GHIZER: Over seven hundred people, local youth and officials, gathered in the picturesque Ghizer district in northern Pakistan last week for a Grand Youth Marka with a single-point agenda: to campaign for access to mental health services in an area where the prevalence of suicide has for years alarmed authorities and residents alike.
Ghizer district lies about 70 km from Gilgit, the capital of Gilgit-Baltistan, an impoverished, and remote part of the larger Kashmir, which, despite being the gateway to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, has so far reaped few rewards from the multibillion-dollar infrastructure and energy plan.
With nearly 170,000 inhabitants, Ghizer comprises less than a tenth of Gilgit-Baltistan’s population, but the number of suicide cases it reports is more than double that of the whole region.
Since 2001, police in Gilgit-Baltistan have recorded 412 incidents of suicide — 294 in Ghizer.
“There are 10 districts in Gilgit-Baltistan and the trend of committing suicide in Ghizer district is very high,” Ghizer Superintendent of Police Shah Mir Khalid told Arab News. “The average number of suicide cases per year is 20 to 25.”
Nineteen people in Ghizar have taken their own lives since the beginning of the year — four in June alone.
Khalid said police were working with social welfare organizations and had established a local response center, but he could not pin down the main reason for the high suicide rate in the district.
“There are different reasons in all cases, we can’t attribute a single reason,” he added. “But domestic violence, poverty, high literacy rate with lack of opportunities are the causes of suicide.”
After last Sunda’s Grand Youth Marka, Gilgit-Baltistan chief minister Muhammad Khalid Khurshid issued an order to establish a special committee to investigate “the chronic issue of suicides” in the district.
While the committee is expected to submit its report in the next two weeks, residents said the most immediate need was for the government to set up a mental health facility in the area.
“Establishment of an asylum in Ghizer district is an urgent need,” Qasim Shah, a journalist from the district, told Arab News.
Social activist Hajjida Parveen, who has been monitoring the problem for the past 10 years, said she believed the main cause of suicide in the district was mental illness, and it needed to be investigated why people in the region were prone to the condition.
“Despite the mental health issue, there is no psychologist in the whole district,” she added.
There is no forensic laboratory either, which may be resulting in murder cases being reported as suicides, Israruddin Israr, the Gilgit-Baltistan coordinator for the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, said.
“Proper investigation should be conducted to separate murder and suicide cases. And for this purpose, the presence of a forensic lab and medico-legal expert is necessary,” he told Arab News.
“Causes of suicide should be identified and diagnosed through a scientific way,” he said. “To find the real causes of suicide, a team for in-depth research should be constituted, incorporating experts of different disciplines.”
ISLAMABAD: Pakistani foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari received a phone call from Antony Blinken, the United States secretary of state, the foreign office said on Wednesday, adding that the two leaders had stressed improving trade and commercial ties during their conversation.
Bhutto-Zardari, who assumed office in April in the new cabinet of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, has stressed he wants to pivot away from a single-issue transactional relationship with the United States that revolved around neighboring Afghanistan and repair frayed ties with Washington.
Sharif took over in April after ex-PM Imran Khan lost a confidence vote moved by a united opposition, that blamed him for mismanaging the economy, governance and foreign relations.
Khan had antagonized the United States throughout his tenure, welcoming the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan last year and more recently accusing Washington of being behind the attempt to oust him. Washington has dismissed the accusation.
“Reiterated mutual commitment to deepen Pak-US ties,” the foreign office said in a tweet, listing issues discussed during the phone call between the Pakistani FM and Blinken. “Looked forward to frequent exchange of high-level visits. Requested to ease issuance of visas for Pakistani nationals.”
The two leaders also stressed the need to solidify trade and commercial ties and reaffirmed mutual cooperation in the energy, health, security and economic development sectors.
They also discussed the need for continuous engagement with the Taliban government in Afghanistan to deal with a humanitarian crisis.
Appreciated ongoing visit of special Rep @Dilawar Syed
Stressed solidifying trade & commercial ties
Reaffirmed mutual coop in energy, health, security & econ dev
Discussed need for continuous engagement with Interim Afg govt to deal with humanitarian crisis.
Last year, Blinken said the United States would be looking at its relationship with Pakistan in the weeks after the Taliban take over of Kabul in August after the withdrawal of US-led forces and formulate what role Washington would want it to play in the future of Afghanistan.
Blinken told the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee in September that Pakistan had a “multiplicity of interests some that are in conflict with ours.”
“It is one that is involved hedging its bets constantly about the future of Afghanistan, it’s one that’s involved harboring members of the Taliban ... It is one that’s also involved in different points cooperation with us on counterterrorism,” Blinken said.
Asked by lawmakers if it was time for Washington to reassess its relationship with Pakistan, Blinken said the administration would soon be doing that.
“This is one of the things we’re going to be looking at in the days, and weeks ahead — the role that Pakistan has played over the last 20 years but also the role we would want to see it play in the coming years and what it will take for it to do that,” he said.
Pakistan has had deep ties with the Afghan Taliban and has been accused of supporting the group as it battled the US-backed government in Kabul for 20 years — charges denied by Islamabad.
It is also considered as one of the two countries, along with Qatar, with the most influence over the Taliban, and a place where many senior Taliban leaders were thought to have escaped to after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
Afghanistan more than doubles coal prices as exports to neighbouring Pakistan boom
Customs duties from coal exported to Pakistan are a key source of revenue for cash-strapped Afghanistan
Sanctions and cut in development aid since Taliban rule last August have severely hampered economy
Updated 06 July 2022
KABUL: Afghanistan’s Taliban administration has more than doubled prices for coal, the finance ministry said on Wednesday, as the group seeks to raise revenue from coal exports and shrink its budget deficit after being cut off from international aid.
Customs duties from coal exported to Pakistan are a key source of revenue for cash-strapped Afghanistan. Sanctions on the banking sector and a cut in development aid since the Taliban took control last August have severely hampered its economy.
The Taliban administration last week lifted prices for coal to $200 per ton from $90 per ton, according to finance ministry spokesman Ahmad Wali Haqmal. Around 12,000 to 14,000 tons are exported, mostly to Pakistan, each day. Afghanistan’s Taliban authorities have said they want to move the country away from dependence on foreign aid.
With customs duties increased to 30 percent from 20 percent in May, Afghan authorities will receive $60 per ton, which Haqmal said was expected to make a significant dent in the country’s forecast 44 billion Afghani ($502.11 million) budget deficit this year.
The price hike came just after Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif announced plans last week to import coal from Afghanistan using local currency to save foreign reserves.
“(The timing) was coincidence. Any country would be irresponsible to suddenly lift the price without giving it consideration and study,” Haqmal said.
A Pakistani source said they had received indications weeks ago that the price was being reconsidered.
Pakistan mainly imported coal from South Africa. South African coal prices have been rising in recent weeks due to higher demand from Europe.
Haqmal declined to comment on the decision but had previously said that transactions were between private traders and all customs duties would be collected in Afghanis.
Haqmal added that a team of technical staff had spent weeks studying regional markets, the domestic situation and rising global coal prices in the wake of the war in Ukraine, and settled on the price.
It was calculated with the goal of ensuring Afghan traders could receive as much revenue as possible, while not sparking Pakistani traders to switch to other options, he said.
Authorities were also trying to smooth things over at border crossings — where hundreds of trucks pass each day — so that customs facilities would open 16 hours per day instead of around 12 currently, and to create space for more trucks.
ISLAMABAD: A day after Pakistan set up a parliamentary committee to oversee talks with the local Taliban, Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah said on Wednesday the government’s negotiations with the outlawed group were in the “pre-dialogue” phase.
The Pakistani Taliban — known as the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) — has carried out some of the bloodiest attacks inside Pakistan since 2007, including a 2014 assault on a school in which 134 students were killed. The group is not directly affiliated with the Afghan Taliban, but pledges allegiance to them.
Pakistan has since 2007 carried out a number of military operations against the TTP, but, despite reducing the militant group’s footprint, with most fighters fleeing to neighboring Afghanistan, it has not been able to fully stop attacks, which had begun to rise again along its western border in recent months.
On June 4, the TTP extended a cease-fire with the government for an indefinite period, after two-day talks with a delegation of Pakistani tribal elders facilitated by the Afghan Taliban, who head the government in Kabul since US-led forces withdrew last year.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif chaired a meeting of over 100 lawmakers and officials to deliberate on talks with the Pakistani Taliban. The Parliamentary Committee on National Security subsequently gave its formal approval to hold the talks and also set up a parliamentary committee to oversee the process and ensure it was carried out within the ambit of the constitution.
Sanaullah told reporters on Tuesday talks with the TTP were in the “pre-dialogue” phase and it was still under discussion what the nature of the dialogue should be.
He said the parliamentary committee to oversee talks would comprise not only interior ministry and other government officials but “all political party representatives.”
He warned that the exercise of building political consensus around the talks should not be viewed as a “weakness” on the part of the state.
“Consensus should not be seen as a sign of weakness,” Sanaullah said.
Pakistani media has widely reported that at the heart of talks is an offer to accommodate the TTP with a safe passage back to Pakistan from Afghanistan in exchange for the group agreeing to a long-term cease-fire, dissolving its organization and possibly even joining mainstream politics.
The TTP’s main demands include compensation for losses caused to them during military operations, and for Pakistan to scrap a 2018 law that did away with the semi-independent status of the former tribal regions, FATA, that dates back to British colonial rule.
The TTP also wants a substantial reduction of Pakistani military forces from the former tribal areas, which border Afghanistan and where the group was mostly harboring before being driven out through military operations.
ISLAMABAD: A local court in Attock district on Wednesday disposed of a plea by TV anchor Imran Riaz Khan against his arrest by Punjab police in a treason case, ruling that the matter did not fall within its jurisdiction and asking police to present the suspect before a magistrate in Rawalpindi.
Khan, an outspoken supporter of former Prime Minister Imran Khan and of late a critic of the powerful military, was arrested Tuesday on the outskirts of Islamabad and produced before a district magistrate today, Wednesday, for remand.
Imran Khan was ousted as prime minister through a no-confidence vote in the parliament in April. He contends his removal was part of a US plot, a charge Washington denies.
Police registered a case against the TV anchor on June 29 under six different sections of the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (Peca) along with four different sections of the Pakistan Penal Code, mainly relating to abetting, incitement and defamation.
“The case doesn’t fall in my jurisdiction. You may move the relevant forum,” the judge advised Khan’s legal team after a lengthy hearing.
Advocate Qadeer Janjua, a member of Imran Riaz Khan’s legal team, told Arab News the case included sections of the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, which the Attock judge was not authorized to hear.
“The police are now taking Imran Riaz to Rawalpindi court to present him before a relevant judge,” he said, adding that police were duty-bound to present an arrested person before a magistrate within 24 hours of arrest.
“We will try our best to secure the bail of Imran Riaz as we believe he is implicated in a false and fabricated case,” Janjua added.
Earlier in an over 95-minute-long hearing in Attock district court, the journalist’s counsel Mian Ali Ashfaq tried to establish through different judgments of the Supreme Court and by citing references from law that the arrest of his client was illegal.
The magistrate Yasir Tanveer questioned the public prosecutor and investigation officer in the case over the veracity of the evidence using which Khan was arrested.
Earlier in the day, the Islamabad High Court also disposed off Khan’s plea against his arrest, ruling that the case did not fall within its jurisdiction as he was arrested from Attock which falls in the precinct of the Lahore High Court. The Islamabad High Court had earlier barred the police from arresting Khan in different cases in the jurisdiction of the federal capital.
Malik Ahmad Khan, Punjab law minister, said around 20 separate cases had been registered against Khan for conspiring against and maligning state institutions.
“All evidence is available on digital media, he’ll have to face the trial,” he said at a news conference from the city of Multan.
The minister said Pakistan’s constitution guaranteed freedom of expression but with “reasonable restrictions” imposed by law against harming the security and integrity of the country and its foreign relations with friendly states.
He said the journalist was arrested from Attock in a case registered against him under section 121-A of Pakistan Penal Code (waging or attempting to wage war or abetting waging of war against Pakistan) for uploading a video on his YouTube channel with “objectionable content” regarding Pakistan’s relations with Saudi Arabia. Islamabad and Riyadh are longtime allies.
“He has committed a cognizable offense, violated law and constitution and that’s why he has been arrested,” the law minister said.
Meanwhile, Pakistani opposition leaders and journalist unions have condemned Khan’s arrest and demanded the government ensure a fair legal process so that he may defend himself in court.
“There is an impression in sections of society that the government is trying to stifle the voices of those who oppose its policy,” the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) said in a statement on Wednesday.
“It is also widely believed the government is targeting media persons who are considered supporters of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI),” the statement said. “Such impression should be dispelled and the government should not be seen targeting a certain section of the journalist fraternity.”
The Rawalpindi-Islamabad Union of Journalists (RIUJ) condemned Khan’s arrest and urged the government to release him immediately.
“If the government fails to mend its ways,” RIUJ said, “a strong protest will be lodged.”
Sri Lanka’s crisis rings alarm for other troubled economies, from Lebanon to Pakistan
Like Sri Lanka, Pakistan has been in urgent talks with the IMF, hoping to revive a $6 billion bailout package
Soaring crude oil prices pushed up fuel prices which in turn raised other costs, pushing inflation to over 21 percent
Updated 06 July 2022
BANGKOK: Sri Lanka is desperate for help with weathering its worst crisis in recent memory. Its schools are closed for lack of fuel to get kids and teachers to classrooms. Its effort to arrange a bailout from the International Monetary Fund has been hindered by the severity of its financial crisis, its prime minister says.
But it’s not the only economy that’s in serious trouble as prices of food, fuel and other staples have soared with the war in Ukraine. Alarm bells are ringing for many economies around the world, from Laos and Pakistan to Venezuela and Guinea.
Some 1.6 billion people in 94 countries face at least one dimension of the crisis in food, energy and financial systems, and about 1.2 billion of them live in “perfect-storm” countries, severely vulnerable to a cost-of-living crisis plus other longer-term strains, according to a report last month by the Global Crisis Response Group of the United Nations Secretary-General.
The exact causes for their woes vary, but all share rising risks from surging costs for food and fuel, driven higher by Russia’s war on Ukraine, which hit just as disruptions to tourism and other business activity from the coronavirus pandemic were fading. As a result, the World Bank estimates that per capita incomes in developing economies will be 5 percent below pre-pandemic levels this year.
The economic strains are fueling protests in many countries, as meanwhile, short-term, higher interest borrowing to help finance pandemic relief packages has heaped more debt on countries already struggling to meet repayment obligations. More than half of the world’s poorest countries are in debt distress or at high risk of it, according to the UN.
Some of the worst crises are in countries already devastated by corruption, civil war, coups or other calamities. They muddle along, but with an undue burden of suffering.
Here’s a look at a few of the economies that are in dire straits or at greatest risk.
Like Sri Lanka, Pakistan has been in urgent talks with the IMF, hoping to revive a $6 billion bailout package that was put on hold after Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government was ousted in April. Soaring crude oil prices pushed up fuel prices which in turn raised other costs, pushing inflation to over 21 percent. A government minister’s appeal to cut back on tea drinking to reduce the $600 million bill for imported tea angered many Pakistanis. Pakistan’s currency, the rupee, has fallen about 30 percent against the US dollar in the past year. To gain the IMF’s support, Prime Minister Shahbaz Sharif has raised fuel prices, abolished fuel subsidies and imposed a new, 10 percent “super tax” on major industries to help repair the country’s tattered finances. As of late March, Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves had fallen to $13.5 billion, equivalent to just two months of imports. “Macroeconomic risks are strongly tilted to the downside,” the World Bank warned in its latest assessment.
Afghanistan has been reeling from a dire economic crisis since the Taliban took control as the US and its NATO allies withdrew their forces last year. Foreign aid — long a mainstay — stopped practically overnight and governments piled on sanctions, halted bank transfers and paralyzed trade, refusing to recognize the Taliban government. The Biden administration froze $7 billion in Afghanistan’s foreign currency reserves held in the United States. About half the country’s 39 million people face life-threatening levels of food insecurity and most civil servants, including doctors, nurses and teachers, have been unpaid for months. A recent earthquake killed more than 1,000 people, adding to those miseries.
About four of every 10 Argentines are poor and its central bank is running perilously low on foreign reserves as its currency weakens. Inflation is forecast to exceed 70 percent this year. Millions of Argentines survive largely thanks to soup kitchens and state welfare programs, many of which are funneled through politically powerful social movements linked to the ruling party. A recent deal with the IMF to restructure $44 billion in debt faces questions over concessions that critics say will hinder a recovery.
Egypt’s inflation rate surged to almost 15 percent in April, causing privation especially for the nearly one-third of its 103 million people living in poverty. They were already suffering from an ambitious reform program that includes painful austerity measures like floating the national currency and slashing subsidies for fuel, water and electricity. The central bank raised interest rates to curb inflation and devalued the currency, adding to difficulties in repaying Egypt’s sizable foreign debt. Egypt’s net foreign reserves have fallen. Its neighbors Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have pledged $22 billion in deposits and direct investments as assistance.
Tiny, landlocked Laos was one of the fastest growing economies until the pandemic hit. Its debt levels have surged and like Sri Lanka, it is in talks with creditors on how to repay billions of dollars worth of loans. That’s an urgent issue given the country’s weak government finances. Its foreign reserves are equal to less than two months of imports, the World Bank says. A 30 percent depreciation in the Lao currency, the kip, has worsened those woes. Rising prices and job losses due to the pandemic threaten to worsen poverty.
Lebanon shares with Sri Lanka a toxic combination of currency collapse, shortages, punishing levels of inflation and growing hunger, snaking queues for gas and a decimated middle class. It, too, endured a long civil war, its recovery hampered by government dysfunction and terror attacks.
Proposed taxes in late 2019 ignited longstanding anger against the ruling class and months of protests. The currency began to sink and Lebanon defaulted on paying back worth about $90 billion at the time, or 170 percent of GDP — one of the highest in the world. In June 2021, with the currency having lost nearly 90 percent of its value, the World Bank said the crisis ranked as one of the worst the world has seen in more than 150 years.
The pandemic and political instability have buffeted Myanmar’s economy, especially after the army seized power in February 2021 from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. That brought Western sanctions targeting commercial holdings controlled by the army, which dominate the economy. The economy contracted by 18 percent last year and is forecast to barely grow in 2022. More than 700,000 people have fled or been forced from their homes by armed conflicts and political violence. The situation is so uncertain, a recent global economic update from the World Bank excluded forecasts for Myanmar for 2022-2024.
Worsening government finances and a growing trade and capital account deficit have compounded Turkey’s troubles with high and rising debt, inflation — at over 60 percent — and high unemployment. The Central Bank resorted to using foreign reserves to fend off a currency crisis, after the beleaguered lira fell to all-time lows against the US dollar euro in late 2021. Tax cuts and fuel subsidies to cushion the blow from inflation have weakened government finances. Families are struggling to buy food and other goods, while Turkey’s foreign debt is about 54 percent of its GDP, an unsustainable level given the high level of government debt.
Inflation in Zimbabwe has surged to more than 130 percent, raising fears the country could return to the hyperinflation of 2008 that reached 500 billion percent and heaping problems on its already fragile economy. Zimbabwe struggles to generate an adequate inflow of greenbacks needed for its largely dollarized local economy, which has been battered by years of de-industrialization, corruption, low investment, low exports and high debt. Inflation has left Zimbabweans distrustful of the currency, adding to demand for US dollars. And many skip meals as they struggle to make ends meet.