Thursday, March 13, 2014

Russia Threatens Symmetrical Sanctions Against West

Russia does not rule out reciprocal action if sanctions are imposed by the US and European countries, a senior Russian economic official said Thursday.
“We hope that there will only be targeted political sanctions, and not a broad package affecting economic trade,” Deputy Economic Development Minister Alexei Likhachev said.
“Our sanctions will be, of course, symmetrical,” he added.
The threat of economic sanctions has sent Russian markets and the ruble reeling in recent weeks following Western outcries over the seizure of military bases in Ukraine’s autonomous republic of Crimea by troops lacking official insignia but widely believed to be under Russian command.
Russian President Vladimir Putin denied the troops are Russian, calling them local militia. A referendum on secession and annexation by Russia is scheduled for Sunday in the majority Russian ethnic region. The vote is widely expected to return a positive result, with annexation following as early as by the end of the month, pending approval by Russia’s parliament and Putin.
The White House announced visa bans on unnamed officials last week and said that targeted economic sanctions have been authorized against individuals responsible for violating the territorial integrity of Ukraine. A US bill expected to introduce broader and tougher sanctions against Russian officials passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday and will now advance to a full vote in Congress.
Russia has in the past responded to such targeted sanctions in a proportional manner. A 2012 US blacklist of Russian officials blamed for the death of whistleblowing lawyer Sergei Magnitsky in 2009 spurred the country last year to retaliate with a similar list of US officials banned from entering the country.

Ukraine: If Crimea says 'Da!,' what's next?

If Crimeans vote yes in a referendum Sunday to break from Ukraine, the question is: What happens next?
Such a referendum has no precedent, analysts say, and no one appears certain how opponents, Russia and the world will react, or what difference the vote may make.
"If the referendum succeeds, you'll create a completely new situation in Crimea," said Igor Burakovsky, director of the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting in Kiev.
The referendum asks the people of Crimea, a peninsula on the Black Sea that is part of Ukraine, if they wish to secede and join Russia or make Crimea more independent of Ukraine's federal government, run by a national parliament seated in the capital, Kiev.
Leaders of the United States and Europe have denounced repeatedly the referendum as illegal and warned it may spur civil war. Kiev says the referendum is unconstitutional and it will not recognize the results. Russia says the referendum is legitimate, and Moscow has organized rallies to welcome Crimea into the fold.
The referendum itself was drafted by members of the Crimean legislature under pressure from an armed militia that invaded the parliament and locked it down. The vote is being managed by businessmen and Crimean nationalists who have forced elected officials to resign and simply named themselves as their replacements.
President Obama on Thursday reiterated his earlier warning to Russia's President Vladimir Putin that there will be "costs" if Russia takes steps to annex Crimea after the vote. He has not said what those costs would be.
Europe and the United States could have imposed financial penalties against Russia but have not done so. Putin has retorted that any sanctions against Russia will do nothing except provoke counter-sanctions from Moscow against the USA and Europe. Given the lack of serious action by the West, many analysts say the outcome of the crisis is squarely in the hands of Putin.
"What happens will be decided by Putin," said Kadri Liik, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "He hasn't said the final word on whether he will join Crimea with Russia or not. But all groundwork is prepared. Basically he has freedom of action."
And he has used it, with no repercussions he cannot handle, say analysts.
Thousands of Russian assault troops based at a Black Sea port that Moscow leases from Kiev have essentially invaded parts of Crimea, setting up border patrols to prevent Ukraine troops from entering the region from their bases outside Crimea. The troop movements are a violation of a "status of forces" agreement Moscow signed with Kiev that states no Russian forces can leave the base into Ukraine. Russia has both denied and admitted that the troops, which wear no official insignia, are its own.
But Putin says Russia has the right to send troops in if it feels Russian citizens in Crimea are in danger.
The Russian assault troops appear to have coordinated efforts with armed Crimeans who have formed militias and are blocking Ukraine military bases in Crimea. Soon after the military occupation commenced, Crimeans who are pro-Moscow forced out Crimea's provincial government and appointed a little-known politician, Sergei Aksyonov, as the new regional prime minister. "You have Russian troops on the ground – it cannot be considered legal – any referendum that happens at gunpoint is illegal," said Liik. "Plus, the referendum was announced by the new prime minister who was appointed at a session of parliament that was also at gunpoint. He got 4% of the vote at the latest local election, so he is clearly not representative, either. That is all staged by Russia." Crimea is the only area of Ukraine where the majority of people are ethnically Russian. Crimea was made part of Ukraine in the 1950s by the defunct Soviet Union. It includes various ethnicities including Crimean Muslims known as Tatars. But Russia has always maintained a strong presence in Crimea and Putin has lamented publicly the loss of former Soviet republics like Ukraine that declared independence after the Soviet dictatorship disintegrated and became Russia in 1991. "Stationed in the Ukrainian city of Sevastopol, the Russian Black Sea Fleet comprises 40 vessels compared to 19 in the whole of the Ukrainian Navy," said Konrad Muzkya, a military expert at IHS Jane's in London.
Susan Stewart, deputy head of the research division on Eastern Europe and Eurasia at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, said Putin's aggressive stance is intended to send a message to former Soviet republics and even citizens of Russia that attempts to align with Europe rather than Russia may be met with force. Stewart says Putin's claim that he is acting to safeguard is a smokescreen. "If you look at the situation on the ground in Crimea in the past years, there has not been, even now, any evidence of any discrimination," she said.
Obama's steps thus far have been limited to visa bans on unnamed Ukrainian and Russian officials, preventing them from visiting the United States. Since Obama and European nations have ruled out military action, it's not clear the West will be able to get Putin to back off Crimea, say analysts.
"Russia wants the West to accept that Russia has special rights in Ukraine, which I think the West in unlikely to accept," said Liik. "But the West has no power to change the situation on the ground, either."
American and European diplomats gathered in London earlier this week to discuss further sanctions if Moscow doesn't change course. During their meeting, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry declined to visit Moscow, saying discussions couldn't occur as long as the military intervention continues. "Unless there is some sort of outside military intervention, there is not very much that can be changed in terms of the Russian position in Crimea," said Stewart. As Kerry and European diplomats fretted in London, Russia and pro-Moscow Crimeans have been solidifying their hold on Crimea.
Russian troops seized more Crimean government offices and other facilities, including an airport. Pro-Russian Crimean lawmakers also passed a declaration of independence, claiming it was a necessary precursor to holding the Sunday referendum. And Ukraine is powerless to do much other than break off economic ties with Crimea – which Ukraine props up economically with loans and subsidies, say analysts. Crimea could adopt the Russian ruble as its currency, but Ukraine may respond by cutting off Crimea's main supply of water, electricity and trade. As for the use of force, Ukraine's military is outgunned by Russia and the reluctance of the West to react to the impending annexation with force would leave Ukraine no options to turn back separation of part of the country.
If that happens, Putin may set his sights more closely on other former Soviet republics, said Burakovsky. Bordering Ukraine to the west, Moldova sits on the Black Sea and views Russia's moves in Crimea as dangerous, according to its Prime Minister Iurie Leanca. "The tense situation in Crimea is a threat to the security of the whole region," he said this week.
Moldovans see themselves culturally as Romanian, but 200,000 people in east Moldova in the province of Transnistria, on the border with Ukraine, are ethnic Russians and have Russian citizenship.
In 1992 Russia backed an uprising there in a war that left 300 people dead. The Russian army has kept troops in the province ever since despite protests from the government.
Georgia, on the eastern shore of the Black Sea, fought a brief war in 2008 after nearly a week of clashes between Georgian troops and separatist South Ossetia, where many have Russian passports. Russia used the fighting there again as a pretext to protect its citizens and launched air attacks on Georgian forces.
Russia forces were headed to the capital of Tbilisi but pulled back to South Ossetia and Georgia's other breakaway region Abkhazia under a cease-fire agreement. It later recognized both as independent states, and Russian troops occupy them to this day. If Crimea can hold a referendum to join Russia, other republics might call for votes to secede, too, further destabilizing the area, said Burakovsky. But Putin may not annex Crimea even if a majority of the people there wish it.
"Southern Ossetia as well as Transnistria applied but were denied," said Burakovsky, referring to attempts in those regions to join Russia officially.

US Officials Have 'Indication' Malaysia Airline Crashed into Indian Ocean
U.S. officials have an "indication" the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner may have crashed in the Indian Ocean and is moving the USS Kidd to the area to begin searching.
It will take another 24 hours to move the ship into position, a senior Pentagon official told ABC News. "We have an indication the plane went down in the Indian Ocean," the senior official said. The official said there were indications that the plane flew four or five hours after disappearing from radar and that they believe it went into the water.
Pentagon officials said that the USS Kidd was being moved at the request of Malaysia and is heading towards an area where the Indian Ocean and the Andaman Sea meet. It has helicopters aboard that can scour the area. The U.S. action came hours after Malaysian officials said they had extended their search into the Andaman Sea and had requested help from India in the search for the missing plane and its 239 passengers.
Investigators also said today that U.S. officials gave them reasons to keep searching the waters west of Malaysia, far from the flight path of the Malaysia Airlines plane. Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said that the search’s “main focus has always been in the South China Sea,” which is east of Malaysia and along the plane’s route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. But the search was extended earlier this week to include water far to the west on the other side of Malaysia.
“We are working very closely with the FAA and the NTSB on the issue of a possible air turn back,” Hishammuddin said, referring to the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board. “They have indicated to us that based on the information given by the Malaysian authorities, they — being the FAA and NTSB — the U.S. team was of the view that there was reasonable ground for the Malaysian authorities to deploy resources to conduct search on the western side of the peninsula of Malaysia. Under the circumstances, it is appropriate to conduct the search even if the evidence suggests there is a possibility of finding a minor evidence to suggest that ... the aircraft would have been there.” Hishammuddin said it was possible the plane kept flying after dropping off of radar. "Of course, this is why we have extended the search," he said.
The Malaysians spent much of today's news conference dismissing earlier leads. "I’ve heard of many incidents from many sources. Like we have said from the start, we have looked at every lead and in most cases — in fact in all cases — that we have pursued, we have not found anything positive," Hishamuddin said. He said that pictures of three large objects floating in the South China Sea posted Wednesday on a Chinese government website were not debris from the missing plane.
"A Malaysian maritime enforcement agency surveillance plane was dispatched this morning to investigate potential debris shown on Chinese satellite images. We deployed assets, but found nothing. We have contacted the Chinese Embassy who notified us this afternoon the images were released by mistake and did not show any debris from MH370," he said. Hishamuddin also dismissed a report by the Wall Street Journal that signals sent by the plane's Rolls Royce engine indicated the plane kept flying for up to five hours. He didn't dispute the plane could have kept flying, but said Rolls Royce did not receive any signals from the engine after it vanished from radar.
Earlier in the search, two oil slicks were determined to not be from the plane and an orange object thought to be part of the plane's door was investigated and found to be unrelated.

U.S. retail sales rebound from winter chill, jobless claims fall

The data on Thursday reinforced expectations of a pick-up in economic activity and should encourage the Federal Reserve to continue scaling back its massive monetary stimulus.
"The economy seems to be rebounding from a winter-related slump," said Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ in New York. "We expect the Fed will stay the course with its exit strategy."
etail sales increased 0.3 percent last month, with receipts rising in most categories, the Commerce Department said. The gain followed a 0.6 percent drop in January and ended two straight months of declines. An unusually cold and snowy winter disrupted economic activity at the end of 2013 and the beginning of this year, holding back job growth and weighing on industrial production.
Economists had expected only a 0.2 percent increase in retail sales in February after snow and ice blanketed densely populated regions during the first half of the month.
"The consumer appears to be back in the game," said Millan Mulraine, deputy chief economist at TD Securities in New York.
"We see this as further confirmation that the underlying momentum in the economy remains quite favorable."
In a separate report, the Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 9,000 to a seasonally adjusted 315,000 last week. That was the lowest reading since late November. A four-week moving average for new claims, which irons out week-to-week volatility, fell to its lowest level since early December, a further sign of firming labor market conditions.
Stocks on Wall Street initially rose on the data, but later gave up gains as worries about Ukraine and the health of China's economy weighed. Prices for U.S. Treasury debt rose, while the dollar fell against a basket of currencies.
Retail sales are expected to accelerate in the spring as warmer temperatures and improving household finances unleash pent-up demand. That should boost growth and buttress the Fed's resolve to unwind its monthly bond buying program by year end.
"I do expect some pick-up in the second quarter. A lot of consumers are going to have some cabin fever," said Alan MacEachin, an economist at Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia.
So-called core sales, which strip out automobiles, gasoline, building materials and food services, and correspond most closely with the consumer spending component of gross domestic product, rose 0.3 percent in February. However, core sales in January were revised to show a 0.6 percent decline instead of only a 0.3 percent fall. That prompted some economists to lower their estimates for first- quarter consumer spending.
A second report from the Commerce Department showed retail inventories excluding autos posted their largest increase since July in the first month of this year. Economists said that should help offset weak consumer spending, and they raised their growth estimates as a result.
Even so, most economists expect GDP to expand at only around a 2 percent annual rate in the first quarter, which would mark a slowdown from the fourth quarter's 2.4 percent pace. Businesses accumulated a massive amount of inventories in the second half of last year, which had led economists to expect a slower pace of restocking in January. In January, the inventory-to-sales ratio, or the number of months it would take businesses to clear shelves, was the highest since October 2009. Retail sales in February were supported by a rise in receipts at automobile and parts dealers, while sales at electronics and appliance stores fell.
Receipts at building materials and garden equipment stores increased, likely as consumers bought snow removal equipment.
Sales at furniture stores rose as did receipts at clothing stores and online retailers. There were also gains in receipts at sporting goods shops and restaurants. Sales at food and beverage stores, however, fell.

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Blaming Bilawal Bhutto

Right now the entire media spotlight is on Thar due to the tragedy which has befallen its inhabitants. Many children have died due to malnutrition and as I write these sentences, more gruesome details continue to come out.
I personally think that the situation in Thar is, to some extent an administrative failure and therefore criticism on the incumbent party is legitimate. There is no way you can absolve a ruling party completely from responsibility.
However, what I have noticed on the electronic and social media is that many are really going overboard in their criticism and are using this tragedy for political point scoring and for feeling comfortable in their instinctive hatred of the PPP.
Our TV anchors have tried to link the Sindh festival with the tragedy in Thar to further whip up the sentiment, despite the fact that the two do not have any causal relationship. The Thar tragedy did not happen because the PPP organised the Sindh festival and yet, it is being portrayed as such.
Their point of view is being lapped up by a large chunk of the urban middle, particularly which hails from Punjab. On social media, I continue to see posts which portray PPP as a party of Pharaohs and murderers who were busy dancing at the Sindh festival, while Thar was dying of hunger. Many youngsters, who have had no knowledge on famines in general, have suddenly become experts on nutrition and are using this opportunity to vent out hate.
Similarly, when the Sindh festival was held at the famous Mohenjo-daro site, everyone became an expert on Archeology and vehemently voiced concerns over the safety of the ruins despite having had little to no interest in the site previously.
The most visible target of the entire hate filled campaign is of course the young Bilawal. I have read posts which liken him to a mass murderer and have also seen analogies with the infamous emperor of Rome, Nero. As the chairman of the PPP, he should be facing the heat but to portray him as a mass murderer is uncalled for.
Many people I know simply hate him for being the son of Asif Ali Zardari and late Benazir Bhutto and their overreaction can actually be understood in that context.
Even before the Thar tragedy, he was continuously mocked upon and there were jibes on his supposed lack of masculinity and also on his relatively poor Urdu. Today, legacy politics dominate literally every party, with legacy politicians in their ranks. And yet, Bilawal has constantly been targeted as an exception.
From the very onset, Bilawal has taken a very clear stance on extremism and despite his youth, he has shown great maturity in attempting to understand the issues that plague Pakistan. And yet, even his speech, where he condemned the Taliban was mocked upon. It’s no wonder then that those who express revulsion against Bilawal come up with all kinds of apologetic defense for monsters like the Taliban. Beyond Bilawal, they hate all liberal parties who have been voicing opposition to extremists.
Today Bilawal is being called a murderer and yet the actual murderers are being called “our people”, gone astray due to Pakistan’s decision to side with USA after 9/11.
This is not to say what has happened in Thar is excusable or less condemnable. Those who are responsible for negligence should be held accountable and should face retribution but at the same time, the huge difference in our reactions is worth pondering upon.
Tharparkar: A famine of facts
A tragedy like famines is often a cause of complex factors and while government negligence is an important aspect, it is not the sole cause. Famines such as this have occurred in many desert areas all across the globe and the causes are always multiple such as weather, lack of proper functioning markets, extreme poverty, high level of debt accumulation by the poor, land ownership patterns, etc. What has happened in Thar has to be analysed in the context of these factors and the responsibility of the government also needs to be evaluated accordingly.
Bilawal has just taken over the party and he should be judged primarily on the way he deals with this tragedy. Where he should be criticised is the way he holds officials from his government accountable. He should be evaluated by what his government does to address the multiple causes of such famines. Yes, if he fails then criticism is valid and in fact should be severe.
However, merely calling him a murderer is not the smartest of ways to go about it.

Pakistan: Child marriages, family laws: senator terms CII's judgement attempt to foist militants' agenda

The latest pronouncement of the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) is condemned as an unacceptable attempt to foist the obscurantist agenda of the militants on the people of Pakistan in the name of religion. "The call for the restoration of child marriages and the declaration that requiring a man to seek written permission from his wife before contracting a second marriage as 'un-Islamic', the Council has exposed itself to the charge that it is purveying 'medieval nonsense at public expense'," said PPP Senator Farhatullah Babar in a statement on Wednesday.
He said the Council had already reviewed all the laws and according to its special 2008 report it had declared that over 90 percent of the laws, including the ones relating to the child marriages and family laws, were not in conflict with Islam. How the Council could now reverse its report which lay in the domain of the Parliament, he asked.
The latest assertion made by the present Council, ignoring its 2008 report is an echo of the Taliban's viewpoint and amounts to paving the way for the prevalence of extremists' agendas. The Council had become an institution for purveying medieval and regressive views, he said.
Giving examples, Senator Farhatullah Babar said that in May last it was declared that DNA test results were not acceptable as primary evidence in cases of rape. "Making this declaration the Council ignored that DNA test is admissible as evidence in courts across the world and DNA tests and preservation of DNA samples in rape cases has been made mandatory in Pakistan in the light of a recent Supreme Court verdict," he said. In September last, the Council first approved the draft of a resolution recommending amending the blasphemy law proposing punishment to those levelling false allegations but soon the hard-liners joined hands and struck down the proposed resolution.
Earlier, the Council rejected a draft bill for establishing homes for the elderly on the ground that the idea was against the norms and traditions of society and also rejected the Women Protection Bill, 2006, saying it was contrary to the sprit of Quran and Sharia, he said.
"Recommendations such as these demonstrate how dangerously out of touch with the times the CII is today and how perilously it is purveying the extremists' agenda," he said. Such regressive declarations will only strengthen voices calling for disbanding the Council itself. He said the Council had submitted its final report to the Parliament in 1997 as required in the 1973 Constitution. It is also pertinent to raise questions about the legality of its declarations after having completed the task assigned to it under the Constitution and after having submitted its report.

Pakistan Prime Minister approves lifting of ban on underage marriage

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz has reportedly given his approval for the removal of the law banning underage marriage as well as the law regarding the second marriage of a man with the permission of his first wife. Sharif's move comes two days after the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) decreed that laws on the minimum age of marriage were not in line with Islam and that children of any age can be married. This decree came at the end of the CII's 191st meeting in Islamabad.
CII chairman Maulana Muhammad Khan Sheerani observed that the laws related to marriage were unfair and that there cannot be any minimum age for marriage. According to news reports, the council said the ban on child marriage does not hold ground and that children can get married at an early age. The bride can be bid to her husband's household for the consummation of their marriage once she reaches puberty, added the council.
In Pakistan, 15 is the 'age of maturity' for girls. The move comes in an apparent bid to radicalise Pakistani society. The CII, which comprises orthodox clerics from religious parties, has called for a consultative meeting with officials of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. A day before this decree on underage marriages, the CII chairman had come under fire for his statement and decree that the laws regarding a man's second marriage with the permission of the first wife were against religious principles. "Sharia allows men to have more than one wife and we demand the government amend the law," he told the media after the meeting. Subsequent reports suggested that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has given his approval for a legislation to declare the law against underage marriage and the law regarding the second marriage of a man in the presence of his first wife unconstitutional and against religious principles.
The decision has resulted in a huge uproar across all spheres, especially on social media.

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Council of Islamic Ideology Pushing Pakistan back to the caves

When the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) ruled that, according to their interpretation of Sharia Law, rape victims could not use DNA reports as primary evidence, and instead rely on the testimony of four witnesses, it was obvious that they had only begun Marty McFlying Pakistani women’s rights back to the cavemen era.
Sadly, the CII have in the last few days delivered two more blows to Pakistani women’s rights.
The first was when the CII suggested that the Pakistani government should amend the national marriage law so that men interested in remarrying, no longer need the written permission of their first wives. The second and more shocking was when the CII ruled that Pakistani laws which outlawed underage marriage were not Islamic.
As many agree, the biggest problem with the CII’s interpretation of the rape law is that the Council is relying on a decree on adultery which ruled on consensual sex, not forced sex. Moreover, it was from a time when science did not have a better answer.
The first wife's consent
Allowing Pakistani men to take on more wives without the consent of their first wife is ridiculous for a wide variety of obvious reasons. Marriage is a partnership, and allowing a man to be the sole decision maker in this regard means that a woman has no say in her life, hence opening up the field for a husband to abuse the law. Although, the caveat here is that the man must do justice to all of his wives by treating them equally, let’s be honest, how is that possible? Ask any mother, as much as she loves all her children, she has a favourite child. Of course, a well-meaning man interested in taking on a second wife may, on some level believe that he will love all of his wives equally, but how is he expected to make this informed decision before the experience of actually having multiple wives? What’s more, there is a grave psychological impact on any person asked to share their partner. Of course, if you ask the men of the CII if they would be willing to let their wives marry a second husband, they would respond with the typical counter-argument that this privilege should not be lent to their wives, as women with two husbands would be unable to tell who the father of their child is.
For argument’s sake, let’s say that these wives could take on second husbands in a marriage that was strictly platonic. With the father/child argument out of the window, would the men of the CII then allow their wives to enter second marriages? I suspect that they would not out of both jealousy and possessiveness.
Here, my question to the men in the Council of Islamic Ideology is, does a women not have a right to these feelings as well? Does she not also have a right to believe that her husband is only hers? As for the CII’s ruling on underage marriage, this law benefits no one, except sick individuals who wish to sexually exploit minors.
Interpretation and education
I think it is important to swallow the hard fact that for many who identify with certain ideologies, interpreting the more ambiguous beliefs in these ideologies in a manner that suits their world view is instinctive. For example, for better or worse, some of the staunchest supporters of a political party will interpret their leader’s more controversial views in a manner that doesn’t offend them even if evidence is to the contrary. From my research on Islamic laws on rape, second marriages, and underage nikkahs, I have noticed that the actual laws are ambiguous, and can be forcefully argued either way as to what is actually the correct interpretation of the law. I am neither religious nor an Islamic scholar, but I have had some educated well-meaning friends argue that these controversial interpretations are correct, even before the CII made public its views. So clearly, there are others also interpreting these rules in the same manner as the CII.
So, what’s the solution here?
I feel that the CII sincerely believes that their interpretation is in line with Islam. I also dare say that the outrage over this issue is absolutely useless, as it only preaches to the choir. No member of CII’s ruling body will be influenced, in the least by any outrage on the internet. Conversely, the CII’s rules will not cause most of the educated public to suddenly go out and marry underage girls without the permission of their wives. Essentially, we are like two bubbles with little crossover.
Yet, for us, the CII’s decisions are important, not because they influence the social media class, but because they influence the masses; the very people who form the roots of this country. This constitutional body is responsible for giving legal advice on Islamic issues to the Pakistani government, and although they don’t dictate government ruling by law, it is important that they interpret laws in line with the 21st century for the betterment of this nation.
Pakistan desperately needs its influential religious leaders to come from educated backgrounds, which is the only way to win the war against religious extremism. Of course, this won’t happen overnight, as our ‘extreme’ makeover didn’t happen in days, but decades.
Charity worker Greg Mortenson, who has been responsible for opening countless schools in the remote areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan was witness to our nation’s careful religious indoctrination, which was boosted by wealthy Middle Eastern men. While there have been some unproven allegations against Mortenson for fabricating facts in his book Three Cups of Tea, I accept his accounts of Middle Eastern influence to be true, because they have been backed by similar accounts from others.
Mortenson told us how one of his employees explained why massive madrassahs were popping up in Pakistan’s remote locations, “The sheikhs come from Kuwait and Saudi with suitcases of rupees. They take the best student back to them. When the boy come back to Baltistan he has to take four wives.”
Mortenson added, “For the first time I understood the scale of what they are trying to do and it scared me. Every time I visited to check on one of our projects, it seemed 10 madrassahs had popped up nearby overnight…some of them seem to exist only to teach militant jihad.”
Journalist Ahmed Rashid noted in his best-selling book about the Taliban that students in these schools were not provided with a formal education, and that the Islamic education provided in these madrassahs was interpreted by barely literate teachers. What’s more, varying accounts state that there are between 20,000-30,000 such schools in Pakistan.
Regardless of how accurate these figures are, surely we need to take control of how religion is taught within our borders so that men can no longer abuse laws that harm Pakistani women.

Zardari summons session over Tharparkar famine

Former president and co-chairman of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Asif Ali Zardari has convened a session on Thursday in Karachi over Tharparkar famine. According to sources, key decisions will be taken in the session, summoned at Bilawal House. Officials from Health department, food and relief have been summoned while Zardari is likely to visit Mithi on Friday (tomorrow).

Afghanistan: Attack on Indian consulate foiled in Kandahar
Police gunned down a suicide bomber who was about to mount attack on Indian consulate in southern Kandahar province on Thursday, an official said. Ahmad Zia Durani, provincial police spokesman, said the incident occurred at around 1:00pm when the attacker forcing his way into the street where the Indian and Iranian consulates were located. Before reaching to his intended target, police shot dead the bomber, he said, adding that the vest wearing by the suicide attacker could not detonate during the gun fire.

Top U.S. Commander Warns Against Full Afghan Troop Withdrawal
The U.S. commander of the international forces in Afghanistan has warned that a full troop withdrawal in 2014 could result in the regrouping of the Al-Qaeda terrorist network.
General Joseph Dunford said on March 12 that Al-Qaeda is currently in a "survival mode" in Afghanistan. Dunford, who was speaking before the Senate Armed Forces Committee, recommended a residual international force of between 8,000 and 12,000 troops to assist, train and advise Afghan forces. "If we leave at the end of 2014, the Afghan security forces would begin to deteriorate," he told senators. He also said that if no security agreement is signed by fall, it would get increasingly difficult to manage an orderly withdrawal. The U.S. has threatened it could pull out all of its troops from Afghanistan if a security pact is not signed soon.

Protest Hit The Roof After Muslims Stopped Church Construction.

In Okara, rallies and protest demonstrations expressing their angst over the ruthless act terming it criminal slackness from the side of the Punjab’s provincial government were held by Pakistan Christian Congress – PCC, Christian rights and civil rights bodies. Protest ignited against the confinement of constructing a church in Okara, demanding the state government to take strong measure for the safety of the local minorities. Protest rally started on track from City Church Okara and concluded at Press Club, Okara. Protesters were holding banners and play card stipulating to endow Pakistani minorities with safe and secure place.
Dr. Nazir S Bhatti chief of PCC said Christian have been living in fright for a long time in Pakistan this happening shows that the government has been abortive to furnish the minorities the right to live. He said that all Christians should be sent to the Christian majority countries if you don’t allow them to build their worship places. While addressing on the event, PPC representatives said that police neither provided them with safety measures nor they took ample measures for their safety. They said the Christian community and its worship places in Pakistan have become insecure due to the acts of a few extremist. Christian rights activist, Basharat Khokher said that it is government’s duty to safeguard human lives and under article 25 of the Pakistan’s constitution, as all citizens are equal. He demanded that government should arrest those who are responsible for this incident and called for defense of the rights of the Christians. Chairman of Sharing Life Ministries, Sohail John said that the government has failed to supply human sanctuary to the minorities in Pakistan. He said this is afar qualm that this is our battle and we will need to not only overtly fight it but own it instead of living in rebuff. Christians appealed to the federal and provincial government to provide them with infallible security. They demanded end to terrorist activities.

Pakistan: Abolish the Council of Islamic Ideology

In its latest direct onslaught on the women rights, Pakistan's Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) has declared laws regarding second marriage of a man in the presence of first wife, against religious principles. The chairman of the council Maulana Mohammad Khan Sheerani, has said in a press statement that "Sharia allows men to have more than one wife and we demanded that the government should amend the law".
However, the existing laws require a man to have written approval from his existing wife for second marriage. Bushra Khaliq, Executive director Women in Struggle for Empowerment (WISE) condemning the CII recent statement has said, "in the presence of the elected Parliament, there is no room for a parallel advisory body in the constitution. CII is nothing but a bunch of anti-women mullahs who refuse to accept reason and logic and blind to the realities of the modern world. Such an unnecessary body must be abolished, she demanded. She said the CII has failed to respond to the needs of the changing times. Earlier it rejected the proposals of accepting DNA testing in rape cases as primary evidence and awarding death sentence to people making false accusation under the blasphemy law.
It also rejected the Women's Protection Act of 2006, which has provided relief to innocent victims of Zina ordinance. Similarly the Domestic Violence Bill, which was unanimously passed by the National Assembly in 2010, was shelved in the Senate due to the opposition by CII and religious parties. Their track record of denying and resisting the pro-women legislations shows, in line with the Taliban agenda, this body has bent upon stopping and snatching the rights and freedoms, whatsoever, women of Pakistan secured through their struggle.
She urged the women to take guards against the anti-women forces, headed by hardline clergies and Islamist political parties. Let us stand together to protect women rights, she appealed.

Pakistan: Snatch away the microphone

The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) is back in action with its increasingly absurd recommendations. The real problem here is the state which empowers such misguided elements, and the media which exaggerates their importance. The state must withdraw patronage, and the media must stop taking them seriously. A preacher is nothing without an audience.
Additionally, what does this recommendation really mean? What does it really change? The majority of Pakistanis do not subscribe to the regressive ideology being propagated by the council members. Those who indulge in child marriages, due to cultural, tribal traditions, will continue to do so, and it can perhaps be assumed, that those who found the idea unsavory to begin with, will continue to refrain. Though it is difficult not to be concerned, the idea that an underage marriage epidemic will suddenly sweep the nation is perhaps a little off the mark.
Still, it is imperative to criticize and discredit the CII simply because of the platform that is being used, and given to them. Here we have a constitutionally mandated body telling people it’s acceptable to marry 9-year-olds off. Furthermore, it is informing distressed husbands that they can marry another woman without approval from their first wives. In the same breath, they have the audacity to claim that rights of children and women will be protected. Were they not wearing a cloak of religion around them, the masses would recognize them for the ignorant, outdated misogynists that they really are. In the civilized world (and Islamic belief itself), one of the most important aspects of marriage is the presence of consensus derived from the free will of two individuals. Child marriage is devoid of this fundamental element of choice. And since it is not a choice, it can only be an obligation that they are required to fulfill. This, in essence, is the criminal violation of the rights of a child which no decent society should ever tolerate. The devastating physical impact early marriages have especially on young girls is a grave issue in itself.
Members of the council have clarified that a man should only look for a new wife if he’s satisfied with his ability to ensure justice between the two, or three, or four women. How then, is this a measure of justice? Does the unhappiness and disapproval of a woman not qualify as injustice? Does the exploitation of her psychological health, of her children’s emotional and sometimes physical wellbeing not make the cut? In the opinion of council members, it doesn’t. They define ‘justice’ as equal division of time and resources between the wives. That is the glorious prescription of their specific breed of humanity.

Pakistan's Council of Islamic Ideology: out of tune with the times

If its recent rulings are any evidence the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) is never short on stirring up intense public debate on matters of general interest. Sometime ago its version on the validity of treating DNA as part of forensic evidence in rape cases made to the front pages of newspapers and now its rulings on marriage without consent of first spouse and childhood 'nikah' tend to provide grist to gossip mills and an informed public debate. Perhaps, the Council could have spoken its mind on issues of immediate relevance to the people of Pakistan, like sectarian strife, religious militancy, gender-based taboos and lingering deprivation of weaker sections of our society. On Monday, it said man need not seek consent of his wife for his second marriage. And on the following day it ruled ban on childhood marriage un-Islamic. Both the verdicts fly in the face of whatever little progress has been made in breaking down the barriers to women empowerment and amelioration of abused children. Perhaps, as MNA Nafisa Shah said, the Council should tell the people why it has failed to stop notorious practices such as vani, swara and karo kari. Isn't that the Council finds itself incapacitated to interpret basic injunctions of Islam by seeking guidance from other acknowledged and recognised sources of law-making like Qias and Ijtehad, as is the case in a number of other Muslim countries. The Council's rulings seem to reflect a particular mindset that needs to be reoriented in order to obtain conditions that help harmonising dire realities of modern age that we confront within our faith.
The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) says the law seeking consent from first spouse for second marriage is un-Islamic. Ever since the Ayub era Muslim Family Laws Ordinance (1961) it is mandatory that second marriage should be registered with the Arbitration Council which shall ensure that permission of first wife was obtained. The CII says that man is not bound to seek permission of the first wife as he goes for second marriage. Given that the constitution (Article 227) mandates that all existing laws shall be brought in conformity with Injunctions of Islam as laid down in the Holy Quran and Sunnah and no law shall be enacted which is repugnant to such Injunctions the ball is in the government's court how to go about its compliance. Since codification of Muslim family laws has always been a matter of intense public debate, it is quite likely the CII verdict on the idea of consent by first wife for second marriage is challenged in the Federal Shariat Court either by a citizen or the government. The government is expected to defend some other sections of the ordinance also, like right to inherit by children who lost fathers while their grandfathers lived. Ayub Khan, a retired general and a man of military mind, was essentially motivated by his desire to do something for the grandchildren who as per Islamic law could not inherit their grandfathers' property in case their fathers died in war.
But no less significantly, Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani also clarified that 'a man is bound to treat all his spouses with justice and equity'. The anti-consent justification seems to stem from thinking that given the fact man is polygamous by nature in case his first wife refuses to consent to his second marriage he may divorce her thus leave his children from her without a roof on their head. Or, he may have to keep his second marriage secret, depriving her of her right as a legitimate partner in his life. In case he cannot commit himself to give his second wife equal status and honour worthy of a spouse and cannot fulfil prescribed duties and responsibilities among them with equity and justice he should not go for this venture. In case the recommendation to do away with consent of the first wife for second marriage is made into law it would be necessary that the new law carries a stiff proviso seeking firm assurance that he would treat his spouses equally. And that is a huge challenge with life becoming so hard to live. And no less controversial is the Council's second ruling which declares the law setting minimum age of marriage as un-Islamic. Here too Maulana Sheerani has predicated the ruling upon condition that the child couple should get together only on their obtaining puberty. And that they can refuse to live together and go for annulment of their 'nikah'. Indeed the Council seems to be anxious to create balance between its support for childhood marriage and the ample scope for its annulment on the couple reaching puberty. If so, why in the first place these controversial interpretations that tends to cast our religion nothing more than medieval way of life no more relevant to the times we live.

Pakistan: Disband the Council of Islamic Ideology

As a supra-parliamentary body established during Ziaul Haq’s Islamisation drive, the Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) sure is making its presence felt, albeit in the worst possible manner. In the span of just two days, the CII has delivered some very controversial and, quite frankly, ridiculous ‘edicts’. First, it has claimed that it is not necessary for a man to seek the permission of his existing wife, or wives, before marrying again. Secondly, it has declared that underage marriage is allowed in Islam and that prohibiting it is actually un-Islamic! It has stated that while marriage can take place at any age, consummation of the marriage can happen at puberty. Really? It is so thoughtful of the CII to consider that little caveat. This is not all, the CII has also chosen this time to take a stab at Pakistan’s Muslim Family Law, saying that it creates unnecessary complications when it comes to following the ‘true’ Islamic way of conducting this marriage business. First and foremost, does anyone now, in government or otherwise, need another reason to close this defunct body, which has only one attribute — its nuisance value? Can we allow this sort of rabid nonsense to be put out there by these mullahs, showing the world at large that Pakistan is entertaining the likes of them and their ilk? The Muslim Family Law Ordinance of 1961 was a Godsend at the time because it was implemented to protect women and prevent all sorts of injustices perpetrated against them. The law made it mandatory for men to seek permission from their existing wife, or wives, before entering another marriage. Marriages were ordered to be registered to have validity so that secret marriages of the polygamous variety could not take place. It was the norm for men to marry at will, often mistreating the wife they already had. The Quranic criteron for multiple marriage, which speaks of equality for all (an impossible virtue), was hardly ever followed and so the family law came into effect thanks to the farsightedness of Ayub Khan, who was a comparatively secular dictator. Even then the mullahs were up in arms but their draconian ideas were defeated; it seems they have kept the grudge alive. To argue that underage marriage is Islamic shows that the CII bases its values on traditional, tribal and historical codes, not the religion. It is time to move beyond this insanity and disband the CII, relaying it to the dustbin of history where it belongs.

Pakistan: Drought may hit half of country

Planning and Development Minister Ahsan Iqbal has warned that Thar-like drought may hit half of the country if new water reservoirs are not built.
He said the planning commission would hold a Pakistan Water Summit at Islamabad on March 20 in collaboration with the ministry of water and power to work out a water policy for proactive development and management of water resources.
Addressing an international workshop on “safe connected communities against floods through remote sensing and GIS tools, organised by Unesco and Suparco here on Wednesday, the minister said: “Water shortage may turn out to be a worse crisis than the ongoing energy crisis as a phenomenon of climate change may reduce water availability up to 40 per cent, pushing Pakistan to be a water-starved country.”
He said natural disasters were a major risk to the country’s sustainable development and the impact of some of these disasters such as floods could be reduced if accurate and timely forecasts were issued to help in better planning and execution of evacuation and rescue work.
He said that recent advancement in space and remote sensing technologies and its various applications had proved to be valuable tools to help prevent disasters and speed up rescue and relief operations.
Suparco chairman Ahmed Bilal said an integrated flood analysis system (Indus-IFAS) had been completed which would contribute to flood forecasting and early warning. Mr Iqbal said that in view of recent floods in eastern rivers, there was a need to improve flood management capacity of eastern rivers.

Pakistan: Lessons from Tharparkar

THE invasion of Tharparkar district by rich donors and relief convoys should not divert attention from the need for long-term answers to the grave problems faced, seasonally or permanently, by the people in the region.
The outrage that has been displayed at images of children in the throes of death is understandable but this outpouring of grief and anger will be meaningless if remedial action is not taken.
There is no doubt that the response to the humanitarian challenge from state agencies and civil society organisations both has been prompt and ample. The confusion caused by sensationalised reporting, ill-informed commentators, and attempts to make political capital out of people’s misery has been considerably dispelled by well-informed, non-state observers.
It is clearer than before that the population of parts of the Tharparkar district has had three misfortunes: first, the drought this year has been severer than in the past few years; secondly, the cold spell has been unusually long and intense; and third, arrangements for the access of affected communities to food and medical aid have been inadequate and dysfunctional.
Nature cannot be blamed for all these factors. That successive droughts cause an incremental increase in water scarcity may be a natural phenomenon but the people have traditionally overcome it by seasonal migration. The cold spell affected children because the health cover was inadequate, and the havoc caused by the administration’s failures is entirely man-made.
A large number of families in Thar dealt with the situation as they have always done — they moved to other parts of Sindh where they could find water, grazing fields for their cattle, and even opportunities for casual work. (Incidentally, media reports suggest that an equal number of families — 175,000 — migrated from Thar and Cholistan desert this year.) It seems those who did not have reason to migrate have suffered the most.
With the change of season the child mortality rate is likely to decline and migrants will return to their homes and, as Dr Khangharani, the doyen of Thar experts, says all stories of death and malnutrition will be forgotten.
The issue is whether the cycle of drought, migration and symptomatic, short-term relief will be allowed to continue. If the government has the requisite will it should not be impossible to address the causes of the people’s suffering year after year.
The first task is to overcome the ‘famine of facts’, to borrow an admirable phrase from Mr Javed Jabbar. We do not know to what extent the seasonal migration is documented but from now on it should be necessary to have authentic records of the exodus and return of drought-affected communities.
An important cause of the migration is lack of fodder for livestock that constitutes most of the affected people’s sole economic wealth. Will the supply of fodder from outside and an efficient network of veterinary services reduce the extent of dislocation?
In all disaster stories a lack of efficient communication, transport and monitoring systems has often been noted. Reports of an impending famine in Thar had started coming in December 2013. Were these reports shared with the authorities concerned? If they were, how did the disaster management agencies respond? Could the existence of local government institutions make a difference?
Common sense demands that measures to protect the population of Tharparkar (or Cholistan, for that matter) should be an integral part of the development plan for the region. The money spent on setting a national record for the highest number of school buildings (which is different from having functional schools) in the district could have been better used for promoting food security and healthcare.
Tharparkar and the adjoining districts need special attention of development and community welfare agencies in view of their sizeable non-Muslim population. Media reports are silent on how the non-Muslim citizens, particularly those still categorised as scheduled castes, have fared during the latest calamity but one should like to be reassured that they have suffered no more than their Muslim neighbours. The reason for this concern is the fact that non-Muslims do not have equal access to the medical services and income support facilities in the region.
While every effort should be made to streamline the existing administrative structure, two steps have become necessary to remove the causes of the disadvantaged community’s suffering. First, the people must be given their due share in the management of their affairs. All parts of Pakistan urgently need democratic and efficient local government, and Thar, Cholistan, Kalash, Fata and Pata need it more than others.
Secondly, in spite of the government’s irrational hostility to state-sponsored socio-economic development, a high-powered organisation must be created to undertake essential works in underdeveloped areas of the country. In Thar this body could build food and fodder reserves, remove infrastructure deficiencies, upgrade veterinary services and broaden the scope for people’s economic activity.
This will reduce poverty which is one of the basic causes of famine and high rates of child and female mortality and ill-health. It will be good if this body has a special department for the protection and promotion of the rights of the indigenous populations who at the moment figure nowhere on the development map.
It is not good politics to shed tears when children die and ignore how they live and dole out fat cheques when a calamity hits the poor. The only worthwhile action can be to give all children hope in their future. Time to begin doing that.