Monday, October 8, 2018
By Fahim Abed, Fatima Faizi and Mujib Mashal
The violence was a reminder that the war has only raged deadlier with time, taking a toll on both the Afghan security forces and the civilians caught in the crossfire. On average, the conflict has taken the lives of 30 to 40 Afghan forces and at least 13 civilians a day. There are no tangible signs of momentum for peace talks with the Taliban. Among the killed were at least 35 members of Afghan security forces and 19 civilians. While most of the fatalities of the security forces came from Taliban attacks, residents and local officials said a majority of the civilian casualties in the past 24 hours had resulted from two episodes of firing by government forces in central Afghanistan and an airstrike in the country’s east that they said was carried out by the United States. American forces denied they had carried out a strike in the area.
A large number of Taliban fighters were also killed in attacks that Afghan officials said they had carried out in 14 of the country’s 34 provinces. But the toll was difficult to verify; analysts estimate Taliban casualties usually number about the same as Afghan forces, if not more because of the airpower used against them.
The deadliest of the attacks was an early morning raid by the Taliban on the Sayed Abad District of Wardak Province, which falls on the main highway about 60 miles outside Kabul, the capital. The highway remained blocked for hours — the Taliban had blown up a bridge — before it was reopened by the security forces.
Nasrat Rahimi, a spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, said 14 police officers, including Col. Sayed Nezrab Shah, the district police chief who had lost his leg in a battle three years ago, were killed.
“His leg was bothering him — it was cut off at the knee, and it would still bleed,” said Naqibullah Amini, a friend of Colonel Shah’s. “He was saving money, and he had prepared his passport to go abroad for better treatment. He was just waiting for the security situation to get better.”
In northern Faryab Province, Taliban fighters overran two police outposts in Pashtun Kot District early on Sunday. Ten police officers and a civilian woman were killed, according to Mohammad Azam, the head of the criminal investigation department with the district police.
Most of the civilian casualties happened in Paktia Province, in eastern Afghanistan. Local residents said a convoy carrying an elite Afghan strike force, trained and run by the Central Intelligence Agency, had come under attack late Friday. Leaving behind two burned vehicles, the unit escaped the area, where a brutal wing of the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, remains influential.When locals gathered around the vehicles early on Saturday afternoon, aircraft began bombing the area, according to Haji Gadlon Zadran, a local elder.“Ten villagers were killed, and 21 were wounded,” he said. “The ages of killed persons were 9 to 12 and all of them were innocent villagers.”Qadir Khan, the governor of the district, Gerda Serai, confirmed that 10 civilians were killed and said the strike was under investigation. American airstrikes in support of the Afghan forces have increased in recent months, as the government’s security forces have struggled to hold the line against the Taliban. Publicly available data from the United States military show that 746 bombs were dropped in July, and 522 in September. The Afghan air force has also conducted an increasing number of airstrikes.
It was unclear who carried out the strike in Paktia Province. American forces denied they were responsible for it, while a spokesman for the Afghan Defense Ministry did not reply to questions.
“I can confirm no coalition or U.S. forces were involved in strikes at this location during the time period,” said Cmdr. Grant Neeley, a spokesman for the United States force in Afghanistan.
Another episode, reflecting the blurred, dangerous state of affairs across the country, occurred in the central province of Ghor, where Afghan forces on Saturday carried out an operation to arrest a local militia commander the government has accused of abuses. Supporters of the commander, Shamsher Alipoor, have said he was leading a local force to fill the security gap against encroaching Taliban militants.
Abdul Hai Khatibi, the spokesman for provincial governor of Ghor, said Commander Alipoor had engaged in clashes with security forces, killing four police officers and seven civilians. He fled the scene, and a government chase for him continued on Sunday, Mr. Khatibi said.
But some relatives of the victims blamed the government for the civilian deaths. One of those critics was Reza Nazari, whose sister, Amina Nazari, 48, had been killed in the violence. She lost her husband to illness seven years ago, he said, and worked as a social worker for a nongovernmental organization. She was the main breadwinner for a family of four.
By Cynthia Sohail
Pakistan came into existence in 1947. Under Muhammad Ali Jinnah, the founder of Pakistan, not only Muslims but also Christians participated in the struggle to acquire a state where citizens had equal rights regardless of their faith.
But Pakistan’s forgotten the contributions of non-Muslim minorities, including Christian communities in the creation of Pakistan. Post-partition, Christians have participated in nation building, including helping Pakistan’s education system.
Christians built schools in major parts of Pakistan, including mountainous areas where construction work was difficult, with big classrooms, common rooms, playgrounds and sometimes even swimming pools. They still run under the administration of Christian churches, teaching generations of political leaders, lawyers, academics and sportsmen. Renowned leaders, scientists and experts including Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Allama Iqbal, Dr. Abdul Qadir Khan, Nawaz Sharif and many current members of the Cabinet and the Parliament went to such Christian institutions. Convent of Jesus and Mary, where Benazir Bhutto studied, was also founded by a Christian woman whose main objective was to educate females.
Free education was also given in many Christian missionary schools. Missionaries purchased lands close to the main roads to facilitate accessibility. Lawrence’s College in Murree and St. Denys’ High Schools were built on the main roads of Murree to make them accessible to children.
After independence, Jinnah requested the Parsee and Christian community to allow Muslim admissions to their schools. The Muslim business community of Pakistan has established schools, colleges and universities that are inspired by Christian academic organizations.
Despite the contributions of Christians toward education, Christians themselves are getting persecuted in Pakistan, deprived of the right to get education. In rural areas, Christian students are treated harshly. Sometimes their admission is declined solely on the basis of religion. Teachers and headmasters ignore the contribution of the Christian community in promoting education in Pakistan. On the other hand, Muslim students easily get admitted in education institutes run under Christians.
Apart from discrimination in education, poor and middle-class Christians face forceful conversion, kidnapping and getting burnt alive. On 22 September 2013, a twin suicide bomb attack took place on All Saints Church in Peshawar that killed 127 people and injured 250 people. In the 2017 Quetta church attack, armed militants and suicide bombers stormed the Bethel Memorial Methodist Church in the western Pakistani city of Quetta, killing nine people and injuring dozens more.
The government does not consider Christians for high posts in the civil service or higher education. The holy places of minorities in Pakistan aren’t safe, with churches getting burnt down. Moreover, the Christian minster can’t participate in the country’s politics.
Pakistan’s Supreme Court postponed its ruling Monday on the final appeal of a Christian woman who has been on death row since 2010 after being convicted of blasphemy against Islam.
The judicial panel listened to Asia Bibi’s defense lawyer challenge statements by those who accused her of insulting Islam’s prophet, an allegation punishable by death that can incite riots in conservative Pakistan.
The three-judge panel, headed by Pakistan’s Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, did not say why they reserved their judgment or when they would announce their decision. It ordered everyone present to refrain from commenting on the case, in an apparent attempt to avoid inflaming public opinion.
The charge against Bibi dates back to a hot day in 2009 when she went to get water for her and her fellow farmworkers. Two Muslim women refused to take a drink from a container used by a Christian. A few days later, a mob accused her of blasphemy. She was convicted and sentenced to death.
Bibi’s lawyer, Saiful Malook, argued that the many contradictions in witnesses’ statements tainted the evidence. The two Muslim women who leveled the charges against Bibi denied they were quarrelling with her, saying her outbursts against Islam were unprovoked. Yet several independent witnesses who gave statements recounted a cantankerous exchange between the women.
The prosecution’s case centered mostly on religious texts that vilify those who make blasphemous statements.
Ahead of the hearing, Malook expressed optimism that he would win the last legal appeal for Bibi. But if not, he planned to seek a review, which could take years to complete.
“I am a 100 percent sure she will be acquitted,” Malook told The Associated Press in a telephone interview on the eve of the hearing. “She has a very good case.”
He refused to comment at the end of Monday’s hearing, citing the judges’ orders.
Bibi’s case has generated international outrage, but within Pakistan it has fired up radical Islamists, who use the blasphemy law to rally supporters and intimidate mainstream political parties.
Even defending Bibi in court is dangerous.
“I have lost my health. I am a high blood pressure patient, my privacy is totally lost. You have to be in hiding,” her lawyer said ahead of the hearing. Everyone on his tree-lined street knows his identity, he said. “They look at this house and they know this is the home of a person who can be killed at any time by angry mullahs.”
Police provide round-the-clock security around Malook’s home, in the city of Lahore.
Members of Pakistan’s religious minorities have campaigned against the law, which they say is invoked to justify attacks on them. For them, Bibi’s case is seen as a watershed. Her husband recently traveled to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis.
Joseph Francis, an activist for Pakistan’s Christians, said he currently is aiding 120 Christians facing blasphemy charges. His organization, Center for Legal Aid Assistance and Settlement, provides legal aid as well as finding a safe haven for Christians who are targeted even after being cleared of blasphemy allegations.
“This law is misused and it is not only misused against Christians but also against Muslims,” he said.
France, Spain and Germany have all offered to welcome Bibi should she be acquitted, said Francis, who said he will help secret her out of the country.
But Khadim Hussein Rizvi, the leader of a radical Islamist party, warned after the postponement that “no blasphemer will be able to escape punishment.
In 2011, Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, was shot and killed by one of his elite guards for defending Bibi and criticizing misuse of the blasphemy law. Malook prosecuted his killer, Mumtaz Qadri, who was hanged for his crime.
Qadri has since become a martyr to millions, who make a pilgrimage to a shrine erected in his name by his family outside the capital, Islamabad. His supporters have called for the immediate killing of anyone accused of blasphemy.
Pakistan’s newly elected government is led by Prime Minister Imran Khan, a former cricket star who has embraced religious conservatism and bowed to some of the demands of radical Islamists. Last month, a member of his government offered prayers at Qadri’s shrine, drawing outrage from rights activists.
An unprecedented number of religious parties participated in the July elections that put Khan in power. As in previous elections, they garnered less than 10 percent of the popular vote, but they have allies among all the major parties.
According to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, 71 countries have blasphemy laws — around a quarter of them are in the Middle East and North Africa and around a fifth are European countries, though enforcement and punishment varies.
Pakistan is one of the most ferocious enforcers.
At least 1,472 people were charged under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws between 1987 and 2016, according to statistics collected by the Center for Social Justice, a Lahore-based group. Of those, 730 were Muslims, 501 were Ahmadis — a sect reviled by mainstream Muslims as heretical — while 205 were Christians and 26 were Hindus. The center said it didn’t know the religion of the final 10 because they were killed by vigilantes before they could get their day in court.
While Pakistan’s law carries the death penalty for blasphemy and offenders have been sentenced to death, so far no one has ever been executed.