Religious party protesting leader’s arrest says 20 killed in clashes with authorities

Police use tear gas to disperse supporters of Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) during a protest in Lahore on April 12, 2021, after the arrest of their leader, who has called for the expulsion of the French ambassador. (AFP)
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Updated 13 April 2021

Religious party protesting leader’s arrest says 20 killed in clashes with authorities

  • TLP party chief Saad Rizvi arrested on Monday, had threatened protests if government did not expel France envoy over blasphemous cartoons
  • Senior government advisor says ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf government wants peaceful resolution of the issue

ISLAMABAD: A religious political party, the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan (TLP), said on Tuesday 20 of its supporters had been killed and dozens injured in clashes with police and paramilitary soldiers during nationwide protests against the arrest of the party’s top leader Saad Rizvi.

A senior government advisor, however, told Arab News the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government wanted a peaceful resolution of the issue.

Rizvi was taken into custody on Monday in the eastern city of Lahore, a day after he threatened the government with protests if it did not expel France’s envoy to Islamabad over blasphemous caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). 

“The peaceful protest is their [TLP’s] right, but there must be no violence and hindrance to public movement due to the demonstrations,” Hafiz Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, special representative of Prime Minister Imran Khan on religious harmony, told Arab News on Tuesday.

He said the prime minister had “effectively raised” the issue of Islamophobia on all international platforms including the United Nations.

“We should all endeavor for the unity of Muslims and religious harmony and peaceful coexistence in the country,” he added. 

Protests erupted in major Pakistani cities soon after the TLP leader was arrested, causing massive traffic snarls, while main intercity highways remained blocked.  

In a voice message sent to Arab News, the TLP media coordinator Arslan Tassaduq said at least 20 people had been killed in firing by authorities. 

“Our supporters have been shot,” he said. “More than 20 of TLP’s supporters have been shot and they have been martyred.” 

Arab News could not independently verify the figures. 

“You will have to expel the French ambassador under all costs,” TLP said in a statement released on Tuesday afternoon. “The country will remain jammed until the French ambassador is expelled.”  

In a separate statement, TLP said its protests would go on until Rizvi was released and gave the orders. 

Meanwhile, protests continued in cities across the country for a second day. 

“All main cities like Lahore, Gujranwala, Islamabad and Peshawar were cut off from each other and the rest of the country,” Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper reported. “The activists held sit-ins at various points in Hyderabad and Sukkur. They blocked highways, motorways and train tracks, disrupting life ... and causing violence as protesters clashed with police at many places.” 

Pakistani media reported that at least 100 TLP supporters had been arrested on Monday night, while police said dozens of officers had been injured by protesters. 

“By 10pm, the blockage assumed another dimension when both the Punjab minister and secretary of specialized health care started warning that hospitals were running out of oxygen,” Dawn reported, quoting Punjab health minister Dr. Yasmin Rashid as saying: “The supply is made every eight hours and all critical COVID-19 patients need fresh supplies, which cannot be made because all major arteries of the city are blocked. The crisis situation could quickly assume disaster proportions if supplies are not immediately restored.” 

Rizvi has called on the government to honor what he said was a commitment it made in February to his party to expel the French envoy before April 20 over the publication in France of depictions of the Prophet (pbuh). 

The government of Prime Minister Imran Khan says it had only committed to debating the matter in Parliament. 

Rizvi became the leader of the Tehreek-e-Labiak Pakistan party in November after the sudden death of his father, Khadim Hussein Rizvi. His party wants the government to boycott French products and expel the French ambassador under an agreement signed by the government with Rizvi’s party in February. 

Tehreek-e-Labiak and other religious parties denounced French President Emmanuel Macron since October last year, saying he tried to defend caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as freedom of expression. 

Macron’s comments came after a young Muslim beheaded a French school teacher who had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in class. The images had been republished by the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to mark the opening of the trial over the deadly 2015 attack against the publication for the original caricatures. That enraged many Muslims in Pakistan and elsewhere who believe those depictions are blasphemous. 

Rizvi’s party gained prominence in Pakistan’s 2018 federal elections, campaigning to defend the country’s blasphemy law, which calls for the death penalty for anyone who insults Islam. It also has a history of staging protests and sit-ins to pressure the government to accept its demands. 

In November 2017, Rizvi’s followers staged a 21-day protest and sit-in after a reference to the sanctity of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was removed from the text of a government form. 


Three killed as fire in world’s largest pine nut forest in Pakistan enters tenth day

Updated 19 May 2022

Three killed as fire in world’s largest pine nut forest in Pakistan enters tenth day

  • The fires have affected different parts of the Koh-e-Sulaiman mountain range in Pakistan’s southwest
  • National Disaster Management Authority helicopter arrived today to extinguish fire with little luck

QUETTA: A massive forest fire that has been raging for ten days in different parts of the Koh-e-Sulaiman mountains in southwest Pakistan intensified on Wednesday, with three people reported dead as provincial and federal disaster management authorities struggled late into Thursday to douse the flames.

The fire has consumed hundreds of trees dotting the Koh-e-Sulaiman — a mountain range connecting the Pakistani provinces of Balochistan, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa — and forced residents of nearby villages to move to safer locations.

The Koh-e-Sulaiman region is home to the world’s largest Chilghoza (pine nuts) forest, annually producing about 640,000 kilograms of the edible seed. It also houses different species of animals and birds, including chukar partridges, ibex goats and rabbits, which are under threat from the fires.

The first fire started on May 9 in Musakhail district, lasting over a week and affecting pine nut trees in a 22 kilometers radius. The fire had barely died down when a second blaze erupted late on Wednesday in the Saraghalai area of district Sheerani, with three locals killed as they tried to help in rescue operations.

“Three local residents who tried to extinguish the fire got killed,” the top administrative official of the area, Zhob division commissioner Bashir Bazai, told Arab News. “Four people are still stranded as the district administration is making efforts to retrieve the bodies and rescue the stranded individuals.”

Smoke engulfs a pine nut forest in the Koh-e-Sulaiman mountain range in the Saraghalai area of district Sheerani in Pakistan's Balochistan province on May 19, 2022. (Photo courtesy: Forest Department Zhob)

Locals helping with the rescue operation said neither provincial nor federal authorities were equipped to handle the disaster.

“The federal and provincial departments dealing with the fire are not trained and equipped to extinguish the fire in the Saraghalai area since the flames are too high,” local activist Salmeen Khpalwak, who works on climate change and environmental protection projects in the area, told Arab News on Thursday. “The fire is heading toward villages and many families have migrated to safe locations.”

Firefighters and residents extinguish a fire that erupted in pine nut forest in district Musakhail in Pakistan's Balochistan province on May 16, 2022. (Photo courtesy: Forest Department Zhob)

Khpalwak said nearly 24 villages situated in the pine nut forest were currently in danger. He said the fire in Musakhail broke out during a thunderstorm when lightning hit but the reason behind the Saraghalai blaze was not yet known.

The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) sent a helicopter on Thursday to extinguish the fire, local officials said, though it was unable to put out the fire as it could not fly at a low altitude due to thick smoke and the mountainous terrain.

Muhammad Younus, who works with the Provincial Disaster Management Authority, said the NDMA had been requested to provide another helicopter due to the intensity of the fire.

“This morning, a helicopter splashed 3,500 liters of water fetched from the Sabakzai Dam about 45 kilometers away from the area engulfed in fire,” Atique Khan Kakar, a forest officer, told Arab News, “though it did not work.”


Amid economic crisis, Pakistan imposes ‘complete’ ban on imported cars, luxury items

Updated 19 May 2022

Amid economic crisis, Pakistan imposes ‘complete’ ban on imported cars, luxury items

  • Decision taken to “save precious foreign exchange,” PM Sharif says
  • Information minister says government has finalized fiscal management plan 

ISLAMABAD: The Pakistan government on Thursday announced a complete ban on imported cars and non-essential items in a latest effort to tackle a growing economic crisis in the country.  

Pakistan is currently facing dwindling foreign exchange reserves, as its currency continues a downward spiral against the US dollar and a deal for the revival of a $6 billion loan program with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) hangs in the balance.  

On Thursday, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif announced his decision to ban non-essential items, saying the move would help Pakistan save “precious foreign exchange.”

“We will practice austerity and financially stronger people must lead in this effort so that the less privileged among us do not have to bear this burden,” he tweeted.  

Information minister Marriyum Aurangzeb announced the government had finalized a fiscal management plan to deal with the economic crisis.  

“Yesterday, it was decided that for the first time in Pakistan’s history, all non-essential and luxury items will be banned completely,” she said. “These include food items, luxury items and all imported cars.”

Aurangzeb said Pakistan was currently facing “an emergency situation” and Pakistanis would see the impact of difficult decisions on foreign exchange reserves within two months.  

She said the government attached the highest priority to decreasing Pakistan’s dependency on imports and introducing an export-oriented economic policy.  

“Local industry, local producers and local industries in Pakistan will benefit from this [policy],” she said. “This economic plan will also promote employment in the country.”

The minister announced the government’s decision to ban imported mobile phones, home appliances, dry fruits, fruits, crockery items, private weapons, shoes and chandeliers.  

Other banned items include decoration pieces, sauces, frozen meat, sanitary ware, doors, window frames, fish, frozen fruits, carpets, reserved food items, tissue papers, furniture, makeup and shampoo items, confectionary, luxury mattresses and sleeping bags.  


Pakistan’s volatile currency hits another historic low of Rs200 against US dollar

Updated 19 May 2022

Pakistan’s volatile currency hits another historic low of Rs200 against US dollar

  • Pakistani rupee declined by 0.81 percent in interbank market on Thursday
  • It has so far plunged by over Rs17 since the arrival of new government

KARACHI: Pakistan’s national currency continued to slump on Thursday, hitting another historic low of Rs200 against the US dollar in the interbank market amid rising demand for import payments and uncertainty related to talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for the resumption of a $6 billion loan program.

The rupee declined by 0.81 percent, or Rs1.61, during the trading session today.

The currency depreciation continued despite the ongoing negotiations between the IMF and Pakistani authorities which started in Doha, Qatar, on Wednesday.

“The dollar was trading above Rs200 in the interbank market due to increasing demand from importers to make foreign payments,” Zafir Paracha, general secretary of the Exchange Companies Association of Pakistan, told Arab News.

He said the remittance inflow was also slow since exporters were not bringing export proceeds to the country owing to the rising rupee-dollar parity which was benefitting them.

The rupee has declined by Rs17.07 against the greenback since the new government took control of the country last month.

Aadil Jillani, head of economic division at Trust Securities & Brokerage Limited, blamed the gap between external financing requirements and Pakistan’s repayment capacity on lack of policy response from the government.

“[This is] constantly bleeding markets and the economy,” he said. “This economic meltdown is taking its toll as the dollar has hit an all-time high and is trading above Rs200 in the interbank and open markets.”

Pakistan’s discussions with the IMF have become complicated due to an economic relief package amounting to $1.7 billion which was announced by former prime minister Imran Khan earlier this year.

Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif is hesitant to remove the fuel and power subsidies included in the package since his administration fears public backlash amid rising inflation.

Economists have advised the government, however, to undo these subsidies or risk greater political and economic damage.


Pakistan top court bans transfers of investigating officers in ‘high-profile’ criminal cases

Updated 19 May 2022

Pakistan top court bans transfers of investigating officers in ‘high-profile’ criminal cases

  • The supreme court bars all investigating agencies from withdrawing high-profile cases pending before trial courts
  • The court expresses apprehension the country’s criminal justice system may be undermined by those in positions of authority

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s top court on Thursday stopped authorities from transferring officials involved in “high-profile” cases in different investigating agencies while seeking record of any new appointments and transfers made in the last six weeks.

The development took place only a day after the Supreme Court took suo motu notice on apprehensions that criminal justice system may be undermined by people in positions of authority.

According to news reports based on court documents, the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) said last week it did not want to pursue a Rs16 billion money laundering case against Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif and his two sons three days before a special court in Lahore was scheduled to frame charges against them.

The FIA denied, however, it was withdrawing the case against the prime minister in a statement subsequently released to the media.

“We want to ensure the sanctity and integrity of the criminal justice system and rule of law,” Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial remarked while chairing a five-member larger bench to hear the case.

The court barred the authorities from withdrawing any high-profile cases while seeking a response from the government on transfers and appointments recently made in the FIA.

Attorney General of Pakistan Ashtar Ausaf tried to defend the transfers and postings, saying there might be “genuine reasons” behind them.

The court also issued notices to the National Accountability Bureau, director general FIA, secretary interior and others to explain their respective positions over the issue.

It directed the attorney general to ensure all record and evidence in high-profile cases were preserved and protected from any tampering.

“We hope the federal government will help us by explaining all these matters,” the chief justice said.

“We have been seeing such news for the last one month,” he continued. “We want to know about these matters because they are impacting the rule of law.”

The chief justice pointed out that an investigation officer, Dr. Rizwan, who was probing cases against Prime Minister Sharif and his son Hamza, was transferred and later died of heart attack.

“Why were the officers investigating the case against Hamza Shehbaz removed,” the chief justice asked. “We have to ensure independent and transparent working of the prosecution branch.”

The chief justice clarified the court proceedings were not meant to embarrass or hold anyone responsible, but “to uphold the rule of law.”
The court adjourned the case until May 27.


Pakistan says suspect in last week’s Karachi blast received instructions from Iran-based commander

Updated 19 May 2022

Pakistan says suspect in last week’s Karachi blast received instructions from Iran-based commander

  • Allah Dino, killed by police in a gunbattle on Wednesday, was trained in Iran, Counterterrorism Department says
  • Iran and Pakistan regularly accuse each other of harboring militants that launch attacks on the neighboring country

KARACHI: Counterterrorism authorities in Pakistan said on Thursday a suspect in an attack in the port city of Karachi last week had been trained in Iran and was receiving instructions from the Iran-based commander of a Pakistani separatist group.

One person was killed and several were injured in a bomb blast late on May 12 in the Saddar neighborhood of Karachi. The assault was claimed by the little-known Sindhudesh Revolutionary Army (SRA), a dissident faction fighting for independence in the province of Sindh.

The attack came two weeks after a female suicide bomber killed four people, including three Chinese nationals, in an attack on a minibus carrying staff from a Beijing cultural program at Karachi University.

In a press release on Thursday, the Counterterrorism Department for Sindh said special investigation teams formed by the CTD in the wake of the latest spate of attacks were able to identify a number of suspects through intelligence sources and the use of technology.

Based on the information, police on Wednesday traced three suspects in the Saddar attack as they traveled by motorcycle to transport explosives in Karachi on the instructions of what the CTD said was an Iran-based SRA commander called Asghar Shah. In a gunbattle with the three suspects, two identified as Allah Dino and Nawab Ali were killed while a third suspect fled the scene.

“The accused [Allah Dino] had been taking instructions from Asghar Shah, who operates his group [of the SRA] from Iran,” Syed Khurram Ali Shah, a senior CTD official, told reporters on Thursday.

“The eliminated terrorist Allah Dino was a master of bomb-making and he got his military training from neighboring country Iran,” the CTD press release said.

Iran and Pakistan regularly accuse each other of harboring militants that launch attacks on the neighboring country. Both nations deny state complicity in such attacks.