Pakistan faces unpleasant options amid violent protests over Prophet cartoons

Pakistan faces unpleasant options amid violent protests over Prophet cartoons
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Saad Rizvi (center) leader of the recently outlawed Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), was arrested in Lahore for threatening a campaign of civil disobedience. (AFP/File)
Pakistan faces unpleasant options amid violent protests over Prophet cartoons
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Traders in Islamabad shout anti-France slogans in a closed market during a nationwide strike to show their solidarity with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). (AFP)
Pakistan faces unpleasant options amid violent protests over Prophet cartoons
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Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan said meeting the TLP’s demands to break diplomatic ties with France would hit Pakistani exports to the EU. (AFP/File)
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Updated 21 April 2021

Pakistan faces unpleasant options amid violent protests over Prophet cartoons

Pakistan faces unpleasant options amid violent protests over Prophet cartoons
  • In TV address, PM Imran Khan said breaking ties with France in protest against the caricatures will hurt Pakistan more
  • Religious political party TLP has demanded the expulsion of the French ambassador to Pakistan before April 20

ISLAMABAD AND KARACHI: Unrest has gripped Pakistan since April 12 when Saad Rizvi, leader of the recently outlawed Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), was arrested in Lahore for threatening a campaign of civil disobedience against the government unless it expelled the French ambassador over the re-publication last year in France of cartoons of Prophet Muhammad.

Violent protests have paralyzed major cities and highways all week, leading to the death of six police officers and injuries to more than 800, according to the government.

Photographs of police officers taken hostage by TLP supporters, with their heads, legs and arms heavily bandaged, have been posted on social media throughout the week.

On Sunday, the TLP said three of its members had been killed in clashes outside its headquarters in the eastern city of Lahore. The religious party also took several police and paramilitary troops hostage, releasing 11 officers in the early hours of Monday following negotiations with the government.




Saad Rizvi (center) leader of the recently outlawed Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), was arrested in Lahore for threatening a campaign of civil disobedience. (AFP/File)

The riots have prompted the French embassy to urge its citizens to temporarily leave the country.

Rizvi became leader of the TLP in November after the sudden death of his father, the firebrand cleric Khadim Hussein Rizvi. His party gained prominence in Pakistan’s 2018 federal elections promising to defend the country’s blasphemy laws, which call for the death penalty for anyone who insults Islam.

The party has a history of staging protests to pressure the government to accept its demands. In November 2017, Rizvi’s followers staged a 21-day sit-in after a reference to the sanctity of Prophet Muhammad was removed from the text of a government form.

Now the TLP is calling on the government to honor what it says was a commitment made in February to expel the French envoy before April 20 over the publication of the cartoons. Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, insists his government is only committed to debating the matter in parliament.




Traders in Islamabad shout anti-France slogans in a closed market during a nationwide strike to show their solidarity with the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP). (AFP)

On Monday, Khan said that meeting the TLP’s demands to break diplomatic ties with France would hit Pakistani exports to the EU and lead to poverty, unemployment and inflation.

“The biggest effect (of breaking ties with France) will be that after great difficulty our economy is rising, the large-scale industry is getting up after a long time, people are getting jobs, wealth is increasing in our country, our exports are rising and after a long time, our rupee is strengthening,” Khan said in a televised address to the nation.

He added that breaking ties with France would be tantamount to severing relations with the entire EU.

“Half of our textile exports go to the EU and that will be stopped, resulting in unemployment, devaluation of the rupee, increase in inflation and poverty,” Khan said.

“We will be at loss but this won’t make any difference to France.”




Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan said meeting the TLP’s demands to break diplomatic ties with France would hit Pakistani exports to the EU. (AFP/File)

Rather than act unilaterally, Khan said the leaders of Muslim countries should collectively take up the issue of blasphemy with UN and EU.

“We should tell the Western countries that blasphemy to our prophet in the name of freedom of speech hurts us. And if they don’t stop it, we can then collectively do the trade boycott,” he said.

Khan said this was the only way to “achieve the objective” of creating an environment in which no one would dare to disrespect the prophet, and pledged to personally lead such a global campaign to ensure this.

Khan’s address came as the government went into a third round of negotiations with the TLP.

“We believe in negotiations and it’s our policy,” Pir Noorul Haq Qadri, the federal minister for religious affairs, said in a policy statement in the National Assembly on Monday.

“No political, democratic and elected government can afford such things and whatever happened in the past few days is regrettable to everyone.”

On Sunday evening, Fawad Hussain Chaudhry, the information minister, said the government was forced to launch an armed operation against protesters after they kidnapped law enforcement officials.

“The government believes in negotiations but can’t be blackmailed,” he said. “The operation was started after police and Rangers personnel were kidnapped ... Imran Khan has the strongest affection with the prophet and he has talked about this at every (national and global) forum.”

Earlier on Sunday, police spokesperson Arif Rana said the operation against the TLP had been halted as the attackers were armed with petrol bombs and a tanker with 50,000 liters of petrol.

By Sunday evening, the situation was “at a standstill,” he said, with protesters sitting on roadsides with sticks and petrol bombs in their hands and law enforcement standing guard.

Last week, the interior ministry said it was moving to have the TLP party banned for attacking police and paramilitary troops and disrupting public life during its protests. The interior ministry’s decision has been approved by the federal cabinet but needs to be ratified by the Supreme Court for the TLP to be officially dissolved.

In October 2020, protests broke out in several Muslim countries, including Pakistan, over France’s response to a deadly attack on a teacher who showed his pupils cartoons mocking Prophet Muhammad during a civics lesson. French President Emmanuel Macron has defended the caricatures as freedom of expression.

During last year’s protests in Pakistan, the government negotiated with the TLP and met a number of its demands, including an agreement to hold a parliamentary debate on whether or not to expel the French ambassador.

The agreed deadline to hold that debate expires on April 20.

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Biden faces criticism from Democrats over Israel

Biden faces criticism from Democrats over Israel
  • Left-wing figures urge president to move away from unconditional support for Tel Aviv
  • Ocasio-Cortez: ‘If the Biden admin can’t stand up to an ally, who can it stand up to?’

LONDON: Pressure is mounting on US President Joe Biden from left-wing Democrats in Congress to change his administration’s stance on Israel.

Criticism of Tel Aviv has increased in recent days following a wave of Israeli airstrikes in Gaza.

Prominent Democrats have urged Biden to limit military aid to Israel and put more pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cease operations.

Democratic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on Saturday: “I don’t care how any spokesperson tries to spin this, the US vetoed the UN call for ceasefire. If the Biden admin can’t stand up to an ally, who can it stand up to? How can they credibly claim to stand for human rights?”

Several members of the Democratic Party have described Israel’s treatment of Palestinians as similar to that of African Americans by various police departments.

“We oppose money going to fund militarized policing, occupation, and systems of violent oppression and trauma,” said Missouri Congresswoman Cori Bush, a prominent Black Lives Matter activist.

“Until all our children are safe, we will continue to fight for our rights in Palestine and Ferguson (Missouri).”

Sen. Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, expressed his concern at airstrikes that “resulted in the death of innocent civilians in Gaza as well as Israeli targeting of buildings housing international media outlets.”

Biden has been a staunch supporter of Israel throughout his political career, and has reportedly met with every one of its prime ministers since Golda Meir in 1973.

He has repeatedly asserted Israel’s right to defend itself from Palestinian rocket attacks, and has rejected suggestions that the US use military aid to apply pressure on Tel Aviv.

“The idea that we would (with)draw military assistance from Israel on the condition that they change a specific policy I find to be absolutely outrageous,” he said.

On Sunday, Biden said Palestinians and Israelis “equally deserve to live in safety and security and enjoy equal measure of freedom, prosperity and democracy.”


Three killed in knife attack in Russian city of Yekaterinburg

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Updated 17 May 2021

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Three killed in knife attack in Russian city of Yekaterinburg
  • Police detained a man who had attacked people with a knife

MOSCOW : Three people were killed in a knife attack on Monday near a train station in the Russian city of Yekaterinburg, the TASS news agency cited law enforcement as saying.
Police detained a man who had attacked people with a knife, the report said. The stabbings happened amid an argument over alcohol, a law enforcement agency was cited as saying.


India coronavirus cases drop below 300,000 for first time in weeks

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Updated 17 May 2021

India coronavirus cases drop below 300,000 for first time in weeks

India coronavirus cases drop below 300,000 for first time in weeks
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NEW DELHI: For the first time in weeks, India’s daily cases dropped below 300,000, continuing a decline as the country battles a ferocious surge of COVID-19.
The health ministry said around 280,000 cases and 4,106 deaths were confirmed in the last 24 hours. Both numbers are almost certainly undercounts.
India’s west coast state of Gujarat is bracing for a severe cyclone that is affecting its coronavirus measures. Cyclone Tauktae has already caused deadly flooding and is expected to make landfall late Monday or early Tuesday. Gujarat has suspended its vaccination drive for two days.
But India’s overall vaccination efforts are also struggling. Ever since the country opened vaccinations to all adults this month, the pace of administering doses has plunged, with many states saying they don’t have enough stock to give out. Over the last month, cases have tripled and deaths have jumped by six times — but vaccinations have dropped by 40 percent.
The southern state of Karnataka has suspended vaccinations for the 18-44 age group in government-run centers, and a number of states are looking into directly getting shots from overseas to fill a domestic shortage.
On Sunday, health officials said around 5 million doses will be sent to the states this week.
India has the second-highest caseload after the US with more than 24 million confirmed infections and over 270,000 fatalities.


Kuwait sends emergency supplies of liquid oxygen to India as COVID-19 cases surge

Kuwait sends emergency supplies of liquid oxygen to India as COVID-19 cases surge
Updated 17 May 2021

Kuwait sends emergency supplies of liquid oxygen to India as COVID-19 cases surge

Kuwait sends emergency supplies of liquid oxygen to India as COVID-19 cases surge
  • PAI coordinated with the foreign ministry to follow the scheduled plan of delivering the shipment to India
  • A plan has been set to ensure the transport of a large amount of liquid oxygen to the country in the quickest possible ways

DUBAI: Kuwait has sent 210 tons of rescue oxygen and 2,100 oxygen gas cylinders to India, state news agency KUNA reported.
A plan has been set to ensure the transport of a large amount of liquid oxygen to the country in the quickest possible ways, the Public Authority of Industry (PAI) told KUNA.
PAI coordinated with the foreign ministry to follow the scheduled plan of delivering the shipment to India.
It further worked with factories in Kuwait that are producing liquid oxygen, in a bid to meet the high demands.
The entity also cooperated with Kuwait Ports Authority and Kuwait’s general administration of customs to facilitate the humanitarian mission.
Earlier in April, India received about 80 metric tons of oxygen from Saudi Arabia to help alleviate a critical shortage of the emergency gas.
Images of the first consignment of cryogenic tanks and medical-grade oxygen cylinders destined for India prompted an outpouring of gratitude and relief on Indian social media.
India’s overall COVID-19 cases have reached 24.97 million with 274,390 deaths, the country’s health ministry confirmed.
The country regularly sets new daily records for new infections and deaths as the virus crisis engulfs overstretched hospitals in cities and spreads into rural regions.


Afghans who helped the US now fear being left behind

Afghans who helped the US now fear being left behind
Updated 17 May 2021

Afghans who helped the US now fear being left behind

Afghans who helped the US now fear being left behind
  • The fate of interpreters after the troop withdrawal is one of the looming uncertainties surrounding the withdrawal
  • Former interpreters becoming increasingly public about what they fear will happen should the Taliban return to power

KABUL: He served as an interpreter alongside US soldiers on hundreds of patrols and dozens of firefights in eastern Afghanistan, earning a glowing letter of recommendation from an American platoon commander and a medal of commendation.
Still, Ayazudin Hilal was turned down when he applied for one of the scarce special visas that would allow him to relocate to the US with his family. Now, as American and NATO forces prepare to leave the country, he and thousands of others who aided the war effort fear they will be left stranded, facing the prospect of Taliban reprisals.
“We are not safe,” the 41-year-old father of six said of Afghan civilians who worked for the US or NATO. “The Taliban is calling us and telling us, ‘Your stepbrother is leaving the country soon, and we will kill all of you guys.’”
The fate of interpreters after the troop withdrawal is one of the looming uncertainties surrounding the withdrawal, including a possible resurgence of terrorist threats and a reversal of fragile gains for women if chaos, whether from competing Kabul-based warlords or the Taliban, follows the end of America’s military engagement.
Interpreters and other civilians who worked for the US government or NATO can get what is known as a special immigrant visa, or SIV, under a program created in 2009 and modeled after a similar program for Iraqis.
Both SIV programs have long been dogged by complaints about a lengthy and complicated application process for security vetting that grew more cumbersome with pandemic safety measures.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters last month that the US is committed to helping interpreters and other Afghan civilians who aided the war effort, often at great personal risk. The Biden administration has also launched a review of the SIV programs, examining the delays and the ability of applicants to challenge a rejection. It will also be adding anti-fraud measures.
Amid the review, former interpreters, who typically seek to shield their identities and keep a low profile, are becoming increasingly public about what they fear will happen should the Taliban return to power.
“They absolutely are going to kill us,” Mohammad Shoaib Walizada, a former interpreter for the US Army, said in an interview after joining others in a protest in Kabul.
At least 300 interpreters have been killed in Afghanistan since 2016, and the Taliban have made it clear they will continue to be targeted, said Matt Zeller, a co-founder of No One Left Behind, an organization that advocates on their behalf. He also served in the country as an Army officer.
“The Taliban considers them to be literally enemies of Islam,” said Zeller, now a fellow at the Truman National Security Project. “There’s no mercy for them.”
Members of Congress and former service members have also urged the US government to expedite the application process, which now typically takes more than three years. State Department spokesperson Ned Price said May 10 that the US Embassy in Kabul had temporarily increased staff to help process the visas.
In December, Congress added 4,000 visas, bringing the total number of Afghans who can come with their immediate family members to 26,500, with about half the allotted amount already used and about 18,000 applications pending.
Critics and refugee advocates said the need to relocate could swell dramatically if Afghanistan tumbles further into disarray. As it is, competing warlords financed and empowered by US and NATO forces threaten the future along with a resurgent Taliban, which have been able to make substantive territorial gains against a poorly trained and poorly equipped Afghan security force largely financed by US taxpayers.
“While I applaud the Biden administration’s review of the process, if they are not willing to sort of rethink the entire thing, they are not going to actually start helping those Afghans who are most at need,” said Noah Coburn, a political anthropologist whose research focuses on Afghanistan.
Coburn estimates there could be as many as 300,000 Afghan civilians who worked for the US or NATO in some form over the past two decades.
“There is a wide range of Afghans who would not be tolerated under the Taliban’s conception of what society should look like,” said Adam Bates, policy counsel for the International Refugee Assistance Project.