Monday, May 13, 2019

As Asia Bibi finds refuge in Canada, a look at the Pakistani laws that made her life hell


Pakistani Christian Asia Bibi was sentenced to death in 2010 for blasphemy. The Supreme Court overturned it in 2018, but she still faced death threats.

Asia Noreen, a Pakistani Christian woman who spent eight years in prison after being convicted under the country’s blasphemy laws, has left the country and reached Canada on 8 May to join her family. Popularly known as Asia Bibi, her conviction was overturned last year by Pakistan’s Supreme Court.
Asia was convicted in 2010, after she was accused of insulting Prophet Muhammad during a quarrel with her neighbours. For the next eight years, Asia suffered personal indignities, polarised Pakistan and started a vigorous debate about the existence, application, and abuse of the country’s blasphemy laws.
ThePrint takes a look at the state of these laws in Pakistan, and Asia Bibi’s persecution.

The case against Asia Bibi

In 2009, Asia was charged under Section 295C of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws. This followed an altercation between Asia and other women working in the fields at Ittanwala, near Lahore.
Reports said after a long day’s work, Asia took a cup of water from a bucket, and the other woman found this unacceptable, as this had made the bucket “impure”.
According to the prosecutors, an argument ensued and Asia allegedly abused Prophet Muhammad. Later, she was beaten up by a crowd, during which she reportedly confessed to blasphemy, according to her accusers. The police arrested her right away.
In 2010, a trial court at Sheikhupura convicted her of blasphemy and sentenced her to death under Section 295C. The Lahore High Court upheld the decision in 2014. However, an appeal was registered against the verdict in Pakistan’s Supreme Court the same year.
The Supreme Court stayed the death penalty in 2015 for the duration of the trial. Finally, on 31 October 2018, nine years after her arrest, the top court overturned Asia’s conviction.
The judges noted in their judgment: “It is ironical that in the Arabic language the appellant’s name Asia means ‘sinful’, but in the circumstances of the present case she appears to be a person, in the words of Shakespeare’s King Lear, ‘more sinned against than sinning’.”

Protests and death threats

But Asia’s troubles did not end there. There were mass demonstrations and protests across Pakistan against the Supreme Court’s judgment, led by the extremist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) — roads were blocked in major cities and the state of Punjab reported destroyed property worth US$1.8 million (26 crore Pakistani rupees).
Death threats were made to Asia and her family. The case received widespread coverage in the international media too, with Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leading efforts to ensure her security.
The Imran Khan government formed in August 2018 caved into pressure and struck a deal with the TLP and its leader Khadim Hussain Rizvi: All the arrested protestors were to be released and the government would file a review petition against the Asia acquittal verdict.
The Supreme Court took up the review petition in January this year, where it rejected the petition and upheld Asia’s acquittal. A few months later, Asia has made her way to an undisclosed location in Canada, where her family had already been granted asylum by the Justin Trudeau government.

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan

Pakistan’s blasphemy laws date back to colonial times. In a comprehensive paper, academic and journalist Raza Rumi provides an overview: They were enacted in 1860 and the British justified them from an entirely colonial perspective.
“[T]here is perhaps no country [other than India] in which the government has so much to apprehend from religious excitement among the people,” read Chapter XV of the British-era Indian Penal Code.
These laws provided protections to all religions; for someone to be convicted, their intent had to be proven, and the maximum punishment amounted to one or two years in prison.
After Partition in 1947, Pakistan adopted these laws as they were, and they remained broadly unchanged, until General Zia-ul-Haq came to power in 1977.
Under Zia’s rule, five stringent sections (295B, 295C, 298A, 298B and 298C) were added to Pakistan’s blasphemy laws between 1980 and 1986.
Section 295C, which prohibits people from speaking against Prophet Mohammad, prescribes a mandatory death penalty for the convicted.
Section 298 A sanctions “derogatory remarks against holy personages”, and has been used to persecute Shias. The most damning additions were Section 298 B & C, which essentially prevented the Ahmadiyya community from calling themselves Muslims.
The effect of these additions can be seen in the rise in blasphemy cases. According to a report by Centre for Research and Security Studies (CRSS), between 1957 and 1986, only eight people were accused of blasphemy, whereas between 1987 and 2012, the number of accused went up to 426.
A graver consequence have been the dozens of incidents of lynching following the additions. According to the CRSS, 60 people have been “killed outside the Pakistani justice system” since 1990.

#Pakistan - Opposition rejects govt’s $6bn bailout deal with #IMF - #PTIMF

The two main opposition parties in the National Assembly, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), on Monday rejected the government’s bailout deal with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
PPP leader Nafisa Shah said that those claiming to bring about change had only given inflation to the people. She said that the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government had reached a deal with the IMF without taking anyone into confidence.
Meanwhile, PML-N leader Ahsan Iqbal said that the opposition would jointly react to the government policies on the occasion of budget announcement in the National Assembly (NA). PML-N spokesperson Marriyum Aurangzeb said that Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan had shown his ineligibility by handing over the country to the IMF for only $6 billion. The conditions for bailout package would bring poverty, inflation and unemployment, she added.
Earlier on Sunday, Pakistan had reached an accord with the IMF for a three-year, $6 billion bailout package aimed at shoring up fragile public finances and strengthening a slowing economy. The deal, which still needs approval by the IMF board in Washington, would be the 13th such bailout since late 1980s. “Pakistan is facing a challenging economic environment, with lacklustre growth, elevated inflation, high indebtedness and a weak external position,” the IMF said in a statement, outlining the framework deal. The IMF forecasts Pakistan’s economic growth slowing to 2.9% this fiscal year from 5.2% in 2018, while the central bank has cut its estimate to between 3.5% and 4%.

#Pakistan - #PTIMF - He doesn’t know

By Najam Sethi

Acheeky reporter asked Imran Khan the other day whether it was easier to lead the opposition than to run government. Pat came the reply: “Government”. The Prime Minister couldn’t be more wrong. As he stumbles from one stupid decision to another, he would be advised to heed the wise old man with a leaky umbrella: If you know that you don’t know, you can learn and become a wise man; but if you don’t know that you don’t know, you’re a fool who will court disaster.
It has taken Imran Khan over nine months of U-Turns to finally decide that Pakistan cannot do without an IMF bailout plan. In the process, he has thrown Asad Umar overboard, his avowed right hand finance minister, and sacked Tariq Bajwa, Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, whose three-year constitutional term still had a year to run. The irony is that both home spun gentlemen were striving to conclude a realistic adjustment programme with the IMF so that the expected hardship could be spread over the populace less inequitably and more gradually. On the other hand, the two gentlemen he has imported to replace them, Hafeez Sheikh and Raza Baqir, are blue-blooded by the standards of international donor finance institutions, including the IMF, and are likely to sign on the dotted line as and when required. The irony is that the IMF has long advocated the necessity of the SBP being independent, or at least autonomous, of the Finance Ministry. Now it is rubbing its hands in glee at the effective merger of the SBP with the Ministry of Finance under two IMF-chosen “experts”.
The PM’s decision to appoint Shabbar Zaidi as Chairman FBR, even as the incumbent, Jehanzeb Khan, is still working overtime to prepare budgetary plans, is another lesson in arrogant recklessness. The Establishment Secretary’s note for approval of the cabinet says that there may be a conflict of interest in Mr Zaidi’s case and contempt of court if proper procedures and concerns for selecting someone to such a post aren’t followed. The PM didn’t like this summary and ordered it replaced with a one point note seeking approval of the appointment on a pro-bono basis. It may be recalled that in at least four judgments between them, the Supreme Court, the Islamabad High Court and the Lahore High Court have struck down earlier Prime Ministerial appointments of Chairman Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority, Tariq Sadek; Chairman FBR, Ali Arshad Hakeem; Chairman Securities and Exchange Commission, Mohammad Ali; and Chairman PEMRA Absar Alam, for failing to follow strict guidelines of selection, competition and transparency. Indeed, even Presidential appointments without due process are open to challenge in the courts, as evidenced in the case of Salman Farooqui some years ago. Bilawal Bhutto says he may challenge Baqir’s appointment. Meanwhile, the appointment of Hafeez Sheikh has already been challenged in the Peshawar High Court and there is resistance from the FBR Officers Association to Mr Zaidi’s proposed nomination. The likelihood is that either Mr Zaidi will extricate himself from this mess by withdrawing his candidature or Imran Khan will ride roughshod over all objections and appoint him, only to face legal challenges in due course.
The recent cabinet changes also confirm the fact that Imran Khan is clueless about how to pick and choose a successful team. Why Usman Buzdar continues to be Punjab CM remains a mystery that has stricken half of Pakistan. Why Fawad Chaudhry, who was an effective pain in the opposition’s neck, was shunted to the Ministry of Science (“Hubble telescope was put into orbit by Suparco” will remain a priceless gem for a long time) and replaced by Firdaus Awan of no particular virtue, will rankle for months to come. Why, after having kicked out Asad Umar ignominiously, the PM is now desperate to bring him back into his fold, is equally baffling. And so on.
In a meeting of the PTI parliamentary Party last Wednesday, the PM was confronted with awkward questions. Why was Asad Umar sacked? Why are blue-eyed IMF boys being imported to run the economy when everyone knows the IMF programme is going to alienate the populace and make it bitterly angry at the PTI? Why are parliamentarian legislators being shunted from ministerial positions as enjoined by the constitution and replaced with non-accountable advisors and special assistants? Does the PM have any idea of how the graph of the PTI is falling outside the PM House and why his MNAs and MPAs are unable to show their faces in their respective constituencies?
Imran Khan’s response was not surprising. I am the PM. I am answerable to the people and not you. I will take whatever decisions I think are in the people’s interest. In effect, shape up or ship out.
It didn’t occur to the “selected” PM that this applies more than ever to him rather than anyone else. He doesn’t know that he doesn’t know.

Catch 22 - The #IMF has agreed to break #Pakistan’s fall. Again

Pakistan has already borrowed from the multilateral lender as often as Argentina.
FAMILIARITY, THEY say, breeds contempt. Few countries are as familiar with the IMF as Pakistan. The over-indebted country of 200m people has obtained 21 loans from the fund, as many as Argentina. On May 12th this familiarity deepened further. The country’s government, led by Imran Khan, a former cricket star who heads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, said it had reached a deal with the IMF’s staff to borrow another $6bn over three years. The agreement now awaits formal approval from the fund’s bosses in Washington, and the support of other international lenders, including the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank.
The loan will relieve Pakistan’s dollar shortage but do little to improve the IMF’s standing in the country. In return for its money, the fund expects the government to raise tax revenues and utility prices—and to let the currency fall, if need be. That will help narrow Pakistan’s wide trade and budget deficits. But it will also curb growth and increase inflation in the short term.
The full agreement has not yet been published. But some details have been released and others leaked to the local press. Pakistan must cut its budget deficit (before debt service) to 0.6% of GDP next fiscal year (which starts in July) from the deficit of over 1.7% that the IMF expects for this year. To meet this goal, the government has reportedly promised to remove tax breaks worth about 350bn rupees ($2.5bn or 1% of GDP) next year and to raise the price of gas and electricity. It has pledged to give the central bank, the State Bank of Pakistan, more autonomy in its fight against inflation (which has increased sharply to over 8%). It will also let market forces dictate the rupee’s exchange rate, which has been devalued by over 18% against the dollar in the past year.
To ease the public’s pain, the IMF will allow the government to spend more on welfare schemes, such as a cash-transfer scheme named after Benazir Bhutto, a former prime minister who was assassinated in 2007. But her son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, who now leads her party in opposition, seems unimpressed. After the government this month appointed a former IMF official to head the country’s central bank, Mr Bhutto Zardari accused it of surrendering Pakistan’s autonomy. “How can IMF negotiate with IMF?” he asked. A cartoon in the Friday Times, a local news weekly, showed Christine Lagarde, head of the fund, sitting across the negotiating table from herself.
In truth, Mr Khan’s government tried hard—perhaps too hard—to keep its distance from the fund. Instead of agreeing a deal as soon as it came to power in August 2018, it turned for help to friendly powers instead, including Saudi Arabia (which gave $3bn and deferred a similar amount of oil payments), the United Arab Emirates ($3bn) and China, which added another $2.2bn. China is investing heavily in Pakistan’s roads, ports and power plants, building what has been called the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Some view this lending with suspicion, seeing Pakistan as a victim of China’s “debt-trap diplomacy”.
Such an assessment seems premature. CPEC spending may have contributed to the increase in Pakistan’s imports (the country’s current-account deficit exceeded 6% of GDP in the year to June 2018). But because this outflow of import spending was presumably matched by an inflow of Chinese capital, it cannot have been responsible for the dangerous dwindling of Pakistan’s foreign-currency reserves over the past year.
That was instead the result of Pakistan’s own macroeconomic muddle. The previous government pursued both an over-valued exchange rate, which was too strong for Pakistan’s beleaguered exporters, and imprudent fiscal spending, which was too strong for Pakistan’s feeble revenue-raising powers. The dollars provided by Pakistan’s allies in China and the Gulf have temporarily alleviated this problem of falling reserves. But solving it was always going to require policy reforms, which are difficult for bilateral allies to demand or monitor. Better to leave those tasks to the IMF.
Not that the IMF will find it easy. Pakistan is a regular taker of the fund’s loans but not a diligent follower of its advice. Many of the reforms it has promised in the latest agreement have been pledged repeatedly before, including widening the tax net, rationalising utility prices and respecting the central bank’s autonomy. When push comes to shove, Pakistan’s governments have been reluctant to follow through, afraid of losing the support of powerful, but lightly taxed, domestic constituencies.
For their part, the IMF’s staff have been reluctant to cut Pakistan off, for fear of the upheaval that would ensue. “Governments have tried to ‘game’ the IMF, and achieved partial success each time,” write Ehtisham Ahmad and Azizali Mohammed, two former IMF advisers, in their history of the pair’s relationship. Pakistan’s public might dislike the IMF less, if they knew how frequently their leaders disregard it.