Sunday, February 2, 2014

China: Xi's Sochi visit to deepen Sino-Russian ties

Russia, for the second time, will be Chinese President Xi Jinping's first foreign destination of a year. In March 2013, Xi took a state visit to Russia a few days after he took office as Chinese President. Xi's announced Russian stay from Feb. 6 to 8 and scheduled attendance to the opening ceremony of the Sochi Winter Olympic Games will be his first foreign trip in 2014.
It will also be the first attendance by a Chinese president at a major overseas sports event, signaling China's strong support for the Olympics and Russia's efforts to host the games.
Vladimir Putin, then Russian Prime Minister, attended the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in August 2008.
Prof. Yuri Tavrovsky at the Moscow-based Peoples' Friendship University of Russia, told Xinhua that it is a new step of bilateral ties that state leaders extend their interactions from traditional diplomatic occasions to less formal ones such as cultural and sports events.
Last year, besides Xi's state visit, the Chinese president and Russian President Putin met four times at international events.
They were the BRICS summit in Durban of South Africa, the G20 summit in St. Petersburg of Russia, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit in Bishkek of Kyrgyzstan and the informal economic leaders' meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in Bali of Indonesia.
In addition, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev visited China in October, holding meetings with President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang.
Li Hui, Chinese ambassador to Russia, told Xinhua that President Xi's state visit last year opened a new page and brought the bilateral relations to a new height. The two countries have displayed mutual support and understanding on issues that are vital to each other, Ambassador Li said. As the two neighboring countries mark the 65th anniversary of the establishment of their diplomatic relations in 2014, they are forging stronger and closer ties, under a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership. A high-level and strong China-Russia relationship is not only in the interests of both countries, but also serves as an important guarantee of world peace and stability. China and Russia also worked together on a number of international and regional issues, such as those on Syria and Iran, keeping smooth communication and effective cooperation.
Economic potential
During Medvedev's October visit, China and Russia signed an agreement that Russia's biggest oil company Rosneft would supply an additional 10 million tonnes of crude oil to China each year in the coming decade, a deal worth 85 billion US dollars. A joint-venture oil refinery will be built in Tianjin, with a capacity of processing 16 million tonnes of crude oil each year. China National Petroleum Corporation, the country's largest oil and gas producer and supplier, will hold a 49 percent stake and Rosneft 51 percent. China imported 24.33 million tonnes of crude oil from Russia in 2012 and has been negotiating on the import of natural gas with Russia. After the bilateral trade reached a record high of 88 billion US dollars in 2012, the two countries planned to raise the volume to 100 billion US dollars by 2015 and 200 billion US dollars by 2020. "The biggest chance of economic cooperation may lie in Russia's Far East region, which is near China and currently Russia's major development focus," said Prof. Tavrovsky. "China should take part in the region's development." The two countries can supplement each other as China has technologies and experience while Russia has natural resources, he added.
Warming people-to-people exchanges
Last year, Chinese cinemas screened the first Russian IMAX 3D film "Stalingrad." The blockbuster topped the Chinese box office with 52.7 million yuan (8.65 million US dollars) on its opening weekend, attracting many middle-aged and elderly people who remembered the Soviet Union movie rush decades ago. In January, another Russian film "Metro" competed with Chinese and Hollywood productions during China's Spring Festival film season.
The two countries have held three theme years in the past few years. The year 2013 was the Tourism Year of China in Russia, following the Tourism Year of Russia in China in 2012, which were aimed at fostering tourism ties and humanistic exchanges between the two countries.
Before that, there were the China-Russia National Year 2006-2007 and the China-Russia Year of Language 2009-2010. In 2014 and 2015, the two countries will each host the China-Russia Youth Year of Friendship Exchanges.
"China and Russia set a new model of relations between major powers after the end of the Cold War and found a way of treating each other with respect and cultivating sustainable cooperation," said Xing Guangcheng, an expert on Russia with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Al-Qaeda rebels in Syria behead man in front of children

Footage posted by British-based rights group shows Islamist militants executing Shiite fighter in Homs
Al-Qaeda-linked rebels in Syria beheaded a man in front of a crowd that included children, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
In an amateur three-minute video posted online by the Observatory over the weekend, armed men dressed in black stand around a man, reportedly a Shiite pro-regime fighter, lying in the grass. One of the armed militants takes out a small knife, and cuts off the head of the captive as the assembled crowd cheers.
The rebel holds up the decapitated head, then places it on the victim’s back before it rolls off onto the grass. The remainder of the footage shows the crowd laughing and taking pictures. The Observatory reported that the footage is from the Syrian city Homs, and the rebels are from the al-Qaeda-linked Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Moderate and Islamist opposition fighters have been battling ISIL since early January, after accusing the group of a spate of abuses against civilians and rebels. ISIL is allegedly behind most of the attacks that have been taking place recently in Iraq. It is also playing a more active military role alongside other predominantly Sunni rebels in the fight to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad, and its members have carried out attacks against Syrians near the porous border inside Iraq. Internal clashes within the ranks of the rebels clashes have killed more than 1,400 people since they began a month ago, and the fighting shows little sign of coming to an immediate close. On Saturday, a twin suicide bombing killed 26 people, including a senior military commander of the Tawhid Brigade, a prominent rebel group opposed to the Islamic State. The attack, widely blamed by both pro- and anti-al-Qaeda activists on the Islamic State, targeted the base of its rivals in the Tawhid Brigade and killed senior leader Adnan Bakkour, said Observatory director Rami Abdurrahman.
The Islamic State also killed another prominent commander, Abu Hussein al-Dik of Suqour al-Sham, on Saturday near the central city of Hama, the Observatory said. Abdurrahman said al-Dik was killed in an ambush outside of Hama, where he was traveling to try to help rebels encircled by Islamic State fighters.
Both the Tawhid Brigade and Suqour al-Sham are part of the Islamic Front, a powerful alliance of seven Islamist rebel factions that united in November. The Islamic Front has emerged as a heavyweight in northern Syria, and has been a driving force in the fight against the Islamic State. Analyst Charles Lister of the Brookings Doha Center said the Islamic State “appears to be targeting particularly strategic locales and individuals in its continuing operations against perceived enemy rebels.” Syria’s conflict, which began in March 2011 as a street uprising against Assad’s rule, has killed more than 136,000 people, according to the latest count by the Observatory, which tracks the missing and killed through a network of informants on the ground.
The war has also forcibly displaced one-third of Syria’s prewar population of 23 million.
Read more: Al-Qaeda rebels in Syria behead man in front of children | The Times of Israel Follow us: @timesofisrael on Twitter | timesofisrael on Facebook

'Nymphomaniac': Lars von Trier’s wildly uneven sex epic

Controversial Danish director Lars von Trier's two-part sex epic, "Nymphomaniac", is about to hit screens all over the world. FRANCE 24's film critic offers his verdict on one of the most eagerly anticipated films of 2014.
Last time we saw filmmaker Lars von Trier, it was at a Cannes press conference in 2011, and he was babbling alarmingly about his sympathy for Hitler.
Promptly bounced from the festival, the Danish bad boy declared he was shunning the public eye and buckled down to work on his next project: an epic about a female sex addict rumoured to have scenes of unsimulated coitus.
That description made it sound like the aptly titled “Nymphomaniac” would find von Trier thumbing his nose at his haters -- not just those who slammed him for the deeply misguided comments about Jews and Nazis, but also critics of the nearly systematic, and often cinematically tedious, abuse endured by the female characters in his movies. A racy ad campaign featuring images of the film’s stars -- including Charlotte Gainsbourg, Shia LaBeouf and Uma Thurman -- miming orgasms seemed to confirm suspicions that this would be the director’s most rebellious work yet.
But compared to some of his previous movies (the dreadful “Antichrist”, with its hacked genitals and interminable howling, for example), “Nymphomaniac” hardly plays like von Trier’s big “f*** you”.
For one thing, the actors don’t actually have intercourse on camera; “porn doubles” were used for the most graphic scenes. And, most notably, the two-part film contains some of the gentlest, most tender and humorous sequences von Trier has ever brought to the screen.
Most of those moments come in the first half of what is, overall, a frustratingly lopsided opus, with a fascinating build-up and a follow-through that descends steadily toward the idiotic.
Volume 1, a playful tale of sexual experimentation
Indeed, Volume 1 of “Nymphomaniac”, in which protagonist Joe (Gainsbourg) recounts her past erotic adventures to a stranger named Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard), is superior in almost every way to the harder-core Volume 2. Frequently witty and often strikingly beautiful, the film’s first two hours envelop us in Joe’s discovery of her fierce sexual appetite, and in her feverish pursuit of its satisfaction.
As Joe (played as a young woman by Stacy Martin, with waifish elegance and a cheeky gleam in her eye) juggles lovers and then falls hard for her shifty boss, Jerome (a terrific, magnetic-repellent LaBeouf), the film takes on the texture and allure of an absorbing, mysterious novel (an impression reinforced by the division of the plot into “chapters”); we don’t always understand what’s going on in Joe’s head, but we’re with her every step of the way, waiting to see what she does next and looking for clues that offer insight into her behaviour.
Among the pleasures of Volume 1 is the exuberant sense of mischief von Trier conveys, the formal inventiveness he calls upon to bring Joe’s story to visual life. Sampling music from classical to classic rock, switching from a rich autumnal palette to black-and-white, using three-way split-screen to contrast differing sexual experiences and weaving in archive footage of animals, the director squeezes his material for maximum dramatic and comic juice. Von Trier’s stylistic approach in the first half of “Nymphomaniac” borders on everything-but-the-kitchen-sink, but that feels suitable for a tale of experimentation -- and it’s vastly preferable to the motion-sickness-inducing handheld camerawork that made the first section of the filmmaker’s last movie, “Melancholia”, such a chore.
There are sequences in Volume 1 that rank among the most accomplished of the director’s career thus far. In one particularly brilliant bit, a lovesick Joe masturbates on the train while scanning the men around her for body parts, postures or items of clothing reminiscent of Jerome. Von Trier illustrates the process by cutting back and forth between his protagonist, deep in lustful concentration, and a diagram of Jerome’s silhouette being filled out in her imagination as she adds what she finds.
And in a few scenes of wrenching sincerity (a word not frequently employed when discussing von Trier’s work), Joe tends to her devoted father (a surprisingly wonderful Christian Slater) as he lies dying in a hospital. Their powerful bond is one of the film’s most intriguing touches; does Joe’s insatiable appetite for men stem from the fact that the one man she truly loves is off-limits sexually?
Plot and provocation ring hollow in Volume 2
Too bad von Trier never bothers to explore that question -- or any others, really -- in Volume 2, which finds Joe continuing to describe her increasingly tormented, though decreasingly interesting, erotic life to Seligman.
After moving in and starting a family with Jerome, Joe (played entirely by Gainsbourg at this point) loses all sexual sensation. When she sets out to get her groove back, von Trier sends her on a series of grim escapades intended, I presume, to be profoundly shocking: an S&M relationship with a weirdo played by Jamie Bell (aka Billy Elliot)! An orgy with two muscular black men! A lesbian love affair! Either the director hasn’t been out of the house much lately, or his definition of subversive needs a bit of an update.
Whatever the case, the second half of “Nymphomaniac” largely foresakes stylistic playfulness and sensitivity to character in favour of contrived plot mechanics, two-bit provocations -- such as Joe’s rant about the merits of the word “Negro” -- and the director’s compulsive need to punish characters and viewers alike (cue the gratuitously vicious final twist).
Even things that were diverting in Volume 1, like Seligman’s free-associative digressions on literature, music, math and religion, prove tiresome in the long run; a glossary of von Trier’s cultural and intellectual references is fun for a bit, until you realise it also allows him to avoid having to actually make sense of his character.
The most glaring shortcoming of Volume 2 is indeed that von Trier never gets a grip on what Joe’s “nymphomania” consists of. That vagueness works in the first part, since Joe, at that point in the story, is still trying to decipher her own uncontrollable yearnings. But by the second part, when Joe starts making brazen declarations like “I love my c*** and my desire”, I was frankly confused -- partly because Gainsbourg’s muted, joyless performance never conveys the mix of pleasure and defiance that might suggest such a sentiment. Compulsive sexual behaviour is undoubtedly a complex phenomenon, yet von Trier ultimately seems more interested in making Joe say and do extreme things than in understanding her.
Early in Volume 1, Joe confides: “Perhaps the only difference between me and other people was that I always demanded more from the sunset -- more spectacular colors. That’s perhaps my only sin.” It’s a deeply humane, hauntingly poetic notion – a hint of what the film might have been – but von Trier abandons it, turning Volume 2 into a drab catalogue of ostensibly unconventional sexual conduct.
In “Nymphomaniac”, the director teases us with the promise of something new, before reminding us that he’s not quite ready to leave his old tricks behind.
“Nymphomaniac: Volume 1” is currently in theaters in France. Volume 2 will be released on January 29.
Both volumes will be released in the UK on February 22.
In the US, Volume 1 will be released on March 21 and Volume 2 on April 4.
A five-hour, uncut version of Volume 1 will be screened at the Berlin Film Festival in February.

Russia may quit START III after US deploys destroyer in Europe

If the US continues to boost its anti-missile capabilities through developing missile defense system in Europe, Russia may have no other option but to withdraw from the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), warns the Russian Foreign Ministry’s top disarmament official, Mikhail Ulyanov. The news comes as the US's ballistic missile defense destroyer has been deployed in Spain to strengthen NATO’s anti-missile shield in Europe.
The move, allegedly aimed at neutralizing the Iranian threat, has sparked polemics about Russia's possible withdrawal from the START nuclear treaty.
Deployment of the Navy destroyer USS Donald Cook, equipped with the Aegis shipboard integrated combat weapons system, was announced by the US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the Munich Security Conference. "An important posture enhancement is European missile defense in response to ballistic missile threats from Iran,” Hagel said, adding that the US is committed “to deploying missile defense architecture there,” as a part of Phase 3 of the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA).
Hagel also said that over the next two years, three additional Aegis-enabled missile defense-capable destroyers will join NATO forces in protecting the European continent.
"We are concerned that the US is continuing to build up missile defense capability without considering the interests and concerns of Russia,” Ulyanov told Interfax. "Such a policy can undermine strategic stability and lead to a situation where Russia will be forced to exercise [its] right of withdrawal from the [START] treaty.”
Ulyanov said that the legal basis for Moscow scraping the START treaty is legislated for within the text of the agreement, which Russia says it has so far fully implemented. In certain exceptional cases, involving a known threat to national security, both Russia and the US have the option to quit the treaty.
"As at September last year Russia had 473 deployed carriers with 1,400 warheads, the USA - 809 and 1,688 respectively. The figures are constantly changing - there are reductions in some places and increases are possible in others. The main thing is to reach set levels by the agreed date," he said in an interview with Interfax. He reminded Interfax that START III implies that the sides should reach the level of 700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) and heavy bombers (HB), 1,550 warheads on them and 800 deployed or undeployed launchers of ICBM, SLBM and HB in seven years after its enforcement, i.e. in 2018.
"No intermediate stages are implied. This gives the sides the possibility to flexibly build programs, adapting their strategic potential to the requirements of the treaty," Ulyanov said.Besides, the treaty is not limited to the ceilings. "In fact only eight lines in a package of over 300 pages consisting of the treaty, protocol and addenda deal with them," Ulyanov said."
Thus, the implementation of the new START Treaty is a much broader and more multifaceted task that the implementation of provisions of Article II. It is apparent already now that the sides will have their hands full even after 2018 when the levels stipulated by it are reached," Ulyanov concluded.
Russia does not intend to disclose information about the storage locations for its tactical nuclear weapons or about their amount, director of the Russian Foreign Ministry department for security and disarmament Mikhail Ulyanov has said. "Yes, we are invited to adopt some confidence-building measures by disclosing the storage places of the armaments and their quantity. But whom will it make life easier for, if we disclose such information? Only for terrorists. Should we be creating problems there where they are absent so far?" he wondered in an interview with Interfax.
Commenting on the calls from the United States and NATO to reduce Russian tactical nuclear armaments Ulyanov said: "The subject of Russian tactical nuclear armament is far-fetched and fanned quite artificially". "In the past 20 years Russia reduced its tactical nuclear armaments by 75%. All these armaments are deployed solely on Russian territory. They are stored at centralized facilities, i.e. are not deployed and pose no threat to anyone," he said. Meanwhile, "the situation is absolutely different with NATO and the Americans," he said." Approximately 200 tactical nuclear warheads are located in six countries of Europe and they are deployed. Which means they pose a potential threat to us," Ulyanov said. "Moreover, NATO has such a notion as nuclear sharing which means that pilots from non-nuclear countries are trained to pilot nuclear-carrying aircraft," he went on to say. "From the viewpoint of nuclear nonproliferation this is a violation of the letter and sprit of the NPT. Many countries share this viewpoint," Ulyanov said. "We are not refusing to conduct a dialogue but we don't see a subject for even a preliminary conversation until all these weapons are withdrawn beyond Europe and before the infrastructure that permits their rapid return to the European continent is liquidated," the diplomat said. "The practice of the said exercises should also be stopped," he said.

President Obama, Bill O’Reilly go head-to-head in pre-Super Bowl interview matchup
The President and the outspoken Fox News Channel commentator tackled a series of political topics before ending on a surprisingly sweet note. Obama also predicted the score of game would be 24-21 but did not pick a winner.
President Obama went one-on-one with outspoken conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly Sunday, in a pre-Super Bowl matchup that turned out to be almost as exciting as the football game that would follow. Obama re-fought a number of old fights with the forthright commentator during the brief but highly contentious discussion that aired live just two hours ahead of the Super Bowl kickoff.
“We all anticipated there would be glitches ... I don’t think I anticipated or anybody anticipated the degree of the problems of the website,” he said.
O’Reilly didn’t waste any time in throwing back a counterpunch, asking Obama if it was 'the biggest mistake of your presidency to tell the nation ... you can keep your insurance?' “You’ve got a long list of mistakes I’ve made,” Obama shot back. “This is one that I regret.”
The odd couple then engaged in a tense and lengthy discussion about the 2013 IRS scandal, during which the agency targeted conservative groups applying for tax-exempt status with added scrutiny, as well as the White House response to the tragic Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens dead. The acidic 10-minute interview, however, ended on a sweet note, with O’Reilly thanking Obama for his time and wishing him a surprising compliment.
"I know you think we haven’t been fair, but I think your heart is in the right place,” O’Reilly said. Obama then predicted the final score of the Super Bowl would be 24-21, but did not say whether he thought the Seattle Seahawks or Denver Broncos would win. RELATED: BRADSHAW OFF SUPER BOWL BROADCAST D
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Election season begins in Afghanistan

Presidential candidates in Afghanistan begin two months of campaigning for an election that Western allies hope will consolidate fragile stability.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari breaking the rules of how Pakistani politics is done

Jon Boone
Benazir Bhutto's heir behind two-week cultural festival that he says celebrates heritage and marks start of cultural fightback
With tongue-in-cheek videos mocking military rulers, acerbic tweets criticising opponents and musical extravaganzas on ancient ruins, Pakistan has never seen anything like the political debut of Bilawal Bhutto Zardari.
The 25-year-old is gradually taking up the mantle of his mother, the assassinated former prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, and seems set on breaking all the rules on how politics is traditionally done in the country. Rather than rushing to find a seat in parliament after meeting the age qualification for election last September, Bhutto Zardari spent recent months putting together a festival to showcase the traditional culture of his home province of Sindh. He has marketed the jamboree with a quirky and mischievous campaign. Karachi has been plastered with posters depicting him as Superman – a play on the festival's logo, which has commandeered the famous S from the superhero's uniform – and a series of humorous videos was made.
The first shows him sitting behind a desk in a darkened office in the staid manner military coup leaders have long used to address the nation, declaring an emergency to save the nation's culture. Some have declared it all a breath of fresh air Others are puzzled. The festival began on Saturday night with a glitzy opening ceremony at Mohenjo-Daro, the ancient ruins of one of the world's first cities. Guests were treated to a show that included Bollywood-style dance routines with music from a big-haired songstress known as Pakistan's Britney Spears, tableaux of models attempting to represent the site's history and a fireworks display. It was as much political as cultural. The Sindh festival's slogan, "Preserve, promote, protect", just happens to have the same initials as the Bhutto family enterprise the Pakistan People's Party, the now much-diminished political movement co-founded by his grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto Zardari hopes events that might otherwise be entertainment will help win back some of the "societal space" ceded over the years to religious hardliners that he says are undermining Pakistan's indigenous culture and helping the Taliban to flourish. Included on the roster of events is a traditional kite-flying festival long banned in Punjab province, where suspicious clerics regard it as a Hindu remnant from pre-partition days. Bhutto Zardari said: "This is the beginning of the counter-narrative, the beginning of a cultural fightback." Analysts say a long process of reviving the PPP is just beginning. More important than concerts, Bhutto Zardari will gradually have to assert direct control of a party still dominated by an exhausted old-guard popularly thought to be corrupt. On Saturday night some said the ceremony resembled a pop variety show with little that was distinctively Sindhi. Conservationists criticised Bhutto Zardari for holding such a spectacle at vulnerable ruins he claims he is trying to protect.

Bilawal Bhutto's plea for Pakistan: 'we are not the Taliban'

By Rob Crilly
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari says he wants to lead his political party to victory in 2018 as he launches himself into public life with a festival of traditional music and dance
The son of Benazir Bhutto opened a new front in the war against extremism in Pakistan at the weekend, with a glittering gala of music and fireworks set against the illuminated ruins of a Bronze Age city. In an interview with The Telegraph, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who at 25 is heir to the country’s grandest political dynasty, said his two-week cultural festival was designed to reclaim ground lost to militants and extremists. “This is Pakistan’s history, this is Pakistan’s culture and we’re proud of it,” he said. “We going to try to mark out a line in the sand and say this is who we are and fight back against that.”
It is a bold move by a young man so far untested in the country’s ferocious politics but his vision for Pakistan could yet provide the philosophical framework for a tilt at power and a revitalised country - or provide his death sentence.
Several hundred politicians, socialites and diplomats gathered at the ancient site of Mohenjodaro on Saturday night to witness an opening ceremony that combined imagery from the 5,000-year-old Indus Valley civilisation, that once dominated this part of South Asia, with dance beats and lasers. Conceived with the help of a small circle of friends from his Oxford days, Mr Bhutto Zardari shrugged off the idea that the event marked his political coming out party. “This is a pre-politics sort of thing,” he said, speaking rapidly with excitement as the sun set and workers readied the stage. Yet in four years time he could be prime minister of one of the world’s most troubled countries: a fractured land with a growing nuclear arsenal, a hobbled economy and apparently bereft of ideas to tackle the suicide bombers who strike at will. While the government of Nawaz Sharif continues to seek talks with the terrorists, Mr Bhutto Zardari has called repeatedly for decisive action against the Pakistan Taliban, the group that killed his mother as she left a campaign rally in 2007. With such deeply-held differences coming to the fore, he declares his destiny lies in politics. “I am my mother’s son,” he says, when posed the inevitable questions about such an iconic figure in Pakistan. He plans to overhaul his Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) which suffered a humiliating defeat last year, learning his trade from the grassroots up.
However that means talk of him becoming prime minister can wait.
“That’s not my aim,” he said. “My aim is to have a PPP victory in the 2018 election. It’s five years from now, and that’s an extremely long time in politics. It’s a lifetime.” Few people could make that phrase with more poignancy. Political lives in his family are all too frequently cut short by a hail of bullets. Yet he has been ridiculed frequently for practising “twitter politics” and being nothing more than an empty figurehead for the Bhutto family party. That criticism crescendoed during last year’s general election. He stayed at his home in Dubai - after the Taliban singled out his party for death threats - under pressure from his two sisters who feared losing a brother as well as a mother to the family business. It cemented the idea that he was a privileged outsider, more comfortable speaking English than Urdu.
His critics have also seized on his two-week festival in the southern province of Sindh hinting he may be happier organising an Oxford May Ball.
The launch night will have given them ammunition. The audience was drawn from the country’s liberal elite, ferried in by chartered 737 from Karachi some 300 miles away, rather than the ordinary Pakistanis that Mr Bhutto Zardari says he wants to reach. Rather than helping tackle poverty in the region, which has the worst rate of child malnutrition in the country, his opponents wonder why he is promoting kite flying, concerts and a donkey derby. “That would be an approach of someone who doesn’t understand the depth behind the project or the scale of the concepts or the reach that this has,” he said.
His point is that Pakistan is struggling to find a unifying idea. General Zia ul-Haq tried religion and General Pervez Musharraf tried the army.
Neither of those could prevent Bangladesh breaking away in 1971 and neither has stemmed the rise of the Taliban or its extremist ideology since.
“So I believe it’s democracy that holds us together, and it’s the democractic system, where culture and heritage are allowed to flourish, where they are not suppressed,” he said. “There is a shared culture, a shared history that binds us together as nation - and that has not been allowed to happen because of our history of dictatorial rule.” Such is the level of fear in Pakistan that last month a book launch for Malala Yousafzai’s memoir - detailing how she was shot in the head at close range for her campaign to get more girls into school - was cancelled under intense political pressure. Traditional instruments are disappearing as children are discouraged from taking up music because parents believe they may provoke Taliban anger.
By promoting Pakistan’s culture - including its pre-Islamic history - Mr Bhutto Zardari hopes the country can reclaim its freedoms from terrorists who hunt down dancers and from their apologists in public office who ban YouTube. Other events will have a more populist touch, he promised.
“For security reasons and because this is a heritage site we could only have a small number of people here,” he said. Money raised will be used to protect the ancient streets and clay-brick walls of Mohenjodaro, which is crumbling beneath annual monsoon rains and to train locals in the skill needed to preserve the site for years to come. His university friends said he had found his niche with the festival, micromanaging every aspect of the event. “This is the sort of thing he loves and that he is really good at,” said one college mate.

Pakistan: Notorious co-founder of Taliban, Major Amir appointed by PM Nawaz Sharif to negotiate with Taliban

by Sabah Hasan
I am not an admirer of Generals Yahya or Musharraf. Yet I find it odd that while we find it appropriate to accuse one (sometimes along with a person who was then not yet in power) for surrender to an army waging war against us generally in line with the Geneva Conventions, and the Sharif government finds it appropriate to try the other for high treason because of his alleged violation of the constitution of Pakistan.
We do not find treasonous the acts of Deobandi Terrorists – Foreign and Pakistani – against the state, armed forces and people of Pakistan – acts that blown to shreds the Geneva Conventions and the constitution and laws of Pakistan – and of the apologists who wish the state to conduct dialogue with these enemies of state instead of acting against them in accordance with the law of the country.
Similarly, while we correctly see the drone attacks by USA as violations of our sovereignty, we do not see the entry and stay for years of foreign terrorists in Pakistan as a similar violation. Rather we advocate talking to those responsible for letting in and hosting these foreigner terrorists in Pakistan. What hypocrites!
Lt. Gen. Hameed Gul, Brig. Imtiaz Ahmed (a.k.a. Billa) and Maj. Amir coordinated on behalf of ISI with the CIA when Gen. Akhter Abdur Rehman headed ISI and General Zia the usurper misruled Pakistan. They were the handlers on behalf of the CIA of the so-called mujahedin now re-monikered the Taliban, which includes its Pakistani subsidiaries like Jaish-e-Muhammad, Anjuman-e-Sipah-e-Sahaba (ASS) and Lashker-e-Jhangvi (LeJ).
The leader of Pakistani Shias Allama Arif Husein al-Huseini (ar) was martyred in Peshawar on 5th August 1988. Among hose considered by the Shia leadership to be involved in this killing were General Zia, Lt. Gen. Fazle Haq (then Governor NWFP), Hameed Gul, Imtiaz Billa and Maj. Amir. The trio was also responsible for creation of the so-called Islami Jamhuri Ittehad (IJI) in an attempt to subvert the people’s will during the 1988 elections. They were later the main characters of the infamous Operation Midnight Jackal whereby Pakistan’s armed forces attempted to overthrow an elected government.
After they had been removed from positions of influence in the armed forces during the PPP government, Nawaz Sharif appointed Imtiaz Billa and Amir as security advisors’ to the Punjab government headed by him in 1989, despite their having been dishonourably discharged from the army as a result of court martial. Next year when he became prime minister, he appointed them to the Intelligence Bureau (IB).
Things have now come full circle, and the notorious Major Amir has been appointed by Nawaz Sharif as one of the notorious four who will ‘negotiate’ with the Taliban terrorists.
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Pakistan's YouTube ban: Proof that the constitution is non est

By Yasser Latif Hamdani
The Pakistani legal system is held hostage by the religious right in this country, which is incapable of thinking rationally. Consequently, even the most progressive judge is hard pressed to uphold the sacred fundamental rights promised to Pakistanis under the constitution
General (retired) Musharraf’s lawyers forwarded an extraordinarily audacious argument recently before the Supreme Court (SC) while seeking a review of the July 31, 2009 judgment. They argued that the 1973 constitution does not exist. Unfortunately, and because the good general suffers on account of bad legal representation, this argument relied on the fact that the constitution was drafted by an Assembly that had been elected by the 1970 elections but was just one part of the Assembly. This is nonsense legally. In 1947, the Constituent Assembly had been similarly bifurcated into its Pakistani and Indian parts, even though they had been elected on the basis of the 1946 elections. That being said, there is one other very good reason why the validity of the constitution of 1973 can be questioned: non-enforcement of the many provisions of this constitution, especially the fundamental rights chapter.
A constitution’s supreme purpose is to delineate the rights of its citizens vis-à-vis the state. The 1973 constitution’s fundamental rights chapter gives several such rights, which are the basic rights of any citizen and, on other occasions, any person who may be living in Pakistan. For example, there is Article 20, which gives every citizen the right to profess and propagate his or her religion. I have, on several occasions, written how this fundamental right is denied to religious minorities and especially that forced religious minority, the Ahmedis. Then there are Articles 10 and 10-A, which promise safeguards with respect to detention and arrest as well as due process and fair trial in the determination of civil and political rights of individuals. These have been repeatedly violated all over Pakistan, especially in Balochistan. Then — perhaps the most fundamental of all these rights — the freedom of speech and expression, which is contained in Article 19, is on the ground non-existent. Indeed the courts are hesitant and even reluctant to enforce this fundamental right in the true spirit of the constitution. Now, if the constitution is a contract between the government and the governed, one can safely say that the denial of fundamental rights — repeatedly and deliberately on the part of government and the failure of the courts to keep the government in check on this count — amounts to nothing less than a breach of contract, rendering the contract void for all practical purposes.
As a lawyer — despite some serious misgivings about many of its clauses — I have respected the constitution of Pakistan as a sacred document. Practical experience with its enforcement in the courts however has left me with a profound sense of disillusionment. It is not that the constitution is unworkable but that there is no will to make it work. Take, for example, the YouTube ban. The YouTube ban is constitutionally unsustainable. You can take a legal opinion from any neutral legal expert anywhere in the world and they will tell you that the YouTube ban is inconsistent with Article 19 of the constitution. First and foremost, in order for a restriction on this right to apply legally, the said restriction has to be through a clear and unambiguous legislative act authorising such a restriction. Section 295-C, the blasphemy law, does not contain any such authority; it seeks to punish an act of blasphemy not create prior restraints on freedom of expression and speech. Secondly, even if such a law were to be enforced tomorrow, it would have to be defended by the government on the touchstone of Article 19. So, unless the government can — in this case — show how the YouTube ban is beneficial or serves the glory of Islam or preserves law and order, such a law, if there were to be one, would be unconstitutional.
That brings us to the important question of whether the YouTube ban in any way serves the glory of Islam. In the case that I filed in the Lahore High Court (LHC) on behalf of Bytes For All, a non-profit organisation committed to internet freedom in Pakistan, precisely one year and 17 days ago today, challenging the YouTube ban, I argued that the YouTube ban in fact does not further the glory of Islam but does precisely the opposite. By banning YouTube, the government has in fact taken away the right of close to 30 million Muslims in this country on the internet to respond to the blasphemous and scurrilous hate-filled propaganda against Islam by certain Islamophobe sections of western society. Furthermore it has crippled the access of millions of Pakistanis to the latest information and knowledge that is available on YouTube. How can stopping the free flow of knowledge, which could help Pakistanis — a great majority of whom are Muslims — ever amount to enhancing or even protecting the glory of Islam?
The Pakistani legal system is held hostage by the religious right in this country, which is incapable of thinking rationally. Consequently, even the most progressive judge, and my case had the most progressive judge in my opinion in all of Pakistan, is hard pressed to uphold the sacred fundamental rights promised to Pakistanis under the constitution. That I have spent over a year contesting a case that should really be an open and shut case in terms of the determination of fundamental rights, is proof enough that the constitution of Pakistan exists only on paper. Expediency and appeasement reign supreme in our courts and halls of government. Forget the constitution. Imagine the damage we have to done to this country. The tragedy is that this country was founded by a lawyer who believed, above all else, in the fundamental right of speech and expression. Jinnah, speaking in September 1927 on the issue of the blasphemy law, said, “We must also secure this very important and fundamental principle that those who are engaged in historical works, those who are engaged in the ascertainment of truth and those who are engaged in bona fide and honest criticisms of a religion shall be protected.”
Bona fide and honest criticism of religion; surely such a thing is unimaginable in the Pakistan of 2014. While talking about criticism, we are, however, only talking about common sense, a rarity in our republic these days.

Bilawal Bhutto: No more excuses for Taliban violence, Bhutto heir tells Pakistan's leaders

Jon Boone
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, 25, says prime minister and Imran Khan letting down nation by not backing firm military action
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the youthful heir apparent to one of south Asia's most famous dynasties, has launched a scathing attack on his political opponents who he said must stop "making excuses" for Taliban violence.
The 25-year-old son of the assassinated prime minister Benazir Bhutto said Nawaz Sharif, the country's current leader, and the opposition politician Imran Khan, were "letting down the people" by not backing firm military action against the Taliban.
"Perhaps they are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome," Bhutto Zardari said, referring to cases of hostages who sympathise with or even assist their captors. "There is no reason why the national leaders, the so-called leaders, should not speak out against people who are murdering our citizens, murdering our armed forces and claiming responsibility."
The remarks are likely to further burnish his reputation as both a brash new arrival on Pakistan's political scene but also the most outspoken politician in the country on the issue of militancy and extremism.
He does not sit in parliament, but wields significant influence over the Pakistan People's party (PPP), of which he is "patron in chief". The party has been led in the past by his grandfather, his mother – who was killed while campaigning in 2007 – and his father, Asif Ali Zardari. Khan and other right-wing politicians have been criticised for handling the Pakistani Taliban with kid gloves, in a so-far unsuccessful bid to lure them into peace talks.
On Saturday the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan ( TTP ), as the country's deadly coalition of militants is known, signalled its appreciation of Khan's approach by announcing the movement wanted him to sit on a committee with four extremist clerics known to sympathise with militant aims. The TTP said Khan and the others could represent its interests in peace talks with the government.
Khan brushed off the embarrassing endorsement, saying "the TTP should select their own Taliban representatives for the peace talks". Even mass-casualty suicide attacks on civilians have at times elicited only meek condemnations. Many politicians are reluctant even to identify the culprits as the TTP. Bhutto Zardari said the tactic had been disastrous, emboldening extremists to target civilians, including Malala Yousafzai, the schoolgirl education activist who nearly died in 2012 after being shot in the head by a Taliban assassin. "This is why people like Malala become targets because the politicians, or the so-called leaders of this country, can't find the courage to speak out when a 16-year-old girl could. If we all speak in one voice, they can't kill us all," he said.
The TTP has used a highly effective intimidation campaign against liberal and left-leaning political parties and journalists to silence many of its natural critics. Bhutto Zardari said he could speak out only because of the vast security operation that surrounds him at all times and heavily restricts his travel in Pakistan, where he spends much of his time at his fortress-like family compound in Karachi.
"I have a lot of security – I lost my mother to the Taliban because of a lack of security – and that explains partly why I can be so vocal," he said. "But so does Imran Khan. Nawaz Sharif is the prime minister of Pakistan, Shahbaz Sharif is the chief minister of Punjab. They all have more security than I do. They have no excuse."
In the past Khan has said strident rhetoric might endanger the lives of his supporters and party activists. Bhutto Zardari has shown no such caution, even though he hopes thousands of members of the public will be attracted to numerous cultural events he has organised across Sindh in the coming weeks. They are part of a festival he has promoted as a deliberate challenge to extremists and militants he derisively calls "cavemen". Bhutto Zardari is firmly against negotiations with the Taliban, saying the time has come for far-reaching military operations against the TTP, particularly in the militant stronghold of North Waziristan, an area bordering Afghanistan that for years has been a sanctuary for al-Qaida allied groups.
But he warned an operation should be in co-operation with Afghanistan, an unlikely proposition given the distrust between Kabul and Islamabad. "With Afghanistan there is no point of us launching an operation over here if they are just going to hop across the border and find sanctuary over there," he said. "The ideal situation would be an operation from both sides at the same time."
In recent weeks it had appeared that Sharif would finally announce the abandonment of a talks policy his close aides said had failed to make any progress. But instead on Wednesday Sharif announced he was giving them one last chance, announcing a hastily assembled commission of intermediaries to try to talk to the TTP.
Bhutto Zardari said he was exasperated by the decision: "It is extremely frustrating, not just for me but for the people who risk their lives on a daily basis, for the people who die on a daily basis," he said.

Syrians hold rallies in support of Assad government

People in Syria have held several rallies to express support for the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian army. The demonstrations were held on Sunday in the capital Damascus as well as the town of Nabek, official news agency SANA reported. Similar rallies have frequently been staged in the country during the past couple of years. The pro-government demonstrations come as the Syrian army has intensified its operations to clear militant hideouts in Rima farms in the strategic region of Qalamoun near Damascus. Syrian forces on Saturday launched new strikes to push back the foreign-backed militants who have been attempting for weeks to take control over a vital highway in the region that links the capital to the western city of Homs. The army also continues operations in the town of Yabrud in Qalamoun, which hosts some of the most dangerous militant groups. Following recent successful military operations in Qalamoun, the Syrian army is now in control of one-third of land stretching between the highway and Yabrud. Crisis has gripped Syria for nearly three years. According to reports, the Western powers and their regional allies -- especially Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey -- are supporting the militants operating inside the country. The United Nations says more than four million Syrians will be forced out of their homes in 2014 by the escalating conflict in the country that has killed more than 100,000 people and displaced millions so far.

Bilawal Bhutto condemns Peshawar blast
Patron-in-Chief of Pakistan Peoples Party, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has strongly condemned the terrorist attack in Peshawar today which resulted into loss of precious human lives while injuring many others.
In a statement, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari said that such attacks are meant to tear down the civil society and take over it hostage at gun-point to impose darkness.
PPP Patron Bilawal Bhutto Zardari sympathized with the families of victims who lost their lives and limbs in the attack and expressed solidarity with them. He stressed that special arrangements should be made for timely treatment to all those injured in the attack.

At least five die in Peshawar cinema blasts

Twin blasts struck a cinema near Qissa Khawani Bazaar in Peshawar on Sunday evening, killing five people, police said. At least 20 people have been injured in the blasts. Senior police officer Najeeb ur Rehman confirmed to SAMAA that five people were killed in the explosions. According to the police, two Chinese-made hand grenades were thrown inside Picture House Cinema after the start of the film. Rescue teams reached the scene and started shifting the dead and injured to Lady Reading Hospital. According to reports, 90 to 100 people were present inside the cinema

Killings rattle Afghan voters as election campaign starts

Afghanistan's presidential candidates held major rallies in Kabul on Sunday marking the start of an election campaign to appoint Hamid Karzai's successor, as the killing of a frontrunner's aides highlighted the security threat surrounding the poll. Gunmen shot dead two aides of Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister, in the western city of Herat on Saturday, officials said. The attack comes as the country prepares for its first democratic transfer of power, with the April 5 election viewed as a key test of the effectiveness of the 350,000-strong Afghan security force as foreign troops prepare to exit the country. A dispute between Kabul and Washington over whether a small force of US soldiers stays behind beyond 2014 is likely to dominate the campaign. In the capital on Sunday, thousands of people, mostly men, gathered in giant wedding halls where candidates delivered speeches and called on war-weary Afghans to vote for them.
Ashraf Ghani, a 64-year-old academic and internationally known intellectual, told one packed hall: "Reforms will begin with us: myself, Mr Dostum and Mr Danish." He was referring to his running mates, the former Uzbek warlord General Abdul Rashid Dostum and ethnic Hazara tribal chieftain Sarwar Danish. Security was tight at the rallies, which were guarded by the Afghan national army. But despite the army's presence, the killing of Abdullah's aides weighed heavily on some people's minds. Voters 'concerned' Arefa Alizada, an 18-year-old Abdullah supporter who attended one of the rallies, said: "I am concerned about security of the election, especially after I heard that two campaigners were killed yesterday. If it worsens, me and many other people won't be able to vote."
Afghanistan has been gripped by a deadly insurgency for the past 12 years. Most US and NATO troops are set to leave at the end of this year, leaving Afghans in charge of their own security. A dispute between Kabul and Washington over whether a small force of US soldiers stays behind beyond 2014 is likely to dominate the campaign. Karzai was expected to sign a bilateral security agreement (BSA) late last year, which would allow about 10,000 US troops to be deployed in the country after NATO withdraws by December. But he has stalled and said his successor might now complete negotiations -- plunging relations with the US, Afghanistan's key donor, to a fresh low. Karzai has ruled the country since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, surviving assassination attempts and the treacherous currents of Afghan political life as billions of dollars of military and development aid poured into the country. He is barred from seeking a third term, leaving an open field to compete in the April 5 vote, which is likely to trigger a second-round run-off in late May between the two strongest candidates.
Abdullah, the suave opposition leader who came second to Karzai in the chaotic and fraud-riddled 2009 election, is tipped to go through to the next round. Former finance minister Ghani, Karzai loyalist Zalmai Rassoul and the president's low-profile elder brother Qayum Karzai are also considered heavyweights. In comments likely to cause further friction with his NATO allies, Karzai criticised their conduct during the 12-year conflict in an interview with Britain's Sunday Times in which he described the Taliban as "brothers" and the US as "rivals". Karzai told the newspaper that "the US-led Nato mission in terms of bringing security has not been successful, particularly in Helmand", a southern stronghold of Taliban militants.
"We have immense respect for the life of Nato soldiers lost in Afghanistan and strong disagreement for the way US conducted itself in Afghanistan," he said.
Western and Afghan officials say all 11 candidates support the BSA but, except for Abdullah, they have declined to say so publicly for fear of clashing with Karzai. Taliban insurgents have threatened to target the campaign, and the Afghan police and army face a major challenge with little support from the dwindling number of NATO troops. Disputes over millions of fraudulent ballots led to a major crisis after voting in 2009, before Abdullah pulled out of the run-off, leaving Karzai to take power. Election organisers are again expected to be busy with complaints of fake votes, ballot-box stuffing and polling booths unable to open due to voter intimidation. "Holding elections is not an easy job in the current situation in Afghanistan," Yousuf Nuristani, chairman of the Independent Election Commission, told candidates recently.
"We hope you carry out your election campaigns in accordance with the law and in a good environment."

Afghan Presidential Election Campaign Begins
Campaigning for Afghanistan's presidential election has begun. The campaign for the successor to Hamid Karzai officially began Sunday for the April 5 poll. Karzai cannot run for a third term under Afghan law. Analysts cite several strong presidential candidates: former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani and the president's elder brother, Qayum Karzai. The election kickoff comes a day after gunmen killed two of Abdullah's campaign workers in the western city of Herat. Violence threatens the campaign as the Taliban has vowed to disrupt the poll. The presidential vote will be a crucial test of whether Afghanistan can ensure a stable political transition as NATO combat forces ready their withdrawal after nearly 13 years of war. Karzai had been expected to sign a bilateral security agreement late last year, which would allow about 10,000 U.S. troops to be deployed in the country after NATO withdraws by December. However, the Afghan president refused to sign the deal, and has said his successor might now complete negotiations. The delay in signing the deal has strained relations between the U.S. and Afghanistan. - See more at:

Hamid Karzai: 'I saw no good' with America's presence in Afghanistan

By Harriet Alexander
Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, admits that he has not spoken to Barack Obama in seven months as he reveals the complete breakdown of trust between his country and the United States
The president of Afghanistan has not spoken to his American counterpart since June, he said, in an interview which showed the increasing gulf between Kabul and Washington.
Hamid Karzai, 56, has grown increasingly hostile towards Barack Obama as Afghanistan prepares to elect a new president in April. Mr Karzai will not stand again, but he is determined to emphasise his disagreements with the United States before he steps down.
"This whole 12 years was one of constant pleading with America to treat the lives of our civilians as lives of people," he said, adding that he had not spoken to Mr Obama since June.
"We met in South Africa [at Mandela's funeral] but didn't speak. Letters have been exchanged." Mr Karzai said that he "saw no good" in the American presence in his country.
"They did not work for me, they worked against me," he said, and referred to the Taliban in his interview with The Sunday Times as "brothers" and the Americans as "rivals".
His rhetoric has been ill received in Washington, where American politicians are evermore infuriated by Mr Karzai's stance.
America spent $648bn (£394bn) during the war, which has cost 2,211 lives. Last week Congress cut development aid to Afghanistan in half, reducing it to $1.1bn.
But Mr Karzai is unrepentant.
"The money they should have paid to the police they paid to private security firms and creating militias who caused lawlessness, corruption and highway robbery," he said.
"They then began systematically waging psychological warfare on our people, encouraging our money to go out of our country. "What they did was create pockets of wealth and a vast countryside of deprivation and anger." He is slightly more generous in his assessment of Britain, "which has conducted with us in a very civilised way and tried to bring better relations between us and Pakistan." But he added: "In general the US-led Nato mission in terms of bringing security has not been successful, particularly in Helmand."
A key bone of contention between the US and Afghanistan is the bilateral security agreement, which proposes 8-12,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan beyond the withdrawal of combat soldiers at the end of 2014. America is keen for the troops to remain to prevent "losing" Afghanistan, and the country's tribal elders supported the plan at an assembly in November.
Yet Mr Karzai is dragging his heels, saying that history has taught Afghanistan not to "gamble" on pacts.
"Under pressure our kings signed things and all that turned out to be disastrous for Afghanistan," he said. "Under pressure today if I do the same I don't know the consequences."
The president, who has ruled the country since 2001, said that he was proud of his legacy.
"Afghanistan is home to all Afghans now. We have a parliament where commanders, clergy, mujahids and women sit together.
"We have 11 candidates running for president who represent a combination of all Afghan people and thinking." And he shrugged off concerns about the implications of his posturing, saying that Western anger and the cutting of financial aid did not trouble him. "Money is not everything," he said. "If you ask me as an individual, I would rather live in poverty than uncertainty."

Baluch Women Protest After Mass Grave Unearthed
A group of ethnic Baluch women have staged a rally in the city of Quetta, in southwest Pakistan, to protest a recently discovered mass grave in the nearby Khuzdar district. The protesters say the bodies found in the mass grave are of ethnic Baluch men, allegedly abducted by state intelligence services. Officials deny the claim. The bodies -- most of them badly decomposed and beyond recognition -- were discovered by a local shepherd on January 25. Officials say there were 13 bodies in the mass grave, while Baluch sources claim the number of bodies exceeds 100. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan has also questioned Pakistani authorities over the mass grave. The region is the scene of a decades-old insurgency by Baluch nationalists, who are demanding greater autonomy.

No room in law for talks with terrorists

The government faces a moral dilemma as it gets ready for talks with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan, one of the 60 outfits officially banned and declared as terrorist organisations.
The government keeps on saying that negotiations with the TTP would be held within the framework of the Constitution, but experts believe that there is no room in the Constitution to enter into a dialogue with terrorist groups. Asked if the government was considering lifting a ban on TTP before the start of talks, Information Minister Pervez Rasheed told Dawn there was no such possibility and the status quo would be maintained.
The TTP, with Baitullah Mehsud as its head, came into being in Dec 2007 – five months after the Lal Masjid operation. The organisation was banned on Aug 25, 2008. The TTP has claimed responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks, including suicide bombings on military convoys, and it is accused of killing a number of civilians.
Before the last general elections, the TTP had agreed to hold peace talks with the government, but the killing of one of its key leaders changed the scenario. A fresh initiative taken by the government for talks after adoption of a unanimous resolution by an all-party conference did not work either because another drone attack killed TTP chief Hakeemullah Mehsud.
But the government kept on saying that the dialogue was its top priority. When the TTP killed a number of Frontier Corps personnel in Bannu it was thought that the government was ready for a final showdown and that a military operation was imminent. But Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif announced the formation of a four-member committee for talks with the TTP.
When a government official was asked to comment on the idea of holding talks with an outlawed organisation, he said it was a decision taken by all political parties represented at the all-party conference in September.
He pointed out that several political parties had supported formation of the committee to hold talks with the TTP.
The government has banned 60 terrorist organisations so far.
Al Qaeda, Tehreek-i-Nifaz-i-Shariat-i-Muhammadi, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Tehreek-i-Jafria Pakistan, Tehreek-i-Islami, Ansarul Islam and Balochistan Liberation Army are among the groups that were banned from 2001 to 2010. People’s Amn Committee, Lyari, Karachi, Markaz Sabeel Organisation, Gilgit, and Tanzeem Naujawanan-i-Sunnat, Gilgit were outlawed in 2011.
Anjuman-i-Imania Gilgit-Baltistan and Muslim Students Organisation, Gilgit-Baltistan, Al-Harmain Foundation, Rabita Trust and Tanzeem Ahle Sunnat Wal Jamaat were among the outfits that were outlawed in 2012.
Khana-i-Hikmat, Tehrik-i-Taliban, Bajaur, Tehrik-i-Taliban Mohmand, Tehrik-i-Taliban Swat, 313 Brigade, Abdullah Azam Brigade and Baloch Students Organisation Azad were banned in 2013.

Ruckus about Sindh Festival

A lot is being said about the Sindh Festival but probably not in the way Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the brains behind the cultural event, would like it. The Sindh Festival, which kicked off yesterday, was celebrated at Mohenjodaro, a declared UNESCO world heritage site. It is an event intended to shine light on the rich culture and heritage of Sindh itself, the home base of the PPP. Ever since it was announced that the festival was to be launched at Mohenjodaro, social media went abuzz with the news, with users claiming, rather prematurely, that a stage would be built on top of the ancient ruins, further devastating the site. This led to a sudden peak in local and international attention with people wanting to know the how’s and what’s of the technical management for the event. This led to Bilawal issuing an official statement on how “extraordinary” and “foolproof” measures had been taken to ensure that absolutely no damage be caused to the ancient site. The director of the Sindh Archaeology Department, Qasim Ali Qasim, even showed the PPP patron-in-chief around the site and all the work done to guarantee that every effort was made to preserve the site from the scaffolding to the seating. The ruins were completely cordoned off from the stage and event area. The only reason the festival is taking place there is to highlight the conservation needs of the site. Such cultural events are celebrated at heritage sites around the world.
It is deeply appreciated that social media, commentators and archaeology ‘experts’ took the entire matter to heart and raised a ruckus over the ruins of Mohenjodaro but one must ask: where was this concern before the announcement to hold the festival there? Mohenjodaro’s ruins have been in complete decay, suffering from neglect and erosion. Extensive digging at the site in the past caused erosion to the ancient structures because of water logging and salinity. Digging was stopped after the intervention of archaeologists but nothing was done to preserve the ruins. It is quite typical here to make some noise when a subject is brought to attention but to not give a second thought to it beforehand or after.
Those employed to make the Sindh Festival a success consisted of a team of technically expert managers in arranging such events at heritage sites. They did know what they were doing. The whole point of the event was to showcase the beauty of our culture and its heritage. Given that goal, it would obviously not do to ruin the ruins.

Pakistani government shows no sign of taking action over the Federal Shariah Court’s blasphemy law ruling
Pakistan's Federal Shariah Court (FSC) of Pakistan ordered that the death penalty be the only punishment for a blasphemer, and that life imprisonment be removed as an option. The Pakistani government has been given until next month to implement the order and time is running out if the decision is to be challenged.
CLAAS is concerned that if the order is followed, this law will become a Shariah law, causing many complications and blasphemy cases will have to be heard in Shariah courts. The original order was made in 1990 but the government failed to implement the order and therefore 23 years later, once again the order is being reinforced.
It may be a coincidence, but both times the order has been made, it was during Nawaz Sharif’s government. More than a month has passed since the decision and the time limit is approaching, but so far the government has taken no action.
Expressing his concern over the situation, CLAAS UK Director Nasir Saeed said: “Non-Muslims will have to face some restrictions and achieving justice will be an even more difficult task for them if this order is followed. “We all know the blasphemy laws are being misused to settle personal scores, and this will be taken to another height and victims from religious minorities will become defenseless and more vulnerable if it becames Shariah law.” He added: “There is a long standing demand of the Islamists that blasphemy cases should be heard by the Shariah Courts. The majority of Ulemas consider it a bigger sin than apostasy. There are even some who believe that there is no need to register a case against a blasphemer and that culprits should be punished on the spot, with it being the duty of every Muslim to ensure this is done. “This mentality could prove to be very dangerous for religious minorities and the implementation of the order could see a dramatic increase in incidents of public justice and vigilante killings.”

Pakistan: Karachi’s Christians, crushed by the land mafia, seek help from Church

The community of Horizon Plaza is subject to abuse, violence and discrimination. Since 2011, local land mafia backed by authorities have stolen homes, property and assets. Despite the complaints, so far police and prosecutors have never taken any action . Diocesan priest demands justice “for those who suffer”
Christians in Horizon Plaza, a district of Karachi, are victims of continued incidents of abuse , violence and discrimination in the complete indifference, if not connivance , of the police forces and institutions. Economic interests and the question of land possession for business and commercial initiatives – are behind the attacks. Even the Pakistani organizations that fight for human rights have been unable to resolve the situation and restore peace and security to the people. Now the community have appealed to the Catholic Church, to intervene on their behalf.
Fr . George Montgomery, a diocesan priest in Karachi, confirms that the case is being considered by court judges although so far there have been no significant developments. “We demand justice for those who suffer” added the priest, who describes the security situation in the metropolis to the south of the country as “shaky”. “The land mafia – he explains -are taking advantage of the situation that affects the most marginalized groups .”
The drama of the Christian community of Horizon Plaza began in 2011, when some landlords in the area – with the support of leading political parties – illegally occupied apartments and houses, evicting tenants with regular permits and ownership rights. Complaints to police went unheeded, while the abusive occupants committed all sorts of abuse and bullying against residents, particularly women. Not even a petition to the High Court , which is still pending , has had any effect. Any appeal to the political and institutional leaders has so far fallen on deaf ears . Meanwhile, attacks against buildings and property of Christians have increased , which is why the community has been left with no other solution than seek help from the Catholic Church of Pakistan .
Disputes over land and property have arisen several times in the past: in October 2011, two Christian brothers in Faisalabad were abducted by a Muslim family of landowners for whom they worked. The kidnap was motivated by economic disputes between the landowners and laborers, in the absolute indifference of the police. A month later the Catholic activist Akram Masih, father of four, was murdered by the land mafia for his fight for the rights of the poorest, especially Christians.
With more than 180 million people (97 per cent Muslim), Pakistan is the sixth most populous country in the world and the second largest Muslim country after Indonesia. About 80 per cent of Muslims are Sunni, whilst Shias are about 20 per cent of the total. There are also small communities of Hindus (1.85 per cent), Christians (1.6 per cent) and Sikhs (0.04 per cent). Violence against ethnic or religious minorities has been on rise in recent years with Shia Muslims and Christians as the main targets.
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