Shehbaz Sharif becomes prime minister of Pakistan, nation politically divided and in economic crisis

In this handout photograph released by the Press Information Department (PID) on April 12, 2022, Pakistan's Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif reviews a guard of honor upon his arrival at the Prime Minister's House in Islamabad. (AFP/File)
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Updated 03 March 2024
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Shehbaz Sharif becomes prime minister of Pakistan, nation politically divided and in economic crisis

  • New PM will have to tackle tough opposition, maintain relations with army and fix security and financial problems
  • Lowering political temperatures will be key challenge for Sharif as ex-PM Khan maintains mass support in Pakistan

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan’s newly elected lower house of parliament on Sunday elected Shehbaz Sharif as prime minister for a second time, putting him back in a role he had stepped down from ahead of general elections on Feb. 8. 

Sharif, the candidate for his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and coalition allies, secured a comfortable win over Omar Ayub Khan of the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC) backed by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party of jailed former PM Imran Khan. 

Elections last month threw up a hung National Assembly and have been followed by weeks of protests by opposition parties over allegations of rigging and vote count fraud. 

In his first speech as PM, Sharif, 72, spoke of Pakistan’s burgeoning debt, saying it would be his government’s top priority to solve the economic struggles of the nation of 241 million people. 

“The parliament that we are sitting in, even the expenses of its proceedings are being paid through loans … Your salary and the salaries of all these people are being paid through loans,” the new PM said, as PML-N lawmekers cheered and opposition members chanted slogans against the leader of the house. 

“We will make Pakistan great and raise our heads high and move forward.”

Sharif, the younger brother of former three-time premier Nawaz Sharif, played a key role in keeping together a coalition of disparate parties for 16 months after parliament voted Imran Khan out of office in April 2022, and in securing a last gasp International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout deal in 2023. 

 

“CHALLENGES” 

Independent candidates backed by Khan gained the most seats, 93, after the elections, but the PML-N and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) of the Bhutto dynasty agreed to an alliance to form a coalition government on Feb. 20. No single party won a majority.

The Sunni Ittehad Council backed by Khan alleges that the election was rigged against it and has called for an audit of the polls. Lowering political temperatures will thus be a key challenge for Sharif as Khan maintains mass popular support in Pakistan, and a continued crackdown on his party and his remaining in jail would likely stoke tensions at a time when stability is needed to attract foreign investment to shore up the economy.

Sharif’s main role will also be to maintain ties with the military, which has directly or indirectly dominated Pakistan since independence. Unlike his elder brother, who has had a rocky relationship with the military in all his three terms, the younger Sharif is considered more acceptable and compliant by the generals, most independent analysts say.

For several years, the military has denied it interferes in politics. But it has in the past directly intervened to topple civilian governments three times, and no prime minister has finished a full five-year term since independence in 1947.

Sharif also takes over a time when the new government will need to take tough decisions to steer the country out of financial crisis, including negotiating a new bailout deal with the IMF. The current IMF program expires this month. A new program will mean committing to steps needed to stay on a narrow path to recovery, but which will limit policy options to provide relief to a deeply frustrated population and cater to industries that are looking for government support to spur growth. 

Inflation touched a high of 38 percent with record depreciation of the rupee currency under Sharif’s last government, mainly due to structural reforms necessitated by the IMF program. Pakistan continues to be enmeshed in economic crisis with inflation remaining high, hovering around 30 percent, and economic growth slowing to around 2 percent.

Other big moves by Sharif will include the privatization of loss-making state-owned enterprises such as the flagship carrier Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). The Sharifs have close ties with rulers in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which could help in securing investments in several projects Pakistan has lately showcased for sale.

Although defense and key foreign policy decisions are largely influenced by the military, Sharif will have to juggle relations with the US and China, both major allies. He is also faced with dealing with fraying ties with three of Pakistan’s four neighbors, India, Iran and Afghanistan.

Pakistan is also facing a troubling rise in militancy, which Sharif’s government will have to immediately tackle. 

“There are certainly difficulties but nothing is impossible if there is a will to do,” Sharif said in his maiden speech. 

“It is a long journey, thorny journey, full of hurdles but those nations who surmounted these huge obstacles, they became again, one of the most growing nations around the world.”

“CAN DO ADMINISTRATOR” 

Sharif, born in the eastern city of Lahore, belongs to a wealthy Kashmiri-origin family that was in the steel business. He started his political career as the chief minister of Punjab in 1997 with a signature “can-do” administrative style. Cabinet members and bureaucrats who have worked closely with him call him a workaholic.

As chief minister, the younger Sharif planned and executed a number of ambitious infrastructure mega-projects, including Pakistan’s first modern mass transport system in Lahore.

He was caught up in the national political upheaval when his brother was ousted from the premiership by a military coup in 1999 and he went into exile in Saudi Arabia.

Sharif entered the national political scene again when he became the chief of the PML-N after the elder Sharif was found guilty in 2017 on charges of concealing assets related to the Panama Papers revelations. The Sharifs have been emboriled in multiple corruption cases over the decades, which they say are politically motivated. 

Married twice, Shehbaz Sharif has two sons and two daughters from his first marriage. Only one of his sons, Hamza, is in politics and was briefly CM of Punjab in 2023.

With inputs from Reuters


Arrests follow barricades and encampments as US college students nationwide protest Gaza war

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Arrests follow barricades and encampments as US college students nationwide protest Gaza war

  • More than 100 pro-Palestinian demonstrators who had camped out on Columbia University’s upper Manhattan campus were arrested last week
Standoffs between pro-Palestinian student protesters and universities grew increasingly tense on both coasts Wednesday as hundreds encamped at Columbia University faced a deadline from the administration to clear out while dozens remained barricaded inside two buildings on a Northern California college campus.
Both are part of intensifying demonstrations over Israel’s war with Hamas by university students across the country, leading to dozens of arrests on charges of trespassing or disorderly conduct.
Columbia’s President Minouche Shafik in a statement Wednesday set a midnight deadline to reach an agreement with students to clear the encampment, or “we will consider alternative options.”
That deadline passed without news of an agreement. Videos show some protesters taking down their tents while others doubled down in speeches. The heightened tension arrived the night before US House Speaker Mike Johnson’s trip to Columbia to visit with Jewish students and address antisemitism on college campuses.
Across the country, protesters at California State Polytechnic University, Humboldt, started using furniture, tents, chains and zip ties to block the building’s entrances Monday evening. The defiance was less expected in the conservative region of California, some 300 miles (480 kilometers) north of San Francisco.
“We are not afraid of you!” the protesters chanted before officers in riot gear pushed into them at the building’s entrance, video shows. Student Peyton McKinzie said she was walking on campus Monday when she saw police grabbing one woman by the hair, and another student having their head bandaged for an injury.
“I think a lot of students are in shock about it,” she told The Associated Press.
Three students have been arrested, according to a statement from Cal Poly Humboldt, which shutdown the campus until Wednesday. An unknown number of students had occupied a second campus building Tuesday.
The upwelling of demonstrations has left universities struggling to balance campus safety with free speech rights. Many long tolerated the protests, which largely demanded that schools condemn Israel’s assault on Gaza and divest from companies that sell weapons to Israel.
Now, universities are doling out more heavy-handed discipline, citing safety concerns as some Jewish students say criticism of Israel has veered into antisemitism.
Protests had been bubbling for months but kicked into a higher gear after more than 100 pro-Palestinian demonstrators who had camped out on Columbia’s upper Manhattan campus were arrested Thursday.
By late Monday at New York University, police said 133 protesters were taken into custody and all had been released with summonses to appear in court on disorderly conduct charges.
In Connecticut, police arrested 60 protesters — including 47 students — at Yale, after they refused to leave an encampment on a plaza at the center of campus.
Yale President Peter Salovey said protesters had declined an offer to end the demonstration and meet with trustees. After several warnings, school officials determined “the situation was no longer safe,” so police cleared the encampment and made arrests.
In the Midwest on Tuesday, a demonstration at the center of the University of Michigan campus had grown to nearly 40 tents, and nine anti-war protesters at the University of Minnesota were arrested after police took down an encampment in front of the library. Hundreds rallied to the Minnesota campus in the afternoon to demand their release.
Harvard University in Massachusetts has tried to stay a step ahead of protests by locking most gates into its famed Harvard Yard and limiting access to those with school identification. The school has also posted signs that warn against setting up tents or tables on campus without permission.
Literature Ph.D. student Christian Deleon said he understood why the Harvard administration may be trying to avoid protests but said there still has to be a place for students to express what they think.
“We should all be able to use these kinds of spaces to protest, to make our voices heard,” he said.
Ben Wizner, a lawyer with the American Civil Liberties Union, said college leaders face extremely tough decisions because they have a responsibility to ensure people can express their views, even when others find them offensive, while protecting students from threats and intimidation.
The New York Civil Liberties Union cautioned universities against being too quick to call in law enforcement in a statement Tuesday.
“Officials should not conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism or use hate incidents as a pretext to silence political views they oppose,” said Donna Lieberman, the group’s executive director.
Leo Auerbach, a student at the University of Michigan, said the differing stances on the war hadn’t led to his feeling unsafe on campus but he has been fearful of the “hateful rhetoric and antisemitic sentiment being echoed.”
“If we’re trying to create an inclusive community on campus, there needs to be constructive dialogue between groups,” Auerbach said. “And right now, there’s no dialogue that is occurring.”
At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, physics senior Hannah Didehbani said protesters were inspired by those at Columbia.
“Right now there are several professors on campus who are getting direct research funding from Israel’s ministry of defense,” she said. “We’ve been calling for MIT to cut those research ties.”
Protesters at the University of California, Berkeley, which had an encampment of about 30 tents Tuesday, were also inspired by Columbia’s demonstrators, “who we consider to be the heart of the student movement,” said law student Malak Afaneh.
Campus protests began after Hamas’ deadly attack on southern Israel, when militants killed about 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and took roughly 250 hostages. During the ensuing war, Israel has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, according to the local health ministry, which doesn’t distinguish between combatants and noncombatants but says at least two-thirds of the dead are children and women.

Argentina seeks arrest of Iran minister, recently in Pakistan, over 1994 Jewish center bombing

Updated 25 min 44 sec ago
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Argentina seeks arrest of Iran minister, recently in Pakistan, over 1994 Jewish center bombing

  • Argentina contacted Interpol and asked Pakistani, Sri Lankan governments to arrest Iran’s interior minister
  • The 1994 bombing has never been claimed or solved, but Argentina has suspected Iran to be behind the attack

BUENOS AIRES: Argentina has asked Interpol to arrest Iran’s interior minister over the 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 people, the foreign ministry said Tuesday.

That minister, Ahmad Vahidi, is part of an Iranian delegation visiting Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and Interpol has issued a red alert seeking his arrest at the request of Argentina, the ministry said in a statement.

Argentina has also asked those two governments to arrest Vahidi, it added.

On April 12 a court in Argentina placed blame on Iran for the 1994 attack against the AMIA Jewish community center in Buenos Aires and for a bombing two years earlier against the Israeli embassy, which killed 29 people.

Thousands of people gathered on July 18, 1996, near the former site of the Jewish community center which was destroyed in a 1994 truck bombing that killed 86 people in Buenos Aires, Argentina. (AFP)

The 1994 assault has never been claimed or solved, but Argentina and Israel have long suspected the Iran-backed group Hezbollah carried it out at Iran’s request.

Prosecutors have charged top Iranian officials with ordering the attack, though Tehran has denied any involvement.

The court also implicated Hezbollah and called the attack against the AMIA — the deadliest in Argentina’s history — a “crime against humanity.”

Tuesday’s statement from the foreign ministry said: “Argentina seeks the international arrest of those responsible for the AMIA attack of 1994, which killed 85 people, and who remain in their positions with total impunity.”

“One of them is Ahmad Vahidi, sought by Argentine justice as one of those responsible for the attack against AMIA,” said the statement, which was co-signed by the security ministry.

Argentina has the largest Jewish community in Latin America, with some 300,000 members. It is also home to immigrant communities from the Middle East — from Syria and Lebanon in particular.


US Senate approves $95 billion aid bill to support Ukraine, Israel war effort

Updated 24 April 2024
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US Senate approves $95 billion aid bill to support Ukraine, Israel war effort

  • Ukraine, who has been been on the back foot in its war against Russia, welcomed the vote
  • Israel, which has killed more than 34,000 in Gaza, plans to attack Rafah to free hostages held by Hamas

WASHINGTON: A sweeping foreign aid package easily passed the US Congress late on Tuesday after months of delay, clearing the way for fresh Ukraine funding amid advances from Russia’s invasion force and Kyiv’s shortages of military supplies.
The Senate approved by 79 to 18 four bills passed by the House of Representatives on Saturday, after House Republican leaders abruptly switched course last week and allowed a vote on the $95 billion in mostly military aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan and US partners in the Indo-Pacific.
The four bills were combined into one package in the Senate.

US President Joe Biden shakes hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, on December 12, 2023. (AFP)

The largest provides $61 billion in critically needed funding for Ukraine; a second provides $26 billion for Israel and humanitarian aid for civilians in conflict zones around the world, and a third mandates $8.12 billion to “counter communist China” in the Indo-Pacific.
A fourth, which the House added to the package last week, includes a potential ban on the Chinese-controlled social media app TikTok, measures for the transfer of seized Russian assets to Ukraine and new sanctions on Iran.
Biden has promised to sign the measure into law as soon as it reaches his desk, and his administration is already preparing a $1 billion military aid package for Ukraine, the first to be sourced from the bill, two US officials told Reuters.
The Senate’s Democratic and Republican leaders predicted that Congress had turned the corner in putting Russian President Vladimir Putin and other foreign adversaries on notice that Washington will continue supporting Ukraine and other foreign partners.
“This is an inflection point in history. Western democracy perhaps faced its greatest threat since the end of the Cold War,” Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in the Senate.
The aid package could be the last approved for Ukraine until after elections in November when the White House, House of Representatives and one-third of the Senate are up for grabs.
Much of the opposition to the security assistance in both the House and Senate has come from Republicans with close ties to former US President Donald Trump, a Ukraine aid skeptic who has stressed “America First” policies as he seeks a second term.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, a strong advocate for assisting Ukraine, expressed regret about the delay, largely due to hard-line Republicans’ objections to adding more to the $113 billion Washington had authorized for Kyiv since Russia began its full-scale invasion in February 2022.
“I think we’ve turned the corner on the isolationist movement,” McConnell told a news conference.
Some of the Ukraine money — $10 billion in economic support — comes in the form of a loan, which Trump had suggested. But the bill lets the president forgive the loan starting in 2026.

HUMANITARIAN CONCERNS
The influx of weapons should improve Kyiv’s chances of averting a major breakthrough in the east by Russian invaders, although it would have been more helpful if the aid had come closer to when Biden requested it last year, analysts said.
It was not immediately clear how the money for Israel would affect the conflict in Gaza. Israel already receives billions of dollars in annual US security assistance, but it more recently has faced its first direct aerial attack by Iran.
Aid supporters hope the humanitarian assistance will help Palestinians in Gaza, which has been devastated by Israel’s campaign against Hamas to retaliate for Oct. 7 attacks that killed 1,200 people.
Gaza health authorities say the campaign has led to the deaths of more than 34,000 civilians in the Palestinian enclave.
It was the second time this year that the Democratic-led Senate passed security aid for Ukraine, Israel and the Indo-Pacific. The last bill, more than two months ago, garnered 70 percent support in the 100-member chamber from Republicans and Democrats. But leaders of the Republican-controlled House would not allow a vote on the foreign aid until last week.
The legislation’s progress has been closely watched by industry, with US defense firms up for major contracts to supply equipment for Ukraine and other US partners.
Experts expect the supplemental spending to boost the order backlog of RTX Corp. along with other major companies that receive government contracts, such as Lockheed Martin , General Dynamics and Northrop Grumman.
The House passed the Ukraine funding by 311-112, with all “no” votes coming from Republicans, many of whom were bitterly opposed to further assistance for Kyiv. Only 101 Republicans voted for it, forcing Speaker Mike Johnson to rely on Democratic support and prompting calls for his ouster as House leader.
However, the House left Washington for a week-long recess, without triggering a vote to remove Johnson.

 


NASA chief asks nations to work together on climate change

Updated 24 April 2024
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NASA chief asks nations to work together on climate change

  • Solutions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions that rapidly warm the planet and drive the climate crisis already exist, but require unprecedented changes at a new scale and pace

MEXICO CITY: NASA is hoping that nations will work together more closely in the future on topics such as climate change, including greenhouse gas emissions, the space agency’s head, Bill Nelson, said on Tuesday.
Solutions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions that rapidly warm the planet and drive the climate crisis already exist, but require unprecedented changes at a new scale and pace.
“This is something that nations can work on together because the information is there,” Nelson said in Mexico City when asked about how to address greenhouse gas emissions. “It’s important that we act on it.”
Satellites have emerged as powerful tools for scientists around the world to study climate change but also, increasingly, pinpoint the origin of greenhouse gas emissions, such as methane leaks, that would otherwise have gone undetected.
Nelson added that satellites were constantly collecting data about climate and NASA was looking to make this data accessible, and educate people on how to use it.
Methane, the main component of natural gas, is the second-largest contributor to global warming after carbon dioxide. Scientists can now pinpoint the origin of large methane leaks using data gathered by satellites.
It is a much more potent driver of global warming in the short term than carbon dioxide because it traps more heat in the atmosphere, ton for ton.
“The types of concerns that we have are global,” said NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy. “It’s very important to recognize that not any one country can solve that problem alone.”
Earlier in the day, Nelson and Melroy, who are both astronauts, met with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and lawmakers to discuss how the countries can work together.


Canadian police charge 2 former UN employees with conspiracy to sell military equipment in Libya

A Toronto police vehicle is parked in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. (REUTERS file photo)
Updated 24 April 2024
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Canadian police charge 2 former UN employees with conspiracy to sell military equipment in Libya

  • Poirier said Mhaouek, a Canadian citizen, was arrested Tuesday morning at his home in the Montreal suburb of Ste-Catherine, Que., and was scheduled to appear in a Montreal court later in the day

MONTREAL: Two former United Nations employees in Montreal have been charged with participating in a conspiracy to sell Chinese-made drones and other military equipment in Libya, Canadian police said Tuesday.
RCMP spokesman Sgt. Charles Poirier said the alleged offenses occurred between 2018 and 2021, when the two men were working at the International Civil Aviation Organization, a UN agency headquartered in Montreal.
Police identified the two men as Fathi Ben Ahmed Mhaouek, 61, and Mahmud Mohamed Elsuwaye Sayeh, 37. Poirer said they violated UN sanctions related to the Libyan civil war. The sanctions have the force of law in Canada by way of federal regulation.
“What we found is that through some shell companies, they attempted to sell this Chinese military equipment to Libya, which is a direct violation of the regulation,” Poirier said, adding that the military equipment included large drones that can carry multiple missiles.
Poirier said the regulation prohibits anyone in Canada from supplying military equipment to any of the factions that were fighting in the Libyan civil war, or helping to finance those groups. The alleged conspiracy, he said, would have benefited one of the two main factions in the conflict, which ended in 2020.
“The second part of this scheme was to export Libyan oil to China,” Poirier said. “So at the time, the oil fields were under the control of Gen. Khalifa Haftar and the plan was to sell millions of drums of crude oil to China without anyone knowing about it.”
Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army fought against Libya’s UN-backed government and held much of the country’s east during the civil war; he continues to be a powerful figure in that region.
Poirier said Mhaouek, a Canadian citizen, was arrested Tuesday morning at his home in the Montreal suburb of Ste-Catherine, Que., and was scheduled to appear in a Montreal court later in the day.
Mhaouek’s alleged accomplice remains on the run. An Interpol red notice — an alert sent to police around the world — and a Canada-wide warrant have been issued for Sayeh’s arrest.
Poirier said investigators have no indication that military equipment or crude oil ever reached their alleged final destinations, but he said if they had, the two co-conspirators stood to gain several million dollars in commissions.
“The theory behind the motivation is primarily financial,” he said. However, it would have also benefited China by allowing it to covertly support Haftar’s faction and by giving the country prime access to Libyan oil.
Poirier said the investigation began in 2022 after the RCMP received what he described as “credible intelligence.”
Both men had diplomatic immunity due to their work with the UN Their immunity had to be waived by ICAO before the two men could be charged.
The UN organization, which sets international aviation standards, has been collaborating with the police investigation.
“There’s no indication that ICAO was aware of the conspiracy until they were approached by us,” Poirier said.
Police don’t know where Sayeh, a Libyan national, may be.
“He could be in Libya, but with the level of influence and the networking that these men had working at ICAO, he could be anywhere,” Poirier said.
The UN’s civil aviation agency said in an emailed statement that it is committed to upholding Canadian laws, UN standards and its own ethics code.
“ICAO is fully cooperating with the RCMP investigation of the individuals involved in the complaint, who left the organization a number of years ago,” the agency said. “ICAO strongly condemns any actions of individuals that are inconsistent with the organization’s values.”