Kabul, Feb 13 (AP/UNB) — Afghanistan's attorney general has launched an investigation into allegations that the Independent Election Commission and a separate complaints commission misused their authority during last year's parliamentary elections.
The October elections were marred by chaos, and the full results have yet to be announced. The government announced the investigation on Wednesday, a day after it fired the 12 members of both commissions and barred them from leaving the country.
President Ashraf Ghani has given politicians and civil society members one week to nominate new election commission members.
Afghanistan is set to hold a presidential election in July, but the Taliban have supported an interim arrangement in their talks with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad. The government, which has been largely sidelined in the talks, rejects that idea.
Kabul, Feb 13 (AP/UNB) — Afghans mourned the country's first post-communist president, Sibghatullah Mujadidi, at a ceremony Wednesday attended by his former comrades-in-arms, including his one-time spokesman and protege, former President Hamid Karzai.
The ceremony at Afghanistan's presidential palace was a solemn affair, with Mujadidi's coffin draped in a giant green shawl emblazoned with versus from the Quran, Islam's holy book, and later the Afghan flag. Mujadidi died early Tuesday.
President Ashraf Ghani extolled Mujadidi's contributions to evicting Soviet forces from Afghanistan in the 1980s, saying "his death has saddened the entire nation." Mujadidi was the first president following the withdrawal of Soviet troops and the 1992 collapse of Kabul's pro-communist government.
A second service is to be held later Wednesday in Kabul's sports stadium for the general public.
Bangkok, Feb 13 (AP/UNB) — The Thai political party that took the unprecedented and ultimately unsuccessful step of nominating a member of the royal family as its candidate for prime minister was fighting for its political life Wednesday, while the princess herself appeared to criticize the fallout.
The country's Election Commission said Wednesday that it recommended the Thai Raksa Chart Party be dissolved because its prime minister candidate was "in conflict with the system of rule of democracy with king as head of state." It said the recommendation had been forwarded to the Constitutional Court for a decision.
The party on Feb. 8 named Princess Ubolratana Mahidol its candidate for prime minister for the March 24 general election. But King Maha Vajiralongkorn just hours later issued an edict effectively banning the action because it was inappropriate and unconstitutional.
What made Ubolratana's bid particularly notable was her allying herself with a party that is part of the political machine of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, who was ousted in a 2006 coup and is loathed by many royalists and others in the country's traditional establishment.
The whirlwind events have reignited longstanding political tensions in Thailand, which is still run by a military junta that seized power in a 2014 coup and ousted the government of Thaksin's sister. Since the coup, the junta had used strict laws against protests and political activity to keep the tension from bubbling to the surface.
Ubolratana, who is active on Instagram with more than 100,000 followers, late on Tuesday posted a message reflecting on the events.
"I am sorry that my honest intentions to help work for the country and all Thais have resulted in a problem that should not arise in this day and age. #howcomeitsthewayitis," said her message.
After the king overruled its candidate, Thai Raksa Chart avowed its fealty to the king and acceptance of his order, but its opponents urged its dissolution.
Before the Election Commission made its recommendation, the party leader Preechapol Pongpanit called for the body to hear its defense.
"If they don't let us tell our side, it'd be as if we were tied by our hands and feet," he said.
Ubolratana's candidacy could have pitted her against the preferred candidate of the pro-royalist military, junta leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup.
Prayuth was considered the frontrunner, largely because election laws enacted under his government skewed the odds against any party running without the support of the military and the conservative royalist establishment. Under the military-drafted constitution, the junta appoints all of the upper house, which along with the lower house gets to vote for prime minister.
The changes were the latest attempt at quashing the influence of Thaksin, whose allied parties have won every national election since 2001 and remain popular with the rural majority for their populist policies such as universal health care.
Three pro-Thaksin parties running in this year's election were seen as posing the greatest challenge to Prayuth and pro-military parties, and recruiting the glamorous 67-year-old Ubolratana to their cause was initially seen as boosting their odds. They appear to have assumed that since she lost her formal royal titles in 1972 when she married a foreigner — an American whom she has since divorced — that the strictures against royal involvement in politics would not apply to her.
Dissolving Tha Raksa Chart would almost surely cost the Thaksin side much-needed seats in the election. It would also deepen concerns about the fairness of the March poll, the first since the coup.
Those concerns were heightened Tuesday when the country's telecoms regulator suspended the operating license of a TV station linked to Thaksin, citing national security concerns. The National Broadcasting and Telecommunications Commission said two news programs on the station spread information that caused public confusion and divisiveness.
Washington, Feb 13 (AP/UNB) — A top U.S. commander said Tuesday that he has not seen any effort by North Korea to curtail its nuclear weapons program since President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un met for nuclear talks last year.
Army Gen. Robert Abrams testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee ahead of Trump's second meeting with Kim later this month in Hanoi, Vietnam. The U.S. hopes North Korea will give up its nuclear weapons in exchange for an end to punishing international sanctions.
Abrams called the second meeting a "positive sign of continued dialogue," but added, "We have not observed activity that's consistent with a full-court press on denuclearization."
He said there has been a reduction in tensions along the Korean Demilitarized Zone — the buffer zone between North and South Korea — and cited he North's decision to stop missile tests and other provocative actions, but said, "Little to no verifiable change has occurred in North Korea's military capabilities."
Abrams noted it has been some 440 days since North Korea conducted a missile test or a nuclear weapons explosion. But he said North Korea's existing capabilities, along with its continued development of advanced conventional systems, remain unchecked.
"The only observable change has been a reduction in the attention and bellicosity the regime layers onto its military activities. Since the end of 2017, Pyongyang has reduced its hostile rhetoric and halted media coverage of Kim Jong Un's attending capstone events such as large-scale, live-fire training or special operations raids on mock-up alliance targets," Abrams said.
"It is, however, too soon to conclude that a lower profile is indicative of lesser risk," Abrams said.
He advised the committee to maintain a force in the region to deter any possible aggression by North Korea against the United States, South Korea or regional allies. There are about 28,500 U.S. troops stationed in South Korea.
Kuala Lumpur, Feb 12 (AP/UNB) — Malaysian authorities have seized a record 30 tons of pangolin and pangolin products in eastern Sabah state on Borneo, the biggest such bust in the country, a wildlife monitoring group said Tuesday.
The monitoring network Traffic said in a statement that Sabah police this month uncovered two major pangolin processing facilities, throwing a spotlight on Sabah's role in the sourcing and trafficking of the endangered scaly mammal.
Sabah police said over the weekend they had seized three refrigerated containers containing 1,800 boxes filled with frozen pangolins, another 572 frozen pangolins in separate freezers, 61 live pangolins and 361 kilograms of pangolin scales. Two bear paws and carcasses of four flying fox were also recovered. A 35-year-old Malaysian man, believed to be a factory manager, has been detained.
The pangolin is said to be the most widely trafficked mammal in the world, and its scales are in high demand in Asia for use in traditional Chinese medicine. The scales are made of keratin, the same material in human fingernails. Their meat is also considered a delicacy in China and other Asian countries.
Sabah police chief Omar Mammah said in the statement that initial investigations showed the facility has operated for seven years and that the suspect had bought the pangolins from local illegal hunters for distribution locally and to the neighboring state of Sarawak. He estimated the haul to be worth at least 8.4 million ringgit ($2 million).
Traffic said the whole pangolin bodies found frozen and boxed were likely to have been sold for meat consumption.
"Including this bust, Sabah has been implicated in over 40 tons of pangolin smuggling since August 2017, including 13 tons of African pangolin scales," it said.
It said the seizures came a decade after Sabah authorities discovered logbooks in 2009 kept by another pangolin trafficking ring. It said the logbooks revealed that about 22,200 pangolins were killed and 834.4 kilograms of pangolin scales sourced throughout the state and supplied to the syndicate over 13 months.
There were occasional seizures of live and processed pangolins since then. But a massive seizure of African pangolin scale shipments in 2017 at a Sabah port and at the Kuala Lumpur International airport originating from Sabah has since highlighted Sabah's emerging role as a transit point in the global trafficking of pangolin scales from Africa to Asia, TRAFFIC said.
The latest "seizure and the 2009 discovery confirm that Borneo is still an important source of pangolins for the illegal trade," Traffic communications officer Elizabeth John told the Associated Press.