India Charges Pakistan-Based Terrorist Suicide Bombing

India Charges Pakistan-Based Terrorist Suicide Bombing

NEW DELHI —Pakistan-based Maulana Masood Azhar, designated a terrorist by the United Nations, has been charged in India for the February 2019 suicide bombing in Pulwama, Kashmir, that left 40 Indian paramilitary personnel dead and brought the two nuclear-armed nations to the brink of war.

A 13,800-page charge sheet against Azhar, his brothers Rauf Asghar and Ammar Alvi, and 16 others has been filed at a special court in Jammu in north India by the National Investigation Agency. The 19 have been charged under various provisions of Indian laws, including the principle counterterrorism law, the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967,and are also charged with murder. The special court is likely to hear the matter in September.

While Azhar, who is reported to be in Pakistan, and five others continue to be out of India’s reach, seven others have been arrested and six have been killed, the investigation agency said in a statement on Aug. 25 after it filed the charge sheet.

“The investigation has revealed that Pulwama attack was a result of a well-planned criminal conspiracy hatched by the Pakistan-based leadership of terrorist organization Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM),” the agency stated.

After the suicide bombing, the JeM released a video to claim responsibility for the attack in Kashmir, a contested territory between Pakistan and India. The countries have been at war over Kashmir several times since they both became independent from British rule in 1947.

 

Indian investigators now claim to have cracked the timeline of the planning and execution of the Feb. 14, 2019 attack, when a car laden with explosives rammed into a bus carrying Central Reserve Police Force personnel as it made its way to Srinagar in the Kashmir valley.

The investigators claim that JeM operative Mohammad Umar Farooq, a Pakistani who illegally crossed into India in April 2018, planned the attack with three Pakistanis and two Kashmiris. The group was aided by several others who are named in the charge sheet.

Investigators said the car used to carry out the attack was packed with nearly 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of explosives such as calcium ammonium nitrate, RDX, gelatin sticks and aluminium powder. Investigators say the explosives were ready in January 2019, but snowfall prevented the operations until mid-February.

In the video released by JeM claiming responsibility for the attack, one man is seen with at least four guns and grenades, exhorting Kashmiris to join the militant outfit. Investigators say the video was recorded in January 2019.

Azhar formed the JeM in 2000, a year after he was released by Indian authorities in exchange for 155 hostages on board an Indian Airlines plane that had been hijacked to Kandahar, Afghanistan.  The JeM was sanctioned by the UN Security Council in 2001 for its association with Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and Azhar was blacklisted by the Security Council’s ISIL and Al Qaeda sanctions committee and designated a global terrorist in 2019 after a sustained campaign by Indian diplomats.

Azhar and his outfit have been blamed for orchestrating other high-profile attacks on Indian soil, including the 2001 attack on India’s Parliament in New Delhi and the strike on a frontline Indian Air Force base in Pathankot near the border with Pakistan in 2016.

“The JeM emerged very rapidly after the release of Masood Azhar in January 2000,” said Syed Ata Hasnain, a former Indian Army commander in Kashmir and now the chancellor of Central University of Kashmir.

An ambulance waits at the scene of the suicide bombing in Lethpora in Kashmir on February 14, 2019. (Courtesy: Mohammad Tahir)

Two weeks after the attack in February 2019, India claimed to have bombed JeM’s training camp in Balakot in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province. A day later, as Pakistan retaliated, a dog fight between Indian and Pakistani fighters led to the downing of an Indian jet and the capture of its pilot in Pakistan. India also claimed to have downed a Pakistani F-16 fighter.

As the hostile neighbors came to the brink of war, U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo called for restraint, and President Donald Trump said his administration was trying to prevent further escalation.

“They’ve been going at it, and we’ve been involved in trying to have them stop,” Trump said in Hanoi on Feb. 28, 2019. An independence movement has roiled Kashmir since the early 1990s.

In its case against the terrorists, the investigation agency says it has “a lot of digital, forensic, documentary and oral evidence establishing a foolproof case,” and has information not only from Indian agencies, but also from foreign law enforcement agencies.

Experts say the charge sheet is significant, and once it is accepted by the court, it could put further pressure on Pakistan for its alleged inaction against terrorist groups.

“The significance of the charge sheet lies in the weight it carries as a legal document which contains evidence of the terrorist networks in Pakistan conspiring and sponsoring terrorist acts on Indian territory,” said Vivek Katju, a former diplomat who served as secretary in India’s Ministry of External Affairs.

“The organization and its leadership is in Pakistan. It is regrettable that MasoodAzhar, the first accused in the charge sheet continues to find shelter in Pakistan,” said Anurag Srivastava, spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs said while addressing reporters in New Delhi on Aug. 27. “Enough evidence has been shared with Pakistan but it continues to evade responsibility.”

Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Judy Isacoff.



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Taliban Peace Team Arrives in Pakistan Despite Sanctions

Taliban Peace Team Arrives in Pakistan Despite Sanctions

An Afghan Taliban delegation is in Islamabad at the invitation of Pakistan’s foreign office to discuss the Afghan peace process, arriving just days after the country imposed sanctions on the group’s leadership, including travel restrictions.

The Taliban delegation, headed by chief peace negotiator Mulla Ghani Baradar, was to meet with senior officials.

Pakistan issued the sanctions order on Aug. 18 but only made it public on Aug. 21. The orders identified dozens of individuals, including Baradar and several members of the Haqqani family, identified by the U.S.government as part of a Sunni Islamist militant organization, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, the current head of the organization and the deputy head of the Taliban, among others.

Despite the order preventing their entry into or transit through the country, the Taliban group arrived on Aug. 24.

“Officials of the Islamic Emirate routinely pay visits to regional nations and other countries of the world as part of our political strategy to convey our views about the peace process,” Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen said in a series of posts on Twitter.

“These are not new sanctions; they were slapped on a number of members of the Islamic Emirate previously,” he said. “But we are now entering into intra-Afghan negotiations. There is a need for travel. These embargoes or sanctions will hamper the peace process.”

The sanctions are part of Islamabad’s efforts to avoid being put on the blacklist by the Financial Action Task Force, a Paris-based intergovernmental organization that develops policies to fight money laundering and terror financing.

Pakistan has taken several measures such as amending laws to resolve “structural deficiencies” in its anti-money laundering policies and has combated financing of terrorism.

Afghan affairs expert Rahimullah Yousufzai, an award-winning journalist, told Zenger News that not too much should be read into the sanctions.

“These have more to do with commitments to the FATF,” he said, referring to the task force. “It also puts pressure on the Taliban leadership to fast-track the Afghan peace process. The importance of these talks in Islamabad can be gauged from the fact that Mulla Baradar is leading the team.”

 

Pakistan was placed on the gray list by the task force last year. It also was on the list in 2008, and again from 2012 to 2015. Other countries on the list are Ethiopia, Serbia, Sri Lanka, Syria, Trinidad and Tobago, Tunisia and Yemen.

“These lists contain names of individuals and entities designated under the two sanction regimes established pursuant to the UN Security Council resolutions,” said a Pakistan foreign ministry spokesperson.

Not only the handling of the Taliban, but also several other points in Pakistan’s recent statements to the task forc point to important developments in the terrorism and conflict landscape of the region. Among them, Indian experts said Pakistan’s listing terror suspect Dawood Ibrahim’s details in its sanctions order was a significant development.

Indian authorities claim that Ibrahim has been granted refuge by Pakistan in Karachi. India has sought his extradition since the 1992 bomb blasts in Mumbai that killed 257 people and injured 1,400. Pakistan has always denied that Ibrahim lives in the country.

This is the first time that the Pakistani government has published details of all those who are on the United Nations’ proscribed list, including Ibrahim. It has also listed Ibrahim’s properties in Karachi.

The Taliban delegation meets with Pakistan’s representatives in an undated photo. (Courtesy: Pakistan Foreign Office)

“This is important because the Pakistanis do not seem to have approached the UN committee concerned for deletion of his (Ibrahim’s) name or modification of the contents relating to his Pakistani passports and his addresses in the country,” said Vivek Katju, a former diplomat who served as a secretary in India’s ministry of external affairs. “This is tantamount to an admission of Dawood Ibrahim’s presence in Pakistan.”

“They are trying to impress the FATF to get off the gray list and not be pushed to the blacklist,” said Tilak Devasher, a member of India’s National Security Advisory Board, and an expert on Pakistan.

Pakistan also passed a series of laws, including amendments to the anti-terror law, to become compliant with the task force’s guidelines. Pakistan’s performance on the task force action plan will come up for review in September.

“This is just meant to fool the FATF—there has been no action against these individuals in the past,” Devasher said.

Many of the Taliban leaders have lived in Pakistan since the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 when they were allies of the United States in the war in Afghanistan. The U.S. and Afghanistan have accused Islamabad of giving the Taliban a haven, but Pakistan has denied it.

The U.S. signed a peace deal with the Taliban on Feb. 29 to end the country’s nearly 20 years of military engagement in Afghanistan. But delays in a prisoner release program hindered the start of talks between Kabul and the Taliban.

(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Judy Isacoff.)

 

 



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Endangered snow leopard poaching, conservation efforts continue

Endangered snow leopard poaching, conservation efforts continue

Visitors to the Bronx Zoo in New York might meet Leo the snow leopard, but they will hardly know he came all the way from Pakistan. 

“I raised him like a child,” said Kamaluddin Rummi, an official of the wildlife department in the Gilgit-Baltistan area. “He used to sleep in my bed. He went to Bronx in 2007.”

Not every snow leopard in the area is as lucky as Leo, though. Poaching and conflict with local communities threaten their lives and habitat. Only last month a mother and two cubs fell victim to poachers near the Hoper Glacier in the region over which both Pakistan and neighboring India lay claim. The poacher was arrested on August 6, after he uploaded a picture with the dead leopard on social media.  

The man not only confessed to his crime but also named his friends as accomplices, telling the authorities that they had set the cubs free after killing the mother. The poachers have been fined and jailed, and despite the local forest department launching a search for the two cubs, none were found. 

“We set up a camp near the place where the snow leopard was killed,” said Mohammed Mujeeb, a forest officer in the Gilgit-Baltistan range. “Twelve days had passed when the culprits were apprehended. The chances of the cubs’ survival were nil.” 

The officials managed to recover the skin of the dead animal. In the local black markets of Gilgit Baltistan, the hide would have fetched $2,000. But, according to Mujeeb, once shipped to other major cities like Karachi, Islamabad, and Lahore, the price could go up to $6,000.

The efforts of the forest department did not go unnoticed by the World Wildlife Fund. 

“We are extremely saddened to learn about the recent poaching incident involving a female snow leopard,” WWF tweeted, following up with praise for the authorities involved in the apprehension of the poachers. 

Nicknamed “mountain ghost,” the elusive snow leopard is rarely spotted in the wild. Wildlife experts estimate about 3,500-7,000 of them are left in their natural habitat worldwide, according to the Snow Leopard Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that works towards the conservation of big cats in the country. And only around 200-420 of them are in Pakistan, the foundation says, quoting the Snow Leopard Trust.

“Our own survey has shown that number is not more than 200,” said Ali Nawaz of The Snow Leopard Foundation. “In the past, it was more a guesstimate rather than scientific. We have done a survey on scientific grounds. Having said that, it is very difficult to come up with exact or near to exact figure of such an elusive animal.” 

In Pakistan, the leopard’s habitat is spread over nearly 31,000 square miles (80,000 sq km), of which 60 percent is in Gilgit-Baltistan, the foundation says. Other provinces of the country where the leopards have been found include Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Pakistan-administered Kashmir.

In Gilgit-Baltistan, two protected areas — Khunjerab National Park and Central Karakoram National Park — constitute the core snow leopard area. But exactly how many snow leopards are poached every year in these protected zones remains unknown. 

About 220-450 snow leopards might have been poached annually worldwide since 2008, says a 2016 report by Traffic, a global nongovernmental organization working for the preservation of biodiversity. This in turn means the number of poaching episodes is at least four a week. But this is likely a low estimate, the report notes, as wildlife crime is difficult to detect — especially given the difficult terrain and governance issues in disputed territories.

Nawaz likened it to coming up with a number for smuggling. “According to our poaching and trade survey, eight to 10 snow leopards are killed annually in Pakistan,” he said. 

Several programs try to preserve endangered animals in Pakistan by involving the local communities. The local population benefits from the funds only if they lend a hand to protecting wildlife. One such program is trophy hunting, introduced in the 1990s — but not hunting the snow leopard, of course.  

Every year, the governments of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan issue licenses to domestic and international hunters to hunt endangered markhors, a large wild goat, which is the national animal of Pakistan. Communities that agree to prevent poaching of carnivores are given the lucrative annual permits. Across Pakistan’s snow leopard range, village cooperatives raised nearly $670,000 in 2019 from the permits, according to the wildlife departments of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Gilgit-Baltistan. 

“Earlier, markhor was just a large goat, but now it is a goat worth millions,” said Zakir Hussain, Chief Conservator of Wildlife for Gilgit-Baltistan.
He said four permits to hunt markhors were issued in 2019 for $667,000, of which 80% percent went to the local community. “They are bound to spend 50% of the amount on social development and another 20% on habitat development,” he said. “This way they feel ownership of the wildlife in their areas. And this ownership has resulted in an increase in the population of markhors in Gilgit-Baltistan.”
A growth in markhor population a win-win for goats and snow leopards, who need wild herd animals to sustain their population.

Locals help the wildlife authorities investigate poaching incidents, and communities that regulate their livestock grazing patterns efficiently tend to attract a larger population of wild goats and therefore more hunting permits. 

But the conflict between humans and animals continues. Every year there are reports of livestock attacked by snow leopards and of the big cat being shot by angry people. 

“Retaliatory killings are a knee-jerk reaction,” said Nawaz. “When they happen, communities try to cover it up to prevent trouble with the authorities and (conservation program funding) investors.” 

American organization Snow Leopard Trust runs livestock insurance programs with the Snow Leopard Foundation of Pakistan.

For a herder living in the snow leopard’s habitat, the health and well-being of their livestock are inseparable from their livelihood, which a snow leopard attack has the potential to destroy. “A single attack can result in the loss of up to 25 domesticated animals,” the Snow Leopard Trust says, and given the poverty in the region, it is next to impossible for a family to recover from such a loss.  

(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Cathy Jones.)



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Actress Faces Jail over Music Video Shot in Historic Pakistan Mosque

Actress Faces Jail over Music Video Shot in Historic Pakistan Mosque

Pakistan actress Saba Qamar and singer Bilal Saeed are facing the country’s formidable blasphemy laws and heat from Islamic clerics for shooting a music video in a historic mosque.

Qamar, who had a leading role in the film “Hindi Medium” and several TV sitcoms, posted a picture on Instagram with Saeed on Aug. 1 taken at the 17th-century Wazir Khan Mosque, in Lahore, about 230 miles south of Islamabad.

The picture’s caption: “Qabool hai” — the Islamic “I do” in wedding rituals.

Social media was abuzz with speculation of the actress and the singer tying the knot, only to learn later this was part of Saeed’s new song “Qabool.”

There was an immediate backlash, with many demanding the duo be punished for offending religious sentiments.

Lahore police lodged a case against them on Aug. 13 under section 295 of the Pakistan Penal Code, which aims to punish a “deliberate and malicious act intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious belief.”

If convicted, Qamar and Saeed could face prison time.

 

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“The maximum punishment under this subsection of the law is imprisonment for two years or fine or both,” lawyer Zain Naqvi said. “This is different from sub-section 295C for which punishment is death.”

Worse, Qamar’s life could be at risk after radical cleric and Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan Chief Khadim Hussain Rizvi in a public meeting on Aug. 14 demanded action against her and Saeed.

“Don’t you know the protocols of mosques?” asked Rizvi in the meeting. “Register a case against those responsible for what happened.”

Rizvi was among the clerics who justified the assassination of Salman Taseer, former Punjab governor.

A police officer on to the governor’s security detail opened fire and killed him in Islamabad on January 4, 2011. Rizvi had then said that since the governor had called the blasphemy law a “black law” his killing was justified.

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan were introduced in the colonial era in British India – which included the territory that is now Pakistan – with the justification of preventing and curbing religious violence between Hindus and Muslims.

Under the military government of General Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988), additional laws were introduced against blasphemy specific to Islam. Today, the most frequently invoked blasphemy laws in Pakistan’s Penal Code are those against outraging religious feelings, desecrating the Quran, defiling the name of the Prophet Muhammad and defiling the names of the family of the Prophet Muhammad, his companion or any of the caliphs.

Blasphemy laws in Pakistan — a Muslim-majority nation — have been criticized internationally for being used to target religious and social minorities.

“The systematic enforcement of blasphemy laws …  severely restricted freedom of religion or belief,” claims a recent report on Pakistan by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Amendments to the code in 1986 under the rule of military dictator Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq are an “elaborate facade for the ongoing persecution of vulnerable individuals and the reign of the violent extremist idea,” according to a paper published earlier this year by the European Foundation for South Asia Studies.

The report also identifies vigilante justice against religious minorities as one of the major outcomes of the blasphemy laws.

After the outrage, Qamar and Saeed took to social media to explain what had happened and apologized for hurting religious sentiments.

“The impression was created that we danced … inside the mosque and desecrated the holy place,” Saeed said later in an Instagram video. “I am a Muslim and raised in a Muslim household. I swear to God that we did not dance and play music inside the mosque.”

“We realize that we committed a mistake unintentionally. We ask God for forgiveness,” he added. “We apologize to you also and request you to let it go.”

Qamar also took to Twitter to explain what had happened.

“There is only one sequence that was shot at the historic Wazir Khan Mosque,” Qamar said. “It’s a prologue to the music video featuring a nikah (wedding) scene. Despite this if we have unknowingly hurt anyone’s sentiments we apologize to you all with all our heart.”

The song went viral on social media after being uploaded to YouTube on Aug. 12. Since then it has had 4 million views. The scene shot at the mosque is missing from the video.

Saeed had claimed, in his Instagram video, they had sought official permission from the Auqaf and Religious Affairs Department of the Punjab province. A letter has also emerged, which shows that they were given permission to shoot at the mosque for a fee of $177.

“The letter is genuine,” said Syed Peer Saeed ul Hassan, provincial minister for Auqaf and Religious Affairs.

He added that one official of the department had been sacked for granting permission and an inquiry had been ordered.

“Such shoots or any kind of recording within mosques premises is prohibited,” said ul Hassan. “Only shooting for documentaries is allowed. Sanctity of mosques is the priority.”

The Wazir Khan Mosque was constructed in 1634 under Shah Jahan, the fifth ruler of the Mughal dynasty, which ruled major parts of South Asia from the 16th to the mid-19th century. Shah Jahan also funded the construction of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India.

The controversy over the shoot could also adversely affect Qamar’s career, said sources in the film industry.

“The shooting of a film in which she stars was supposed to start in March but was delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said film critic Hassan Kazmi. “The producer of the film is now not very sure if the shooting will start on schedule after the recent controversy.”

(Edited by Siddharthya Roy and Matt Rasnic.)



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