Shock, anger after Kashmiri police detain 20 pro-Palestinian protesters

A Kashmiri woman walks past an iron structure displaying blackened pro-Palestinian graffiti painted by an artist, in Srinagar, Indian controlled Kashmir, Sunday, May 16, 2021. (AP)
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Updated 17 May 2021

Shock, anger after Kashmiri police detain 20 pro-Palestinian protesters

  • Expressing solidarity through peaceful protests is right of every Indian, locals and experts say

NEW DELHI: A day after Jammu and Kashmir police arrested 20 people, including a renowned artist, for organizing a peaceful protest over events in Israel and Gaza, locals expressed resentment at the detentions.

Among those arrested in the capital Srinagar was popular graffiti artist Mudasir Gul, who participated in the protest by drawing a mural of a weeping woman, her head draped in a Palestinian flag, with the words “We Are Palestine” emblazoned across it.

“What is my brother’s crime?” Gul’s younger brother, Badrul Islam, said to Arab News. “When has painting become a crime in Kashmir? Those boys who took part in the protest would have never thought that they would be detained. It was a normal peaceful protest, an expression of anger. Can’t we protest peacefully also?”

Islam said the entire family now fears for Gul’s future.

“We want the police to let us know what they are going to do with my brother. We are worried that he might be implicated in the Public Safety Act (PSA); if that happens, then it will ruin his career and future,” Islam said.

The PSA is a detention law that does not include any provision for bail. Those booked under it often remain behind bars for years.

Islam’s relative and neighbour, Janbaaz Mustafa, was also worried for his 25-year-old brother Dilwaz, who was among those arrested on Saturday.

“He made flags for the protest. Police arrested him because they said that we cannot protest against Israel,” Mustafa told Arab News, adding: “This is how Kashmir is; where no one is allowed to speak, and police can do anything.”

On Friday, police in south Kashmir’s Shopian district also detained a popular religious preacher, Sarjan Barkati, for promoting the Palestinian cause.

Tensions erupted in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of East Jerusalem last week after Israeli forces tried to evict Palestinian residents.

In a separate incident, Israeli troops also attacked tens of thousands of worshippers praying inside Al-Aqsa Mosque.

Hundreds of Palestinians, including children, were killed and injured during attacks on protesters in the days that followed, with videos of both the incidents going viral on social media, prompting reactions from all over the world.

Former chief minister of Kashmir and leader of the pro-India People’s Democratic Party, Mehbooba Mufti, called the “crackdowns on Kashmiri protesters” paranoia.

“Kashmir has become an open-air prison where even thoughts are being monitored. Anything that might act as a trigger for the anger and resentment that has been brewing among Kashmiris for the past two years is perceived as a threat and thus nipped in the bud,” Mufti told Arab News.

“This explains the paranoia and subsequent crackdown on pro-Palestine peaceful protests in Kashmir,” she added.

When contacted by Arab News on Sunday, Kashmir’s Inspector General of Police Vijay Kumar refused to comment.

However, in a statement on Saturday, he justified the crackdown, reasoning that “some elements might try to leverage the situation” in Kashmir.

“There are elements who are attempting to leverage the unfortunate situation in Palestine to disturb peace and order in the Kashmir valley,” Kumar said, adding that he “wouldn’t allow … public anger to trigger violence, lawlessness and disorder” on Kashmir’s streets.

“Expressing opinions is a freedom but engineering and inciting violence on streets is unlawful,” the statement said.

Kashmir continues to reel under a landmark law introduced by New Delhi in August 2019 when the central government abrogated the limited constitutional autonomy that the Muslim majority state had since 1948.

The entire region was placed under a lockdown for more than six months, with democratic rights curtailed and political activists and leaders placed under house arrest for months, while the internet remained suspended for over a year.

On Sunday, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) justified the crackdown and detention of the 20 Kashmiri men, calling it a “pre-emptive” arrest.

“We want peace between Israel and Palestine. We want all countries to support peace,” Manzoor Bhat, BJP spokesperson in Kashmir, told Arab News.

“There is peace now in Kashmir; there is no news of killings. No one can stop you if you are protesting for Palestinians, this is a democracy,” he continued.

However, he added: “Some elements which are inimical to the peace in Kashmir take advantage of such protests ... to create disturbances where someone is killed, and the atmosphere gets vitiated.

“Police have taken a pre-emptive step, and the arrest is an attempt to preempt the situation from going out of control,” Bhat added.

Experts, however, refused to take the bait, with Srinagar-based political analyst Gowhar Geelani saying that Kashmiris expressing solidarity with Palestinians was nothing new.

“Kashmir has a very long and rich tradition of expressing solidarity with the Palestinians,” he said.

“The Palestinian struggle has been romanticized by Kashmiris in murals, graffiti, posters and videos. In 1967, when the Zionist state annexed East Jerusalem, Srinagar witnessed one of the biggest anti-Israel demonstrations,” Geelani told Arab News.

He added that New Delhi was “scared,” and did not want Kashmiris to express solidarity with Palestinians.

“Perhaps New Delhi believes that for the past two years, it has been successful in normalizing silence and curbing dissent through draconian measures. It believes that the Palestinian plight could be a trigger for large-scale protests in Kashmir, which could eventually turn into pro-independence or pro-Pakistan slogan and sentiment,” he added.

Siddiq Wahid, a Srinagar-based professor, said there was a “nice symmetry between the Indian state and Israel in Kashmir.

“There is a nice symmetry in this that is quite unintended: one of how the people of Palestine and Kashmir and the Israeli and Indian states are aligned with each other,” Wahid told Arab News.

Meanwhile, the New-Delhi based India and Palestinian friendship forum condemned the arrest of the Kashmiris.

“Arresting someone for expressing solidarity with the Palestinians is highly condemnable,” Nadim Khan, president of the forum, told Arab News.

“We are a democracy, and all citizens have a right to express their support to the oppressed people anywhere in the world. The world knows that India is a long-time supporter and friend of Palestine. Supporting Palestine has never been a crime in India. In fact, it’s always encouraged,” he added.

Afghanistan and COVID-19 vaccines on the agenda as Blinken begins first India visit

Updated 28 July 2021

Afghanistan and COVID-19 vaccines on the agenda as Blinken begins first India visit

  • Top US diplomat to meet PM Narendra Modi on Wednesday

NEW DELHI: New Delhi is a priority for the US and Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first visit to India on Tuesday will provide an opportunity to deepen bilateral ties, explore COVID-19 vaccine diplomacy, and discuss the ongoing crisis in Afghanistan, experts said.

“The visit is important in the larger context of the US-India relationship because it shows that there is a consistent engagement with India and India is a priority,” Harsh V. Pant, head of the Strategic Studies Programme at the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), told Arab News.

On Wednesday, Blinken is expected to hold talks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar.

“Both sides will review the robust and multifaceted India-US bilateral relations and potential for consolidating them further,” India’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement on July 23, announcing Blinken’s two-day visit.

It added that discussions would focus on “regional and global issues of mutual interest – including recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, the Indo-Pacific region, Afghanistan, and cooperation in the UN.”

Analysts said the visit could also lay the groundwork for an in-person summit of the Quad group of countries — comprising India, Japan, Australia and the US — likelyto be held in September and mainly aimed at drawing up measures to counter China’s rising influence in the Indo-Pacific region which, according to Pant, sent out a “larger message” about New Delhi’s role.

“We have seen the US secretary of defense coming to India earlier this year, we have seen (US President Joe) Biden calling the Quad leadership summit early on in his term, and now we have the secretary of state coming to India. I think there is a larger message about the Indo-US relationship and how important America sees India as a partner,” he said.

A virtual summit of the Quad group held in March created a working group on COVID-19 vaccine delivery, with India as the lead manufacturer committing to produce at least a billion vaccine doses by the end of 2022, mainly for southeast Asian and Pacific countries grappling with a spike in infections.

Blinken’s visit could create an opportunity to “bolster the global strategic partnership” between India and the US and focus on ways to support Afghanistan as the Taliban make rapid territorial gains amid a drawdown of US-led foreign troops from the country after 20 years of occupation.

Afghanistan’s deteriorating security situation saw India withdraw its staff from its consulates in Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif earlier this month.

“There are some apprehensions about the way things are moving in Afghanistan,” Pant added. “Therefore, from India’s perspective, it would be important to get a sense of what the American plan for Afghanistan is.”

Pranay Kotasthane, deputy director at the Takshashila Institution, said India’s primary concern would be to “deny space” in Afghanistan to “Pakistan-sponsored terrorist groups” and that there might be some discussions toward this goal.

On Monday, India said that it was also “willing to discuss” its human rights record if Blinken raised it during the bilateral talks.

“India has a plural tradition and multicultural society,” and it is willing to “discuss any human rights issue,” a source in the Indian government, who could not be identified under government policy, told Arab News.

It comes after Acting Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asian Affairs Dean Thompson told reporters in Washington D.C. on Friday that “the human rights and democracy question” would be part of the talks between Indian and US foreign ministers.

Since being elected to office in 2014, Modi and his government have faced allegations of suppressing dissent, pursuing divisive policies to appeal to Hindu voters, and enacting the Citizenship Amendment Law two years ago that Muslims see as discriminatory.

India’s human rights record became even more pronounced after the death in custody of 87-year-old Jesuit priest Stan Swamy, who was arrested on charges of supporting ultra-Maoists, while awaiting bail.

Pant said that bringing up the issue for talks reflected the “pressures” that Biden’s administration was under from various US constituencies.

“I think those who deal with India and the US know that historically India is cagey about including outsiders on domestic issues,” he added.

Thailand forest park gets World Heritage nod despite indigenous rights warning

Updated 28 July 2021

Thailand forest park gets World Heritage nod despite indigenous rights warning

  • “The indigenous Karen in the national park continue to be forcibly evicted and their houses burnt”

BANGKOK: A vast forest complex in Thailand has been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List, despite the UN’s own experts warning of human rights violations against indigenous people in the area.

The Kaeng Krachan Forest Complex in western Thailand is rich in biodiversity, including the critically endangered Siamese crocodile, UNESCO said Monday in its listing announcement.

But it is also home to an indigenous community of ethnic Karen people, who have long accused the Thai government of using violence and harassment to push them off their land.

Thailand had lobbied for years to get World Heritage status for the complex, and Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha praised UNESCO’s decision, vowing to protect the forest according to “international standards.”

“From now on, the government will ... restore the forest together and promote the livelihood development and human rights of locals,” he said in a Facebook post on Tuesday.

“Everyone will be part of co-management so they will feel a sense of ownership.”

United Nations experts last week urged the UNESCO committee to defer a decision until independent monitors have visited the area and the concerns about the indigenous people have been addressed.

“This is an important precedent-setting case, and may influence policies on how indigenous peoples’ rights are respected in protected areas across Asia,” the three experts said in a statement released Friday by the office of the UN Human Rights Commissioner.

“The indigenous Karen in the national park continue to be forcibly evicted and their houses burnt.”

They also said the World Heritage nomination process did not have effective participation of indigenous people, calling for indigenous people to be treated as partners in protecting the forest, not threats.

The park’s listing dismayed activist Pongsak Tonnamphet, an indigenous resident of the area.

“The decision was not made based on basic human rights principles ... the minority had no chance to speak,” the 24-year-old told AFP on Tuesday.

The World Heritage Committee did not list the park in 2016 and 2019 because of rights concerns.

The dispute has been simmering for decades.

While many indigenous residents were allegedly driven out of the area, those remaining were not allowed to cultivate the land.

Authorities say their farming activities would damage the forest, but activists argue that traditional farming methods do not harm the environment.

Rights campaigners have accused Thai officials of using harassment and violence to force indigenous people out.

The charred bones of a high-profile ethnic Karen leader were found inside the park in 2019, five years after he disappeared, according to Thai investigators.

Park officials at the time were the last to see him alive, but serious charges including premeditated murder were dropped in early 2020, with authorities citing a lack of evidence.

Ahead of the decision, an indigenous rights group held a protest in front of the environment ministry in Bangkok on Monday, flinging red paint at its signage.

Located near the border with Myanmar, the Kaeng Krachan complex is spread over more than 480,000 hectares, and includes three national parks and a wildlife sanctuary.

Attackers kill five soldiers, one civilian in north Cameroon, say officials

Updated 27 July 2021

Attackers kill five soldiers, one civilian in north Cameroon, say officials

  • Boko Haram attack kills five Cameroonian soldiers and a civilian
  • The attack happened during a raid on the military outpost in the country’s far north, local authorities said

YAOUNDE: An attack by Boko Haram killed five Cameroonian soldiers and a civilian, according to a defense ministry statement on state radio Tuesday.
The attack took place on Monday night in the far north of the central African country near the border with Nigeria, where operations by the Islamist group have been on the rise, reported AFP.
Meanwhile, Reuters said the attack happened during a raid on the military outpost in the country’s far north, local authorities said on Tuesday, the second deadly raid in the area in the past week.
An army post in the village of Zigue was attacked at around 9 p.m. (20:00 GMT) on Monday, according to two officials who asked not to be identified.
The attack follows a raid that took place around 50 km (30 miles) north of Zigue on Saturday, which was claimed by Daesh. Eight soldiers were killed in that raid, according to the defense ministry.
Cameroon, alongside neighboring Nigeria and Chad, has been battling the Boko Haram militant group for years, but more recently has clashed with fighters who identify themselves as Daesh West African Province (DWAP).
In the aftermath of the death of Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau in May, DWAP has sought to absorb Boko Haram fighters and unify the groups which had hitherto fought one another for control of territory.

With AFP and Reuters.

Iranian prosecutor charged with war crimes

Updated 28 July 2021

Iranian prosecutor charged with war crimes

  • The victims were linked to the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, a political organization

JEDDAH: A former Iranian prosecutor was charged on Tuesday with war crimes and murder over the execution of more than 100 political prisoners in Iran in 1988.

Hamid Noury, 60, has been under arrest in Sweden since 2019, when he was detained at Stockholm airport as he arrived to visit relatives.

Human rights groups have been campaigning for years for justice over the extrajudicial execution of thousands of Iranians, mostly young people, in the late 1980s. 

The victims were linked to the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, a political organization that seeks to overthrow Iran’s ruling clerics.

In the summer of 1988, Supreme Leader Ali Khomeini “issued an order to execute all prisoners held in Iranian prisons who sympathized with and were loyal in their convictions to the Mujahedin,” Swedish prosecutors said on Tuesday. 

At the time, Noury was an assistant prosecutor at Gohardasht Prison on the outskirts of Karaj, west of Tehran.

Noury “is suspected of participating … in these mass executions and, as such, intentionally taking the lives of a large number of prisoners who sympathized with the Mujahedin and, additionally, of subjecting prisoners to severe suffering which is deemed torture and inhuman treatment,” prosecutor Kristina Lindhoff Carleson said.

Noury’s trial begins on Aug. 10 in Stockholm and is expected to last about eight months. It is likely to be embarrassing for Iran, where rights groups say many officials involved in the extrajudicial killings in the 1980s are still in positions of power.

They include the newly elected president, Ebrahim Raisi, who Amnesty International says played a key role as a prosecutor on the “death commission” that sent thousands of prisoners to be killed.

UK PM urges caution as virus cases fall for six days

Updated 27 July 2021

UK PM urges caution as virus cases fall for six days

  • Recorded infection rates across the UK have dropped for six consecutive days
  • Despite the turnaround ministers are warning the long-term situation remains uncertain

LONDON: Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for caution Tuesday after Britain registered nearly a week of lower coronavirus case numbers, a decline that has surprised officials and experts.
Recorded infection rates across the UK have dropped for six consecutive days, with 24,950 new cases announced Monday compared to 46,558 last Tuesday — a fall of 46 percent.
The reversal after weeks of rising rates has coincided with the removal on July 19 of nearly all pandemic rules in England, including legal requirements for social distancing wearing a mask in public indoors.
It has confounded the government and scientists, who had previously warned cases would likely surge to 100,000 a day in the weeks ahead after the restrictions were eased.
Despite the turnaround, which comes after the start of summer school holidays, ministers are warning the long-term situation remains uncertain.
“I have noticed that obviously we have six days of some better figures but it’s very, very important that we don’t allow ourselves to run away with premature conclusions about this,” Johnson said during a visit to a police station in southeast England.
“People have got to remain very cautious and that remains the approach of the government,” he added.
Johnson ended 10 days in self-isolation late Monday after being in close contact with Health Secretary Sajid Javid, who tested positive for Covid-19 earlier this month.
The prime minister argued that Britain’s successful vaccination campaign — which has fully vaccinated 70 percent of adults — allowed for the relaxation of legal curbs last week.
But the move attracted widespread criticism, with fears the National Health Service could again come under severe strain from rising caseloads, even if many fewer people are now dying of Covid.
Experts have struggled to explain why infections appear to have declined so dramatically since early last week.
The end of the Euro 2020 football tournament — which was blamed for a spike in cases among younger men gathering to watch games — as well as the school holidays and a heatwave have all been mooted as factors.
“The recent fall in cases in England is great news, but also puzzling given that progressive relaxation of restrictions has occurred,” said Stephen Griffin of Leeds University’s School of Medicine.
But, echoing Johnson’s call for caution, he added: “I would be surprised if we are likely to see a continuation of this decline.”