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Ram Nath Kovind as India's Dalit president - symbolism and reality

Indian media had described the presidential contest as "Dalit versus Dalit." The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies had nominated Ram Nath Kovind, a former governor of the eastern state of Bihar, whereas opposition parties had backed Meira Kumar, India's first woman speaker for parliament. Both Kovind and Kumar belong to the lowest segment of the Hindu caste hierarchy, the Dalit.

In India, the president is chosen by an electoral college composed of the two houses of parliament and state legislatures. In all, 4,120 members of state assemblies and 776 parliamentarians vote.

Kovind's election was a foregone conclusion given that Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP and its allies have a clear majority in parliament and a number of state assemblies. On July 24, Kovind will formally take up the largely ceremonious post, replacing Pranab Mukherjee, who has held the office since 2012.

Unusual circumstances

In normal circumstances, the presidential election in India carries little political significance. But since the Hindu nationalist PM Modi took power in 2014, the plight of Dalits and other religious minorities has come under sharp focus. Attacks on Dalits have steadily risen across the country, particularly in states ruled by the BJP.

Political observers in India had dubbed Kovind's nomination a "masterstroke" by PM Modi. Under fire for his inability to protect religious minorities and rein in Hindu supremacists, Modi supported Kovind for presidency, thus projecting that he and his party believe in the empowerment of Dalits.

Votes from the Dalits and rightwing Hindu nationalists helped Modi secure a sweeping victory in 2014, as well as pick up several key states, including politically salient ones like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

Analysts say Modi is trying to secure Dalit support ahead of the critical 2019 general elections.

Although there is a symbolism attached to Kovind's election, Dalit activists don't foresee any improvement in the situation of one of India's most marginalized communities.

Read: India's caste system: Weakened, but still influential

Ram Nath Kovind as India's Dalit president - symbolism and reality

Dalit president - PM Modi's political masterstroke?

Widespread discrimination

"Suicides, murders and rapes are rampant in India. The victims mostly belong to society's marginalized sections, especially the Dalit community," Sanghapali Aruna Lohitakshi, a Dalit activist, told DW.

According to India's National Human Rights Commission, every 18 minutes a crime is committed against a Dalit, with an average of three Dalit women raped and two murdered every day. Despite strict laws, caste-motivated killings, social exclusion and discrimination against Dalits are a daily occurrence.

Social tensions between Dalits, whose number exceeds over 200 million according to the latest census, and upper Hindu castes are rising in the South Asian country.

"Crimes against Dalits are on the rise in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh, but the authorities have turned a blind eye to them. We are subjected to the worst kind of humiliation," Jignesh Mevani, a Gujarat-based Dalit leader, told DW.

Priyadarshi Telang, convener of the Dalit Adivasi Adikari Andolan organization, says more than politics of symbolism regarding Kovind's presidency, India needs to make sure that laws

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Army general among Thais convicted in Rohingya mass graves case

A Thai general was among 62 people convicted by a court on Wednesday of various charges, including murder, torture, rape, money laundering and human trafficking. 

Lieutenant General Manas Kongpan (main picture) received 27 years for human trafficking and other offenses.

The 103 defendants, all of whom pleaded not guilty, included Thai police officials, businessmen, bureaucrats and Myanmar nationals.

Thai officials initiated the case in 2015 after the discovery of more than 30 bodies at an abandoned human trafficking camp in the southern Songkhla province close to the Thai-Malaysian border.

Thailand Massengrab Migranten (Reuters/D. Sagolj)

Authorities believe the graves contained bodies of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh

Authorities believe the graves contained bodies of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh. At least two of them were children.

Thousands of persecuted Rohingya Muslims, who have been fleeing Myanmar's Rakhine state since 2012, are smuggled into Thailand every year.

It was not immediately clear what caused the deaths, although police said they believed the people were Rohingya because human traffickers often put the immigrants in temporary shelters. Investigators said traffickers held migrants at the camps until relatives paid ransom for their release. In other cases they were sold as slaves. 

- Unfolding Rohingya crisis: 'Not something of a civilized world'

- Rohingya exodus: Tales of suffering and misery

"The trial and convictions was just the first step," Sunai Phasuk, senior Thailand researcher at Human Rights Watch, told Reuters news agency.

"The government needs to do more beyond this and continue investigations. It should leave no stone unturned."

Thailand is considered to be one of the worst places when it comes to human trafficking, according to the US State Department's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which ranks countries by their efforts to deal with human smugglers.

Just weeks after the discovery of dead bodies in Thailand, Malaysian authorities unearthed mass graves near the Thai border .

A total of 139 graves were found at 28 abandoned squalid detention camps believed to have been used by human traffickers to hold people fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Rohingya plight

The mass graves in Thailand and Malaysia highlighted the largely-ignored plight of the Rohingyas in Myanmar and Bangladesh that are regularly exploited by human traffickers.

Myanmar's Rohingyas live predominantly in the western state of Rakhine. They are not officially recognized by the government as citizens and for decades the nation's Buddhist majority has been accused of subjecting them to discrimination and violence.

Read: Myanmar's Rohingya conflict 'more economic than religious'

Viewed by the United Nations and the US as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh flee their countries every year in a desperate attempt to reach largely Muslim Malaysia and Indonesia.

Beyond verdicts

Fortify Rights, a Southeast Asia-based human rights organization, believes it is necessary for the Thai government to carefully examine the entire process in order to avoid similar problems and difficulties in the future trafficking cases.

It also said the Thai investigation was limited and failed to investigate other suspected camps where victims are believed to be buried.

"Thai authorities shouldn't sweep undiscovered mass graves under the

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North Korea defector returns home calling South 'capitalist hell'

South Korean police on Wednesday said they were investigating the possible abduction of a defector who became a cable television celebrity in her new home, only to end up back in the North.

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Thai court issues verdict in Rohingya mass graves case

The trafficking case involves 103 defendants on various charges, including murder, torture, rape and money laundering.

Although the court started issuing rulings on Wednesday, it was not immediately clear when they would be concluded.

Thai police officials, bureaucrats and Myanmar nationals are among the defendants. They have all pleaded not guilty.

Thai officials initiated the case in 2015 after the discovery of more than 30 bodies at an abandoned human trafficking camp in the southern Songkhla province close to the Thai-Malaysian border.

The authorities believe the graves contained bodies of possible Rohingya refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh. At least two of them were children.

Thousands of persecuted Rohingya Muslims, who have been fleeing Myanmar's Rakhine state since 2012, are smuggled into Thailand every year.

It was not immediately clear what caused the deaths, although police said they believed the people were Rohingya because human traffickers often put the immigrants in temporary shelters before taking them across the border to Malaysia.

- Unfolding Rohingya crisis: 'Not something of a civilized world'

- Rohingya exodus: Tales of suffering and misery

Thailand is considered to be one of the worst places when it comes to human trafficking, according to the US State Department's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which ranks countries by their efforts to deal with human smugglers.

Just weeks after the discovery of dead bodies in Thailand, Malaysian authorities unearthed mass graves near the Thai border . A total of 139 graves were found at 28 abandoned squalid detention camps believed to have been used by human traffickers to hold people fleeing Myanmar and Bangladesh.

Rohingya plight

The mass graves in Thailand and Malaysia highlighted the largely-ignored plight of the Rohingyas in Myanmar and Bangladesh that are regularly exploited by human traffickers.

Myanmar's Rohingyas live predominantly in the western state of Rakhine. They are not officially recognized by the government as an ethnic minority group, and for decades the nation's Buddhist majority has been accused of subjecting them to discrimination and violence.

Read: Myanmar's Rohingya conflict 'more economic than religious'

Viewed by the United Nations and the US as one of the world's most persecuted minorities, thousands of Rohingya from Myanmar and Bangladesh flee their countries every year in a desperate attempt to reach Malaysia and Indonesia.

Beyond verdicts

Fortify Rights, a Southeast Asia-based human rights organization, believes it is necessary for the Thai government to carefully examine the entire process in order to avoid similar problems and difficulties in the future trafficking cases. Furthermore, it says that judgments alone won't be effective to tackle the issue.

"Thailand has a long way to go to ensure the rights of those trafficked and killed by human traffickers," the organization said.

"We hope that the events of 2015 will not be repeated, but the risks exist."

Vivian Tan of the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, in Bangkok told DW that since mid-2015, the UN has not recorded any Rohingyas fleeing the region by boats. However, he noted, some 74,000 Rohingyas have fled the country to Bangladesh by road since then.

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Australian Parliament rocked by twin resignations over dual citizenship

Deputy Greens party leader Larissa Waters resigned on Tuesday after revealing she had held Canadian citizenship since birth. That followed the bombshell resignation of prominent Western Australian Greens Senator and co-deputy Scott Ludlam on Friday, who had held New Zealand citizenship since birth.

"I was devastated to learn that because of 70-year-old Canadian laws I had been a dual citizen from birth, and that Canadian law changed a week after I was born and required me to have actively renounced Canadian citizenship," a tearful Waters told reporters.

Australia's constitution stipulates that a "citizen of a foreign power" is not eligible to be elected to Parliament.

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Ludlam told journalists last week that he was born in New Zealand, but left at age three and had mistakenly thought that becoming a naturalized citizen as a teenager would have replaced his New Zealand citizenship. 

He made light of the situation in a self-depricating Tweet referencing New Zealand slang.

Greens in turmoil

The dual resignations come at a difficult time for the progressive environmental party, which in recent weeks has been plagued with infighting and accusations of bullying.

Senator Lee Rhiannon is facing possible expulsion from the party, ostensibly for lobbying against an education reform bill that needed the support of the Greens to pass, allowing her colleagues to negotiate changes. Respected Greens party elder Bob Brown backed formal complaints against her, and accused her of introducing factionalism into the party.

Rhiannon has tried to push the party back to its left-wing roots, after a drift towards the mainstream in a bid for broader support.

Waters made headlines internationally when she breast-fed in Parliament and was a strong opponent of a proposed and deeply divisive coal mine.

The Greens will likely retain all of their eight Senate seats and their balance-of-power role despite the twin resignations, with the two seats going to other Greens candidates.

Both senators could be forced to repay their parliamentary salaries. Ludlam reportedly earned more than 1.6 million Australian dollars ($1.3 million, 1.1 million euros) during his nine years in office.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale said that he was "gutted" by the loss of his deputies and that the party will tighten procedures to prevent ineligible candidates from running again.

"The Parliament and the nation are worse off as a result of the resignation of two leaders of such integrity and ability as Larissa and Scott," Di Natale said in a statement.

Questions over dual citizenship

More than 20 other MPs currently serving in the Australian Parliament were born overseas, according to Fairfax Media. Last year's census indicated that 28 percent of Australia's population is born abroad. 

In her resignation comments, Waters said she suspected other lawmakers also held dual citizenship. Several members of Parliament shared proof of renounced citizenship, including former Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Some Australian media commentators have denounced the rule as a relic of the past, saying

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