Sunday, January 6, 2019

Video - Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, Requesting Refugee Status - January 7 2019 in Bangkok Airport Hotel

Video - #SaveRahaf - Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun - January 6 2019 from from Bangkok Airport Hotel

Saudi Arabia Fears Critics Like Hasan Minhaj. But They’ll Only Get Louder.

By Akbar Shahid Ahmed
The kingdom’s decision to ban an episode of Minhaj’s Netflix show comes after months of Saudi attacks on the first Muslim U.S. congresswomen.
After the worst year for Saudi Arabia’s image since the 9/11 attacks involved several of its citizens, the kingdom began 2019 with a fresh controversy by asking Netflix to block Saudi users from viewing an episode of “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj.”
On Jan. 1, The Financial Times confirmed that Netflix had complied ― setting off international condemnation and a wave of renewed attention to a sketch Minhaj released months ago. (He appreciated the publicity.)
But beyond the absurdity and outrage is a reminder of a powerful trend that matters not just for the Saudis’ ongoing struggle to sustain their place in the world but for 1.6 billion people associated with the religion that was founded in the country, Islam.
The offending episode featured Minhaj saying this of Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, Muhammed bin Salman, and his connection with last year’s murder of Jamal Khashoggi: “It blows my mind that it took the killing of a Washington Post journalist for everyone to go, ‘Oh, I guess he’s not a reformer.’ Meanwhile, every Muslim person you know was like, ‘Yeah, no shit, he’s the crown prince of Saudi Arabia.’”
As Muslims like Minhaj in the U.S. and those elsewhere in the Muslim-majority world win bigger audiences, such observations will become a larger part of the global conversation. People will become more aware of critiques and nuances shared among Muslims for years but rarely included in the Western-driven coverage of issues like the Saudi regime’s behavior.
For Riyadh, that’s dreadful news. It becomes a lot harder to say the kingdom should get a free pass for denying adult women the right to travel without a man’s permission and giving its citizens almost no say over how the country is run if the regime can’t hide behind claims that that’s simply Islamic culture or the way Muslims want to live.
It’s inconvenient, particularly after the Saudis invested such immense amounts of time and money in trying to win influence by appealing to Muslims’ sense of solidarity, to have different kinds of voices and examples from within the community showing different ways to live and thrive. And it’s especially worrying that many of these newly visible Muslims seek to own their identities ― not to cede them, out of frustration or fear, to traditional stewards like Saudi clerics, or to simply assimilate for mainstream consumption.
Faced with this threat to their M.O. and the foreign security alliances critical to their power, Saudi leaders are, in classic style, so far only making things worse.
To understand why the situation escalated this way, consider that the modern state of Saudi Arabia is less than 100 years old. To become the kind of world player it is today, the kingdom has relied on its connection to Islam. The Saudi King uses the title “Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques” ― a reference to the Saudi cities of Mecca, where every practicing Muslim must travel once in their lifetime, and Medina ― in every official document.
The monarchy’s most important friends, notably the U.S., justify the relationship by referencing its authority in the Muslim-majority world. Around the region, the idea of natural Saudi leadership of the “Ummah” ― the global Islamic community ― carries weight among thousands of politicians and generals, oligarchs and day laborers. It doesn’t hurt that the Saudis’ oil wealth helps them buy support, but money is something many ambitious nations, from America to neighbors like the United Arab Emirates or Turkey, can offer. A connection to the divine isn’t.
The link in the international imagination between the modern kingdom and the preachings that began there 1,400 years ago is so strong that even Islam’s loudest critics take note ― and advantage. When Donald Trump lies about Saudi treatment of gay men in an attack on Hillary Clinton or when Islamophobe activist Pamela Geller publicizes Saudi excesses (inevitably inaccurately) to suggest that the way the kingdom operates is how Muslims want the world to run, they know they’re using one hardline regime to fear-monger about all of contemporary Islam and they know the tactic works.
But Saudi Arabia’s mantle is under threat. With more Muslims sharing particular experiences of their faith, their goals and their identities, the kingdom’s generalizations and claims to broad authority are becoming weaker. The internet’s made that easier in even the most hidebound Islamic societies. And in the West, years of activism have successfully pushed institutions to better represent younger Muslim communities, like immigrants or second and third-generation Americans. That’s something Netflix considered in offering a major platform to Minhaj ― “a person who relishes and catalogs the cultural specificity of his life,” as a recent vivid profile of him put it ― in the first place. A California-born child of Indian Muslims, Minhaj melded general American concerns about Saudi Arabia ― what it means for it be a close U.S. partner, what it’s doing to civilians in Yemen and independent voices at home ― with a particular discomfort for his own community.
“As Muslims, we have to pray toward Mecca,” he said in the Netflix episode. “We access God through Saudi Arabia, a country which I feel does not represent our values.”
It’s a sentence many Muslims wary of the austere Saudi state-sponsored interpretation of Islam ― and its influence in other Muslim-majority societies, from Southeast Asia to North Africa ― would nod their heads to, even if official politics, clerical circles and Muslims’ desire to visit the holy sites in the kingdom (something Minhaj has done) sustain a public posture of respect.
Sensing what’s coming and how it could challenge their regime’s critical coziness with Western patrons, top Saudis are already trying to maintain their comfortable status quo. That’s the driver behind efforts like Saudi media’s smearing in recent months of Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), the first Muslim women elected to the U.S. Congress.
“These regimes have always benefited from the false choice they present to policymakers in the West — in Muslim countries, they say, extremists are the only alternative to dictators,” journalist Ola Salem wrote. “That argument is eloquently undermined by American politicians who share those regimes’ religion, but not their cynicism about democracy.”
Such figures have independent knowledge and thoughts on the Muslim-majority world, she noted ― they’re less likely to buy whatever the Saudi lobby in Washington is selling, such as panic about the kingdom’s regional rival, Iran.
While the episode ban remains in place, Minhaj’s quick viral response to the kingdom shows that the Muslims who’ve fought stereotypes, racism and skepticism on top of all the other challenges to entering public life increasingly are unlikely to be cowed by Riyadh.
“I can’t speak for all American Muslims but what I can tell you is... it is a stain on the perception of Islam and Muslims,” Abdul El Sayed, a young Democrat who most recently sought the party’s gubernatorial nomination in Michigan, said of the kingdom. One of a growing group of Muslim Americans who are making waves in left-wing politics, he said a tougher U.S. stance toward the Saudis would serve a range of progressive ideals: rejecting the regime’s human rights violations and regressive interpretation of Islam, and challenging a key player in the global oil market.
Saudi leaders now have to figure out how to handle and respond to these louder and louder voices. They might seek advice from an increasingly close friend in a parallel situation: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who despite Israel’s status in Jewish theology and history has aligned himself with right-wing leaders in Europe and the U.S. whose political bases include known anti-Semites. Netanyahu’s approach, described by his supporters as a way to better protect his nation, helps these right-wing movements fight claims of prejudice ― much as the Saudi reluctance to criticize Trump’s Muslim-focused travel ban did for the U.S. administration. Meanwhile, the fighting within the larger Jewish community over Israel’s direction only becomes more heated.
Whatever the Saudis choose, they can’t ignore the growing conversation.
“I think it’s incumbent on all Americans to stand up and say enough is enough: We are not going to be part of empowering a despot who murdered his own citizen,” El Sayed said. “I can think of nothing more American than that.”

Saudi woman who 'fled abusive family' fears she will be killed if she returns as she is held at Bangkok airport

A Saudi woman held at Bangkok airport said she would be killed if she was repatriated by Thai immigration officials, who confirmed the 18-year-old was denied entry to the country on Sunday.
The incident comes against the backdrop of intense scrutiny on Saudi Arabia over its investigation and handling of the shocking murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year, which has renewed criticism of the kingdom's rights record.
Rahaf Mohammed M Alqunun told AFP she was stopped by Saudi and Kuwaiti officials when she arrived in Suvarnabhumi airport and her travel document was forcibly taken from her, a claim backed by Human Rights Watch.
"They took my passport," she told AFP, adding that her male guardian had reported her for traveling "without his permission".
Rahaf said she was trying to flee her family, who subjected her to physical and psychological abuse.
"My family is strict and locked me in a room for six months just for cutting my hair," she said, adding that she is certain she will be imprisoned if she is sent back.
"I'm sure 100 percent they will kill me as soon as I get out of the Saudi jail," she said, adding that she was "scared" and "losing hope".
Rahaf was stopped from entering Thailand when she flew in from Kuwait on Sunday, Thailand's immigration chief Surachate Hakparn told AFP.
"She had no further documents such as return ticket or money," he said, adding that Rahaf was currently in an airport hotel.
"She ran away from her family to avoid marriage and she is concerned she may be in trouble returning to Saudi Arabia. We sent officials to take care of her now," he said.
He added that Thai authorities had contacted the "Saudi Arabia embassy to coordinate".
But Rahaf disputed his account, saying that she was only in transit to seek asylum in Australia, where she claimed to have a visa, and was accosted by Saudi and Kuwaiti embassy representatives when she deplaned in Suvarnabhumi airport.
She took to Twitter to plead her case, livestreaming a video where she spoke about how her father had told Saudi embassy officials she was a "psychiatric patient" who had to be returned.
Human Rights Watch Asia deputy director Phil Robertson slammed the Thai authorities and urged the UN refugee agency to help the teenager.
"What country allows diplomats to wander around the closed section of the airport and seize the passports of the passengers?" he said, adding that there is "impunity" within the family unit in Saudi Arabia to abuse women.
Immigration head Surachate said Rahaf would be sent back to Saudi Arabia by Monday morning.
"It's a family problem," he said of the case.
The ultra-conservative kingdom has long been criticised for imposing some of the world's toughest restrictions on women.
That includes a guardianship system that allows men to exercise arbitrary authority to make decisions on behalf of their female relatives.
If punished for "moral" crimes, they could become victims of further violence in "honour killings" at the hands of their families, activists say.

Saudi Woman Who Tried to Flee Family Says, ‘They Will Kill Me’

    A young Saudi woman who wanted to assert her independence slipped away from her family during a holiday in Kuwait last week and boarded a plane for Thailand.
    Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, said that her family was abusive and that she hoped to seek asylum in Australia.
    But when she got off the plane in Bangkok, she said, a man was waiting, her name written on a placard. He said he would help her get a Thai visa, and disappeared with her passport.
    Instead, Ms. Alqunun said, the man came back with other men she believes were Thai security officers and a representative of Kuwait Airlines. They said that her family had filed a missing persons report about her — and that she had to return to Kuwait on a flight late Monday morning.
    Ms. Alqunun said she feared for her life if she is forced to go back to her family.
    “They will kill me,” she said by telephone Sunday evening from a hotel at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, where she was being kept overnight. “I am detained,” Ms. Alqunun said. “I can’t even go out of the hotel.”
    Human rights advocates urged the Thai government to allow Ms. Alqunun to continue on her journey to Australia or to seek asylum in Thailand. They called on the United Nations Refugee Agency to help her.
    “Saudi women fleeing their families can face severe violence from relatives, deprivation of liberty, and other serious harm if returned against their will,” said Michael Page, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Thai authorities should immediately halt any deportation.”
    Thailand has a history of sending refugees back to autocratic countries, including China, Pakistan and Turkey, said the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, Phil Robertson.
    In November, the Thai authorities arrested a former Bahrain soccer player, Hakeem al-Araibi, who had been granted refugee status in Australia after speaking out against a powerful Bahraini soccer official.
    Mr. Araibi had come to Thailand for his honeymoon but was stopped at the same Bangkok airport as Ms. Alqunun after Bahrain sought his arrest through Interpol. He remains in custody, awaiting a decision on Bahrain’s extradition request. “Basically, Thailand is open for business sending refugees and asylum seekers back to their authoritarian governments,” Mr. Robertson said. In the interview, Ms. Alqunun described a life of unrelenting abuse at the hands of her family, who live in the city of Hail, in northern Saudi Arabia. She said she was once locked in a room for six months because she had cut her hair in a way that her family did not approve of. And she said her family used to beat her, mostly her brother. Saudi Arabia, Ms. Alqunun said, is “like a prison.”
    “I can’t make my own decisions,” she said. “Even about my own hair I can’t make decisions.”
    Ms. Alqunun said that when she was 16, she tried to kill herself. When her family did not seek help for her, she said, she started planning her escape.
    Even at age 18, though, Ms. Alqunun could not simply leave Saudi Arabia on her own. Women in the kingdom need the approval of a “male guardian” to travel, usually a father, husband or even a son.
    Her chance for freedom came on Wednesday, when her family took a trip to Kuwait, which does not have the same restrictions on women. On Saturday, she caught the plane to Thailand, where she had reserved a hotel and an outbound flight.
    Her plan was to stay there until she could leave for Australia, where she was supposed to meet a woman she described as “a Saudi refugee” who would help her.
    Maj. Gen. Surachate Hakparn, the head of Thailand’s immigration agency, said Ms. Alqunun had been denied a visa to enter Thailand because she did not have sufficient money. She also lacked the necessary documents to gain entry to the country or continue on to Australia, he said.
    “She left her original country due to a family issue and came to Thailand,” General Hakparn said in an interview. “She’s safe. Her passport wasn’t confiscated.”
    He said Ms. Alqunun would be put on the flight back to Kuwait accompanied by Thai immigration officers.
    Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to Bangkok, Abdul-Ilah al-Shuaibi, issued a statement asserting that Ms. Alqunun had been arrested at the airport for violating Thai laws, which was not the case. He said the embassy did not have the authority to stop her at the airport. In a similar case in 2017, a Saudi woman, Dina Ali Lasloom, was forced to return to her family in Saudi Arabia while in transit in the Philippines on her way to Australia.
    Ms. Alqunun said it appeared that the Saudis and Thai officials were working together. At one point, she said, she was required to sign documents written in Thai that she did not understand. She said her passport had been returned to her but was later taken again and handed over to Kuwait Airways to help ensure that she boarded her return flight.
    If she is returned to Saudi Arabia, Ms. Alqunun could face criminal charges of parental disobedience or harming the reputation of the kingdom, Human Rights Watch said.
    Saudi Arabian men consider themselves guardians of their families’ honor and often punish family members, especially girls and women, who are said to have brought dishonor on the family. In extreme cases, the family members are killed. Ms. Alqunun said she was particularly concerned about what her family might do to her because in describing her plight on Twitter, she renounced religion. “They will kill me because I fled and because I announced my atheism,” she said. “They wanted me to pray and to wear a veil, and I didn’t want to.”
    Ms. Alqunun posted reports and videos on Twitter in a bid to build support. “I’m the girl who run away from Kuwait to Thailand,” she wrote in one post in English. “I’m in real danger because the Saudi embassy trying to forcing me to go back to Saudi Arabia, while I’m at the airport waiting for my second flight.” On Sunday, she was still hoping to make it to Australia.
    “I want to be protected in a country that will give me my rights,” she said, “and allow me to live a normal life.”

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    VIDEO - #PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto's Media Talk in #Lahore - 06 Jan 2019

    #Pakistan - #PPP - Incarcerate my entire family but I won’t compromise on Constitution: Bilawal

    Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto on Sunday said that the party will not compromise on the Constitution and the 18th Amendment, even if his whole family is put in jail.

    Speaking with media, Bilawal said the “grand plan” behind the joint investigation team in the fake accounts case is to eventually force PPP to withdraw support for the historic amendment.
    Bilawal said that the aim behind this is political engineering.
    “They want to use courts for political engineering. If I expose them, their politics of vendetta, and their grand plan against 18th amendment, our opponents start complaining…,” he said.
    Responding to a question as to why PPP fails to answer fake accounts accusations against party co-chairman Zardari, Bilawal said that since it is a legal matter PPP is continuing to respond in courts. “We are responding to [only] political attacks in media.”
    He further said Zardari, who was a former president, has submitted his reply before the JIT too but that its report failed to include it, adding that efforts are being made to not only misguide masses but also courts.
    Slamming the government, Bilawal said that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf is aware that it can’t win election without rigging so it is trying to get rid of opponents through backdoor.
    Commenting on efforts to unite opposition, he said that PPP aims at doing issue-based politics and intends to unite opposition on such issues.
    "I don't think efforts are being made at this time for a grand alliance," he added.

    #Pakistan - Who controls the exit list

    By Shahzada Irfan Ahmed / Shehryar Warraich

    The inclusion of 172 names has exposed the many anomalies in the ECL law and procedure which is considered biased, discriminatory and violation of the constitutional and human rights of Pakistani citizens.
    The recent inclusion of 172 names in the Exit Control List (ECL) on the insistence of a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) looking into some fake accounts cases has generated intense heat and led to criticism from different quarters. This was done in one go and reportedly without stating sufficient reason for every individual in the list.
    The Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) took notice and asked the federal government to review this decision, terming it akin to overstepping the legal ambit. He questioned the federal government as to how the name of the Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah, who was heading the second biggest province of the country, could be put on the same list. Besides, the inclusion of these names just on the basis of a report was also questioned.
    The said action by the court has, in fact, given a stimulus to an already initiated debate on how to check the discretionary powers of the federal government or the interior ministry to put people’s name on the ECL. The law still followed in this respect is The Exit From Pakistan (Control) Ordinance 1981, promulgated by General Ziaul Haq around 38 years ago.
    The law is termed oppressive, that is why the sitting Senate Committee on Interior has suggested some amendments in it so that it cannot be used to target political and other opponents.
    Though the 1981 Ordinance has remained intact so far, some procedural changes in rules were made in the past. For example, during the term of former interior minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the interior minister was allowed to put names of terrorists, members of proscribed organisations and those requested by security organisations, on the ECL. Later on, the minister changed the policy and established a committee under the interior ministry to decide whether a person’s name should be placed on ECL or not.
    However, during the term of his successor Ahsan Iqbal, a new procedure was adopted according to which the federal cabinet undertook up the task of putting names on the ECL. It is assumed it was also in the light of an SCP order in 2016 that the outgoing PML-N government had abolished the committee of the interior ministry and withdrawn its powers.
    Despite such attempts, it is still believed by many that the procedure followed to put people’s names on the ECL is biased, discriminatory, without any judicial oversight and is violative of the constitutional and human rights of citizens.
    Former Interior Minister Faisal Saleh Hayat calls these steps cosmetic and says the democratic forces should have brought foundational changes in the ECL structure. “Primarily, the 1981 ordinance was promulgated with a declared purpose to counter criminals and anti-state elements. However, General Ziaul Haq used it to smear politicians.”
    “If, while making an order under sub-section (1) it appears to the Federal Government that it will not be in the public interest to specify the ground on which the order is proposed to be made, it shall not be necessary for the Federal Government to specify such grounds.”
    “Unfortunately, the same method was adopted by successive governments, though they introduced some changes in the procedures,” he adds.
    Hayat sees inclusion of 172 names in ECL on somebody’s whims. “The government has violated the fundamental rights of the citizens by curtailing their right of mobility just on the basis of suspicion.”
    Under the 1981 Ordinance, under Article 2, sub-section 3 of this law, it is not necessary for the federal government to share the reason(s) why it is putting a person’s name on the ECL. The said clause states: “If, while making an order under sub-section (1) it appears to the Federal Government that it will not be in the public interest to specify the ground on which the order is proposed to be made, it shall not be necessary for the Federal Government to specify such grounds.”
    The Senate Committee on Interior has recommended doing away with this clause and making it compulsory to give reason why a name has been put on the ECL. Its other recommendations include informing the affected individuals within 24 hours about their names being put on the ECL, giving them the right to file a review of the decision within 15 days, and if there is no decision on the review in this time, the names should be removed immediately from the list.
    Former Secretary Supreme Court Bar Aftab Bajwa, however, is in favour of the 1981 Ordinance, but wants to make an addition. He thinks that apart from Interior Ministry, security agencies, district heads of civil administration and law enforcing agencies, “judges [of high courts] should have this authority to put anybody’s name on the ECL if they have solid reasons to do so”.
    He is of the view that putting 172 people on the ECL by the federal cabinet is as per the law of the land. That is why, he says, “even the honourable CJP does not have the right to revoke such a decision unless a bench of at least three judges hears the case and asks to remove the names from the ECL”. For this very reason, Bajwa says, the CJP referred the case to the federal cabinet for review.
    Bajwa shares that “different countries have laws on not permitting any person to go abroad for reasons like involvement in corruption, misuse of power, causing loss to government’s funds or property; economic crimes, acts of terrorism or involvement in conspiracies in these areas, heinous crimes, a threat to national security and so on”. Besides, probationers and parolees are prohibited from leaving without the permission of concerned officers
    In India, there have been incidents where courts have asked the accused to submit passports at the time of bail. In the UK, the passport office takes such a step if there is a court order to do so.
    Advocate Sardar Asif Ali Sial says no doubt states have such laws and there is nothing wrong with these if they follow certain principles like those mentioned in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). “The ICCPR,” he says, “permits states to place restrictions on people’s right to leave provided these are lawful, imposed with the objective to maintain public order and meant to protect public health or morals or the rights and freedoms of others.
    “It has also been made clear that such restrictions must be imposed according to a precise criteria and those charged with their execution must not have any discretionary powers. This is what’s exactly needed in our country.”

    PERSPECTIVES - Why I defended Asia Bibi in #Pakistan

    Asia Bibi spent Christmas in a safe house in Islamabad, Pakistan. I hope that’s the last time my client, a Catholic, must spend the holiday unable to live and worship in freedom.
    Two months ago, a three- justice panel of the Pakistani Supreme Court overturned her 2010 conviction and death sentence for blaspheming.
    Protests by religious hardliners over the possibility that she would be allowed to leave Pakistan prompted the government to bar her, at least temporarily, from departing.
    Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government appears determined to ensure the safety of Asia and her husband, Ashiq Masih, and the couple’s two daughters, until another country agrees to take them in. Canada is their most likely destination. Asia was still in prison, not in the courtroom, when the decision was handed down on October 31. Enraged protesters poured into the streets in several Pakistani cities.
    Police escorted me from the courthouse, and I spent three days in hiding, aided by friends in the diplomatic community, before I boarded a flight for the Netherlands still wearing my Pakistani lawyer’s uniform of a black suit and white shirt.
    I had insisted I wouldn’t leave without Asia, but my friends swore they would take good care of her. It was my life they feared for at that moment.
    My last meeting with Asia had taken place on October 10 at the women’s prison in Multan, about 400 kilometres from my home in the eastern city of Lahore, where she had been incarcerated for the past five years.
    Protests by religious hardliners over the possibility that she would be allowed to leave Pakistan prompted the government to bar her, at least temporarily, from departing.
    Death row
    Contrary to reports of her terrible treatment in prison, Asia seemed to have found a quiet life of sisterhood with her guards, who allowed her a television set and more time outside her cell than usually granted to death-row inmates.
    The relatively benign treatment might have resulted from pressure by Western governments, but I sensed it was because the guards recognised Asia’s bravery and human spirit.
    Asia is not a sophisticated person. She was born 47 years ago to a poor family in a dusty farming village in the Punjab province and never sat in a classroom for a single day of her life.
    But she was helped by her strong religious faith when she ran afoul of blasphemy laws often exploited by religious extremists and ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.
    She was working on a berry farm in June 2009 with several Muslim women when a dispute broke out because Asia had filled a jug of water for her co- workers.
    The women refused to drink water from a utensil touched by a choorhi, a derogatory word for a Christian. Apparently incensed that a lowly Christian woman had argued with them, two of the women who later appeared as witnesses in the case said Asia had insulted the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) and the Quran.
    Local clerics began denouncing her. An enraged mob beat her and dragged her to a police station, saying she had confessed to blasphemy.
    Asia was sentenced to death by a district court in 2010. She had legal representation in name only, because competent lawyers often fear to take on blasphemy cases.
    At least 70 people, including defendants, lawyers and judges, have been killed by vigilantes or lynch mobs since blasphemy laws were strengthened in the 1980s under the military dictator Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq.
    Judges bullied
    A lawyers group that offers free legal advice to complainants is known to pack courtrooms with clerics and raucous supporters who try to bully judges into handing out convictions.
    In 2011, Salman Taseer, the prominent governor of Punjab and a critic of the blasphemy laws who had visited Asia in prison and promised to lobby for her pardon, was assassinated by one of his own bodyguards.
    A few months later, Shahbaz Bhatti, a Christian and a Cabinet minister for minorities who had also spoken up for Asia, was murdered. I took on Asia’s case in 2014.
    I’m a lawyer, and I do not want to see anyone falsely convicted of a crime, much less hanged for it.
    The Supreme Court granted a petition to appeal her case, and in 2015 the death sentence was suspended. In October, I was notified that the final appeal would be heard. The justices’ ruling for Asia, citing insufficient evidence, took great courage.
    I think I will have to stay away from Pakistan for at least two years before it will be safe to return. Until then, I will live with friends in the Netherlands or with my daughter in Britain. But I yearn to return home to continue defending victims of the blasphemy laws.
    Asia had rarely ventured far from her village before being imprisoned, so beginning a new life in another country would be a challenge for her.
    But she has shown remarkable strength throughout this ordeal, and I am confident that she will succeed.

    #Pakistan - Benazir entrusted me with the nation's responsibility: Zardari

    Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) Co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari claimed on Sunday that Benazir Bhutto entrusted him with the responsibility of the nation and that former prime minister’s government was ‘taken away’ from her.
    Addressing the media in Badin, he said that PPP supporters voted them into the power because they trusted them. He further reassured the workers that PPP’s war against the government shall continue. Zardari further commented that PPP always accounts for low socio-economic groups first. “We aren’t scared no matter how many cases are hashed against us,” the PPP stalwart said.
    Addressing the rally, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah promised the nation to continue serving. “The conspiracies hatched by the government against the PPP shall fail,” he said.
    On January 5, party co-chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari reiterated that the July 25 general elections were rigged. He said that “who will hold accountable the manipulators who have stolen the votes of people”.

    #Pakistan - 'Fake accounts JIT being used as a tool for political victimisation': Zardari replies to probe report in SC

     Haseeb Bhatti

    Former president Asif Ali Zardari on Sunday denied all the claims made about the Zardari Group in a joint investigation team (JIT) report submitted to the Supreme Court in an ongoing case pertaining to alleged money laundering of billions of rupees through fake bank accounts.

    The apex court last year took suo motu notice of a delay into a 2015 Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) probe into the fake bank accounts. Several bigwigs, including Zardari, his sister Faryal Talpur, former president of Summit Bank Hussain Lawai and Omni Group's Anwar Majeed, have been nominated in the case. Property tycoon Malik Riaz, his son-in-law Zain, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah and PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari have also been included in the probe.
    The fresh JIT probing the matter told the SC earlier that a close nexus had been found between a troika of the Zardari Group, Omni Group and Bahria Town. The JIT report revealed that at least 29 bank accounts identified as fake had been used for money laundering of Rs42 billion.
    The two groups, the JIT alleged in its fresh report, had amassed assets through misappropriation of loans, government funds, kickbacks and proceeds of crime.
    The top court subsequently ordered the Zardari Group, Omni Group, Bahria Town, Faryal Talpur and others, including contractors/builders, to file their comments on the JIT report.
    In a 17-page-long written reply submitted in the SC today, former president Zardari said that he had not done anything wrong.
    "The statements recorded by witnesses and the documents [accompanying them] were not provided to us," the reply stated.
    "The JIT is being used as a means for political victimisation," it said, adding that to accuse someone without showing them the evidence is against Article 10A of the Constitution (Right to a fair trial).In his reply, the PPP co-chairman requested the court to dismiss the JIT's reports, contending that the leaking of the second JIT report prior to its submission in court is against the sanctity of the court.The reply also argued that the JIT is being used as an instrument by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government to humiliate Zardari and Talpur.According to the reply, the JIT does not have the right to suggest that the matter should be sent to the National Accountability Bureau, and if the court orders the move upon the JIT's suggestion, it will also be against Article 10A.
    The JIT report
    In the fresh report, the JIT contended that prima facie evidence brought to the record during investigations clearly indicated that the Zardari and Omni groups, which started with a paid-up capital of Rs600 in 1981 and Rs6,000 in 2001, respectively, had amassed assets through misappropriation of loans, government funds, kickbacks and proceeds of crime.The evidence suggested, it said, that the groups had a history of laundering their illegal proceeds abroad through illegal channels of Hundi and Hawala.The report highlighted that the International Business and Shopping Centre (IBSC) project identified by the JIT to be a “Benami” of Asif Zardari held in the name of his then front man Iqbal Memon (International Builders) was frozen in 1998. Later when Iqbal Memon got exposed and left the country for Canada, the property changed hands in 2000 through AR Developers of Nasir Jamal and ultimately came back in 2008 to be held by Zardari, this time through Park Lane Pvt Ltd.The report requested the apex court to order freezing of the assets of both groups held through different subsidiary and front companies and those held in the name of their directors, pending the final adjudication by the accountability courts, lest the "money laundering cartel" shift its assets abroad.
    In its first report, the JIT had mentioned a transfer of Rs357 million from 12 fake accounts into the accounts of Ms Parthenon. It transpired that Ms Parthenon was a front company of M/s Park Lane since it had no independent business of its own when it entered into a joint venture with Park Lane.
    Similarly, Plots C5 and 6, Clifton, Karachi, where Bahria Icon Towers has been constructed, were identified and frozen in 1998 as "Benami" of Asif Zardari held in the name of Galaxy Construction owned by his then front man Saleem Akhter. This property again come back to be held by Zardari through Galaxy Construction owned by his present frontman Dr Dinshaw Hoshang Ankleseria.
    The JIT had recommended that the apex court should also order the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan not to change the ownership through the change of directors of any of the companies holding the assets in question.
    The report also mentioned different assets owned by the Zardari Group like Opal 225 Saddar, Karachi, IBSC Saddar of Park Lane, different farm houses in Tando Allahyar and Nawabshah, a set of some houses in Clifton called Bilawal House, agricultural land, different properties owned by Faryal Talpur, different vehicles of Asif Zardari that belonged to Tosha Khana, including bullet proof vehicles BMW 760, Lexus 570 and Mitsubishi SUV, and assets in foreign countries known to be held by Asif Zardari and Faryal Talpur.
    Likewise the assets owned by the Omni Group and its directors included 16 sugar mills in different districts of Sindh, 19 power generation companies, agriculture farms, real estate and agriculture land, vehicles and bank accounts, the report said.