Friday, July 27, 2018

U.S. expresses concern about 'flaws' in Pakistan campaign

The United States expressed concern on Friday about “flaws” in the campaign process leading up to the Pakistani election this week.

“These included constraints placed on freedoms of expression and association during the campaign period that were at odds with Pakistani authorities’ stated goal of a fully fair and transparent election,” the State Department said in a statement.

Why Pakistan Is on the Road to Another IMF Bailout

Pakistan elects first non-Muslim in modern history to general national assembly seat

‘How will Imran Khan bring the change he has promised with all these old faces?’

Pakistan has elected a non-Muslim to a general seat in the national assembly for the first time in its recent history, even as the victory of ex-cricketer Imran Khan raises some concerns among minority communities.
Mahesh Kumar Malani, a 55-year-old Hindu, spoke to The Independent on Friday after it was confirmed that he had won his seat in the impoverished Tharparkar district of Sindh province.
As a member of the third-placed progressive Pakistan People’s Party, led by the son of assassinated former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, Mr Malani said he will now likely travel to Islamabad in opposition to Mr Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI).
Near-final results late on Friday showed PTI had won 115 of the 272 contested seats in the national assembly, while the incumbent Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) conceded defeat on 62. PPP placed third, with 43 seats.
And while coalition talks for Mr Khan to form a government are just beginning, Mr Malani was willing to get a headstart on taking the victorious former sportsman – whose critics dub him “Taliban Khan” for his perceived closeness to extremist Islamist groups – to task.
Extremism represents one of the biggest challenges to Pakistan’s future, Mr Malani said, alongside poverty. “We [PPP] can join hands with anyone if they have any actable agenda to fight against both poverty and terrorism in the best interests of the nation,” he said.

Standing up for minority rights represents one 0f the key tenets of the PPP manifesto, Mr Malani said, but he would not let his religion alone define his role in parliament.“I am not only the representative of the Hindu or the minority,” he said. “In a general election the Muslim majority also votes for me, so I am going to perform my duty for all my people and for my nation. My agenda is to stand up for the rights of every citizen of Pakistan.”
On the campaign trail, Mr Khan rallied support from mostly Muslims with populist messages calling for the death penalty for blasphemers and vitriol against neighbouring India.
Most voters from religious minorities told The Independent on election day that they would vote for PML-N over Mr Khan’s PTI. Nadeem Masih, 30, from Islamabad’s small Christian community, said of Mr Khan: “He is not interested in our rights if I tell you the truth.” For Mr Malani, the biggest issue with Mr Khan was not necessarily his courting of extremists, but rather his courting of independent candidates who regularly swap parties for elections to join the highest bidder – a group of influential, veteran politicians dubbed “electables”.
“Imran Khan has the same team of ‘electables’ who were part of the previous governments of the PML-N and the PPP,” Mr Malani said. “Khan declared that previous government corrupt and specifically said all these ‘electables’ were corrupt too.
“I am surprised – how will Imran Khan bring the change he has promised with all these old faces? How are they now not corrupt, but have become honest and sincere?”
Mr Malani said it was nonetheless time for people to come together in the best interests of the country. He praised his campaign team of mostly Muslim workers and said he hoped soon other political parties would pick candidates like PPP “on merit, with no discrimination towards religion or any other basis”. And while he said he will “do what I can” as a member of the opposition to Mr Khan, his final words for the new prime minister elect were reconciliatory, adding: “Despite all the reservations, my best wishes are with him.”

Pakistan: Catholics Flee After False Blasphemy Claim

By Tibor Krausz

When Cheryl Malik turned up one day for the class she taught in the afternoons at a privately run tutoring school in Pakistani city Lahore, she knew something was wrong.
There were no students waiting for her in the classroom on that August day in 2013, yet no one had told her that her class had been canceled. “The school’s principal asked me into his office,” Malik (not her real name) recalls. “I was surprised.”
Her surprise turned to trepidation. Seated around a table were several of her colleagues who were eyeing her with visible anger and disapproval. One of the teachers, an excitable fellow who, Malik says, had often scolded and berated her for being a Christian, started waving a handful of pages accusingly at her. They had been torn from a book.
“You did this! You desecrated our Holy Quran!” the man, a lecturer in Islamic studies, claimed.
He was accusing Malik, a Catholic who by day also taught Urdu and social studies at a Christian school in Lahore, of having torn some pages from a copy of the Quran and thrown them to the floor to trample them under her desk in her office at the Muslim-run school.
Malik maintains she did no such thing and told her Muslim fellow teachers so. An amiable mother of three who speaks fluent English, she recalls her accuser insisting to her colleagues: “Of course she did it! She’s a Christian. She insulted our Holy Prophet!”
Her colleagues, she says, all took the man’s side and were equally riled up. “In Pakistan if someone wants to destroy you, all they have to do is say you’ve committed blasphemy,” Malik says.
Accusations of blasphemy meted out to Christians and other religious minorities in the predominantly Muslim nation, where strict interpretations of Islamic Sharia are widespread, routinely have lethal consequences.
In 2014, an enraged mob brutalized an illiterate Christian couple, identified only as Shama and Shehzad, in the town of Kot Radha Kishan, near Lahore, for allegedly burning a copy of the Quran in a brick kiln where they had been working as bonded laborers. The mob proceeded to burn Shama and Shehzad alive.
That same year, a Pakistani Christian couple, Shafqat Emmanuel and Shagufta Kausar, from the town of Gojra in Pakistan’s Punjab province, were sentenced to death for blasphemy after they allegedly sent text messages containing insults of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s founder, to the imam of a mosque. That couple, too, were illiterate and the messages were sent in English, a language they could not speak, much less write, according to human rights activists.
Rights activists also alleged that Shafqat, who was confined to a rickety wheelchair because of an old spinal injury, was tortured by police into confessing. In Pakistan, insulting the Quran and Muhammad are punishable by life imprisonment or death.
Even innocuous messages shared on social media can mean a death sentence. Last year Nadeem James, a 35-year-old Christian man, was sentenced to death in Gujrat town in Punjab province for sending irreverent comments about Muhammad on WhatsApp to a Muslim friend, who reported James to authorities.
When someone is accused of blasphemy, locals often take matters into their own hands in lynch mobs. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), an independent watchdog, says the country’s authorities aid the persecution of people accused of blasphemy and routinely turn a blind eye when alleged blasphemers are brutalized or murdered by angry locals.
“An overarching concern,” the HRCP notes in its report this year regarding the extrajudicial harassment and murder of religious minorities, “is that even where the protection of legislation exists, the prosecution and conviction of perpetrators has remained at a very low level.”
Malik says that when her colleagues set upon her, she immediately began fearing for her life. “They started to slap me and beat me,” she says. “They pushed me to the floor. They beat me badly.”
Her accuser took a metal ruler and, using its sharp edge as a blade, slashed one of Malik’s wrists, opening a gaping, badly bleeding wound that has left an ugly scar. “Is this the hand you used to defile our Holy Quran?” she recalls the Muslim cleric demanding to know.
“I didn’t know what they were going to do to me,” Malik says. “They could have killed me.”
Distraught, she started pleading to her fellow teachers. “I told them: ‘Please forgive me. I made a mistake,'” she remembers. “I said, ‘I have to go now. My children are small. They need me.'”
By way of repentance for her alleged blasphemy, she agreed to convert to Islam. “They told me to bring my children so that they could convert too,” she says.
Malik agreed. Her colleagues allowed her to leave, expecting her to return shortly with her children. Yet that same afternoon she and her husband Peter took their three boys and left Lahore to stay with relatives in the countryside.
Two months later, the family of five flew to Thailand from Karachi on a tourist visa in the hope of seeking asylum as refugees. “We weren’t safe in Pakistan,” stresses Peter, a mild-mannered man who is a chef by profession and suffers from a chronic liver ailment. “They came looking for us at our home. They went to my sister’s house.”
Like thousands of other Pakistani Christians fleeing religious persecution, the Maliks and their three children, who are now in their early teens, ended up being stranded in Thailand, a freewheeling, predominantly Buddhist nation where Christians and Muslims are free to practice their religion without fear of harassment.
However, Thailand has refused to sign up to the United Nations’ Refugee Convention, and few asylum seekers are accorded refugee status. The vast majority of the several thousand Pakistani Christian asylum seekers in Thailand are deemed illegal migrants by virtue of having overstayed their tourist visas. They are subject to periodic police crackdowns. If caught, they face the prospect of prolonged detention at Bangkok’s overcrowded Immigration Detention Center (IDC) and of being deported back to Pakistan.
Jobless and undocumented, most Pakistani asylum seekers in Bangkok subsist on handouts from Christian charities and bide their time in small, sparsely furnished units in decrepit low-rent apartment buildings. They do their best to stay out of sight as they keep praying for a chance to relocate to a Western nation that agrees to grant them asylum.
They routinely do this for years, constantly fearing a knock on the door from the police that might land them in Bangkok’s dreaded IDC, where visa overstayers are kept, often indefinitely, in cramped and unsanitary conditions.
Cheryl Malik’s elderly father, who soon followed her to Thailand, died inside the prison-like detention center, where he had been taken after being detained by police for overstaying his visa. “He had been sick and couldn’t get his medications inside the IDC,” she says.
Yet despite that tragedy, the Maliks have been more fortunate than many other Pakistani Christian asylum seekers in Thailand. Cheryl found work as a teacher at a Christian school for refugees, which helped the family financially.
Many Christian asylum seekers in Bangkok, especially from Pakistan’s Punjab province, are uneducated and have dark skin, which is routinely associated with low social status not only back home in Pakistan but in Thailand as well. Their lack of education and English skills makes it hard for them to land jobs in Bangkok beyond low-paid menial work at construction sites or as cleaners. Yet they tend to shun even these forms of employment for fear of being nabbed by police as they travel to and from work.
The Maliks have been lucky in other ways too. Last year, after years of waiting, they were finally granted refugee status by the United Nations’ Refugee Agency. It’s a privilege afforded to few other Pakistani Christians in Bangkok, albeit even that status comes with little legal protection in Thailand.
Best of all, the family has just been selected for an immigration sponsorship program to Canada thanks to a Christian organization there. The Maliks will soon be leaving Bangkok for a new life in Vancouver.
“Thank God!” Cheryl Malik observes. “I like Thailand. It’s a nice place. But it’s not easy to stay here for refugees like us.”
Before they can leave, Cheryl and Peter may well have to spend some time at the notorious IDC because they have broken Thai law by allowing their visas to expire and staying in the country illegally for years.
She is visibly fearful of the prospect. “I don’t know how we’ll be able to take it,” she laments. “I really don’t know.”

#ElectionIrregularities - EU: Pakistan elections 'unfair' - EU observers criticize pre-poll environment

electoral observers criticize intimidation of press, possibly preventing voters from making informed choice. Election process affected by political environment

EU observers have said conditions for fair elections in Pakistan worsened since the last vote in 2013. Final counts point to a result that is insufficient for Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf party to govern alone.

Following two days of vote counting, the Pakistani Election Commission formally declared that Imran Khan's party was the winner of the country's parliamentary elections. EU observers concluded on Friday that the results were "credible," but criticized a "lack of equality" in the contest and said that the playing field was more uneven since the last vote in 2013.

"Although there were several legal provisions aimed at ensuring a level playing field, we have concluded that there was a lack of equality and opportunity," Michael Gahler, chief observer of the EU Election Observation Mission, said at a press conference.

In its initial findings, the EU concluded that the Pakistani elections were relatively transparent, but raised the alarm on unfair pre-election practices.

Pre-poll curbs on media and a crackdown on Pakistan Muslim League party's (PML-N) activists and officials were noticeable, Michael Gahler told DW, emphasizing that the pre-election environment matters.

At the packed press conference in Islamabad, Gahler said that the 2018 elections had been worse than in 2013, but ascertained that the Pakistani military had not interfered in the voting process, DW correspondent Naomi Conrad reported.
The EU mission deployed 120 monitors across Pakistan, who visited 582 polling stations in 113 different constituencies.
Official results: what we know so far
The vote was the country's third consecutive civilian government election, where voters could choose lawmakers for the Pakistani National Assembly and its four provincial parliaments, in a parliamentary system that is modeled after the UK.
  • While 11 seats are still to be determined, the patterns are irreversible. Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf party had obtained 115 seats in the National Assembly, certainly falling short of the 137 seats needed to govern with a majority.
  • His nearest rival, Shahbaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League, won 63 seats and the left-of-center Pakistan People's party, led former PM Benazir Bhutto's son Bilawal Bhutto, came in third with 43 seats.
  • Pakistan's National Assembly has 342 seats but only 272 are directly elected by voters. Three seats were uncontested and the remainder are reserved for women and minorities.
Tehreek-e-Insaf spokesman Fawad Chaudhry said that work to build the governing coalition was already underway and that the party would consider both independents and allies, in a process that could take several days.
Sharif concedes
Despite initially rejecting Khan's win and alleging that vote rigging had taken place, Shahbaz Sharif's Muslim League accepted the results on Friday. Sharif is still behind bars on corruption charges, after being detained upon his return to Pakistan on the eve of the election.
"We are going to sit on opposition benches, despite all the reservations," said Hamza Shehbaz Sharif, a parliamentarian and the nephew of Shahbaz Sharif said.
Although rights groups and minorities had expressed worries of radical religious groups winning seats, results point to moderate voices having generally prevailed. None of the 265 candidates fielded by the outlawed extremist group Lashkar-e-Taiba managed to secure a seat.
Although banned, Lashkar-e-Taiba candidates had campaigned under a little-known Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek party to avoid association with their own group, which would disqualify them.