Indian PM Vows to Spur Kashmir Development After Scrapping Special Status

NEW DELHI – As Indian Kashmir remained in an unprecedented lockdown, Prime Minister Narendra Modi promised Kashmiris the beginning of a “new era” as a result of his government’s decision to scrap the region’s special status and bring it under New Delhi’s control.  
 
In an address Thursday on television and radio, Modi defended revoking the constitutional provision under which Kashmir could make its own laws, saying it had impeded its progress, given rise to terrorism and was used as a weapon by rival Pakistan to “instigate some people.” India will now rid the region of “terrorism and terrorists,” he said.  
 
New Delhi blames Islamabad for fomenting a violent three-decade separatist insurgency in the disputed Himalayan region that both counties claim.  
 
With Kashmir in a communications blackout for a fourth straight day, it was not clear how residents of India’s only Muslim-majority region reacted to the Hindu nationalist leader’s assurances of more development, jobs and better governance. Most Kashmiris could have heard his speech only on radio, as internet service and cable television network operations remain suspended.  
 
But with scattered incidents of stone-throwing already being reported, despite curfew-like restrictions, there are fears that widespread protests could erupt in coming days. Anger and resentment are growing, not just at the decision to change Kashmir’s seven-decade-old status but at the clampdown that has been more sweeping than ever before and virtually shuttered the region. Even reporters are finding it difficult to get information.  
 
Police officers in riot gear are deployed every few meters on the streets in the capital, Srinagar, and barbed-wire checkpoints have been set up at major intersections.  

FILE – A Kashmiri municipal worker pushes a trash cart as Indian paramilitary soldiers patrol during curfew in Srinagar, India-controlled Kashmir, Aug. 6, 2019.

300 in detention
 
Over 300 people including politicians, activists and some professors are in detention, according to reports trickling in. Kashmiris living outside the region say they have not been able to get in touch with families and relatives.  
 
The prime minister, however, painted a picture of a better future for a region ripped apart by a violent Islamic insurgency that he said has claimed 42,000 lives. He promised new rail and road links and said that the region would choose its own representatives.  
 
Although the main opposition Congress Party opposes the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s decision to revoke Kashmir’s special status, most other political parties support it. Modi has won praise in several quarters for taking a bold, decisive step that they say in the long run may address the alienation in Kashmir and integrate it with the rest of the country. Critics, however, fear that it will deepen anti-India sentiment and could fuel insurgency among people worried about opening up the region to the rest of the country.  
 
Meanwhile, India downplayed Pakistan’s decision to downgrade diplomatic ties and said changing the status of Kashmir was an internal affair and was aimed at developing the region. In a conciliatory statement, the Foreign Ministry urged Islamabad to reconsider its decision “so that normal channels for diplomatic communications are preserved.”  

Islamabad, infuriated by India’s move to change Kashmir’s status, has vowed to fight for the rights of Kashmiris. 

Mexico Freezes Oil Exec, Steel Accounts in Corruption Probe

Mexican authorities have frozen the bank accounts of Emilio Lozoya, the former head of Mexico’s state-owned oil company, and those of steelmaker Altos Hornos de Mexico, in what looks to be a major new push to punish alleged corruption.

Altos Hornos de Mexico said later Tuesday in a statement that its president Alonso Ancira Elizondo was arrested in Spain for reasons it had not ascertained.

The company said it was awaiting a response from Mexico’s finance ministry to its request to release its accounts. The actions were “illegal and arbitrary,” the company said in its statement.

The Financial Intelligence Unit said Monday that “there were various transactions with funds that presumably did not come from legal activities” in the frozen accounts and the funds “are presumed to have originated in acts of corruption.”

Santiago Nieto, head of the unit, called the account freezes a hallmark of the “new” Finance Ministry. “The policy of the Mexico government is zero tolerance for corruption and impunity,” he wrote on Twitter. 

 

Lozoya’s lawyers did not return calls for comment.

Nieto was a top corruption investigator in the administration of former President Enrique Pena Nieto. But he was abruptly fired in 2017 in the middle of an investigation he led into Lozoya’s dealings while head of state oil company Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, also under Pena Nieto.

Nieto has reopened the case in his new position in the administration of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who took office on Dec. 1 and vowed to stamp out endemic public corruption.

Lozoya and Altos Hornos have been mentioned, but not charged, in corruption scandals involving Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht. The so-called Car Wash investigation into illicit payments by Odebrecht to government officials has led to multiple arrests and prosecutions in Latin American countries over the past five years, but none in Mexico. 

 

Mexico scored 28 out of 100 points in Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perceptions Index, where a lower score indicates higher levels of corruption. That puts Mexico on par with Russia and behind countries such as Honduras and Bolivia on perceptions of clean business.

Ricardo Alvarado, a researcher with non-profit Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity, told The Associated Press that Mexico needs an “emblematic” case to send a strong signal to society that the government is serious about stemming corruption.

Former Odebrecht officials have given evidence to Brazilian prosecutors implicating Lozoya in the company’s bribery scandal. Lozoya has denied receiving bribes, though last week, the government banned Lozoya from holding public positions for 10 years.

Altos Hornos, meanwhile, paid $3.7 million in 2014 to a company called Grangemouth, which it said was hired to advise on selection and pricing of equipment and to facilitate purchases of metallurgical coal to produce steel. Grangemouth has been identified as a possible shell company for Odebrecht.

In a statement, Altos Hornos de Mexico SA called the freezing of its accounts “without precedent, arbitrary and in violation of every right.” The company said it employs more than 20,000 people and has thousands of suppliers. In a separate statement, AHMSA assured creditors that it would make its debt payments.

The account freezes may stem from Pemex’s decision to purchase fertilizer business Fertinal from AHMSA for $635 million in 2015, when Lozoya headed Pemex.

Lopez Obrador has called the fertilizer plant “junk” and said that Pemex overpaid. Now the government must decide whether to put more money into the plant or bring in a private partner.

“I would very much like to re-establish fertilizer production, and for us to be self-sufficient,” Lopez Obrador said Tuesday during his morning press conference.

US Boycotts Venezuela’s Presidency of UN Conference on Disarmament

The United States walked out of the U.N. Conference on Disarmament to protest Venezuela assuming the one-month rotating presidency of the body. The U.S. ambassador said his delegation will boycott the conference for the duration of the period.

U.S. Ambassador Robert Wood says he will stay away from the deliberations of the U.N. body for as long as Venezuela holds the presidency.   

Wood said he does not want to lend credibility and legitimacy to the government of President Nicolas Maduro, which he calls morally bankrupt, economically incompetent, profoundly corrupt, and inhumane.

Wood told VOA the Maduro government was planning to use the presidency for propaganda purposes over the next four weeks. He said Venezuela will try to paint its presidency of the conference as being as normal as that of any other presidency. He added the U.S. cannot tolerate that.

“We do not think being in the room is a good way to make clear how illegitimate we see that regime,” Wood said. “ … We think we are sending a very powerful message, not just to CD representatives in the room, but also to the Venezuelan people that we are standing with them and we are not going to give any credibility or legitimacy to this regime as it occupies the CD presidency.”  

Wood said the U.S. has received support for its stance from the so-called Lima Group of countries from Latin America. He said the group has decided it too would boycott the entirety of Venezuela’s presidency.  He said some other countries have decided to downgrade their representation.

Venezuelan Ambassador Jorge Valero earlier said it was an honor for his country to hold the rotating presidency of the Conference on Disarmament. He said Venezuela would conduct its presidency in accordance with the rules of procedure and make every effort to ensure a constructive and inclusive approach in the forum.

A number of countries welcomed Valero when he assumed the presidency and banged the gavel to call the meeting to order.

Pakistan, North Korea, Myanmar, Cuba, Iran, Syria and Russia were among those which lent their support to Venezuela and expressed confidence in its ability to preside over a successful session. Many objected to what they termed the unnecessary and artificial politicization of the conference by some member states.

 

 

Brazilian Officials Say 42 Inmates Found Dead at 3 Prisons

Forty-two inmates were killed at three different prisons in the capital of Brazil’s northern Amazonas state Monday, authorities reported, a day after 15 died during fighting among prisoners at a fourth prison in the same city.

The Amazonas state prison agency said all 42 prisoners found dead in Manaus on Monday showed signs of asphyxia.

The killings across the city’s prisons recalled early 2017 when more than 120 inmates died at the hands of other prisoners during riots over several weeks at prisons in northern states. Many of those victims had their heads cut off or their hearts and intestines ripped out.

On Sunday, 15 inmates were killed during a riot at Manaus’ Anisio Jobim Prison Complex, where 56 prisoners died in the violence two years earlier.

Local authorities said prisoners began fighting among themselves before noon Sunday, and security reinforcements were rushed in and managed to regain control within 45 minutes.

Little information was released about Monday’s killings.

Brazil’s justice and public security ministry said it was sending a federal task force to help local officials handle the situation.

“I just spoke with (Justice) Minister Sergio Moro, who is already sending a prison intervention team to the State of Amazonas, so that he can help us in this moment of crisis and a problem that is national: the problem of prisons,” Amazonas state Gov. Wilson Lima said.

Brazil’s prison gangs are powerful and their reach extends outside the country’s penitentiaries.

Moro had to send a federal task force to help tame violence in Ceara state in January that local officials said was ordered by crime gang leaders angered by plans to impose tighter controls in the state’s prisons. 

 

 

Peru Earthquake Death Toll Rises to 2

The death toll from the powerful earthquake that hit a remote part of the Amazon jungle in Peru and Ecuador has risen to two.

More than 30 people have also been injured in Sunday’s magnitude-8.0 earthquake that was centered about 92 kilometers from the town of Yurimaguas, in northern Peru.

Peruvian Civil Defense Coordinator Ricardo Seijas told Channel N television, one of the victims was “a 15-year-old who was hit on the head” by falling rubble at his home.  The other was a 48-year-old man killed by falling debris while he slept at his house in Cajamarca in northern Peru. The quake struck at 0741 UTC.

The quake was the most powerful to hit the earthquake-prone country in 12 years.

Media reports said 15 people had been hurt in Ecuador, where power-cuts were reported in parts of its Amazon basin region. The tremor was also felt in parts of Colombia and Venezuela.

Earthquakes are frequent in Peru, which is part of the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire,” the world’s most active area of seismic activity.

Bolivian Women Fight Gender-Based Violence through Theater

On stage, amid the hubbub of a Bolivian street market, women recount their stories of abuse at the hands of men.

But the violence depicted in the play isn’t just make-believe for the 22 indigenous actresses: It’s based on their own real-life experiences.

“Kusisita,” a work that seeks to raise awareness about violence against women and mobilize people to fight it, has been drawing large audiences in Bolivia, which has one of South America’s highest rates of femicides.

In the theater, Maria Luque portrays a woman who asks her drunken husband to stop abusing her. In her own history, she said, she was so brutally beaten by the father of her four children that she was left partly paralyzed. Even after more than a decade, she still has trouble moving some of the muscles in her face. 

“I’ve suffered discrimination since birth,” she told The Associated Press. “My mom was very poor and she escaped violence. For some, (violence) might be normal, but we want to show that it shouldn’t be that way.”

“Kusisita” is one of two plays offered by the Kory Warmis – Women of Gold in the Aymara language – troupe, and both focus on the problems of gender violence and convincing women to reject it.

“I was quiet, submissive, but I left that behind on stage. Theater is now my life,” said Luque, 56, who immigrated to the city of El Alto from a rural community in search of work opportunities. 

The plays, presented in Aymara, are also aimed at indigenous communities where nearly half of all reports of gender-based violence takes place, according to 2017 figures from the National Statistics Institute. Those communities make up roughly a fifth of Bolivia’s population.

​About 40% of the country’s police cases involve family violence and alcohol is involved in 90% of cases, according to a government report last year on gender-based violence.

“It’s a very high and alarming rate,” said government minister Carlos Romero, who helped write the report.

Actress Gumercinda Mamani, an artisan and shepherd , recalled how the body of a friend was found on the outskirts of La Paz with marks from a rope that her partner had used to choke her.

“It’s hard to understand how the man that you give your life to is the one who takes it away,” said Mamani, a former representative for female farmers. “I’m fighting against this.”

Carmen Aranibar, another actress, joined the group in the hopes that her story would encourage other women to leave abusive relationships.

“We can’t wait until they kill us or we want to take our own lives out of the desperation caused by violence,” said Aranibar, a mother of two boys who sells diapers for a living.

She said she endured beatings by her partner for more than 10 years before finding out that he was cheating on her with a younger woman. 

“I nearly killed myself,” she said. “I put up with everything he did because I was afraid that he’d leave me. But then I realized that it wasn’t worth it and I left him. I’m happy here and that’s what I tell in the play.”

The theater group, which was founded in 2014, finds itself gaining an audience as waves of women mobilize to fight gender violence across the world. In neighboring Argentina, a grassroots movement known as “Ni Una Menos,” or Not One Less, emerged in 2015 and drew thousands to hold massive demonstrations in support of women’s rights. But while movements in Bolivia have lacked the impact of Ni Una Menos or the (hash)MeToo movement in the United States, some say the plays have had impact.

“It’s a success, 100% percent,” said Paola Ricalde of the La Paz mayorship’s directorate for equality policies. 

Theater group director Erika Andia said it’s challenging to oversee a group of women who have been forced to be silent and submissive. But she said that their strength of will helped them achieve their goal of “discovering what they’re capable of, helping them loosen up and boost their confidence.”

“We never thought we’d reach so far,” Andia said. “There are no limits to what we do. Every year we continue to grow and there’s happiness after all the pain that our actresses have suffered.”

8.0-Magnitude Quake Rocks Eastern Peru

A powerful magnitude-8.0 earthquake shook a remote part of the Amazon jungle area of eastern Peru Sunday, destroying homes and knocking out power.

Officials report one quake-related death after a man was killed when a boulder tumbled into his house. At least six injuries were reported.

Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra is planning to tour the area to see the damage. He says landslides have blocked a number of roads.

Sunday’s quake was centered about 92 kilometers from the town of Yurimaguas, in northern Peru, but was about 114 kilometers below the Earth’s surface, sparing the region from more serious damage.

Earthquakes are frequent in Peru, which is part of the Pacific Ocean’s “Ring of Fire,” the world’s most active area of seismic activity.

 

Brazil: Backers of Embattled Bolsonaro Take to Streets

Thousands gathered in cities across Brazil on Sunday to show support for President Jair Bolsonaro, who faces an uncooperative Congress, street protests, a family corruption scandal and falling approval ratings five months into his term.

The stumbling start for the far-right leader who rode a wave of dissatisfaction with Brazil’s political class to victory led his backers to call for the demonstrations, which represented a mixed bag of demands and protests.

Supporters sang the national anthem and waved Brazilian flags while chanting the names of Bolsonaro cabinet members. Many said that Brazil’s institutions were not letting Bolsonaro govern. Some called for the closure of Congress and the Supreme Court.

“We need to clean out Congress,” said Neymar de Menezes, a 45-year-old construction contractor. “Unfortunately all the deputies there are compromised and all about deal making. Bolsonaro is fighting them by himself.”

Bolsonaro, who earlier in his political career said he would close Congress if he were ever president, told reporters on Friday he didn’t support calls to close institutions.

“That would not be good for Brazil,” Bolsonaro said. “That’s more Maduro than Jair Bolsonaro,” he added, referring to Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro.

The call for demonstrations created a rift among Brazil’s conservatives. The president of Bolsonaro’s party said protests “don’t make sense.”

“For the love of God, stop with the calls for protests, these people need a reality check,” tweeted Janaina Paschoal, a federal congresswoman whose name was floated as a potential vice president. She said Bolsonaro’s biggest risk was himself, his sons and some of his staff members.

“Wake up! On the 26th, if the streets are empty, Bolsonaro will realize he has to stop with the drama and do his job,” she said.

Bolsonaro did not participate in the demonstrations. Speaking at a church service in Rio de Janeiro, he said demonstrators were on the streets to, “deliver a message to those who insist on keeping the old politics who aren’t allowing the people to be free.”

The idea for demonstrations in favor of Bolsonaro gained steam after tens of thousands of people across Brazil last week protested budget cuts to public education imposed by his government. Bolsonaro dismissed the student-led protests, calling their participants “imbeciles” and “useful idiots.”

It was the first mass street movement against the former army captain who took office on Jan. 1 and has seen his popularity steadily slipping. Roughly as many people now disapprove of his government as approve of it.

Pollster XP Investimentos said its poll showed 36% of Brazilians think Bolsonaro’s government is bad or terrible and 34% say it’s good or great. The firm surveyed 1,000 people on May 21-22, with a margin of error of 3.2 percentage points.

“Bolsonaro got off to a very bad start, especially in the first month,” said Sergio Praca, a political scientist at the Getulio Vargas Foundation University, referring to a corruption scandal involving his family.

Just weeks into his presidency, questions mounted over a report from financial regulators that flagged irregular payments in 2016 and 2017 between his son, Flavio, then a state legislator and now a senator, and his driver. Prosecutors suspect the payments are part of a common scheme in lower levels of Brazilian government in which politicians hire ghost employees who kick back portions of their salaries into the elected official’s bank account. Bolsonaro and his son ran on anti-corruption platforms — a large reason why many voters chose him over the leftist candidate from the scandal-ridden Worker’s Party.

Praca said things have not been looking up since then. Brazil’s economy is sluggish and its currency has weakened. Bolsonaro is struggling to make alliances in Brazil’s infamously deal-making Congress, which is preventing him from passing his agenda, including a desperately needed pension reform. Brazil’s pension system, which allows swaths of the population to retire in their early 50s, is the single largest factor contributing to the country’s deficit.

And, just as during his campaign and time in Congress, Bolsonaro is making headlines for controversial comments. In March during Carnival, he tweeted a pornographic video saying it was a warning to the nation of how decadent the celebration has become.

“The beginning of his government has been marked with uncertainty and confusion,” Praca said.

Meanwhile, about 1,000 human rights activists and residents of Rio de Janeiro’s slums staged a beachfront protest against police violence at the same time pro-Bolsonaro demonstrators were gathered on a neighboring beach.

Bolsonaro and Rio Governor Wilson Witzel support shoot-to-kill policing tactics in neighborhoods where drug gangs operate.

Some of the participants in the Ipanema Beach protest said they had lost family members to police violence.

 

UN: Human Rights Defenders Under Attack in Guatemala

A report by the U.N. Human Rights Office finds human rights defenders, minorities and indigenous people in Guatemala are subject to widescale, wanton attacks by state and non-state actors. The report, prepared with Guatemala’s National Human Rights Institution, covers the period from January 2017 to April 2019.

The U.N. human rights office has recorded an alarming 884 attacks against human rights defenders, including 39 killings during the two-year reporting period. It says human rights defenders are subject to physical attacks, threats, intimidation, surveillance, stigmatization, and gender-based violence.

The report accuses the government of misusing criminal law to silence those defending peoples’ rights to lands, territories and natural resources. It notes indigenous peoples, women defenders, LGBTI defenders, and journalists are among those at particular risk of abuse.

In mid-June, Guatemalans will go to the poll to elect the President and Congress. U.N. human rights spokeswoman, Marta Hurtado said this is a particularly precarious time for human rights defenders. She said her office has documented a number of attacks against community and indigenous leaders targeted for their political involvement.

“Three political candidates and two people with declared intentions to run for office have been killed since January 2019. Impunity in relation to these crimes is persistent and rampant. Independent judges — including from High Courts — and prosecutors have faced assaults, threats, reprisals and have been stigmatized,” said Hurtado.

The report warns these attacks and abuses of peoples’ civil rights bring into question the credibility of the electoral process. It says widespread violations will persist unless measures are taken to end the country’s endemic corruption, redress the lack of land tenure, improve security and institutional weaknesses.

The report recommends the government strengthen measures to prevent, protect, investigate and prosecute crimes committed against human rights defenders.