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Two candidates have already claimed lead while the results of Afghan polls are yet to be released

The much-delayed Afghan presidential election was held on September 28 with a dismal turnout of nearly 2.6 million voters. However, the low polling numbers, representing less than a third of the 9.6 million registered voters, are less of a concern for the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) than the actual process of counting valid votes and announcing results.

The IEC had announced that votes not verified by biometric identification would not be included in the final tally, upsetting political figures such as Fazal Hadi Muslimyar, Speaker of the Senate. Mr. Muslimyar, on Tuesday, threatened to get the IEC to count the votes, saying: “We will make even their father count... How can you violate people’s right?”

While he later apologised for the comments, Mr. Muslimyar stood by the demand to include votes in districts where biometric verification was not possible or unavailable. On the other side, rival candidates, fearing the possibility of fraud and ballot-stuffing, have insisted on including only the votes with biometric verification. The debate has triggered concerns among voters that a potential political crisis is brewing.

Already, two of the major candidates have declared that they have most votes, even though the IEC is yet to finish counting. The preliminary results are scheduled to be released on October 19. “The results will be announced by the IEC, but we have the most votes. The election is not going to go to a second round,” Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s Chief Executive and President Ashraf Ghani’s main rival in the election, told the local media on September 30. Later that evening, in a separate gathering, Amrullah Saleh, the running mate of President Ghani, made a similar claim.“The information that we have received show that 60% to 70% of people voted for us,” he said, indicating that a dispute, similar to the one five years ago, can’t be ruled out. Allegations of fraud and corruption in 2014 led to a deadlock despite two rounds of polling. Eventually, the U.S. stepped in and brokered a deal to form a national unity government, led by both President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah.

‘Be patient’

The IEC has dismissed the claims of both Mr. Abdullah and Mr. Saleh, and asked the candidates to be patient.

“The Afghanistan Constitution is clear about this. Election management falls under our purview and it is our job to announce the result. Our job is to comply with what the Afghan people have decided and we will soon announce who the Afghans have chosen,” an IEC official told The Hindu, requesting anonymity. Representatives of both candidates who spoke to The Hindu clarified that their assertions were based on data gathered by election observers and monitors.

Basir Mohamadi, a member of Mr. Saleh’s Afghanistan Green Trend party, assured that their team was waiting for the announcement from the IEC and would respect its decision. “We strongly believed in the elections right from the beginning, even when all others did not have any belief in the elections, had no plan or agenda for it. We’ve had the plan from the start and we implemented it and have campaigned in a timely manner,” he said, while asked why his team was confident that the Ghani-Saleh ticket was in the forefront.

Zalmai Nishat, a senior public policy adviser to the Office of the Chief Executive, said Mr. Abdullha’s comment was a cautious step to reassert the guidelines that only biometric votes would be counted. “The issue was not about questioning the process at all; Dr Abdullah did say we will wait for [the results to be announced]. But we wanted to reiterate that the guidelines and processes previously agreed upon would be followed strictly,” he said.

“Perhaps there was no need for [Mr. Abdullah] to say what he said, but there are worries that the agreement made beforehand and as per the electoral law of accepting only biometric votes could be violated,” Mr. Nishat said.

According to Afghan election laws, if no candidate secures more than 50% of the votes, a run-off will be held between the two leading candidates. Interestingly, a later date has already been set for the anticipatory second round in November. Many voters expressed the hope that the candidates would respect the eventual decision of the IEC, and that if it comes to the second round, they were willing to step out again to cast their vote. “Voting is our obligation to our country. If you don’t vote, then you don’t have the right to complain about the government,” one of the voters in Kabul said.

At least 1,472 people were charged under the blasphemy law in Pakistan since 1987

Last month, the Supreme Court of Pakistan acquitted Wajih-ul-Hassan of blasphemy charges. Mr. Hassan was accused of writing “blasphemous” letters to a lawyer and was sentenced to death in 2002 by a Lahore court. And he had been in jail since. The Supreme Court said that there was no concrete evidence against him.

The case has revived calls for amendments to Pakistan’s controversial blasphemy laws. “There is no legal or ethical justification for the blasphemy law not to be amended and ultimately repealed,” Brad Adams, Asia director of Human Rights Watch, told The Hindu. “Recent cases have once again spotlighted that often the accusation is a punishment in itself. Prime Minister Imran Khan has repeatedly expressed the intention to make an inclusive and equitable Pakistan. It will not be possible as long as the blasphemy laws remain on the books.”

According to the laws, anyone convicted of insulting Prophet Mohammad can be sentenced to death, and anyone guilty of insulting “any religion” can be jailed for up to 10 years.

The Supreme Court has noted, on many occasions, that people accused of blasphemy suffer “beyond proportion or repair” in the absence of adequate safeguards against misapplication or misuse of such laws, said Reema Omer, legal adviser, South Asia International Commission of Jurists. “In more than 80% blasphemy cases, those convicted by trial courts are acquitted on appeal. In most cases, the reason for acquittal is that the case was registered maliciously for personal/political disputes,” she said. “Yet, not a single person has been prosecuted for instituting malicious cases or giving false testimony... Actors in the criminal justice system, who not only allow but are complicit in such manifest injustices, have also not been held accountable.”

According to London-based Centre for Social Justice, at least 1,472 people were charged under the law between 1987 and 2016. Last year, Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman who was on death row for blasphemy, was acquitted by the Supreme Court. The acquittal had triggered mass protests in Islamabad.

Impartiality in question

Rights groups say minority sections are often targeted by the law. According to Ms. Omer, the Lahore High Court judgment confirming Mr. Hassan’s conviction and death sentence “is rife with anti-Ahmadi sentiment and shows how influenced the judges were by the complainant, Ismail Qureshi, who is praised in the judgment for his role in the mandatory death penalty for blasphemy against the Holy Prophet. Can such judges really be called ‘impartial’?”

No-one has been legally executed in Pakistan for blasphemy. But there have been several violent incidents in the name of blasphemy. In 2013, Junaid Hafeez, an academic, was booked and arrested on blasphemy charges. His lawyer, Rashid Rehman, was threatened after he took Mr. Hafeez’s case and eventually assassinated in Multan. Mr. Hafeez is still in prison.

According to lawyer Asad Jamal, judges of lower courts are considerate in some cases. In a case similar to Aasia Bibi’s [in picture], a trial court acquitted another Christian woman, Rubina Bibi, of blasphemy charges. “If judges of lower courts are assured that the State will provide security, that the High Courts will back them up, then they would be able to give more relief.”

High Court judges, on the other hand, are often reluctant to take bold decisions, he said. “In September 2014, I petitioned the Lahore High Court that Junaid Hafeez’s case should be transferred from Multan to Lahore after Rashid Rehman’s assassination. The court asked why it was necessary. When I mentioned Rehman’s assassination, the then Chief Justice of Lahore High Court said, ‘One is not required to obtain visa to travel to Lahore from Multan’, implying that an assassin could travel to Lahore if he wanted to; therefore, there was no use of transferring the case,” said Mr. Jamal.

Aasia Bibi’s case appears to have set a precedent of resolving cases related to blasphemy. “Now with Wajih Hassan’s case, lawyers may be more confident of a positive outcome,” said academic Umair Javed.

“The unfortunate thing, though, is about the time lapsed due to injustice. This is a larger systematic problem with our justice system. Over the years, blasphemy has become such a volatile and emotional issue that it now has its own political dynamics.” There’s now at least a chance to get justice, “but whether this is a turning point in the blasphemy issue in Pakistan overall remains to be seen,” said Mr. Javed.

The U.S. govt. has limited the number of refugee admits for FY-2020 at 18,000, the lowest since 1980

Even as the number of refugees hit 26 million at the end of 2018 — a historic post-war high — the Trump administration has dramatically cut back on the number it is allowing into the U.S. The administration recently announced a proposal to cap admits in financial year 2020 (October 1, 2019 – September 30, 2020) at 18,000, the lowest since the country’s Refugee Act of 1980 was passed.

The stated reason? The administration feels that previous administrations’ refugee policies did not adequately take into account national security or foreign policy concerns. “The previous allocations by continent or region were not directly connected to our national security or foreign policy priorities,” a senior official told reporters on a September 26 briefing call. “The administration's proposed allocation links refugee admissions directly to U.S. national security and foreign policy priorities.”

The U.S. also says it has to clear the backlog for asylum applications (i.e., related to those already in the U.S. or presenting themselves at a port of entry) and has decided to combine refugee and asylum counts. The southern border of the U.S. has become the focal point for new asylum claims and the U.S. expects to process 350,000 new asylum cases, as per a September 27 media note from the State Department.

“Indeed, it would be irresponsible for the United States to go abroad seeking large numbers of refugees to resettle when the humanitarian and security crisis along the southern border already imposes an extraordinary burden on the U.S. immigration system,” the note read.

The administration has also given local governments the right to refuse refugees for resettlement for the first time in history. The U.S. will admit refugees from priority categories this year rather than accepting them solely from pre-determined regions of the world. First, a quota of up to 5,000 places for those being persecuted for religious beliefs. Second, up to 4,000 places for Iraqis who have helped the U.S. Third, up to 1,500 spots are being reserved for nationals of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. The remaining 7,500 of the 18.000 spots are being reserved for categories not covered above, including family reunification cases, the official said.

Backlog for asylum requests

The historically low caps were opposed by religious groups and humanitarian organisations. Critics, The New York Times reported, have noted that the backlog for asylum applications occurs in immigration courts whereas refugees are already vetted before they enter the U.S. Some also argued that an asylum backlog should not prevent the U.S. from helping those in need of protection in other parts of the world.

Roughly half (51%) of Americans said the U.S. had a responsibility to accept refugees, while 43% said it does not, according to a May 2018 Pew Research Center survey. A quarter of Republicans had said the U.S. does have a responsibility to take refugees, while three quarters of Democrats felt that way. A higher proportion of racial minorities, women, and those with higher levels of education said the U.S. had a responsibility to take refugees relative to whites, men and those with lower levels of education.

There are just under 71 million displaced persons worldwide, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Forty-one million of these are internally displaced, 26 million are refugees, and some 3.5 million are asylum seekers. In 2018, some 67% of refugees came from Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia, and 80% of refugees live in countries that neighbour their countries of origin. It is no surprise then that Turkey has topped the list of host countries for refugees since 2014. Pakistan and Uganda have, at least in the last two years, come in at second and third place, respectively.

The U.S. has, at least since the early 1980s, led the world in accepting refugees. However, soon after Donald Trump assumed office in 2017, he temporarily suspended the resettlement of Syrian refugees along with banning individuals from seven Muslim majority countries from entering the U.S. on most visa categories. Refugee numbers dropped from 85,000 in 2016 to 53,700 in 2017, and the Pew Research Center reports that since 2017, the U.S. has admitted many more Christian refugees than Muslim refugees.

As was discussed in this column earlier, the Trump administration is clamping down on legal and illegal migration to the U.S. The changes to refugee policy, it would appear, are very much in line with this broader theme.

The Bangladesh PM has launched a drive which she says is necessary to address rising inequality

On a muggy September afternoon, roulette players crowded into a sporting club in Dhaka just like another day. Croupiers spun the roulette wheels, but the players were clearly out of luck. The Rapid Action Battalion, known as an elite force, descended on the club, not far from the local police station, and arrested 142 people in a major anti-gambling sweep. With this raid ongoing, a separate team arrested the man behind the gambling ring in another part of the city on September 18 — Khaled Mahmud Bhuiyan, an organising secretary of the ruling Awami League’s youth front Jubo League.

As the day wore on, security forces raided three more clubs that operated slot machines, roulette tables and other gambling equipment in Dhaka, an unlikely place for casinos. The raids offered, for the first time, glimpses into mushrooming clandestine casinos established by people with close ties to the ruling party.

“It was necessary to strike a blow against this corrupt part of our society,” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said. “We’re continuing the drive against corruption to prevent the recurrence of incidents such as 1/11,” Ms. Hasina said at a news conference in New York on September 29, alluding to the controversial intervention in the civil administration by an Army-led group in 2007. Her comments shed light on the involvement of Jubo League leaders in running illicit gambling facilities. “I brought it upon myself to right the wrong.”

In another startling raid on September 20, the RAB arrested Golam Kibria Shamim, an influential government-listed contractor who identifies himself as a Jubo League leader, along with his seven bodyguards. Shamim made headlines for his clout over the government’s Public Works Department to secure contracts. The man who used his bodyguards and loud car honks to clear his way through Dhaka traffic was seen in handcuffs in a quick reversal of fortune. His company dealt with at least 22 construction contracts worth around 60 billion taka (₹50 billion). The arrest has now stalled those projects, according to the local media.

Contracts gone wrong

During the raid on his business, law-enforcement officials seized about 20 million taka in cash, 1.75 billion taka worth of savings in fixed deposits, alcohol and firearms from his office. Shamim was initially remanded for 10 days in two separate cases: firearms and money laundering. After the first round of interrogation, the police took him back into custody for another nine days, securing a new court order.

His case exposes footprints of corruption in government contracts often secured through bribery and political muscle. Bangladesh went down six steps to the 149th position on the Transparency International’s (TI) latest Corruption Perception Index — the second worst performance after Afghanistan among the eight South Asian nations.

By one estimate, 2-3% of Bangladesh’s GDP is lost to corruption. But TI estimates the losses at 5% of the GDP if large public procurements and corruption in health and education sectors are taken into account.

“When money is transferred from one pocket to another, it may not be directly linked to loss of economic growth. But when a bridge or a building collapses due to poor construction, then it is not only a waste of money and loss of potential output of the economy but also a loss of invaluable human lives,” Fahmida Khatun, executive director of the Dhaka-based Centre for Policy Dialogue, wrote in a recent report.

As the crackdown on corruption set off ripples of anxiety, student protests erupted at a university in the district of Gopalganj, about 100 km from the capital, against Vice-Chancellor Khondoker Md Nasiruddin. The teacher who faced a barrage of allegations — from irregularities in student admission and appointment of teachers to corruption in procurement — resigned on September 30.

Ms. Hasina said the anti-corruption drive was necessary to bring equality in society. Inequality in Bangladesh has reached an all-time high. The country’s Gini coefficient, a statistical measure of income inequality, increased to 0.482 in 2016 from 0.458 in 2010. “The nouveau riche creates disparity in society, leaving the children of honest people frustrated. Children are innocent; therefore, they ask their parents — ‘if they can come to school in expensive cars and wear expensive clothes, then why can’t we?’” Ms. Hasina said. There’s a moral hazard associated with corruption.

Ms. Khatun sums it up: “If corruption continues to go unchecked, many get encouraged; others get frustrated and demotivated.”

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