News & Current Affairs

July 19, 2009

Court in Pakistan acquits Sharif

Court in Pakistan acquits Sharif

Nawaz Sharif

Mr Sharif is one of the most popular politicians in Pakistan

Pakistan’s Supreme Court has acquitted opposition head Nawaz Sharif of hijacking charges, removing the final ban on him running for public office.

Mr Sharif was found guilty of hijacking then army chief General Pervez Musharraf’s plane in 1999, when he ordered it to be diverted.

Mr Sharif was then toppled as prime minster in a coup led by Gen Musharraf.

He was convicted by the Sindh High Court but he has always maintained that the charges were politically motivated.

Mr Sharif’s government had ordered officials to divert Gen Musharraf’s plane away from Karachi and to a smaller city in Sindh.

While he was imprisoned, Mr Sharif agreed to go into exile under a deal with Gen Musharraf who had taken over as Pakistan’s president.

Mr Sharif ended his exile ahead of the 2008 elections but was prevented from contesting due to the court conviction.

Pakistan’s president and prime minister were swift to congratulate Mr Sharif on the court ruling.

Mr Sharif’s acquittal will be viewed as a positive development which helps strengthen democracy.

It also puts Mr Sharif on an even keel with President Asif Ali Zardari of the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP). Charges against him were withdrawn from court by the earlier Musharraf government in the name of “national” reconciliation.

But the court verdict restores to the political stage a potentially formidable opponent to Mr Zardari, correspondents say.

Mr Sharif has held office previously and can point to substantial political support across the country.

‘Set aside’

In its ruling on Friday, the Supreme Court said there was no evidence to support the charge of hijacking and acquitted Mr Sharif.

A judgement given by a kangaroo court nine years ago has been nullified by an independent and sovereign apex court
Siddique-ul-Farooq, PML-N spokesman

“Looking at the case from any angle – the charge of hijacking, attempt to hijack or terrorism – does not stand established against the petitioner,” news agency AFP quoted from the Supreme Court ruling.

“The conviction and sentence of the appellant are set aside and he is acquitted,” the order said.

The “petitioner had neither used force nor ordered its use and undisputedly no deceitful means were used,” it added.

The five-judge court headed by Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani heard the petition in June, but initially reserved judgement.

Mr Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) party has welcomed the order.

“A judgement given by a kangaroo court nine years ago has been nullified by an independent and sovereign apex court in the light of the constitution, law and evidence on record,” PML-N spokesman Siddique-ul-Farooq was quoted by AFP as saying.

In May, the Supreme Court had overturned a ban that prevented Mr Sharif and his brother Shahbaz from running for political office.

The ruling meant that Mr Sharif would be able to stand in elections due in 2013 or a parliamentary by-election before then.

The former prime minister and leader of the PML-N party is one of the most popular politicians in the country.

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December 27, 2008

Pakistani mourners honour Bhutto

Pakistani mourners honour Bhutto

Pakistan has marked a year since the assassination of Benazir Bhutto with a two-minute silence, while thousands of mourners visited her mausoleum.

President Asif Ali Zardari, her widower, used the occasion to call for peace and democracy in Pakistan and the resolution of problems through talks.

Analysts say the call was also aimed at India, which blames the recent attack on Mumbai on Pakistani militants.

Mrs Bhutto died in a suicide attack in Rawalpindi after an election rally.

Mourning ceremonies focused on the Bhutto family mausoleum in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh, in the southern province of Sindh.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon says he expects an independent inquiry into her death to be set up soon.

Tears and flowers

Local police officials in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh told news agencies that about 150,000 people had travelled to the site.
They came from around the country, by train, plane, car and even on foot, chanting Bhutto slogans, some wailing and beating their chests in an outpouring of emotion reports.

Mourners kissed her grave and laid flowers at the mausoleum, where official ceremonies were delayed because the site was shrouded in winter mist and fog for much of Saturday morning.

These were her devoted supporters, but many other Pakistanis were also feeling the loss of the charismatic politician, famous abroad and at home, our correspondent says.

Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani paid tribute in a televised address, saying Mrs Bhutto had “worked for poor segments, for poor people and she was the only ray of hope for the people of this country, she was a hope for the region”.

Mr Zardari delivered a televised speech from the family home in Naudero, Sindh.

“Dialogue is our biggest arsenal,” he said.

“The solution to the problem of the region… is politics, is dialogue and is democracy in Pakistan.

“I want to tell the oldest democracy and the largest democracies of this world: listen to us, learn from us. We have lost our people, we do not talk about war, we do not talk about vengeance.”

Thousands of police officers have been deployed in Garhi Khuda Bakhsh, amid fears that Mr Zardari could also be targeted during his visit to the mausoleum.

Multiple crises

Eulogies to Bhutto gloss over her mixed record when in power and her controversial decision to make a deal with Pakistan’s military leader, Gen Pervez Musharraf, in order to return from exile, our correspondent adds.
Benazir Bhutto. File photo
Many Pakistanis say they sorely miss Benazir Bhutto

But her assassination by suspected Islamist militants shook the nation to the core and although Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party and her husband swept to power in the wake of her death, there is still a feeling she left a vacuum that has not been filled, she says.

Pakistanis are missing her political experience and international stature, as they face crises ranging from a raging Islamist insurgency to dangerous tensions with India, our correspondent notes.

Pakistan has redeployed some troops from the north-west to strengthen its border defences, while India has advised its citizens against travelling to Pakistan.

On Friday, the UN secretary general expressed hopes that a UN investigation into Mrs Bhutto’s assassination could be set up in the near future and said he was committed to helping Pakistan’s search for “truth and justice”.

Earlier this year, British detectives investigating the fatal attack in Rawalpindi said Mrs Bhutto had died from the effect of a bomb blast, not gunfire.

Their account matched that of the Pakistani authorities.

But Bhutto’s party has insisted she was shot by an assassin and accused the government of a cover-up.

Are you in Pakistan? Have you been attending any of the ceremonies today? Send your comment

September 10, 2008

The Afghan-Pakistan militant nexus

The Afghan-Pakistan militant nexus

Mapping where militants operate in the Afghan-Pakistan border region, seven years into America’s self-declared war on terror. (Text: M Ilyas Khan)

Helmand, Chaghai

Kabul’s writ has never run strong in the remote southern plains of Helmand province. Further south, across the border in Pakistan, lies the equally remote Noshki-Chaghai region of Balochistan province.

Since 9/11, this region has been in turmoil. In the Baramcha area on the Afghan side of the border, the Taleban have a major base. The chief commander is Mansoor Dadullah. From there they control militant activities as far afield as Nimroz and Farah provinces in the west, Oruzgan in the north and parts of Kandahar province in the east. They also link up with groups based in the Waziristan region of Pakistan.

The Helmand Taleban, unlike comrades elsewhere in Afghanistan, have been able to capture territory and hold it, mostly in the southern parts of the province. They constantly threaten traffic on the highway that connects Kandahar with Herat.

Kandahar, Quetta

Kandahar has the symbolic importance of being the spiritual centre of the Taleban movement and also the place of its origin. The supreme Taleban leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, made the city his headquarters when the Taleban came to power in 1996. Top al-Qaeda leaders, including Osama Bin Laden, preferred it to the country’s political capital, Kabul.

As such, the control of Kandahar province is a matter of great prestige. The first suicide attacks in Afghanistan took place in Kandahar in 2005-06, and were linked to al-Qaeda. Kandahar has seen some high-profile jailbreaks and assassination bids, including one on President Karzai.

The Afghan government has prevented the Taleban from seizing control of any significant district centre or town. International forces have large bases in the airport area as well as at the former residence of Mullah Omar in the western suburbs of Kandahar city.

But the Taleban have a strong presence in the countryside, especially in southern and eastern areas along the border with Pakistan. Afghan and Western officials have in the past said the Taleban have used Quetta, the capital of the Pakistan province of Balochistan, as a major hideout as well as other Pakistani towns along the Kandahar border.

Mullah Omar is probably in hiding in Kandahar or Helmand.

Zabul, Toba Kakar

Afghanistan’s Zabul province lies to the north of Kandahar, along the Toba Kakar mountain range that separates it from the Pakistani districts of Killa Saifullah and Killa Abdullah. The mountans are remote, and have been largely quiet except for a couple of occasions when Pakistani security forces scoured them for al-Qaeda suspects.

Reports from Afghanistan say militants use the area in special circumstances. In early 2002, Taleban militants fleeing US forces in Paktia and Paktika provinces took a detour through South Waziristan to re-enter Afghanistan via Zabul. Occasionally, Taleban insurgents use the Toba Kakar passes when infiltration through South Waziristan is difficult due to intensified vigilance by Pakistani and Afghan border guards.

Zabul provides access to the Afghan provinces of Ghazni, Oruzgan and Kandahar. There are few Afghan or foreign forces in the area, except on the highway that connects Qalat, the capital of Zabul, to Kandahar in the south-west, and Ghazni and Kabul in the north.

South Waziristan, Paktika

South Waziristan, a tribal district in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (Fata), is the first significant sanctuary Islamic militants carved for themselves outside Afghanistan after 9/11. Militants driven by US troops from the Tora Bora region of Nangarhar province in late 2001, and later from the Shahikot mountains of Paktia in early 2002, poured into the main town, Wana, in their hundreds. They included Arabs, Central Asians, Chechens, Uighur Chinese, Afghans and Pakistanis. Some moved on to urban centers in Punjab and Sindh provinces. Others slipped back into Afghanistan or headed west to Quetta and onwards to Iran. But most stayed back and fought the Pakistani army during 2004-05.

The eastern half of South Waziristan is inhabited by the Mehsud tribe and the main militant commander here is Baitullah Mehsud. The western half, along the border with Afghanistan, is Ahmedzai Wazir territory where the chief commander is Maulvi Nazir. The Mehsuds only live on the Pakistani side, while the Wazirs inhabit both sides of the border.

These sanctuaries directly threaten Afghanistan’s Paktika province, where the US-led forces have a base in the Barmal region and several outposts along the border to counter infiltration. Pakistani security forces also man scores of border checkposts in the region.

However, infiltration has continued unabated and the number of hit-and-run attacks on foreign troops has been one of the highest in this region. Militants based in the region are known to have carried out strikes as far away as the Kandahar-Kabul highway.

North Waziristan, Paktia, Khost

The North Waziristan region is dominated by the Wazir tribe that also inhabits the adjoining Afghan provinces of Paktika and Khost. North and South Waziristan form the most lethal zone from where militants have been successfully destabilising not only Paktika and Khost, but other Afghan provinces such as Paktia, Ghazni, Wardak and Logar. Groups based in Waziristan region are known to have carried out some recent attacks in the Afghan capital, Kabul, as well.

Tribal identities are particularly strong in Paktika, Khost and Paktia. During the Taleban rule of 1997-2001, these provinces were ruled by their own tribal governors instead of the Kandahari Taleban who held power over the rest of the country. In the current phase of the fighting they coordinate with the militants in Kandahar and Helmand, but they have stuck with their own leadership that dates back to the war against the Soviets in 1980s.

The veteran Afghan militant Jalaluddin Haqqani is based in North Waziristan. He has wielded considerable influence over the top commanders in South and North Waziristan. He is also reported to have maintained links with sections of the Pakistani security establishment and is known to have mediated peace deals between the Pakistani government and the Wazir and Mehsud commanders in the region. Mr Haqqani is now an old man, and his son Sirajuddin has taken over most of his work.

There are many Arab and other foreign fighters in North and South Waziristan. This is due to Jalaluddin Haqqani’s close links with the al-Qaeda leadership. He married an Arab woman in the 1980s.

In view of the sensitivity of Waziristan region, US-led forces have set up a large base in Khost from where they conduct operations not only along the Waziristan region to the south but also in parts of the border region in Paktia and Nangarhar provinces to the north.

Kurram, Khyber, Nangarhar

As the Pakistani military strategists who organised Afghan guerillas against the Soviets in the ’80s discovered to their delight, Kurram is the best location along the entire Pakistan-Afghanistan border to put pressure on the Afghan capital, Kabul, which is just 90km away. But because the region is inhabited by a Shia tribe that opposes the Taleban for religious reasons, the Taleban have not been able to get a foothold here. Analysts say this is the main reason why the Taleban have taken so long to improve their strength in areas around Kabul, such as Logar and Wardak.

Some militant groups in the Khyber tribal district have carried out attacks on foreign and Afghan troops in Nangarhar province. But the Pakistani government has kept a close watch on them. One reason may be to curb the ability of these groups to block the highway through Khyber which serves as the main conduit for supplies to international forces in Afghanistan that come via the Pakistani port of Karachi.

Mohmand, Bajaur, Kunar

Analysts have long suspected Pakistan’s Bajaur tribal region to be the hiding place of Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and other top al-Qaeda leaders. The Mohmand and Bajaur tribal districts are also believed to be the stronghold of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the main Afghan guerrilla leaders of the 1980s. Mr Hekmatyar fought the Taleban in 1990s, but after 9/11 started working with them. The actual extent of cooperation is not known. The groups in Mohmand and Bajaur are members of an umbrella organisation which is headed by South Waziristan’s Baitullah Mehsud known as the Tehreek-e-Taleban (Pakistan Taleban).

Militants based in Mohmand and Bajaur have been striking at installations and supply lines of international forces based in the Narai region of Afghanistan’s Kunar province. In recent months, they are also reported to have crossed the Hindu Kush foothills to carry out attacks on foreign troops in the Sarobi, Tagab and Nejrab areas around Kabul.

Oruzgan, Ghazni, Wardak, Logar

For a long time the Taleban were unable to maintain sustained pressure on the country’s south-central highlands. But with safe sanctuaries in the border region – from the Baramcha area of Helmand province in the south, to some parts of Pakistani Balochistan, the Waziristan country and Bajaur-Mohmand territory to the east – the Taleban finally have the capacity to challenge the government in this region. The roads in Ghazni and Oruzgan are not as safe as they were a couple of years ago and officials are losing the will to maintain the government’s authority.

Training camps run by al-Qaeda and Taleban groups have multiplied in secure border regions over the last few years. Safe havens have also afforded the militants endless opportunities to find new recruits. The Waziristan region is also known to be a haven for young suicide bombers and trained in remote camps. The Taleban also appear to have had access to sophisticated military equipment and professionally drawn-up battle plans.

The strategy appears to be the same as in 1980s – ‘death by a thousand cuts’. Sporadic attacks on the security forces and the police have grown more frequent over the years, and have also crept closer to Kabul. At the same time, the Taleban have destroyed most of the education infrastructure in the countryside, a vital link between the central government and the isolated agrarian citizenry.

Oruzgan has mostly come under pressure from groups in Kandahar and Helmand. These groups, as well as those based in the Waziristan-Paktika-Khost region, have also moved up the highway via Ghazni to infiltrate Wardak on the left and Logar on the right. Safe and quiet until less than two years ago, both these provinces are now said to be increasingly infiltrated by Taleban fighters. The same is true of militants putting pressure on Kabul from Sarobi and Tagab in the east, with their tentacles stretching back to Laghman, Kunar and Bajaur.

Swat

A former princely state, Swat, in northern Pakistan, was governed by a British era law which a court declared unconstitutional in early 1990s, triggering a violent campaign for the introduction of Islamic law in the district.

The insurgency was effectively put down in 1994, but it re-emerged after 9/11, and was joined by many battle-hardened militants from Waziristan, Bajaur and the neighbouring district of Dir. During a 10-month long operation that still continues, the security forces have disrupted the infrastructure of the militants but is still to clear them out of the area. The militants have been targeting the security forces, the police, secular politicians and government-run schools.

September 6, 2008

Breaking News: Bhutto’s widower wins presidency

Bhutto’s widower wins presidency

Poster of Asif Ali Zardari outside parliament

Security is tight for the vote, which Asif Ali Zardari is expected to win

Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has won Pakistan’s presidential election, election officials say.

The election was called after Pervez Musharraf resigned rather than risk being impeached.

Sources told our correspondent that Mr Zardari will visit China soon as president.

Mr Zardari faces an Islamist insurgency and economic problems that are threatening Pakistan’s stability.

Meanwhile a bomb has killed at least 12 people near the city of Peshawar and injured many more.

The president is elected by secret ballots in the national and four provincial assemblies.

Although official figures for are still to be released for Punjab province and the national assembly, election commission officials say Mr Zardari has already gained the 352 votes he needs to be declared overall winner.

In Sindh province, Mr Zardari won all 65 votes. In North West Frontier Province he got 56 out of the 65 votes. In Balochistan province he was heading to win about 60 of the 65 votes.

Pakistan votes for new president

Pakistan votes for new president

Asif Zardari

Asif Zardari – one of Pakistan’s most controversial politicians

Voting has started in Pakistan to elect a successor to Pervez Musharraf, who resigned as president last month rather than risk impeachment.

The winner is expected to be Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto.

Voting is being held in both the national and provincial assemblies.

The next president will have to tackle an Islamist insurgency and an economic crisis which are threatening the country’s stability.

Controversy

Mr Zardari was thrust into the center of political power by the killing of Ms Bhutto last December after which he became head of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

WHO VOTES FOR PRESIDENT?
Total votes: 702
National Assembly 342 votes
Senate 100 votes
Four provincial assemblies 65 votes each
Winner needs simple majority of votes

What Pakistanis think

‘Master plan’ to save Pakistan

Q&A: Presidential poll

Send us your comments

Mr Zardari is regarded by many as the de facto prime minister and he is now almost certain to become president.

Our correspondent says that in recent months Mr Zardari has shown skill by forging a large coalition and using it to peacefully unseat the former military ruler, President Musharraf.

Mr Zardari is one of Pakistan’s most controversial politicians.

For years he has been hounded by allegations of massive corruption – although he has never been convicted.

Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif took his PML-N party out of the governing coalition last week, accusing Mr Zardari of breaking key promises.

Many in Pakistan fear the country is facing a return to an old-style politics of confrontation at a time when urgent action is needed to improve the economy and deal with a raging Islamist insurgency.

Juggling demands

Mr Zardari is seen as pro-Western and supportive of Washington’s self-declared war on terror.

Nawaz Sharif

Nawaz Sharif’s coalition with Mr Zardari did not last long

If he becomes president, he will have to juggle the demands of the United States, Pakistan’s powerful army, and strong anti-American sentiment in the country.

Our correspondent says Mr Musharraf tried to do that and failed. She adds that Pakistanis hope that Asif Zardari will have more success, but they see little in his past to encourage them.

The other candidates are Saeeduz Zaman Siddiqui, a former judge who has the backing of Mr Sharif, and Mushahid Hussain Sayed, who was nominated by the PML-Q party that supported Mr Musharraf.

In the Islamabad parliament, members of the upper house, the Senate, are voting first, followed by the lower house.

Voting is being held in a similar fashion in Pakistan’s four provincial assemblies of Sindh, Punjab, Baluchistan and the North-West Frontier Province.

There is only one round of voting and whoever has most of the 702 votes wins. Results are expected late on Saturday.

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