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India Approves Death Penalty for Child Rapists

Sat, 04/21/2018 - 20:13
The Indian cabinet has approved the death penalty for convicted rapists of children under the age of 12 to stem a worrying rise in violent crime against young girls and women. The emergency executive order was announced on Saturday following a meeting called by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the wake of nationwide outrage over the brutal gang rape and murder of an eight-year-old girl and other rape cases of minor girls. It lays out more stringent punishment for rapists, enhancing minimum prison terms from 10 to 20 years for the rape of a girl below 16 and from seven to 10 years for older women. Suspects can be prosecuted in court using the ordinance after it is signed by the president. But it must be approved by parliament to become law. The move to introduce the death penalty is seen as an effort to signal the government's commitment to fight crimes against young girls and even infants as it comes under mounting criticism for not doing enough to tackle what some call India's epidemic of sexual violence. The document approving the new measures said that "While expressing deep anguish over such incidents, it has been decided to devise a comprehensive response to deal with the situation." The government order also said more fast track courts will be set up for speedy trials and set a two-month time limit on investigations. Indian cities in the past week saw street protests by agonized citizens after details emerged about the horrific gang rape of an eight-year-old Muslim girl in Kashmir in January, who was kidnapped, drugged, raped for days and then murdered. Anger grew because Hindu activists had demonstrated in support of the eight arrested men who are now being tried in a fast track court. Another case in which a 16-year-old girl accused a ruling party lawmaker in Uttar Pradesh of allegedly raping her and intimidating her family to block the filing of charges also shocked the country. He has been arrested. A brutal rape and murder of a 11-year-old girl was reported from Gujarat state. Expressing concern about such incidents on a visit to London recently, Prime Minister Modi said, "Any time a small girl is sexually assaulted, it is painful for all of us." Many women activists and lawyers welcomed the measure introducing capital punishment, but said implementation was the key in a country with a slow moving justice system. "It is the fear of the law which is going to protect the girl child and it is fear of the law which can check the increasing crime," said Abha Singh, a lawyer and rights activist. "It was the public anger which has led to it." She, however, pointed to the fact that the conviction rate in rape cases was worryingly low at about 28 percent. Some said that while stiffer punishments might be a deterrent, they alone cannot solve the problem of sexual violence, pointing out that, despite stricter laws implemented in the wake of the 2012 gang rape of a physiotherapy student, rape cases have been on the rise. India has the death penalty only for the most serious cases, such as brutal murders or terror attacks.

Hamas Says Man Gunned Down in Malaysia Was Important Member

Sat, 04/21/2018 - 19:48
Gaza's ruling Hamas militant group said Saturday that a man who was gunned down in Malaysia was an important member of the organization, raising suspicions that Israel was behind the brazen killing. Hamas said Palestinian engineer Fadi al-Batsh was a "loyal" member and a "scientist of Palestine's youth scholars." It gave no further details on his scientific accomplishments but said he had made "important contributions" and participated in international forums in the field of energy. Hamas stopped short of blaming Israel, saying only that he had been "assassinated by the hand of treachery." But relatives of al-Batsh said they believe Israel targeted him. Malaysian police say the 36-year-old al-Batsh was gunned down early Saturday by two assailants who shot at least eight bullets from a motorbike as he was heading to a mosque for dawn prayers in Kuala Lampur. It said closed-circuit television showed him targeted by assassins who had waited for him for almost 20 minutes. Malaysia's deputy prime minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said the government was looking into the possibility of the involvement of "foreign agents" in his killing. He told local media that initial investigations showed the assailants were "white men" driving a powerful BMW 1100cc motorbike. Besides his Hamas affiliation, al-Batsh was a cousin of Khaled al-Batsh, a senior official in the Islamic Jihad militant group, who accused the Israeli Mossad spy agency of the assassination, without providing evidence. The Israeli government had no comment. But Israel has a long history of suspected targeting of wanted Palestinian militants in daring overseas operations around the globe and has been linked to other assassinations as well, though it has never acknowledged them. Al-Batsh specialized in electrical and electronic engineering and worked at a Malaysian university. He had lived there with his family for the past eight years and was an imam at a local mosque. He received his Ph.D degree from the University of Malaya in 2015 and was a senior lecturer at the British Malaysian Institute. His official biography said his research interests included power converters, power quality and renewable energy. However, Israeli media reported that he was also deeply involved in the Hamas drone development project. Israel and Hamas are bitter foes who have fought three wars since 2008. Tensions have risen in recent weeks with a series of mass protests along the Gaza border in which 32 Palestinians have been shot dead by Israeli troops since late March. Hamas says the protests are aimed at breaking a crippling border blockade that was imposed by Israel and Egypt after the Islamic militant group overran Gaza in 2007, a year after winning Palestinian parliament elections. It says it also aims to assert the right of refugees to return to their former homes in Israel. Israel accuses Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction and has carried out dozens of deadly suicide bombings against it, of cynically exploiting Gaza civilians for its political aims by staging the protests and trying to carry out attacks under their cover. Israel has used lethal force against unarmed protesters, but it says it is only targeting instigators who are trying to damage the border fence with explosives, firebombs and other means. However, the United Nations, the European Union and rights groups have questioned Israel's use of force when soldiers' lives are not in danger and the U.N. and E.U. have called for investigations. Protests are aiming to culminate in a large border march on May 15, the 70th anniversary of Israel founding. The date is mourned by Palestinians as their "nakba,"or catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands were uprooted in the 1948 Mideast war over Israel's creation.

IS Blocks Cell Phone Service in Eastern Afghan Districts

Sat, 04/21/2018 - 18:56
Officials in Afghanistan confirmed Saturday that Islamic State militants have forcibly shut down telecommunications services in two districts of the eastern Kunar province. Provincial Director of Communications Sayed Ahmad Madad told VOA that Manogi and Chapidari districts have been without cell phone service for two weeks.   IS militants, he said, have threatened to destroy communication towers if Afghan companies running the operation in the area attempted to resume service. Islamic State operates in Afghanistan under its local name of Khorasan, commonly referred to as IS-K. Provincial authorities say the terrorist group is active in five districts of the province. The group launched its regional operations in early 2015 from bases in the eastern province of Nangarhar, which borders Kunar. Both the volatile Afghan provinces border Pakistan. IS militants lately, are also expanding and intensifying attacks in northern Jowzhan province.  U.S. military airstrikes this month in the area have killed dozens of IS members, including the terrorist group's chief of operations for northern Afghanistan, Qari Hekmatullah. Meanwhile, officials and residents said the Taliban has not lifted its ban on cell phone service in insurgent-controlled areas of southern Helmand province. The Islamist insurgency controls or contests much of the country's largest poppy producing province. The Taliban "believe the Afghan government is utilizing private communication systems for military and intelligence operations," Omidullah Zaheer, communications director of Helmand, told VOA.   Insurgents sent a note to all private communication companies in the area within the last week, asking them to suspend their operations, he added. The insurgent action has shut down at least 120 communications towers in the area at a time when Afghan security forces backed by U.S. counterparts have stepped up counterinsurgency operations in Helmand.   The Afghan defense minister's spokesman, Mohammad Radmanesh, however, told VOA the disruption would not affect their ongoing security operations because the military has its own "tactical communication system" independent of private services. But the action has added to the problems of residents in the area, he added. The Taliban has also pressured communication companies in parts of nearby Uruzgan and Zabul provinces where insurgents frequently stage raids on Afghan forces. The insurgent group's move against cell phone service comes as the Taliban is expected to announce its so-called annual spring offensive later this month, which leads to more hostilities across Afghanistan. Radmanesh did not rule out opium harvest season as a possible motive behind the Taliban's move against communication services. He said the insurgents want to prevent locals from tipping off security forces about the presence of the Taliban in poppy fields. The insurgent group, according to U.S. military estimates, receives close to 60 percent of its revenue from narcotics activities, including smuggling and taxing local growers. A new air campaign against Taliban financial streams began in November 2017 under U.S. President Donald Trump's new Afghan war strategy, which has destroyed hundreds of the Taliban's drug-processing labs in different parts of the country, mainly in Helmand. "Airstrikes in March cost the Taliban more than $40 million in lost revenue," the U.S. military announced on Friday. It said that 339 precision weapons have been used against Taliban and the Islamic State, "degrading, dismantling and disrupting their revenue sources." According to a report by the U.N. Office on Drug and Crime, the total area under opium poppy cultivation in Afghanistan, the world's largest opium-poppy producer, was estimated at 328,000 hectares in 2017, a 63 percent increase compared with 2016. "In Helmand province alone, cultivation increased by 63,700 hectares (+79%), which accounted for about half of the total national increase," the U.N. report said.

China: No Military Aim of Corridor Project With Pakistan

Sat, 04/21/2018 - 17:44
China has strongly refuted suggestions its multibillion-dollar economic corridor now under construction with Pakistan has "hidden" military designs as well.   Beijing has pledged to invest about $63 billion in Pakistan by 2030 to develop ports, highways, motorways, railways, airports, power plants and other infrastructure in the neighboring country, traditionally a strong ally.   The Chinese have also expanded and operationalized the Pakistani deep water port of Gwadar on the Arabian Sea, which is at the heart of the massive bilateral cooperation, known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, or CPEC. The strategically located port is currently being operated by a Chinese state-run company . China has positioned CPEC as the flagship project of its $1-trillion global Belt and Road Initiative, or BRI, championed by President Xi Jinping. "I want to make it very clear, BRI initiative and with CPEC under it, it's purely a commercial development project. We don't have any kind of military or strategic design for that," said Yao Jing, Chinese ambassador to Islamabad. He made the remarks in an exclusive interview with VOA. Within five years of finalizing and launching CPEC, Jing said that 22 "early harvest" projects out of the 43 total projects under CPEC have been completed or are under construction, with a total investment of around $19 billion, the largest influx of foreign investment in Pakistan's 70-year-old history. The projects have already brought 60,000 local jobs and effectively addressed the country's once crippling energy crisis.   Power plants built under the joint venture, officials say, will have added more than 10,000 megawatts of electricity to the national grid by June, leading to a surplus of power. While speaking to VOA, the Chinese diplomat urged the United States and India to "come to the CPEC project" and "witness the progress on the ground" for themselves, saying it will enable them overcome misunderstandings vis-a-vis CPEC. "There are some kind of doubts that may be there are some things hidden in it. I think that when you have an objective lens to look at this project and to come to the ground to find this progress on the ground then you may have a better understanding of what we are doing here," said Jing. The Chinese envoy was responding to concerns expressed in Washington and New Delhi that Beijing could try to turn Gwadar into a military port in the future to try to dominate the Indian Ocean. Jing explained that a state-to-state defense-related cooperation has for decades existed between the two allied nations and China through "normal channels" is determined to contribute to "military and strategic ability' of Pakistan. "We don't want to make the CPEC as such a kind of platform," the ambassador emphasized. However, he added, it is "natural and understandable" that the project's massive size and design has raised doubts and suspicions" about its aims.    The skepticism about Chinese intentions stems from, among other things, a massive airport being built in Gwadar, with a landing strip of 12-kilometers. China has given nearly $300 million to Pakistan for the construction of the airport. "Basically, it is for China and Pakistan to make this project a successful economic project, then we can make it clear our intention here," Jing said. India is also opposed to CPEC because a portion of the project is located on territory that is claimed by both New Delhi and Islamabad. But Pakistan and China both dismiss the objections as politically-motivated. CPEC aims to link the landlocked western Chinese region of Xinjiang to Gwadar, allowing ships carrying China's oil imports and other goods from the Persian Gulf to use a much shorter and secure route and avoid the existing troubled route through the Strait of Malacca. There are currently up to 10,000 Chinese nationals working on CPEC-related projects in Pakistan. Ambassador Jing said that 21 new mega-projects, including the establishment of Special Economic Zones across the country, are ready to be launched in the next stage with particular emphasis on encouraging private engagement. In the next five to seven years, officials estimate, CPEC will have created employment for half-a-million Pakistanis. The country's troubled economy, lately impacted by insecurity and energy crisis, has grown 5.4 percent in the previous financial year, the fastest rate in a decade, and officials forecast the expected growth in the year ending June 2018 will be six percent. Pakistan's deepening cooperation with China comes as the country's diplomatic relations with the U.S. continue to deteriorate. Washington complains that Islamabad is not doing enough to eliminate terrorist groups using the country's soil for attacks against neighboring countries, including Afghanistan. While U.S. economic assistance has significantly reduced in recent years, the Trump administration also suspended military assistance to Pakistan in January and linked its restoration to decisive actions against terrorist groups.   Pakistan strongly rejects the allegations and says it is being scapegoated for the U.S.-led coalition's failures in ending the war in Afghanistan. . China is also worried about the spread of regional terrorism in the wake of a low-level Muslim separatist insurgency in its troubled Xinjiang border region. But Beijing has steadfastly supported Islamabad's counterterrorism efforts and dismisses U.S. criticism of them. China's arms exports to Pakistan have in recent years exponentially increased while exports of military hardware from the country's traditionally largest supplier, the U.S., have reportedly declined to just $21-million in 2017 from $1-billion. "China will never leave Pakistan. I shall say we have confidence in the future of Pakistan," said Chinese Ambassador Jing, when asked whether terrorism-related concerns might also push Beijing away from Islamabad. China's investment under CPEC has also encouraged hundreds of private Chinese companies and thousands of Chinese nationals to arrive in Pakistan to look for business opportunities and buy property. The influx of the foreigners has raised alarms among local businesses and sparked worries that the Chinese labor force will take away local jobs. Jing stressed that China and Pakistan are working together to promote mutual people-to-people connectivity through enhanced education and cultural linkages to improve mutual understanding. Ambassador Jing says there are eight Chinese universities working to promote Pakistan's official Urdu language while 12 Pakistan-study centers are working to promote mutual understanding between the two countries. There are 22,000 Pakistanis seeking education in China. Pakistani officials say currently, about 25,000 students are learning Chinese language in 19 universities and four Confucius Institutes affiliated with the Chinese Ministry of Education.

Rohingya Rescued After Drifting at Sea for 9 Days 

Sat, 04/21/2018 - 13:59
A Rohingya Muslim man among the group of 76 rescued in Indonesian waters in a wooden boat says they were at sea for nine days after leaving Myanmar, where the minority group faces intense persecution, and were hoping to reach Malaysia.  The eight children, 25 women and 43 men were brought ashore Friday afternoon at Bireuen in Aceh province on the island of Sumatra, the third known attempt by members of the ethnic minority to escape Myanmar by sea this month. Several required medical attention for dehydration and exhaustion, local authorities said.  Fariq Muhammad said he paid the equivalent of about $150 for a place on the boat that left from Myanmar’s Rakhine state, where a violent military crackdown on the minority group sparked an exodus of some 700,000 refugees over land into neighboring Bangladesh since August.  The refugee vessel was intercepted by a Thai navy frigate and later escorted by a Thai patrol vessel until sighting land, Fariq said. The group believed the Thais understood they wanted to reach Malaysia and were dismayed when they realized they were in Indonesia, said Fariq, who gave the identification numbers of the Thai vessels.  'We could not stay' “We were forced to leave because we could not stay, could not work so our lives became difficult in Myanmar. Our identity card was not given so we were forced to go,” he told The Associated Press on Saturday. Local officials and a charitable group are providing shelter and food for the refugees. The International Organization for Migration said it has sent a team from its Medan office in Sumatra, including Rohingya interpreters, to help local officials with humanitarian assistance.  Rohingya, treated as undesirables in predominantly Buddhist Myanmar and denied citizenship, used to flee by sea by the thousands each year until security in Myanmar was tightened after a surge of refugees in 2015 caused regional alarm.  Third attempt in April In April, there has been an apparent increase in Rohingya attempts to leave the country by sea. An Indonesian fishing boat rescued a group of five Rohingya in weak condition off westernmost Aceh province April 6, after a 20-day voyage in which five other people died.  Just days before, Malaysian authorities intercepted a vessel carrying 56 people believed to be Rohingya refugees and brought the vessel and its passengers to shore.    Mohammad Saleem, part of the group that landed Friday in Aceh, said they left from Sittwe in Rakhine state, the location of displacement camps for Rohingya set up following attacks in 2012 by Buddhist mobs.    “We’re not allowed to do anything. We don’t have a livelihood,” the 25-year-old said. “We can only live in the camps with not enough food to eat there. We have no rights there.” 

US: North Korea, China, Russia and Iran Leading Human Rights Violators

Sat, 04/21/2018 - 11:56
The United States is calling out North Korea, China, Russia and Iran as "morally reprehensible governments" that violate human rights on a near-daily basis. But the State Department's "Country Reports on Human Rights Practices 2017" also cited improvements in some countries' records, including Liberia, Uzbekistan and Mexico. VOA's Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine has more from the State Department.

Myanmar Policeman Testifies Arrested Reporters Were Set Up

Sat, 04/21/2018 - 08:42
A Myanmar police officer testified Friday that he and several colleagues were ordered to entrap two reporters working for the Reuters news agency, dealing a major blow to the government’s case against the journalists. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo have been detained since Dec. 12 on charges of violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act that could get them up to 14 years in prison. The two helped cover the crisis in Myanmar's Rakhine state, where a brutal counterinsurgency operation last year drove about 700,000 Rohingya Muslims to neighboring Bangladesh. Police Capt. Moe Yan Naing told the court that his superior had arranged for two policemen to meet the reporters at a restaurant and hand over documents described as “important secret papers” in order to entrap them. Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, counsel for the two journalists and Reuters, called on the prosecution to drop the case immediately, and if not she said the district judge should dismiss it. “It is now clear to any impartial observer that this case is a bungled attempt to entrap two innocent young men,” she said in a statement. “The U.S., U.K., Canada, the U.N. and the European Union have already demanded the journalists’ release, and further action may follow if the case is not resolved.” Moe Yan Naing said he and other colleagues who had been interviewed earlier by Wa Lone about their activities in Rakhine had been interrogated under the direction of Brig. Gen. Tin Ko Ko of the 8th Security Police Battalion. Security forces in Rakhine have been accused of serious human rights violations, including rape and extrajudicial killings, against the persecuted ethnic Rohingya Muslims. Last week, Myanmar’s military announced it had sentenced seven soldiers to 10 years in prison for their part in the killings, a case covered by the two reporters. According to the police captain, Tin Ko Ko ordered an officer who had previously spoken to Wa Lone to arrange the Dec. 12 meeting, and threatened other police officers he sent to the meeting that if they did not carry out the arrests, they would be sent to jail themselves. “The reason why I testified the truth was because police should have their own standard and dignity,” Moe Yan Naing told reporters outside the courtroom after testifying as a prosecution witness. “Whatever I testified was the truth.”   He was able to speak to the media only briefly before being led away by a plainclothes security official. He has been under arrest since Dec. 12, apparently for having spoken to Wa Lone the month before. Reuters issued a statement after the hearing saying that the court had “finally heard the truth.”  “One of the prosecution’s own witnesses admitted that the police received orders to plant evidence and arrest Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo on false charges,” it said. “This case cannot be squared with fairness or justice, and it’s time to bring it to an end. We call for our journalists’ immediate release.” Clooney said “silencing critics through false arrests and arbitrary detention flies in the face of Myanmar's professed dedication to the rule of law and free speech, and risks lasting damage to the country's reputation and economy.” “But the truthful testimony of a brave witness is a step in the right direction,” she said in Friday’s statement. Defense lawyer Khin Maung Zaw said: ``We cannot say exactly if the two journalists will be released or not, but police officer Moe Yan Naing has revealed the real case.''  “This is such a big risk for him for telling the truth,” Khin Maung Zaw said, expressing concern for his safety. “This is why you all journalists should watch closely over him because we don’t know what’s going to happen. We don’t even know if he is coming in to the next hearing with an injured face.”  Other prosecution witnesses have earlier offered confusing and conflicting testimony, lending weight to the belief that the arrests were a clumsy setup by the government, which is sensitive to any reporting critical of its activities in Rakhine.  However, the judge has denied defense motions to drop the case. “We are very surprised that the truth has been revealed, and we thought since the beginning that this case was set up,” said Than Zaw Aung, another lawyer for the reporters. “We did not expect that the police would testify like that. But this testimony will be a very strong support for the defendants.” Wa Lone reaffirmed his innocence to journalists as he was boarding a police truck to be taken back to jail.  “The truth is coming out. I believe that truth and justice is coming,” he shouted.  Government spokesman Zaw Htay said he would not comment on the proceedings because the judiciary is independent and the trial is ongoing.

IOM: Rohingya Refugees at Risk as Monsoons Near

Sat, 04/21/2018 - 04:11
The International Organization for Migration says it does not have money to protect Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, from the impending regional monsoons and cyclonic storms. Monsoon rains are expected to hit in the coming weeks, causing floods and landslides, and severe damage to the fragile structures sheltering more than 700,000 Rohingya who fled violence in neighboring Myanmar. Humanitarian agencies have been working to shore up the overcrowded refugee settlements so they can withstand the worst of the coming winds and heavy rain. However, IOM spokesman Joel Millman says his agency is worried that a funding shortage will prevent the necessary life-saving precautions to be taken. He says the IOM has received only 7 percent of its $180 million appeal.  "You can imagine how worried people must be on the ground," Millman said. "That said, they do everything they can every day and we make progress every day. We distributed a lot of equipment. We moved several thousand people to what we hope is safer ground, and we are preparing for the impact of rains on sanitation, which is the health risk."  When the cyclone and monsoon seasons hit in the coming weeks, Millman warns, the Rohingya, who are living under tarpaulins on highly unstable ground, will be forced to survive months of rains, floods and landslides.

Mattis: US-North Korea Talks Will Not Shake Ties With Japan

Sat, 04/21/2018 - 04:08
U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the possible talks between the United States and North Korea would not change the strong relationship the United States has with Japan. Mattis met Friday with his Japanese counterpart, Itsunori Onodera, at the Pentagon, saying, "This is a mutually beneficial alliance between two democratic nations that trust each other. Nothing is going to shake that." WATCH: Mattis on Strength of US-Japan Relationship Onodera said the "ironclad US-Japan alliance" must work with the international community to make North Korea abandon all weapons of mass destruction "in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner." The United States and South Korea are planning separate summits with North Korea over banning nuclear weapons from the Korean Peninsula. No date has yet been set for the talks involving the United States, while the two Koreas plan to meet April 27. WATCH: Onodera: Pressure on North Korea Must Be Maintained On Friday, the two Koreas opened a hotline between their leaders, a week before their planned summit in the Demilitarized Zone. The hotline is the latest step in intense diplomatic activity on and around the Korean Peninsula, initiated with the Winter Olympics in the South. On Thursday, South Korean President Moon Jae-in said North Korea was not imposing conditions on upcoming summits with him and U.S. President Donald Trump. Moon told corporate executives in Seoul, "They have not attached any conditions that the U.S. cannot accept, such as the withdrawal of American troops from South Korea." He said, "All they are talking about is the end of hostile policies against North Korea, followed by a guarantee of security." Moon said, "I don't think denuclearization has different meanings for South and North Korea. The North is expressing a will for a complete denuclearization." Long pause in tests North Korea has defended its nuclear development and missile tests, in defiance of U.N. Security Council mandates, as a deterrent to what it sees as a threat from the United States, which has 28,500 troops stationed in South Korea. But it has not tested a missile since late November and has not conducted a nuclear test since last September.  Trump struck an optimistic note this week about the possibility of a denuclearized North Korea. "As I've said before, there is a bright path available to North Korea when it achieves denuclearization in a complete and verifiable and irreversible way," Trump said.  But he cautioned that if his talks with Kim did not go the way he hoped, he was willing to walk away.  VOA national security correspondent Jeff Seldin contributed to this report.

US Says China, Iran, Russia Are ‘Forces for Instability’

Sat, 04/21/2018 - 02:24
The Trump administration is lashing out at China, Iran, Russia and North Korea for being “forces of instability” because of human rights abuses of their own citizens and others. In its annual global human rights reports released on Friday, the State Department singled out the four countries for egregious rights violations, including restricting the freedoms of speech and assembly and allowing or committing violence against religious, ethnic and other minority groups. It said that countries that undermine the fundamental dignity of people are “morally reprehensible” and harm U.S. interests. “The governments of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea, for example, violate the human rights of those within their borders on a daily basis and are forces of instability as a result,” acting Secretary of State John Sullivan said in an introduction to the reports — one for each country and territory in the world. He said the U.S. aims to lead by example and promotes good governance, anti-corruption efforts and the rule of law. In addition to harshly criticizing those countries by name, the reports, which covers 2017 and is the first entirely produced by the Trump administration, replaces sections on “reproductive rights” with one titled “coercion in population control.” The shift underscores the Trump administration’s anti-abortion position that has already manifested itself in funding for international health programs and has been criticized by women’s health advocates.  Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had added the “reproductive rights” section in 2012 and it had remained a part of each country’s report until this year. Beyond coercion, that section had previously called out countries that denied access to information and services for reproductive health, including contraception. Traditional U.S. adversaries are hit hardest in the report. The entries for China, Iran, Russia and North Korea outline a litany of abuses blamed on their governments, which are also accused of failing to hold human rights violators accountable for their actions: China The report said Beijing is responsible for arbitrary detentions, executions without due process and coerced confessions of prisoners as well as forced disappearances and “significant restrictions” on freedom of speech, press, assembly, association, religion, and movement. In the “coercion in population control” section, the report says that China enforces “a coercive birth-limitation policy that in some cases included sterilization or abortions. In its first year in office, the Trump administration, as previous Republican administrations have done, pulled funding from the U.N. Population Fund, largely because of its work in China. The fund denies that it promotes abortion. “China continues to spread the worst features of its authoritarian system,” Sullivan told reporters on Friday. Iran The theocratic Shiite government in Iran is responsible for executing “a high number” of prisoners for crimes that don't merit the death penalty, the report said, along with torture, jailing of dissidents, severe curbs on journalists, gays and religious minorities. It also accused Iran of taking few steps to investigate, prosecute or punish any officials who committed the abuses, citing a widespread pattern of impunity for offenders. In addition, it said that through its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad's government and Iraqi Shia militias, Iran “materially contributed” to rights abuses in Syria and Iraq. Russia Moscow was lambasted in the report for allowing a “climate of impunity” for human rights abuses and doing little to punish officials who violate basic rights. The report laments Russia’s “authoritarian political system dominated by President Vladimir Putin,” in contrast with Trump’s reluctance to criticize Putin or the Kremlin directly. The list of alleged transgressions by Russia is long. The report alleged that Russia allows “systematic” torture that sometimes leads to death, along with extrajudicial killings of gay people in Chechnya, which prompted U.S. sanctions late last year under a human rights law. Russia’s “lack of judicial independence,” crackdowns on journalists and political dissidents, and censorship on the internet and of foreign organizations was also sharply criticized.   North Korea  Ahead of an anticipated historic meeting in the coming weeks between Trump and leader Kim Jong Un, the report accused North Korea of “egregious human rights violations” in nearly all of the categories included in the report. Forced labor, torture, coerced abortion and arbitrary arrests are all noted in the report, which also slams North Korea for extrajudicial killings, rigid controls over citizens' private lives and the use of political prison camps.  The report says that “impunity” for those offenses continues to be a problem in North Korea. Syria President Bashar Assad's government is accused of widespread atrocities, including chemical weapons attacks on civilians using sarin and chlorine _ two agents the U.S. has said were used in this month's attack near Damascus that led the U.S., France and the U.K. to launch airstrikes. The report also accused Assad's government of starving civilians, ``thousands of cases of torture,'' attacking hospitals and raping children ``as a weapon of war.'' Saudi Arabia Despite the harsh tone toward Iran, the report for Saudi Arabia — another country run under a strict version of Islamic law — is more measured. It notes without comment abuses that are similar to those in Iran, including unwarranted executions, the lack of free and fair elections and discrimination against women and homosexuals. The report offers only mild criticism over the kingdom’s military intervention in Yemen’s civil war, which has long been blamed for high numbers of civilian casualties.

Photographer Documents Rohingya Arrivals in Bangladesh

Fri, 04/20/2018 - 22:51
"I like to take pictures of the people because they don't have any voice of their own. Through my photographs I can share their stories, their words to the world," Renowned Bangladeshi photographer Abir Abdullah told VOA's Satarupa Barua. Abdullah documented the Rohingya arrivals in December 2017. By year's end, more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees had arrived in Bangladesh.

Indian Opposition Parties Seek Impeachment of Chief Justice

Fri, 04/20/2018 - 22:01
India's main opposition parties are seeking to impeach the country's top judge, accusing him of misuse of authority and acting under government pressure. Opposition leaders presented a notice to the chairman of Parliament's upper house on Friday seeking an inquiry into Chief Justice Deepak Misra's conduct, to be followed by a vote on impeachment. They also accused Misra of providing false information when he bought land before becoming chief justice. Misra did not immediately respond to the opposition accusations. It is the first time that political parties have sought to impeach a chief justice. The chairman of the upper house, Venkaiah Naidu, will determine whether there are sufficient grounds for a vote by lawmakers on Misra's removal.

Roadside Bomb Kills 5 Afghan Civilians

Fri, 04/20/2018 - 21:00
A roadside bomb blast in Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar province Friday killed at least five civilians and wounded more than 10 others. The victims were traveling to the Haska Meena district from the provincial capital of Jalalabad when their passenger vehicle struck the bomb, a local government spokesman told VOA. Attaullah Khogyani said four children and two women were among those wounded. He added the attack occurred in a remote village named Khataki, which is not under the control of the Afghan government. There were no immediate claims of responsibility. Taliban insurgents and militants linked to the Afghan branch of the Islamic State terrorist group operate in Haska Meena and several other districts in Nangarhar. The volatile province borders Pakistan. The United Nations recently said conflict-related civilian casualties have already risen to record levels this year. The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, or UNAMA, which documents civilian casualties, says the armed conflict has caused 2,260 civilian casualties, including more than 700 deaths, in the first three months of 2018. Last year, UNAMA recorded more than 10,000 civilian casualties, including around 3,500 fatalities.

China's Reform Pledges Fail to Impress

Fri, 04/20/2018 - 19:40
China has made a series of market opening pledges over the past week, but analysts said the moves are unlikely to help Beijing and Washington take any steps toward resolving their differences or advance negotiations. Instead, frustrations are growing as punitive trade actions pile up. China has pledged specific steps to open up its financial and insurance sector with milestones set for June and again before the end of this year. It has also addressed a key concern of President Donald Trump, pledging to significantly cut 25 percent tariffs on automobile imports this year. Beijing also says that by 2020, electric vehicle automakers will no longer have to enter into a joint venture to avoid tariffs and gain access to the Chinese market. Promises, promises However, the moves have left few impressed, analysts said. Paul Haenle, director of the Beijing-based Tsinghua-Carnegie Center for Global Policy, said that until tangible action is taken, the U.S. will continue to be skeptical that such announcements amount to anything more than symbolic gestures that will take years (if ever) to materialize. “Beijing has shown again and again that they are only willing to make significant policy changes when it is in their interests to do so, not in response to international pressure (something we have seen play out in their approach to the Korean peninsula),” Haenle told VOA in an emailed response. With Chinese companies now dominating the financial and insurance sector, allowing foreign companies to come in is less of a threat and ultimately will benefit domestic enterprises more than it does foreign companies, analysts said. The move will also help insulate China against complaints at the World Trade Organization for its long-delayed refusal to open up the sector. It is also likely to be a welcome relief for the finance sector where risks and ballooning debt have been a persistent concern, analysts said. Made in China 2025 Some see the moves as a sign that Beijing is responding and is serious about pushing forward with its efforts to open up market access, said Erlend Ek, a trade research manager at the research group, China Policy. China is “actually using this pressure to push the SOEs (State Owned Enterprises) and push the domestic protectionists and that might take some time, but it is in their national interest to open up,” Ek said. Analysts note that while the trade rhetoric on both sides continues to heat up, the two sides are still talking behind the scenes. However, growing frustrations are making that increasingly difficult, they said. The United States wants a more reciprocal relationship and for Beijing to tone down its Made in China 2025 industrial policy, said Haenle. The United States and other countries argue that Made in China 2025 discriminates against foreign imports and forces technology transfers. “The U.S. is fed up with Chinese promises of change followed by little to no tangible action,” Haenle said. “On the other hand, Chinese are frustrated with a lack of clarity on the part of the U.S. regarding what exactly needs to be done in order for trade relations to normalize.” The Chinese also feel they've already made significant concessions to lower the trade deficit and now are beginning to wonder if the debate is more than a matter of U.S. domestic politics and technical economic issues. Fight for the future That concern reached near fever pitch levels this week as the United States announced a seven-year ban on the sale of American components to Chinese cellphone maker ZTE Corporation. Beijing has characterized the move as an effort to contain China’s technological rise. The communist party-backed Global Times has warned that Beijing “will hit back in the best way it knows and inflict losses for American companies in China.” But more investigations are underway, notes Xu Chenggang, an economics professor at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business and the pressure on Chinese companies will continue to build. Earlier this week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the United States may launch a fresh trade complaint into China’s restrictions on cloud computing and high-tech services. “That pressure it is going to be very painful (for Chines firms),” Xu said, adding that Beijing is likely to give a couple of concrete concessions in response. “Otherwise I don't see what else they can do, without these key components, these companies will not be able to produce anything.” Chinese strategists see trade frictions as a fight for dominance in the next wave of technologies such as big data, cloud computing and artificial intelligence (AI), said China Policy’s Ek. “It is not about now, but it is really about the future in 2025-2030. It is about getting there first,” Ek said. “I think the U.S. is quite scared of China and this state-supported model. Traditionally it hasn't been very efficient, but they see that it has got some results because they have this massive population.” China's massive population and market is a huge advantage in developing data, AI and so on, Ek said. It is a huge carrot that the Chinese government can use to compel foreign companies to accept strong-arm tactics on market access. It is also large enough to nurture information technology companies in a protected environment at home until they are ready to go abroad.

Indonesia’s Aceh Canes Couples for Affection in Public

Fri, 04/20/2018 - 15:52
Indonesia’s deeply conservative Aceh province on Friday caned several unmarried couples for showing affection in public and two women for prostitution before an enthusiastic audience of hundreds. The canings were possibly the last to be done before large crowds in Aceh after the province’s governor announced earlier this month that the punishments would be moved indoors. The caning last year of two men for gay sex before a baying mob drew international attention to Aceh’s increasingly harsh implementation of Shariah law and a wave of condemnation. The women accused of prostitution were caned 11 times each. One of the women held up her hand after the fifth lash, signaling the pain was too intense. She was given a drink and the strokes resumed despite her evident discomfort. The six young people accused of flirtatious behavior received between 11 and 22 strokes. Shariah police wanted to convict them of “zina,” unlawful sexual intercourse that includes sex outside marriage and adultery. That would’ve resulted in a greater number of lashes, but they lacked enough witnesses. Some residents of Aceh, the only province in Muslim-majority Indonesia to impose Shariah law, are opposed to having the canings performed inside prisons. About a thousand people protested outside the Banda Aceh mayor’s office Thursday. They say hiding the canings will reduce the deterrent effect. Historically, Aceh, located at the tip of the island of Sumatra, was the first region of the Indonesian archipelago to adopt Islam after contacts with Arab traders from as early as the 8th century. Its implementation of Shariah law was a concession made by the central government in 2001 as part of efforts to end a decades-long war for independence. Human Rights Watch has dismissed the change to indoor whipping as cosmetic and called for Aceh to abolish caning and the laws that allow it. It says caning remains a form of torture whether it is done in public or not.

Japan Volcano Erupts for 1st Time in 250 Years

Fri, 04/20/2018 - 15:39
A volcano in southern Japan has erupted for the first time in 250 years, and authorities set up a no-go zone around the mountain. Mount Io spewed smoke and ash high into the sky Thursday in its first eruption since 1768. Japan’s Meteorological Agency on Friday expanded a no-go zone to the entire mountain from previously just around the volcano’s crater. Explosions have briefly subsided Friday, but officials cautioned residents in nearby towns against falling volcanic rocks and ash. The volcano is part of the Kirishima mountain range on Japan’s southern main island of Kyushu. The area is about 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) southwest of Tokyo. Another volcano nearby also erupted violently in March for the first time in seven years. Japan sits on the Pacific “Ring of Fire” and has 110 active volcanoes.

China’s Visa-Free Tourism May Lure Travelers into Disputed Sea

Fri, 04/20/2018 - 15:05
China’s opening of its southernmost province to visa-free foreign tourism next month could make features in a nearby, widely disputed sea more accessible to curious travelers. Hainan province will waive Chinese visas for citizens of 59 countries starting May 1, state-run media say. On their 30-day visa-free stays, some may be able to set foot on Chinese claims among the reefs and atolls southeast of Hainan as part of the province’s free-trade port ambitions, said Zhao Xijun, deputy School of Finance dean at Renmin University of China. Some of those features belong to the Paracel Islands, an archipelago that China controls but that Taiwan and Vietnam also call their own. “This is something for the future. It’s not just for outside visitors, but domestic travelers also will try hard in this direction,” Zhao said. ​Sending a message through tourism Opening the Paracels to foreign travelers would help China politically, some analysts say. Beijing could show people from many countries it has “effective administration” over the contested sea, said Collin Koh, maritime security research fellow at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. Other countries would be unlikely to hassle China if they knew foreign tourists were at sea, he added. “It allows China to assert its sovereignty claim and, not just that, it’s also to highlight that it does have effective administration over the area,” Koh said. “It actually gives you additional security, because if you have foreigners from different countries all over the world in that place, it decreases the chance of any other people taking rash actions against you.” Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines claim parts of the South China Sea, which is valued for fisheries and undersea energy reserves. China and Taiwan call the whole 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea their own. ​Military expansion The other countries resent China’s expansion of islets in the Paracel and Spratly chains for military use. China, which has Asia’s strongest armed forces, is building on at least three Paracel islands, an American think tank project said last year. Woody Island, the most developed Paracel feature, has a resident population of about 1,000 people. Facilities include an airstrip and missile batteries as well as a hospital and a supermarket. It’s unclear whether foreign tourists are now allowed to visit the Paracels, a spokesperson with the Chinese travel booking service Ctrip.com said. A publicist with the city of Sanya, a southern Hainan resort city and the one closest to the Paracels, said Friday the municipal government website would eventually post information on who can visit the South China Sea. Tourist expectations Paracel tourists would expect China to keep the marine environment clean so they can see pristine scenery, said Lin Qi, assistant researcher with the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan province. “From the openness to tourism perspective, you definitely need a place with a good natural environment to give it value,” Lin said. “The corresponding impact is that other industries such as fishing will decline. If tourism opens then commercial fishing would be cut back a lot.” Rugged but feasible travel China is already trying to open tourism to the disputed sea, with a long-term goal of letting people surf and dive in the tropical waters. China’s first cruise ship set out for the Paracel chain in 2013, and in 2016 a Chinese airline opened charter flights from the Hainan provincial capital Haikou to Woody Island. In March 2017, a cruise ship from China took 300 people to the Paracels, and Vietnam protested on grounds that it has sovereignty. Amphibious private aircraft can reach the tiny islets with no airports, said Michael Shih, vice president for strategy and business development with Textron Aviation in Shanghai. Aerial tourism is already being done in Hainan province, he added. “I believe the 208 could get to some of them or most of them,” Shih said, referring to the Cessna 208 Caravan turboprop aircraft. “Obviously, some of those that are further out, they may have to stop somewhere for fuel. If it’s a sea-based operation, you don’t really need a landing strip or a runway.” The islands under China’s control lack tourist-caliber infrastructure, such as hotels and potable water. Those shortcomings could limit arrivals, Zhao said. “Maritime leisure is a developing industry in China. Infrastructure and overall levels development are still in a low state,” he said. Malaysia and Vietnam are also opening tiny islets in the disputed sea to tourists as a way of proving claims. Countries that promote tourism may hope to advance their political claims, said Christian de Guzman, vice president and senior credit officer with Moody’s in Singapore.

Commonwealth Leaders Ponder Future as Britain Prepares to Exit Europe

Fri, 04/20/2018 - 12:33
Heads of state from across the world are gathered in London this week for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting. The organization emerged from the breakdown of the British Empire in the last century, and critics say it has failed to shake off its colonial legacy. But as Henry Ridgwell reports, the Commonwealth is under renewed focus in London, as Britain looks for new global partnerships after it leaves the European Union next year.

US Lawmakers Express Hope, Concern Over Trump-Kim Summit

Fri, 04/20/2018 - 12:22
South Korean President Moon Jae-in says he has encouraging news from Pyongyang about planned summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. U.S. lawmakers and experts are also weighing in on the flurry of diplomatic initiatives, as VOA Diplomatic Correspondent Cindy Saine reports from the State Department.

Pompeo-Kim Meeting 'Very Positive Sign' for US-North Korea Talks

Fri, 04/20/2018 - 09:11
CIA Director Mike Pompeo's secret visit to Pyongyang to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un "is a very positive sign" that the United States is taking "sensible and necessary steps to prepare for an eventual summit" and increasing the likelihood that a summit will take place, analysts said. President Donald Trump said Wednesday that Pompeo, his nominee for secretary of state, met with Kim over Easter weekend.  The meeting was part of the preparation for Trump's summit with Kim slated for late May or early June and was the first high-level meeting between a U.S. official and a North Korean leader since former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright met with Kim Jong Un's deceased father Kim Jong Il in 2000. 'Sensible, necessary steps' Gary Samore, the White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction during the Obama administration, said Pompeo's meeting with Kim signals that the Trump administration is actively preparing for the summit. "I think the secret visit of Pompeo to Pyongyang is a very positive sign that President Trump is taking sensible and necessary steps to prepare for an eventual summit with Kim Jong Un," said Samore, who played a key role in negotiating the 1994 North Korea nuclear agreement, the so-called Agreed Framework, that was never fully implemented. Robert Manning, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, thinks the meeting also indicates Kim's willingness to discuss denuclearization with the U.S.  "Kim, who has met with very few foreign leaders, met with him. [This] shows serious intent on the North Korean side," he said. According to Evans Revere, a former State Department official who has extensive experience in negotiations with North Korea, Pompeo's meeting with Kim paved the way for Trump to be effective in his talks with Kim at the summit. "They are working very hard on putting all the pieces together for an appropriate strategy and approach to deal with the North Korean leader," Revere said. ​Define denuclearization Scott Snyder, a senior fellow for Korean studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, speculated that Pompeo met with Kim to see if an agreement on denuclearization would be possible by confirming directly with Kim that he is seriously committed to taking steps toward denuclearization. Analysts said last month that even the process of agreeing on the definition of "denuclearization" could present a stumbling block before the summit. "They needed to talk about the elements of any possible agreement or understanding that might be achieved at the [summit] meeting. I'm sure that Director Pompeo needed to confirm directly with Kim Jong Un that Kim is committed to the denuclearization process," Snyder said. Ken Gause, an expert on North Korea and director at the Center for Naval Analysis, echoed Snyder's comment. Gause said the meeting was important to find out Kim's view of denuclearization and if differences between Pyongyang and Washington on the topic could be bridged to reach an agreement. "There are obviously many hurdles. … One of those hurdles is, and probably the reason why this meeting took place from the U.S. perspective at least, is that I think the Trump administration is very eager to find out, what is the North Korean view of denuclearization and how that should take place," Gause said. "There has to be some common agreement on a way forward." North Korea is most likely looking for an "incentive-based step-by-step process [of denuclearization] that can be rolled out over a long period of time" Gause said, while the U.S. aims to condense the timeline for complete denuclearization by applying the Libyan model where "the North Koreans would be expected to give up their nuclear programs early in the process, in a verifiable way." ​Libya model John Bolton, the president's national security adviser, has said North Korea should follow the Libya model, in which long-time Libyan President Moammar Gadhafi agreed to give up all weapons of mass destruction in 2003, and soon after allowed in international inspectors to verify and oversee the dismantlement efforts. Douglas Paal, director of the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said, "If the North is more forthcoming than it has been in the past on our central concerns on the nuclear and missile threats, then the chances [for the summit meeting] increase." Trump said Wednesday he would cancel the upcoming summit with Kim or walk out of the summit meeting if the meeting becomes unproductive.  "If the meeting, when I'm there, is not fruitful, I will respectfully leave the meeting," Trump said at a news conference at his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida while meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Connie Kim contributed to this story, which originated with VOA's Korean Service.