AUSTRALIA/AFGHANISTAN – Australian war crimes and racist fantasies in Afghanistan (Sahar Ghumkhor, Al Jazeera)

Last week the distressing details of a four-year inquiry into the Australian Defence Force’s war crimes in Afghanistan were finally released to the public. The country grappled with the scale of the violence: at least 23 deadly incidents; 39 Afghan civilians, including children, killed; at least 25 Australian soldiers of the Special Air Service Regiment (SAS) involved.

The report described a savage practice of “blooding”, where young special forces soldiers were instructed by senior commanders to make their “first kill” and a “culture of secrecy”, where witnesses remained silent and murderers covered up their crimes by planting weapons and radios on dead bodies.

While the details of the crimes have been widely reported on, there has been a curious reluctance in Australia to explain the violence and trace its racist origins. The local media coverage of the revelations had a defensive tone.

Military, academic and mental health experts appeared on Australian TV screens to buffer the allegations by speaking of the integrity of the military and concerns over the impact on the image and morale of the defence forces. Australian officials and commentators tried to present the war crimes as an act of a few “bad apples” just as their American counterparts did with the uncovered torture and murder at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

Even when the horror of the war crimes was on full display and the sheer scale of the war crimes and depraved practices undeniable, white innocence was still desperately gasping for redemption.

But what struck me the most as an Afghan living in Australia watching this fiasco unravel was how the coverage of the inquiry on Australian TV ended with the promotion of a mental health helpline for members of the military and their families. This, in a year of protests against uniformed men terrorising civilian populations and basking in impunity taking place around the world.

The tone deafness was incredible and the narcissism – diabolical. Absent in the media coverage was any concern for the victims and the feelings of Afghans and Afghan Australians. Many of us carry the scars of war and many were certainly retraumatised by these findings.

Army Chief Angus Campbell did offer an apology to Afghans on the day of the report’s release. But he also curiously repeated the report’s conclusion that these crimes did not occur in the “heat of battle”. That is, we have 39 illegal murders and an untold number of others which must be “legal”, as they occurred in what the Australian army decided was the “heat of battle”.

This is how the spellbinding fog of the so-called “war on terror” transforms civilians into “collateral damage” or suspect terrorists, monsters into heroes, freedom fighters into terrorists and terrorists into Muslims. The racial economy of the “war on terror” has made Black and brown lives cheap, disposable, not worth acknowledging or grieving. More than half a million people have been killed in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq in the “heat of battle”, but the gruesome details of their murders will not make it into any report.

This normalisation of violence by the West in certain parts of the world creates spaces where practices like “blooding” – the merciless murder of civilians and detainees as a rite of passage – flourish. It is where the slaughter of defenceless people as a bonding ritual to make white men into warriors is deemed acceptable. It is where white men, drunk on their own saviour fantasy, come to see themselves as all-powerful, as untouchable.

But why “blooding”? There is something primal about the word. It has a dehumanising effect, reducing locals to animals to be sacrificed for a higher purpose – a manifest destiny – in a coming-of-age ritual. “Blooding”, “warrior culture” and “Zulu” – the name some SAS units adopted – are steeped in histories of colonial violence.

Australians should be intimately familiar with these themes. After all, this nation has a prolific history of “blooding” rituals, dispossession and naked violence against native populations.

Today the white men return to the former imperial frontier to pursue boyhood ideals of adventure, discovery and unbridled aggressions. Afghanistan is not a graveyard of empires as the mythology insists, it is where the imperial imagination is set free to act out its darkest fantasies with no legal or moral restraint.

And just like in colonial times, when white men went after trophies, including human ones, today they collect body parts of dead Afghan civilians and their prosthetics to use as drinking vessels.

The desire for possession of body parts, even plastic ones, is a dark pathology, especially when they are snatched from a land covered with landmines and inhabited by so many broken bodies, where prosthetic parts are inaccessible to many. I wonder about the Australians who witnessed the theft of a dead Afghan man’s prosthetic leg or knew where it came from, but nevertheless, relished drinking beer from it.

I think about the mutilated face of Aisha Mohammedzai, the Afghan girl who appeared on the front cover of Time magazine in 2010, who was then flown to the US and offered a plastic nose. Plastic body parts are powerful commodities in Afghanistan: white men can give them as a gift and can take them away as punishment.

Perhaps the even more insidious part of this story is how the white men can kill at will, mutilate corpses, steal body parts and still come away feeling like heroes.

Indeed, despite the reports of war crimes piling up and murder of civilians spiking, the overarching Western narrative of the Afghan war has continued to present Western armies as saviours.

The war in Afghanistan has been considered the “good war”, unlike the invasion of Iraq which some eventually denounced as the “bad war”, the one built on lies. One has to wonder, however, how the anti-war movement came to believe that the same people who lied to us about Iraq somehow had the best of intentions in Afghanistan.

There is nothing that makes Westerners feel more powerful than the official rationale for the invasion of Afghanistan: going to war for the sake of Muslim women, to protect them from Muslim men.

But people forget that the original justification was not the protection of Afghan women. The US and its allies initially declared they were invading as an act of self-defence because Afghanistan was harbouring al-Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden, who was accused of ordering the 9/11 attacks.

But none of the conditions for self-defence were sufficiently met to secure legal approval. There was no ongoing armed threat against the US by the time of the invasion, the Security Council did not meet in time to sanction it, Afghanistan was not an aggressor nation, harbouring bin Laden did not warrant a military intervention and the Taliban was actually open to negotiate.

Once the war began, America and its allies were in murky legal territory and they knew it. The motives for the war quickly shifted from self-defence to defending Afghan women and removing the Taliban. The new paradigm of militant humanitarianism (responsibility to protect) became the cover-up narrative for the illegal origins of the war.

This humanitarian pretence has disarmed Afghans of the right to self-defence and self-determination. The idea of the “good war” has been so tenuously guarded that the plight of Afghan women has become dogma and Afghan political will that does not align with the humanitarian paradigm and its vision for the future of the country has been automatically labelled a threat.

As evidence of horrendous war crimes mounts, Westerners, including Australians, continue to hold on to the racist fantasy that they are fighting a “good war” in Afghanistan, that they have the moral right to demarcate the boundaries of the battleground, that they can decide who is a civilian and who is Taliban.

In “the heart of darkness”, these delineations do not really mean anything, they are mere cloaks for monsters and the nations that birth them. For many Afghans, this is the real revelation of the Australian inquiry.


BOLIVIA – Exile or Return (Al Jazeera)

What will the future hold for Bolivia and its former president, Evo Morales?

In late 2019, mass protests triggered by a fiercely disputed election forced Bolivia’s first Indigenous president into exile after 14 years in power.

As Evo Morales took stock in Argentina – and weighed up the prospects of a possible return – an interim government led by a former opposition senator, Jeanine Anez, announced plans for fresh elections, delayed until October 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.


USA/CHINA – US bans cotton imports from China producer, citing ‘slave labour’ (Al Jazeera)

The administration of United States President Donald Trump raised the economic pressure on China’s western region of Xinjiang, banning cotton imports from a powerful Chinese quasi-military organisation that it says uses the forced labour of detained Uighur Muslims.

The US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agency said on Wednesday its “Withhold Release Order” would ban cotton and cotton products from the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), one of China’s largest producers.

The move, which could have a sweeping effect on companies involved in selling textiles and apparel to the US, is among several the Trump administration has been working on in its final weeks to harden the US position against China, making it more difficult for President-elect Joe Biden to ease US-China tensions.

The targeting of XPCC, which produced 30 percent of China’s cotton in 2015, follows a Treasury Department ban in July on all dollar transactions with the sprawling business and paramilitary entity, founded in 1954 to settle China’s far west.

‘Egregious human rights violations’

Department of Homeland Security Secretary Kenneth Cuccinelli, who oversees the border agency, called Made in China a “warning label”.

“The cheap cotton goods you may be buying for family and friends during this season of giving – if coming from China – may have been made by slave labour in some of the most egregious human rights violations existing today in the modern world,” he told a news conference.

Cuccinelli said a region-wide Xinjiang cotton import ban was still being studied.


Watchtowers on a high-security facility near what is believed to be a re-education camp where people from Muslim ethnic minorities are imprisoned on the outskirts of Hotan, in China’s northwestern Xinjiang region [File: Greg Baker/AFP]

The United Nations cites what it says are credible reports that one million Muslims held in camps have been put to work. China denies mistreating Uighurs and says the camps are vocational training centres needed to fight “extremism”.

In a news conference in Beijing, China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said US politicians are fabricating news of forced labour in Xinjiang. She added that US practices undermine market principles and would deprive people of jobs.

The XPCC could not immediately be reached for comment, according to the Reuters news agency. The China National Textile and Apparel Council declined to comment and the China Cotton Textile Association could not immediately be reached, Reuters reported.

Broad effects

While the Treasury sanctions target XPCC’s financial structure, Wednesday’s action will force apparel firms and other companies shipping cotton products into the US to eliminate XPCC-produced cotton fibre from many stages of their supply chains, said Brenda Smith, CBP’s executive assistant commissioner for trade.

“That pretty much blocks all Chinese cotton textile imports,” said a China-based cotton trader, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issue.

Identifying cotton from a specific supplier will sharply raise manufacturing costs, and only the few large companies with fully integrated operations across the complex textile supply chain could guarantee that no XPCC product has been used, the trader said.

“It really depends on how much proof they want. If they want real proof that this cotton has not been used, that’s going to be extremely difficult,” he added.

Well known clothing brands including Gap Inc, Patagonia Inc and Zara owner Inditex have told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that they did not source from factories in Xinjiang – but that they could not confirm that their supply chains were free of cotton picked from the region.

In September, CBP considered a much broader import ban on all cotton and tomato products from Xinjiang, but after dissent from within the Trump administration, it announced narrower bans on products from specific entities, including two smaller cotton and apparel producers.

Interwoven supply chains

US apparel makers had criticised a broader ban as impossible to enforce, but on Wednesday clothing and retail groups welcomed the XPCC-specific ban. The groups, including the American Apparel and Footwear Association and the National Retail Federation, said in a statement they were on the “front lines of efforts to ensure forced labor does not taint our supply chains or enter the United States”.

A cotton farm on the outskirts of Hami, in China’s Xinjiang province [File: Stringer/Reuters]

The US’s action could potentially affect clothing exports from other Asian producers such as Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Cambodia, if they contain cotton from China, according to Sheng Lu, an associate professor in the Department of Fashion & Apparel Studies at the University of Delaware.

“Cotton made by XPCC are used by garment factories throughout China and exported to other apparel producing countries,” he told the Bloomberg news agency.

The US imported about $11bn in cotton textile and apparel products from China in 2019, but depending on how US Customs enforces this order, it could target a much broader array of products, Lu said. The order also sends a strong signal that the issue of forced labour in Xinjiang is not over yet and there could be other actions in the future, he said.

Biden has pledged to work with US allies to bring pressure on China to curb human rights and trade abuses. Trump in recent weeks has increased action against major Chinese state companies, banning access to US technology and investments.


USA/CHINA – Threat to China firms on US exchanges grows with bill’s progress (Al Jazeera)

The United States House of Representatives passed legislation to kick Chinese companies off US stock exchanges if they do not fully comply with the country’s auditing rules, giving President Donald Trump one more tool to threaten Beijing with before leaving office.

The measure passed the House by unanimous voice vote, after passing the Senate unanimously in May, sending it to Trump, who the White House said is expected to sign it into law.

“The Holding Foreign Companies Accountable Act” bars securities of foreign companies from being listed on any US exchange if they have failed to comply with the US Public Accounting Oversight Board’s audits for three years in a row.

While it applies to companies from any country, the legislation’s sponsors intended it to hit Chinese companies such as Alibaba, tech firm Pinduoduo and oil giant PetroChina that are listed in the US.


Chinese online group discounter Pinduoduo debuted on the Nasdaq exchange in New York in 2018 [File: Mike Segar/Reuters]

In addition to requiring companies to allow US inspectors to review their financial audits, the measure – introduced by John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican and Senator Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat – requires firms to disclose whether they are under government control.

Measures taking a harder line against Chinese business and trade practices generally pass Congress with large margins. Both Democrats and Trump’s fellow Republicans echo the president’s hard line against Beijing, which became fiercer this year as Trump blamed China for the coronavirus ravaging the US.

Van Hollen said in a statement that US investors “have been cheated out of their money after investing in seemingly legitimate Chinese companies that are not held to the same standards as other publicly listed companies”.

Kennedy said China was using US exchanges to “exploit” Americans. “The House joined the Senate in rejecting a toxic status quo,” he said in a statement.

The American Securities Association praised passage of the bill saying it was necessary to protect Americans from “fraudulent companies controlled by the Chinese Communist Party.”

‘Non-discriminatory environment’

The Chinese embassy in Washington, DC, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said before the vote that it was a discriminatory policy that politically oppresses Chinese firms.

“Instead of setting up layers of barriers, we hope the US can provide a fair and non-discriminatory environment for foreign firms to invest and operate in the US,” Hua told a news conference.

A spokesman for Alibaba pointed to a comment on the bill from May, when it was passed by the Senate. Chief Financial Officer Maggie Wu told investors the firm would “endeavour to comply with any legislation whose aim is to protect and bring transparency to investors who buy securities on US stock exchanges”.

Shares of Chinese oil giant PetroChina were listed on the New York Stock Exchange in 2000 [File: Anthony Kwan/Bloomberg]

Chinese authorities have long been reluctant to let overseas regulators inspect local accounting firms, citing national security concerns.

Officials at China’s securities regulator indicated earlier this year they were willing to allow inspections of audit documents in some circumstances, but past agreements aimed at solving the dispute have failed to work in practice.

Shaun Wu, a Hong Kong-based partner at law firm Paul Hastings, said increased enforcement against Chinese companies was likely even though Democrat Joe Biden will become president in January.

He said if the bill becomes law, “all Chinese companies listed in the US will face enhanced scrutiny by the US authorities and inevitably consider all available options”.

This could include listing their shares in Hong Kong or elsewhere, he said. Several US-listed Chinese firms, including Alibaba and KFC China operator Yum China, have recently carried out secondary listings in Hong Kong.


USA – CDC warns US of COVID-19 ‘rough times’ as hospitalisations surge (Al Jazeera)

The head of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warned the country faces “rough times” amid a deepening COVID-19 pandemic that is putting the healthcare system at risk of collapse.

The comments from CDC Director Dr Robert Redfield came as the number of people admitted to hospital with COVID-19 exceeded 100,000 for the first time.

“The reality is that December, January and February are going to be rough times,” Redfield said in a livestream presentation hosted by the US Chamber of Commerce Foundation.

“I actually believe they’re going to be the most difficult time in the public health history of this nation.”

He said the latest coronavirus surge had already proven more devastating than previous waves in terms of its geographic scope and steeper trajectory of rising infection rates, hospitalisations and deaths.

Besides the loss of life, Redfield said, the country faces the prospect of a healthcare system strained to the point of collapse, before vaccines become widely available.

Death toll still rising

More than 270,000 Americans have died from COVID-19 to date. And the University of Washington’s influential Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has projected the toll could reach nearly 450,000 by March 1 without greater attention to social distancing and mask-wearing.

“We’re potentially looking at another 150,000 to 200,000 people (dead) before we get into February,” Redfield said, urging people to wear masks, maintain social distancing and wash their hands frequently.

On Wednesday, the COVID Tracking Project said in a social media post that there were 100,226 people currently in hospital with the disease in the United States, “the first time hospitalisations have exceeded 100k”.

Redfield sounded the alarm as US health experts welcomed British emergency approval for Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine, a sign that US regulators may soon follow suit.

The dire coronavirus warning in the US came as health experts on welcomed British emergency approval of Pfizer Inc’s COVID-19 vaccine, a sign that US regulators may soon follow suit [Mike Blake/Reuters]

Britain has said it will start inoculating high-risk people early next week, a move that could make Americans more confident about the prospect of a mass vaccination campaign reminiscent of the anti-polio campaigns of the 1950s and 1960s.

“This should be very reassuring. An independent regulatory authority in another country has found this vaccine to be safe and effective for use,” US Health Secretary Alex Azar told the Fox Business Network on Wednesday.

A US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel of outside advisers will meet on December 10 to discuss whether to recommend emergency use authorisation of the Pfizer vaccine.

Moderna’s vaccine, which employs similar technology as Pfizer’s and was also nearly 95 percent effective in preventing illness in a pivotal clinical trial, is expected to be reviewed a week later.

While some US health officials described a timeline that assumed FDA authorisation would come within days of the December 10 meeting, others have said it could take weeks.

“Surely we want a vaccine available as soon as it is deemed safe. We want to make sure that we can provide accurate information to the public,” said Dr Lisa Costello, a professor of paediatrics at the West Virginia University School of Medicine who is helping advise West Virginia’s state government on vaccine distribution.

Pfizer, Moderna and AstraZeneca, whose experimental vaccine with Oxford University is in third-stage trials, have already started manufacturing their vaccines and say distribution could begin almost immediately after approval.

Beyond regulatory hurdles, vaccinations face opposition from significant numbers of Americans who reject medical science and fear vaccines as harmful.

Many Americans have also refused to follow basic public health guidance on wearing masks and avoiding crowds.


USA – Biden, top Democrats back bipartisan COVID-19 relief bill (Al Jazeera)

President-elect Joe Biden swung behind a bipartisan COVID-19 relief effort in the United States Congress and his top congressional allies cut their demands for a $2 trillion-plus measure by more than half in the hope of triggering negotiations with Senate Republicans on delivering much-sought aid before the end of the year.

Biden said the developing aid package “wouldn’t be the answer, but it would be the immediate help for a lot of things”. He wants a relief bill to pass Congress now, with more aid to come next year.

Biden’s remarks followed an announcement by House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democrat leader Chuck Schumer in support of a nearly $908bn plan as a “basis” for bipartisan discussions.

The announcement appeared to be aimed at dislodging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, who has been unwilling to abandon a $550bn plan that has so far failed to garner broad support in Congress.

The Democrats embraced a $908bn approach from moderate Senators Joe Manchin, a Democrat and Susan Collins, a Republican, among others. It would establish a $300 per week jobless benefit, send $160bn to help state and local governments, boost schools and universities and would revive “pay-check protection” subsidies for businesses, with additional bail-outs for transit systems and airlines.

“In the spirit of compromise we believe the bipartisan framework introduced by senators yesterday should be used as the basis for immediate bipartisan, bicameral negotiations,” Pelosi and Schumer said in a joint statement.

The statement was a concession by Pelosi and Schumer, who played hardball during failed pre-election discussions with the administration on a costlier bill. They had wanted more generous unemployment benefits and far more for state and local government.

Their embrace of the $908bn measure was a retreat from a secret offer the two Democrats had given McConnell on December 1, the Associated Press news agency reported.

The newly proposed bipartisan plan includes a liability shield for businesses and other organisations that have reopened their doors during the pandemic. It is the first time Pelosi and Schumer have shown a willingness to consider the idea.

Republican leader McConnell had dismissed the bipartisan offer on Tuesday, instead of aiming to rally Republicans around his proposal focused on small business relief and help for schools.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Wednesday that outgoing President Donald Trump supported McConnell’s proposal.

But Senator John Thune, a key McConnell deputy, said Republicans might agree to merge the bipartisan proposal with McConnell’s bill.

“Hopefully it will be helpful in us getting a deal done,” Thune said.

Any relief package likely would be attached to a $1.4 trillion year-end spending bill required to avert a government shutdown next weekend, Thune also said.

Talks on that measure are proceeding but if legislators should stumble, a temporary spending bill would be needed as a bridge into next year.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, speaking to reporters, raised the possibility such a temporary extension of government funding might be needed if there is no deal by December 11.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has so far declined to negotiate directly with Democratic counterparts on a COVID-19 relief package [Kevin Lamarque/Reuters]

McConnell aides did not immediately comment on Pelosi and Schumer’s move to support the bipartisan bill, the Reuters news agency reported.

McConnell had endorsed a $1 trillion plan this summer, only to encounter resistance from conservatives that prompted him to retrench. He has acknowledged that another infusion of aid to states and local governments, a key Pelosi demand, probably will pass eventually.

The Manchin-Collins bipartisan group proposed a split-the-difference solution to the protracted impasse on COVID-19 relief, hoping to speed overdue help to hurting Americans before Congress adjourns for the holidays.

It was a sign that some legislators are reluctant to adjourn for the year without approving some pandemic aid.

Their proposal includes:

  • $228bn to extend and upgrade “pay-check protection” subsidies for businesses for a second round of relief to hard-hit businesses such as restaurants.
  • A revived special jobless benefit, but at a level of $300 per week, reduced from $600 per week.
  • $160bn for state and local governments.
  • $45bn for transportation, including aid to transport systems and Amtrak, the national train service.
  • $82bn to reopen schools and universities.
  • Money for vaccines and healthcare providers, as well as for food stamps, rental assistance and the Postal Service.

INDIA – India court orders installation of CCTVs at every police station (Bilal Kuchay, Al Jazeera)

India’s Supreme Court has ordered the installation of security cameras at all police stations and offices of investigating agencies which conduct interrogations and have the power to arrest, a directive welcomed by rights campaigners.

The top court said its orders were in keeping with constitutionally guaranteed rights under Article 21, which calls to protect the right to life and personal liberty.

“The State and Union Territory Governments should ensure that CCTV cameras are installed in each and every police station functioning in the respective state and/or union territory” the court said in its order on Wednesday.

“These cameras must be installed at entry and exit points of the police station, lock ups, corridors, lobbies, reception area, rooms of the sub-Inspector and Inspector, reception and outside washrooms.”

The court also directed that security cameras be installed at the offices of federal investigating agencies, including the Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI), the Enforcement Directorate (ED) and National Investigation Agency (NIA), which conduct interrogations and have the power of arrest.

“CCTV systems that have to be installed must be equipped with night vision and must necessarily consist of audio as well as video footage,” the court said.

Activists, human rights lawyers and constitutional experts have welcomed the Supreme Court order and said it will bring some transparency and accountability, however some cast doubts about its implementation.

“This is a very welcome directive from the Supreme Court. In terror cases, we know especially that the whole case is built around so-called confessions or disclosures, which are extracted under torture,” said Manisha Sethi, author of Kafkaland: Prejudice, Law and Counterterrorism in India.

“Even if these may have no evidentiary value but the police routinely leak them to pliant media houses who conduct a media trial and pronounce the accused guilty, even before the trial has begun.

“The directive has the potential to put the brakes on custodial torture generally but it remains to be seen whether it will be followed in letter and spirit as the court says or if it will be subverted.”

According to data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), an Indian government agency, at least 255 people have died in police custody since 2017 but only three police personnel were convicted.

A total of 85 people died in police custody in 2019 for which 23 arrests were made. However, charge sheets were filed against just eight police personnel and none of the cases resulted in a conviction.

Neeraj Kumar, the former Commissioner of Delhi Police, said it was going to be a “good step towards transparency”.

The court also directed that the security cameras must be installed with recording systems that will preserve data for 18 months.

“If the recording equipment available in the market today, does not have the capacity to keep the recording for 18 months but for a lesser period of time, it shall be mandatory for all states, union territories and the central government to purchase one which allows storage for the maximum period possible, and, in any case, not below one year.”

When there is information of force being used at police stations resulting in serious injury or deaths, the order says, people should be able to seek redress.

Supreme Court lawyer Vrinda Grover said the judgement was “an implicit acknowledgement of the widespread prevalence of custodial torture in India”.

Describing it as “a welcome step towards preventing and punishing custodial violence, Grover said that “the judgement is directed at only the most egregious forms of custodial violence”.

“In my view, the judgement sets a very high threshold of custodial violence and violations like stripping, sexualised torture, which leave no tell-tale signs on the body but scar and terrify the suspect, and may fall short and not trigger the mechanism proposed by this judgement of accessing CCTV footage for demonstrating the human right violations.”


INDIA – India farmers’ protests: Gov’t resumes talks with farmers (Al Jazeera)

Indian government ministers began talks with farmers’ leaders on Thursday to try and break a deadlock over laws passed earlier this year seeking to deregulate the agriculture sector that have ignited the country’s biggest farm protests in years.

Tens of thousands of growers have camped outside the capital, New Delhi, in protest against the laws seeking to rid the sector of procurement procedures and allow farmers to sell to institutional buyers and big international retailers.

The farmers, who form a powerful political constituency, fear the laws passed in September could pave the way for the government to stop buying grains at guaranteed prices, leaving them at the mercy of private buyers.

The protests pose a crucial test for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ability to reform India’s vast agricultural sector, which accounts for 15 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) but employs more than half of the country’s 1.3 billion people.

“We are at one of the three border crossings into the Indian capital which are completely closed to traffic. Farmers say they want to continue to create this disruption until the government either repeals three recent farm laws or writes guarantees of minimum prices for their produce into law,” Al Jazeera’s Elizabeth Puranam said.

“And the government is saying that it is going to enter these talks with an open heart, they want to find a solution that is in the interest of farmers but with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s recent comments that these were much-needed reforms that are in the interest of farmers, it’s difficult to see right now how the two sides can find a middle ground.”

Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Minister Narendra Singh Tomar and Trade Minister Piyush Goyal have started discussions with nearly three dozen farmers’ representatives, a government official said.

Representatives of various farmers organizations arrive for talks with the government representatives in New Delhi [Manish Swarup/AP Photo]

“We expect the government to pay heed to our demands to repeal the laws detrimental to India’s farming community,” said Joginder Singh Ugrahan, a prominent farmers’ leader.

Earlier on Thursday, Amarinder Singh, the chief minister of Punjab state, from where a large number of the protesters are from, met Home Affairs Minister Amit Shah in the capital.

“Discussion is going on between farmers and centre, there’s nothing for me to resolve. I reiterated my opposition in my meeting with the home minister and requested him to resolve the issue as it affects the economy of my state and security of the nation,” Singh was quoted as saying by the ANI news agency.

Modi’s government has defended the bill and several hours of talks between farmers’ leaders and the government on Tuesday failed to break the impasse.

“We humbly request you to pay heed to the voice of farmers and withdraw completely the implementation of these Acts,” Avik Saha, another farmers’ leader said in a letter written to the agriculture minister on Thursday.

“The issue is not about one particular clause, but about the direction in which the government of India is pushing farming in India,” Saha wrote.

Farm groups say the government is trying to end a decades-old policy of providing them with an assured minimum price for producing staples, such as wheat and rice.

Meanwhile, former Punjab Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal, who was an ally of Modi’s governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) until September, has returned his Padma Vibhushan – the country’s second-highest civilian award – to protest against “the betrayal of the farmers” by the government.

Badal’s Shiromani Akali Dal party broke its alliance with the BJP after the farm laws were passed in September.

“Now we have had around 150 athletes, including Olympic gold medalists, saying they are going to go to the presidential building on Saturday to return their national awards again in solidarity with the farmers,” Al Jazeera’s Puranam said.


PAKISTAN – Pakistan sentences three top JuD leaders for ‘terror financing’ (Asad Hashim, Al Jazeera)

A Pakistani anti-terrorism court has convicted three top Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) leaders on terrorism-financing charges, a senior prosecutor says, as the country continues to crack down on armed groups operating on its soil.

Jamaat-ud-Dawa, a humanitarian relief and religious education organisation operating across the country has been designated a front for the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) armed group by Pakistan’s government and the United Nations and has come under increasing scrutiny in Pakistan since 2018.

The three leaders, including deputy JuD chief Abdul Rehman Makki, head of fundraising Zafar Iqbal and media chief Yahya Mujahid, were convicted by a court in the eastern city of Lahore on Wednesday, prosecutor Abdul Rauf Wattoo told Al Jazeera.

“They have all three been convicted, all on charges of terrorism financing,” he said.

Iqbal and Mujahid were given prison terms of 15 and a half years each, while Makki was sentenced to six months in prison. All three remain in custody, with several other terrorism-funding cases pending against them, Wattoo said.

LeT is believed to have carried out the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which killed more than 160 people in coordinated gun and bomb attacks singling out hotels and public places in the Indian commercial capital.

Makki is the group’s deputy leader and is wanted by the United States in connection with that attack, with the US Treasury offering a $2m bounty for his capture.

Iqbal and Mujahid are both subject to United Nations sanctions for their affiliation with LeT and JuD.

Anti-terrorism financing infrastructure

Iqbal was a co-founder of LeT in the 1980s alongside Hafiz Muhammad Saeed, the group’s chief, who is also serving a prison sentence in Pakistan on terrorism-financing charges.

Iqbal has played a prominent role in JeD, fundraising and recruiting since 2008, according to the UN’s sanctions summary on his case.

Mujahid, meanwhile, has risen through the ranks in JuD, playing a prominent leadership role in the group alongside Saeed.

“Mujahid has issued statements to the press on behalf of the organisation on numerous occasions, including after the December 2001 LeT attacks on the Indian Parliament, and following the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India,” reads the UN sanctions summary on Mujahid.

Pakistan has stepped up arrests and prosecutions on terrorism-financing charges after revamping its anti-money laundering and anti-terrorism financing infrastructure in coordination with the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), an intergovernmental body that “grey-listed” the country in 2018 for non-compliance with international regulations.

In October, FATF noted that Pakistan had made “significant progress” in revamping its systems to deal with such crimes.

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