goes by the alias KLT to protect his identity.

The freelance journalist has created a set of safety measures, including moving regularly. So far, he has moved at least five times in Yangon.

“When I go outside of the place where I live, I usually bring another phone which is totally private and not related to my work at all — like the contacts are only my wife, my mom, my non-journalistic friends and so on,” he said.

And when he does phone interviews, he uses secure methods.

“I make the calls to my sources through the Signal and Telegram [apps]. But at times when the sources are from the internet blackout areas, I make calls with non-registered Sim cards and so on,” he added.

The threats to journalist safety have prompted many to work undercover so they can keep reporting on the conflict.

KLT explained to VOA how he created a cover story about being the owner of a mobile phone shop to try to avoid being detained.

The journalist discussed his story with a friend who actually owns a shop. Now, the reporter said, “If there is any emergency or interrogation, I can just make a call to him and prove that I’m a mobile phone service shop owner.”

As he travels, so, too, does his cover story.

“Every time when I reach to a new ward, I let the neighbors know that I’m a mobile shop owner,” KLT said.

But even with a cover story and safety precautions, gaining access to sources is hard.

Journalists often have “zero possibility” to get out in the field, he said.

“We have to mostly work just by interviewing on phone and internet. And most of the times, it is very hard to get in touch with the sources, contacts and at times it is very hard to get a good photo or video footages,” he said.

Coverage blocked

With Myanmar’s military accused of atrocities, gaining access to witnesses and footage is vital to document what is happening.

The military has killed more than 2,020 people and detained more than 14,000, according to the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Political analyst Aung Thu Nyein said the junta has no tolerance for “free media” in Myanmar.

“Generally, the environment of free media is shrinking,” Aung Thu Nyein told VOA. “They want to control the media outlets other than their state media.”

However, the analyst said the military isn’t the only group concerned about negative reporting.

“The opposition, especially newly emerging resistance groups, such as People Defense Force [PDF] and local defense forces [LDFs] has the same tendency, to threaten the media reporting against them and their wrong deeds.”

A knock-on effect to the repression is a drop in the number of outlets still publishing.

“Some media agencies stopped working as they feel limited media freedom and see no profit from their business,” Aung Thu Nyein said. “There are almost fewer quality reports, as the quality of media agencies is decreasing and no promotion by their own agencies.”

The sharp decline for media freedoms has resulted in Myanmar falling to nearly the bottom of the World Press Freedom Index in 2022.

The country now ranks 176 out of 180 countries, where one is the freest, according to Reporters Without Borders.

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Bangladesh Unveils Padma River Bridge

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has inaugurated the country’s longest bridge, which took eight years to build and was plagued by delays, political conflict, high costs and graft allegations. 

The opening of the bridge over the turbulent Padma River caps a key infrastructure goal by Hasina and has been billed by her government as the jewel in its crown, which shows the grit, determination and resilience of the administration in the face of international pressure and domestic criticism. 

Construction of the six-kilometer bridge by a Chinese company began in November 2015, with the aim of connecting the country’s southwestern region with the capital, Dhaka, via road and rail. The double-layer steel truss bridge incorporates a four-lane highway on an upper level along with a single-track railway on the lower level. 

Costing $3.86 billion, it is one of the largest projects Bangladesh has ever undertaken. The entire amount is financed by its own government after the World Bank and other global lending agencies pulled out of the project following a corruption scandal involving a Canadian construction company linked to the bridge. 

Canadian engineering firm SNC-Lavalin was accused of bribing officials overseeing the project and was banned from bidding on World Bank projects for a decade. Prosecutors in Canada eventually declined to pursue graft charges against company executives after a court ruled some wiretap evidence against them was inadmissible. 

Sheikh Hasina declared that her government would self-fund the project. Her decision faced a battery of skepticism from the country’s economists as well as political opponents, since Bangladesh didn’t have any prior experience building such infrastructure without financial support from several donors. 

At Saturday’s bridge opening ceremony, Hasina reminded a crowd about that skepticism.  “Some people said we would always be beholden to others but our father of the nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, (Hasina’s father) taught us the importance of self-respect.” 

“This Padma Bridge is not a pile of brick and cement,” she said. “This bridge is a symbol of Bangladesh’s pride, honor and ability.” 

Why is the bridge significant? 

Mahfuz Anam, editor of The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s highest circulated English daily newspaper, wrote in a commentary that the “Padma Bridge marks the most public and direct defiance of a multilateral organization like the World Bank and through it, of donor practice in general.” 

Anam, often a staunch critic of Hasina, wrote that, “many countries make their own bridges and with their own resources” but building this bridge is a significant step for Bangladesh, because “it breaks down forever our image of a country dependent on handouts.” 

With a national election slated to be held next year, the construction of the bridge is seen by political pundits as the most significant achievement of the Hasina-led Awami League (AL) government in its three consecutive terms in office spanning over a decade. 

The bridge will work as a direct gateway to the country’s poverty-stricken southwestern region, a major source of the party’s political support, and will significantly reduce travel time. The mighty Padma River separates the southwest from Dhaka and people are forced to travel on ferries or launches that make slow journeys. Perishable goods transported by truck often rot because of the long trip. 

The bridge was built by the state-owned China Major Bridge Engineering Company, Ltd. and is seen by Beijing as a milestone for China-Bangladesh cooperation. Chinese state media attempted to claim it as part of the Belt and Road Infrastructure (BRI), an assertion the Bangladeshi government dismissed earlier this week. 

Encouraged by its growing economy and foreign exchange reserves, the Bangladesh government earlier also rebuffed Chinese proposals to fund the bridge’s construction. 

Economist Mustafizur Rahman told VOA that Bangladesh’s bureaucracy never had the capability to execute such a megaproject. “It is reassuring to see that we can successfully complete structures like Padma Bridge. It’s a great booster for us.” 

He also said the bridge would help grow Bangladesh’s gross domestic product (GDP) by 1.3% annually, and will increase jobs, service sector activity and tourism in the southwestern region. 

Experts say construction of the bridge, which involved more than 4,000 engineers, one-third of which were Bangladeshi engineers, is a major technical achievement. 

The bridge’s underwater pilings extend 122 meters deep, a world record, and it requires 41 support pillars. At some points in the river the water flow volume ranks second globally only after the Amazon River. 

Is the cost too high? 

The opposition criticized Hasina’s government for increasing the bridge’s construction budget threefold from its initial $1.2 billion over the years and accused authorities of constructing the bridge with one of the highest costs per kilometer. 

Rumin Farhana, a lawmaker with the country’s main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), told the parliament the Padma Bridge will be a textbook example of corruption. “If we compare the Padma Bridge with other bridges of similar or slightly longer length, we can call it golden bridge,” she said. 

Rumin cited the cost of building the longest bridge in neighboring India, the Bhupen Hazarika Bridge, and said the construction of that nine-kilometer bridge cost only $156 million. “It is possible to build 30 Bhupen Hazarika bridges in India at the cost of one Padma Bridge here in Bangladesh,” she said. 

Dr. Shamim Z. Basunia, chairman of the Padma Bridge project’s expert panel, however, told VOA that comparing the Bhupen Hazarika Bridge with the Padma Bridge is a “massive mistake.” 

“There are bigger bridges in the world than the Padma Bridge, but there is no bridge on a river as big and as unpredictable as the Padma River. For river training alone, we needed to spend more than $1 billion, which added to the cost,” he said. 

Speaking with VOA, Germany-based Bangladeshi financial analyst and researcher Zia Hassan said no two bridges in the world are the same, so cost comparisons between bridges would often be misleading. “However, the comparison between the Crimean Bridge, built in three years at a cost of $3.69 billion across the Kerch Strait, with a similar pile depth (to the Padma Bridge) but three times as long (18.1 kilometers) brings the $3.868 billion spent on Padma Bridge into perspective,” he said. 

The World Bank said that Bangladesh has the highest infrastructure costs in the world, which it attributes to a lack of competition in the bidding process and higher land acquisition costs. 

The same applies for Padma Bridge, where the main construction contract was awarded to a single bidder (China Major Bridge Engineering Company, Ltd.), when other bidders refrained from submitting full quotation (project bids). Land acquisition corruption has also been unearthed,” Hassan said. 

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Millions of Children At Risk from Bangladesh Floods

The U.N. Children’s Fund is warning that millions of children at high risk from devastating floods in Bangladesh are in urgent need of lifesaving assistance.

Dozens of people have been killed and hundreds of thousands left stranded as whole villages have been washed away in the worst flooding to hit Bangladesh in a century.

UNICEF says the situation caused by flash floods has deteriorated rapidly over the last week, and so has that of the children. UNICEF Representative to Bangladesh Sheldon Yett says 3.5 million children are in urgent need of safe drinking water.

“That is a staggering number of children, and it has increased over the last couple of days,” said Yett. “Huge areas are completely underwater and are disconnected from safe drinking water and food supplies … Preventing water borne diseases is a critical concern. Children are at high risk in this desperate situation. Cases of diarrhea and other deadly diseases are rising.”

He says some 2,700 cases have been recorded this week. Speaking in the capital, Dakar, the UNICEF official says tens of thousands of water points and toilets have been damaged. He warns water-borne diseases will spread quickly as people are forced to drink contaminated water.

Yett says 90 percent of health facilities have been flooded, interrupting immunization and other vital services. He notes an estimated 2,000 children were suffering from severe acute malnutrition before the floods hit. He says lifesaving treatment for the condition also has been disrupted.

“The risk of drowning is very high. At least 15 children have tragically lost their lives,” said Yett. “Nearly half-a-million people have been evacuated into crowded evacuation centers. And I am particularly concerned for children who have been separated from their family…Children and their families need help now.”

Yett says UNICEF and partners have been working against time to support the government. He says they have managed to deliver 1,750,000 water purification tablets, thousands of hygiene kits for women and adolescent girls, and thousands of other crucial supplies.

He says UNICEF urgently needs $2.5 million to pay for its emergency response.

 

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Aid Begins Reaching Quake Victims in Eastern Afghanistan

Aid began reaching parts of eastern Afghanistan on Friday to help those injured and left homeless by this week’s deadly earthquake, as the death toll from the quake rose and an aftershock hit the same area.

Afghan state media said Friday that Wednesday’s quake killed 1,150 people, while a new aftershock left five more people dead. The United Nations has confirmed the deaths of 1,036 people from the earthquake.

The U.N. refugee agency, UNHCR, said Friday it has rushed tons of relief items and support staff to the region.

In a statement, the UNHCR said it had dispatched supplies that include 600 tents, 4,200 blankets, 1,200 water containers, 1,200 buckets, 1,200 plastic sheets, 600 kitchen sets and 1,200 solar lamps to the area. The agency said the supplies were sent from Kabul Thursday in nine trucks.

The 5.9 earthquake struck Wednesday in remote areas of eastern and southeastern Afghanistan, near the border with Pakistan. The worst-hit provinces are Paktika and Khost, with nearly 3,000 homes in the provinces destroyed, according to state media.

UNICEF, another U.N. agency, said Friday its teams were on the ground within hours of the quake.

Speaking from the capital, Kabul, UNICEF Afghanistan representative Mohamed Ayoya, said the agency is providing emergency medicine and medical supplies, as well as kits to treat children with diarrhea and to help prevent the spread of cholera, a high risk because of damaged water systems and limited hygiene.

He said 121 children died in the earthquake but said that figure is likely to rise. Another 70 children were injured.

Aid also began arriving from Pakistan, Iran, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Other countries have announced they are sending aid, including India, Japan and South Korea.

Afghan disaster ministry spokesman Mohammad Nassim Haqqani told Reuters news agency the country does not have enough supplies – particularly drugs and other medical supplies – to deal with the aftermath of such a massive earthquake.

Haqqani told Reuters the search for survivors of the quake had ended just 48 hours after it struck, without detailing why the search was called off so quickly.

The United States says the earthquake was the worst to hit the country in the last 20 years.  Officials say in some areas the quake buried entire families, as it took place while many people were sleeping in mud houses.

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press and Reuters.

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Russia, Afghanistan Seek to Enhance Trade Amid Sanctions 

A new agreement signed by commerce officials from Afghanistan and Russia calls for expanding trade relations between the countries at a time when both face severe economic sanctions from the U.S. and Europe.

Officials from Afghanistan’s Chambers of Commerce and Industries (ACCI) and Russia’s Business Council for Cooperation with Afghanistan (BCCA) signed the deal this week in St. Petersburg.

“We want to strengthen bilateral [business ties] and even regional imports and exports,” said Mohammad Yunus Mohmand, deputy director of ACCI who signed the agreement with BCCA’s director, Dmitry Antonov.

“The sanctions are indeed torturing us, but we can’t sit still and watch,” Mohmand told VOA. He added that Russia is inclined to boost regional trade and signed a long-term agreement with Iran at the sidelines of St. Petersburg Economic Forum last week.

Iran is also under longstanding U.S. sanctions owing to its controversial nuclear program and Tehran’s alleged support for terrorist groups in the Middle East.

Mohmand characterized the trade agreement as apolitical, but said its implementation will require support from the Russian and Taliban governments. A Taliban government delegation will soon visit Moscow to explore practical ways for the implementation of the trade agreement, he added.

The Russian Embassy in Washington, D.C., did not answer questions about the trade agreement.

Moscow does not officially recognize the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate but has accredited Taliban diplomats and has kept the Russian Embassy in Kabul open.

Symbolic or defiance?

Landlocked and under tight financial sanctions, Afghanistan has plunged deeper into economic recession since the Taliban seized power last year. About 90% of Afghans cannot afford enough food daily, aid agencies have reported.

Under the deal, Afghanistan expects to import wheat and oil from Russia at subsidized pricing.

“We need 150,000 tons of fuel every month,” Mohmand said, adding that Afghanistan also needs to import some 2 million tons of wheat from Russia.

U.S. officials say Russia’s war in Ukraine is primarily responsible for the global rise in food and oil prices — something Russian officials dispute.

“Russia has been using its grain and other commodities as a way to maintain relations amid the Ukraine crisis,” Maximilian Hess, a fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, told VOA.

The agreement with Afghanistan is “almost entirely symbolic — it is an attempt to show that Russia still has partners that want to trade with it,” Hess added.

Moscow’s intent to do business with Afghanistan and Iran could also be to defy Western sanctions.

“By offering to expand trade and commerce engagement with the Taliban, Russia may flaunt restrictions on Afghanistan’s financial system — either put in place by U.S., U.N. Security Council or even self-imposed restrictions by banks and private investors,” Andrew Watkins, a researcher at the U.S. Institute of Peace, told VOA.

Afghanistan has traditionally maintained limited trade with Russia mostly due to logistical constraints and weak transport infrastructure. In 2020, Russia’s exports to Afghanistan reached $151 million and imports were less than $3 million, according to the global trade data website The Observatory of Economic Complexity.

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Taliban: US Frees One of Last Two Afghans from Guantanamo

Afghanistan’s Taliban announced Friday that the United States had freed one of the last two Afghans from the U.S. military detention facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, after 15 years.  

 

The ruling Islamist group said Asadullah Haroon’s release was the outcome of “direct and positive interaction” between the Taliban and Washington. 

 

The 39-year-old freed prisoner was handed over to Taliban officials in Doha, the capital of Qatar, where the group maintains its political office.  

 

“It is a positive development,” said Suhail Shaheen, who heads the Taliban’s Doha office. He told VOA that Haroon hails from the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar.  

 

“I call on (the) U.S. to release the only last remaining Afghan detainee now in Guantanamo jail, as well as all other detainees being kept there on mere suspicions,” demanded Shaheen. He is also the Taliban’s permanent representative-designate to the United Nations. 

 

The other Afghan inmate is Muhammad Rahim, who is accused of being a close associate of al-Qaida founder Osama bin Laden. 

The U.S. Department of Defense said Wednesday that Haroon’s release followed a U.S. court ruling that the Pentagon no longer had the legal authority to detain him. The statement said a review body made up of career civil servants had additionally determined this past October that Haroon was eligible for transfer from Guantanamo Bay. 

 

A group of U.S. senators introduced legislation this week that would prevent the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo to Afghanistan. 

“It is reckless and irresponsible to release Asadullah Haroon Gul al Afghani to the Taliban,” Republican Senator Marco Rubio said in a statement, using Haroon’s legal name. “The terrorist organization that now controls Afghanistan cannot and will not ensure Gul, or any future detainees who are released, will not return to the battlefield and potentially kill Americans or other innocent civilians.” 

Haroon was said to be working as a honey trader before being captured by American forces in 2007 while they were fighting al-Qaida terrorists and the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. 

 

The U.S. alleged that Haroon was an al-Qaida courier serving as a commander with the Afghan-based Hezb-e-Islami (HIA) militant group who coordinated attacks against coalition forces. The Afghan man admitted to being a member of HIA but denied any al-Qaida association. 

 

Last October, an American court ruled that Haroon was being held unlawfully, paving the way for his transfer out of Guantanamo after languishing there for years without charge or trial. 

 

The secretive prison once housed hundreds of suspected militants captured by U.S. forces during the “war on terror,” many held without charge or the legal power to challenge their detention. 

 

Rights groups and detainees have accused U.S. authorities of torture and abuse against Guantanamo inmates, with some allegedly held in cages and subjected to illegal interrogation techniques. Most of the detainees have been released over the years. 

 

“He was unanimously cleared for release by U.S. security agencies last year. Asad is finally free and about to be reunited with his family,” tweeted Reprieve, an independent group that provided legal representation to Haroon in the federal court. 

 

“We hope the State Department will move quickly to release other detainees who have been cleared to leave but remain stuck in limbo, wondering when their long ordeal will end.” 

Haroon’s family hailed his release, saying it has proved his innocence. His wife and a daughter live in Afghanistan while his brother and mother live as refugees in neighboring Pakistan, which hosts around 3 million Afghan refugees and illegal economic migrants. 

 

U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration has been working to reduce the number of inmates and eventually close the Guantanamo prison, which still holds around three dozen detainees. 

VOA National Security Correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report. 

 

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UN Refugee Agency Rushes Aid to Afghan Quake Victims

U.N. aid agencies are rushing tons of relief items to aid thousands of people hit by a powerful earthquake Wednesday in the remote Afghan provinces of Khost and Paktika. More than 1,000 people reportedly have been killed and at least 1,600 others are injured.

Aid agencies expect the number of reported deaths and injuries to rise as the search and rescue operation continues in southeastern Afghanistan. They note many people were sleeping in their mud houses when the 5.9-magnitude quake struck.

Speaking from the capital, Kabul, UNICEF Representative to Afghanistan Mohamed Ayoya said at least 121 children were killed and 67 injured in the devastation that has destroyed or damaged thousands of homes.

He said a team of health professionals was on the ground in the worst affected districts soon after the earthquake struck in the early hours of June 22. He said they are assessing the extensive damage and urgent needs.

 

“Already we know that children and families affected by the earthquake are in urgent need of shelter, clean water, medical care, and protection,” Ayoya said. “Children and adolescents are extremely vulnerable and at high risk of family separation, emotional and psychological distress, abuse and exploitation, and other forms of violence.”

Ayoya said UNICEF is providing emergency medicine and medical supplies, as well as kits to treat children with watery diarrhea and to help prevent the spread of cholera. He said people are at high risk for these illnesses due to damaged water systems and limited hygiene.

The U.N. refugee agency has also delivered tons of relief supplies from its stockpiles in Kabul to affected areas. UNHCR spokeswoman Shabia Mantoo said the items, which include tents, blankets, jerry cans, kitchen supplies and other essential items, are enough to support some 4,200 survivors.

“UNHCR deployed staff who will help arrange shelters for people who have been left homeless by the devastation,” Mantoo said. “UNHCR teams are establishing three supply hubs in Giyan, Bermal, and Spera districts so that humanitarian support arriving from Kabul can be swiftly shifted to the communities affected by the earthquake.”

Mantoo said four decades of conflict and instability in Afghanistan have left millions of people on the brink of hunger and starvation. She said more support is urgently needed to avert a subsequent humanitarian disaster.

The hardline Taliban rulers who seized control of the country in August, also are appealing for international support.

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Shifting Monsoon Patterns Worsen South Asia’s Flood Menace

Devastating floods that have washed away homes, drowned rice fields and stranded millions of people in northeast India and Bangladesh in recent weeks are not unusual — flooding during South Asia’s monsoon season has become a virtually annual occurrence.

What is unusual is that large areas of land in the two countries disappeared underwater much earlier this year.

“The peak flooding takes place in July and August when the monsoons are in full swing. But this year heavy rainfall began in May and created a disaster situation,” said Tritha Prasad Saikia, joint director of the Assam-based voluntary group, North East Area Affected Development Society.

“The rainfall calendar has changed, the intensity and magnitude of flooding has increased,” said Saikia who has grown up in the state.

Both India’s northeast and Bangladesh have already experienced two bouts of severe flooding – one in May and another this month.

The flooding has led to warnings by climate experts that South Asia’s most vulnerable communities may have to cope with more unpredictable and longer spells of devastation as monsoon patterns change and extreme weather events become the norm rather than the exception.

“The widespread flooding triggered by the heavy pre-monsoon rains this year is unprecedented. This variability in monsoon patterns is due to climate change. What studies tell us is that wetter areas are going to be much wetter, and drier areas much drier,” said Anjal Prakash, a research director at India’s Bharti Institute of Public Policy, who has contributed to the report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “And this is definitely what we have seen manifested in the flooding this time.”

Instead of steady distribution of rain during the June-September monsoon season, shorter spells of torrential rainfall have become more common, experts say. Assam for example received about double the rain in the first three weeks of June compared to the average rainfall during this period, according to the Indian Meteorological Department.

Flooding is not the only climate-change event affecting one of the world’s most densely populated regions. Experts also point to a brutal heat wave that began scorching South Asia’s vast northern plains as early as March this year as well as cyclones and urban flooding that regularly batter coastal areas.

In India’s northeastern Assam state, where entire villages have been engulfed by the swirling flood waters, authorities say that more than 5 million people have been affected and more than 80,000 are sheltered in relief camps. Over 100 have died.

In Bangladesh, millions have also been affected by the flooding, while the death toll in monsoon-related events is around 60. In the country’s worst-affected districts, Sylhet and Sunamganj, such ferocious floods have not been seen in decades.

In both countries, disaster personnel and the army have mounted rescue operations even as authorities and aid agencies distribute food and drinking water to the displaced people. But damaged roads and bridges are making the task a challenge.

“We have relief materials with us, but we are not in a position to reach the hardest hit communities because of lack of accessibility to the worst-hit areas,” Saikia said.

Among those trying to obtain aid is Pabitra Bora, who works for an Assam hydroelectric power and whose three-room house was recently flooded.

“The water gushed in at night. We had no warning and no time to salvage anything. Some neighbors brought a boat and we escaped,” Bora told VOA.

He has taken shelter in a library with his family but says the floods have taken away everything from him. “I have no idea what my future holds — even managing to get two meals a day is difficult just now.”

There may, however, be no early relief in sight. The Brahmaputra River, which runs through northeast India into Bangladesh is flowing above the danger level at several places, even as monsoons are likely to pick up pace in the coming weeks.

“It could turn out to be a long-drawn crisis,” Saikia said, “Embankments and roads are already damaged. How will they be repaired in time for more intense rains that could come in the next two months?”

The impact of events triggered by climate change is particularly severe in areas where millions of people depend on farming small plots of land for sustenance.

In Assam, the first bout of flooding came in May as people were harvesting rice. Much of that harvest has been washed away. In India, this year’s early heat wave shriveled the wheat crop in March, reducing harvests and prompting the government to ban wheat exports.

An International Food Policy Research Institute report last month warned that India’s food production could drop by 16% and the number of those at risk for hunger could increase by 2030 due to climate change.

“Rapid changes due to climate change have been taking place for about five years but we have not taken appropriate action to plan for these,” Prakash said.

“As a result people in climate vulnerable zones are getting trapped year after year in climate catastrophes and are unable to come out of the cycle of poverty.”

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India Sends Humanitarian Assistance and Technical Team to Kabul

  India has sent relief assistance to Afghanistan to help the victims of a powerful earthquake that rocked the country Wednesday along with a “technical team” to be based in the Afghan capital, Kabul. 

“India, a true first responder,” Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar tweeted Friday. 

The 27 tons of relief assistance includes family ridge tents, sleeping bags, blankets and sleeping mats, according to the External Affairs MInistry.  

“As always, India stands in solidarity with the people of Afghanistan, with whom we share centuries-old ties, and remain firmly committed to providing immediate relief assistance for the Afghan people,” a ministry statement said. 

The ministry also said Thursday that New Delhi has deployed a “technical team” to its Kabul embassy to coordinate the “effective delivery” of humanitarian assistance in Afghanistan, where India has been sending aid in recent months. 

India has sent aid consignments of 20,000 tons of wheat, medicine, half a million doses of COVID-19 vaccine and winter clothing to Afghanistan.

Sending the technical team to Kabul is being seen as an initial step that could lead to reestablishing India’s diplomatic presence in the country, analysts say.  

“ lEA (Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) welcomes decision by India to return diplomats & technical team to their embassy in Kabul to continue their relations with the Afghan people and their humanitarian assistance,” Taliban spokesperson Abdul Qahar Balkhi tweeted.

India’s Kabul embassy was closed and Indian personnel evacuated during the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August, but earlier this month India sent a team of officials to Afghanistan for the first time, signaling its decision to engage with the Taliban leadership.   

India was the region’s largest provider of development aid to Afghanistan before the takeover, and had invested around $3 billion in projects that included schools, roads, dams and hospitals.

India wants to rebuild some ties with the country where archenemy Pakistan wields considerable influence. Among regional countries, India alone was left without representation in Afghanistan after the takeover. China, Iran, Pakistan and Russia had not closed their embassies in Kabul.

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At UN, Taliban Are Pressed to Reverse Rights Restrictions

The U.N. Security Council expressed sympathy for the Afghan people on Thursday in the aftermath of the deadly earthquake, while it continued to press the Taliban authorities to reverse restrictions on women and to stabilize the country.   

 

“We urge the Taliban to immediately reverse the policies and practices which are currently restricting the human rights and fundamental freedoms of Afghan women and girls, and which continue to aggravate the humanitarian, economic, human rights and social crisis, and undermine the goal of sustainable peace and stability in Afghanistan,” Albania’s ambassador, Ferit Hoxha, told reporters on behalf of nine of the council’s 15 members.   

 

On March 23, the Taliban authorities announced the continued closure of secondary schools for girls. The U.N. says 1.1 million girls have been affected.   

 

“In no other country in the world is a government banning girls from secondary school,” U.N. humanitarian chief Martin Griffiths emphasized to council members.  

Restrictions on movement, work 

 

Decrees also have restricted the movement of women without a male relative and sought to dictate in which professions they may work. On May 7, the Taliban ordered all women to cover their heads and faces in public and urged them to stay home.   

 

“If the Taliban wants to normalize its relations with the international community, it needs to reverse the steps it’s taken to exclude women from social, political and economic life – immediately,” said U.S. Acting Political Counselor Trina Saha.   

 

No country has recognized the Taliban authorities, who seized power in August as the United States and NATO troops withdrew from the country.

While the human rights situation has deteriorated, the security situation is becoming more unpredictable. Initially, the end of conflict after the Taliban takeover led to a decrease in civilian casualties, but violence is again on the rise.

“We are seeing clashes between forces of the de facto authorities and the armed political opposition, especially in Panjshir and Baghlan provinces, as well as IED [improvised explosive device] attacks and targeted assassinations against de facto authority targets, both by armed political opposition and ISIL-KP [Islamic State-Khorasan],” U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator for Afghanistan Ramiz Alakbarov told council members by video from Kabul.

On Monday, the Security Council sanctions committee that deals with the Taliban extended travel ban exemptions on 13 of the group’s officials, making it possible for them to travel abroad for potential peace talks.   

 

Activist Yalda Royan told council members they should end such exemptions for Taliban leaders if there is no progress on women’s rights in the next 60 days.   

 

“If Afghan women cannot move freely, why should the Taliban?” she asked.

Troubles mount  

 

Wednesday’s deadly earthquake was yet one more blow for the Afghan people. Years of conflict, recurring drought and a severe economic crisis have left more than 24 million Afghans in need of humanitarian assistance, an increase of 6 million people since the start of 2021.  

 

Nearly half of the population – about 19 million people – are food insecure, including 6.6 million at emergency levels. As the U.N. looks to scale up assistance, it faces a dramatic shortage in funding. It has received only one-third of the $4.4 billion it needs this year for Afghanistan, despite donor promises of more cash.  

 

“Now is not the time for hesitancy,” U.N. aid chief Griffiths said. “Without intervention, funding, humanitarian assistance, basic services, we will have another winter of discontent and a winter of trouble and a winter of pain for the people of Afghanistan.”

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Taliban Urge International Aid as Afghanistan Deals With Aftermath of Deadly Quake

Afghanistan’s Taliban appealed for international aid Thursday as the war-ravaged country struggles to deal with the aftermath of a powerful earthquake that killed at least 1,000 people, injured many more and destroyed nearly 2,000 households.

The 6.1 magnitude quake struck eastern and southeastern Afghan provinces, bordering Pakistan, during the early hours of Wednesday. Officials said the calamity had buried entire families, including women and children, under the rubble across districts in the worst-hit provinces, Paktika and Khost.

On Thursday, authorities and aid workers struggled to reach the disaster zone, citing lack of communications and proper road networks in some of the poorest and most remote areas in Afghanistan. The most affected areas lack infrastructure to withstand calamities like this week’s earthquake, the worst in two decades.

Heavy rains and mudslides also hampered rescue efforts, forcing displaced families to spend the night without any shelter. Provincial health director Hematullah Esmat told local media that at least 3,000 families needed urgent humanitarian aid in Paktika alone.

Abdul Qahar Balkhi, a Taliban foreign ministry spokesman in Kabul, said that victims were urgently in need food, drinking water, medicine, mobile medical teams, warm clothing and shelter.

“But even more crucial for [the] U.S. to end callous attitude towards lives of Afghans by lifting sanctions and unfreezing Afghan assets so people can rebuild their lives destroyed by two-decade occupation and this latest natural disaster,” Balkhi told VOA.

“People and relief agencies that want to help rebuild lives of families – majority of whom have lost [their] sole breadwinners in earthquake – are unable to send much needed money. This depraved cruelty needs to end urgently,” Balkhi argued.

He said the government quickly deployed a few helicopters to help in rescue efforts, but they needed more of them because emergency rescue teams and relief aid have to be delivered by air.

Balkhi reiterated the majority of Afghan aircraft were “damaged beyond repair or taken to third countries by the United States” before the Taliban seized power last August.

The United Nations World Food Program said Thursday that post-disaster assessments were still ongoing but it had rapidly deployed food and logistics equipment to provide emergency relief to an initial 3,000 households in the earthquake-affected areas.

“The Afghan people are already facing an unprecedented crisis following decades of conflict, severe drought and an economic downturn,” said Gordon Craig, the WFP deputy country director.

“The earthquake will only add to the already massive humanitarian needs they endure daily, including for the nearly 19 million people across the country who face acute hunger and require assistance,” Craig added.

Taliban officials said trucks and aircraft carrying humanitarian aid, including, food, medicine, shelter, and other necessities arrived from Pakistan, Iran and Qatar on Thursday. The relief was being transported onward to the calamity-hit areas, they said.

The Islamist group took over Afghanistan days after U.S. and NATO partners withdrew their final troops on August 30, ending almost two decades of foreign military intervention in the South Asian nation.

Washington and other Western countries swiftly halted financial assistance to largely aid-dependent Afghanistan, seized its foreign assets worth more than $9 billion, mostly held by the U.S, and isolated the Afghan banking system.

The actions and long-running terrorism-related sanctions on senior Taliban leaders pushed the war-hit Afghan economy to the brink of collapse, deteriorating an already bad Afghan humanitarian crisis blamed on years of war and persistent drought.

The international community has not yet recognized the Islamist Taliban as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan, citing concerns over terrorism and human rights.

The U.S. government Wednesday expressed “deep sorrow” for the Afghan quake victims.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement that President Joe Biden was “monitoring developments and has directed USAID and other federal government partners to assess U.S. response options to help those most affected.”

Sullivan underscored that the U.S. was the single largest donor of humanitarian aid to Afghanistan and its humanitarian partners were already delivering medical care as well as shelter puppies on the ground.

“We are committed to continuing our support for the needs of the Afghan people as we stand with them during and in the aftermath of this terrible tragedy.”

The U.S. Geological Survey said Wednesday the earthquake struck about 44km from the southeastern Afghan city, Khost, at a depth of 51km.

Tremors were felt across more than 500km of Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, according to the European Mediterranean Seismological Center.

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India’s Ruling Party Picks Tribal Woman as Presidential Candidate

India’s ruling party has nominated a woman from the country’s tribal community as its nominee for president.

Members of the Bharatiya Janata Party chose veteran politician Droupadi Murmu ahead of the July election for the largely ceremonial position.

Lawmakers select the president, and BJP’s strength means Murmu is almost certain to win.

Opposition parties have nominated former BJP official Yashwant Sinha to oppose Murmu.

If elected, Murmu would be India’s first tribal president and the second woman to hold the position.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters. 

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US Eases Immigration Requirements for Afghans

The U.S. government has eased some of the stringent requirements Afghans have to navigate as they apply to resettle in the United States. 

Until now, Afghans who held civilian positions under the Taliban regime or paid it for public services such as getting a passport, have been ineligible for a U.S. visa on the basis that they have ties to a terrorist group. The Biden administration says that is no longer the case. 

“[T]he Secretary of Homeland Security and Secretary of State exercised their authority under the Immigration and Nationality Act to allow the U.S. government on a case-by-case basis to grant an exemption for otherwise qualified applicants for visas and certain other immigration benefits who would otherwise not qualify due to the statute’s broad inadmissibility grounds,” a State Department spokesman told VOA.  

“This action will allow the U.S. government to meet the protection needs of qualifying Afghans who do not pose a national security or public safety risk and provide them with the ability to access a durable immigration status in the United States,” the spokesperson said, adding that Afghans who worked as civil servants during the first Taliban reign in Afghanistan from September 1996 to December 2001, and after August 15, 2021, are eligible under the policy.  

Since 2006, the U.S. government, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, has applied this exemption authority more than 30 times to protect U.S. allies against inadvertent terrorism-related blockings. 

“Doctors, teachers, engineers, and other Afghans, including those who bravely and loyally supported U.S. forces on the ground in Afghanistan at great risk to their safety, should not be denied humanitarian protection and other immigration benefits due to their inescapable proximity to war or their work as civil servants,” the State Department spokesperson said.  

Some requirements unclear 

Afghans who apply for admission to the U.S. through Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs), a program enacted by Congress in 2009, must submit, among other documents, a recommendation letter from a supervisor of a U.S. project in Afghanistan.  

For years, applicants were asked to have a U.S. citizen verify and sign the letter of recommendation or have a U.S. citizen as a co-signer if the supervisor was a foreign national, according to International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a U.S.-based nongovernment organization. 

It remains unclear whether that requirement has been dropped. According to IRAP policy expert Adam Bates, although the State Department asks applicants for the signed letters, Congress never mandated that requirement. 

“The statute governing the SIV program never contained this requirement in the first place; Congress never intended for Afghan allies to have their applications delayed or rejected for lack of a letter from a U.S. citizen,” Bates told VOA. 

The State Department, however, said applicants should still try to obtain such a letter and did not confirm that the requirement has been dropped entirely.   

Applicants “should try to obtain this letter from a U.S. citizen supervisor who knows them personally, but if that is not possible, they should try to provide a letter of recommendation signed by a non-U.S. citizen supervisor and co-signed by the U.S. citizen responsible for the contract,” the State Department spokesperson told VOA, quoting SIV application requirements guidelines. 

IRAP says the requirement creates unwarranted obstacles and problems for applicants who, for various reasons, cannot find a U.S. citizen to sign or co-sign a recommendation letter, an increasingly onerous task since the August 2021 withdrawal of U.S. forces and personnel, particularly for Afghans who’ve been forced from their jobs or compelled to change contact information. 

More visas needed  

Since 2014, Congress has approved 34,500 principal visas for the Afghan SIV program, excluding visas issued for dependents, of which about 16,000 visas are left.  

Evacuate Our Allies, a coalition of human rights and refugee organizations including IRAP, has called on Congress to approve 25,000 additional SIV visas for Afghans.  

“It would be unconscionable for SIV-qualified Afghans who risked their lives on behalf of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan to check all the bureaucratic boxes and invest the years of their lives required to make it through the SIV process only for Congress to not authorize enough visas to ensure they have pathway to safety,” Bates said. 

Currently, there are at least 50,000 principal applications awaiting screening and approval. 

“[W]e are processing more initial applications than ever,” the State Department spokesperson said.  

The U.S. embassy in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, remains closed since August last year, but the State Department says it has increased staff in third-country embassies and consulates to enhance and expedite SIV applications.  

 

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