Pakistani PM welcomes prisoner swap between US, Afghan Taliban

American University of Afghanistan professors Kevin King and Tim Weeks were kidnapped by the Taliban in Kabul in 2016. (Supplied)
Updated 19 November 2019

Pakistani PM welcomes prisoner swap between US, Afghan Taliban

  • Says Pakistan “fully supported & facilitated” the release as part of policy of pushing for a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan
  • Taliban spokesman says US, Australian professors freed in return for three Taliban commanders under long-delayed swap

ISLAMABAD – Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday welcomed the release of American and Australian university professors held hostage by the Afghan Taliban for more than three years, completing a delayed prisoner swap and raising hopes for a revival of peace talks.
American Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks were kidnapped in August 2016 from outside the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. They were freed in return for the release of three Taliban commanders under a swap that had been long delayed.
On Tuesday, Afghan Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid confirmed a prisoner swap deal with the United States and said the insurgent group had freed two foreign professors, hours after the US released three Taliban detainees. 
“Pak welcomes the release of Profs Kevin King & Timothy Weeks in Afghanistan. We appreciate steps taken by all involved to make it possible,” Khan said in a series of tweets. “Pak has fully supported & facilitated this release as part of its policy of supporting initiatives for a negotiated political settlement of the Afghan conflict.”
“We hope this step gives a boost of confidence to all parties involved to re-engage in the peace process,” the PM added. “Pakistan remains committed to facilitating this peace process.”
Taliban officials confirmed to Arab News that Anas Haqqani, the brother of Taliban deputy chief Siraj ud Din Haqqani, and two other leaders, were flown out to Qatar after being freed from Bagram prison late on Monday. 
“We welcome the positive step taken in regards to the release of three Mujahideen of Islamic Emirate, namely the respected Anas Haqqani, respected Hajji Mali Khan, and respected Hafiz Abdul Rasheed,” Mujahid said in a statement. “Similarly, the release process of two professors (US citizen Kevin King and Australian citizen Timothy Weeks) along with ten Afghan soldiers has also been successfully executed.”
He called the actions a step forward in good-will and confidence building measures that could aid peace talks between the Taliban and the US to end the long Afghan war. 

On November 12, President Ashraf Ghani said Afghanistan would free Anas Haqqani, a senior figure in Haqqani network, a militant faction of the Taliban responsible for some of the worst violence in recent years, and two other Taliban commanders. 

But the swap was abruptly postponed, with the Taliban then shifting their hostages to a new location. 

The Haqqani network has in recent years carried out large-scale attacks in Afghanistan. 

King and Weeks were last seen in a 2017 hostage video looking dishevelled and pleading with their governments to secure their release.

The United States and the Taliban have for most of the past year been discussing a plan for the withdrawal of US troops in exchange for Taliban security guarantees. But US President Donald Trump halted the talks on Sep. 09 this year following the death of a US soldier and 11 other people in a Taliban bomb attack in Kabul.

Before the talks were broken off, the United States and the Taliban both said they were close to a deal. 

Critics cry foul as Pakistan looks to curb coronavirus 'fake news' on social media

Updated 09 July 2020

Critics cry foul as Pakistan looks to curb coronavirus 'fake news' on social media

  • Government sets up committee to prepare new “legal framework” to tackle coronavirus-related misinformation
  • Rights activists fear the new laws will be used to choke freedom of speech

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s interior minister said on Thursday the government planned to introduce new laws to curb coronavirus misinformation on social media platforms in a move that has stoked fears authorities will use the additional powers to choke freedom of speech and chill dissent.
On Wednesday, the National Command and Operation Center (NCOC), a top federal body set up to oversee the government’s coronavirus mitigation efforts, set up a committee under the chairmanship of the interior minister to prepare a legal framework to help the government deal with coronavirus-related “fake news” on social media platforms.
Islamabad has previously struggled to regulate online content mostly by blocking or asking social media companies to remove blasphemous material and other posts that violate the country’s religious and cultural norms and laws or hurt national security interests.
In February, the government approved, and then rolled back, new rules to regulate cyberspace after opponents said they could be used to stifle dissent. Social media companies have also largely shunned obliging to help law enforcement agencies access data and remove online content deemed unlawful.
“Is the government a fool?” the interior minister said to Arab News on Thursday when asked if the NCOC had set up the new committee on the pretext of curtailing free speech or criticism of the government’s coronavirus mitigation policies. “If somebody asks me to suppress social media, I’ll straightaway say that I can’t do it.”
However, he said, the government was resolved to find ways to prevent the flow of false information regarding the pandemic.
These efforts, rights activists say, would allow the government to use the pandemic as an “excuse” to suppress freedom of speech.
“Social media companies have themselves been taking down disinformation and propaganda regarding COVID-19 since such posts go against their community standards,” Usama Khilji, director of Pakistani digital rights group Bolo Bhi, told Arab News, urging the government to improve coordination with social media giants like Twitter and Facebook in order to have inaccurate information removed instead of enacting new “draconian rules.”
Last month, the Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority issued an advisory to local media houses instructing them not to air coronavirus-related content that was “not based on ground realities” and was likely to create “unnecessary panic.” 
The advisory was seen as a warning to critics of the government’s efforts to fight growing rates of infection.
“If the government wants to counter online disinformation, it can do it by releasing authentic information instead of coercing journalists and media houses,” Iqbal Khattak, who represents Reporters Without Borders in Pakistan, told Arab News. “It must immediately drop its plan to enact new social media rules since we already know its objective is to undermine freedom of expression.”