NGOs Call for Action After Killing of Bangladesh Union Activist

Human Rights Watch and global workers’ rights organizations have intensified a call for action after the June killing of Bangladeshi union activist Shahidul Islam, urging the government to thoroughly investigate the death.

Islam, 45, a longtime Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation labor organizer, was beaten to death in Gazipur, a major garment industry hub on the outskirts of Dhaka. At the time, he was trying to intervene on behalf of workers in a factory dispute over unpaid wages. Colleagues allege he was killed by factory-hired goons.

“The motive was to prevent him from speaking on behalf of workers so that the factory management could get rid of him and not pay the workers,” union president Kalpona Akter told VOA.

Akter filed a police complaint. The Industrial Police Unit is currently investigating the case and has made a few arrests but has yet to file any charges.

An officer who is investigating the incident would not comment when contacted by VOA in early September, saying the case was still “being investigated.”

Akter said Islam was a target of threats and assaults by factory owners and law enforcement authorities in the past because of his labor rights work.

The Bangladesh government has a history of cracking down on trade union activists in the garment industry, and putting them behind bars, a move that has been criticized by human rights groups.

“Bangladesh authorities should ensure that an independent and thorough investigation is conducted to hold accountable all those involved in directing, planning, and executing the attack,” Human Rights Watch said in a September 14 statement.

Activists from Clean Clothes Campaign, a Netherlands-based workers’ rights organization, protested in Amsterdam last month at a Bangladesh garment industry exhibition to urge the Bangladeshi government, the employers’ association, and brands sourcing from Bangladesh to take immediate action regarding Islam’s killing.

Activists also demanded safeguards for the right to organize, and a new minimum wage in line with workers’ demands in Bangladesh.

Difficulties organizing

Labor activists say Bangladeshi factory owners block workers from forming unions, despite laws that in theory allow workers to organize.

Bangladeshi law requires at least 20% of a factory’s workforce in a factory to sign a petition if they want to form a union. However, union organizer Dolly Akhtar in Gazipur, told VOA that once signature collection starts, “the factory management finds out pretty soon, and they try everything in their power to foil the attempt to form a union in their factory.”

Factory owners commonly threaten workers and organizers with dismissal and blacklisting if they attempt to unionize, Akhtar said.

“I’ve received countless written and verbal threats for trying to organize workers and demand due payments, severances and better working conditions,” she said. “The factory authorities often use the thugs and goons, local political leaders to intimidate me. They have money and the means to make anyone dance to their tune. They filed bogus cases against me, and local goons stopped me on the road to threaten me at night when I come back home. Because I am a woman they think I’ll get scared easily,” Akhtar said.

Additionally, government bureaucracy and red tape remain significant obstacles to union formation. The law requires a lengthy and complex registration process, which can drag on for months or years.

As a result, only a small percentage of garment workers in Bangladesh, about 7%, are union members, according to a 2020 Cornell University report.

Workers’ rights groups have been advocating reforms to give workers more power and protect union organizers for a long time.

“It’s crucial to prioritize the safety of these dedicated organizers because they are the backbone of the labor movement. Their safety ensures the continued empowerment of workers and the protection of their rights. Without secure and protected organizers, the struggle for fair labor practices and workers’ rights would be significantly hampered,” said Sarwer Hossain, a grassroots union organizer in Savar of Bangladesh Textile and Garment Workers League.

Christie Miedema of Clean Clothes Campaign called on international brands to ensure that the factories they use follow ethical labor standards.

“It is of utmost importance that the government, factories and brands create an enabling environment for independent organizing – lowering hurdles for independent unions to register, allowing access to workers to independent union organizers, and for brands to clearly signal to factories that they value freedom to organize and to stop the downward price pressure,” Miedema told VOA through an email.

VOA contacted Bangladesh’s Ministry of Labor and Employment and its Department of Labor but was unable to obtain a comment.

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Climate Change, Poor Planning Make India’s Monsoon Season Devastating

Sanjay Chauhan witnessed monsoon rains lash down over his home and farm in the Indian Himalayas this year with a magnitude and intensity he’s never experienced before.

“Buildings have collapsed, roads are broken, there were so many landslides including one that has destroyed a large part of my orchard,” said the 56-year-old farmer, who lives in the town of Shimla in Himachal Pradesh. “I have not seen anything like this.”

The devastation of this year’s monsoon season in India, which runs from June to September, has been significant: Local government estimates say that 428 people have died and Himachal Pradesh suffered over $1.42 billion worth in property damage since June.

Human-caused climate change is making rain more extreme in the region and scientists warn Himalayan states should expect more unpredictable and heavy seasons like this one. But the damage is also exacerbated by developers paying little mind to environmental regulations and building codes when building on flood- and earthquake-prone land, local experts and environmentalists say.

Damages to property in Himachal Pradesh this year were more than the last five years combined. Other regions also suffered heavy losses in terms of lives, property and farmland — including the neighboring state of Uttarakhand, Delhi and most northern and western Indian states.

In the second week of July, 22.4 centimeters of rainfall descended on the state instead of the usual 4.2 centimeters for this time of the year — a 431% increase — according to the Indian Meteorological Department. Then for five days in August, 11.2 centimeters poured down on Himachal Pradesh, 168% more than the 4.2 centimeters it would typically receive in that timeframe.

The rainfall spurred hundreds of landslides, with overflowing rivers sweeping vehicles away and collapsing multiple buildings, many of them recently constructed hotels. Key highways were submerged or destroyed and all schools in the region were shut. Around 300 tourists stranded near the high altitude lake of Chandratal had to be airlifted to safety by the Indian Air Force.

Jakob Steiner, a climate scientist with the International Center for Integrated Mountain Development, said rising global temperatures from human-caused climate change means more water evaporates in the heat which is then dumped in heavy rainfall events.

And when all the water pours in one place, it means other regions are starved of rain.

In the south of the country, rain was so rare that the region had its driest monsoon season since 1901, the IMD said. The government of Karnataka in southern India declared drought conditions in most of the state.

Climate change compounds the phenomenon of weather extremes, said Anjal Prakash, a research director at the Indian School of Business, with both droughts and deluges expected to intensify as the world warms.

In the Himalayas, the problem of climate changed-boosted rain is worsened by unregulated development and years of devastation piling up with little time to adapt or fix the damage in between.

“Roads, dams and settlements have been built without proper environmental assessments or following building codes,” said Prakash. Unregulated development has also led to increased soil erosion and disrupted natural drainage systems, he said.

Y.P. Sundarial, a geologist with Uttarakhand-based HNB Garhwal University, agrees.

“People here are building six-floor buildings on slopes as steep as 45 degrees” in a region that is both flood and earthquake prone, Sundarial said. “We need to make sure development policies keep the sensitiveness of Himalayas in mind to avoid such damage in the future.”

When these structures almost inevitably topple year after year during monsoon rains, it creates a “cumulative impact” said local environmentalist Mansi Asher, meaning residents are now living with years of unaddressed devastation.

Ten years ago, an estimated 6,000 people died in flash floods caused by a cloudburst in Uttarakhand which destroyed hundreds of villages; between 2017 and 2022, around 1,500 people died in Himachal Pradesh from extreme rain-related incidents; and earlier this year at least 240 families were relocated away from the religious town of Joshimath after the ground caved in from over construction despite warnings from scientists.

Governments on the state and national level have been looking at how to address the destruction.

Himachal Pradesh’s government announced a $106 million disaster risk reduction and preparedness program with support from the French Development Agency this year to strengthen its response to extreme rainfall.

The state also published a comprehensive climate action plan in 2022 but many of the plan’s recommendations, such as creating a fund to research climate challenges or helping farmers in the region adapt to changing weather conditions, have not yet been implemented.

The Indian federal government meanwhile has set an ambitious target of producing 500 gigawatts of clean energy by 2030 and has installed 172 gigawatts as of March this year. India is currently one of the world’s largest emitters. The country also created a national adaptation fund for climate change, releasing just over $72 million for various projects since 2015.

But these initiatives are too little, too late for apple farmer Chauhan and others picking up the pieces after an especially catastrophic monsoon season.

Chauhan, who’s also the former mayor of Shimla, wants to see a firm plan that addresses climate change in the face of the region’s growing population and development needs.

“Those in power really need to step up,” he said.

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Afghan Embassy Closes in India , Citing Lack of Support

The Afghan Embassy said it is closing in New Delhi from Sunday due to a lack of diplomatic support in India and the absence of a recognized government in Kabul.

But it will continue to provide emergency consular services to Afghan nationals, it said in a statement.

“There has been a significant reduction in both personnel and resources available to us, making it increasingly challenging to continue operations,” the statement said.

India has not recognized the Taliban government, which seized power in Afghanistan in August 2021. It evacuated its own staff from Kabul ahead of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan two years ago and no longer has a diplomatic presence there.

The Afghan Embassy in New Delhi has been run by staff appointed by the previous government of ousted Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, with permission from the Indian authorities.

There was no immediate comment by India’s External Affairs Ministry, but an official said last week that the Afghan ambassador left India several months ago and other Afghan diplomats have departed for third countries reportedly after receiving asylum.

India has said it will follow the lead of the United Nations in deciding whether to recognize the Taliban government.

The Afghan Embassy statement said that it wanted to reach an agreement with the Indian government to ensure that the interests of Afghans living, working, studying and doing business in India are safeguarded.

Afghans account for around one-third of the nearly 40,000 refugees registered in India, according to the U.N. refugee agency. But that figure excludes those who are not registered with the U.N.

Last year, India sent relief materials, including wheat, medicine, COVID-19 vaccines and winter clothes to Afghanistan to help with shortages there.

In June last year, India sent a team of officials to its embassy in Kabul.

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Canada’s Sikhs Grateful, and Afraid, After Trudeau’s India Allegations

Canadian Sikhs are grateful to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for giving voice to their fears and standing up to India at the risk of a severe backlash from New Delhi, which he said could be linked to the killing of a Sikh separatist leader.

The Indian government considered Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen who was shot to death in June in British Columbia, a terrorist because of his advocacy for Khalistan, an independent Sikh state.

India forcefully denied its involvement in Nijjar’s slaying, which took place in the parking lot of a Sikh temple in Surrey, B.C. But Canadian Sikhs are unconvinced, and the minority who are active proponents of Khalistan are afraid.

“There’s a lot of fear,” said Sentokh Singh, who was among the small group who protested in front of the Indian High Commission in Ottawa this week. “That’s why we are here today.”

Both countries expelled diplomats in a tit-for-tat retaliation after Trudeau’s bombshell announcement last week, but India has gone further, issuing a travel warning and halting visa issuance to Canadians.

Trudeau’s move risks derailing a strategic economic and political shift many Western countries are making toward India to counter China. It also distracted attention from his push to address cost-of-living concerns, which have weighed heavily on his popularity in opinion polls.

Canada is home to about 770,000 Sikhs, the highest population outside the northern Indian state of Punjab, and the Indian government has for decades expressed its displeasure with some community members’ outspoken support for Khalistan.

Sikhs punch above their weight in Canadian politics. They have 15 members in the House of Commons, more than 4% of the seats, mostly from key battlegrounds in national elections, while comprising only about 2% of the Canadian population.

Furthermore, one member is Jagmeet Singh, leader of the opposition New Democrats, a left-leaning party that is supporting the Trudeau’s minority government.

Trudeau’s “unsubstantiated allegations” seek to shift focus away from “Khalistani terrorists and extremists who have been provided shelter in Canada,” India’s foreign ministry said.

Canada says Sikhs have a right to peaceful protest and there has been no evidence of violence, terrorist activity or wrongdoing.

A friend of Nijjar’s, Gurmeet Singh Toor, is an active member of the same temple and a Khalistan supporter. He was told in August by the federal police that his life might be “in peril,” according to a document he was given by police that provided no details about the potential threat.

The RCMP would not corroborate the document, saying it could increase the risk to the individual who received it.

An insurgency seeking a Sikh homeland of Khalistan killed tens of thousands in the 1980s and 1990s and was crushed by India. It has almost no support in Punjab today.

However, on Friday hundreds of Sikh activists staged a demonstration outside the Golden Temple in Amritsar, in Punjab, demanding punishment for the Nijjar’s killers.

Mukhbir Singh, a member of the Ottawa Sikh Society, said Canadian Sikhs’ views on Khalistan vary and everyone should be able to express their own opinion. He said Trudeau is sticking up for Canadian democratic values.

“Prime Minister Trudeau has taken a stance” to make “paramount” the safety of its citizens, he said, even though the Canadian government does not support Khalistan. “In Canada, we have the right to express our opinions even if they don’t align with the opinions of the government.”

Trudeau, the longest serving progressive leader in the G7 group of wealthy nations, is trailing badly in opinion polls. As he rolls out a series of measures to address cost-of-living concerns and tries to claw back support, the tensions with India have interfered with attempts to communicate those new policies, senior officials in Ottawa said.

Suk Dhaliwal, a Sikh Liberal member of parliament for Surrey, told Reuters he is not a Khalistan separatist, but a Canadian, and Canadians have a right to protest peacefully. He said his constituents have suspected since June the involvement of the Indian government in Nijjar’s killing.

“The community feels a bit relieved now that at least there is someone who has shown leadership to bring this message forward,” Dhaliwal said.

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Maldives Opposition Candidate Mohamed Muiz Wins the Presidential Runoff, Local Media Say

Opposition candidate Mohamed Muiz won the Maldives presidential runoff on Saturday, securing more than 53% of the vote, local media reported.

The election had turned into a virtual referendum on which regional power — India or China — will have the biggest influence in the Indian Ocean archipelago nation.

Mihaaru News reported that incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih had received 46% of the vote and that Muiz had won by more than 18,000 votes. Official results were expected Sunday.

“With today’s result we have got the opportunity to build the country’s future. The strength to ensure the freedom of Maldives,” Muiz said in a statement after his victory. “It’s time we put our differences aside and come together. We need to be a peaceful society.”

Muiz also requested that Solih transfer former president Abdulla Yameen to house arrest from prison.

It was a surprise win for Muiz, who entered the fray as an underdog. He was named only as a fallback candidate closer to the nomination deadline after the Supreme Court prevented Yameen from running because he is serving a prison sentence for money laundering and corruption. Yameen’s supporters say he’s been jailed for political reasons.

“Today’s result is a reflection of the patriotism of our people. A call on all our neighbors and bilateral partners to fully respect our independence and sovereignty,” said Mohamed Shareef, a top official of Muiz’s party. He told The Associated Press that it was also a mandate for Muiz to resurrect the economy and for Yameen’s release.

Neither Muiz nor Solih got more than 50% in the first round of voting earlier in September.

Solih, who was elected president in 2018, was battling allegations by Muiz that he had allowed India an unchecked presence in the country. Muiz’s party, the People’s National Congress, is viewed as heavily pro-China.

Solih has insisted that the Indian military’s presence in the Maldives was only to build a dockyard under an agreement between the two governments and that his country’s sovereignty won’t be violated.

Muiz promised that if he won the presidency, he would remove Indian troops from the Maldives and balance the country’s trade relations, which he said were heavily in India’s favor.

Ahmed Shaheed, a former foreign minister of Maldives, termed the election verdict as a public revolt against the government’s failure to meet economic and governance expectations rather than concerns over Indian influence.

“I don’t think India was at all in the people’s minds,” Saheed said.

An engineer, Muiz had served as the housing minister for seven years. He was mayor of Male, the capital, when he was chosen to run for president.

Solih suffered a setback closer to the election when Mohamed Nasheed, a charismatic former president, broke away from his Maldivian Democratic Party and fielded his own candidate in the first round. He decided to remain neutral in the second round.

“Nasheed’s departure took the motherboard away from the MDP,” Shaheed said.

Yameen, leader of the People’s National Congress, made the Maldives a part of China’s Belt and Road initiative during his presidency from 2013-18. The initiative is meant to build railroads, ports and highways to expand trade — and China’s influence — across Asia, Africa and Europe.

Despite the rhetoric, Muiz is unlikely to change the foreign policy of affording an important place to India — rather, opposition to Chinese projects is likely to lessen, evening power balances out, Shaheed said.

The Maldives is made up of 1,200 coral islands in the Indian Ocean located by the main shipping route between the East and the West.

“These five years have been the most peaceful and prosperous five years we’ve ever seen. We have had political peace, opposition candidates are not jailed every day,” said Abdul Muhusin, who said he voted for Solih in the runoff on Saturday.

Another voter, Saeedh Hussein, said he chose Muiz because “I want the Indian military to leave Maldives.”

“I don’t believe the Maldivian military has any control. Only Muiz can change these things and make the Indian military leave Maldives,” he said.

There were more than 282,000 eligible voters and turnout was 78% an hour before the polling stations closed.

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India’s Monsoon Rains at 5-Year Low Due to El Nino

India’s monsoon rainfall this year was its lowest since 2018 as the El Nino weather pattern made August the driest in more than a century, the state-run weather department said Saturday. 

The monsoon, which is vital for India’s $3 trillion economy, brings nearly 70% of the rain the country needs to water crops and replenish reservoirs and aquifers.  

Nearly half of the farmland in the world’s most populous nation lacks irrigation, making the monsoon rains even more vital for agricultural production. 

The summer rainfall deficit could make staples such as sugar, pulses, rice and vegetables more expensive and lift overall food inflation. 

Lower production could also prompt India, the world’s second-biggest producer of rice, wheat, and sugar, to impose more curbs on exports of these commodities. 

Rainfall over the country during June to September was 94% of its long period average, the lowest since 2018, the India Meteorological Department (IMD) said in a statement. 

The IMD had anticipated a rainfall deficit of 4% for the season, assuming limited impact from El Nino. 

El Nino is a warming of Pacific waters that is typically accompanied by drier conditions over the Indian subcontinent. 

The monsoon was uneven, with June rains 9% below average because of the delay in the arrival of rains, but July rains rebounding to 13% above average.  

August was the driest month on record with a 36% deficit, but again in September rainfall revived and the country received 13% more rainfall than normal, the IMD said.  

The erratic distribution of monsoon rains has led India, the world’s largest rice exporter, to limit rice shipments, impose a 40% duty on onion exports, permit duty-free imports of pulses, and could potentially result in New Delhi banning sugar exports. 

The country is expected to receive normal rainfall from October to December, the weather department said, adding that temperatures were likely to remain above normal in most of the country during October. 

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Report: Surge in Terrorism Kills More Than 700 Pakistanis

Militant attacks have surged in Pakistan, killing more than 700 security forces and civilians in the first nine months of the year, according to a report released Saturday.

The Islamabad-based independent Center for Research and Security Studies, or CRSS, published the report a day after suicide bombings and insurgent raids in southwestern Baluchistan and northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces killed at least 69 people. No group has claimed responsibility for Friday’s deadly violence.

The report noted that the number of fatalities from terrorist attacks this year has increased by 19 percent compared to 2022, with the two Pakistani provinces bordering Afghanistan suffering 92% of all fatalities.

“Pakistan’s security forces lost at least 386 personnel, 36% of all fatalities — including 137 army and 208 police personnel — in the first nine months of 2023, marking an eight-year high,” the CRSS said.

The report said 33 paramilitary forces, supervised by the army, also were among the fatalities.

The military, however, has confirmed the death of 214 of its soldiers and officers so far this year in counterterrorism operations and insurgent attacks, according to data compiled by VOA from official statements by the army’s media wing, Inter-Services Public Relations.

Deadly day

Friday’s attacks marked one of the deadliest days Pakistan has had in recent months. Most of the casualties occurred in Mastung, a volatile Baluchistan district, where a suicide bomber blew himself up in a crowd of devotees marking the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad.

The powerful blast killed 59 people and injured dozens more. The rest of the deadly violence took place in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, targeting security forces.

The outlawed Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, the regional branch of the Islamic State terrorist group, known as the Islamic State-Khorasan, or IS-K, and separatist Baluch insurgents often claim or are blamed for the violence in Pakistan.

TTP claims many attacks

The TTP, a globally designated terrorist group, has primarily claimed recent attacks in Pakistan, targeting soldiers and police personnel. The group operates out of Afghanistan and has intensified attacks since the Taliban reclaimed control of the war-shattered neighboring country two years ago, according to Pakistani officials.

Commonly known as the Pakistani Taliban, the TTP is an offshoot and close ally of the Afghan Taliban. However, de facto Afghan rulers maintain they do not allow anyone to threaten Pakistan or other countries from their soil.

Islamabad has lately stepped-up diplomatic pressure on Kabul to prevent the TTP from staging cross-border terrorist attacks from Afghan sanctuaries.

Earlier this week, Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani confirmed that Taliban authorities had arrested 200 TTP militants in Afghanistan for launching attacks against Pakistan. The Afghan side has so far not challenged the claims.

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Maldivians Vote in Runoff Presidential Election

Maldivians were voting Saturday in the runoff presidential election which has turned into a virtual referendum on which regional power — India or China — will have the biggest influence in the Indian Ocean archipelago nation.

Neither main opposition candidate Mohamed Muiz nor incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih got more than 50% in the first round of voting earlier in September, triggering a runoff election.

Solih, who was first elected president in 2018, is battling allegations by Muiz that he had allowed India an unchecked presence in the country. Muiz’s party, the People’s National Congress, is viewed as heavily pro-China.

Muiz secured a surprise lead with more than 46% of votes in the first round, while Solih secured 39% votes.

Abdullah Yameen, leader of the People’s National Congress, made the Maldives a part of China’s Belt and Road initiative during his presidency 2013 to 2018. The initiative is meant to build railroads, ports and highways to expand trade — and China’s influence — across Asia, Africa and Europe.

The Maldives is made up of 1,200 coral islands in the Indian Ocean located by the main shipping route between the East and the West.

Muiz promised that if he won the presidency, he would remove Indian troops stationed in the Maldives and balance the country’s trade relations, which he said were heavily in India’s favor.

There are more than 282,000 eligible voters and the runoff result is expected Sunday.

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India Ready to Welcome Back Cricket World Cup After 12 Years

When 2019 finalists England and New Zealand meet again to open the Cricket World Cup next week, it will mark the tournament’s return to India after 12 years.

But preparations for this year’s tournament — in which the home side will start among the favorites and won the event when it was last played in India in 2011 — haven’t gone smoothly.

The event experienced numerous organizational and planning issues which the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the host body, often had difficulties dealing with them.

The 13th edition of the tournament was first scheduled for February-March 2023, but it was delayed to its current Oct. 5-Nov. 19 schedule after the COVID-19 pandemic caused a ripple effect for the hosting of 2021 and 2022 Twenty20 World Cups.

In the meantime, the BCCI delayed formalizing tax agreements with the Indian government — an issue that had plagued the 2011 ODI and the 2016 T20 World Cups, both hosted in India.

The International Cricket Council (ICC) usually receives a tax exemption benefit for its events, but that is in contravention of Indian laws. In March, the BCCI told he ICC that it would cover about $116 million in taxes out of its own pocket in lieu of the tax exemption from the Indian government.

It was, however, only the first of several stumbling blocks.

Most ICC event schedules are announced a year in advance. The BCCI only announced the World Cup scheduling on June 27. A month later, the original scheduling ran into problems when Ahmedabad police said they was unable to provide ample security for the high-profile India-Pakistan match on Oct. 15 because of already-planned festivities in the western India city.

The BCCI had to rework the schedule and a final version was released on Aug. 9 with the big India-Pakistan match now scheduled a day earlier on Oct. 14.

That caused further issues for ticketing and travel arrangements for fans across the world. Even before the final scheduling had been announced, hotel prices and airfares in major host cities shot up to exorbitant rates.

Ticketing has been another major issue in the build-up to this World Cup. After the scheduling was finally announced, tickets first went on sale as late as Aug. 30. Despite the staggered sale of tickets, Indian fans complained, and the BCCI released another 400,000 tickets to the general public on Sept. 6 in the second phase of ticketing.

BCCI secretary Jay Shah defended his group’s actions over the past few months.

“The scale and diversity of India require meticulous planning, coordination, and execution to ensure the tournament’s success and seamless experience for players, fans, and stakeholders,” Shah said in a statement.

With less than a week to go before the opening match, the tempo has gradually built up as fervent cricket loyalists in India — and there are millions— get ready to welcome the 10 teams.

All eyes will be on Rohit Sharma’s India as they look to emulate M.S. Dhoni’s team’s feat of winning the World Cup at home. India hasn’t won an ICC event since the 2013 Champions Trophy, and the 2011 triumph remains its last World Cup trophy.

Defending champion England and record five-time winners Australia, who play India in its first match on Oct. 8 in Chennai, are the other top contenders for the title.

Regional foe Pakistan’s challenge depends on the form and fitness of two players — skipper Babar Azam and pacer Shaheen Afridi. Pacer Naseem Shah has been ruled out of the World Cup due to a right shoulder injury.

Sri Lanka punched above its weight to reach the Asia Cup final. New Zealand — which lost to England in a controversial boundary countback in the 2019 final — South Africa, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and the Netherlands complete the 10-team lineup which will be expanded to 14 teams for the next Cricket World Cup in October-November 2027 co-hosted by South Africa, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

The round-robin format sees all 10 teams play each other once in a single group (45 matches). The top four teams advance to the semifinals on Nov. 16 and 17. The final is scheduled for Nov. 19.

In between, Sharma will try not to let the home-crowd hype get to him, although that might be easier said than done.

“For me, it is important how to keep relaxed and not worry about external factors that play a role, whether positively or negatively,” Sharma said. “It is about shutting out everything.”

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Appointment of Ambassador Signals China’s Ambition in Afghanistan, Experts Say

Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi attended talks Friday in the Russian city of Kazan, where he praised China for sending a new ambassador to Afghanistan and urged other countries to follow China’s example.

The newly appointed Chinese ambassador to Kabul signals China’s continued interest in Afghanistan, analysts say.

The Taliban’s deputy prime minister, Abdul Salam Hanafi, said the new development “will play an effective role in strengthening the relations between Afghanistan and China.”

During a meeting in Kabul last week, Hanafi and Chinese Ambassador Zhao Xing “exchanged views on enhancing bilateral relations and expanding practical cooperation,” stated the website of the Chinese Embassy in Afghanistan.

China’s ambassador is the first of any country to be appointed in this role since the Taliban takeover in 2021.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the appointment was “the normal rotation of China’s ambassador to Afghanistan” and Chinese policy is “clear and consistent.”

However, experts say the move signals China’s expanding influence in Afghanistan and the region.

By sending an ambassador to Afghanistan, China aims to “maintain and expand its influence” in the region, said Claire Chao, an analyst at The Asia Group. “China sees its long-term security and economic goals in Afghanistan hinge on security and stability in Afghanistan.”

Chao told VOA that China “knows that it needs to take a more active role to secure its interests,” though Beijing “will be careful about its economic involvement and security commitment in Afghanistan.”

China is one of the few countries that handed over the Afghan Embassy on its soil to the Taliban after the former government in Afghanistan collapsed in 2021.

China also kept open its embassy in Afghanistan after the Taliban takeover, but it has not yet recognized the group’s de facto government. No country has formally recognized the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

China-Taliban relations

Officially, Beijing says it “hopes” that the Taliban will form an inclusive government, while it has called on the international community and regional countries for “coordination on the Afghan issue.”

A Chinese ambassador in Afghanistan “should not be seen as an immediate formal recognition of the Taliban government by China but rather indicates China’s intent to sustain diplomatic ties with the Taliban,” Chao said.

Considering it “a step towards recognition,” Afghan political analyst Haidar Adal, told VOA that the appointment at the ambassadorial level will not only help China expand its influence but also “boost” the Taliban’s position.

“It increases their [the Taliban’s] self-confidence, and they can now claim that ‘our relations have developed up to the level of ambassadors.’ They can say that their diplomacy is working.”

Human rights concerns

Adal added this “will make it more difficult for the international community to put pressure on the Taliban to respect the human rights, particularly women’s rights, in Afghanistan.”

“And those who suffer would be the people of Afghanistan, particularly,” he said.

The international community has called on the Taliban to honor their commitment to respecting women’s fundamental rights in Afghanistan before any talks about the recognition of their regime in Afghanistan.

Since coming to power in August 2021, the Taliban have imposed repressive measures on the women in the country. Women under the Taliban are not allowed to work, get secondary and university education or travel long distances without a close male relative.

Palwasha Hassan, a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security, told VOA that China’s move is concerning, but “does not surprise” her as “China’s priorities are not the human rights condition but security and economic considerations.”

“For China, security is more important. It wants the Taliban to curb militants who could cause problems in China,” said Hassan. “The economy is important too for China. These are the important issues, not human rights.” 

China is concerned about the presence in China of Uyghur separatists “who are trying to fight for the independence of Xinjiang in China,” said Barnett Rubin, a former State Department official.

He added that Beijing engaged with the Taliban to “pressure them to hand [Uyghur militants] over to China,” but the Taliban “have moved them away from the Chinese border.”

Rubin told VOA that the Taliban have also kept their ties with other extremist organizations, including Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, which is accused of several deadly attacks on Chinese interests in Pakistan.

The Taliban, however, have said they will not allow any militant groups to use Afghanistan’s soil against any country.

Chinese investments

Although China prioritizes security, it agreed in May to expand the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to Afghanistan, a $60 billion connectivity project that is part of China’s globe-spanning Belt and Road Initiative.

Some Chinese companies have recently shown interest in investing in Afghanistan.

In July, officials of Fan China Afghan Mining Processing and Trading Company announced an investment of $350 million in various sectors.

Earlier in January, the Taliban signed a contract with Xinjiang Central Asia Petroleum and Gas Company to extract oil in the north of the country by investing $150 million annually.

A Chinese company, Metallurgical Corporation of China, which signed a contract with the then-Afghan government in 2008 to extract copper from the Mes Aynak mine in the Logar province, has met with Taliban officials in recent months on how to start the extraction of the mine.

But the work has not yet started.

Rubin said although the Taliban hope China will invest in larger projects, the conditions “for a huge investment simply do not exist in Afghanistan.”

“The expectation that they [China] would come in with big projects and do a lot, I think was much exaggerated,” Rubin said.

This story originated in VOA’s Afghan Service.

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US Company Pays Hundreds of Millions After Alleged Bribery in Asia   

American chemical manufacturer Albemarle Corporation has agreed to pay more than $218 million to settle allegations of bribing officials at state oil refineries in three Asian countries, the U.S. Justice Department announced Friday.

The North Carolina company admitted to using “third-party sales agents” and foreign employees to bribe officials to win contracts with state refineries in India, Indonesia and Vietnam, the department said.

The department said Albemarle received nearly $100 million in profits from the corrupt scheme.

Under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in the United States, it is illegal to bribe any foreign official in exchange for obtaining or retaining business. The FCPA is the main tool enforcement agencies use to police foreign bribery.

Both the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission, the financial oversight body, were investigating the company for FCPA violations in connection with the bribery scheme.

“Corruption has no borders, but neither does justice,” Dena J. King, U.S. attorney for the Western District of North Carolina, said in a statement. “Companies are expected to adhere to the same ethical and legal standards whether they are doing business on U.S. soil or overseas.”

The Justice Department said it entered into a three-year nonprosecution agreement with Albemarle after the company voluntarily disclosed the alleged bribery to U.S. prosecutors.

Under a nonprosecution agreement, the Justice Department agrees not to prosecute a company in exchange for cooperation, payment of a fine and compliance with other requirements.

A spokesperson for Albemarle did not immediately return a request for comment.

According to the company’s admissions in connection with the settlement, the alleged bribery took place between 2009 and 2017, the Justice Department said.

In India, Albemarle used a third-party intermediary to do business with the country’s state-owned oil company by avoiding a blacklisting.

In Indonesia, the company enlisted another intermediary to do business with the state refinery even after being told Indonesian officials would have to be paid bribes.

And in Vietnam, Albemarle obtained contracts at two state-owned oil refineries through an intermediary sales agent, who requested increased commissions to pay bribes to officials.

As part of the nonprosecution agreement with the Justice Department, Albemarle agreed to pay a penalty of about $98 million and administrative forfeiture of about $99 million.  The Justice Department said it would credit about $82 million of the forfeiture to the SEC.

King said the agreement with Albemarle “underscores our commitment to fight corruption affecting the United States no matter where it occurs.”

Under the Biden administration, the Justice Department has prioritized fighting corporate corruption, announcing several major changes to beef up enforcement policies and practices.

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At Least 47 Dead in Bombing of Pakistan Religious Rally

At least 47 people were killed and 66 injured in southwestern Pakistan Friday when a suspected suicide bomb blast ripped through a religious procession.

The attack near a mosque in Mastung, a volatile district in Baluchistan province, targeted a rally of Muslim devotees marking the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, witnesses said.

Abdul Razaq, the district deputy commissioner, confirmed the casualties, saying a top police officer was also among the dead. He told reporters that several injured had received severe injuries.

Pakistani Interior Minister Sarfaraz Ahmed Bugti condemned the deadly violence against innocent devotees, saying that “terrorists have no faith or religion.”

No group immediately claimed responsibility for the violence in a district where militants linked to a regional affiliate of the Islamic State group, Islamic State-Khorasan, or IS-K, are active.

Earlier this month, a roadside bomb explosion in Mastung injured 11 people, including a senior religious party leader, with IS-K claiming responsibility. That attack occurred a day after Pakistani security forces announced the killing of key IS-K commanders in a district counterterrorism raid.

Meanwhile, police in northwestern Pakistan said a twin suicide bomb attack on a mosque inside a district police headquarters during Friday afternoon prayers killed five worshippers and injured 12 others.

A suicide bomber blew himself up at the entrance to the compound while another detonated explosives strapped to his body inside the main prayer hall, police said.

Nisar Ahmed, the Hangu district police chief, told reporters that the mosque’s roof caved in because of the impact of the blast, trapping up to 40 people under the rubble. He said rescue efforts were underway to retrieve the victims.

Separately, the Pakistani military said Friday that an overnight shootout with “terrorists” near the Afghan border had killed four soldiers.

The clashes erupted when militants linked to the outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, attempted to “infiltrate from Afghanistan into Pakistan” in the Zhob district of Baluchistan, the military’s media wing said. It added that the exchange of fire had also killed three militants and wounded several others.

TTP, a globally declared terrorist group, operates out of sanctuaries on the Afghan side of the border and has killed hundreds of Pakistani security forces in bomb and gun raids this year.

The TTP said in a statement sent to media that it was not behind the bombings in Mastung and Hangu.

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Afghan Women Defy Taliban, Will Participate in Asian Games

Exiled Afghan female athletes are participating in the 2023 Asian Games in Hangzhou, China, which end Oct. 8. They say they want to raise awareness of the plight of women in Afghanistan, who are barred from playing any sports in the country. Waheed Faizi has the story, narrated by Elizabeth Cherneff.

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Taliban Undertake Speedy Overhaul of Afghanistan’s Justice System

In cities and villages across Afghanistan, men with no formal legal training but with membership in the Taliban and a rudimentary grasp of 8th-century Islamic jurisprudence wield unprecedented power over the fate of defendants and the resolution of civil disputes.

Under this summary judicial system, most cases are resolved swiftly, often receiving a verdict on the very first appearance before a tribunal. Plaintiffs and defendants make brief presentations, and a judgment is rendered.

Even in the most serious criminal cases, the absence of prosecutors investigating and presenting the facts to a jury or court means that thorough judgments are a rarity.

The Taliban dismantled Afghanistan’s attorney-general office in 2021, deeming it an unnecessary bureaucratic appendage that fostered corruption and inefficiency.

Under the new system, every aspect — from assigning cases to charging and sentencing — must be carried out in the presence of a judge without the involvement of public prosecutors, according to Abdul Malik Haqqani, the Taliban’s deputy chief justice.

“A judge cannot base his decision on a prosecutor’s investigations. This is our Sharia principles,” Haqqani told a local television channel this week.

Farid Hamidi, Afghanistan’s former attorney-general who now lives in the United States, described the dissolution of the attorney-general’s office as a mortal blow to justice in the country.

“A prosecutor’s only job is to help judges have all the facts before issuing a verdict on a case,” Hamidi told VOA. “This is a widely accept principle all over the world, which aims to ensure only justice is served.”

When the Taliban seized power in 2021, they not only dismantled the attorney-general’s office but persecuted former prosecutors who had previously built criminal cases against thousands of Taliban insurgents.

Thousands of prisoners the Taliban set free from jails across Afghanistan in 2021 have sought to carry out reprisals against prosecutors and judges resulting in the killings of more than a dozen former prosecutors, the U.N. human rights body reported in January.


What sets the Taliban’s justice system apart is its speed.

Unburdened by bureaucratic red tape, Taliban judges have resolved more than 200,000 cases in the past two years, including thousands that had been backlogged in the previous government’s judiciary.

However, critics argue that expeditious verdicts should not come at the cost of true justice.

“They are sacrificing justice for speed,” said Hamidi.

Afghans, who often complained about the sluggishness and bureaucracy of the former government’s courts, have praised the Taliban’s swift justice.

“Sometimes justice delayed is justice denied and sometimes it is most important to move incrementally and achieve a result based on better information,” Neal Davins, a professor of law at William & Mary Law School, told VOA.

The United Nations and human rights bodies have denounced the Taliban’s criminal justice system as brutally harsh.

While the Taliban defend public displays of corporal punishment as consistent with Islamic law, the U.N. deems them inhumane and violations of international conventions against torture.

The Taliban also claim effective enforcement of court orders, contrasting it with the reported shortcomings of the former Afghan government in implementing justice over powerful individuals.

In a bizarre event in November 2015, Khalilullah Ferozi, a banker sentenced to jail for financial crimes, walked out of his cell to sign a multi-million-dollar real estate contract with the Ministry of Urban Development.

In another widely reported incident in November 2016, a former vice president who was accused of detaining and sexually assaulting a tribal rival in Kabul brazenly bore no legal or penal responsibility.

Absolute monarchy

The Taliban have suspended Afghanistan’s constitution guaranteeing the political and administrative independence of the judiciary.

There is also no written document stipulating the appointment of judges, their authorities and judicial accountability.

“We are only accountable to our leader…matters related to authorities of Sultan and King are referred to our leader,” said Haqqani, the deputy chief justice.

There is no limit to powers of the mysterious Taliban leader.

That the judiciary is accountable only to the Sultan, according to Haqqani, is a testament to its independence from both internal and external interventions.

For decades, the Taliban fought the previous Afghan government, accusing it of being a puppet regime serving foreign interests.

While they claim total independence in the way they now govern Afghanistan, the Taliban have widely been reported as a proxy of the Pakistani military — accusations both Pakistan and the Taliban reject.

“The powers and limits of every public institution must be enshrined in a public document or a constitution. Without that the independence of judiciary has no actual meaning,” contended Hamidi.

The absence of written laws has left judicial verdicts open to varying interpretations of broad Islamic rules.

That legal ambiguity has led to serious human rights violations, such as the indefinite detention and torture of individuals without specified charges or the right to a court hearing.

The Taliban’s intelligence agency, for instance, has indefinitely detained and tortured individuals on charges not specified in any law without giving detainees a right to a court hearing, according to independent human rights organizations.

Matiullah Weesa, an activist for girls’ education, has been languishing in Taliban detention for about six months without charges.

Backed by the United States, the former Afghan government had a progressive constitution, which, although symbolic and marred by allegations of violations, sought to distribute power democratically with equal rights for all citizens, regardless of gender.

“A constitution is only as good as the people who interpret/enforce it. It typically serves a useful purpose in constraining government and protecting individual rights — but only if it is treated with respect,” said Davins.

Like other parts of the Taliban’s government, women are excluded from work at the judiciary and there are not any female judges to address disputes among female plaintiffs and defendants.

Called the world’s only gender-apartheid regime, the Taliban definitely claim they have given Afghanistan a better justice system than the one built with large international support.

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Amid Canada-India Rift, US Tight-Lipped on Mediation Efforts

Since Canada’s claim that agents of the Indian government played a role in the killing of a Sikh leader on Canadian soil, the diplomatic relationship between the two countries has grown tense. VOA’s Veronica Balderas Iglesias looks at the role the United States might be playing amid this dispute between two allies.

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Pakistan’s Plan to Expel Illegal Afghan Migrants Alarms UN 

Pakistan’s caretaker Foreign Minister Jalil Abbas Jilani confirmed Thursday that his government has decided to force out all Afghans and other foreign nationals living unlawfully in the country.

The move will likely affect about 1 million Afghans, including those who took refuge in the country after the hard-line Taliban swept back to power in neighboring Afghanistan two years ago.

The United Nations is alarmed by the plan because it could affect Afghans in need of international protection. Their lives or freedom would be in danger if they were forcefully repatriated, a U.N. official cautioned in background discussions with VOA.

“The new policy approved by the cabinet does not pertain only to Afghans; it is about all those people from different countries who are illegally residing in Pakistan,” Jilani told a news conference in Islamabad.

He explained that officially registered Afghan refugees and those living lawfully would not be asked to leave Pakistan. “But those who have come here illegally, whether Afghans or nationals of any country, will have to go back to their respective countries. We will strictly implement the policy.”

The spokesperson for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Islamabad told VOA that his agency was “seeking clarity” from Pakistani counterparts about the new policy.

Qaiser Khan Afridi noted that Pakistan’s role as a “generous refugee host for decades” has been acknowledged globally, but more needs to be done to match this generosity. “Any refugee return must be voluntary, without any pressure to ensure protection for those seeking safety,” he said.

“UNHCR stands ready to support Pakistan in developing a mechanism to manage and register people in need of international protection on its territory and respond to particular vulnerabilities,” Afridi added.

Until the Taliban returned to power in August 2021, Pakistan officially hosted nearly 2.7 million Afghans. That included 1.3 million registered refugees and 880,000 officially documented economic migrants; the rest were declared unlawful migrants.

The Taliban takeover of Kabul triggered a fresh influx of refugees, bringing more than 700,000 Afghans to Pakistan.

An estimated 200,000 have since flown to the United States and European countries under special resettlement programs for their services to U.S.-led international coalition forces, which all chaotically withdrew two years ago after almost two decades of presence in Afghanistan.

Most of the remaining Afghans have either crossed the border into Pakistan unlawfully, or their visas have expired, according to Pakistani officials.

The Taliban have imposed their strict interpretation of Islamic law in Afghanistan since regaining power, placing sweeping restrictions on women.

Girls are not allowed to receive a secondary school or university education. Most female government employees have been ordered to stay home, and female aid workers are forbidden from joining humanitarian groups. Women cannot visit public places, such as parks, gyms and bathhouses, and undertaking long road trips requires the presence of a male guardian.

The restrictions on women are a primary deterrent for Afghans sheltering in Pakistan — particularly women and girls — from returning to their homeland, according to displaced family members.

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Hope Fades for India’s Historic Moon Lander after It Fails to ‘Wake Up’

India’s moon lander and rover, which made a historic landing on the south pole of the moon, have not “woken up” after being put in sleep mode earlier this month to survive the freezing lunar night temperatures.

Scientists at the Indian Space Research Organization have not succeeded in reestablishing communication with the Vikram lander and the Pragyan rover, which were part of India’s pioneering Chandrayaan-3 mission.

After the spacecraft soft-landed on the little-explored lunar south pole on Aug. 23 — five days after a Russian spacecraft on an identical mission crashed — the rover spent 10 days traveling more than 100 meters on the lunar surface gathering scientific data.

Tasked with “the pursuit of lunar secrets” by the ISRO, the spacecraft transmitted images and scientific data back to Earth and confirmed the presence of sulfur, iron, titanium and oxygen on the moon.

Before the sun set on the moon Sept. 2, ISRO scientists switched the rover to sleep mode to hibernate and protect the spacecraft’s sensitive components from the freezing lunar night conditions. The lander was switched to sleep mode on Sept. 4.

A lunar day and night each lasts a little over 14 Earth days. During the lunar night, the temperature on the moon can drop between minus 200 degrees Celsius and minus 250 degrees Celsius.

After switching the lander and rover to sleep mode, ISRO said in a statement that the rover had completed its first set of assignments — Chandrayaan-3 mission’s primary goal — and they were confident the spacecraft could survive the extreme lunar night.

The ISRO said that after the spacecraft reawakened Friday, the sun would shine on its solar panels, and its batteries would recharge. The agency also said that if the spacecraft did not reawaken it would “forever stay there as India’s lunar ambassador.”

In a Friday post on X, formerly known as Twitter, the ISRO scientists explained their attempts to reawaken the robotic explorers.

“Efforts have been made to establish communication with the Vikram lander and Pragyan rover to ascertain their wake-up condition. As of now, no signals have been received from them. Efforts to establish contact will continue,” ISRO said, raising doubts about whether communication with the spacecraft would be reestablished and the mission’s scientific exploration of the lunar surface would be resumed.

In its latest update on Chandrayaan-3, ISRO said it would continue attempting to make contact with the spacecraft at least until the lunar night begins Oct. 6.

The Chandrayaan-3 mission made India the fourth country in the world to land on the moon, and the first to reach the south pole region. The achievement, hailed as “a victory cry of a new India” by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sparked a feeling of national pride among millions of Indians, who watched the touchdown of the spacecraft live on television. 

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Pakistani Vocational School Helps Afghan Women Refugees Build Businesses

In a small workshop in the bustling northwestern Pakistani city of Peshawar, a dozen Afghan women sit watching a teacher show them how to make clothes on a sewing machine.

The skills center was set up last year by Peshawar resident Mahra Basheer, 37, after seeing the steady influx of people from neighboring Afghanistan where they face an economic crisis and growing restrictions on women since the Taliban took over in 2021.

Trying to create options for women to become financially independent, she opened the workshop to teach tailoring as well as digital skills and beauty treatments. Basheer quickly found hundreds of women enrolling and has a long waitlist.

“If we get assistance, I think we will be able to train between 250 and 500 students at one time, empowering women who can play an important role in the community,” Basheer said.

Officials say hundreds of thousands of Afghans have traveled to Pakistan since foreign forces left and the Taliban took over in 2021. Even before then, Pakistan hosted some 1.5 million registered refugees, one of the largest such populations in the world, according to the United Nations refugee agency.

More than a million others are estimated to live there unregistered. Grappling with an economic crisis of its own, Pakistan’s government is increasingly anxious about the number of Afghans arriving, officials say. Lawyers and officials have said scores of Afghans have been arrested in recent months on allegations they don’t have the correct legal documents to live in Pakistan.

Basheer said that her main focus was expanding operations for Afghan women and she has also included some Pakistani women in the program to boost their opportunities in the conservative area. Once graduating from the three-month course, the women are focused on earning a modest but meaningful income, often starting their own businesses.

Nineteen-year-old Afghan citizen Fatima who had undertaken training at the center, said she now wanted to open a beauty parlor in Peshawar – currently banned in her home country just a few hours away.

“Right now, my plan is to start a salon at home. Then to work very professionally so that I can eventually open a very big salon for myself,” she said.

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HRW Says European Firms Ditching Toxic Ships on Bangladesh Beaches

European maritime companies are ditching their old ships for scrap on Bangladesh beaches in dangerous and polluting conditions that have killed workers pulling them apart, Human Rights Watch said Thursday.

Bangladesh’s southeastern Sitakunda beaches have emerged as one of the world’s largest shipbreaking yards, fueling the South Asian country’s booming construction industry and its need for cheap sources of steel.

European firms are among the shipping companies to have sent 520 vessels to the site since 2020, where thousands of workers take apart ships without protective gear.

“Companies scrapping ships in Bangladesh’s dangerous and polluting yards are making a profit at the expense of Bangladeshi lives and the environment,” said HRW researcher Julia Bleckner. “Shipping companies should stop using loopholes in international regulations and take responsibility for safely and responsibly managing their waste.”

Workers told HRW they used their socks as gloves to avoid burns while cutting through molten steel, covered their mouths with shirts to avoid inhaling toxic fumes, and carried chunks of steel while barefoot.

“Workers described injuries from falling chunks of steel or being trapped inside a ship when it caught fire or pipes exploded,” HRW said in its report, published jointly with Belgian-based NGO Shipbreaking Platform.

At least 62 workers have been killed by accidents in Sitakunda’s shipbreaking yards since 2019, Bangladeshi environmental group Young Power in Social Action has said.

Two workers died last week in separate incidents after falling from partially dismantled ships, police told AFP.

‘Little or no attention to worker safety’

The Bangladesh Ship Breakers Association (BSBA), which represents yard owners, said its members had moved to upgrade safety ahead of a new international convention on safe and environmentally sound scrapping, due to enter into force in 2025.

“We are turning our shipbreaking yards into green yards even though it is expensive,” BSBA president Mohammad Abu Taher told AFP. “We are working on it. We supply protective equipment to workers.”

But Fazlul Kabir Mintu, coordinator for the Danish-funded Occupational Safety and Security Information Center, said yard owners operated in a “climate of impunity” because of their outsized influence in local politics.

“There is little or no attention to worker safety in dozens of yards,” he told AFP.

‘Living in misery’

Many ships sent to Sitakunda contained asbestos, said Ripon Chowdhury, executive director of the OSHE Foundation charity that works with shipbreaking laborers.

Asbestos is associated with lung cancer and other life-threatening diseases, but Chowdhury told AFP that workers were forced to mop it up with their bare hands.

He added that his organization had studied 110 shipbreaking workers for exposure to the toxic substance, finding that 33 had tested positive.

“All 33 workers were victims of varying degrees of lung damage,” he said. “Of the victims, three have died, while others are living in misery.”

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Azerbaijan Arrests Former Head of Nagorno-Karabakh Government

Azerbaijan on Wednesday arrested the former head of Nagorno-Karabakh’s separatist government as he tried to flee into Armenia following Azerbaijan’s military offensive in the region.

Azerbaijan’s border guard service announced the arrest of Ruben Vardanyan, showing the nation’s intention to firmly maintain control of the Nagorno-Karabakh region after Azerbaijan’s military seized the region from ethnic Armenian control.

Vardanyan was escorted to Azerbaijan’s capital, Baku, and handed over to “relevant state bodies,” where his fate will be decided, according to Azerbaijan’s State Border Service.

Vardanyan made his fortune in Russia as the owner of a major investment bank. He moved to Nagorno-Karabakh in 2022 and served as the region’s head of government until he stepped down earlier this year.

Vardanyan’s had sought to join the thousands of ethnic Armenians leaving the Nagorno-Karabakh region this week. Armenian officials report that upwards of 47,000 of the region’s 120,000 Armenians have left for Armenia.

Watch Heather Murdock’s report:

The exodus is driven by fears of retaliation by Azerbaijan after its military forced leaders of the enclave to lay down their weapons and discuss reintegration into Azerbaijan.

“We are leaving because Azerbaijanis have come to drive us from our homeland,” said Grigory Sarkisyan, who lost his son in the fighting.

The Azerbaijan military offensive has been a bloody one, as Azerbaijan’s Health Ministry reported a total of 192 Azerbaijani troops and one civilian killed and 511 wounded.

Nagorno-Karabakh officials had said earlier that at least 200 people, including 10 civilians, were killed, and more than 400 were wounded in the fighting.

The primarily Muslim country of Azerbaijan has said it wants to peacefully reintegrate the Armenians and will guarantee their civic rights, including to practice their Christian religion.

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

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New Trade Initiative Offers India Major Gains in Middle East

New Delhi’s bid to expand its economic and diplomatic clout beyond Asia received a major boost with the announcement at this month’s G20 summit of ambitious plans to develop a new trade route running from India through the Middle East to Europe.

The so-called India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor, or IMEC, is backed by the United States and is widely seen as a challenge to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which has already developed major infrastructure projects in some of the same countries.

But the proposal, involving a network of new shipping and rail lines, stands to shake up the existing order in other ways as well, not least by establishing new direct trade routes between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf.

For India, analysts say, the program offers a capstone to a yearslong effort by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to boost trade and forge ties with the Gulf states, the source of much of its oil and gas, and home to a large Indian diaspora.

This “concerted effort has gained momentum over the past several years,” said John Calabrese, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute.

“India’s vigorous efforts to strengthen economic cooperation with the Middle East have been met with open arms and reciprocation,” Calabrese added in an interview. “The Gulf states, in particular, view India as a rising power with great market and human capital potential.”

Trade already growing

Trade between India and the Arab world has seen sustained growth, already surpassing $240 billion a year. Bilateral trade between India and the United Arab Emirates alone amounted to $84 billion as of the end of March 2023, while trade with Saudi Arabia topped $53 billion. The region supplies approximately 60% of India’s total crude oil imports.

Calabrese sees the IMEC project as having strategic as well as economic value for India, carrying its strategic rivalry with China into new territory while offering countries in the Middle East an alternative to relying on China or the United States.

“India’s importance to the Gulf countries has risen as they chart a course for diversifying and balancing their relations with the world’s major powers,” he said.

Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center in Washington, agreed that India can make significant diplomatic gains if it can navigate the hurdles posed in the Middle East by regional conflicts, historical animosities and competition from other global powers.

India has already strengthened its ties with some of the most significant players in the region, from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to Israel, he told VOA.

“What’s also notable is that while India’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Israel have really taken off, New Delhi’s ties with their respective longstanding rivals, Iran and the Palestinians, have not become fraught, even though they’ve become less robust,” he said.

‘Nothing short of historic’

India can also expect to establish closer links in Europe, where officials are enthusiastic about IMEC, which would establish new shipping routes between India and the United Arab Emirates, alongside a freight rail system traversing the Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel. From there, goods could be transported to European countries.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen hailed the venture as “nothing short of historic,” emphasizing that it would slash transit time between India and Europe by 40%. She underlined that IMEC represents the most direct link thus far connecting India, the Gulf and Europe.

Saudi Arabia’s Investment Minister Khalid Al-Falih went further in his endorsement, likening IMEC to the “Silk Route and Spice Road.” The initiative is projected to incorporate essential infrastructure elements such as electricity cables and pipelines for clean hydrogen.

“The goal is, of course, to strengthen India’s economy by facilitating more trade in more markets,” Kugelman said. “But also about deepening important partnerships and scaling up Indian investment in a region that New Delhi views as highly strategic — because of its location, its large Indian diaspora and high energy trade with India.”

Kugelman sees the initiative as a natural extension of the growing strategic relationship between the United States and India, marked by new alliances, including the Quad, which also draws in Japan and Australia.

“Their interests in the [Middle East] align, in terms of support for connectivity and commercial projects. And so, India’s engagement there allows the U.S. and India to cooperate in a region outside the Indo-Pacific,” he said. “I do think that India’s deepening footprint in the Middle East will introduce a new phase of great power competition.”

Meanwhile, the Middle East could become a new battleground for India-China competition, Kugelman said.

“Beijing has become a bigger player in the region in recent years, as seen by its strategic agreement with Iran and its brokering of the Iran-Saudi Arabia rapprochement deal,” he said. “India, working with the U.S. and its European partners, will want to push back against all that.”

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Pakistani Ahmadis Face Growing Attacks on Places of Worship

On a hot and humid Friday this month in Shahdara Town, a congested neighborhood in Pakistan’s second most populous city, Lahore, mosques began blaring calls for Muslims to demolish an Ahmadi place of worship.

Hours earlier, some local clerics had called the police demanding action against the building because it resembled a traditional mosque. Within hours, laborers were hammering away at the arch and minarets of the minority worship place while police stood guard.

“It was such a painful moment for us,” said a member of the minority group who was present inside the building during the demolition. He asked that VOA identify him as Ahmad, because he feared for his safety.

Pakistani Ahmadis, who are barred from calling themselves Muslims, say they are bracing for a wave of attacks this Friday, when the country celebrates the birth of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.

The minority group has recorded nearly three dozen attacks on its places of worship this year, including break-ins and vandalism. Representatives say it is the highest number of such incidents since 1984, when a law was enacted prohibiting them from “indirectly or directly posing as Muslims.”

‘Legalized persecution’

On September 7, 1974, Pakistan’s parliament added the 2nd Amendment to the country’s constitution, declaring Ahmadis — followers of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad — non-Muslims after months of agitation from religious political parties.

A decade later, the parliament passed what is commonly known as Ordinance XX. The law prohibited the community from a host of activities, including performing any rituals or using any symbols associated with Islam.

As arches and minarets are a common feature of mosques around the world, many in Pakistan interpret Ordinance XX to prohibit Ahmadis from using such features on their places of worship, which they are also not allowed to call “mosques.”

While the community has faced persecution and lethal attacks in Pakistan for decades, human rights activists blame the increased targeting of Ahmadi places of worship on an “environment of impunity.”

“The persecution of the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan is almost wholly legalized,” said Saroop Ijaz of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group.

“The lack of consequences for these attacks has resulted in emboldening those who seek to attack them,” Ijaz told VOA.

Right-wing pressure

Ahmadi community representatives blame Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, or TLP, a far-right religious political party founded in 2015, for the spike in attacks on places of worship.

“There are examples of them publicly threatening that this [demolition of minarets or arches] must be done by a specific date,” said Amir Mahmood, a spokesperson for the Ahmadi community.

Mahmood said the party has issued a deadline for law enforcement authorities in some cities of Punjab to demolish minarets of Ahmadi places of worship by Friday. Punjab, the most populous Pakistani province, has seen the bulk of anti-Ahmadi activity this year.

Speaking to VOA, TLP spokesperson Yaseen Malik denied the party was issuing any threats. However, he called Ahmadis “blasphemers.” In Pakistan, blasphemy is a crime punishable by death.

TLP leaders and members routinely use offensive anti-Ahmadi language in rallies and gatherings and call for the killing of blasphemers. Since its founding, the party has staged several protests against actions it perceived as blasphemous or pro-Ahmadi.

Police role

The Ahmadi community accuses the police of capitulating to the demands of extremist forces.

Police, “in the name of maintaining law and order,” are “forcing … members of the Jamaat-e-Ahmadiyya to tear down the minarets of their places of worship,” said community spokesperson Mahmood.

Ahmad, a witness of the demolition in Shahdara Town, told VOA the laborers who tore down the arch and minarets had been called by the police.

Speaking to VOA, a senior area police officer who did not want his name to be used because of the sensitivity of the issue rejected the charge, though he admitted the police worried about possible mob violence.

“We have to maintain law and order, and we try to resolve the issue as well as prevent any incident that could cause unrest at the national or local level,” said the officer, who maintained that police were present on the scene to ensure the security of the Ahmadi residents.

In a statement on X, formerly Twitter, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan accused law enforcement and the religious far right of “systematically and deliberately” shrinking the space for Ahmadis after the Shahdara Town incident. The rights watchdog found police complicit in similar incidents last year.

In a written statement to VOA, Punjab police rejected the allegation.

‘Contempt of court’

A decision of the Lahore High Court in August said the 1984 prohibition on building Ahmadi places of worship did not allow authorities to destroy or alter structures built before then.

“When our people show that order to police, requesting them to respect it, sadly, the police do not consider it,” lamented Mahmood, saying the demolitions amounted to “contempt of court.”

Deputy Inspector General Muhammad Waqas Nazir, the Punjab police information officer, told VOA in written comments that his force acts “within the ambit of the law” when handling complaints lodged under the 1984 prohibition.

As Ahmadis brace for a possible wave of attacks on their places of worship Friday, Human Rights Watch’s Ijaz said the persistent violation of Ahmadis’ civil rights “does not reflect well on the writ of the state or the seriousness to protect law and order.”

Ahmad, who must pray in a damaged building because of the attack earlier this month, told VOA that despite fear, he wanted to remain hopeful for a better future.

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More Women Pursue Literary Careers in Indian Side of Kashmir

The Indian side of Kashmir is seeing more female authors emerge in the Indian side of Kashmir. Muheet Ul Islam has more from Srinagar. Camera, video edit: Wasim Nabi

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Taliban Arrest 200 Anti-Pakistan Militants in Afghanistan

Afghanistan’s Taliban says it has captured 200 suspected militants for staging deadly cross-border attacks against Pakistan and has implemented other “concrete steps” to “neutralize” the terrorist activity, VOA learned from Pakistani officials privy to the process.

The de facto Afghan rulers shared the details about the crackdown on the outlawed Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, or TTP, in bilateral talks they hosted last week in Kabul with a high-level delegation from Islamabad.

The dialogue came two weeks after hundreds of heavily armed militants assaulted two Pakistani security posts in the northern border district of Chitral. The September 6th raid killed four soldiers and 12 assailants, with the TTP claiming responsibility.

The Taliban “arrested 200 TTP cadres returning from the Chitral attack. They are now behind bars,” said an official who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly interact with the media. He added that de facto Afghan authorities were in the process of relocating other TTP members away from the border with Pakistan.

“But we have to wait and see the outcome of these steps before drawing any conclusions. So, you have to give them some time to consolidate these measures,” the official remarked.

The Taliban did not immediately react to the reported TTP crackdown.

Monday, the Taliban’s chief spokesman reiterated that his government does not allow anyone to use Afghan soil against Pakistan.

“This is our stated policy. This is central to Afghanistan’s national interest in promoting peace and reconciliation,” Zabihullah Mujahid said in comments aired by Taliban-run state television.

“We can only help Pakistan with its internal security issues according to our capacity. Pakistanis also understand our limitations; we cannot help them at borders because that is their responsibility,” Mujahid stated.

Pakistan’s special representative on Afghanistan, Asif Durrani, led the delegation to Kabul, with senior military officials also accompanying him. Officials in Islamabad at the time described as “promising” their “extensive” discussions with Taliban Foreign Minister Amir Khan Muttaqi and his team.

“We are not here to judge the intentions of that de facto government,” Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar, the caretaker Pakistani prime minister, told a Turkish television channel Monday when asked whether the Taliban were sincere in their intentions to curb TTP activities on Afghan soil.

“Yes, we have a concern because groups like TTP do reside on Afghan soil. There are training camps on their soil, which is a point of concern for us. But whether it is intentional [or] enjoys the patronage of that government remains to be seen. We don’t want to complicate that relationship,” Kakar stated.

The TTP, known as the Pakistani Taliban, is designated a global terrorist organization by Pakistan, the United States. and the United Nations.

The militant group emerged in Pakistan’s border areas in 2007, pledging allegiance to the leadership of the Afghan Taliban and supporting them in mounting insurgent attacks on U.S.-led NATO troops in Afghanistan until the foreign forces withdrew in August 2021after nearly two decades in the country.

Taliban supreme leader Hibatullah Akhundzada has forbidden his forces from launching cross-border attacks against Pakistan, calling them haram or un-Islamic.

Akhundzada has also ordered Afghans not to collaborate with or give donations to the TTP for its so-called jihad against Pakistan and barred the militants from running donation collection campaigns in Afghanistan, Pakistani officials with knowledge of the recent discussions in Kabul told VOA.

Pakistani officials said following the TTP attack in Chitral that scores of Afghan fighters had also participated in it, and the evidence was promptly shared with Kabul authorities to demand action against them. An internal TTP communication later emerged on social media, warning its fighters against recruiting Afghans into their ranks, suggesting the group had come under pressure from the Taliban government.

Officials in Islamabad, while sharing their assessment with VOA, believe that the Taliban are “consciously distancing” themselves from groups aligned with them during the insurgency but which are now involved in criminal activities in Afghanistan, such as extortion, kidnapping for ransom, and terrorism.

They remarked that Taliban leaders know they have a greater responsibility to address these issues because they are now in control of the country and must demonstrate to the world that they no longer act like an insurgent group as they seek recognition for their government.

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Anti-Muslim Hate Speech in India Concentrated Around Elections, Report Finds

Anti-Muslim hate speech incidents in India averaged more than one a day in the first half of 2023 and were seen most in states with upcoming

elections, according to a report by Hindutva Watch, a Washington-based group monitoring attacks on minorities.

There were 255 documented incidents of hate speech gatherings targeting Muslims in the first half of 2023, the report found. There was no comparative data for prior years.

It used the United Nations’ definition of hate speech as “any form of communication… that employs prejudiced or discriminatory language towards an individual or group based on attributes such as religion, ethnicity, nationality, race, color, descent, gender, or other identity factors.”

About 70% of the incidents took place in states scheduled to hold elections in 2023 and 2024, according to the report.

Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Gujarat witnessed the highest number of hate speech gatherings, with Maharashtra accounting for 29% of such incidents, the report found. The majority of the hate speech events mentioned

conspiracy theories and calls for violence and socio-economic boycotts against Muslims.

About 80% of those events took place in areas governed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which is widely expected to win the general elections in 2024.

Hindutva Watch said it tracked online activity of Hindu nationalist groups, verified videos of hate speeches posted on social media and compiled data of isolated incidents reported by media.

Modi’s government denies the presence of minority abuse. The Indian embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Rights groups allege mistreatment of Muslims under Modi, who became prime minister in 2014.

They point to a 2019 citizenship law described as “fundamentally discriminatory” by the United Nations human rights office for excluding Muslim migrants; an anti-conversion

legislation challenging the constitutionally protected right to freedom of belief, and the 2019 revoking of Muslim-majority Kashmir’s special status.

There has also been demolition of Muslim properties in the name of removing illegal construction and a ban on wearing the hijab in classrooms in Karnataka when the BJP was in power in that state.

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Iraq Wedding Hall Fire Kills More Than 100, Injures 150

A fire that raced through a hall hosting a Christian wedding in northern Iraq killed at least 100 people and injured 150 others, authorities said Wednesday, warning the death toll could rise.

The fire happened in Iraq’s Nineveh province in its Hamdaniya area, authorities said. That’s a predominantly Christian area just outside of the city of Mosul, some 335 kilometers northwest of the capital, Baghdad.

Television footage showed flames rushing over the wedding hall as the fire took hold. In the blaze’s aftermath, only charred metal and debris could be seen as people walked through the scene of the fire, the only light coming from television cameras and the lights of onlookers’ mobile phones.

Survivors arrived at local hospitals, receiving oxygen and bandaged, as their families milled through hallways and outside as workers organized more oxygen cylinders.

The health department in Nineveh province raised the death toll to 114. Health Ministry spokesman Saif al-Badr earlier put the number of injured at 150 via the state-run Iraqi News Agency.

“All efforts are being made to provide relief to those affected by the unfortunate accident,” al-Badr said.

Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani ordered an investigation into the fire and asked the country’s Interior and Health officials to provide relief, his office said in a statement online.

Najim al-Jubouri, the provincial governor of Nineveh, said some of the injured had been transferred to regional hospitals. He cautioned there were no final casualty figures yet from the blaze, which suggests the death toll still may rise.

There was no immediate official word on the cause of the blaze but initial reports by the Kurdish television news channel Rudaw suggested fireworks at the venue may have sparked the fire.

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