Friday, June 19, 2015

How Many 'Ghost Schools' Are There in Afghanistan?

This story was published by The Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, nonpartisan investigative news organization in Washington, D.C.
Nils Kauffman, who served as an education officer for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Afghanistan, said he noticed irregularities at a vocational training institute the agency was funding during his visits to its campus in downtown Kabul in 2012 and 2013. He recalls being surprised not to see any students in the institute's laboratories, where volt meters and scientific equipment remained in their original packaging.
Though Kauffman spied students elsewhere, he said he could never get a reliable account of how many were actually enrolled at the school. He also could not verify that the institute had addressed what a 2011 external audit called a host of "deviations" from sound practices, including a lack of accounting software, a cash-based payment system, and $118,000 in spending by the school over a five month period on weapons, international travel, and salary supplements.
Kauffman didn't have the authority to demand a new, broader audit of the institute, but he reported his concerns to his superiors at USAID. They never acted, he said, and he recalls an official in the agency's Office of Afghanistan-Pakistan Affairs expressing worry that canceling the institute's funding would create what the official called "bad press."
"Every time something came up, they jumped to keep this guy [the institute's leader] happy, despite the problems, despite the lack of financial transparency," said Kauffman, who is now a private development consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area. In fact, USAID continued giving the institute funds, totaling at least $12.3 million through last Sunday, according to USAID spokesman Sam Ostrander.
Kauffman's tale is only a small part of the controversy suddenly surrounding the long-running U.S. effort to promote the education and training of the largely illiterate population in Afghanistan. More than three-quarters of a billion dollars in U.S. funds have been used to finance the effort, and USAID has repeatedly depicted it as one of its signal accomplishments there.
Last month, Afghanistan's newly-appointed education minister raised questions about the veracity of the U.S. claim when he told his country's parliament that some aid funds had flowed to so-called "ghost schools, which are only on paper," according to several Afghan media accounts of the May 27 session. The minister, Assadullah Hanif Balkhi, said that officials in the previous government -- in power from 2004 to 2014 -- lied about the number of schools to obtain more foreign funds.
Asked to provide more detail, a spokesman for the ministry, Kabir Haqmal, later told NBC News -- CPI's publication partner for this article -- that the matter is still under investigation. In some cases, he said, schools may have been closed due to fighting while "permanent absentees" were kept on the books for years, following a requirement of Afghan law.
"There could be schools that do not exist, but we [are] assessing all our records and so far have not found any such instances," Haqmal said. "That does not mean there are no ghost schools, but we just do not have that information yet. We are taking this very seriously and will share our finding with public very soon."
The new minister's public claims prompted the top federal auditor for U.S. reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan, John F. Sopko, to express concern that "U.S. and other donors may have paid for schools that students do not attend and for the salaries of teachers who do not teach."
In a June 11 letter to acting USAID administrator Alfonso E. Lenhardt, released by Sopko on June 18, Sopko said the allegations about "ghost schools, ghost students, and ghost teachers call for immediate attention," and asked the agency to explain within two weeks what it is doing to investigate the reliability of its data and the potential misuse of its funds.
Accurate data, Sopko said, "is essential for gauging progress in USAID's education programs and for making future funding decisions."
USAID spokesman Ostrander, in an emailed response to questions, said the agency will provide a detailed reply to Sopko by the June 30 deadline. According to a written statement Ostrander provided to the Center from Larry Sampler, assistant to the USAID administrator for Afghanistan and Pakistan, the agency has already asked the Afghan Education Ministry for more information. USAID currently has a full-time employee assigned to help the ministry improve the reliability of its data, according to Sampler's statement.
Like all the agency's projects in Afghanistan, "USAID-implemented education projects adhere to the Agency's strict practices for monitoring their performance and success," Sampler wrote.
USAID has repeatedly boasted about its role in raising enrollment rates in Afghanistan, citing Afghanistan Education Ministry data. More than eight million Afghan students were enrolled in 2013, compared to just 900,000 in 2002, according to data that Sopko cited in his most recent quarterly report. He said USAID had acknowledged these figures could not be independently verified, however.
At the Afghanistan Technical Vocational Institute, where Kauffman said he observed irregularities, 4,529 students have so far graduated "with the support of USAID and other sponsors," Ostrander said. But the institute's founder and director, Sardar Roshan, reached by cell phone in Kabul, told the Center for Public Integrity that the total number was "close to 7,000." Ostrander told the Center he could not explain the discrepancy.
Roshan served as Afghanistan's ambassador to Pakistan from 1992 to 1994, as the country's minister of education from 1990 to 1992, and as a "rebel commander" liaising between "anticommunist forces and the U.S. government" in the National Islamic Front of Afghanistan during the 1980's, according to hisLinkedin profile.
Roshan denies that the institute has ever misreported its student population, saying the "ghost schools" are in rural provinces, but that his institute in downtown Kabul "could not fake students even if we wanted to." He says he is highly proud of the institute. "When I'm in the international airport, when I walk into a bank in Kabul, when I look at the provincial governments, I see my graduates in every corner," he said.
Rajiv Shah, the administrator of USAID from 2010 until February, singled the vocational institute out for special praise in a July 2013 speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. "Today, we have more than 8 million children in schools with over 30 percent of who are girls. These investments have resulted in over 30,000 young women finishing secondary school and more than 40,000 young women seeking to earn university degrees today," Shah said. "I've had the chance to meet some of these young women on visits to places like the Afghan Vocational Training Institute, watching them come in from around the country to develop marketable skills so they can triple or quadruple their earning potential upon graduation."
But Kauffman, the former USAID education officer, was not the only one voicing concerns about the institute's achievements. In early 2012 - more than a year before Shah's speech - USAID's inspector general had reported there was "little evidence" that the agency's support of the school, known as the Afghanistan Technical Vocational Institute, had strengthened its "overall technical capacity" or empowered Afghan youth. It said the project that included the institute "lacked clearly defined goals, objectives, and priorities."
The institute began receiving USAID funds in 2007, according to Roshan and Ostrander. The funds were initially for scholarships, and were paid under USAID's Afghanistan capacity-building program, Roshan said. But the financing was switched to the agency's education department in 2010, under a subcontract with Education Development Center, Inc., a Massachusetts-based non-profit organization. Students were supposed to be trained in business management, construction, horticulture, information and communication technology, and automotive repair, according to the USAID webpage about the institute.
After the 2011 audit by accounting firm Grant Thornton's Afghanistan office, USAID staff twice came to inspect the institute. But Kauffman said the institute obstructed efforts by USAID teams to dig deeper into its records, a claim supported by a copy he provided of USAID's internal report about its site visits in July and August 2011.
The report states that the inspectors were "unable to meet all technical staff, check the systems, or gather sample documentation," partly because the staff "were instructed by their headquarters not to disclose any documents" to them. It complained that Roshan and his ex-finance officer only met with them for 50 minutes, and said that as a result they were unable to learn whether the Institute had addressed key concerns the audit raised, including many involving its handling and disbursement of donor funds.
One person was, inappropriately, still responsible for handling petty cash, writing checks, and entering financial data into the computer, the report said. And the "most important gap" identified by the auditors -- the fact that the institute paid its employees' salaries in cash rather than traceable bank transfers -- was still a problem, the inspectors wrote. Multiple reports by Sopko have described this as a frequent practice in Afghanistan.
Roshan denied making any attempt to obstruct the inspection. He told the Center that many of these problems were resolved by the institute directly after the audit appeared, though he acknowledged that the institute had continued to use a cash-based payment system until 2013. Ostrander similarly said the institute had made progress since undergoing a separate assessment of its business model.
Roshan sent the Center a lengthy rebuttal to the Grant Thornton audit, accompanied by documents including templates for payment vouchers, time sheets, a 19-page accounting manual, and its personnel policy. He defended the spending on weapons, saying the institute needed shotguns for the protection of its staff and students. The international travel was for his own visits to the U.S., he said. And the salary supplements were "necessary," he said, to keep American teachers at the institute.
"I admit shortfalls in the finance/procurement systems… some nothing but symptoms of failure of the counterpart/donor to deliver technical and financial assistance" in a timely and consistent manner, Roshan told CPI in an emailed statement.
Roshan said further that the issues raised in the audit stemmed from friction between Education Development Center, Inc. and USAID. Indeed, the agency's 2012 inspector general report said the two entities had disagreed about "key elements of the design" of the larger educational project that Washington was financing, and said that this had hampered progress. "We were just caught in the tug of war," Roshan said.
Alison Cohen, a spokeswoman for Education Development Center, Inc., said in an emailed statement that her firm "did as it was required," and USAID found no mismanagement of its funds "on the part of EDC." She said the firm is "fully committed to achieving the highest level of compliance" with its contracts, a quality recognized by "dozens of federal agencies, state and local governments, and private organizations" that have given it funds.

Finding various ways to keep the funds flowing

A few months after the USAID site visits, the agency stopped funding the institute through Education Development Center and found what Kauffman described as alternative path: It modified one of its ongoing funding agreements with the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN Habitat) to add continuing technical and financial support for the institute.
But UN Habitat leaders raised their own concerns about the institute's spending practices, informing USAID staff at an April 2012 meeting that Roshan's salary and benefits package was $17,600 per month, according to a memo five months later from the director of USAID's Office of Social Sector Development, Carol Horning, to the agency's Afghanistan mission director. Annual per capita gross national income in Afghanistan was $1,940 that year, according to World Bank data.
Roshan denied he was paid $17,600 but declined to say what his salary was at the time. He said he had salaries that "were not on an Afghanistan scale" because he was an American citizen, and lived in Maryland for periods during the early 2010s. "I singlehandedly created the institute from scratch," he said. "I was compensated less than half of what I should have received." Roshan stepped down as the CEO this year, according to both Roshan and Ostrander, but Roshan said he remains the president until its board selects a new one.
The UN Habitat funding method worked for most of 2012, but on November 19, 2012, as it was drawing to a close, Roshan wrote directly to Shah, suggesting that "urgent funding be continued through an appropriate USAID mechanism for a period of time to avoid an abrupt closure" of the institute, according to an email that Roshan provided the Center.
Shah responded less than four hours later, according to a second email that Roshan provided the Center, thanking Roshan for his note and sending a copy to USAID's assistant administrator for Afghanistan and Pakistan "so we could explore this issue and get back to you." McKenzie Stough, a spokesperson at Georgetown University, where Shah is now a distinguished fellow at the School of Foreign Service, said that she had conveyed a request for comment to Shah's personal assistant, but no response was forthcoming.
Eleven days after Roshan's email exchange with Shah, Afghanistan's then-education minister Farooq Wardak signed a letter to U.S. Ambassador James B. Cunningham -- identical in wording to the email that Roshan had sent Shah.
USAID's Afghanistan mission director at the time, Ken Yamashita, met with Roshan on December 10, 2012, and proposed that USAID continue supporting the institute but disburse the funds as a part of an overall USAID financial support to the Education Ministry, according to an email from USAID official Kerry Pelzman to several colleagues, which was obtained by the Center. Yamashita, who is now a regional director at the Peace Corps, told the Center by email that he did not dispute this account.
Twelve days later, Yamashita met with Wardak to seal the deal, according to a December 29, 2012, letter to Wardak. In it, Yamashita thanked him for his "receptivity to inclusion of support for ATVI as part of USAID's on-budget support to the Ministry of Education," and promised to let Cunningham know that Wardak's November letter had "borne fruit." Cunningham, who is now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, did not respond to phoned and emailed requests for comment. Yamashita confirmed the information contained in the letter by email.
Yamashita's optimism was premature. Funding for the institute did not end up going through the Education Ministry, according to Kauffman, who said he heard the USAID finance department had objected to providing such general support. But in June 2013, USAID began providing another million dollars in direct funding for the institute, good for the next two years, according to the statement it posted on the Web. That funding expired on June 14, 2015.
Ostrander said, however, that USAID expects to start funding the institute again soon, through The Asia Foundation. The funding is meant to improve administrative functions and -- subject to compliance with what Ostrander described as "certain requirements and standards" -- cover operating expenses as well. Ostrander said he could not immediately tell the Center how much funding would be transmitted to the institute under the new agreement.
Roshan said however that he expects The Asia Foundation funding to net his institute $300,000 over the next six months. Two spokeswomen for The Asia Foundation did not reply to phoned and emailed requests for comment.
There's "no way" the institute could continue to exist without international support, Kauffman said.

Blasphemy in Pakistan: The case of Aasia Bibi


June 19 marks six years since the arrest of Aasia Noreen, also known as Aasia Bibi, the only woman to be sentenced to death for blasphemy in Pakistan. In her village of Ittan Wali, in the province of Punjab, it is the season for berries again. In 2009, Aasia (many Christians in Pakistan are known by their first name) was plucking falsa, a kind of berry, in the fields when she got into an argument with a group of women working beside her. They were Muslim, and Aasia, Christian. The women refused to drink water from the cup that Noreen had touched, contending it was unclean. In the heat of the quarrel, they said, Noreen made blasphemous remarks against the Prophet Muhammad, a charge that can lead to the death penalty in Pakistan.
Asma and Mafia, sisters who each go by one name, as some do in parts of Pakistan, were witnesses to the alleged incident. They reported the altercation to the village cleric, Qari Saalam, who filed a police report against Aasia on charges of blasphemy five days later. State vs. Aasia Bibi was heard in a lower court in the nearby city of Nankana Sahib, and in November 2010, Aasia was found guilty and sentenced to death. Now, the former daily wage laborer and mother of two remains in solitary confinement on death row in the women’s jail in the southern Punjab city of Multan.
Her case has drawn widespread criticism, and calls for her release have come from as far away as the Vatican; international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch havechampioned her cause. Aasia’s case is just one of hundreds in Pakistan based on the infamous blasphemy laws, which carry with them a virtually mandatory death sentence or life imprisonment and, activists say, are often used as cover to settle personal disputes, especially with members of religious minority groups.
And now transcripts of her trial, previously sealed and recently obtained by Al Jazeera America, raise further questions about how Aasia’s case was handled by the court. There are numerous and serious inconsistencies in the witness accounts provided by the prosecution; the cleric who brought the case against Aasia wasn’t even present during the alleged incident; and her legal counsel appears to have been incompetent.
The Lahore High Court upheld Aasia’s death sentence, a move that human rights lawyer Asad Jamal believes was gravely in error. He thinks that the high court should have dismissed her case instead. “I think there was an element of social prejudice there because the woman is a low-caste, Christian woman. The judge should have considered the social discrimination over religion and caste.”
The exterior of the Aasia Bibi's house in the village of Ittan Wali in Pakistan's Punjab province, Nov. 13, 2010.
The exterior of the Aasia Bibi's house in the village of Ittan Wali in Pakistan's Punjab province, Nov. 13, 2010.
Fayyaz Hussain / Reuters / Landov
But in Ittan Wali, there seems to be little sympathy for her plight. “She insulted Islam and the Holy Quran,” says Naseem Akhtar, a college student who heard about the incident from others. “The punishment for blasphemy is the death penalty.” Sitting on a charpoy in the courtyard of her red-brick house, Akhtar discusses the case with complete certainty about where the blame lies. “There had never been any problems between Christians and Muslims living here. It was Aasia who created them.”
Muhammad Imran lives one street away from Aasia’s old house, and he was also out of the village when the argument happened. But he is just as sure as Akhtar that justice has been served. “There is no other way to punish her. She should be hanged to death.” As an afterthought, he makes reference to Aasia’s “bad character.”
Imran and Akhtar’s view of Aasia seems to be shared by other villagers interviewed by Al Jazeera America. None of them witnessed the confrontation in the berry fields. The cleric — who was the plaintiff in the case — was away and could not be reached by telephone. The sisters have since married and left Ittan Wali. Some interviewees appeared hostile on questioning, and this reporter had to leave the area hastily for fear of jeopardizing her safety.
Aasia’s husband, Ashiq Masih, spoke to Al Jazeera America by phone from an undisclosed location; her family fled the village after she was arrested. “We believe in all prophets. We believe in Jesus like we believe in Muhammad. Why would she ever use disrespectful language for Prophet Muhammad?”
In Pakistan, repeating blasphemous remarks can also be construed as blasphemy, so the comments attributed to Noreen are not being repeated here. They can be found in the court documents [transcripts are at the bottom of the page].
Pakistan’s blasphemy laws were inherited from its British colonial rulers. Introduced in 1860, the laws were meant to reduce tensions and prevent riots between Hindu and Muslim communities in undivided India. For more than a century, only seven cases of blasphemy were ever reported. In the 1980s, however, under the military regime of General Zia-ul-Haq, the laws were expanded and stricter penalties imposed in a controversial period known as “the decade of Islamization.” In the three and a half decades since, more than 1,000 cases of blasphemy have been reported to the police, according to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, a human rights advocacy group. While the punishment for blasphemy used to be two years’ imprisonment for blasphemy, the maximum penalty is now death. And the additions to the law apply only to Islam, as opposed to all faiths. There is no definition of what constitutes blasphemy, so the laws are applied broadly and charges can be brought on weak evidence, human rights lawyers say.
Aasia was charged under 295-C, the section of the Pakistan Penal Code that deals with “Use of derogatory remarks, etc., in respect of the Holy Prophet” and the only one among the blasphemy laws that carries the death penalty. That sentence, or life imprisonment, may be given to “Whoever by words, either spoken or written, or by visible representation or by any imputation, innuendo, or insinuation, directly or indirectly, defiles the sacred name of the Holy Prophet Muhammad.”
The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, or HRCP, condemns the blasphemy laws, arguing that they can be used to settle personal scores and applied very broadly. In addition, charges can be brought on the thinnest of evidence.
Among those jailed on blasphemy charges is Bahauddin Zakariya University professor Junaid Hafeez, for a post written by someone else that he had shared on his personal Facebook page in May 2013. It had allegedly contained disrespectful content about the Prophet Muhammad’s wife. One year later, Rashid Rehman, the lawyer defending Hafeez, was shot dead in Multan. Hafeez remains imprisoned in a Multan jail, while Rehman’s killers remain at large. 
Gov. Taseer memorial
Pakistani Christians lay floral wreaths in front of a portrait of the late Punjab Gov. Salman Taseer in a cathedral in Lahore on Jan. 9, 2011. Taseer was assassinated for advocating for the release of Aasia Bibi.
Arif Ali / AFP / Getty Images
At different times in the country’s history, people have attempted to amend the blasphemy laws, but with no success. In 1998, the bishop of Pakistan’s third-largest city, Faisalabad, tried to repeal the laws over a death sentence handed down to a Christian man, Ayub Masih, for blasphemy. When he failed, Bishop John Joseph committed suicide in front of a court building in nearby Sahiwal, in protest.
Others who have challenged the misuse of these laws or have defended those charged with blasphemy have been shot dead or otherwise silenced. In January 2011, Punjab Gov. Salmaan Taseer, who had advocated for Aasia’s release, was shot by his own bodyguard in an upscale market in Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. The killer, Mumtaz Qadri, received the death penalty. Three months after Taseer’s assassination, Shahbaz Bhatti, the federal minister for minorities affairs, who had been commissioned by the federal government to investigate Aasia’s case and review the blasphemy laws, was also assassinated. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, and suspects were arrested for Bhatti’s murder, but no one, so far, has been convicted.
Aasia’s case is currently pending with the Supreme Court. In its verdict upholding her death sentence, the Lahore High Court found the evidence “consistent, coherent and confidence inspiring.”
But a copy of the trial proceedings obtained by Al Jazeera America reveals serious inconsistencies in witness accounts. In his statement to the court, Saalam changed his testimony about how and when he found out about Aasia’s crime three times [see page 13].
In her testimony, Aasia pointed out the close relationships between the three prime witnesses (one of the sisters, Asma, was the student of Saalam’s wife) and said that Mafia and Asma had conspired with him to bring a “false, fabricated and fictitious case” against her.
According to the court documents, Saalam accused Aasia of uttering blasphemous remarks twice, the first time in the berry fields and then five days later, on June 19 — the day of her arrest — in front of a gathering of villagers. Butin Aasia’s memoir, dictated to her husband from the confines of her prison cell, she says she was beaten by a mob to the point of losing consciousness and was asked to convert to Islam. When she refused, begging for mercy, the police arrived, “threw me in their van, to cheers from the angry crowd, and a few minutes later I was in the police station.”
Aasia Bibi in jail with Gov. Taseer
A police official takes the thumb print of Aasia Bibi, a Pakistani Christian woman who has been sentenced to death for blasphemy, on an affidavit stating her innocence after she was visited by the then-governor of the Punjab Province Salman Taseer (R) at the central jail in Sheikhupura, in Pakistan's Punjab province in November 2010. Taseer was later assassinated.
Asad Karim / Reuters / Landov
Saalam said Aasia confessed to her crime in front of a hundred people, all villagers, but in her statement, Mafia put this number at a thousand, while her sister Asma said 2,000 people were present [see page 18]. Yet another witness, villager Muhammad Afzal, who also said he witnessed the confession, said there were 200 to 250 people [see page 20]. All the prosecution witnesses, including the two sisters, also cite different locations for where this confession took place. Asma told the court that it happened at their neighbor’s house, while Mafia said Aasia confessed at their father’s house [see page 16]. The witness accounts vary in other instances as well. In another example, Asma said that the village gathering lasted 15 minutes, while Afzal said it lasted from “2-2.5 hours.”
But the Nankana Sahib lower court found the witness accounts to be coherent. The court discounted perjury by prosecution witnesses because, “In our society, normally the ladies avoid to indulge in criminal cases ... particularly the parents of unmarried and young girls never allow their daughters to go to police stations.” So, reasoned the judge, if the two sisters did take all these measures, it must have been because “they could not bear the blasphemy.”
In her defense, Aasia said, “My forefathers are living in this village since the creation of Pakistan. ... I am uneducated. ... There is no church in the village so being ignorant of Islamic thought, how can I use such clumsy and derogatory remarks about the beloved Prophet Mohammed.”
While Aasia has denied the charges in court, she admits to having exchanged “hot words” with Asma and Mafia. The court presumed that since the quarrel started when Muslim women refused to drink water from the hands of a Christian, the exchange must have been blasphemous. 
Aasia’s lawyer in the trial, Muhammad Nazim Shehzad, does not appear to have challenged the inconsistent testimonies of prosecution witnesses. What complicates the question of competent legal counsel, says Jamal, is that there are few lawyers willing to fight blasphemy cases: “Threats are so high that no one is willing to defend a blasphemy accused, whereas there would be a 100 people willing to defend a killer of a blasphemy accused.”
She has a new lawyer now, Saiful Malook, who will be representing her before the Supreme Court. Malook says the case could be heard in as little as a few days, or it could take months. He says he has learned to live with the security threats. “We live a life of fear. My family, our days of being happy, feeling free are long gone.”
He says the high court was unjust in upholding Aasia’s sentence on such weak evidence. Malook is in a position to judge; he also served as special prosecutor in the murder case of Taseer.
When Aasia’s case hit the headlines, Ali Dayan Hasan was the Pakistan director of Human Rights Watch, or HRW. He fought for her to be pardoned, he says, and was in confidential talks with senior government officials as early as November 2010, when Aasia was first sentenced. He was given to understand that then-President Asif Ali Zardari would pardon her and she would be sent out of the country on the next flight. But before the pardon could be issued, and just three weeks after the lower court gave her the death sentence on November 8, 2010, the Lahore High Court passed an order prohibiting the president from issuing a presidential pardon.
“Nobody had anticipated that any court of the land could ban the president from pardoning her. This was brazenly unconstitutional,” says Hasan. “Aasia’s case is an example of judicial bigotry and institutionalized maliciousness on part of the Lahore High Court.”
At the time, Khawaja Sharif was the chief justice of the Lahore High Court and the person responsible for barring the presidential pardon (though he did not himself hear Aasia’s case). After he retired in December 2010, he defended Qadri, Taseer’s assassin, who had confessed to the crime. Sharif has no doubt that justice has been served in Aasia’s case. “The evidence was concrete and proved in both the lower court and the high court. If there was conflicting evidence, the high court would have set aside the death penalty.” He also disregards the conflicting testimonies, saying only, “A very competent police officer conducted the investigation, and there is no doubt that blasphemous remarks were made.”
Hasan says when Aasia’s case emerged there was hope for change. There was a quiet agreement in Parliament that blasphemy laws had gotten out of hand, he says. Human rights groups had planned to petition for the abolition of blasphemy with the understanding that religious parties would object and ruling party parliamentarian Sherry Rehman would take the middle ground and submit a bill for reform, which she did. “But after the assassinations of Salmaan Taseer and Shahbaz Bhatti, the government backed down in its efforts and Rehman had to withdraw the bill,” Hasan recalls. 
The blood-stained car of Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti is seen following an attack in Islamabad on March 2, 2011.
The blood-stained car of Pakistani Minorities Minister Shahbaz Bhatti is seen following an attack in Islamabad on March 2, 2011 in which he was killed.
Farooq Naeem / AFP / Getty Images
After this setback, repealing the laws became virtually impossible, says Hasan, and the subject of blasphemy grew more untouchable. Now, Aasia is just one of at least 19 people on death row on charges of blasphemy, according to HRW.
Back in the quiet and picturesque hamlet of Ittan Wali, meanwhile, there are no non-Muslims left. Aasia’s family, who had lived in the village all their lives, went into hiding after her arrest, and their house was taken over by a Muslim family. The only other Christian family in the village left soon after.
Aasia’s husband, Ashiq Masih, is still unsure why the altercation in the berry fields happened at all. “People would have occasional arguments in the village. Arguments would happen over water all the time, but I don’t understand why the villagers falsely accused her. Maybe it was a quarrel I may have had with someone and this was done as revenge. I don’t know.”
In her memoir, Aasia sounds bitter. “I’m guilty only of being presumed guilty. I’m starting to wonder whether being a Christian in Pakistan today is not just a failing, or a mark against you, but actually a crime.” 

Asia Bibi’s Ordeal Marks The Sixth Year – Failing Health and No Hope

Today, June 19th marks six years since Asia Noreen, the only woman to be serving a death sentence for blasphemy in Pakistani, has been in jail.
Asia lived with her family in her village called Ittan Wali and worked on a field where she landed in an argument with a group of women working with her, The argument started over a cup used to drink water, as the women who were Muslims refused to touch the glass Asia had touched, claiming it to be unclean.
Sisters Asma and mafia became witnesses to the incident when it was reported to a local cleric, Qari Salam. A police report was made and the State vs. Asia Bibi case was heard in a lower court in Nankana Sahib and Asia was found guilty days later when she was arrested. Six years down the line, with failing health, Asia sits in solitary confinement in jail.
There is no sympathy in the village Asia lived in. people speak badly of her and claim that she should be hanged till death. This is why Asia’s family had to flee the village.
She was charged under the 295 C law. Asia Bibi’s case has gathered international acclaim and even the Pope has appealed for her pardon.
Asia Bibi’s case is an example of the highest form of misrepresentation. Human rights lawyer Asad Jamal believes her death sentences was gravely in error. “I think there was an element of social prejudice there because the woman is a low-caste, Christian woman. The judge should have considered the social discrimination over religion and caste,” he said.
A new lawyer Saiful Malook will now b e representing Asia Bibi in the Supreme Court. He has been death threats ever since as he also fought the Salman Taseer murder case.
President Asif Zardari had decided to pardon her and send her out of country but weeks before that Asia was served the death sentence condemning her for life.
Aasia’s case is an example of judicial bigotry and institutionalized maliciousness on part of the Lahore High Court.
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Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Load Shedding - Rolling blackouts spark protests across the province

Thousands of protesters took to the streets of Swabi, Charsadda, Kohat and Bannu between Thursday evening and the early hours of Friday over prolonged power outages in Ramazan. Speaker of the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Assembly Asad Qaiser has threatened to postpone the ongoing budget session if Water and Power Development Authority (Wapda) officials do not resolve the matter.
Earlier on Thursday, Minister for Water and Power Khawaja Asif announced manufacturing units across the country will be forced to face eight hours of load-shedding to prevent domestic consumers from suffering prolonged outages during sehri, iftar and taraweeh.
Up in arms
Over 3,000 residents protested in Chota Lahor, Swabi. The demonstrations gradually took a violent turn when a large number of protesters burnt down Wapda’s sub-divisional headquarters and the additional session judge’s office. The mob also ambushed a fire brigade which had arrived at the site to put out the fire.
Police officials told The Express Tribune equipment worth millions of rupees was destroyed in the fire at the subdivisional office. Police also took aim at the protesters with canisters of tear-gas. However, the mob grew increasingly violent and opened fire on police officials. Six people were arrested.
According to eyewitnesses, countless other offices in Chota Lahor were damaged during the protest.
Subsequently, the crowd blocked Islamabad-Peshawar motorway and only dispersed after Swabi DCO Matiullah Khan and DPO Sajjad Khan assured their grievances would be addressed. Wapda officials also assured protesters power outages will only take place as per schedule.
Sticks and stones
Residents of Shabqadar and Prang also took to the streets Thursday evening and Friday morning following prolonged power outages.
In Shabqadar, protesters threw stones at a grid station. Maqbali Khan, in charge of the grid station, told The Express Tribune, people had come out after iftar on Thursday and after sehri on Friday.
“They shouted slogans against Pesco and the government,” he said. “Some of them attacked the grid station.”
Similarly, in Prang, an angry mob gathered outside a grid station at 2am on Friday. Police managed to force the crowd to disperse and took some protesters into custody. Cases were registered against them.
In a separate incident, protesters gathered at a grid station in Farooq-e-Azam Square. There law-enforcement officials arrested 20 people.
Protests were also held in Kohat and Bannu.
Hitting out
Reacting to the protests, Qaiser lashed out at Wapda officials over prolonged power outages during Ramazan. Addressing a news conference at the K-P Assembly in Peshawar on Friday, Qaiser said unscheduled load-shedding was part of a conspiracy to destabilise law and order.
Reading out a statement of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif which said load-shedding would be limited to eight hours in villages, he commented, “The PM’s announcement was violated the same day it was made; this is beyond our understanding.”
He voiced anger over the destruction of Wapda’s office in Swabi. “Following the Swabi incident, I tried to contact the Wapda officials,” Qaiser said. “However, no one responded so I decided to contact the chief executive of Pesco who said routine power outages had been used as a means of reducing the excessive load in Swabi.”
According to Qaiser, his hometown Swabi faced 20-hour-long blackouts because Pesco was following Wapda’s formula.
“If the matter is not resolved within a day, we will postpone the ongoing budget session and call for a special discussion to find a solution to prolonged power outages,” he added.
Crisis management
Pesco responded to the situation and in a statement issued on Friday said, “Pesco Chief Executive Syed Hassan Fazil rushed to Charsadda and Swabi today to personally investigate the situation and issued special instructions.”
According to Pesco, the illegal use of electricity was the prime reason for long outages.
“The problem can only be addressed if electricity bills are paid on time and illegal kunda connections are removed,” read the statement.

Pakistan - Whose governance?

By Afrasiab Khattak
There is no dearth of books, papers, write ups and lectures, both from internal and external sources, on the serious challenges arising out of the crises of governance faced by Pakistan. There is almost a consensus that the aforementioned crises has negatively impacted the security situation, the level of socio-economic development and even the project of nation building and state building in the country. At times Pakistan has been dubbed to be “the most dangerous place on earth” specially in the context of the formidable terrorist threat faced by the country. But interestingly enough not many authors and analysts, particularly the indigenous ones, have dwelt at any length on the core issues of civil-military relationship in our state system, the key  factor in aggravating the problems of governance. It is regarded to be a taboo subject even by our “free” media and pushed under the proverbial carpet. The ruling political parties without any exception, are shy of raising this issue and they keep on chanting the mantra of civil-military elements being on the same page. Opposition parties don’t mention it out of the fear that it may bring them into the bad books of the powerful establishment undermining their future prospects for coming into power. But then discussing the crises of governance without any reference to this issue will be like playing Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.
The tone and tenor of Mr. Asif Ali Zardari’s speech in Islalamabad on June 16 in response to what he called a character assassination campaign emanating from the Corps headquarters and Rangers in Karachi against his party and the provincial government might have surprised many as the intemperate language of a part of his speech was quite unusual on his part. But for those who had seriously followed the political developments of the last few months the clash was hardly a bolt from the blue. The Rangers had wanted to target what they called criminal mafias in Karachi that enjoy political backing from the ruling quarters, but they had to wait up till mid March as the federal government was hesitant in fomenting political trouble for itself before the Senate elections. MQM bore the brunt of the operation when it started as the party has enjoyed a grip over the Karachi in view of its entrenched tentacles in socio-political and administrative structures of the city since the Musharaf era. But it gradually became clear that the PPP leadership and provincial government was the next target. The PPP had two objections. Firstly, they argued it was beyond the mandate of the Rangers who were called by the provincial government to fight terrorism and institutions like NAB were there to take action against the corrupt elements. Secondly, they regard the present campaign as yet another effort at political engineering through state coercion for achieving “positive results” in the coming elections. Now this is something that the party has experienced under General Zia and General Musharraf. Tensions rose as the mufti and the khaki could not resolve their differences over operation targets and the form of their execution in formal meetings even at the highest level. Uzair Baloch could not be brought back from Dubai for some time but he was supposed to become PPP’s Saulat Mirza in case of his return. In the hysteric campaign of Zulfiqar Mirza against his party’s leadership, the PPP perceived the making of another Jam Sadiq. These developments were bound to give birth to extreme paranoia in the PPP.
But the problem is not confined only to today’s Sindh. After the Zia-led military coup on July 5, 1977, the Pakistani state system as a republic is a myth. There has been a fierce and prolonged tussle between the supporters of a military dominated “controlled democracy” and the so called representative democracy enshrined in the 1973 Constitution. In the 1990s when the major political parties lent their shoulders to the establishment for overthrowing the elected civil government of their political opponents we witnessed a musical chairs game in the country throughout that decade. After signing of the Charter of Democracy in 2006 between Shaheed Mohtarama Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif the situation changed in favor of smooth political transition that materialized after the general elections in 2008 and the passage of the 18th Constitutional amendment with consensus. But then appeared “new” political players like IK and TUQ who were ready to play the old games. Their sit-ins were clearly scripted and the plan for the overthrow of the government by certain elements was exposed by no less a person than Mr. Javed Hashmi, the then president of PTI. He went to the extent of publicly naming names. This development prompted all political parties irrespective of their ideological inclinations to stand behind and support the Constitutional system. The government was not overthrown but it was considerably weakened and it had to concede a lot of space in terms of shaping and executing the security and foreign policy of the country to the security establishment.
The formation of the apex committees in all the four provinces was understandable in view of the NAP but these bodies should have had clearer terms of reference and a timeline as they are a temporary administrative arrangement without any Constitutional basis. An apex committee can’t be allowed to become a perpetual parallel provincial government as it would amount to reversing the provincial autonomy provided to the provinces by the Constitution and it would literally amount to reverting back to the unitary system of the martial law days. The people of the smaller provinces have given lots of sacrifices in a prolonged struggle for achieving provincial autonomy under a federal system and they are bound to resist efforts of the ruling elite of the biggest province to roll it back under any garb. It is interesting to see that the two retired generals (one of them a known religious fundamentalist and the other one a so-called enlightened soul) are publicly demanding abrogation of the Constitution. Is the present Constitution regarded a liability by the ruling elite of the biggest province after the 18th amendment ? If not then why doesn’t somebody give them a shut-up call as they sound more and more like the late General Yahya Khan.
The two final questions. One, can the country afford a new ethnic and political polarization in the face of grave internal and external challenges faced by it and haven’t we learnt our lessons from the consequences of the strategy of “shooting our way through” in 1971? Two, while most of the proscribed organizations, the supposed target for state’s action under NAP, haven’t been touched, the state has decided to sort out political entities that are the determined supporters of NAP. What is the justification for this?

Pakistan - Senator Sherry Rehman answers critical questions on Capital Talk

Capital Talk - 18th June 2015 by awaznine