Aasia Bibi: Christian acquitted of blasphemy leaves Pakistan

Aasi
Bibi was convicted and sentenced to death for blasphemy by a trial court in November 2010 [File: AP]
by Asad Hashim

Aasia Bibi, a Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy by Pakistan’s Supreme Court last year in a case that has become emblematic of fair trial concerns in such cases, has been granted asylum in Canada, her lawyer says.

Bibi, 53, flew out of Pakistan after being held for months in protective custody by Pakistani authorities following her acquittal, Saif-ul-Malook told Al Jazeera by telephone on Wednesday.

She joins her husband and two daughters, Malook said. “She has gone to Canada, she will live there now as she has been granted asylum by them,” he said.

Canadian authorities did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the case.

Bibi spent eight years on death row after her arrest in the central village of Ithan Wali after an argument with two Muslim women who refused to drink water from the same vessel as her, due to her religion.

The women and a local cleric accused Bibi of having insulted Islam’s Prophet Muhammad during the altercation, a charge that she has consistently denied.

Blasphemy is a sensitive subject in Pakistan, where the country’s strict laws prescribe a mandatory death penalty for some forms of the crime.

Increasingly, blasphemy allegations have led to murders and mob lynchings, with at least 74 people killed in such violence since 1990, according to an Al Jazeera tally.

Among those killed were Salman Taseer, then a provincial governor, and Shahbaz Bhatti, then a federal minister, in 2010. Both officials had stood up for Bibi when she was first accused of blasphemy.

Incendiary issue

In a landmark judgment acquitting Bibi, the Supreme Court noted in October that there were “glaring and stark” contradictions in the prosecution’s case against Bibi.

“[There is] the irresistible and unfortunate impression that all those concerned in the case with providing evidence and conducting investigation had taken upon themselves not to speak the truth of at least not to divulge the whole truth,” wrote Justice Asif Khosa, now Pakistan’s Supreme Court Chief Justice, in the verdict.

Bibi had been convicted and sentenced to death by a trial court in November 2010, with the Lahore High Court upholding her conviction on appeal four years later. Rights groups had long insisted there were numerous fair trial concerns in her case, as well as in blasphemy prosecutions generally.

The Supreme Court verdict prompted days of violent protests by the far-right Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP), a hardline religious group with widespread support that has long pushed for those accused of blasphemy to be executed or murdered extrajudicially.

Led by firebrand cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the TLP blocked roads and major intersections across the country following Bibi’s acquittal in October.

Rizvi was arrested in November and charged with treason for leading the protests. Afzal Qadri, the cofounder of the TLP, released a statement last week apologising for the protests and promising not to engage in further political activity.

Rizvi, and scores of other TLP activists, remain in police custody, charged with hate speech and inciting violence.

Days after the verdict was announced, Bibi’s lawyer Malook sought refuge in the Netherlands, citing threats to his life for having represented her.

In February, Bibi told the Associated Press news agency through an intermediary that she was being held by Pakistani authorities in indefinite protective custody and that they would not let her leave the country.

On Tuesday, “the long running issue” of her departure from the country was resolved, her lawyer says, and Bibi is now safely in Canada and reunited with her family.

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/05/aasia-bibi-christian-acquitted-blasphemy-leaves-pakistan-190508072729494.html

War, drought, diplomatic rifts deepen Afghanistan’s water crisis

imageA recent flash flood in Kamp-e-Sakhi damaged Somagul’s home and destroyed her family’s most expensive belongings [Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska/Al Jazeera]

by Agnieszka Pikulicka-Wilczewska

On a bright day in April, in the aftermath of flash floods, rays of sun fall onto the cracked clay soil in Kamp-e-Sakhi in some parts and, in others, illuminate large puddles that dot the raw land.

In the northern Afghan district, on the outskirts of Mazar-e Sharif city, antiflood bags still lie on the wet ground although they helped little when the water spread days earlier, destroying modest homes.

Somagul, a 60-year-old former farmer who left her home in Baghlan last year because of severe drought and pressure from the Taliban, did not expect the flood.

On March 29, the sound of water hitting her door awakened her in the middle of the night.

“We escaped in the dark with my children and grandchildren. There was no light, but we managed to find our way out, we got wet and dirty. All our things stayed in the house,” Somagul told Al Jazeera. “We went higher up to the street which was not flooded and we stayed there for the whole night. In the morning when the flood was gone, we came back.”

Although the flood soon reversed, Somagul and her family, including her sister, four children and 16 grandchildren, lost most of their few valuable possessions.

Electronic devices were among their most expensive belongings that were destroyed; it will take a long time to replace them.

Since the family moved to Mazar-e Sharif, only her son-in-law has managed to find work at the local coal market and they have no land to grow crops.

This was the second time in Somagul’s life that water-related disasters came to define her family’s fate.

Afghanistan, where the worst drought in a decade has displaced an estimated 260,000 people, has been struggling with the acute consequences of climate change, water mismanagement and 40 years of war that took its toll on the country’s weak water infrastructure.

Droughts and floods have become the norm, destroying the lives of Afghans across the country.

An upstream country, Afghanistan is not naturally water stressed. Eighty percent of its resources come from surface water that flows from snowfields and glaciers in the Hindu Kush and Himalaya mountains.

Over the course of Spring and Summer, the mountain snows melt and fuel Afghanistan’s five river basins.

From there, the water enters the canals and spreads across the country.

Most of Afghanistan’s irrigation depends on these resources. As the Afghan proverb goes, “may Kabul be without gold rather than snow.”

But ever since the Soviet invasion, the country’s infrastructure has been falling into ruin.

First, the bombings and years of fighting destroyed much of its canals. Then the Taliban administration did little to repair the damage, let alone build new infrastructure.

Following the US invasion, the Afghan government with the support of the international community has put water management high on its agenda, investing efforts to rehabilitate the canals.

But the infrastructure is inadequate for the needs of the country’s growing population.

Most of Afghanistan’s partners have been reluctant to support large projects, such as dams, which require substantial funds.

India, though, has sponsored the Afghan-India Friendship Dam on the Hari river and is planning the construction of Shahtoot Dam on the Kabul River.

Dams are crucial to store the water needed for irrigation and prevent flash floods, which have become frequent due to climate change.

In a country where agriculture contributes between 20 and 40 percent of the GDP, depending on the year, and employs about 60 percent of the workforce, the lack of investment has had disastrous consequences.

“Because of climate change, our winters have been getting hotter year by year and we’ve had much more rain in springs instead of snow in winters, which recently resulted in floods in many provinces especially in the north and west of Afghanistan,” Abdul Basir Azimi, water expert and the former deputy minister of energy and water told Al Jazeera.

“Twenty Afghan provinces experienced about a 60 percent decrease in snowfall during the last winter season in 2017, and before that.

“Severe drought throughout the country and excessively warm weather have affected the rural and urban populations, the agricultural economy and recently led to a tremendous increase in the number of IDPs.”

Drought has also affected the levels of groundwater that Afghan cities have been relying on for drinking.

Kabul is home to almost five million people and the capital’s population, according to estimates, will double in the next 10 years. The city has been particularly vulnerable to water shortages.

“Last year, we experienced severe drought in the country including in the Kabul River basin. The groundwater level dropped by more than 10 metres,” Tayib Bromand, water resources and climate change adaptation specialist at the ministry of water and energy, told Al Jazeera.

“In Afghanistan’s major cities there was not enough water for domestic supply. Particularly, the most elevated parts of Kabul do not receive sufficient water for drinking.”

Unable to access drinking water through the official distribution networks, Afghanistan’s population has been relying on unofficial wells with poor-quality water. Others have been using paid water delivery services provided by private companies.

While Afghanistan has now entered peace talks with the Taliban, internal displacement caused by the water crisis might further stir conflict.

In some areas, farmers have no choice but to join armed groups in order to feed their families.

At the local level, conflicts over water also erupt between upstream and downstream areas, as well as individual farmers.

Jenna Jadin, a scientist with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Afghanistan, told Al Jazeera: “We’re trying to make sure that water is incorporated into everything we are doing: for example, in projects where we’re teaching people to diversify their livelihoods and diets through planting new crops, we are also making sure to teach better water usage for those crops.

“We are also implementing projects that restore forests and rangelands, which will reduce surface water losses and soil erosion.”

But Afghanistan’s water scarcity has the potential to cause conflict on a regional level, too.

Due to insufficient infrastructure and decades of conflict, 70 percent of the country’s surface water ends up flowing into neighbouring states, all of which, apart from Tajikistan, are water stressed.

“Afghanistan’s situation has created an opportunity for the neighbouring countries to unfairly and unreasonably develop their agriculture lands at a very rapid pace downstream and also illegitimately transfer the water from the bordering lands to their central provinces,” Azimi said.

“The neighbouring countries have been irrigating hundreds of hectares of agricultural lands with water flowing from Afghanistan’s rivers, but on the other side, the neighbouring countries have built too many dams and not allowed any water [to flow] into Afghanistan.”

Afghanistan, therefore, has a pressing need for new dams to manage its scarce water reserves.

But more water staying in the country means less water for its neighbours. And while there are existing international agreements dealing with water scarcity between the five Central Asian states, for example, Afghanistan has not been part of them.

The only water agreement Afghanistan has signed was a 1973 treaty with Iran regulating the inflow of water to the country. But even that has not prevented conflict between the neighbours.

The Afghan government has long accused Iran of supporting the Taliban in order to disrupt the construction of a dam on the Helmand River, which could potentially affect the delivery of water to the country.

Similarly, Pakistan, one of the most water-stressed countries in the region, opposes the construction of the Shahtoot Dam on the Kabul River sponsored by its archenemy India.

The construction of the dam could reduce the flow of water into Pakistan.

The potential of regional conflict is high and investing in water management is crucial for Afghanistan’s security.

While most of the country’s international partners are reluctant to make such costly, long-term investments that bring little profit, the government is increasingly seeing water as a security issue.

If “hydro-diplomacy” continues to be put high on the state’s agenda, not everything is lost.

“Afghanistan has had to deal with many decades of war, and, as we’ve seen the world over, environmental issues sometimes exacerbate political tensions,” Jadin said. “If we can help the people restore their environment it may very well have a positive cascading effect on other aspects of life.”

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/war-drought-diplomatic-rifts-deepen-afghanistans-water-crisis-190504203303668.html

UN gets access to vital grain in Yemen port city of Hodeidah

imageYemen’s four-year-long civil war has left nearly 80 percent of the population in need of aid [Khaled Abdullah/Reuters]

A United Nations team has regained access to grain in Yemen that could feed more than 3.7 million people for a month, in a country “gripped with the world’s largest humanitarian crisis” but the cereal is partially infested and must first be fumigated, UN officials say.

The team reached the grain store on Sunday. It is in the Red Sea Mills silos just outside the port town of Hodeidah near a front line area in Yemen’s four-year-old civil war.

“We lost access to this mill in September of last year,” Stephen Anderson, the World Food Programme (WFP) Yemen country director told Al Jazeera from Djibouti.

For months forces affiliated with the Houthi movement which control the port did not allow the UN to cross front lines to access the mills on the outskirts of the city.

“We managed to first gain access, despite repeated attempts in late February and at that time we could see that the grain was in an advanced stage of infestation,” Anderson said.
Brink of famine

An assessment at that time concluded that about 70 percent of the wheat may be salvageable. The WFP-led team is to begin work to save it.

“They’re going to restart the mill and try to get the fumigation under way so that we can get this food out to people who need it most,” Anderson told Al Jazeera.

The war in Yemen has caused the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with 24.1 million people – nearly 80 percent of the population – in need of humanitarian assistance, the UN said.

Tens of thousands have been killed, and the country is on the brink of famine.

It will likely take several weeks to mill what can be salvaged from the 51,000 tonnes of grain into flour and distribute it to the Yemeni communities most in need.

“We must have unimpeded access to this mill,” Anderson said. “We are scaling up to helping 12 million people a month so every bit of grain we can get is vitally needed at this time.”

The Houthis and the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi agreed in December to a UN-sponsored truce and troop withdrawal from Hodeidah.

That deal has largely held but violence has escalated in some other parts of the country.

Talks aimed at securing a mutual military withdrawal from Hodeidah have stalled despite UN efforts.

Under the proposed withdrawal, a government retreat would free up access to the Red Sea Mills and humanitarian corridors would also be reopened. The warring sides would still need to agree on which road could be used to transport supplies from the site to recipients.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are leading the military coalition backing Hadi’s government.

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/05/access-vital-grain-yemen-port-city-hodeidah-190505183423561.html

 

 

 

 

 

16-year-old migrant boy dies in US government custody in Texas

imageMinors are seen as they exercise in a common area at the Homestead shelter for unaccompanied migrant children in Homestead, Florida [File: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

A 16-year-old unaccompanied migrant boy from Guatemala who fell ill has died while in the custody of the United States government.

Officials said on Wednesday the boy was transferred to an Office of Refugee Resettlement (ORR) shelter in Texas on April 20.

“Upon arrival to the shelter the minor did not note any health concerns,” Evelyn Stauffer, a spokeswoman for the Administration for Children and Families, which oversees ORR, said in a statement to local media.

But the next morning, he had fever, chills and a headache and was taken to a hospital, where he was treated and released that day.

He didn’t improve and was sent to another hospital, where he was transferred to a third facility, a children’s hospital. He died on Tuesday.

Stauffer said the cause of death is under review.

‘No denying that this is a pattern’

Since 2015, two other unaccompanied children have died in the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Last year, two accompanied children also died while in custody at the border in separate incidents.

Tuesday’s death comes as a surge of unaccompanied children and migrant families cross the US-Mexico border.

The Congressional Hispanic Caucus on Wednesday called for the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services to investigate the child’s death.

Beto O’Rourke, a Texas politician and presidential candidate for the 2020 Democratic nomination, tweeted that he was “very saddened” by the news.

“We must focus on the wellbeing of these children above any other concern. If we sacrifice humanity for security, we’ll lose both,” he added.

And Families Belong Together, a coalition of hundreds of organisations fighting to keep families together, called the death a “pattern”.

“Another migrant child has tragically died in federal custody. There is no denying that this is a pattern,” the group tweeted. “Refugee and asylum-seeking children hoping for better lives are dying at the hands of this administration. Our coalition demands accountability.”

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/05/16-year-migrant-boy-dies-government-custody-texas-190501212056856.html

 

‘Incredibly difficult’ to reach Mozambique cyclone survivors

imageMozambique’s government urged residents of the main city of Pemba to flee to higher ground as flooding continued [Mike Hutchings/Reuters]

Torrential rain continued to batter northern Mozambique on Tuesday, several days after Cyclone Kenneth, as the United Nations said aid workers faced “an incredibly difficult situation” in reaching thousands of survivors.

The rains grounded aid operations for a third consecutive day leaving some of the worst-hit communities cut off with very limited supplies.

A planned World Food Programme (WFP) flight to the island of Ibo was on standby until the weather improved, according to Deborah Nguyen, spokeswoman for the agency.

“We are really concerned about the situation for people on Ibo island,” she said, as they had been left out in the open after the majority of homes were destroyed, and with very limited food.

“For us, it’s a frustrating day … There is not much we can do to reach these islands now,” she said.

The government again urged residents of the main city of Pemba to flee to higher ground as flooding continued.

More than 570 millilitres has fallen in Pemba since Kenneth made landfall on Thursday, just six weeks after Cyclone Idai tore into central Mozambique.

This is the first time two cyclones have struck the southern African nation in a single season, and Kenneth was the first cyclone recorded so far north in Mozambique in the modern era of satellite imaging.

The latest storm has killed at least 41 people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes.

Up to 50 millilitres of rain were forecast over the next 24 hours, and rivers in the region were expected to reach flood peak by Thursday, the UN humanitarian office (OCHA) said, citing a UK aid analysis.

During a break in the downpours on Tuesday morning, some aid flights did manage to ferry supplies to the mainland district of Quissanga and the island of Matemo.

“These people lost everything,” said Gemma Connell, spokeswoman for OCHA. “It is critical that we get them the food that they need to survive.”

Women and children have been the hardest hit “without the basics that they need to get by,” especially shelter, she said.

Landslides

The heavy rains also triggered a landslide at a rubbish dump on Sunday that killed at least five people, Pemba Mayor Florete Matarua told local TV channel STV. The people were all members of the same family and several other houses had also been buried, STV reported.

The death toll was expected to rise as government officials had yet to reach all areas hit by the storm.

Kenneth, packing storm surges and winds of up to 280 km per hour, devastated villages and islands along a 60 km stretch of coast in Mozambique’s north.

Nearly 35,000 houses have been completely or partially destroyed, the government said, and infrastructure and crops also ruined.

Preliminary government assessments suggest 31,000 hectares of crops have been lost in an area already vulnerable to food shortages, and fisheries and other key sources of sustenance like coconut trees were also damaged.

“The short-, mid- and long-term availability of food is worrisome,” said Herve Verhoosel, senior WFP spokesman in Geneva.

Authorities were also preparing for a possible cholera outbreak as some wells were contaminated and safe drinking water became a growing concern.

With the pair of deadly cyclones, Idai killed more than 600 people last month, Mozambique is “a very complex humanitarian situation,” said Connell, the OCHA spokeswoman. Only a quarter of the funding needed for Idai relief efforts has come in while funding for Kenneth has been slow.

“This is a new crisis,” she said. “We are having to stretch across the two operations. That is a basic reality we are dealing with every day.”

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/04/difficult-reach-mozambique-cyclone-survivors-190430113833772.html

Saudi Arabia executes 37 in connection with terrorism

imageRights groups have repeatedly raised concerns about the fairness of trials in Saudi Arabia [Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

Saudi Arabia executed 37 of its citizens on Tuesday for what it said were “terrorism” related crimes, publicly pinning at least one of the bodies to a pole as a warning to others.

The individuals were found guilty of attacking security installations with explosives, killing a number of security officers, and cooperating with “enemy organisations” against the interests of the country, the interior ministry said in a statement.

The sentences were carried out in Riyadh, the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, central Qassim province, and Eastern Province, home to the country’s Shia minority

The men were executed “for adopting terrorist and extremist thinking and for forming terrorist cells to corrupt and destabilise security”, a statement by the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) said.

Two of the executed men’s bodies were publicly hung from a pole for several hours in a process that is not frequently used by the kingdom and has sparked controversy for its grisly display.

The interior ministry said the individuals had been found guilty according to the law and ordered executed by the Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh, which focuses on terrorism trials, and the country’s high court.

Leading executioner

The report didn’t state how the death penalty was implemented, but executions in Saudi Arabia are known to be carried out by shooting or beheading with a sword, sometimes in public.

Executions are traditionally carried out after midday prayers. Public displays of the bodies of executed people last for around three hours until late afternoon prayers, with the severed head and body hoisted to the top of a pole overlooking a main square.

The state killings came a day after the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) said it was behind an attack on Sunday on a Saudi security building in the town of Zulfi. In that attack, all four gunmen were killed and three security officers were wounded.

At least 100 people have been executed in Saudi Arabia since the beginning of the year, according to a count based on official data released by SPA.

Last year, the oil-rich Gulf state carried out the death sentences of 149 people, according to Amnesty International, which said only Iran was known to have executed more people.

People convicted of terrorism, homicide, rape, armed robbery and drug trafficking face the death penalty, which the government says is a deterrent for further crime.

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/04/saudi-arabia-executes-37-connection-terrorism-190423140531849.html

UN evacuates 325 refugees out of Tripoli as clashes continue

imageAbout 3,000 refugees and migrants remain trapped in detention centres in Tripoli, according to the UN [File: EPA]

The United Nations refugee agency evacuated 325 refugees from a detention centre on the southern outskirts of Tripoli amid escalating violence near the Libyan capital.

UNHCR said in a statement on Wednesday those rescued from the Qasr bin Ghashir centre were transported to another detention facility in Az-Zawiyah, northwestern Libya, where they were “at reduced risk of being caught up” in ongoing fighting between renegade military commander Khalifa Haftar’s eastern forces and troops loyal to the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA).

The move was triggered by reports on Tuesday of the use of armed violence against detainees who were protesting against the conditions in which they were being held, UNHCR said, with 12 refugees requiring hospital treatment after being attacked.

Wednesday’s evacuation brings to 825 the number of refugees and migrants transferred further from clashes in four operations in the last two weeks, the agency added.

“The dangers for refugees and migrants in Tripoli have never been greater than they are at present,” said Matthew Brook, UNHCR’s deputy chief of mission in Libya.

About 3,000 refugees and migrants remain trapped in detention centres in Tripoli, according to the UN, and remain at risk from the “deteriorating security situation” around the capital. Many of the detainees fled war and persecution in their home countries.

Hundreds killed, thousands displaced

Tripoli’s southern outskirts have been engulfed by fighting since Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) launched an offensive on April 4 aimed at wresting control of the capital from the GNA, which is supported by an array of local militias.

The showdown threatens to further destabilise war-wracked Libya, which splintered into a patchwork of rival power bases following the NATO-backed overthrow of former leader Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 and has been split into rival eastern and western administrations since 2014.

Both the LNA and GNA have repeatedly carried out air raids against one another and accuse each other’s forces of targeting civilians.

At least 272 have been killed and more than 1,200 others wounded since the LNA started its offensive earlier this month, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

At least 36,000 people have been forced to flee their homes because of the conflict, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said on Wednesday.

UN conference cancelled

The violence has forced the UN to abandon its plans for a conference aimed at brokering an agreement to hold elections as part of a solution to Libya’s long-running political crisis.

War economy: Haftar and the battle for Libya’s oil wealth
The meeting was scheduled to bring Haftar and GNA Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj together in the country’s southwestern town of Ghadames from April 14 to 16.

Haftar, who casts himself as a foe of “extremism” but is viewed by opponents as a new authoritarian leader in the mould of Gaddafi, has vowed to continue his offensive until Libya is “cleansed” of “terrorism”.

Al-Sarraj said last week the international community needs to be “united and firm” in supporting him and warned some 800,000 migrants and refugees, as well as Libyan nationals, could flee across the Mediterranean to Europe’s shores if the instability in Libya continues.

The UN puts the number of people in Libya who have fled their homelands at more than 700,000.

 

 

 

 

 

 

https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/04/evacuates-325-refugees-tripoli-clashes-continue-190424200149291.html