Indian Court Reverses Gay Sex Decriminalization; Blast at Kabul International Airport; Lawmakers Fight Over PTI Blockade

Bonus Read: "In Afghanistan, a wedding engagement, a bomb, and an army veteran's quest to move on," Kevin Schieff (Post). A corresponding photo essay can be found here. 


Indian Court reverses gay sex decriminalization

In a blow to human rights in India, the Supreme Court upheld a 153-year-old law criminalizing gay sex on Wednesday (BBC, The Hindu, Indian Express, NYT). Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code classifies gay sex as an "unnatural offence" and awards a jail term, possibly a life sentence, to anyone found guilty. Responding to a petition by religious and social pressure groups, the court overturned the historic 2009 verdict of the Delhi High Court which struck down Section 377 as discriminatory and refused to criminalize sex between two consenting adults in private (HRW).

Justice Sudhansu Jyoti Mukhopadhaya, along with Justice G.S. Singhvi, who passed the verdict a day before his retirement, put the onus on the Indian parliament to remove Section 377 from the Constitution, in line with suggestions from the attorney general. Solicitor General and senior lawyer Indira Jaisingh criticized the Supreme Court's double standards on the issue, saying the court was as much an arbiter of human rights as parliament (IndianExpress). While various members of parliament publicly denounced the ruling, Union Law Minister Kapil Sibal welcomed the decision to place the law before parliament, but did not say whether there was a plan to do so (NDTV). The verdict has sparked a massive outcry with protests forming all over the country.

Aam Admi Party may fight in national elections  

Building on the momentum generated by their unprecedented performance in Delhi's recent state elections, the Aam Admi Party reportedly has eyes on contesting national polls next year (Times of India). At a meeting to brainstorm future steps, party leaders Yogendra Yadav and Sanjay Singh explored the possibility of participating in national elections, but admitted they would face financial constraints if re-elections are called. The 14-month-old party is already gearing up to fight assembly elections in the neighboring state of Haryana in 2014 and is looking to tap bureaucrats that have unearthed major political scams to lead the charge. According to leader Arvind Kejriwal, the party will focus on seats where they are likely to have a strong base or ally with similarly minded parties such as Hyderabad's Loksatta. Kejriwal has also been named one of Foreign Policy's 100 global thinkers for 2013 for 'leading a campaign to clean up India's capital' (FP). 

India's trade deficit narrows

India's trade deficit narrowed to $9.22 billion in November as restrictions on gold shipments pushed imports to their lowest level in more than two-and-a-half years, the trade ministry said on Wednesday (Economic TimesReuters). Merchandise exports rose by 5.86 percent year-on-year to $24.6 billion, while imports fell by 16.37 percent from the previous year to $33.83 billion, largely due to an 80.5 percentage drop in imports of gold and silver. India's trade deficit was $10.56 billion in October. 

Financial officials reassure on economy

The Reserve Bank of India will unveil new measures in the next few weeks to recognize and reduce financial stress, including making it more expensive for "willful" defaulters to borrow funds, central bank governor Raghuram Rajan said on Wednesday during a speech to the Delhi Economic Conclave, an event organized by the finance ministry (Economic Times). Willful defaulters are defined as those who have the ability to repay debts, but have used loan proceeds for other purposes. Speaking from the sidelines of the event, Rajan told reporters that the Indian economy is set to grow about 5 percent this financial year, while the current account deficit will remain below 3 percent of GDP. 

Speaking at the same meeting, India's Finance Minister P. Chidambaram reiterated that the government remains set on its goal of narrowing the fiscal deficit to three percent of GDP by 2016 or 2017 (The Hindu). The government has set a fiscal deficit target of 4.8 percent for the current year, a red line that Chidambaram has repeatedly said will not be breached. Fitch Ratings said in a report released on Tuesday that the heavy losses sustained by the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in recent assembly polls could encourage the government to spend heavily to curry popular favor and imperil the fiscal deficit target (Economic Times). 

Indians leap at one-way trip to Mars

More than 20,000 Indians have applied to be one of the four men and women who will take a one-way trip to Mars in 2023 to establish a permanent space colony (Times of India). The Mars One program received 202,586 applications during a five-month period, and Indians were the second-largest pool of applicants, behind only Americans. The program aims to select six to 10 teams of four individuals by 2015 for a seven-year training program. In 2023, one of the teams will become the first humans to land on Mars and live there for the rest of their lives, the program said.  

-- Shruti Jagirdar and Ana Swanson


Blast at airport, but no casualties 

A car bomb exploded outside the northern gate of the Kabul International Airport on Wednesday, but no coalition or civilian casualties have been reported (NYT, RFE/RL). The explosives-laden vehicle was detonated near a military entrance that is normally crowded with civilian workers waiting to go through security checks, but the only death seems to have been that of a suicide bomber, who was shot and killed when he attempted to attack a military convoy, according to Lt. Col. Latondra Kinley, a spokesperson for NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) (Pajhwok). Afghan observers say attacks on the heavily guarded airport, which is home to ISAF's joint command, are relatively rare and that the facility is an ambitious target for the country's insurgents (Reuters). The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

The bomb occurred one day after the country's National Directorate of Security said that 22 insurgents had been arrested for plotting to attack the Presidential Palace, the Ministry of Defence, and the airport (Pajhwok). According to Farid Shamal, a directorate spokesman, the detainees include a Pakistani suicide bomber and several senior Taliban fighters. He added that at least four of the insurgents had ties to the Haqqani network, which operates out of Pakistan's tribal regions. Pakistan has not commented on these reports.

Mixed messages over BSA 

Amb. James F. Dobbins, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, testified before Congress on Tuesday that the Obama administration believes it can still finalize the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that would keep thousands of U.S. troops in Afghanistan once the NATO combat mission ends in 2014, despite Afghan President Hamid Karzai's refusal to sign the accord (NYT, Pajhwok). Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Dobbins said, "I have no doubt that the BSA, ultimately, will be concluded," and backpedaled away from the proposed "zero-option," claiming that: "We are nowhere near a decision that would involve our departing Afghanistan altogether." However, Dobbins did warn that continued delays in signing the security pact could further undermine the country's stability. 

As Dobbins spoke to Congress, the New York Times reported that the current impasse over the BSA has had "an instant and alarming drag" on the Afghan economy, which is already suffering as Western forces begin to withdraw from the country (NYT). According to the report, food and fuel prices have started to rise, banks have slowed lending, private investment is all but frozen, and domestic travel is down. Afghanistan's economy is almost entirely dependent on foreign aid and the BSA would pave the way for billions of dollars in international aid to flow into the country.

While President Obama and Karzai shook hands on Tuesday at the memorial service for former South African president Nelson Mandela, Ben Rhodes, Obama's deputy national security advisor, said they did not discuss the BSA and that president's position on the agreement had not changed (Pajhwok). The meeting between the two leaders came one day after Karzai gave an interview to Le Monde, a French daily, accusing the United States of behaving like a colonial power in the dispute over the BSA (Pajhwok, Reuters, RFE/RL). He also claimed U.S. officials had threatened to "drive you into a civil war or into a situation of nonpeace," accusations the White House has not responded to.


Internal disputes over PTI blockade 

During a National Assembly meeting in Islamabad on Tuesday, Adbul Qadir Baloch, a parliamentarian from Quetta and a member of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party, censured the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) opposition party for its blockade of a NATO supply route in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province (ET). Since Nov. 24, party supporters have been searching trucks crossing through the Torkham Gate along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border for NATO supplies, turning away coalition vehicles and roughing up their drivers.

While Baloch agreed with the PTI's position that U.S. drone strikes violate Pakistan's sovereignty, he said the party's reaction to a strike in the province -- where they control the local government -- showed a "lack of maturity." Baloch added that the issue should have been discussed by the All Party Conference, "but one party (PTI) did not waste time to gain political mileage." Arif Alvi, a PTI member, immediately fired back, saying the blockade was "the only solution" and showed the United States "that it has domestic pressure." The disagreements emerged after U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel visited Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on Monday and asked for his help in ending the blockade.

Pakistani security experts also commented on the blockade Tuesday, saying that it is having both direct and indirect effects on the country's military interests (Dawn). While Mohammad Saad, a former military attaché at the Pakistani embassy in Kabul, said the blockade was affecting the National Logistics Cell, an emergency services outfit, which has a stake in NATO supply operations, much of the focus was on the protests' monetary impact. Many of the former officials were concerned by Hagel's comments that it might be harder to gain political support for U.S. aid to Pakistan if the blockade continues, noting that Pakistan relies heavily on the United States for the heavy weaponry it uses in its fight against domestic militants. 

Shakil Afridi decries prison treatment

Dr. Shakil Afridi, a Pakistani doctor who was recruited by the CIA to launch a vaccination drive in Abbottabad that many incorrectly believe led to information about Osama bin Laden and is currently in a Pakistani jail, expressed his frustration with Pakistan's tribal court system in a letter that was smuggled out of the prison last week by a supporter (FOX News). In the one-and-a-half page letter, Afridi says that his right to consult with his lawyers is being denied and that he is being held in complete isolation. Afridi, who was sentenced to 33 years in prison in 2012 for colluding with terrorists, is currently awaiting a Dec. 18 decision that could result in a new trial and some of his lawyers are concerned that the release of the letter could hurt his bid for freedom. 

Fighting childhood mortality 

Anita Zaidi, a Pakistani doctor who heads the pediatrics department at the Aga Khan University in Karachi, won a $1 million grant on Tuesday to fight early child mortality in a small Pakistani fishing village (AP). The Caplow Children's Prize, financed by American entrepreneur Ted Caplow, is awarded in a contest focused on finding innovative ways to save lives. Zaidi will use the grant to focus on reducing child mortality rates in Rehri Goth, a village on the outskirts of Karachi where 106 of every 1,000 children die before the age of five. The money from the grant will go towards eliminating malnutrition among expectant and new mothers, as well as their children, and ensuring that children will have access to primary healthcare and immunizations. Zaidi also hopes to train a group of local women to become midwives. 

-- Bailey Cahall