Friday, 9 November 2018

Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy movement is showing once again that real power lies in the streets. By Omar Waraich

Pakistan’s anti-blasphemy movement is showing once again that real power lies in the streets. By Omar Waraich

Asia Bibi’s life is still in danger. Despite being acquitted on Oct. 31 by Pakistan’s Supreme Court, which lifted her death sentence on blasphemy charges, the Christian farmworker is unable to leave the country. After the verdict, violent mobs unleashed anger, threats and destruction. They laid siege to major cities. They blocked motorways. They torched cars, buses and buildings. They even threatened the lives of the prime minister, the chief justice and the army chief. And yet, instead of making clear that this violence won’t have a bearing on the Bibi case, the authorities bowed to the pressure.

On Wednesday night, there were reports that she might have finally left the country. Senior European Union officials and her lawyer, who has had to seek temporary asylum in the Netherlands, said she was on a flight out of Pakistan. Later the government announced that she had been moved from a jail where it couldn’t guarantee her safety to a secure location in Islamabad. And the commotion excited by her possible departure has only made the religious hard-liners more determined, as they prepare to mount large demonstrations after Friday prayers this week.
For Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the leader of Tehreek-e-Labbaik (the Movement of Devotion to the Prophet), nothing short of her execution will do. The crisis has revealed, once again, a deepening fault line that runs through the country: For religious hard-liners, the law only matters as long as it conforms to their brand of Islam. When the two diverge, hard-liners such as Rizvi can bring pressure to bear by casting themselves as Islam’s true representatives.
There is nothing that stirs more outrage in Pakistan than the charge of blasphemy. A mere accusation is enough to endanger someone’s life; in Bibi’s case, for example, there is no evidence that she ever made the statement of which she is accused. Judges are terrified of acquitting anyone, lest they become the next target. Defense lawyers have been killed in court. Witnesses and families have to go into hiding. The authorities, instead of standing firm in defending human rights, meekly give ground to those using violence to suppress those rights.
For Rizvi and his supporters, there is no higher calling than to avenge an alleged insult to the prophet Muhammad. In a country where all but three percent of the population is Muslim, he has managed to promote a narrative that insists Islam is perpetually imperiled. He calls on his followers to take matters into their own hands (which can include claiming the lives of others). To maintain this violent hysteria, his supporters always insist an offense was committed and that punishment must follow. They are never relieved to learn that the allegation was false, that the evidence doesn’t exist, and that the accused is innocent.
The passivity of the Pakistani authorities stands in stark contrast with its reaction to the rise of the nonviolent Pashtun Protection Movement, which has been demanding an end to extrajudicial killings and forced disappearances. The authorities have casually spurned the group’s demands, suppressed media coverage of its efforts, banned its peaceful demonstrations and detained its leaders. But when it came to Rizvi and his followers’ use of violence, they can seemingly get a free pass.
The real threat to the country’s security was considered to be the austere and literalist-minded Taliban, who had seized vast swaths of territory, mounted devastating bombings in major cities and killed thousands of Pakistani troops. Little did anyone suspect that Rizvi’s branch of the Barelvi tradition, to which the majority of Pakistanis belong and which has long been regarded as a quiet and mystical branch of the faith, would also turn on the state, and in a more insidious manner. Rizvi’s followers are not limited to the hills of the tribal areas but have the potential to sway people in the country’s heartlands.
For Prime Minister Imran Khan, the crisis represents a major challenge. Each time he has raised hopes with bold commitments, they have been swiftly reversed — whether it was the pledge to give Bengali and Afghan refugees citizenship, to appoint a member of the Ahmadi sect to his economic advisory council, or to uphold the Supreme Court verdict and confront Rizvi’s mobs when they threatened violence.
Last year, Khan and his party were happy to support Rizvi’s violent rhetoric and practices, accusing the previous government of being part of an “international conspiracy” to weaken Islam, and successfully securing the resignation of the then-law minister. In the last election, Rizvi formed a party that gathered more than 2 million votes in a suspiciously well-funded campaign.
But it isn’t elected office that Rizvi covets. He has realized that true power can be commanded on the streets. You don’t need the highest number of votes; you just need the highest number of violent supporters. It’s the consequence of a ruinous history of indulging or backing armed groups for cynical, short-term gains. And it backfires every time.
It is not clear what will happen to Bibi. It is forbidding to think of the ordeal that awaits her if she indeed has not left the country, having already endured eight years on death row for a crime she didn’t commit and that shouldn’t exist in the first place. What is clear, however, is that the government — far from protecting the weak and marginalized who need it the most and challenging the powerful forces of bigotry who can defy it — has abandoned its own commitments to human rights.
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Thursday, 8 November 2018

Airport staff say Israeli plane landed in Pakistan, Suddaf Chaudry

Airport staff say Israeli plane landed in Pakistan
Suddaf Chaudry     Thursday 8 November 2018

In face of government denials, pilot and employees at Pakistan's Noor Khan Airbase say they saw aircraft arrive in Rawalpindi
Path of flight that left Tel Aviv, landed in Amman and then Islamabad last month (Twitter/@avischarf)
uddaf Chaudry's picture
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ISLAMABAD - After more than a week’s worth of Pakistani government denials that an Israeliplane stopped off in Islamabad around the time of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's surprise Oman trip, witnesses have revealed to Middle East Eye that such an aircraft did in fact visit the country.
A pilot, who spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the subject, told MEE that the BizJet flight was in the air next to him on 24 October just before it landed at Noor Khan Airbase, a military airbase in Rawalpindi.
Three members of staff at the airbase confirmed the pilot’s account. One said he saw a car pick up a delegation at the steps of the plane which returned several hours later.
But a major mystery still remains: what was the plane doing in Pakistan – which does not have diplomatic relations with Israel - and who was on-board? 
The uproar began on 25 October when Avi Scharf, editor of the English edition of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, tweeted details of a flight map showing a private jet flying from Tel Aviv to Islamabad.
iew image on Twitter

Israeli �🇱bizjet flew from TLV to Islamabad, #Pakistan �🇰, on the ground 10 hours, and back to TLV.
Cleared flight-plan with usual 5min groundtime trick in Amman
M-ULTI glex
Scharf’s tweets sent Pakistani journalists and social media users into overdrive with some suggesting that Netanyahu had arrived in Islamabad ahead of his surprise visit to Oman.
The government quickly put a damper on the reports. Pakistan Civil Aviation Authority denied that an Israeli jet had landed in the capital. At a workers convention, Pakistan’s information minister Fawad Chaudhry described Scharf’s tweet as propaganda.
He later told MEE: “Look, there was no Israeli jet. There was only a UAE plane. That plane was theirs.” Chaudry appeared to be referring to an Emirati delegation that visited Islamabad on 26 October - a day after Scharf tweeted. 
Then last week, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told Pakistan’s parliament: “I categorically deny that an Israeli plane landed in Pakistan.”
Pakistan’s former interior minister, Ahsan Iqbal, challenged the government’s position on Twitter: "The government should immediately correct the situation." Chaudry responded, saying: "This is a fake story. Don't worry. Pakistan is in safe hands."
Iqbal told MEE: “I simply requested clarification about the series of events. I hope this does not mean there is a fire under the smoke. It makes one wonder if they are hiding something."
He added: “As we have no independent means of verifying, I guess we have to accept the government’s position at face value."
Asked by Middle East Eye to comment on the observations of the Noor Khan employees, Chaudry said: "Our position remains the same. There was no Israeli plane." 
MEE contacted Pakistan's foreign ministry about the airbase staffers' comments but at the time of publication received no response. 
Technically true
Analysts have questioned whether Pakistani authorities were stating technical facts in an effort to obscure the wider truth.
According to data from Flightradar24, an aviation tracking website, the BizJet flight took off from Tel Aviv on 23 October at 20:00 UTC (GMT), landing in Amman on 24 October.
Scharf theorised that this was done so that the flight would be given a new transponder code, making it harder to trace.
From Amman, the jet reappeared on the radar in Islamabad ten hours later. Then, on 24 October at 00:40 UTC, it returned to Tel Aviv.
Ian Petchenik from Flightradar24 told MEE: “The aircraft departed and returned to Tel Aviv via Amman and was tracked eastbound and westbound over Pakistan at two different points in time.”
The plane was registered in the Isle of Man last year to a company called Multibird Overseas LTD, but the final ownership of the plane remains unclear. Simon Williams, director of the Isle of Man’s Civil Aviation Administration refused to respond to MEE’s questions. 
So when government officials say that an Israeli plane did not land in Islamabad, they were technically right: it was an Isle of Man plane that left Tel Aviv and stopped in Amman and landed in Rawalpindi. But why?
Point scoring?
The flight comes against the backdrop of other surprising Israeli visits in recent weeks. Along with Netanyahu’s trip to Oman, Israeli ministers also visited the United Arab Emirates last month.
Former US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, told MEE that the mysterious flight should be seen in this light.
“Israel recently has made it clear it seeks to expand its relations with Arab and Muslim countries including those it does not have formal diplomatic relations,” he said.  
Pakistan and Israel, he said, have quite a bit in common. Both have had to redress their relationship with the US many times over the years, and both face security challenges from militant organisations.
“As Saudi-Israel relations thaw, Pakistan could be influenced,” he added. “In quieter terms, there could be ties.”
However, Shapiro stressed that this would not be an easy task, as a result of Israel’s close relations with neighbouring India with which Pakistan has long had tensions, fighting three major wars against one another since winning independence from Britain in 1947.
Pakistan has also faced increasing tensions with Washington both over its support for the Taliban in Afghanistan and its close relations with China in the face of Beijing-Washington trade wars.
In January, US President Donald Trump’s administration announced that it would suspend US military aid to Pakistan. At the time, Trump tweeted: “The United States has foolishly given Pakistan more than $33 billion in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit.”
Then, in September, the US announced it had cancelled $300m of aid that had already been suspended.
The aid cuts come as Pakistan faces economic challenges after its foreign exchange reserves plummeted, leaving the country in a serious debt crisis.
Last month, newly elected Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan told MEE that his country was in such desperate financial straits that he was forced to attend the Future Investment Initiative, a financial summit in Saudi Arabia that many Western officials and companies boycotted over the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
He ended up securing $6bn in funding there.
 “The reason I feel I have to avail myself of this opportunity [to speak to the Saudi leadership] is because in a country of 210 million people right now we have the worst debt crisis in our history," Khan told MEE several days earlier.
“Unless we get loans from friendly countries or the IMF [the International Monetary Fund] we actually won’t have in another two or three months enough foreign exchange to service our debts or to pay for our imports. So we’re desperate at the moment.”
The US has the largest share of votes at the IMF.
So the plane, said analysts, should also be seen as part of the cash-strapped country’s move away from ideological posturing towards strategic positioning in order to generate revenue, and outreach to Israel is one action Pakistan could take to ingratiate itself to the US.
Ayesha Siddiqa, a Pakistan military expert at SOAS’ South Asia Institute, said: “I think the military is desperate to acquire some money, they are at a point where they will welcome anything that brings them cash."