Tensions between the U.S. and Afghan governments are again on the rise amidst disputes over the transfer of authority and alleged abuses linked to U.S. forces. On Sunday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said the United States and the Taliban have resumed peace talks in Qatar after they broke down last year. Karzai suggested both sides have tacitly colluded to destabilize Afghanistan to justify perpetual conflict and their long-term presence. Karzai’s comments coincided with a visit to Afghanistan by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. Hagel denied Karzai’s claims of U.S.-Taliban negotiations.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel: “I told the president it was not true that the United States was unilaterally working with the Taliban in trying to negotiate anything. The fact is, any prospect for peace or political settlements, that has to be led by the Afghans.”
Tensions further escalated over the weekend after the United States canceled plans to transfer full control of the Bagram prison to Afghan forces. The cancellation came days after Karzai criticized the United States for stalling the transfer and vowed to release many prisoners upon assuming control. The United States had previously halted a prison transfer last fall after Karzai vowed to hold trials for prisoners, rejecting U.S. demands for indefinite detention. In his rebuke of the United States on Sunday, Karzai also cited the case of an Afghan college student who claimed he was badly beaten by CIA-backed Afghan forces. The student, Abdul Qayum, says he was taken to a U.S.-run prison and repeatedly punched and whipped with a cable.
An apparent U.S. drone strike in Pakistan has left at least two people dead. The attack would be the first confirmed U.S. strike in Pakistan’s North Waziristan region in two months. Last week, the Obama administration denied responsibility for a pair of strikes inside Pakistan a month ago.
Venezuela has called an election for April 14th to choose the successor to the late President Hugo Chávez. On Friday, Chávez was laid to rest at a funeral ceremony in the capital Caracas. His chosen successor, acting President Nicolás Maduro, delivered the eulogy.
Nicolás Maduro: “Because Comandante Chávez had the most powerful shield inside of him that a human being can have — his purity, his truthfulness, his love of Christ, a real son of Christ — it saved him from insults, from infamy. And here he is unbeaten, pure and transparent, unique and real and alive forever, for all times, for this time and all other future times. Comandante, they couldn’t with you, they couldn’t ever with us. They never will.”
Latin American leaders in attendance included the Chávez allies Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Evo Morales of Bolivia, Cuba’s Raúl Castro, and Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva; as well as Chile’s Sebástian Piñera and Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos. Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also attended. The Obama administration sent no senior officials, dispatching former Congressmember William Delahunt and Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York.
The burial of Hugo Chávez and the announcement of the April 14 election immediately set off a war of words between acting President Nicolás Maduro and rival candidate Henrique Capriles. Just hours after Chávez was laid to rest, Capriles accused Maduro using the late president’s death for political gain.
Henrique Capriles: “This is a completely spurious swearing in. Nobody elected Nicolás [Maduro] as president, and I will say it here, I knew the statement would be made. Nicolás, nobody elected you president. The people didn’t vote for you. The people will judge those who have used the death of the president for electoral ends.”
Capriles lost Venezuela’s last presidential race to Chávez in October, shortly before Chávez’s cancer returned. Responding to his challenger’s accusations, Maduro blasted Capriles’ wealthy background and vowed to continue Chávez’s democratic socialist agenda.
Nicolás Maduro: “I need the support of the people. I need the support of the revolutionary forces. I need the support of the noble people of this country. There’s no bourgeois here, nor a child of the bourgeois here, nor a man full of vanity nor of personal ambition. Here, there is a man of the people who joined Chávez and is here with him until the last breath of my life.”
In the United States, new figures show the official unemployment rate has hit a more than four-year low. The Labor Department says the United States added 236,000 jobs last month, bringing the jobless rate down to 7.7 percent. It is the lowest unemployment figure since December 2008.
Colorado lawmakers have advanced a new package of gun control measures spurred by the state’s mass shootings in Aurora last summer and in Columbine over a decade ago. In a marathon session, Colorado’s state Senate advanced proposals including universal background checks, barring guns from domestic abusers, and restricting the size of gun magazines. If given final approval, the measures would constitute some of the toughest gun laws in the country.
South Dakota has become the first state to legally allow teachers to carry firearms in class. On Friday, Republican Gov. Dennis Daugaard signed into a law a measure that allows individual school districts to decide whether teachers can be armed. Georgia’s state Senate, meanwhile, is now taking up a similar bill that would strike down bans on guns in bars, churches and colleges.
New figures show U.S. gun ownership per household is on the decline. A survey by The New York Times shows while 50 percent of households owned a gun in the 1970s, the figure today is 34 percent. Other studies have reported a smaller decline, with the number at 43 percent.
Two Saudi Arabian human rights activists have been sentenced to at least 10 years behind bars. Mohammed Fahd al-Qahtani and Abdullah Hamad, founders of the banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, were convicted of sedition and of using Twitter to criticize the U.S.-backed Saudi regime. In a statement, the Gulf Forum for Civil Societies denounced the sentences and called for the activists’ immediate release.
Uhuru Kenyatta has been declared the winner in Kenya’s presidential election, narrowly edging out Raila Odinga. The International Criminal Court indicted Kenyatta in 2011 for allegedly funding militia attacks on political opponents.
One of the suspects in the gang rape and death of a 23-year-old woman in India has committed suicide in his jail cell. The rape victim, Jyoti Singh Pandey, was attacked on a moving bus in New Delhi in December, dying from her injuries two weeks later. On Sunday, Indian police said one of the six suspects, Ram Singh, hung himself in his cell. The five other suspects are currently on trial. On Friday, Jyoti Singh Pandey was honored posthumously in Washington with the State Department’s International Women of Courage Award. Secretary of State John Kerry paid tribute to Pandey at the ceremony.
Secretary of State John Kerry: “Over the next two weeks, she became aware of the growing movement that was supporting her and the outrage and indignation ignited around the world. As she fought for her life, she decided to fight for justice, too. She defied her doctors and a culture of silence, giving two detailed accounts of her attack that the police used to arrest her rapists. Her bravery inspired millions of women and men to come together with a simple message: No more.”
On the eve of the International Women of Courage Award ceremony, the State Department dropped an Egyptian activist from its list of recipients. Samira Ibrahim was initially named along with the nine other International Women of Courage honorees. Ibrahim gained notoriety in 2011 for speaking out against sexual violence by Egyptian forces, revealing she and other women had been subjected to so-called virginity tests. But the U.S. withdrew the honor over Ibrahim’s reported comments critical of Israel on Twitter. Ibrahim has said her Twitter account was hacked.
An African-American teenager has been shot dead by two plainclothes police officers in Brooklyn, New York. Sixteen-year-old Kimani Gray was walking down a street in the neighborhood of East Flatbush when the officers approached him in an unmarked car. The officers got out to approach Gray and opened fire when, they claim, they saw him reach for his gun. Gray was carrying a revolver, but one witness reported police did not properly identify themselves and said Gray likely did not know they were cops. Gray had been attending a baby shower with a group of friends. He died of multiple gunshot wounds in the leg and stomach.