Pakistan Taliban racketeering hits borderlands

The blackmail network bankrolls the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, but also sows a crisis of confidence in local government the militants seek to usurp in favor of Islamist rule. (AFP)
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Updated 25 November 2022

Pakistan Taliban racketeering hits borderlands

  • After the Taliban takeover in neighboring Afghanistan, the group was emboldened by its sister movement’s success
  • The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan share lineage with the Afghan Taliban, but were most potent from 2007 to 2009

MINGORA, Pakistan: A lawmaker in Pakistan’s rugged northwest was sipping tea with voters when his phone chirped to life — the Taliban were calling with a demand for “donations.”
“We hope you won’t disappoint,” read the chilling text from a shady go-between of the Pakistan chapter of the Islamists, known as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
A second message pinged on-screen: “Refusal to provide financial support will make you a problem,” it warned.
“We believe a wise man will understand what we mean by that.”
After the Taliban takeover in neighboring Afghanistan, TTP racketeering has infested Pakistan’s borderlands, locals say, with the group emboldened by its sister movement’s success.
Since July, the provincial lawmaker — who asked to remain anonymous — has been cowed into sending the TTP sums totaling 1.2 million rupees (over $5,000).
“Those who don’t pay have to face the consequences. Sometimes they throw a grenade at their door. Sometimes they shoot,” he said.
“Most of the elites pay the extortion money. Some pay more, some pay less. But nobody talks about it.
“Everyone is scared for their life.”
The TTP share lineage with the Afghan Taliban, but were most potent from 2007 to 2009, when they spilled out of the jagged belt splitting Pakistan and Afghanistan and overran the Swat Valley just 140 kilometers north of Islamabad.
The Pakistani military came down hard in 2014, after militants raided a school for children of army personnel and killed nearly 150 people, mostly pupils.
The TTP were largely routed, their fighters fleeing to Afghanistan where they were hunted by US-led forces.
With Afghanistan back under Taliban rule, it has become an “open shelter” for the TTP, according to Imtiaz Gul, an analyst with Islamabad’s Center for Research and Security Studies.
“They now have freedom of action while living in Afghanistan,” he said.
“That’s a simple explanation for why the TTP attacks rose.”
In the year since the Taliban’s return, militant activity in Pakistan has spiked, according to the Pak Institute for Peace Studies, with around 433 people killed.
“They started the same old game: target killings, bomb blasts, kidnappings — and making calls for extortion,” Swat community activist Ahmad Shah said.
The blackmail network bankrolls the TTP, but also sows a crisis of confidence in local government the militants seek to usurp in favor of Islamist rule.
Provincial MP Nisar Mohmand estimates 80 to 95 percent of well-off residents in surrounding districts are now blackmail victims.
Fellow legislators have been targeted for refusing to pay out, and some are too fearful to visit their precincts.
“They have their own system of reward and punishment,” said Mohmand. “They have established an alternate government, so how are people supposed to resist?“
The Afghan Taliban have long-standing differences with their Pakistani counterparts, and since capturing Kabul have pledged not to host international jihadist groups.
But the first telltale sign of a TTP blackmail attempt is the phone number — starting with the +93 international code indicating an Afghan SIM card.
Then comes a suggestive text, or voice message in Pashto — spoken with a Pakistani lilt.
AFP heard one message threatening an “action squad” would be dispatched to a landlord if he declined to pay.
“The days of cruelty are near. Don’t think we are a spent force,” it warns.
The sum “owed” is then hashed out, generally through an intermediary, before it is sent to the ragged bands of TTP fighters whose silhouettes haunt the mountain steeps.
Victims expect to be “tapped up” up to five times a year, the anonymous MP said.
Since the 2014 school slaughter, which horrified Pakistanis even marginally sympathetic to their cause, the TTP has pledged to avoid civilian targets, and claims extortion is done by criminals borrowing their brand.
But a civilian intelligence official in the area insisted they were “the root cause of the menace.”
Swat — a snow-capped mountain valley split by turquoise running waters — is one of Pakistan’s most famed beauty spots, but its reputation has a dark side.
In 2012 then 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head by the TTP while campaigning for girls’ education, a campaign that later earned her the Nobel Peace Prize.
This summer things seemed to have slipped irredeemably back toward those dark days.
After a decade-long hiatus, the anonymous MP started receiving blackmail texts once again.
“The situation was so bad that many people were thinking of migration,” said Shah. “Life was at a standstill.”
But there has been pushback, and several protests against the TTP have been held since the group’s high-profile kidnapping of three officials in August.
Businesses shut and thousands spilled into the streets in rallies up and down the valley.
Pakistan’s military claimed reports of strong TTP in the area were “grossly exaggerated and misleading.”
Still, in Pakistan’s borderlands, attacks and extortion continue unchecked — despite a professed negotiation truce between the TTP and Islamabad.
The Taliban’s return in Kabul, despite being pounded for 20 years by the world’s strongest armies, shows military might will not end the ordeal.
“We have to search a solution which is acceptable to both sides,” said government negotiator Muhammad Ali Saif.
“A lasting settlement will have to be found.”


Ex-Theranos president Balwani sentenced to nearly 13 years for fraud

Updated 08 December 2022

Ex-Theranos president Balwani sentenced to nearly 13 years for fraud

  • Once valued at $9 billion, Theranos promised to revolutionize how patients receive diagnoses by replacing traditional labs with small machines

A US judge on Wednesday sentenced former Theranos Inc. President Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani to 12 years and 11 months in prison on charges of defrauding investors and patients of the blood testing startup led by Elizabeth Holmes, a spokesperson for the US attorney’s office confirmed.
US District Judge Edward Davila in San Jose, California, imposed the sentence on Balwani, who was convicted by a jury on two counts of conspiracy and 10 counts of fraud in July.
Prosecutors said Balwani, 57, conspired with Holmes, 38, to deceive Silicon Valley investors into believing the company had achieved miniaturized machines that could accurately run a broad array of medical diagnostic tests from a small amount of blood.
Meanwhile, the company secretly relied on traditional methods to run tests and provided patients with inaccurate results, prosecutors said.
Holmes, who started the company as a college student and became its public face, was indicted alongside Balwani, her former romantic partner, in 2018.
Davila later granted each a separate trial after Holmes said she would take the stand and testify that Balwani was abusive in their relationship. He has denied the allegations.
Holmes was convicted in January on four counts of fraud and conspiracy but acquitted of defrauding patients.
Davila sentenced Holmes to 11-1/4 years in prison at a hearing last month, calling Theranos a venture “dashed by untruths, misrepresentations, plain hubris and lies.”
Prosecutors subsequently argued Balwani should receive 15 years in prison, saying he knew Theranos’ tests were inaccurate from overseeing the company’s laboratory operations, and decided to “prioritize Theranos’ financial health over patients’ real health.”
The probation office had recommended a nine-year sentence.
Balwani’s attorneys asked for a sentence of probation, arguing that he sought to make the world a better place through Theranos and was not motivated by fame or greed.
Once valued at $9 billion, Theranos promised to revolutionize how patients receive diagnoses by replacing traditional labs with small machines envisioned for use in homes, drugstores and even on the battlefield.
The company collapsed after a series of Wall Street Journal articles in 2015 questioned its technology. The case is US v. Balwani, US District Court, Northern District of California, No. 18-cr-00258. 


New Peru president sworn in after predecessor Castillo ousted

Updated 08 December 2022

New Peru president sworn in after predecessor Castillo ousted

LIMA: Peru’s Congress swore in a new president on Wednesday in a day of sweeping political drama that saw the former leader, Pedro Castillo, ousted in an impeachment trial hours after he attempted a last-ditch bid to stay in power by trying to dissolve Congress.
Ignoring Castillo’s attempt to shut down the legislature by decree, lawmakers moved ahead with the previously planned impeachment trial, with 101 votes in favor of removing him, six against and 10 abstentions.
The result was announced with loud cheers, and the legislature called Vice President Dina Boluarte to take office.
Boluarte was sworn in as president through 2026, making her the first woman to lead Peru. She called for a political truce to overcome the crisis and said a new cabinet inclusive of all political stripes would be formed.
She lambasted Castillo’s move to dissolve Congress as an “attempted coup.”
Peru’s national police shared an image on Twitter of Castillo sitting unrestrained at a police station after the vote to remove him and said that it had “intervened” to fulfill its duties. It was unclear if he had been detained.
Castillo earlier had said he would temporarily shut down Congress, launch a “government of exception” and call for new legislative elections.
That sparked resignations by his ministers amid angry accusations from both opposition politicians and his allies that he was attempting a coup. The police and Armed Forces warned him that the route he had taken to try to dissolve Congress was unconstitutional.
Some small, fairly subdued street protests took place. In Lima, dozens of people waving Peruvian flags cheered Castillo’s downfall, while elsewhere in the capital and in the city of Arequipa his supporters marched. One held a sign saying: “Pedro, the people are with you.”
The Government Palace and Congress in Lima were surrounded by metal barricades and dozens of police officers donning shields and plastic helmets.
Peru has gone through years of political turmoil, with multiple leaders accused of corruption, frequent impeachment attempts, and presidential terms cut short.
The latest legal battle began in October, when the prosecutor’s office filed a constitutional complaint against Castillo for allegedly leading “a criminal organization” to profit from state contracts and for obstructing investigations.
Congress summoned Castillo last week to respond to accusations of “moral incapacity” to govern.
Castillo has called the allegations “slander” by groups seeking “to take advantage and seize the power that the people took from them at the polls.”
The leftist teacher-turned-president had survived two previous attempts to impeach him since he began his term in July 2021.
But after Wednesday’s attempt to dissolve Congress his allies abandoned him and regional powers underlined the need for democratic stability.
“The United States categorically rejects any extra-constitutional act by President Castillo to prevent Congress from fulfilling its mandate,” the US ambassador to Peru, Lisa Kenna, wrote on Twitter.
The turmoil rattled markets in the world’s No. 2 copper producer, though analysts said that the removal of Castillo, who has battled a hostile Congress since taking power, could be a positive for investors.
Peru’s sol currency fell over 2 percent against the dollar at its session low before recovering slightly to trade down 1.4 percent.
“Peru’s financial markets will suffer, but won’t collapse, thanks mainly to solid domestic fundamentals,” said Andres Abadia at Pantheon Macroeconomics.


Putin acknowledges Russia's war in Ukraine could be a long one

Updated 08 December 2022

Putin acknowledges Russia's war in Ukraine could be a long one

  • In his remarks Putin said the risk of a nuclear war was growing
  • Russia launched what it calls its “special military operation” in February

LONDON/KYIV: Russian President Vladimir Putin has acknowledged that his army could be fighting in Ukraine for a long time, but for now there will be no second call-up of soldiers.
Putin has rarely spoken about the likely duration of a war that he began more than nine months ago, and in a televised meeting with loyalists on Wednesday, he said, “This can be a long process.”
Russia has been forced into a series of significant retreats in the face of Ukrainian counter-offensives, waged with increasing stocks of Western weaponry, in the east and south since July.
Russia launched what it calls its “special military operation” in February, saying Ukraine’s deepening ties with the West posed a security threat. Kyiv and its allies say the invasion amounts to an imperialist land grab.
In his remarks Putin said the risk of a nuclear war was growing — the latest in a series of such warnings apparently meant to deter Kyiv’s Western backers from more robust involvement — but that Russia would not threaten recklessly to use such weapons.
“We haven’t gone mad, we realize what nuclear weapons are,” Putin said. “We have these means in more advanced and modern form than any other nuclear country ... But we aren’t about to run around the world brandishing this weapon like a razor.”
Around 150,000 of the 300,000 reservists called up in September and October were deployed in Ukraine, 77,000 in combat units, he said. The remaining 150,000 were still at training centers.
“Under these conditions, talk about any additional mobilization measures simply makes no sense,” Putin said.
Russia’s economy has overcome the short-term slump caused by the partial mobilization order, but the disinflationary impact it had in reducing consumer demand has practically disappeared, the central bank said on Wednesday.
Despite recent retreats on the battlefield, including the loss of Kherson, the one Ukrainian provincial capital Russia captured, Putin has said he has no regrets about launching a war that is Europe’s most devastating since World War Two.
He said Russia had already achieved a “significant result” with the acquisition of “new territories” — a reference to the annexation of four partly occupied regions in September that Ukraine and most members of the United Nations condemned as illegal.
Russian forces have fired more than 1,000 rockets and missiles at Ukraine’s power grid, which is still working despite taking major damage, Interfax Ukraine news agency reported on Wednesday, citing Volodymyr Kudrytsky, chief executive of the Ukrenergo grid operator.
Eight recent waves of Russian air strikes on critical infrastructure have seriously damaged the grid and led to emergency and planned outages across the country, including in the capital Kyiv, a city of three million.
Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko warned of an “apocalypse” scenario without power, running water or heat this winter if Russian air strikes on infrastructure continue. He said there was no need for residents to evacuate now, though they should be ready to do so.
Kyiv could be left without central heating at a time when temperatures can fall as low as -15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit), Klitschko said in an interview with Reuters.
Russia’s ally Belarus said it was moving troops and military hardware to counteract what it called a threat of terrorism, amid signs that Moscow may be pressing Minsk to open a new front in Ukraine as the war has bogged down.
President Alexander Lukashenko, who relied on Russian troops to put down a popular revolt two years ago, has so far kept his own army from joining the war in Ukraine. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu flew unannounced to the capital Minsk on Saturday, and he and Belarusian counterpart Viktor Khrenin signed amendments to the two countries’ security cooperation agreement, without disclosing the new terms.
On Wednesday, the Belarusian Security Council, quoted by state news agency Belta, said troops and hardware would be moving in the country over the next two days, with imitation weapons used for training. It provided no details about the number of troops or types of hardware that would be moved.
Thousands of Russian troops have deployed in Belarus since October, Ukraine says, and Belarus authorities have increasingly spoken of a threat of “terrorism” from partisans operating from across the border. Lukashenko has ordered his military to compile information about reservists by the end of this year.


Ukraine conflict intrudes on UN biodiversity summit

Updated 07 December 2022

Ukraine conflict intrudes on UN biodiversity summit

  • The broadsides by the European Union and New Zealand came after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Moscow of "ecocide"
  • Russia fired back that the meeting was an inappropriate forum and accused its critics of attempting to sabotage a new global deal for nature

MONTREAL: The Ukraine conflict cast a shadow over a high-stakes UN summit on biodiversity in Montreal on Wednesday, as Western nations slammed the environmental destruction brought about by Russia’s invasion.
The broadsides by the European Union and New Zealand — which spoke on behalf of other countries, including the United States — came after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky accused Moscow of “ecocide” and of devastating his country’s dolphin population.
Russia fired back that the meeting was an inappropriate forum and accused its critics of attempting to sabotage a new global deal for nature.
“The war brings about pollution and long-term environmental degradation, destroying protected areas and natural habitats,” Hugo Schally, an EU representative at the meeting, known as COP15, said.
“While the war rages on, it blocks much needed action on nature conservation and restoration,” he added.
New Zealand’s Rosemary Paterson, speaking for the JUSCANZ group that includes Japan, Australia and the United States, added: “The widespread environmental destruction and transboundary harm caused by Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine cannot go unnoticed in this forum.”
Invoking a right-of-reply, Russian delegate Denis Rebrikov said: “We resolutely refute allegations against us as being outside the scope of this COP on biodiversity.”
He added that conflicts of the recent past — such as those in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan and Syria — were not brought up at environmental summits, despite the harms done to ecosystems.
“It’s hard to avoid the impression that these countries are deliberately trying to sabotage the adoption of a global framework” on biodiversity, added Rebrikov.
Earlier in the day, President Zelensky of Ukraine said tens of thousands of dead dolphins had washed up on the Black Sea and accused Russia of “ecocide.” Ukrainian scientists have blamed military sonar used by Russian warships for the disaster.
Delegates from across the world have gathered from December 7 to 19 in Canada to try to hammer out a new deal for nature: a 10-year framework aimed at saving the planet’s forests, oceans and species before it’s too late.
Draft targets include a cornerstone pledge to protect 30 percent of the world’s land and seas by 2030, eliminating harmful fishing and agriculture subsidies and tackling invasive species and reducing pesticides.


Ukraine’s Zelensky named Time’s 2022 ‘Person of the Year’

Updated 07 December 2022

Ukraine’s Zelensky named Time’s 2022 ‘Person of the Year’

  • Time says Zelensky inspired Ukrainians, won global accolades for courage in resisting Russia
  • Tesla Inc. Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk was named Time’s “Person of the Year” in 2021

Time magazine named Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky 2022’s “Person of the Year” on Wednesday, saying he inspired Ukrainians and won global accolades for his courage in resisting Russia’s devastating invasion.

Refusing to leave Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv at the outbreak of the war as Russian bombs rained down, the former comedian rallied his compatriots in broadcasts from the capital and traveled across his war-torn nation, the publication noted in bestowing its annual title.

On Tuesday, Zelensky visited Ukrainian troops near the front lines in eastern Ukraine.

“Zelensky’s success as a wartime leader has relied on the fact that courage is contagious. It spread through Ukraine’s political leadership in the first days of the invasion, as everyone realized the president had stuck around,” Time wrote in acknowledging the 44-year-old leader.

This image courtesy of TIME/TIME Person of the Year shows the cover of Time magazine announcing Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as the 2022 Person of the Year. (AFP/NEIL JAMIESON/TIME/TIME PERSON OF THE YEAR)

Tesla Inc. Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk was named Time’s “Person of the Year” in 2021, a year that saw his electric car company become the most valuable carmaker in the world. Time began this tradition in 1927.