Monday, December 10, 2012

Tweet anti-fireworks tips, DOH urges public

Health officials are trying a new approach in their efforts to discourage the public from using fireworks this holiday season: crowdsourcing.
National Epidemiology Center head Enrique Tayag urged tweeps to send in their tips with the hashtags #newYear, #DOH, #gangnam, and #IwasPaputok.
"Mag-post po kayo nang inyong mga tips for a safer #newYear OR show the nation ur version of #gangnam #IwasPaputok and let us #DOH it together," Tayag said on his Twitter account.
Early replies included a stricter implementation of the "no fireworks" policy on the streets.
Meanwhile, an ecological group warned revelers planning to celebrate Christmas and New Year with a bang of the consequences of fireworks on the environment and health.
The EcoWaste Coalition said recent tests have showed the presence of heavy metals in some firecrackers and pyrotechnic devices.
“On top of the deafening noise and unsightly trash, the explosion of firecrackers and fireworks creates a toxic cocktail of chemicals that is indisputably bad for public health and the environment,” said group campaigner Aileen Lucero.
It said its tests of some fireworks bought from Divisoria yielded significant levels of heavy metals such as antimony, barium, chromium, copper and lead, and even mercury.
According to the group, these metals are often added to the black powder mixture of charcoal, sulfur, potassium or sodium nitrate to create the desired sparkles and colors.
The group also noted none of the samples provided details about their chemical ingredients, much less their heavy metal contents.

Monday, November 26, 2012

Pakistan quashes Christian girl 'blasphemy' case

A Pakistan court on Tuesday threw out all charges against a Christian girl accused of blasphemy for allegedly burning pages of the Koran in a case that drew international condemnation.

Rimsha Masih, who could have faced life in prison if convicted of the charges, spent three weeks on remand in jail after being arrested on August 16.

She was released on bail in September but she and her family have been in hiding under government protection, fearful for their lives.

Although the decision to drop the case was welcomed, it is unlikely to pave the way for imminent reform of Pakistan's blasphemy legislation, which activists say is too often used to settle personal disputes.

The prosecution said it would appeal the decision in the Supreme Court.

Blasphemy is an extremely sensitive issue in Pakistan, where 97 percent of the population are Muslims, and under the country's penal code insulting the Prophet Mohammed can be punished by death.

Even unproven allegations can provoke a violent public response.

In a 15-page judgement, Islamabad high court chief justice Iqbal Hameed ur Rahman threw out the case registered against Rimsha and urged Muslims to be "extraordinary careful" while levelling such allegations.
He said putting Rimsha on trial would have seen the courts "used as a tool for ulterior motive" and "to abuse the process of law".

Defence lawyer Tahir Naveed Chaudhry told AFP that the family was "delighted" the case had been dropped, but said they "still live in fear".

Rimsha and her family were moved to an undisclosed location after her release on bail on September 8.
An official medical report classified her as "uneducated" and 14 years old, but with a mental age younger than her years. Others have said she is as young as 11 and suffers from Down's Syndrome.
Paul Bhatti, the only Christian member of Pakistan's federal cabinet, welcomed the "historic" move, saying justice had been done.

"It will send out a positive image of Pakistan in the international community that there is justice for all and that society has risen up for justice and tolerance," he told AFP.

He paid tribute to Muslim clerics, members of the media and civil society for also playing a "positive role" in highlighting the injustice done to Rimsha and said it would deter others from levelling false accusations.
There is a separate case against cleric Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, who was granted bail last month after being accused of allegedly desecrating the Koran and tampering with the evidence against Rimsha.
On August 24, Chishti told AFP he thought Rimsha burned the pages as part of a Christian "conspiracy" and demanded action against what he called their "anti-Islam activities" in the impoverished Mehrabad neighbourhood of Islamabad.

Pakistani political analyst Hasan Askari said the courts had acted fairly, but that Rimsha's fate remains uncertain because of the poor track record on how society treats people accused of blasphemy.
Neither did he expect any immediate prospect of legal reforms.

"The government does not have the capacity to withstand the pressure of these religious groups especially at a time when elections are very close," he said.

In 2011, Pakistani politicians Salman Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti were assassinated for demanding that the blasphemy law be reformed.

And despite international outcry, Asia Bibi, a Christian mother of five, sentenced to death in November 2010 after women claimed she made derogatory remarks about the Prophet Mohammed remains in prison, pending an appeal process.

Friday, October 5, 2012

81 years later, Lahore’s tribute to its greatest martyr

We compliment the leaders of Pakistan on renaming Shadman Chowk in Lahore as Bhagat Singh Chowk. This gesture will greatly strengthen the India-Pakistan peace process. 

Pakistan civil and political groups had long demanded the renaming of the Chowk. It was once the execution ground of Central Jail, Lahore and the spot where Bhagat Singh, Rajguru and Sukhdev were hanged on March 23, 1931. 

In 1961, the jail was demolished to make way for a residential area called Shadman colony; Shadman Chowk was built over the execution ground.

We — civil society activists from both India and Pakistan — held candlelight vigils at this location every year on the anniversary of the execution. Many times, we renamed it ourselves, with a signboard proclaiming it as “Bhagat Singh Chowk.”

We also took our demand to Pakistan’s political leaders. Former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, whose party rules Pakistan’s Punjab province, gave us hope that our demand would be met. We are happy that the hope was fulfilled, and that too on the special day of Bhagat Singh’s 105th birth anniversary.

This year too for the first time, Bhagat Singh’s birth anniversary was celebrated at Dyal Singh College hall in Lahore on September 28 by the Pakistan Labour Party, and 23 more organisations. Speakers described Bhagat Singh as the representative of the struggling masses in all of Asia. The organisers also demanded the setting up of a museum at Bhagat Singh’s birthplace in Chak no. 105, Lyallpur Bange in Faislabad district.
Advocate Iqbal Virk, who is now the occupant of the house in which he was born, participated in the function and offered all cooperation.

It was unfortunate that a 27-member Indian delegation, which included Bhagat Singh’s nephew Kiranjit Sandhu, and the author of several books on the martyr, Prof. Chaman Lal, could not attend the jointly planned anniversary as they were not issued visas. But the subsequent news of the renaming of the Chowk has more than compensated for that.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Civil society for reforms in PaK interim constitution

Muzaffarabad, Aug 6: Dozens of civil society activists staged a peaceful demonstration here on Monday, calling for much-needed reforms in Pakistan administered Kashmir's Interim Constitution “to pave way for worthwhile democracy, good governance and uncompromising accountability.”

 The demonstration, held in the wake of a row between the PaK Ehtesab Bureau and the PaK Council, coincided with a controlled visit of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf to the site of an under-construction hydropower project near here. However, local media was not invited to the event for fear of ‘upsetting’ questions on its part.

 The prime minister of Pakistan happens to be the chairman of the PaK Council, which is at the centre of allegations of corruption and financial irregularities largely because of non-observance of codal formalities and pre-audit checks in its expenditures.

 “No to corrupt PaK Council,” read one of the several placards carried by the demonstrators, as they lined up along the capital’s bustling thoroughfare and later marched through it and the magnificent district headquarters complex.

 They were also chanting slogans against corruption in AJK Council and non-punishment by the concerned authorities to the culpable officials.

 The PaK Council, it may be recalled, was established under PaK's Interim Constitution Act, 1974 apparently “to serve as a bridge between Muzaffarabad and Islamabad.” However, contrarily, it has turned itself into a parallel government, evading accountability of its expenditures by investigating and accounting bodies of Pakistan or PaK.

 It was the former PaK Ehtesab Bureau chairman Justice Hussain Mazhar Kaleem who had dared summon record of some dubious contracts from the Council in the wake of serious complaints. However, his directions were not followed until he was himself removed by the AJK government on Friday, sparking off anger among the already charged civil society and political circles in PaK.

 While calling for abolition of Council and accountability of the Kashmiri taxpayers’ money at its disposal, the demonstrators also criticised what they termed as lily-livered PaK rulers for bowing to the pressure of corrupt PaK Council officials.

 The interesting aspect of the demonstration was use of social media to attract participants and organisers said they were heartened to observe the response of civil society to their posts on Facebook and Twitter in this regard.

 Answering questions by reporters on the occasion, Raza Ali Khan, President PaK Supreme Court Bar Association, said the Interim Constitution had undermined the status of the PaK government as it gave excessive executive and legislative powers to the PaK Council over 52 subjects, including taxation.

 He pointed out that as chairman PaK Council the prime minister of Pakistan was exercising full authority in PaK although he was neither answerable to the people nor to the elected representatives of PaK.
 “There is a dire need of constitutional reform to remove such anomalies,” he said.

 Abdul Qaiyum Khan, a student, said if the federal government could devolve powers to provinces, PaK should also be treated in the same manner.

 “Why our government is not being empowered and why we are being made to feel as aliens?”
 It may be recalled that in the recent session of PaK Legislative Assembly, Prime Minister Chaudhry Abdul Majeed had announced to take all political parties on board for constitutional reforms. However, the government is yet to make any progress in this regard.

Monday, July 9, 2012

US pressure made Pakistan blink

The civil-military leadership of Pakistan has taken nine months to settle issues with the US arising out of the Salala incident last November that could have been better resolved in nine days.

As a result, Pakistan's international isolation has grown, its economy has foundered and the domestic credibility of the civil and military leadership has been eroded. There will be adverse short and long term consequences of this gross policy miscalculation. Consider.

Nine months ago, in exchange for reopening the NATO supply lines, the US was ready to "apologise", pay compensation, give "assurances" that Salala would not be repeated, respect Pakistan's "sovereignty" and release over US$2 billion in Coalition Support/Kerry Lugar funds. But Pakistan said no, it wanted much more; it demanded an end to drone strikes, it wanted twenty times the transit fee per container-truck, it insisted that the NATO trucks would not carry any weapons and the CIA footprint should be drastically reduced, etc. Indeed, after the military cunningly passed the buck to the Zardari government three months later, Senator Raza Rabbani's bipartisan parliamentary committee deliberated for another three months to churn out a list of 35 demands and COAS General Ashfaq Kayani and President Asif Zardari prevaricated for another three months before signing on the dotted line. And what did Pakistan get from the US?

It didn't get an "apology" from President Obama like the Afghans did earlier. Instead, Hillary Clinton said "we're sorry for the losses suffered by the Pakistan military ... and we are both sorry for losses suffered by both our countries in this fight against terrorists." It didn't obtain a halt to drone strikes. It didn't get a penny more on transit fees. And NATO trucks will still carry uninspected military hardware (listed as supplies for the Afghan National Security Forces). So how did Pakistan miscalculate?

It thought it had the US over a barrel because the Northern Network was unfeasible. In the event, the US spent $1 billion dollars to resist our pressure. It thought boycotting the Bonn and Chicago moots would compel NATA to listen to us. But the US went ahead anyway, formulating its end-game strategy for Afghanistan without inputs from Pakistan.

Islamabad thought it could hang on without CSF, Kerry Lugar aid and the IMF. But it couldn't. The rupee has lost nearly 10 per cent of its value, the budget is broke and domestic debt has soared.

It also miscalculated the intensity of counter pressure by the US. First, it ratcheted up pressure in the US Congress to stop American economic and military aid to Pakistan pending restoration of NATO supply lines. Second, the US Congress raised the spectre of declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism by threatening to label the Haqqani network and the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba as global terrorist organisations, the implication being that economic and military sanctions would follow under international law. Third, Washington persuaded Riyadh to hand over Abu Jindal to India, raising the threat of formally linking the ISI to international terrorism. Fourth, it began to align itself with India, asking for a greater Indian commitment to the future of Afghanistan and pledging a major strategic partnership with it in the Grand Silk Route strategy to open up and link emerging markets in the next few decades.

The Pakistani military miscalculated on two fronts. It underestimated America's resolve to fashion the Afghan end-game according to its own national interests. It also overestimated the Zardari government's anxiety to please the Americans by taking sole ownership of the decision to restore the NATO supply lines. In the event, the Americans didn't blink and the Zardari government took refuge behind parliament to protect its flanks from the opposition. The net result, to Pakistan's great disadvantage, was a delay in diffusing the crisis.
The military and government are hoping that US funds and weapons will flow to ease their respective problems. But the opposition and media are likely to exploit the anti-American public sentiment to blast the belated agreement.

Resumption of drone strikes and American exhortations to "do more" against the Haqqani network will lead to criticism of the military and political leaders for "selling out" to the Americans.

Indeed, a majority of Pakistanis, according to a Pew Research Poll, think that US military and economic aid to Pakistan has a negative impact on the country.

There is a rupture between the Pentagon and the Pakistani military. It was triggered by bitter strategic differences about the role of US in shaping the future of Afghanistan and cannot be papered over by the latest terms of "reconciliation". Other flash points are bound to occur in the run-up to 2014. The problem is that the GLOC point of rupture has isolated Pakistan among the 47 influential countries that comprise NATO. Worse, the continuing tragedy is that Pakistan's civilmilitary leadership has been unwilling and unable to formulate a new national interest paradigm for Pakistan.

There have been far too many debacles on the watch of the current civil-military leadership. It is time for a change of guard.