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Pakistani government accused of ‘sabotaging’ rights watchdog | Pakistan

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The prime minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, and his government have been accused of trying to “sabotage” the country’s independent human rights watchdog to prevent accountability for mounting abuses and oppression.

Legislators, activists and lawyers told the Guardian that Khan’s government “punished” and immobilised Pakistan’s National Commission for Human Rights (NCHR) over reports that it had produced into human rights abuses and torture carried out by the military, which plays a powerful role in running the country.

On Monday, Islamabad high court directed the government to fill the vacant post of the head of the NCHR, after it was accused of deliberately obstructing the appointments of the new commission members and chairperson for nearly two years, leaving the watchdog in a state of limbo and unable to carry out its duties in holding the government to account.

Mustafa Nawaz Khokar, chairman of the senate committee on human rights, said: “Ever since Imran Khan’s government came to power, the NCHR has been dysfunctional. We raised this issue two or three times times, and after that the senate commission on human rights came to the conclusion that the government is consciously trying to sabotage the commission.”

The period of almost two years during which the NCHR has not functioned has coincided with a decline in press freedom and human rights in Pakistan, as well as accusations of a rise in enforced disappearances carried out by military-linked agencies.

The NCHR is a relatively new body in Pakistan. Its remit includes conducting independent investigations into human rights abuses, advising the government on human rights issues and legislation, reviewing the government’s implementation of human rights laws, and promoting the issue on the national political agenda.

Although it was established in 2012, it took three years for the commission to begin working properly. The first term of the commission came to an end in May 2019 and it was the responsibility of the government’s ministry of human rights to oversee the appointment of its new members, who are supposed to be non-political appointees.

However, almost two years later, no one has been appointed to the watchdog. Khokar said the “gloomy” human rights record of Khan’s government was the reason the NCHR had been immobilised.

“Imran Khan has been brought into power by the [military] establishment and it does not want to be challenged or held accountable,” said Khokar. “If such an independent organisation is allowed to function properly, then the true image of this government would be revealed internationally … They do not want the human rights violations to be highlighted.”

An advert for positions on the committee was first placed in May 2019, but then withdrawn without explanation. Another advert was issued in July 2019, but unlike before, a condition was included that no member of the commission should be more than 65 years old, which was then challenged as illegal.

Akhtar Cheema, a lawyer and former legal adviser to Pakistan’s senate, said the age-limit restriction was a method of delaying the appointments to the NCHR. “The government knew it would be challenged in the court of law and delay the process of the selection, as it was against the law,. And that’s what happened,” said Cheema.

Pakistan is a signatory of several international conventions on human rights, political rights and torture, and Cheema alleged that one of the ways the NCHR had angered the government was by monitoring the violations of those conventions, mainly by the military.

He cited the examples of NCHR reports, which “were not liked by the authorities in power”, into the systematic violation of minority rights, and allegations by farmers in Okara, Punjab, that their lands were forcibly occupied by the military.

“There are many grey areas in Pakistan and the commission had the judicial power to start inquiries, receive private complaints on human rights violations, conduct research and investigate and publish their reports, all of which bothered the government and the establishment,” she said.

“NCHR tried to report a few cases of human rights violations and hence it was punished.”

Pakistan’s human rights minister, Shireen Mazari, denied that the government was obstructing the watchdog and said it had readvertised the NCHR posts in October 2020. She blamed the delay on the failure of the leader of the opposition, Shahbaz Sharif, to approve their recommendations for the posts, as is required to prevent the NCHR appointments being political.

“The prime minister of Pakistan sent a list of preferences to the leader of the opposition in December, but the opposition leader hasn’t sent their nominations to us yet,” said Mazari. “We have reminded them time and again to send their preferences. The laziness is from the side of the opposition, not the government.”

However, when the government sent its preferences to the opposition leader, he was in jail. Sharif was arrested on 28 September last year on allegations of money laundering.

The first chairman of the NCHR, Ali Nawaz Chowhan, said the commission published 35 reports in the span of four years, including a detailed report on the existence of torture in Pakistan, which angered Khan’s government, who denied the abuses existed.

Chowhan said the previous government had also put restrictions on the commission’s work, but the worst had come after Khan came to power in 2018.

“It was clear that Pakistan is not implementing the torture conventions. Instead of punishing the commission for its work or reporting, the government should work on resolving human rights issues,” Chowhan said, adding that it should have taken just one month, not two years, to appoint new members after May 2019.

“They want us to lie to represent a positive image of Pakistan, but I believe it is better to uplift the image of Pakistan by ensuring human rights.”

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[Ticker] US backs WHO plan for further Covid-origin investigation

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US secretary of state Antony Blinken affirmed his country’s support to conduct additional investigations into the origins of the Covid-19 after meeting with the head of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, on Wednesday, Reuters reported. “He stressed the need for the next phase to be timely, evidence-based, transparent, expert-led, and free from interference,” a US state department spokesperson said in a statement.

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‘Freudian Slip’: Biden Confuses Trump With Obama in New Gaffe

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The 78-year-old American president is known to be prone to verbal gaffes and slips of the tongue, for which he is usually criticized or mocked by some people on social media.

US President Joe Biden appeared to confuse former US President Barack Obama for another former US president, Donald Trump, in a Wednesday speech, but swiftly corrected himself and suggested that the mistake was a “Freudian slip”.

“Back in 2009, during the so-called Great Recession, the president asked me to be in charge of managing that piece, then-President Trump,” Biden said while addressing the public in Pennsylvania. “Excuse me, Freudian slip, that was the last president. He caused the…anyway, President Obama, when I was vice-president.”

Apparently, Biden briefly messed up the timeline, confusing his predecessor, Trump, with the 44th US president, Obama. Even his quick apology did not prevent social media users from picking up on his gaffe.

​Some suggested that since a Freudian slip occurs as an action inspired by an internal train of thought or unconscious wish, it was Biden “dreaming” about working with Trump rather than Obama.

​Others argued that the 46th president does not know what a Freudian slip really is.

​Biden was in Pennsylvania on Wednesday speaking at a Mack Truck assembly plant in Lehigh Valley, promoting his administration’s new measures to encourage US citizens and companies to “buy American”. Particularly, he announced plans to modify the 1933 Buy American Act that requires federal firms and agencies to purchase goods that have at least 55% US-made components. 

Under the Biden plan, the threshold will be increased to 65% by 2024 and to 75% by 2029.



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Countdown to the airstrike: the moment Israeli forces hit al-Jalaa tower, Gaza | Global development

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Countdown to destruction

During the 11-day war between Israel and Palestinian militants in May 2021, Israeli airstrikes destroyed five multi-storey towers in the heart of Gaza City. The images of buildings crumbling to the ground flashed across TV channels around the world as Gaza faced the most intense Israeli offensive since 2014. At least 256 Palestinians were killed, including 66 children, and 13 in Israel, including two children. Israel claimed it was destroying the military capabilities of Hamas, who had fired rockets at Israel after weeks of tension in Jerusalem over the planned displacement of Palestinian residents and police raids on al-Aqsa mosque during Ramadan.

Each time Israel said it was targeting Hamas and that it had warned the residents first. But what is it like to have only a few minutes to evacuate before watching your life collapse into rubble?

In conjunction with the civilian harm monitoring organisation Airwars, the Guardian spoke with dozens of residents and gathered footage and photos to piece together the story of one building, al-Jalaa tower, demolished by an Israeli airstrike on 15 May 2021. These are the stories from inside the tower, of the Mahdi clan, who owned and lived in the building, the Jarousha family and the Hussein family.

Israeli airstrikes in Gaza hit a 12-storey building in the early hours of 12 May 2021.
Clockwise from top left: Israeli airstrikes in Gaza hit a 12-storey building in the early hours of 12 May 2021; a 13-storey residential block collapses in the Gaza Strip on 11 May 2021; an Israeli airstrike on Gaza City, 14 May 2021; smoke rises following an Israeli strike on al-Shorouq tower in Gaza City, 12 May 2021.

The story of al-Jalaa tower

The upscale Rimal area of Gaza City and its multi-storey towers had suffered since the bombing began. Though al-Jalaa was thought to be safe, night-long bombing had terrified its residents, who struggled to sleep. Fearing the impact of blasts, families had been sleeping in hallways away from the windows.

Children from al-Jalaa tower get ready to sleep in the hallway of the building for safety. Photo: Issam Mahdi

Al-Jalaa tower was built in 1994 as part of a property boom sparked by the landmark Oslo peace agreements between the Palestinians and Israelis.

The first five floors were offices, with floors six to 10 inhabited by families. On floor 11, the top floor, were the Gaza offices of the Associated Press and Al Jazeera, two of the world’s largest media companies. The ground floor had two levels of shops and beneath it was a car park.

Many of the residents came from the Mahdi family, including the building’s owner Jawad and his son Mohammed.

After each marriage in the Mahdi clan the new family settled into the tower. Jawad, 68, had traded in Israel before 2007 when the Jewish state blockaded Gaza after the Islamist group Hamas seized control of the territory. Since then he has run his clothes company in Gaza.

The whole family had huddled together into a few apartments on the sixth floor for safety, but were about to be scattered as they rushed to evacuate.


Timeline



The aftermath

As Jawad searches through the rubble he finds a single folder. It contains pictures of his wedding day.

Jawad Mahdi with a photograph of his wedding day, found amid the rubble of al-Jalaa tower. Photo: Mohammed Mahdi

Mohannad and Suzanne’s cats were never found. “I still don’t know their fate until today,” Mohannad says. “Every day from the moment it was destroyed I was going to the building listening for any sound.”

Suzanne says their lives will never be the same. “Everything you love is gone – it doesn’t matter about the cupboards and beds and things. There are things my kids had when they were babies, clothes that I had from when I was a child – these were memories. There was a box with all the things from my father, god rest his soul, his glasses and mobile and pictures. Where am I going to get things like that again?

“We have become people without memories or mementoes. What is a person without those? If you have no memories you feel like you never lived.”

Walid Hussein, the engineer who had returned with his family from years living in the US, has become like a ghost. He has not a single document to prove who he is. Sometimes he thinks about going back to the US for his children, but he has his elderly mother in Gaza to support. He doesn’t want to have to make a choice. He shares his hopes for a peaceful future in Gaza:

“This is all we are asking for, to live a peaceful life. Very peaceful life, it means security, it means no harm to anybody, it means don’t touch my kids – not because you have this technology and this kind of weapon you bomb all of us from the air.”

Main photo: NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock, Guardian composite; Satellite images ©2021 Maxar Tech/AFP/Getty Images, Google Earth

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