Pakistan designates over 55 percent polling stations as ‘sensitive or highly sensitive’ ahead of February polls

A Pakistani policeman stands guard next a stage of opposition political parties during an anti-government protest in Karachi on July 25, 2019. (AFP/File)
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Updated 16 January 2024
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Pakistan designates over 55 percent polling stations as ‘sensitive or highly sensitive’ ahead of February polls

  • Out of 92,353 total polling stations, 30,441 declared sensitive and another 20,606 highly sensitive
  • Threat of militancy and risk of confrontations between two or more groups determine designation of polling booth

ISLAMABAD: The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has tentatively declared 55 percent of polling stations for upcoming elections as “sensitive” or “highly sensitive,” the regulator told Arab News on Tuesday, with experts suggesting additional security forces be deployed to boost voter confidence but cautioning personnel to take a “non-aggressive and non-intimidating” approach.

The ECP has established 92,353 polling stations across the country for general elections due on Feb. 8, with 51,047 labeled sensitive or highly sensitive (30,441 sensitive and 20,606 are highly sensitive). In Pakistan, polling booths are usually marked sensitive in areas with a record of militant or other types of violence.

“Police in each district have devised a comprehensive security plan on the basis of the current situation and past history and categorized the status of stations as normal, sensitive and highly sensitive and accordingly deployment of security personnel will be made,” the ECP told Arab News in a statement.

Elections in the politically and economically troubled South Asian nation were originally due to be held in November, 90 days after the dissolution of the lower house of parliament in August, but were delayed to February due to the fresh demarcation of constituencies under a new census. Pakistan is currently being run by a caretaker government under interim Prime Minister Anwaar ul Haq Kakar that is meant to oversee a general election.

In the run up to the polls, a spike in militant attacks has raised growing concerns about security arrangements. Last week, a candidate campaigning door to door was shot dead in the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, while another candidate for the National Assembly from the southwestern province of Balochistan was seriously injured in a separate armed attack.

Last week the senate passed a non-binding resolution to further delay the elections, citing security concerns and a harsh winter in northern areas, but the ECP said on Monday it would not delay polls.

Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, president of the Islamabad-based think tank PILDAT, said sensitive polling stations required extra security measures including the presence of police and other law enforcement agencies.

“Presence of security forces outside the polling stations is generally useful as it inspires confidence of voters that peace will be maintained,” he told Arab News. “Security forces need to be non-aggressive and non-intimidating and ECP should make sure that some minimal training or briefing should be conducted for them.”

Former ECP secretary Kanwar Dilshad said the election regulator determined sensitive and highly sensitive polling stations after consultations with the interior ministry, security institutions, intelligence agencies, provincial home departments, and concerned returning officers (RO).

“The primary factors considered include the potential threat of terrorism and the risk of confrontations between two or more groups,” he told Arab News.

Entire constituencies were not declared sensitive, he explained, but only certain polling stations in each constituency where security concerns prevailed.

“For these polling stations, there is a slight increase in police deployment for sensitive areas and a slightly higher deployment for highly sensitive areas,” Dilshad said.

Other than police, paramilitary forces and Rangers’ presence was intensified at such polling stations, with standby forces stationed approximately two kilometers away to address any “unforeseen situations,” Dilshad added.

Election expert Muddassir Rizvi, the chief operating officer at the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), said there was no evident direct relationship between turnout or outcomes at a constituency and the number of polling stations designated as sensitive. 

“But actual violence itself affects the election outcome in multiple ways, for example if violence erupts at a polling station, polling halts and voters get less time to vote, which means decreased turnout,” he told Arab News.

 “Many people will not go to polling stations to cast their vote which also again leads to suppressed voting which can impact the result of that constituency.”

He said the ECP did not release names of sensitive polling booths publicly but they were designated such for internal purposes only so necessary security arrangements could be made.

“Which also makes sense because ahead of time if we tell people this is a very highly sensitive polling station that will keep people away due to the fear of violence or a certain threat,” Rizvi said.

Elections in Pakistan come as militants who aim to overthrow the government and install their own brand of strict Islamic law in the predominantly Muslim country of 241 million people have stepped up attacks since revoking a cease-fire agreement with the government in late 2022.

Security are expected to remain a major concern ahead of the elections, political analyst Aasiya Riaz said.

“But contrary to popular belief, polling day issues do not hamper the outcome of an election to a large extent,” she told Arab News. “Pakistan’s polling experience shows us that pre-poll rigging and vote count and post-poll rigging have affected our election results far worse than irregularities on polling day.”


Pakistani politician writes to Hamas chief, condoles over death of sons in Israeli strike

Updated 12 April 2024
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Pakistani politician writes to Hamas chief, condoles over death of sons in Israeli strike

  • The killings came as talks dragged on in Cairo for a temporary ceasefire and hostage release deal
  • Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman calls Israel’s targeting of families of Hamas leaders ‘admission of failure’ 

ISLAMABAD: Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, head of the Jamiat Ulema Islam (JUI) religious party, has written a letter to Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh to condole over the death of his three sons in an Israeli strike in Gaza, the JUI said on Thursday.

Israel confirmed the killings that came as talks in Cairo for a temporary ceasefire and hostage release deal dragged on without signs of a breakthrough.

Speaking to Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera, Haniyeh suggested the strike, which also killed four of his grandchildren, was an attempt to shift Hamas’s negotiating stance.

In his letter to the Hamas chief, Rehman said targeting families and children of Hamas leaders was an “admission of failure” by Israel.

“The blood of these martyrs will not go in vain,” he stated. “We support Hamas’ efforts in fight [against Israeli occupation of Palestine].”

The Pakistani politician said his party condemned the targeting of hospitals and refugee camps by Israel. He called on the international community to end the oppression and violence on the Palestinians forever.

Pakistan does not recognize the state of Israel and calls for an independent Palestinian state based on “internationally agreed parameters” and the pre-1967 borders with Al-Quds Al-Sharif as its capital.

Rehman’s statement came amid talks, mediated by the United States, Egypt and Qatar, which have been ongoing in Cairo since Sunday.

Despite calls for a ceasefire, Israel has carried out strikes in the Gaza Strip, particularly in the south of the territory, witnesses say.

The war broke out with Hamas’s October 7 attack against Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,170 people, mostly civilians, according to Israeli figures.

Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 33,482 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the Palestinian health ministry.


IMF chief says Pakistan seeking potential follow-up loan program

Updated 12 April 2024
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IMF chief says Pakistan seeking potential follow-up loan program

  • Pakistan, IMF last month reached an agreement on second and final review of the $3 billion stand-by arrangement
  • The IMF board is expected to review the matter in late April, but no firm date has been set, a spokesperson said

WASHINGTON: Pakistan is in discussions with the International Monetary Fund on a potential follow-up program to its nine-month, $3 billion stand-by arrangement, IMF chief Kristalina Georgieva said on Thursday, adding that it had important issues to solve.

Georgieva told an event at the Atlantic Council think tank, that Pakistan was successfully completing its existing program with the IMF and its economy was performing somewhat better, with reserves now being built up.

“There is a commitment to continue on this path, and the country is turning to the fund for potentially having a follow-up program,” Georgieva said, flagging issues that the struggling South Asian nation still needed to address.

“There are very important issues to be solved in Pakistan: the tax base, how the richer part of society contributes to the economy, the way public spending is being directed and of course, creating ... a more transparent environment.”

Pakistan and the IMF last month reached a staff-level agreement on the second and last review of the $3 billion stand-by arrangement, which, if cleared by the global lender’s board, will release about $1.1 billion to the struggling South Asian nation. The IMF’s board is expected to review the matter in late April, but no firm date has been set, a spokesperson said.

Both sides have also spoken about negotiating a longer-term bailout and continuing with necessary policy reforms to rein in deficits, build up reserves and manage soaring debt servicing.


Islamabad banned Zainebiyoun Brigade after it became threat to Pakistan’s security — experts

Updated 12 April 2024
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Islamabad banned Zainebiyoun Brigade after it became threat to Pakistan’s security — experts

  • The Zainebiyoun Brigade comprises Pakistanis allegedly trained by Iran for fighting in Syria alongside Bashar Assad’s forces
  • Islamabad’s move comes days before Iranian’s president’s expected visit, aimed at repairing ties after tit-for-tat strikes in Jan.

KARACHI: Pakistan designated the Zainebiyoun Brigade, an Iran-backed militant group comprising Pakistani nationals that has been active in Syria, as a “terrorist” organization after it became a potential threat to the country’s security, experts said on Friday.

The Pakistani government had reasons to believe that Zainebiyoun Brigade was engaged in certain activities “prejudicial to the peace and security of the country,” read a notification, issued by the country’s interior minister on March 29, which emerged on Thursday. Subsequently, Pakistan’s National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA) updated its official list of proscribed organizations, placing the Iran-backed group at 79th spot.

The development came a day after Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, warned that Israel “must be punished and will be punished,” following an April 1 attack that destroyed Iran’s consulate building in Damascus and killed seven Revolutionary Guards, including two generals. Some analysts believe Tehran might be planning an attack on Israeli interests in the world and could move the Zainebiyoun Brigade for this purpose.

Since the US Treasury added the Zainebiyoun Brigade to its financial blacklist in Jan. 2019, Pakistani authorities have arrested several militants affiliated with the group, notably in the country’s commercial hub of Karachi, a significant recruitment hub for the militant outfit, along with three other regions – Parachinar, Quetta and Gilgit Baltistan.

Security experts say Islamabad moved to outlaw the Zainebiyoun Brigade due to the threat it posed to Pakistan’s security in the current scenario.

“Its [Zainebiyoun’s] activities may trigger major sectarian conflict as it used to be in Pakistan sometimes ago as retaliation by Sunni extremist groups may further complicate the environment,” Abdullah Khan, an Islamabad-based security expert, told Arab News.

Previously, Zainebiyoun members fighting in Syria and Iraq were considered an “indirect threat,” but now the group’s members have reportedly returned to Pakistan and replaced banned sectarian outfit Sipa-e-Muhammad “as the main militant group targeting opponents,” according to Khan. The Zainebiyoun Brigade has now become “a very serious threat to Pakistan’s sectarian harmony.”

A Pakistani official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the decision to designate Zainebiyoun Brigade as a proscribed entity was made after Iran’s attacks inside Pakistan.

“The decision, implemented on March 29, was taken in a high-level meeting following Iran’s attack inside Pakistan,” the official told Arab News. “Increasing attacks in Balochistan by militants based in Iran further pushed for the implementation of this decision.”

In January, Iran targeted two suspected bases of the Jaish-ul-Adl militant group in Pakistan with missiles, prompting a rapid military riposte from Islamabad targeting what it said were separatist militants in Iran.

The tit-for-tat strikes were the highest-profile cross-border intrusions by the two countries in recent years and raised alarm about a wider conflict.

“Iran-Pakistan relations have been strained since the Iranians fired missiles in Pakistan earlier this year, which has triggered questions about Iranian relationship with various armed groups active in Pakistan, including the Zainebiyoun,” Dr. Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the US Institute of Peace, told Arab News.

“Even if not a decisive factor in Pakistani calculus to designate Zainebiyoun, it is difficult to separate the decision from the state of Iran-Pakistan bilateral ties.”

Pakistan’s designation of the Zainebiyoun Brigade as a militant outfit also comes days before an expected visit by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in the third week of April and is likely to put pressure on Tehran in the talks later this month.

Abdul Sayed, a Sweden-based independent scholar on militancy, politics and security, concurred the move was also linked to “growing tensions” between the two countries.

“Recently, amid growing tensions between Pakistan and Iran, this move can be interpreted as Pakistan’s attempt to thwart potential sectarian attacks aimed at destabilizing the country,” he said.

“Iran has accused Pakistan of harboring sanctuaries for Jaish-ul-Adl [militant group] and has threatened repercussions.”

Sayed said the group had emerged as a “dangerous” organization as significant number of youths previously associated with other outfits had joined its ranks.

“Its militants have also been implicated in terrorist attacks against rival sects within Pakistan,” he added.

In January this year, the counter-terrorism department (CTD) in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province said they had apprehended Syed Muhammad Mehdi, a suspected militant associated with the Zainebiyoun Brigade who had been involved in an assassination attempt on Mufti Taqi Usmani, a top Pakistani cleric, in Karachi in 2019. The attack had killed two of Mufti Usmani’s guards.

In July 2022, then Pakistan interior minister Rana Sanaullah Khan told the Senate that Zainebiyoun Brigade members were among the militants “found actively involved in terrorist activities” in the country in 2019-2021.

In recent years, Pakistani authorities have announced the arrest of a number of suspects who they said were affiliated with the Zainebiyoun Brigade and were trained in Iran.

In Nov 2020, an Associated Press report said a number of Pakistanis were among 19 pro-Iran militia fighters killed in eastern Syria.

In March 2020, a senior official told Arab News that up to 50 Pakistani fighters were killed by the Turkish army and Syrian forces in a major rebel stronghold in the northwest of Syria.


Victoria buggies, remnants of colonial times, trot on during Ramadan, Eid days in Karachi

Updated 12 April 2024
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Victoria buggies, remnants of colonial times, trot on during Ramadan, Eid days in Karachi

  • Overtaken by cars, buses, rickshaws and motorbikes, horse-drawn carriages were once popular Karachi transport
  • Drivers say portside metropolis had over 7,000 buggies until few decades ago, now less than 100 in city of 20 million

KARACHI: Fazal Aman led his horse Pappu out of a stable in the Soldier Bazaar area of Karachi and clasped it to the British-style Victoria carriage adorned with fairy lights, before setting off on a five-kilometer journey to the port city’s posh Bahadurabad neighborhood in search of passengers.

Remnants of Pakistan’s colonial past, the doorless, four-wheel open carriage named after Queen Victoria and drawn by one or two horses, has a coachman’s seat at the front and a retractable roof over the passenger bench. The carriages used to be among the main modes of transportation in Karachi around a century ago and then remained in use in the older areas of the city around Gandhi Garden, Ajmel Colony, Parsi Colony off M.A. Jinnah Road and adjoining areas. Today, there are less than 100 buggies left on Karachi’s roads, mostly used for sightseeing tours throughout the year or by holiday revelers during festive seasons like Ramadan and Eid.

Indeed, Ramadan in particular brings some respite for carriage drivers, who say they sit idle for the rest of the year. The carriage fee is up to Rs10,000 ($36) for a full day tour but in Ramadan, drivers charge around $18-20 a ride.

“During Ramadan, our business thrives,” Aman said as he finished a ride near the city’s famous Chaar Minaar roundabout. “We manage our expenses, our horse feed expenses are covered, and our children have a good Eid.”

The sight and sound of the carriages pulling up are a source of joy for residents and tourists, particularly children who pile in and jostle for a place on the driver’s seat.

“I really enjoyed the experience. It’s an extremely amazing thing,” said Safa Cochinwala, 13, who took a ride with her siblings and grandfather. “The lights are very nice and the experience is just something else.”

Another resident, Jawad Jafrani, had taken his two kids for a ride after the iftar sunset meal.

“During Ramadan, these activities flourish,” the 36-year-old told Arab News as he helped his children onto a buggy. “Children nowadays are particularly attracted to carriages decorated with lights and insist on riding on those.

“Previously, children used to get to experience carriages at weddings and other special events, but now that trend has faded. Now cars have arrived, the expensive ones, and people drive in them but this [carriage ride] is still unique.”

Karachi resident Adeel Arif remembered a time when carriages were widely used to ferry children, including himself, to and from school and after school classes.

“I tell the children that when I was your age, I used to go for after school classes in this carriage’,” he said. “’While you ride them for leisure, we used to travel in them for studying.”

“SIT IDLE YEAR ROUND”

But despite the post-iftar rides bringing business, Aman worries about the months ahead when he knows the work will once more dry up. When Aman’s father and grandfather were coachmen, there were over 7,000 carriages running on Karachi streets, a number now down to down to less than 100 in a city with a population of more than 20 million people.

This decline has led many, including Aman’s elder brother, to abandon the profession.

“Apart from Ramadan, we usually sit idle, waiting for bookings. When bookings come, we go out of home. If they don’t come, we sit idle for months,” Aman said.

Inflation has also hit the business.

“Many people are leaving the carriage business due to inflation and due to the high prices of horses and even horse feed,” Aman said. “A carriage is prepared at a cost of at least Rs450,000 [$1,618] while I have bought the horse separately for Rs210,000 [$755].”

But despite the challenges, Aman does not want Victoria carriages to die out.

“I want my family legacy to not end. This is an asset of Pakistan, may it always remain so,” he said, wistfully. This is the identity of the city of Karachi, let’s not let it fade away.”


Pakistan, other Asia-Pacific states get new weapon in fight against drug-resistant TB

Updated 12 April 2024
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Pakistan, other Asia-Pacific states get new weapon in fight against drug-resistant TB

  • The region had most of world’s estimated 10.6 million new TB cases in 2022, according to WHO
  • A major challenge in treating drug-resistant TB is to get patients to take the full medication course

MANILA: A faster and vastly more effective treatment for drug-resistant tuberculosis is being rolled out in the Asia-Pacific region, raising hopes of a “new era” in tackling one of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases.

The region had most of the world’s estimated 10.6 million new TB cases in 2022, and more than half of the 1.3 million deaths, World Health Organization (WHO) figures show.

While TB can be successfully treated with antibiotics, more than three percent of new TB patients are resistant to commonly prescribed drugs.

Until recently, treatment for these patients involved daily painful injections or a fistful of pills for 18 months or longer, while some endured severe side effects such as nausea and, in extreme cases, blindness.

Many people prematurely quit their treatment, which had a success rate of 63 percent or lower.

Now, a new drug regimen involving fewer pills and side effects is being rolled out in the Asia-Pacific, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia, where trials have shown a more than 90 percent cure rate after six months.

The treatment, known as BPaL, combines the antibiotics bedaquiline, pretomanid and linezolid, and has received regulatory approval in more than 60 countries since 2019, according to the non-profit TB Alliance, which developed it.

The WHO updated its guidelines in 2022 to allow BPaL to be used with or without a fourth antibiotic called moxifloxacin.

BPaL has been life-changing for Filipino cook Efifanio Brillante, who was diagnosed with drug-resistant TB in June 2022 and initially went on an older form of treatment.

Brillante, 57, was swallowing 20 tablets a day, but it left him feeling so nauseous that he couldn’t work or eat.

He stopped the medication after two weeks even though he knew the decision could be fatal.

“It’s very difficult. You’re always in bed,” Brillante told AFP about his experience of having TB.

“Sometimes I couldn’t even breathe.”

The following month, Brillante joined a BPaL trial at the Jose B Lingad Memorial General Hospital in Pampanga province, north of the Philippine capital Manila.

He took between three and seven pills a day and was cured after six months.

“I’m very thankful that I was healed,” Brillante told AFP in his home.

“If I didn’t take that BPaL, I might already be buried in the cemetery.”

TB, once called consumption, is caused by a bacteria that primarily attacks the lungs and is transmitted through the air by infected people, for example by coughing.

While it is found in every country, poorer people living and working in overcrowded conditions are at higher risk of the disease.

Eight countries accounted for two-thirds of new TB cases in 2022: India, Indonesia, China, the Philippines, Pakistan, Nigeria, Bangladesh and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

One of the biggest challenges of treating drug-resistant TB has been getting patients to take the full course of their medication.

Even in countries where treatment is free, patients face crippling travel costs to hospitals and loss of income, or even their job, due to the illness and side-effects of the drugs, leading many to stop taking their pills.

In Vietnam, most people diagnosed with TB are from low-income families, Hoang Thi Thanh Thuy from the Vietnam National Tuberculosis Program told AFP.

Nearly everyone with drug-resistant TB endured “catastrophic” expenses over the period of their treatment, she said.

“All of these difficulties can affect patient compliance and lead to poor treatment and increasing drug resistance,” Thuy said.

Identifying people with TB is also a challenge.

In Indonesia, some health care facilities are still not able to properly diagnose the disease, said Imran Pambudi of the health ministry.

Fear of social stigma from a positive diagnosis is also common.

“We’re trying to educate them that TB is a curable disease,” said Irene Flores, who led the BPaL trial at the Jose B Lingad Memorial General Hospital in the Philippines.

“If they come early, we can prevent complications.”

After years of decline, the number of people falling ill with TB and drug-resistant tuberculosis began increasing during the Covid-19 pandemic, which disrupted diagnosis and treatment, the WHO said previously.

After gargantuan global efforts to develop a vaccine against the coronavirus, the WHO has called for increased funding to fight TB.

“As TB stopped being a high income-country problem, motivation to invest in research and development for new TB drugs dried up,” said Sandeep Juneja, senior vice president of market access at the TB Alliance.

To help accelerate the rollout of BPaL, with or without moxifloxacin, the TB Alliance has set up a “knowledge hub” in Manila to provide training and assistance to other countries.

In India, where BPaL has been approved, there is growing impatience for it to be introduced into health clinics given the country’s world-beating caseload.

“BPaL should be rolled out soon because it will spare patients a lot of headaches and provide psychological relief too, besides reducing cost of treatment in the long run,” said Ravikant Singh, founder of advocacy group Doctors For You.

Juneja said the new regimen meant treating drug-resistant TB was no longer a guessing game of whether a patient would survive or not.

But more is needed to be done, he added.

“I hope this is... just the beginning of a new era of TB treatment where they will be even simpler, even shorter.”