Scandal-hit Pakistan finance minister takes sick leave

Pakistan’s finance minister Ishaq Dar came under the radar of an inquiry sparked by the Panama Papers leak last year which centered on discrepancies between the income of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his lavish lifestyle. (Reuters)
Updated 23 November 2017
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Scandal-hit Pakistan finance minister takes sick leave

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s finance minister Ishaq Dar has gone on indefinite medical leave amid an ongoing corruption scandal, piling more pressure on the beleaguered government ahead of elections due next year.
Dar came under the radar of an inquiry sparked by the Panama Papers leak last year which centered on discrepancies between the income of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his lavish lifestyle, particularly his family properties in London.
A finance ministry official confirmed to AFP Thursday that Dar has applied for and been granted the leave.
Local reports have said he is suffering from a heart condition. Images showing him on a hospital bed in the UK were published in local media earlier this month.
“He has not resigned from his job, nor anybody else has been appointed as finance minister,” the official said on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak to media.
The Supreme Court ousted Sharif over the investigation this summer, and an accountability court is now trying him on charges that could see him thrown in jail.
The scandal has left his ruling Pakistan Muslim League under pressure ahead of general elections due to be held sometime next year, with the allegations against Dar adding to the heat.
The Supreme Court has also reopened a 17-year-old case against Sharif in which Dar admitted to money laundering for him. He later claimed that he made the confession under duress by the military government of General Pervez Musharraf.
Analyst Hasan Askari said the prime minister can grant leave to a minister, who technically retains his post, status and privileges during the period of absence.
“It is in fact a face-saving formula that they have devised, otherwise he deserved to be knocked out anyhow,” Askari said, referring to the corruption allegations.
The government in a statement late Wednesday said that GDP growth of 5.3 percent in the last fiscal year was the highest in ten years, and predicted it was on track to hit or even surpass 6.0 percent this year.
It also noted an increase in the tax-to-GDP ratio and a decrease in the fiscal deficit.
A recent World Bank report said Pakistan’s economy continues to grow, but cautioned that vulnerabilities were beginning to emerge, with its international reserves under stress due to a high and widening trade deficit, among other challenges.


Microsoft uncovers more Russian attacks ahead of midterms

Updated 20 min 3 sec ago
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Microsoft uncovers more Russian attacks ahead of midterms

  • The hacking attempts mirror similar Russian attacks ahead of the 2016 election
  • The company is offering free cybersecurity protection to all US political candidates, campaigns and other political organizations

Microsoft said Tuesday it has uncovered new Russian hacking attempts targeting US political groups ahead of the midterm elections.
The company said that a hacking group tied to the Russian government created fake Internet domains that appeared to spoof two American conservative organizations: the Hudson Institute and the International Republican Institute. Three other fake domains were designed to look as if they belonged to the US Senate.
Microsoft didn’t offer any further description of the fake sites.
The revelation came just weeks after a similar Microsoft discovery led Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who is running for re-election, to reveal that Russian hackers tried unsuccessfully to infiltrate her Senate computer network.
The hacking attempts mirror similar Russian attacks ahead of the 2016 election, which US intelligence officials have said were focused on helping to elect Republican Donald Trump to the presidency by hurting his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton.
This time, more than helping one political party over another, “this activity is most fundamentally focused on disrupting democracy,” Brad Smith, Microsoft’s president and chief legal officer, said in an interview this week.
Smith said there is no sign the hackers were successful in persuading anyone to click on the fake websites, which could have exposed a target victim to computer infiltration, hidden surveillance and data theft. Both conservative think tanks said they have tried to be vigilant about “spear-phishing” email attacks because their global pro-democracy work has frequently drawn the ire of authoritarian governments.
“We’re glad that our work is attracting the attention of bad actors,” said Hudson Institute spokesman David Tell. “It means we’re having an effect, presumably.”
The International Republican Institute is led by a board that includes six Republican senators, and one prominent Russia critic and Senate hopeful, Mitt Romney, who is running for a Utah seat this fall.
Microsoft calls the hacking group Strontium; others call it Fancy Bear or APT28. An indictment from US special counsel Robert Mueller has tied it to Russian’s main intelligence agency, known as the GRU, and to the 2016 email hacking of both the Democratic National Committee and the Clinton campaign.
“We have no doubt in our minds” who is responsible, Smith said.
Microsoft has waged a legal battle with Strontium since suing it in a Virginia federal court in summer 2016. The company obtained court approval last year allowing it to seize certain fake domains created by the group. It has so far used the courts to shut down 84 fake websites created by the group, including the most recent six announced Tuesday.
Microsoft has argued in court that by setting up fake but realistic-looking domains, the hackers were misusing Microsoft trademarks and services to hack into targeted computer networks, install malware and steal sensitive emails and other data.
Smith also announced Tuesday that the company is offering free cybersecurity protection to all US political candidates, campaigns and other political organizations, at least so long as they’re already using Microsoft’s Office 365 productivity software. Facebook and Google have also promoted similar tools to combat campaign interference.