Amid ruckus, delays, new MPs take oath in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan assemblies

Members of jailed former prime minister Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party and show a portrait of Khan during their oath taking ceremony following their election at the provincial legislature of Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Assembly in Peshawar on February 28, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 29 February 2024

Amid ruckus, delays, new MPs take oath in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan assemblies

  • Ex-PM Khan’s PTI party is in a comfortable position to form KP government for third consecutive terms after sweeping the poll
  • Nationalist parties protest against alleged rigging outside Balochistan Assembly, vow to continue agitation in days ahead 

PESHAWAR/QUETTA: Newly elected lawmakers in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces were sworn in on Wednesday after the inaugural session of the legislative assemblies were held in the provincial capitals of Peshawar and Quetta amid ruckus, protests.

Local media footage showed some elected legislators in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa could not enter the assembly hall on time since former prime minister Imran Khan’s party workers had clogged the area in celebration of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI) election performance.

Independent candidates backed by Khan’s PTI party swept the provincial elections in KP by securing more than 90 seats and are expected to form a government for a third consecutive term.

The election in the province was held on 111 general seats after the contest was postponed in two constituencies due to the death of two candidates in them. Khan has already nominated Ali Amin Gandapur to be his party’s candidate to be the province’s new chief minister.

“PTI’s nominated Chief Minister Ali Amin Gandapur reached Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assembly and welcomed all the members and workers by holding the photo of Imran Khan,” the party said in a social media post while sharing the footage.

Khan has been in prison since last August after being convicted on charges of corruption and divulging state secrets. Speaker of the outgoing KP assembly Mushtaq Ghani administered the oath to the newly elected lawmakers. The assembly session will be followed by protests by Awami National Party (ANP) that only managed to secure one seat in the house and has leveled rigging allegations.

In Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province, 57 newly elected members took oath during Wednesday’s session. Five important members of the assembly, including former interior minister Sarfraz Bugti, ex-Balochistan chief minister Jam Kamal Khan and former Senate chairman Sadiq Sanjrani did not come to the assembly to take oath.

Veteran parliamentarian Engineer Zamrak Khan Achakzai administered oath to the new members as former speaker Jan Muhammad Jamali was absent.

“Voting to elect the speaker and deputy speaker of the house will be held on Feb. 29, 2024, and all members will use their secret ballot of voting for the custodian of the house,” Achakzai said after the swearing-in had taken place.

Pakistan’s election regulator has so far not announced the final results of three provincial constituencies, PB-21 Hub, PB-07 Ziarat and PB-14 Naseerabad.

In Balochistan, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) succeeded in securing a majority of seats in the provincial house of 65 members. Both are engaged in talks to form the next coalition government in Pakistan’s largest province by land, which has been wracked by a low-lying insurgency for the past two decades.

Meanwhile, dozens of protesters from Baloch nationalist parties such as the Hazara Democratic Party, the Awami National Party and the Pashtoonkhwa National Awami Party protested outside the assembly against alleged rigging in the Feb. 8 polls, calling the new assembly “illegitimate.”

“We do not accept this assembly as a legitimate forum and the proceedings of this assembly won’t be considered legitimate,” Asmat Yari, a central council member of the Hazara Democratic Party, told Arab News.

“We have been protesting for the last 20 days and will continue our struggle against election’s mandate theft.”

Social media platform X blocked in Pakistan over national security, ministry says

Updated 8 sec ago

Social media platform X blocked in Pakistan over national security, ministry says

  • Millions of users have reportedly faced problems using X in Pakistan since mid-February
  • Decision to ban X done to maintain public order, preserve nation’s integrity, says ministry

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s interior ministry said on Wednesday it blocked access to social media platform X around the time of February’s election on national security concerns, confirming a long-suspected shutdown.
Users have reported problems using X, formerly known as Twitter, in Pakistan since mid-February, but the government has made no official announcements.
The interior ministry mentioned the shutdown in a written court submission on Wednesday.
“It is very pertinent to mention here that the failure of Twitter/X to adhere to the lawful directives of the government of Pakistan and address concerns regarding the misuse of its platform necessitated the imposition of a ban,” said the report, seen by Reuters.
It said X had been reluctant to resolve the issue. X did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment on Wednesday.
“The decision to impose a ban on Twitter/X in Pakistan was made in the interest of upholding national security, maintaining public order, and preserving the integrity of our nation,” the report said.
Access to X has remained limited since the Feb. 8 national election, which the party of jailed former prime minister Imran Khan says was rigged.
Among Pakistan’s political parties, Khan’s party is the most prolific user of social media platforms, particularly after the country’s traditional media began censoring news about the ex-cricket star and his party ahead of the polls. Khan has over 20 million followers on X, making him the most followed Pakistani.
Khan says Pakistan’s military was behind his ouster as prime minister in 2022 and that it helped his opponents form the current government, despite candidates backed by his party winning most seats in February’s polls. The military denies this charge.
He remains in jail on a number of convictions, most of which came days before the election.
Many government officials in Pakistan, notably Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, continue to use X — most likely through VPN software that bypasses the blocks.
The decision to temporarily block X was taken after considering confidential reports from Pakistan’s intelligence and security agencies, the report said.
It said “hostile elements operating on Twitter/X have nefarious intentions to create an environment of chaos and instability, with the ultimate goal of destabilising the country and plunging it into some form of anarchy.”

With keffiyeh at its heart, Pakistani artist’s new series spotlights Palestinian women’s resistance 

Updated 17 April 2024

With keffiyeh at its heart, Pakistani artist’s new series spotlights Palestinian women’s resistance 

  • Kuwait-born Annem Zaidi’s exhibition of white silhouettes on dark canvases is on display in Karachi until April 25
  • Zaidi says Palestinian women’s courage and resilience in the face of Israeli aggression inspired her latest series

KARACHI: The large white silhouette of a woman stood in sharp contrast to the black canvas. The faceless lady rested her head on her arm, the checkered keffiyeh around her neck spelling one word: resistance. 

The painting is part of the latest exhibition by Kuwait-born Pakistani artist Annem Zaidi at the Sanat Gallery in Pakistan’s southern port city of Karachi. Titled “From The River To The Sea,” the series is a tribute to Palestinian women and their courage in the face of Israel’s ongoing military onslaught in Gaza. 

The exhibition kicked off on Tuesday and will continue till April 25, featuring 14 paintings, all of which are white silhouettes painted on black canvases. 

Ten percent of the artist’s commission will be donated to the people of Gaza through the Pakistani charity Alkhidmat Foundation, Zaidi, who is Lahore-based, told Arab News.

The traditional Palestinian keffiyeh checkered scarf has lately come to symbolize Palestinian nationalism and solidarity worldwide and occupies a central place in Zaidi’s latest collection of paintings.

“In this latest body of work, it [keffiyeh] is representing the female strength,” Zaidi said at her exhibition on Tuesday. “It is a symbol of the Palestinian female strength, their resilience, their courage.”

Out of the 33,800 Palestinians killed since Israel launched an air and ground offensive in Gaza on Oct. 7, 10,000 are women. In a statement to mark International Women’s Day last month, the Gaza Health Ministry said over 60,000 pregnant Palestinian women were suffering from malnutrition, dehydration and lack of proper health care. With acute hunger now spreading across the enclave and virtually no food available, mothers and small children are the most vulnerable.

Like millions of other people around the globe, these horrors have also hit Zaidi. 

“What’s going around in Palestine, being a mother, it is extremely upsetting,” she said. “It’s really taken a toll on my health, on my mental health.”

Scheherezade Junejo, the curator of the show, described Zaidi’s art as “dedicated to the plight of an oppressed people, symbolized through the use of a piece of fabric.”

“Rather than a blatant politicization of current events, this series shows a softer, more humane side of a people powerless in the face of genocide,” Junejo said. 

For Zaidi, the body language and the garments of the women in her latest series of paintings depicted confidence. 

“So, they’re not like your head-covered or women who look very, very oppressed,” she explained. “Because even though they [Palestinian women] are being oppressed, at the same time, I feel we should focus more on the strength that they have shown over the years.”

Zaidi, who has exhibited her work in Vienna, London, New Delhi, and Dubai previously, pointed to one painting that she said was her favorite: the silhouette of the woman resting her head on her arm. 

 “It’s like she’s just reflecting about the current events and whatever is going around,” Zaidi said, “and at the same time, the painting has got so much strength in it.”

MSF says ‘deeply concerned’ for Afghans as Pakistan prepares for second round of deportations

Updated 17 April 2024

MSF says ‘deeply concerned’ for Afghans as Pakistan prepares for second round of deportations

  • Pakistan had announced it would start expelling Afghans with state-issued citizen cards after Eid Al-Fitr 
  • Pakistan has already expelled around half a million ‘undocumented’ Afghan refugees since last November

ISLAMABAD: The international charity Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said this week it was “deeply concerned” as Pakistani authorities prepare for phase two of a ‘repatriation plan’ that has mostly targeted Afghans in the country since it was launched late last year.

Last month, the Pakistan government said it had started mapping Afghan nationals with Pakistan-issued citizen cards for deportation as part of phase two of its expulsion drive in which around half a million so-called undocumented Afghan refugees have already been expelled since November. The new campaign will mainly target 800,000 refugees who hold Pakistan-issued Afghan citizenship cards (ACCs).

“In the wake of the recent announcement by the Pakistani authorities that ‘Phase Two’ of the ‘repatriation plan’ of Afghans in the country will begin after Eid (15 April), Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is deeply concerned for the rights and welfare of those impacted by the latest round of deportations,” the charity said in a statement. 

“Many Afghans living in Pakistan have been there for decades and have spent more time in the country than their country of origin, without any legal recourse to remain in the only place they can effectively call ‘home,’” MSF added.

“For many Afghans, this ‘repatriation’ means packing up their belongings and carrying them on a horse, cart, car and bus and traveling en masse to a country that is already struggling with widespread poverty, inadequate health services and increased restrictions on women.”

In October 2023, Pakistan announced phase one of the ‘Illegal Foreigners’ Repatriation Plan’ with a 30-day deadline for “undocumented” Afghan refugees to leave the country or be subject to deportation, putting 1.4 million refugees at risk.

In phase two of the ‘repatriation plan,’ Pakistan-issued ACC holders will be expelled from the country after the Eid Al-Fitr festival, a major Muslim holiday that fell on April 10. Phase three is expected to result in the deportation of UNHCR-issued Proof of Registration (PoR) card holders.

Until November last year, before it began the deportation drive, Pakistan was home to over 4 million Afghan migrants and refugees, about 1.7 million of whom were undocumented, according to the government. Afghans make up the largest portion of migrants, many of whom came after the Taliban took over Kabul in 2021, but a large number have been present since the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The expulsion drive started after a spike in suicide bombings last year which the Pakistan government — without providing evidence — said mostly involved Afghans. Islamabad has also blamed them for smuggling and other militant violence and crime.

At the time, cash-strapped Pakistan, navigating record inflation and a tough International Monetary Fund bailout program, also said undocumented migrants had drained its resources for decades.

Despite the challenges facing migrants, Pakistan is the only home many of them know and a sanctuary from the economic deprivation and extreme social conservatism that Afghanistan is grappling with.

While hundreds of thousands have left Pakistan since the expiry of a November 1, 2023 deadline, the South Asian country still hosts around 1.35 million registered Afghan refugees, with an additional 803,200 possessing ACCs, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR).

Heavy rains kill 32 in northwest Pakistan in six days

Updated 17 April 2024

Heavy rains kill 32 in northwest Pakistan in six days

  • PDMA warns of another spell of heavy downpours from April 17-21
  • Rs160 million released for assistance of families of deceased people

PESHAWAR: At least 32 people were killed and another 42 injured in the last six days as heavy rains and floods have thrashed Pakistan’s northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province, the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) said in a report on Wednesday. 

The rains started last Friday and have caused large-scale damage in different parts of KP while the PDMA has warned of another spell of heavy downpours in the province from April 17-21. 

The report issued by PDMA on Wednesday morning said the 32 casualties in KP included 15 children, 12 men, and 5 women while the injured comprised 6 women, 28 men, and 7 children. A total of 1370 houses had also been damaged, 160 of them completely.

The country’s national and provincial disaster management authorities said on Tuesday almost 60 people had been killed throughout the country due to the current spell of rains and resultant floods. 

Residents stand near the flooded waters outside their homes following heavy rains in Charsadda district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on April 17, 2024.(AFP)

“Further heavy rains are expected to cause flash floods in low-lying areas [of KP] and have raised concerns about landslides in hilly regions,” PDMA spokesperson Ihsan Dawar told Arab News. 

“The district administrations should take proactive and immediate measures before the second spell of the rains begins … and ensure the availability of small and large machinery.”

Some of the districts where loss of life and property took place are Khyber, Upper and Lower Dir, Chitral Upper and Lower, Swat, Bajaur, Shangla, Mansehra, Mohmand, Malakand, Kurram, Tank, Mardan, Peshawar, Charsadda, Nowshera, Buner, Hangu, Batagram, Bannu, North and South Waziristan, Kohat, Dera Ismail Khan and Kozai.

A displaced man waits for assistance outside his tent at a makeshift camp after fleeing from his flood hit home following heavy rains in Charsadda district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province on April 17, 2024. (AFP)

Relief activities have been launched in several affected areas and the PDMA has released over Rs160 million for families of those who have died due to rain-related incidents, according to the PDMA spokesperson. 

“The loss of precious human lives in various incidents resulting from the rains is deeply saddening,” the chief minister of KP said in a statement.

The eastern province of Punjab has reported 21 lighting- and collapse-related deaths, while Balochistan, in the country’s southwest, reported 10 dead as authorities declared a state of emergency following flash floods.

On Wednesday, Balochistan was bracing for more rains amid ongoing rescue and relief operations, as flash floods inundated villages near the coastal city of Gwadar.

In 2022, downpours swelled rivers and at one point flooded a third of Pakistan, killing 1,739 people. The floods also caused $30 billion in damages, from which Pakistan is still trying to rebuild. Balochistan saw rainfall at 590 percent above average that year, while Karachi saw 726 percent more rainfall than usual.

Pakistan has world’s highest number of viral hepatitis C infections, WHO report says

Updated 17 April 2024

Pakistan has world’s highest number of viral hepatitis C infections, WHO report says

  • Pakistan among ten nations that collectively shoulder nearly two-thirds of the global burden of hepatitis B and C
  • Hepatitis is second leading infectious cause of death globally with 1.3 million deaths yearly, same as tuberculosis

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan has the highest number of viral hepatitis C infections in the world, around 8.8 million, and accounts for 44 percent of all new hepatitis C infections attributed to unsafe medical injections, a new report from the World Health Organization released this month says.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 2024 Global Hepatitis Report, the number of lives lost due to viral hepatitis is increasing, with the disease being the second leading infectious cause of death globally with 1.3 million deaths per year, the same as tuberculosis, a top infectious killer.

New data from 187 countries show that the estimated number of deaths from viral hepatitis increased from 1.1 million in 2019 to 1.3 million in 2022. Of these, 83 percent were caused by hepatitis B, and 17 percent by hepatitis C. Every day, there are 3500 people dying globally due to hepatitis B and C infections.

“This report paints a troubling picture: despite progress globally in preventing hepatitis infections, deaths are rising because far too few people with hepatitis are being diagnosed and treated,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. 

“WHO is committed to supporting countries to use all the tools at their disposal — at access prices — to save lives and turn this trend around.”

While Pakistan is the world leader according to the WHO report for hepatitis C infections, if the number of hepatitis B and hepatitis C cases are combined, Pakis­tan ranks fifth in the world, only trailing behind China, India, Indonesia and Nige­ria, with around 12.6 million cases reported in 2022.

Bangladesh, China, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, the Russian Federation and Viet Nam, collectively shoulder nearly two-thirds of the global burden of hepatitis B and C. 

Achieving universal access to prevention, diagnosis, and treatment in these ten countries by 2025, alongside intensified efforts in the African Region, is essential to get the global response back on track to meet the Sustainable Development Goals, according to the WHO.