Hundreds still entering Pakistan from Iran despite border closure over coronavirus

A soldier wearing a facemask stands guard as buses carry pilgrims returning from Iran via the Pakistan-Iran border town of Taftan, leading to a quarantine facility zone to prevent the spread the COVID-19 novel coronavirus, in Sukkur in southern Sindh province on March 18, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 30 March 2020

Hundreds still entering Pakistan from Iran despite border closure over coronavirus

  • On Thursday, 113 pilgrims crossed into Balochistan via the Taftan crossing, according to immigration documents seen by Arab News
  • Balochistan home minister says thousands arrived in Balochistan without proper screening in Iran, Pakistan had “no choice” but to let them enter

DUBAI/MARDAN: Over a hundred pilgrims returned to Pakistan on Thursday from Iran via a land border crossing at Taftan in Balochistan province, immigration documents have shown, despite the border being sealed by the Pakistan government to try to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus from neighboring Iran.

Pakistan and Iran, one of the countries worst-hit by the outbreak, share a 900-kilometer border, frequently used for trade and by minority Shia Muslims who travel from Pakistan to Iran for religious pilgrimages, often using a border crossing at Taftan in the southwestern Balochistan province.

But in past weeks, errors made in the testing and quarantine of travelers who recently returned from Iran have turned Taftan into a hotbed of coronavirus.

The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Pakistan crossed 1,200 on Friday, health officials said. On Tuesday, when Pakistan had 892 confirmed cases, health chief Dr. Zafar Mirza said 78 percent of them had a history of travel to Iran.

Though infections in Iran began to rise rapidly last month, the Pakistan government only officially shut the border on March 16 — and the Taftan crossing remains porous.

On Thursday, despite the border being closed, 113 pilgrims crossed into Balochistan from Iran, according to immigration documents seen by Arab News, bringing the tally of total people having entered through Taftan since February to 6,080.

Of the 6,080, 4,596 have been sent onwards to their home provinces, while 1,484 remain in quarantine at Taftan, according to figures from the Balochistan chief minister’s office.

The Iranian Embassy in Islamabad did not respond to emailed questions about the continued movement of pilgrims from Iran into Pakistan and whether it had screened pilgrims before sending them home.

In an interview with Arab News on Wednesday, Balochistan Home Minister Mir Zia Ullah Langove said the provincial government had contacted the federal government when the outbreak first began last month and asked them to inform Iranian authorities not to send any pilgrims back to Pakistan without proper screening. He said provincial government officials had also met Iranian authorities to communicate their concerns.

But thousands of pilgrims still arrived in Balochistan without having been screened in Iran, Langove said, “and we were left with no choice but to let them enter and quarantine them on our side of the border.”

He said the provincial government fulfilled its responsibility of quarantining the pilgrims and handing them over to their home provinces with complete records.

“When they [Pakistanis returning from Iran] came back, we, according to our policy, at Taftan, we quarantined them and then once they had completed their quarantine, then we transported them in very special conditions, under security, all of them, to different provinces where they belonged,” health minister Mirza told Arab News in an interview.

But health and government officials have said thousands were released from the Taftan quarantine without being properly tested or even isolated, leading to the spread of the virus.

Unverified video clips on social media showed four or five people lodged in a single tent at the border quarantine site, according to a Reuters report. Others showed scores of people lying close together on the floor of a single corridor of Pakistan House — a building at Taftan, originally built to house pilgrims who were going to, or returning from Iran.

In a media briefing on Friday, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan admitted that the Balochistan government did not have enough funds to provide adequate facilities for travelers arriving from Iran. Balochistan remains Pakistan’s poorest region despite its vast mineral wealth.

This week, the Islamabad High Court issued notices to top government officials in a petition seeking the setting up of a high-level judicial commission to fix responsibility for the spread of the virus in Pakistan.

According to reports in Pakistani media, the petition says the federal government had failed to exercise its diplomatic privileges and convince the government of Iran not to send pilgrims back to Pakistan.

A senior Balochistan government official said Iranian authorities had kept sending pilgrims and other Pakistanis to the Taftan border despite Islamabad having officially communicated that the border was closed. The official declined to be named as he was not authorized to speak to the media about the issue.

“International borders with both Iran and Afghanistan are closed since March 16, 2020 and the same has officially been communicated to Iran but it continues to send pilgrims,” the official said.

The Pakistani foreign office did not respond to questions on whether it had officially asked Iran not to return Pakistanis in Iran, as it had to China when the coronavirus outbreak first broke out in December and Islamabad ruled out bringing back more than 1,000 students from China, where the virus is said to have originated.

The Balochistan government official said 20-50 Pakistanis kept arriving at Taftan daily, a fact confirmed by immigration records seen by Arab News, and added that the Balochistan government had “no option” but to receive them and then send them onwards to their home provinces.

Earlier this month, Balochistan government spokesman Liaquat Shahwani told the local The News that at least 5,000 Pakistanis were stranded in Iran after the closure of the border and a final decision to open the border or allow them in would be made by the federal government.

At a media briefing on Thursday, foreign office spokesperson Aisha Farooqui said Pakistan was working closely with Iran on the movement of pilgrims.

“We are closely coordinating with Iranian authorities to ensure that the movement takes place as per the SoPs [stand operating procedures] prescribed by the government,” she told reporters. “Every effort is being made to sort out issues, if any, through mutual coordination.”

Farooqui did not elaborate on the Pakistani government’s SOPs or explain why people were still entering Pakistan despite the borders being closed.

A senior official based in Islamabad, who declined to be named, told Arab News he was privy to a recent intelligence assessment presented to the federal government by Pakistan’s top spy agency, which had recommended changes in troop deployment on the Iran Pakistan border in the wake of the spread of coronavirus. The report also suggested the reshuffling of custom’s officers posted at the Taftan border.

A second official confirmed the intelligence report, but Arab News could not obtain a copy of the original document.

The first official added that the report said that hundreds of people coming from Iran after the coronavirus outbreak had been allowed to crossover into Pakistan by “influential” people in the government and the provincial bureaucracy who were able to prevail upon the Balochistan government to allow entry.

Last week, opposition politicians and journalists said Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Overseas Pakistanis, Sayed Zulfikar Abbas Bukhari, had used his “influence” with the Balochistan chief minister to ensure the unchecked entry of pilgrims into Pakistan.

“Neither I have been involved with Taftan nor [I have] any influence,” Bukhari told Arab News, adding that the allegations against him were “completely baseless.”

PM Khan welcomes Chinese investment in economic zones in phone call with Xi

Updated 26 October 2021

PM Khan welcomes Chinese investment in economic zones in phone call with Xi

  • Khan has directed authorities to provide land, electricity, gas connections as well as tax incentives to Chinese companies
  • Leaders discuss situation in Afghanistan, call for immediate provision of humanitarian aid to help avert crisis 

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Tuesday lauded China’s investment in special economic zones (SEZs) in the country as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) framework, the PM Office said in a statement.
Khan was speaking to President Xi Jinping by telephone.
CPEC is a central part of the Belt and Road Initiative, under which Beijing has pledged over $60 billion for infrastructure projects in Pakistan, much of it in the form of loans.
Khan “lauded the successful, timely and high-quality implementation of the CPEC projects, and welcomed Chinese investments in the CPEC Special Economic Zones,” the PM Office said in a statement.
Xi and Khan agreed to work to strengthen bilateral economic and commercial ties, including “full realization of the potential offered by the Phase-II of the China-Pakistan Free Trade Agreement, to overcome the economic headwinds,” the statement said.
Earlier this month PM Khan directed authorities to take “all possible” measures to provide land, electricity and gas connections as well as tax incentives to attract more Chinese companies to invest in special economic zones in the country.
He also said out of a total of 27 SEZs in Pakistan, work on five industrial zones in Sindh’s Dhabeji, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Rashakai, Bostan and Gwadar in Balochistan and Allama Iqbal Industrial City in Punjab was in “full swing.”
The two leaders also discussed the situation in Afghanistan and called on the international community to provide immediate humanitarian and economic assistance to the people of Afghanistan “to alleviate their suffering, prevent instability and flight of people, as well as continued engagement for rebuilding of the country,” the statement read.

India-Pakistan 'sporting brotherhood' impresses coach Hayden  

Updated 26 October 2021

India-Pakistan 'sporting brotherhood' impresses coach Hayden  

  • India captain Kohli embraced Rizwan soon after Pakistan romped to 10-wicket win  
  • Political tension between the neighbors has resulted in them avoiding bilateral cricket series 

ISLAMABAD: Matthew Hayden has been impressed by the “sporting brotherhood” on display after Pakistan beat India to break its run of 12 losses in World Cup contests between the archrivals.
India captain Virat Kohli embraced Mohammad Rizwan soon after Pakistan romped to a 10-wicket win in the Twenty20 World Cup game on Sunday to start its Super 12 campaign.

Former India captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, now a mentor with the team, smiled as he spoke with Pakistan players including captain Babar Azam, Shoaib Malik and fast bowler Shahnawaz Dahani soon after the game ended.

“The thing that inspired me the most out of the performance was the fantastic sporting brotherhood,” Hayden, an intensely competitive former Australia opening batsman now working with the Pakistan's T20 squad, said in a video message from Dubai.

The political tension between the subcontinental neighbors has resulted in the countries avoiding bilateral cricket series since Pakistan visited India in 2012-13 and played a short limited-overs series. However, they compete against each other regularly in the ICC tournaments.

Hayden said the way the Pakistan and Indian players came together was a good example “of how we should treat each other as people.”

“That’s the role of sport, so it’s beautiful to see those moments where MS Dhoni is holding court with a few of the (Pakistan) players and Virat Kohli and (Rizwan), you know, in brotherhood, joining hands after there was heated battles in the middle.”

The Pakistan Cricket Board appointed Hayden as a batting consultant and South African Vernon Philander as a bowling consultant for the T20 World Cup after head coach Misbah-ul-Haq and bowling coach Waqar Younis stepped down.
Hayden joined the squad in the United Arab Emirates, following his stint as a commentator in the Indian Premier League which ended two days before the World Cup began on Oct. 17.

Following Pakistan’s record-breaking win, Babar reminded his teammates to stay focused on winning the World Cup instead of getting carried away with the win over India.

“Great humility from our perspective inside the change rooms, not getting carried away too much with the celebrations, but just this great humility, this great sense of spirit and great sense of purpose moving into the next game against New Zealand," he said.

Fast bowler Shaheen Afridi’s burst in his opening two overs provided Pakistan with the key wickets of Rohit Sharma and KL Rahul and helped restrict India to 151-7. Afridi also went on to take the wicket of top-scorer Kohli in his return spell.

For Hayden, it was a prime example of what Pakistan's pacemen are capable of producing.

“Pakistan has velocity in abundance, not just here but also back home that aren’t celebrating in this World Cup,” he said. “Shaheen really is that one leader within the bowling group ... nothing beats velocity, mixed up with some skill.”

Pakistan faces New Zealand in T20 World Cup match in Sharjah today

Updated 26 October 2021

Pakistan faces New Zealand in T20 World Cup match in Sharjah today

  • Pakistanis left fuming last month when Black Caps abandoned tour minutes before start of first one-day international in Rawalpindi
  • Pakistan ranks third on ICC Men’s T20 team rankings and New Zealand fourth, Pakistan has won 14 and lost 10 T20 contests between the sides

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan and New Zealand will meet today, Tuesday, in a closely watched Twenty20 World Cup match in Sharjah just weeks after the Black Caps abandoned a tour minutes before the start of the first one-day international in Rawalpindi, citing an unspecified security alert.
New Zealand will be kickstarting their World Cup campaign today against the green shirts, who began their journey with a record-breaking win against India on Sunday.
On the eve of the match, NZ captain Kane Williamson, not part of the squad in Pakistan that pulled out of the tour as he was playing in the Indian Premier League in the UAE, played down talk of a “grudge match.”
“There are a lot of good relations within the two teams. Over the years they’ve played a lot against each other, and a number of players have played with each other, as well,” Williamson told reporters. “I am sure the game will be played in the right spirit.”
Pakistan ranks third on the ICC Men’s T20 team rankings while New Zealand is in fourth position. Pakistan holds a historical edge over the blackcaps in the T20 format, having won 14 and lost 10 contests between the sides. The last series between the two countries, held in December 2020, was won by New Zealand.
A week after New Zealand pulled out, England also withdrew their men’s and women’s teams from a tour to Pakistan due to concerns over the physical and mental health of the players.
“We had one team in our [T20 World Cup] target, our neighbors [India], now add two more teams, New Zealand and England,” Pakistan Cricket Board Chairman Ramiz Raja said last month.
Williamson, who admitted the decision to abandon the tour was based on New Zealand government advice, praised the Pakistan team.
“I suppose the focus now is here at the T20 World Cup, and no doubt after the performance last night, Pakistan have some momentum and are feeling pretty good about their cricket,” said Williamson.
Pakistan thumped arch-rivals India by 10 wickets in the teams’ opening Super 12 match in Dubai on Sunday.
“Yeah, I mean, it was a fantastic performance. I think Pakistan have come to the T20 World Cup full of confidence, having played in these conditions more than most,” he said. “They certainly put it on show last night and showed why they’re one of the favorites in the competition.”
“Tomorrow I’m sure they’ll be very strong again, so for us, it’s focusing on the cricket that we want to play and trying to adjust to conditions.”

Pakistan’s top Shariat court declares ‘compensation marriages’ to settle disputes un-Islamic

Updated 26 October 2021

Pakistan’s top Shariat court declares ‘compensation marriages’ to settle disputes un-Islamic

  • Custom of swara involves girls being given in marriage or servitude to aggrieved family as compensation to end disputes
  • Though laws in 2005 and 2011 declared swara illegal it continues to be practiced and authorities often turn a blind eye

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s Federal Shariat Court (FSC) has declared ‘un-Islamic’ the tradition of Swara, a practice in which girls, often minors, are given in marriage or servitude to an aggrieved family as compensation to end disputes, local media reported.
A three-judge bench headed by FSC Chief Justice Noor Mohammad Meskenzai said the tradition of giving away minor girls to settle disputes was against the injunctions of Islam, Dawn newspaper reported.
The petitioner, a woman called Sakeena Bibi, said swara, often the result of punishment decided by a council of tribal elders called a jirga or panchayat, usurped the fundamental rights of a woman or young girl.
“It argued that jirga or panchayat misconstrued the concept ‘badl-i-sulah’ — compensation to settle a dispute by offering a young girl to the aggrieved family. The petitioner requested the court to declare this custom as illegal,” Dawn reported.
Dr. Mohammad Aslam Khaki, a jurist consult at the FSC, said swara violated at least four fundamental rights.
“According to him, since the girl is offered by the accused family, she in most of the cases is deprived of even basic facilities, hence subjected to discrimination. Secondly, she is wedded to a man without her consent. Thirdly, she is not entitled to dowry, and fourthly, she cannot file legal suit for khula — dissolution of marriage,” Khaki said.
Though laws in 2005 and 2011 have declared swara illegal, the custom still continues to be practiced in many parts of Pakistan.
In 2004, the Sindh High Court outlawed all such “parallel justice” systems. But the writ of government is weak in rural areas of the country, and local police often turn a blind eye.

‘Imagine potential’ if Pakistan, India can live like ‘civilized neighbors’ - PM Khan

Updated 26 October 2021

‘Imagine potential’ if Pakistan, India can live like ‘civilized neighbors’ - PM Khan

  • Khan addresses Pakistan-Saudi Investment Forum a day after Pakistan defeated India for the first time in a World Cup fixture
  • Cheekily says it wasn’t a “good time” to talk about mending fences after Pakistan’s thrashing of Indian cricket team 

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan said Islamabad and New Delhi only had one conflict, over the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, and urged both nations to resolve it like "civilised" neighbours.
The two countries have fought two wars over Kashmir -- divided between the two nations -- since their independence in 1947.
Addressing the Pakistan-Saudi Investment Forum in Riyadh, the PM highlighted Pakistan's growth potential and its young population and strategic location, which India could benefit from.
"We have two of the biggest markets [India, China] in the world neighbouring us, through Afghanistan we have [access] to Central Asian markets,” Khan said. "We have excellent relations with China, but if somehow we improve our relationship with India…”
He then added cheekily: “I know after last night's thrashing by the Pakistan team in the cricket match, it's not a very good time to talk about improving relations with India,” referring to Pakistan beating India by 10 wickets in a T20 World Cup opener on Sunday.
Decades of bitter rivalry between the neighbors often clouds their cricket encounters. India has largely refused to play bilateral games against Pakistan since 2008, after deadly attacks in Mumbai which India blamed on Pakistan. Islamabad denies state complicity.
Now they only play each other in international events. The last meeting was at the 50-over World Cup two years ago but even that was at the center of boycott calls.
Speaking in Riyadh, the premier said the two countries should try to resolve the Kashmir conflict like "civilised" neighbours.
"It's all about human rights and the rights of the people of Kashmir for self-determination as guaranteed by the United Nations Security Council 72 years ago,” Khan said. "If that right is given to them, we have no other problems. The two countries can live as civilised neighbours … just imagine the potential."
The PM said India could gain access to Central Asia through Pakistan and in turn the latter would gain access to two huge markets.