Thursday, March 27, 2014
An Old Testament epic will storm theaters this weekend with hopes of attracting a boatload of moviegoers. Director Darren Aronofsky's $130-million-budgeted "Noah" is expected to generate around $40 million in ticket sales in the U.S. and Canada through Sunday, according to people who have seen pre-release audience surveys. Paramount Pictures, which is releasing the film, has predicted a softer gross of $30 million to $33 million. An opening in the projected range for the special effects-heavy, big-budget disaster film — starring Russell Crowe as the biblical boat-builder — will almost certainly make it the No. 1 movie at the domestic box office. If "Noah" is a hit, it will be the latest in a string of religion-inspired successes. "Son of God," a less-expensive New Testament retelling culled from Mark Burnett and Roma Downey's "Bible" miniseries, opened this year with $25.6 million in revenue, propped up by bulk purchases from Christian groups, and has since gone on to gross $56 million. The modern-day campus drama "God's Not Dead" opened last weekend with a surprisingly strong $9.2 million from just 780 theaters. Aronofsky's dark take on the Book of Genesis story of Noah's ark, financed by Paramount and Regency Enterprises, marks a departure for a director best known for lower-budget fare such as "Black Swan," "The Wrestler" and "Requiem for a Dream." The PG-13-rated film has faced criticism from the outset, both from religious groups that questioned how faithfully it would treat its source material along with conservatives who decried its emphasis on environmental themes. Reviews by film critics have been generally positive, according to Rotten Tomatoes. The scripture-sourced slate won't end with "Noah." Upcoming God-themed movies include "Heaven Is For Real," "Exodus," "Last Days in the Desert" and "Mary," all coming at least a decade after the massive success of Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." "Noah" began its maiden voyage in Mexico and South Korea a week ago with a strong $14 million, and it's likely to play well overseas. Alongside Crowe, the disaster picture's stars include Anthony Hopkins, Jennifer Connelly and Emma Watson. Last week's chart-topper "Divergent," the teen dystopian adventure starring Shailene Woodley, should continue to pull in plenty of box-office cash. Lionsgate is hoping the Summit Entertainment film will kick off another strong young-adult franchise after the massive success of the "Hunger Games" series. Its second weekend could add around $25 million to its domestic total of more than $60 million. In "Noah's" wake, Arnold Schwarzenegger's new crime thriller "Sabotage" is not likely to see much action at the multiplex. The movie about a DEA team whose elite agents are targeted by a ruthless drug cartel, is expected to take in less than $10 million in its debut. The $35-million picture was financed and produced by QED International and is getting its U.S. release from Open Road Films. Wes Anderson's "The Grand Budapest Hotel," expanding to 970 theaters, should continue to impress with a weekend tally of around $10 million. The quirky director's latest, distributed domestically by Fox Searchlight Pictures, has amassed more than $14 million in its limited run. The new "Cesar Chavez" biopic could bring in around $5 million from 660 locations. Michael Peña plays the civil rights activist and labor organizer in the film directed by Diego Luna and produced by Pantelion Films, a joint venture between Lionsgate and the giant Mexican media company Grupo Televisa. "Bad Words," an R-rated comedy written and directed by "Arrested Development" star Jason Bateman, is expanding to around 600 theaters and could gross $5 million or less. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/envelope/cotown/la-et-ct-noah-sabotage-grand-budapest-hotel-20140326,0,4391185.story#ixzz2xCP2IoJd
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday demanded that the Russian parliament promptly ensure the necessary legislative groundwork for the economic and social development of Crimea and Sevastopol. Russia's President also announced the country's intention to build national payment-processing systems, similar to those in China and Japan.
Despite Saudi Arabia’s funding and arming of militants in Syria, Iraq and beyond, President Obama is set to visit the kingdom this week to meet with King Abdullah. It’s the only Middle Eastern or Gulf nation on Obama’s overseas itinerary. Many analysts say the conflict in Syria has grown into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia’s links to jihadist groups go back decades. Fifteen of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers were Saudi. The 9/11 Commission Report identified Saudi Arabia as the main source of al-Qaeda financing. And in 2010, WikiLeaks published U.S. diplomatic cables which identified Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups. Members of Congress and human rights organizations have also been calling on Obama to address the kingdom’s treatment of women, religious minorities and political activists. We are joined by Patrick Cockburn, Middle East correspondent for The Independent. Cockburn wrote The Independent’s recent five-part series examining the resurgence of jihadists across the Middle East, "Al-Qa’ida’s Second Act: Why the Global 'War on Terror' Went Wrong."
NERMEEN SHAIKH: "Al-Qaida, the Second Act. Why the Global 'War on Terror' Went Wrong." That’s the name of the new five-part series published in the U.K.'s Independent newspaper that examines the resurgence of jihadists across the Middle East. A key part of the series examines how Saudi Arabia has openly backed militant groups in Syria, Iraq and other countries. Many analysts say the conflict in Syria has grown into a proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Saudi Arabia's history of backing jihadist groups goes back decades. Fifteen of the 19 September 11th hijackers were Saudi. The 9/11 Commission Report identified Saudi Arabia as the main source of al-Qaeda financing. And in 2010, WikiLeaks published U.S. diplomatic cables which identified Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups.
AMY GOODMAN: Despite this record, Saudi Arabia remains a close U.S. ally. President Obama is heading to Saudi Arabia this week to meet with King Abdullah. Saudi Arabia is the only Middle Eastern or Gulf nation on Obama’s overseas itinerary. Members of Congress and human rights organizations have also been calling on Obama to address the kingdom’s treatment of women, religious minorities and political activists. To talk more about Obama’s visit to the oil-rich kingdom, we go to London to speak with Patrick Cockburn, the Middle East correspondent for The Independent who wrote the five-part series on the resurgence of al-Qaeda. One of the pieces is called "Is Saudi Arabia Regretting Its Support for Terrorism?" So, can you answer that question, Patrick Cockburn, and also talk about it in the context of President Obama meeting with King Abdullah?PATRICK COCKBURN: The Saudis have got rather nervous at the moment that—having supported these jihadi groups, that are all either linked to al-Qaeda or have exactly the same ideology and method of action of al-Qaeda, so they’ve introduced some laws saying that—against Saudis fighting in Syria or elsewhere. But it’s probably too late for this to have any effect. The al-Qaeda-type organizations really control a massive area in northern and eastern Syria at the moment and northern and western Iraq. The largest number of volunteers fighting with these al-Qaeda-type groups are Saudi. Most of the money originally came from there. But these people now control their own oil wells. They probably are less reliant on Saudi money. Will President Obama’s visit make much difference? It’s doubtful. I mean, it’s a rather extraordinary relationship, which doesn’t get much attention, between Saudi Arabia and the United States. Saudi Arabia is one of the few theocratic absolute monarchies on Earth, and therefore it was always absurd to be allied to Saudi Arabia in a bid to introduce secular democracy in Syria or Libya or anywhere else. So, probably, they will come out with comforting statements, and the Saudis will be saying to Obama, "Well, look, we’re taking measures against the jihadis now, so let’s step up our attempts to overthrow Assad in Syria." But in practice, the groups that they’re supporting are closely linked to Jabhat al-Nusra, the main al-Qaeda group. So I don’t think things are going to change very much. NERMEEN SHAIKH: I want to turn to U.S. diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks in 2010. In a December 2009 memo, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton identified Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest source of funds for Islamist militant groups such as the Afghan Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba. She writes, quote, "While the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia takes seriously the threat of terrorism within Saudi Arabia, it has been an ongoing challenge to persuade Saudi officials to treat terrorist financing emanating from Saudi Arabia as a strategic priority. Due in part to intense focus by the [U.S. government] over the last several years, Saudi Arabia has begun to make important progress on this front and has responded to terrorist financing concerns raised by the United States through proactively investigating and detaining financial facilitators of concern. Still, donors in Saudi Arabia constitute the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide." Patrick Cockburn, that was a U.S. diplomatic cable from 2009 released in 2010. Could you explain why you think the U.S. has been hesitant to act against Saudi Arabia in the way that it has against other countries in the Arab world following 9/11, and especially following these revelations? PATRICK COCKBURN: It’s pretty extraordinary, given that so much of what happened on 9/11 can be traced back to Saudi Arabia. Why hasn’t there been a greater reaction in the U.S. and the rest of the world? Well, the Saudis have cultivated people in Washington, government in Washington. There are enormous arms sales by the U.S. to Saudi Arabia. The arms on orders—on order at the moment are worth a total of $86 billion—fighter aircraft, helicopters, everything else. And they’ve also spent money cultivating former diplomats, officials, academics and so forth. And therefore, there hasn’t been—though I find this rather amazing—more pressure on Saudi Arabia or on the U.S. government to stop Saudi Arabia supporting jihadi movements. It’s not just money. It’s, I mean, a lot of it, propaganda of a satellite television, which is anti-Shia, anti-Christian, anti-Jewish, hate propaganda. So long as they have these methods of propaganda, they can probably raise men and money to send to Syria and Iraq and elsewhere. AMY GOODMAN: Patrick, this trip that President Obama—accompanied by Secretary of State John Kerry, to show the significance of it—in the United States is being seen as a reconciliation trip, the U.S. wanting to improve its relationship with Saudi Arabia, especially frayed when Saudi Arabia wanted the U.S. to be tougher on Iran—interestingly, Saudi Arabia sharing the same view as Israel on this issue. Can you talk about that in the context of the role Saudi Arabia is playing in the world? PATRICK COCKBURN: Yes, I mean, last year, there was difference between Saudi Arabia and the U.S. over the support of al-Qaeda-type organizations in Syria, which in turn are destabilizing Iraq. Saudi Arabia was eager for Obama to launch a military assault on Syria last August after the use of poison gas in Damascus. They were vocally upset when the U.S. didn’t do this. They have pushed for a U.S. war with Iran, going back several years. King Abdullah is quoted by—on a diplomatic cable as saying, "Cut off the head of the snake." So they’ll try to ensure that they’re at one with the U.S. in trying to bring down Assad and opposing Iran. NERMEEN SHAIKH: Patrick Cockburn, you’ve also pointed out that these Islamist groups, violent Islamist groups, have proliferated since 9/11, and especially after the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011. Could you explain what the distinction is, if any, between al-Qaeda and all of these offshoot groups, and if the hesitation on the part of the U.S. has to do with the fact that these new groups operate regionally rather than in the West? PATRICK COCKBURN: Yes, I think that they draw too great a distinction—I mean, Washington draws too great a distinction between people who have a direct operational link to the remains of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda in Pakistan and other groups that have the same ideology, operate in the same way, have the same methods. And you could see that in Libya, when—where the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens, was killed by jihadis, who were not, in fact, al-Qaeda, and he seems to have thought, and the people around him thought, were not as dangerous as al-Qaeda. And tragically, he and they were proved wrong. You can see that in Syria at the moment, that the largest group, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, is not in fact part of al-Qaeda—it used to be. There’s a new group, Jabhat al-Nusra, which is the official representative, but there isn’t much difference between these groups. They’re all pretty well the same. They are extraordinarily bigoted. They’re extraordinarily brutal. They kill Shia or any other nonfundamentalist Muslims who fall into their hands. So, pretending that one group, simply because it’s funded by Saudi Arabia, is not the equivalent of al-Qaeda, I think, is self-deception—and self-deception which may well have disastrous results, you know, as happened in Afghanistan in the 1980s, which eventually produced the Taliban and Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. AMY GOODMAN: In 2011, Democracy Now! spoke to former Senator Bob Graham and asked him about how part of the 9/11 Commission Report remains redacted. BOB GRAHAM: The suppressed pages were in the Congressional Joint Inquiry. We worked diligently throughout 2002 to gather as much of the information as we could and to make recommendations. We had an 800-plus-page report, one chapter of which, which related primarily to the role of the Saudis in 9/11, was totally censored. Every word of that chapter has been denied to the American people. AMY GOODMAN: What about that, Patrick Cockburn? You know, Bandar Bush, of course, as he was called, the Saudi ambassador to the United States, sitting out on the Truman Balcony with President Bush the day after the 9/11 attacks. Fifteen of the 19 hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. And then Bandar Bush, the former U.S.—Saudi ambassador to the U.S., being one of the major forces behind the forces, the rebel forces in Syria? PATRICK COCKBURN: Yes, it’s sort of—it’s amazing. And, I mean, it’s had a very unfortunate consequence by not going after the very obvious roots of al-Qaeda in Saudi Arabia, in terms of money and political support and so forth. This has enabled al-Qaeda to grow again. I mean, al-Qaeda, I worked out on the map, now controls an area in northern Syria and northern Iraq which is about the size of Great Britain. Al-Qaeda was rather a small organization at the time of 9/11. Since then, we’ve had the war on terror. We’ve had vast resources poured into this, increase in intelligence and security services, rendition, torture, everything else. And at the end of it, al-Qaeda and its affiliates are far larger than they were in—at the time of 9/11. I mean, this is a pretty extraordinary situation. AMY GOODMAN: Of course, I just want to clarify, Bandar Bush was the nickname for him. His name was Prince Bandar bin Sultan. He’s now Saudi Arabia’s intelligence minister. Nermeen? NERMEEN SHAIKH: Patrick Cockburn, that’s right, he’s the intelligence minister now, but as you point out in one of your articles, he’s no longer in charge of Saudi Arabia’s policy in Syria. Could you explain what you think the impact of that decision will be, and whether Saudi policy with respect to the rebels is actually changing? PATRICK COCKBURN: I mean, it’s a very good question, and I think we’re going to maybe see the answer over the next week. Maybe one of the things it will be interesting to see, what comes out of Obama’s visit. Bandar bin Sultan’s policy in Syria failed somewhat disastrously. He wanted to get rid of Assad; they failed to do that. Instead, we’ve had these jihadi, al-Qaeda-type organizations grow enormously. And they now, sort of really the whole way from Baghdad to the Mediterranean, they control much of the territory. Now, the Saudis are—seem to be taking a slightly more diplomatic line, but what they’re saying is: "We shall support jihadis, who are different from al-Qaeda but will still be able to overthrow Assad. We’ll do this from Jordan." But will this really happen? And if they do fund a anti-Assad army there, would it just be a mercenary army that has no real support within Syria? AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to move onto a segment next on Iraq. And earlier this month, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki accused Saudi Arabia and Qatar of openly funding the Sunni Muslim insurgents in western Anbar province. He told France 24, quote, "I accuse them of inciting and encouraging the terrorist movements. I accuse them of supporting them politically and in the media, of supporting them with money and by buying weapons for them." If you could, finally, comment on that, as well as your final comment in your recent piece, saying, "All the ingredients for a repeat of 9/11 are slipping into place, the difference today being that al-Qa’ida-type organisations are now far more powerful." PATRICK COCKBURN: Yeah, the Iraqis have felt for a long time, but didn’t say so openly, that Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Gulf monarchies were an essential prop to al-Qaeda in Iraq through private donations, through hate preachers, anti-Shia preachers, and finally they’ve come out and said it. And they have a lot of evidence also from suicide bombers who were captured before they blew themselves up. On the other question, yes, definitely. I mean, you know, these drone attacks in Yemen and Waziristan, these declarations of victory, I think, just divert attention from the fact that you look at the map, that al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda-type groups, that are no different from those that followed Osama bin Laden, now control a large territory. They have large revenues from oil wells. They have lots of experienced people. At the moment, they’re fighting against Assad and the Iraqi government. But they don’t Ike the governments of the West anymore. They’re not ideologically committed to only one enemy in their home countries. So if they do want to start making attacks in the West again along the lines of 9/11, they’re far better equipped militarily and politically, financially and any other way than they were when the attacks of 9/11 were originally made. AMY GOODMAN: Patrick Cockburn, we want to thank you for being with us, Middle East correspondent for The Independent, just concluded a five-part series on the resurgence of al-Qaeda, including that piece, "Is Saudi Arabia Regretting Its Support for Terrorism?" President Obama is visiting Saudi Arabia on Friday along with Secretary of State John Kerry. When we come back, two women, a U.S. soldier and an Iraqi feminist, join together for the right to heal on this 11th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Stay with us.
Access to YouTube has been cut off in Turkey after an explosive leak of audiotapes that appeared to show ministers talking about provoking military intervention in Syria. Other social media have already been blocked ahead of tumultuous local elections. The latest leaked audio recording, which reportedly led to the ban, appears to show top government officials discussing a potential attack on the tomb of Suleyman Shah, the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire.The tomb is in Syrian territory, but protected by Turkish soldiers. On the tape, Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu is heard to say that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sees any attack as an "opportunity" to increase Turkish presence in Syria, where it has staunchly supported the anti-Assad rebels. Security chief Hakan Fidan then goes one step further, and suggests staging a fake attack to give Turkey a casus belli to intervene in the conflict. Turkish officials have recently vowed to protect the tomb as its "national soil." The Foreign Ministry in Ankara reacted to the tape by issuing a statement, calling the leak a “wretched attack” on national security. It also claims the tape was “partially manipulated.” "These treacherous gangs are the enemies of our state and people. The perpetrators of this attack targeting the security of our state and people will be uncovered in the shortest time and will be handed over to justice to be given the heaviest penalty," the ministry said. A source inside the office of President Abdullah Gül, who has taken a softer line than Erdoğan over the series of government leaks, told Reuters that access to YouTube may be restored if the sensitive content is removed, even though the original video has been deleted. Invoking national security and privacy concerns has been the government’s tactic in fighting off a stream of leaks showing top officials engaging in unsavory or downright illegal practices. Erdoğan has also repeatedly claimed that most of the audio recordings are fakes. He labeled the latest audio revelation "villainous" during a stump speech in Diyabakir. Twitter, another popular source for leaks, has already been shut down in Turkey since March 20, after a court order.
Since then, the California-based social network and organizations have fought in several courts to have the decision reversed, calling it “disproportionate and illegal.” A court ruling in Ankara on Wednesday supported the appeal, but the country’s regulator has a month to unblock Twitter, leading to speculation that any such move would only take place after the election. The incumbent party also enjoys the benefit of robust privacy legislation passed last month, which makes it easy to cut off any website even before any violation has been legally proven. The US has led the chorus of international condemnation, calling the government’s moves "censorship" tantamount to “21st century book-burning.”
A court in Pakistan sentenced a Christian man to death for blasphemy Thursday, his lawyer said, over an incident that triggered a riot in the country's second-largest city. Sawan Masih was convicted of insulting the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) during the course of a conversation with a Muslim friend in the Joseph Colony neighbourhood of Lahore in March last year.Naeem Shakir, one of Masih's lawyers, told AFP: “The judge has announced the death sentence for Sawan Masih. “We will appeal the sentence in the Lahore High Court.”Verdict and sentence were announced inside the jail where Masih was held, Shakir said. The country has had a de facto moratorium on civilian hangings since 2008. Only one person has been executed since then, a soldier convicted by court martial. Pakistan has extremely strict laws against defaming Islam, including the death penalty for insulting the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), and rights campaigners say they are often used to settle personal disputes. Masih has maintained his innocence and argued the real reason for the blasphemy allegation was a property dispute between him and his friend. No one was killed in the rampage through Joseph Colony last year but the incident highlighted the sensitivity of blasphemy in Pakistan. Some 97 per cent of the 180 million population are Muslim, and even unproven allegations can trigger a violent public response. Earlier this month an angry mob set fire to a Hindu temple in the southern city of Larkana over the alleged desecration of a Quran. A recent report from a US government advisory panel said Pakistan used blasphemy laws more than any other country in the world, listing 14 people on death row and 19 others serving life sentences for insulting Islam. In January an elderly Briton was sentenced to death in Pakistan for blasphemy, though his lawyers said the court had failed to consider “overwhelming” evidence of his mental illness.
The Paghman Hill Castle was a year in the making, cost more than $10 million, and was meant to host one of the biggest events of the year in Afghanistan -- the international festival marking Norouz, the Persian New Year. But in a move that has been widely criticized, the Afghan government abruptly ditched its original plan to hold the one-day event at a specially-built castle in Paghman, a picturesque resort town outside Kabul. Instead, the festival has been moved to the grounds of the capital's heavily fortified presidential palace. The government’s official reason for the move was that work on the castle was incomplete. Many in Kabul have accused the government of negligence and poor mismanagement. Others have said the real reason for the decision is the government’s inability to provide security for the event, despite Kabul’s insistence that security concerns did not factor into its decision. The international Norouz festival is hosting around 700 local and foreign leaders from 11 countries, including the leaders of the Central Asian republics and of Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, and Azerbaijan. The high-level delegations in attendance will hold high-level talks on regional security and trade on March 27, after which they will attend the Norouz festivities in the presidential gardens. The festivities include traditional performances by dancers from all 11 countries represented at the event. There will also be a live concert performed by local musicians as well as an arts and craft convention, and foods that traditionally accompany the holiday will be served to guests. Security is extremely tight in Kabul, where several thousand soldiers and police are on high alert. Many of the main roads in the capital have been closed or cordoned off, and people have been advised to stay at home. Presidential Retreat? Originally, the festivities were planned to be held at the three-story Paghman Hill Castle and a vast garden that had been constructed. The castle and surrounding areas are now expected to be used as a presidential retreat and a location to host foreign guests. The Afghan government has offered a muddled explanation for why the celebration in Paghman was canceled. Gul Agha Ahmadi, the head of the government-appointed Committee for Norouz Celebrations, which is organizing the festival, has said the government moved the venue because construction of the castle was incomplete. Ahmadi denied security concerns were behind the sudden shift of venue. The government’s decision comes after a recent spate of deadly militants attacks that have left dozens dead across the country. Violence has soared ahead of the April 5 presidential election that militants have vowed to disrupt. But the Ministry of Urban Development and Housing Affairs, which oversees the project, declared last week that the venue was complete and “ready to welcome our guests.” National 'Disgrace' Afghan lawmakers and citizens have vented their anger at the government’s decision to relocate the event. Sayed Mohammad, a resident of Kabul, said the Norouz event is a chance for the country to showcase its rich culture and traditions, but that in moving the venue the government has brought embarrassment to the country. “It’s a disgrace," Mohammad said. "The government should have organized the event properly. They should have organized the security so these [foreign guests] could come to [Paghman].” Ghulam Hussain Naseri, a member of parliament, was also critical of the last-minute change of venue. “The Norouz festival in Paghman has been planned since last year," he said on March 25. “The government should have thought about possible security problems way before. This shows their negligence.” Abdul Aziz, another Kabul resident, called the government’s official reason for suddenly changing the venue a sham. He said the government is simply incapable of providing security. “The government keeps saying we will ensure security," Aziz said. "They say we have the military and the police and will ensure 100-percent security. But they can’t -- there are attacks everywhere on every day.”
The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan have secretly agreed to focus on carrying out operations in Afghanistan, with Pakistani militants announcing a ceasefire with their government in order to preserve militant bases used to stage cross-border attacks. The collaboration between the two Talibans, revealed to Reuters by militant chiefs and security officials in the region, increases the risk that violence will escalate further in a crucial year for Afghanistan. The nation of 30 million people holds a presidential election on April 5, a litmus test for foreign donors hesitant about bankrolling the government after the bulk of NATO troops stationed in Afghanistan withdraw this year. The Pakistani and Afghan Taliban are closely allied and both aim to impose a strict form of Islam on their societies. But their leadership and targets differ. The Pakistani Taliban focus their attacks in Pakistan, while the Afghan Taliban focus on Afghan and NATO security forces and anyone allied to them. A rash of Taliban attacks this month has already raised concerns about the credibility of the poll, which should mark the first democratic transfer of power in war-ravaged Afghanistan. Most foreign observers withdrew their monitors after a deadly attack on a hotel in the heart of the capital, increasing the risk of the widespread fraud that marred the last presidential election in 2009. A large number of voters may also be too scared to cast their ballot. Afghanistan's interior minister said this week that the one-month ceasefire announced by the Pakistan Taliban on March 1 to revive peace talks with the government in Islamabad had prompted militants there to switch focus from home soil to Afghanistan. "From the day there was a ceasefire on that side, almost every night one or other of our border posts has been attacked by people from the other side of the border," Umer Daudzai told Reuters. CEASEFIRE STRATEGY The ceasefire was urged on the Pakistani Taliban by the hardline Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban, who are based around the mountainous border between the two countries, militant commanders and a security source said. They feared the threat of an offensive by the Pakistani military could hamper their own push to carry out attacks in Afghanistan, including on election officials and NATO forces. Peace talks between Islamabad and the Pakistan Taliban began in February, but broke down when the militants bombed a police bus and executed 23 paramilitary troops. The Pakistani military then launched air strikes and said it was preparing to storm militant sanctuaries in North Waziristan, a border region that is a militant stronghold. But the operation was put on hold after the Pakistan Taliban announced the truce. The revelations suggest that the ceasefire may have been a smokescreen to give the Pakistani militants a chance to regroup and also work with the Afghan Taliban and Haqqanis to ramp up attacks in Afghanistan ahead of the election. "We need to focus on Afghanistan," one Taliban commander told Reuters. "It is a very crucial time for us and if the North Waziristan operation goes ahead we will lose many of our fighters." The Pakistani security forces and government did not respond to requests for comment. INCREASED CONVERGENCE Pakistani Defence Minister Khawaja Asif told Reuters this month that the government was worried about the possibility of increasing convergence between the two Talibans. "Then the (Pakistani Taliban) will have a powerhouse behind them," he said. This week Pakistan's National Security Council was told in a briefing that plans had been hatched in Islamic religious schools to disrupt the poll in neighbouring Afghanistan, an Islamabad-based security official said. The shadowy Haqqani network, which is blamed for some of the deadliest and most sophisticated attacks in Afghanistan, was at the heart of the ceasefire plan, sources said. Shortly after the peace talks collapsed in February, Pakistani politicians approached Haqqani commanders and asked them to help broker a ceasefire, two Taliban chiefs and two Kabul-based officials said. "I'm sure of the involvement of the Haqqanis and Quetta Shura in these (ceasefire) talks," said a high-ranking Afghan government official with extensive contacts with the insurgency. The Quetta Shura is the leadership of the Afghan Taliban. The Pakistani Taliban initially rebuffed the Haqqanis, who then asked senior members of the Afghan Taliban to help persuade their Pakistani counterparts to announce the truce. It worked, Taliban commanders said. The police chief of the eastern Afghan province of Kunar, which lies on the border with Pakistan, said there was no doubt Taliban militants were crossing into Afghanistan. "It is too early to say how the peace talks in Pakistan would affect this side, but insurgents there are crossing the border to disrupt the election," Abdul Habib Sayedkhil told Reuters. "We are prepared and have certain measures in place to tackle it."
In his first visit to Afghanistan as Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani called for regional unity Thursday as regional leaders celebrated the Persian New Year in Kabul. Rouhani is visiting at a crucial time for Afghanistan, with national elections being held in just over a week and most U.S. and allied troops withdrawing by year's end. With Western influence diminishing in Afghanistan, Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan and other countries are vying to fill the vacuum. The Iranian leader, accompanied by his foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, also met separately with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Tajik President Emomali Rahmon for a summit of Farsi-speaking countries to discuss ways to increase cooperation between their three countries, according to the semiofficial Fars news agency. Dari, a dialect of Farsi, and Pashto are the official languages of Afghanistan. Rouhani said in his Nowruz address that Afghanistan has been occupied twice by foreign countries — a reference to the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and the U.S. and allied troops who ousted the Taliban. He said "they brought violence and extremists to this country." These occupations have "brought the unfortunate seed of violence in this country, which has damaged the lives of people and this country. My country the Islamic Republic of Iran has condemned both occupations and has helped the people of Afghanistan in both periods of time," Rouhani said. Despite improving ties with Washington, Iran sees the U.S. presence on its doorstep as a threat and opposes a security agreement that would allow thousands of foreign forces to stay in Afghanistan beyond the end of 2014. Karzai has refused to sign the pact, but the main three contenders in the April 5 elections to replace him have said they would. The Nowruz ceremony, which included Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain, was held in the heavily barricaded presidential palace instead of a specially built multimillion-dollar building west of Kabul that had been designed for the occasion. The abrupt change in venue, announced last week, has drawn criticism, with many saying it was a waste of money. The governor of Kabul province, which includes the capital, said construction of the so-called Pagman Hill Castle had finished, but there was a problem with mold and authorities decided it was not ready to host hundreds of dignitaries. He denied security was a concern, saying Afghan forces had been prepared to protect the venue. Gov. Abdul Jabar Taqwa said construction had begun in September and cost some $14 million. Also Thursday, authorities said Afghan security forces killed 20 Taliban militants the day before in the western province of Herat, alleging the insurgents were planning attacks aimed at disrupting next week's elections in the Ghoryan district. Provincial police spokesman Raouf Ahmadi said three of those killed were senior commanders. The Taliban have warned voters to stay away from the polls, promising a campaign of violence to undermine the vote. Eight candidates are running in the presidential race, which is the first in which Karzai won't be a contender since the 2001 U.S. invasion that ousted the Taliban. The three front-runners are Abdullah Abdullah, who was Karzai's main rival in the disputed 2009 election; Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a well-known academic and former World Bank employee; and former Foreign Minister Zalmai Rassoul.
A bill introduced in the National Assembly to increase the punishment for guardians, clerics and spouses involved in child marriages should be supported by religious leaders, Member National Assembly Marvi Memon, who tabled the bill, said on Wednesday. “I’ve seen this injustice in my constituency and around the country in every single province,” Memon told a foreign news agency. “It’s time that we stand up for our women,” she said. Pakistan’s conservative religious parties strongly opposed the bill tabled by Memon on Tuesday, and some Muslim clerics want the penalties scrapped altogether. Currently, women can legally marry at 16 in Pakistan and men at 18. But many marry much younger, and the current penalty for anyone involved in a child marriage is a $10 fine, possibly accompanied by up to a month’s imprisonment. Memon has proposed that the fine should be increased to $1,000 and the possible jail sentence to two years. The bill is currently being reviewed. Earlier this month the Council of Islamic Ideology issued a statement criticizing current laws forbidding child marriage. The Council said that children should be allowed to get married once they reach puberty under Islamic law. Memon argues that child marriages cause women to become pregnant before their bodies are ready, leading to permanent damage and possible death. She plans to enlist Islamic scholars to refute the guidance of the religious council. “Early marriages lead to early conception, which cause many health issues and sometimes death,” Memon said. Even if Memon’s bill is passed, it will be hard to enforce. The police are notoriously reluctant to interfere with what many see as culturally acceptable traditions. Even if police do arrest a suspect, the overworked lower courts can take years to hear a case, and bribes can often make charges disappear. But the high courts have become more active in recent years. Judges are increasingly intervening in egregious cases of human rights violations, although their rulings are not always effective and there is little follow-up. One third of women around the world are married before they turn 18, according to the Washington D.C.-based International Center for Research on Women. The tradition of child marriage is most prevalent in South Asia. Pregnancy is the leading cause of death for girls between 15 and 19, the group said. There are no reliable statistics on the number of child marriages in Pakistan. Few cases are reported to the police. The government does not track the issue. Maulana Muhammad Khan Sherani, who chairs the Council of Islamic Ideology, opposed Memon’s introduction of the bill in the parliament. He argued in the National Assembly that current laws forbidding marriage to children contradict the Quran.
No matter how negotiations with the TTP end, lasting peace in Pakistan, Afghanistan and FATA itself will remain elusive without addressing the constitutional status of the tribal areasThe Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provincial Assembly has sneakily passed a resolution asking the federation to vivisect the province. The speaker did not order a headcount for the resolution that calls for carving out a Hazara province from the current boundaries of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The constitutional and legal status of the move is moot and may be challenged in court. Ironically, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), which were instrumental in bringing this resolution, want one section of the Pakistani population to have the right to self-determination, including a new province based purely on linguistic grounds, but seem hell-bent on throwing the Pashtuns of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) back not just a few decades but all the way to the seventh century. The PTI, PML-N and JI are key players in the dialogue with the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which, if successful, could turn already forsaken FATA into the Federally Abandoned Tribal Areas. While the new administrative structure, including the judicial system along with a new high court in a modern state is considered desirable for the Hazarawals — no prejudice intended against their demand — the parties rooted in Punjab and Islamism are determined to shove FATA further down the primitive abyss of the jirga (tribal court) and Taliban sharia. The TTP’s political cheerleaders in Pakistan paint a romantic picture of the defaced and dysfunctional tribal justice system, which even in its most pristine and functional state was quite brutal and arbitrary, especially to the weak. In hypocrisy of the tallest order, the rest of Pakistan gets to enjoy, at least in principle, the right to the due process of law under Article 10-A of the constitution, and FATA is being pushed into the deadly embrace of the jirga/sharia-mongers. Those presenting the jirga in the media as the panacea to all tribal troubles forget that it is this very institution that frequently settles feuds not just through payments of blood money or cattle heads but also by giving away young girls in marriage in the notorious practice called swara. The manipulation-prone jirga system, wherein no provisions for evidence, forensics or female participation exist, clearly flouts the fundamental rights guaranteed in the constitution, especially Article 25 that calls for all citizens to enjoy equal protection of the law and proscribes discrimination on the basis of sex. No doubt, the great values (arzakhtoona) of Pashtunwali (the Pashtun code) like hospitality (milmastia), sanctuary (nanawatay), deference (ehteram) to elders (masharan) and deterrence through revenge (badal) along with the institution of jirga were once the pillars of a primordial democratic tribal society. However, over the centuries, the commune-like structure of the tribes gave way to exploitative structures, especially the British-introduced Maliki aristocracy and later the TTP’s barbaric sharia. The Maliki arrangement was merely a modification of the Sandeman system deployed by the British in Balochistan, wherein they dealt with the tribes through tribal chieftains. As Sir Olaf Caroe, the last British governor of the North West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) himself noted, in the absence of a well-defined hierarchy in the acephalous Pashtun tribes, the British created a system of stipends (maujib) for handpicked leaders (Maliks) in a largely transactional relationship. Unfortunately, a self-serving arrangement by a colonial power is being touted today as the replacement for modern constitutional structures. Leaving FATA in constitutional and legal limbo also has geopolitical motives and ramifications. The Pakistani state’s pretence that FATA is ungovernable, while claiming it as an integral part of the state, is a ruse to continue using it as a base for intervention in Afghanistan and buffer against a blowback. Turmoil, not order, in FATA is what Pakistani strategic planners have wanted for decades in order to unilaterally impose a government of their liking in Kabul as well as to neutralise the Pashtun nationalist-irredentist movement. Ironically, the most vociferous champions of the status quo in FATA and the Durand Line and tribal justice are not the Pashtuns. The mess created in FATA is now threatening Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — dubbed the ‘Fatafication’ of the province by some. However, the Pakistani state’s thrust still is anything but regularising the tribal areas, despite the constitution bestowing tremendous powers upon the president to usher in such reform. Indeed, Article 247(6) of the constitution empowers the president, after seeking the opinion of a tribal jirga, to “direct that the whole or any part of a Tribal Area shall cease to be Tribal Area”. Clearly, the framers of the 1973 constitution envisioned bringing FATA into the mainstream, not alienating and marginalising it any further. No matter how negotiations with the TTP end, lasting peace in Pakistan, Afghanistan and FATA itself will remain elusive without addressing the constitutional status of the tribal areas. Abolishing the 113-year-old draconian Frontier Crimes Regulation (FCR) could be a start but repealing the FCR is neither possible by itself nor will it change much unless FATA is given provincial status or allowed to join Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. The judicial, revenue and policing systems — the sine qua non of a state — have to follow the constitutional reform. The Maliki system cannot hold its own after the TTP onslaught — political parties and the local and provincial government systems must upend that decaying structure. The political parties, however, ought to help determine what the people of the seven tribal Agencies want. The reform task, as arduous as it is, will become perilous if the denizens of FATA feel that a party, province or the federation is imposing the solution. A major issue attached to the reform in FATA is the status of the Durand Line and a Pashtun nationalist-irredentist sentiment that, though on the ropes, still exists. Candidates in Afghanistan’s upcoming presidential elections have danced around the status of the Durand Line. Until a permanent solution can be found to the border issue, Afghanistan could consider adopting something similar to the China/Taiwan policy or the former West Germany’s Neue Ostpolitik (New East policy) that in essence meant a détente without dropping the mainland’s revanchist claims. This is one area where the Pashtun nationalist outfits, the Awami National Party and the Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party can play a huge role. These two parties have effectively accepted a two-state solution for the Pashtuns; the least they can do now is defend the constitutional rights of the people they claim to represent within the federation lest the state codifies the status of the federally abandoned tribal areas as such.
Pakistan People’s Party Senator Farhatullah Khan Babar has said that the government of Punjab allocated Rs61 million for Hafiz Saeed despite the United Nations ban on Jaamtu Dawa chief. He said that Saeed had been working despite the UN ban while chief of Jesh-e-Muhammad Maulana Masood Azhar attended a book launching ceremony only three days before the government unveiled its security policy. The PPP Senator was speaking at the meeting of the National Assembly’s Standing Committee on Interior on Wednesday. The opposition members of the NA body opposed the Protection of Pakistan bill.
The Express TribuneIn a damning verdict, the Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative has cautioned that the current situation of polio in Pakistan is a ‘powder keg’ that could ignite widespread polio transmission. “If the current trend continues, Pakistan will be the last place on earth in which polio exists,” wrote IMB Chairperson Sir Liam Donaldson in a letter to the World Health Organisation director general Dr Margaret Chan in February. The letter – a copy of which is available with The Express Tribune – says the new government has been slow to grasp the severity of the situation, adding that the number of polio cases in Pakistan is going in the wrong direction. The most serious situation is in the northwest, where the virus is enjoying unencumbered circulation at great human cost, the letter says. “We welcome the firm and intelligently designed anti-polio campaign [Sehat Ka Insaf] under way in Peshawar, but such innovation must be sustained and promoted elsewhere in the country,” it adds. “The adequacy of the government’s plans will be in full public view at our May meeting and at the subsequent World Health Assembly,” the letter says. Commenting on the letter, an official of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) Health Department said in 2012, 58 polio cases were reported in Pakistan; the number surged to 93 in 2013. 36 cases have already been reported this year. He added that the situation was dangerous not only for Pakistan but for the whole world. He said there were misunderstandings amongst the government and donors. “The success of the K-P government’s drive is reversible unless polio is eradicated from Khyber Agency and [North and South] Waziristan agencies,” he said. Talking to The Express Tribune, the focal person of the chief minister’s Polio Monitoring Cell, Dr Imtiyaz Khan, said that the IMB assessed progress towards the attainment of a polio-free world and its views were very broad. He said millions of children in North Waziristan and Bara tehsil of Khyber Agency had not been vaccinated since June 2012 due to a ban by militants and as a result the virus could spread to other parts of the country.
The police reportedly solved the mystery of the murder of noted Karachi top cop Chaudhry Aslam. Reports revealed that one of the held accused Mufti Shakirullah gave the details of the plot hatched to eliminate Aslam Chaudhry. According to the deciphered details of the conspiracy, two militant outfits planned the assassination of SP Aslam Chaudhry. An operative of a banned outfit Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Umar hatched the conspiracy who demanded suicide bombers to launch the attack, according to the compromised information of Shakirullah. Initially, Shakirullah presented himself, but on the refusal of the planners, his pupil Naeem was put forth for the job. The vehicle used in the attack was prepared in one of the go downs of the area. The explosive laden vehicle was placed on the possible route of Aslam Chaudhry for three consecutive days. On the fateful day of January 9,2014 Aslam Chaudhry adopted the route where the suicide vehicle was placed. The suicide bomber Naemmullah was residing in the nearby mosque. A prayer meeting was also held in a nearby home for the success of attack on January 5, 2014. The accused also revealed that on the deal of his rented home in Safoora Chowrangi, Naeemullah the suicide bomber had signed. The deal was signed from January 10 to December 10. The deal was cancelled on Jauary 9 after the dearth of naeemullah in the suicide hit on SP Aslam Chaudhry. The same outfit was involved in the bomb attack on Shafique Tanoli, he revealed. The second attack was to have been launched on the hospital where Shafique was expected to be admitted, but he was taken to a private hospital and plan of the attack was cancelled, he disclosed. Aslam Chaudhry’s close associate inspector Bahauddin Babar was also killed by the same gang. In the light of the revelation made by Shakirullah, the police have widens its net of investigation to nab more culprits.
A special division bench of the Lahore High Court on Wednesday postponed till April 14 the hearing of an appeal of condemned prisoner Aasia Bibi, who belongs to the Christian community. The bench put off the hearing till April 14 as counsel for the complainant did not appear before the court. The trail court had awarded death sentence to the lady on blasphemy charges. Complainant, Muhammad Salam had alleged that on June 14, 2009 at a Falsa garden owned by one Idress in Nanankana Sahib Aasia Bibi committed blasphemy. He said that he had not heard her uttering the blasphemous remarks but other ladies Asma Bibi, her sister Mafia Bibi, and Yasmin listened her saying and told him about the incident. He also alleged that locals Muhammad Afzal and Mukhtar Ahmed summoned the accused and witnesses where the accused confessed her crime and begged pardon. He said she had hurt their religious sentiments and she should be tried under blasphemy articles and should be brought to the book. Yasif Badar, one of the counsels of Aasia Bibi said that Aasia had categorically rejected the story of the complainant. He said that Asma and Mafia are real sisters and falsely involved her in this case as they both felt disgrace and dishonour on the basis of altercation and hard words extended to them by her when they denied drinking water brought by her for them. He said that the ladies had denied drinking water saying that they would not take it because she is a Christian. He said that Aasia’s forefathers were living in this village since creation of Pakistan but no such complaint against them ever exists. The other counsel Anis AA Saadie said that before the trial court eight witnesses recorded their statements against Aasia but not a single witness dared to defend Aasia before the court even from the Christians. He said the lower court sentenced her for being under pressure and it was the case with investigation officer. He requested to acquit the lady as being innocent.
IT is not often enough that we see a move in parliament to counter the ultra-conservative lobby, something that is particularly true of events in recent months when the right-wing has been in full cry. However, the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill introduced in the National Assembly on Tuesday attempts to do exactly that by pushing back against the Council of Islamic Ideology’s recent declaration that laws barring child marriage in Pakistan are un-Islamic. The bill seeks to amend the British-era Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929, by making underage marriage — below 16 for girls and 18 for boys according to the law — a cognisable offence and empowering family courts to take notice of the law’s violation. Those contracting marriages with children or solemnising such unions will both be held liable. The bill also stipulates punishment of up to two years’ rigorous imprisonment or a fine of up to Rs100,000, or both, thereby enhancing it from the present one-month simple imprisonment or a fine of Rs1,000. Although the CII functions in an ‘advisory’ capacity, the reactionary environment in Pakistan at present offers fertile ground for the body’s appallingly regressive recommendations to influence public debate in a direction that would leave women and children far worse off than they already are. There is no better forum to check this than the country’s primary representative body, and the introduction of the bill in the National Assembly by five PML-N parliamentarians is a timely and much-needed assertion of its legislative role that it must employ for the protection of the most vulnerable segments of society. However, the timorousness of legislators in the face of right-wing onslaught was once again evident with the religious affairs minister suggesting that, if needed, the CII’s input should be considered while the bill is deliberated upon, which would surely consign the proposed legislation to oblivion. Instead, this is as good a time as any to definitively sideline the CII and reinforce the supremacy of parliament. Another silver lining in this unexpected dredging up of an issue that should have long been settled, is the opportunity it affords to craft effective legislation to check a crime that can have devastating consequences for a child’s mental and physical health. For instance, it is well-known that maternal mortality in Pakistan, which already fares poorly in the region on this score, is highest among girls below 16, whose bodies are not mature enough for the rigours of child-bearing. The existing law against child marriage is a toothless one that is often flouted with impunity in the name of ‘culture’. An amendment in the law is thus a very welcome move, and legislators must stand firm against resistance from those attempting to advance medieval traditions that have no place in modern society.
Chairman Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Bilawal Bhutto Zardari on Thursday said the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) was "keen to join" the government in Sindh, but added the caveat that the party would have to address the PPP’s reservations regarding controversial statements in support of martial law and calling for the break-up of Sindh. The two parties are currently engaged in talks for forging a coalition in Sindh but neither of them has said a word as to what prompted them to engage in the process for having a fresh alliance, which is seen to be not that necessary for the ruling party. Issuing a statement via his Twitter account, Bilawal said it may not be possible for the PPP to ally with the MQM and invite it to join the provincial government without retracting statements in support of martial law. The PPP leader’s statement comes days after MQM chief Altaf Hussain urged the armed forces to not follow any ‘anti-state orders’ of the government in relation to sending troops abroad. Hussain’s statement has been viewed largely in reference to the reported shift in government’s policy over Syria in the aftermath of $1.5 billion ‘friendly donation by Saudi Arabia’. Bilawal also said that the MQM would have to retract statements calling for a break-up of the Sindh province, without which its inclusion in the government could become an impossibility. The party has on occasions issued controversial statements suggesting Sindh be divided. Earlier in January, the MQM chief had called for splitting the province into two parts: “If Sindh's urban population is not accepted by the PPP and is not given its due rights, then there should be a separate province for these people. Sindh must be split into Sindh One and Sindh Two.”
Political Islam and national security policy are ravaging Pakistan. But - neither the military generals, who spawned this symbiotic process in the 1980s and nurtured it in the 1990s, nor the politicians, who exploited or condoned it for legitimising themselves - have the will to turn the tide back. In consequence, the country is besieged by dozens of armed non-state ethnic, sectarian, jehadi, criminal, separatist and terrorist groups, in one garb or another, that have overrun law and order and plunged different communities into a pool of blood.The minorities, in particular, are being targeted with a genocidal vengeance. The targeted killing of Shias, in particular the Hazara community in Balochistan, has captured headlines in the last two years for three reasons. First, the scale of the killings is alarming - nearly 1,000 people have been killed in the last eighteen months, mainly in Balochistan, Karachi and the Northern Areas. Second, the assassins - Sipah- e-Sahaba, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and various related offshoots - have been audacious enough to claim responsibility.
Tehran on Wednesday issued a warning to Islamabad after reports emerged that one of five Iranian soldiers abducted and taken across the border into Pakistan by Sunni extremists had been executed. President Hassan Rouhani in a telephone call with Pakistan's Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif demanded "serious and swift action" by Pakistan to secure the release of the soldiers. "We expect to hear good news in this regard," he said, while calling for "joint action by both countries against terrorists," the official IRNA news agency reported. For his part, Sharif said the issue was of "utmost importance" to his government and that he was "prepared to boost action to free the soldiers". Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had earlier expressed "grave concern" about the fate of Jamshid Danayifar, who was kidnapped along with four other border guards on February 6 by rebel group Jaish-ul Adl. "We did all we could to secure their release," Zarif told state television after a cabinet meeting. "But it is disappointing that the Pakistani government has failed to secure its borders, and allows terrorists to operate on its soil." Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli had earlier warned -- without elaborating -- that Iran "reserves the right to utilise all its ability in its border areas." Jaish-ul Adl said on its website on Sunday that Danayifar had been killed, warning of further executions should Tehran refuse to "release Sunni prisoners". The rebel group, which took up arms in 2012 to fight for what it says are the rights of Iran's minority Sunni population, is active in the restive Sistan-Baluchestan province that borders both Pakistan and Afghanistan. In November it claimed responsibility for killing a local prosecutor, a month after its rebels killed 14 Iranian border guards in an ambush. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned in a Tuesday statement the reported killing as an "appalling act" and urged that the perpetrators are brought to justice. A spokesman for the US State Department, Alan Eyre, called for the "swift release" of the abducted soldiers while expressing hope the reported execution -- that came as Iran was celebrating its Persian New Year -- was not true. Shortly after the abduction, Iranians launched a campaign on Twitter, despite the micro-blogging service being banned in Iran. Demanding the soldiers' release, the FreeIranianSoldiers hashtag went viral in February. Some Iranians have used social media to hit out at the Tehran government for its inability to bring home the young soldiers, who were serving their 24-month mandatory military service. Border guards chief Hossein Zolfaghari has admitted that there was "negligence" in the lead-up to the kidnapping, saying those responsible were suspended, with some facing prosecution.
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf-led provincial government has opted to follow its predecessors’ footsteps as the politically motivated postings and transfers of senior grade officers continues in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, according to officials. Information gathered from the Civil Secretariat sources reveals that practices such as officers getting their favourite posts, switching over from one service to another and maneuvering to get field posts continue unabated as PTI has yet to make an imprint, ending the politically motivated postings and transfers. “The things that should not have been done in the past, continue to make mockery of the official mechanisms,” said a senior official. Shah Rehman, brother of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa information minister Shah Farman, belonging to PTI, got his services switched over to the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Civil Secretariat in September last year. A grade-19 officer of the Pakistan Audit and Accounts Service, Mr Rehman, according to officials, was transferred to the province after the provincial government requisitioned his services from his parent department. “As per the government rules, the provincial government can requisition the services of any particular civil officer to fulfil its needs as at times, it faces shortage of technical staff,” said an official on deputation with the provincial government. However, according to sources, things do not work like this. As per the government’s deputation policy seen by Dawn, a request for the requisition should be an initiative of the government, and not a making of the employee. “Practically, this does not happen like this as almost all officers, who are placed at the disposal of the province take the initiative to get himself transferred from the parent department to the place of choice,” said an official, privy to the matter. The placement of Mr Rehman’s services with the provincial government smacks of a making of political maneuvering because he was transferred to the province after his brother’s PTI came into power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. “My brother (the provincial information minister) has got nothing to do with it,” said Mr Rehman, when reached over the telephone. He said his services had also been requisitioned by the previous provincial government led by Awami National Party, but it did not materialise. An official privy to the matter, however, said Mr Rehman’s services were requisitioned by the provincial government on the initiative of an influential political figure and not on the asking of the provincial finance department or the establishment department. “Technically, the finance department (where he served for awhile before posted to the planning department) should have initiated the request, which is not the case,” said an official. This also holds water as after being posted as the additional secretary finance (Provincial Finance Commission), Mr Rehman stayed there only for three weeks. After three weeks of his placement at the finance department, Mr Rehman was transferred to the planning and development department, as an additional secretary. “I fulfil the criteria and requirements of the post of additional secretary P&D,” said Mr Rehman. He was candid and justifying the transferring of his services to the provincial government he said there was nothing wrong about the matter. Another officer on deputation said on the condition of anonymity that: “we come against a 10 per cent quota specified by the provincial government for technical staff/professionals working in the central services.” Nonetheless, an official familiar with the rules dismissed the information. He said the 10 per cent quota was specified for the technical staff of the provincial government’s line departments. The technical staff like doctors and teachers can be posted to the provincial Civil Secretariat from their provincial department concerned, according to the PMS Rules, 2007 seen by Dawn. In the previous ANP-led government, another accounts group officer was brought in to work at the P&D department. After completing his three-year deputation period with the provincial government, he was recently given extension for another two years, which is the maximum (five years) an officer on deputation can spend in a single stretch. “The deputation helps the central services’ officers from the Accounts Group or the ones belonging to the railways cadre come out of obscurity,” said one of the officers on deputations. “The provincial government’s job gives them stability and exposure, making their career growth somewhat easy compared to their parent department that rotates them from one far off and less developed town to another,” said the official, requesting anonymity. However, the account services’ officers and an officer from Pakistan Railways are not the only officers who have managed to get good Politically motivated postings, transfers continue in KP postings after PTI came into power in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Two officers of the previously titled ‘Provincial Civil Services’ (Secretariat Group) were recently posted as deputy commissioners Upper Dir and Lower Dir districts to the dismay of the officers belonging to the Provincial Management Service and the PCS Executive Group. “As per rules no one without field experience can be posted as the deputy commissioner because the post involves a lot of exposure and interaction with the public,” said an officer. Bakhtiar Khan was serving in the chief secretary’s reform cell at the Civil Secretariat, Peshawar before his appointment as the deputy commissioner, while Zarif Muaani, brother of a Jamaat-i-Islami leader from Malakand, was an additional secretary before he was appointed the deputy commissioner. However, the appointments have not been smooth for them as questions were raised about the two lacking experience as revenue collector. The provincial government had to succumb to the pressure and opted to withdraw, sending them on training required for the deputy commissioner’s office. Both the officers make part of the 38-member Secretariat Group officers, absorbed in the PMS, who recently started attending the revenue training. “The government withdrew the notification and sent them to get the training,” said a senior officer. “They might be notified as the deputy commissioners again once they return from the training.” However, this too seems to be a difficult proposition as their political leanings towards JI have not gone well with certain non-bureaucratic influential quarters. According to officials, their appointment as DCs of Lower Dir and Upper Dir could raise the question of conflict of interest for the provincial government, bringing it under further pressure. “Both the districts are strongholds of JI and if the party has men of its choice as DCs here before the upcoming local government elections, this could be counterproductive,” said an official. The argument does not appear to be without logic. After the issuance of the notification, the Dir-based leaders belonging to the opposition Qaumi Watan Party took to the streets to protest the government’s decision a few weeks ago. Meanwhile, a PMS-officer is of the view that the government’s decision to impart revenue training to 38-Secretariat Group officers (absorbed in PMS) lacked legal footing in view of a recent judgment of the Supreme Court.