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Pakistan To Impose Travel Ban On Ex-President Zardari

FILE: Former Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari (C) arrives to attend the first session of the lower house of parliament in Islamabad.

Pakistani authorities say they will impose a travel ban on former President Asif Ali Zardari while investigators complete a probe into allegations of money laundering.

The announcement came as the country marked 11 years since the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Zardari's wife.

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry told reporters on December 27 that Zardari and 171 others were suspected of money laundering and using of fake bank accounts.

Chaudhry said all 172 would be put on the Exit Control List, barring them from leaving the country.

Zardari, who was president from 2008-13 and is currently a member of the lower house of parliament, is accused of laundering money through fake bank accounts and companies. He has denied any wrongdoing.

During a rally to mark his wife's death, Zardari blasted Prime Minister Imran Khan's government and said the allegations against him were "absurd."

Zardari, co-chairman of the opposition Pakistan People's Party, has long been the subject of corruption allegations and is widely known in Pakistan as "Mr.10 Percent."

Based on reporting by AFP and AP

Alleged Mastermind Of Chinese Consulate Attack In Pakistan Reported Dead

Pakistani security personnel stand next to burned-out vehicles in front of the Chinese Consulate after an attack in Karachi on November 23.

The alleged mastermind of an attack by a Pakistani separatist group on the Chinese Consulate in the port city of Karachi last month has been killed, the group said.

The Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), which is fighting for independence in resource-rich Balochistan, issued a statement on December 26 that Aslam Baloch, one of its leaders, had been killed.

"The important BLA commander Aslam Baloch, along with five associates in the organization, were martyred in an enemy attack on [December 24]," Jiand Baloch, a spokesman for the separatist group, said in a statement.

He did not say where the men were killed.

Balochistan is Pakistan's largest and poorest province, and it is confronted with ethnic, sectarian, and separatist insurgencies.

Last month, three attackers stormed the Chinese Consulate in Karachi, triggering a shootout that left the attackers, two police officers, and two civilians dead.

Security forces killed the three attackers, who were carrying explosives.

Karachi, Pakistan's largest city and financial center, has been marred for a long time by political, sectarian, and ethnic militancy.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AP

Pakistani Foreign Minister In Moscow For Security Consultations

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (right) welcomes Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi during his visit to Moscow on December 26.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi has traveled to Moscow for talks with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov.

Speaking ahead of the December 26 talks, Qureshi said "Russia is an important partner for our country and plays an important role in promoting peace in our region."

Qureshi also thanked Lavrov for Moscow's role in conducting talks aimed at regulating the conflict in Afghanistan.

On November 9, Moscow hosted the second such meeting, involving more than 10 countries, including the United States and Pakistan.

"This was very important for us," Qureshi said.

Lavrov said establishing "goals of the Afghan settlement" was a key focus of the December 26 talks with Qureshi.

Qureshi warned of the "spread" of the Islamic State (IS) extremist group across the Middle East, saying it gave urgency to increased antiterrorism cooperation between Pakistan and Russia.

Based on reporting by TASS and gazeta.ru

Gunmen Kill Pakistani Politician In Karachi

Politicians mourn the death of former lawmaker Ali Raza Abidi in Karachi on December 25.

Unidentified gunmen opened fire on a Pakistani politician outside his home in the southern port city of Karachi on the evening of December 25, before fleeing the scene, police said.

Former lawmaker Ali Raza Abidi, 46, was critically wounded in the attack and he later died at a hospital, senior police officer Javed Alam Odho told reporters.

Abidi was alone in his car when the attack took place, authorities say, adding that a postmortem examination showed that he sustained four bullet wounds.

No one claimed responsibility for the killing. Police cordoned off the scene of the attack, local media reported.

Abidi, the former leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement party, was elected to the National Assembly in 2013.

The party urged the authorities to immediately find and arrest Abidi’s killers.

Prime Minister Imran Khan and several other opposition politicians condemned the attack.

The Muttahida Qaumi Movement party represents the Urdu speaking population and its two factions have an uneasy relationship with each other.

Based on reporting by AP and dawn.com

U.S. Envoy Doubts Afghan Taliban 'Genuinely Seeking Peace'

FILE: Zalmay Khalilzad

The U.S. special peace envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, has questioned the Taliban's determination to end the 17-year war, after the group's representatives refused to meet with an Afghan government-backed negotiating team.

"We have to wait and see their forthcoming steps," Khalilzad told Afghan news agency Ariana News on December 20, according to a translation of the interview provided by the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

Khalilzad said that, while he was certain the Afghan government wanted to end the conflict, it was unclear whether the Taliban were "genuinely seeking peace."

Khalilzad's remarks came after his latest face-to-face meeting earlier this week with the Taliban, which was held in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates and was also attended by Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.

The UAE hailed the talks as "positive for all parties concerned."

But the Taliban would not meet with a 12-person Afghan delegation, Khalilzad said, describing the decision as "wrong."

"If the Taliban are really seeking peace, they have to sit with the Afghan government ultimately to reach an agreement on the future political settlement in Afghanistan," the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan said.

The Taliban has refused direct talks with the Afghan government, which it says is an American puppet.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

British Airways To Resume Flights To Pakistan After Decade Hiatus

British Airways halted services to Pakistan in 2008.

British Airways says it will resume flights to Pakistan next summer, a decade after suspending operations due to security fears.

The British carrier announced on December 18 that it will return in June 2019 with three weekly flights from London's Heathrow airport to the Pakistani capital, Islamabad.

British Airways halted services in 2008 in the wake of a suicide truck bombing that killed more than 50 people at Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel.

The carrier's announcement was "a reflection of the great improvements in the security situation in Pakistan" in the years since, said Thomas Drew, Britain's top diplomat in Pakistan.

The resumption of flights will "give a particular boost to our growing trade and investment links," Drew also said.

Zulfikar Abbas Bukhari, a special assistant to Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, said his country was "becoming less isolated and more connected to the world, and that's the Pakistan we want to see."

Pakistani military spokesman Major General Asif Ghafoor said the development was a result of the struggle of the Pakistani nation and security forces to restore peace and stability in the country.

Pakistan has battled homegrown militancy for nearly 15 years, with tens of thousands of people killed.

A little-known militant group claimed responsibility for the September 2008 devastating attack in Islamabad, but authorities blamed Al-Qaeda-linked militants.

Britain is home to more than 1 million residents of Pakistani origin, making it the largest Pakistani diaspora community in Europe.

Pakistan International Airlines is currently the only carrier with direct flights between the two countries.

Based on reporting by AP, AFP, and ReutersLon

Pakistani Army Chief Confirms Death Sentences For 15 Militants

FILEL: Pakistani Army Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Qamar at the Pakistan Day military parade in Islamabad on March 23.

Pakistan's army chief has approved death sentences for 15 militants convicted by military courts of playing a role in recent attacks that killed 32 security forces and two civilians.

A statement from Pakistan’s military about the December 16 ruling did not say when the executions would take place.

The statement says General Qamar Javed Bajwas also approved prison terms for 20 alleged militants who have been charged with attacking security forces and Christians in Pakistan, and with destroying educational institutions.

Pakistan lifted a moratorium on the death penalty after a 2014 militant attack on a school in Peshawar that killed more than 150 people, mostly schoolchildren.

Pakistan on December 16 is marking the fourth anniversary of the Peshawar Army Public School attack.

Based on reporting by AP and Dawn

Six Paramilitary Soldiers Killed In Attack In Southwestern Pakistan

FILE: Paramilitary soldiers inspect the site of an attack in Balochistan.

At least six paramilitary troops were killed in southwestern Pakistan on December 14 when their convoy came under attack in a mountainous area near the border with Iran in the southwestern province of Balochistan, officials said.

Balochistan has been the theater of several attacks on security personnel recently, but the number of large-scale incidents has decreased significantly since 2016.

Six members of the Frontier Corps (FC) paramilitary force in charge of security in the region were killed in "heavy" firing along a mountainous stretch of road in the Kech district, the province's information minister, Zahoor Ahmed Buledi, said.

"Six FC men embraced martyrdom while 14 others were wounded in the gun attack," Buledi said.

No group has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Islamist militants linked to the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and Islamic State have been operating in the mineral-rich province, which borders Iran and Afghanistan. An indigenous ethnic Baloch insurgency is under way against the central government.

Last month, three men from the separatist Baloch Liberation Army stormed the Chinese Embassy in Pakistan's southern metropolis of Karachi, killing four people, including two police officers.

China is investing in the area under a $54 billion project known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which aims at upgrading infrastructure, power, and transport links between its western Xinjiang region and Pakistan's Gwadar port.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AFP

Malala Honored By Harvard University For Efforts To Aid Girls' Education

Pakistani education activist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai (file photo)

Pakistani Nobel Peace Prize-winner Malala Yousafzai has been honored by Harvard University in the United States for her work promoting girls' education.

The 21-year-old Malala, who as a teen in her home country survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban, received the 2018 Gleitsman Award from Harvard's Kennedy School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on December 6.

"Malala speaks powerfully to the strength and perseverance of women and girls who are oppressed," said David Gergen, a professor at Harvard Kennedy School and director of the Center for Public Leadership.

The award provides $125,000 for activism that has improved quality of life around the world.

Malala, now a student at Oxford University in Britain, was recognized for her global efforts to support schooling for children with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2014.

Based on reporting by AP and The Hill

Six Charged in Pakistan Over Murder Of Infant On Faith Healer's Orders

FILE: Resecue workers and security officials gather around the bodies of the disciples who were killed by a faith healer in the eastern province of Punjab.

Police in Pakistan’s Punjab Province have arrested six people in connection with the murder of an infant girl, including the father of the victim, after a faith healer allegedly advised the group to kill the toddler.

Police in Sargodha say others arrested in the case include the victim’s grandmother and aunt on the father’s side of the family.

They are alleged to have slit the infant girl’s throat after a faith healer told them their family was being disturbed by ghosts because of the girl.

Police spokesman Muhammad Sarfaraz said the faith healer was “on the run” and was being sought by authorities on December 3.

Dawn newspaper reported the mother of the victim has filed a case seeking divorce.

She also told the newspaper that the faith healer had previously harmed her daughter.

Based on reporting by dpa and Dawn.com

Pakistan To Charge TLP Leaders With Terrorism, Sedition

FILE: Khadim Hussain Rizvi

Pakistan will charge the detained leaders of a hard-line Islamist group with terrorism and sedition, the government said on December 1.

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said the leader of the Tehrik-e Labaik (TLP) party, cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi, and two other TLP leaders have been booked under the charges, which could carry a life prison term.

Rizvi and more than 3,000 of his supporters were arrested during violent demonstrations following the October 31 acquittal of a Christian woman in a blasphemy case.

Rizvi and the other TLP leaders are accused of inciting violence and making incendiary comments about the judiciary and the military.

With reporting by Dawn and AP

Pakistani Rupee Hits Record Low Against U.S. Dollar

FILE: Passersby walk past an advertisement board with photos of Pakistani rupee at a money exchange along a sidewalk in Karachi, Pakistan (June 2018).

The Pakistani rupee has plunged to a record low against the U.S. dollar amid a financial crisis.

The rupee traded at 143 to the dollar on November 30 as Pakistan struggled with chronic inflation and dwindling foreign-currency reserves.

The rupee has plunged about 15 percent since parliamentary elections in July and around 36 percent over the past year.

Pakistan secured $6 billion in funding from Saudi Arabia and struck a 12-month deal for a cash lifeline during Prime Minister Imran Khan's visit to Riyadh in October.

Despite the pledges, Pakistan is still negotiating with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $6 billion bailout.

The IMF and World Bank forecasts suggest the Pakistani economy is likely to grow by 4 to 4.5 percent this fiscal year compared to 5.8 percent growth in the last fiscal year.

Based on reporting by AFP and AP

UNESCO Recognizes Tradition Of Pakistan's Pagan Kalash Tribe

FILE: Kalash girls sitting outside their home in Kalash Valley, Chitral district in northwestern Pakistan's Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has listed a tradition of the minority Kalash community in Pakistan on the list of intangible cultural heritage in need of urgent safeguarding.

The Kalash, a tiny pagan tribe, is a distinct religious and ethnic group based in the remote mountains of northwestern Pakistan along the border with Afghanistan.

In a statementon November 29, UNESCO recognized the Kalash tradition of Suri Jagek, translated as "observing the sun," as a living heritage whose viability was under threat.

UNESCO said Suri Jagek was a "traditional Kalash meteorological and astronomical knowledge system and practice -- enacted predominantly in the Hindu Kush mountain range -- based on the observation of the sun, moon, stars, and shadows with respect to the local topography."

The method is used to measure appropriate times for sowing seeds and predict natural disasters, besides being the basis of the Kalash calendar, UNESCO said.

The Kalash, which number around 4,000 people, consider themselves descendants of Alexander the Great's soldiers, and have lived mostly in isolation since the Macedonian warrior king invaded the region more than 2,300 years ago.

IS Claims 'Suicide' Attack On Market In Pakistani Tribal District

A man injured in a blast in Orakzai lies at a hospital bed after he was brought for treatment in Peshawar on November 23.

Islamic State (IS) extremists have claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing that destroyed a market in Pakistan's northwestern Orakzai tribal district, killing at least 35 people and injuring more than 50.

Police had initially said that a bomb hidden in a box of vegetables exploded in the crowded marketplace on November 23 in the town of Klaya near the border with Afghanistan.

The town is in a Shi'a-dominated part of the Orakzai district, which was one of seven autonomous tribal regions in Pakistan until earlier in 2018, when it was merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province.

In a statement issued on November 24 on the IS militant website Amaq, the group claimed the blast was caused by an IS suicide bomber.

IS also claimed 57 Shi'ite Muslims were killed and 75 were wounded by the blast.

Based on reporting by Reuters, AP, and AFP

Pakistan Arrests Cleric Whose Supporters Held Violent Rallies Over Blasphemy Law

Khadim Hussain Rizvi speaks to supporters during a protest following the Supreme Court's decision to acquit Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi of blasphemy, in Lahore on November 2.

Pakistani authorities have arrested a radical Islamic cleric whose followers held violent rallies against the acquittal of a Christian woman in a blasphemy case.

Khadim Hussain Rizvi, the leader of the hard-line Tehrik-e Labaik party was arrested late on November 23 in the eastern city of Lahore, the party said in a statement.

Police said that Rizvi's supporters clashed with police soon after he was taken away, with at least five people wounded.

Scores of the cleric’s supporters were detained by police, the party statement said.

Earlier this month, Rizvi led three days of violent protests in several cities over the Supreme Court's acquittal and release of Asia Bibi on October 31.

Asia Bibi had spent eight years on death row on a blasphemy conviction.

The protesters blocked roads and threatened the judges who acquitted Asia Bibi.

Rizvi ended the protests after the authorities said Asia Bibi would not leave the country until a petition against her acquittal was reviewed.

Rizvi’s detention appeared to set up a new confrontation, with the cleric urging his supporters earlier in the day to take to the streets if he was arrested.

Based on reporting by Reuters and AP

Former Senior Pakistani Police Officer Killed In Shooting

FILE: Pakistani police guard the site of a shooting incident in Quetta.

Pakistani police say gunmen shot dead a former senior police officer in the southwestern city of Quetta.

Quetta police chief Abdur Razzaq Cheema said the assailants fired on and critically wounded Naeem Kakar on November 17 in Quetta, the provincial capital of Balochistan Province.

Cheema said the gunmen, who were on motorcycles, escaped the scene.

Kakar was the former deputy inspector general of the provincial police's crime unit, which has been key in fighting militants and criminals.

No group claimed responsibility for the attack, although similar assaults in the past have been blamed on Pakistani Taliban militants.

Balochistan has also been the scene of a low-level insurgency by Baluch separatist groups. The incident came after the recent abduction and killing of senior Pakistani police officer Tahir Khan Dawar.

Reported missing in Islamabad on October 26, his body was located in Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan on November 13.

Based on reporting by AP, Geo TV, and Dawn

Bombing At Karachi Marketplace Kills At Least Two

FILE: Pakistani rangers inspect the site of a bomb blast in Karachi (2016).

Pakistani police say a roadside bomb in the southern port city of Karachi has killed at least two people and wounded at least five others.

The blast on November 16 reportedly damaged buildings and triggered panic in the densely populated Malir district.

"A timed device planted underneath a push-cart exploded with a big bang, killing two people and wounding eight others," senior police official Irfan Ali Bahadur told AFP.

Police said vendors at a makeshift market were selling fruit and other items of daily use when the bomb went off nearby. Dozens of people were present at the time.

Police said the dead and wounded were transported to hospitals. At least two of those injured were in critical condition.

Police cordoned off the area after the explosion and bomb disposal officials were called to the scene.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility from any group.

Karachi is the capital of Pakistan's southern Sindh Province, where outlawed Islamic militant groups maintain a presence.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

Pakistani Government Official Reported Missing Releases Video Statement

Neither Muhammad Ayaz Khan's family in Islamabad nor his relatives in Dera Ismail Khan has issued a statement regarding the video.

A Pakistani government official who was reported missing in Islamabad earlier on November 16 has released a brief video statement in which he claimed he was visiting relatives in the country's northwestern Dera Ismail Khan district.

Muhammad Ayaz Khan, the director of the Capital Development Authority (CDA), failed to show up at home on November 15 after leaving his office.

Muhammad Hassan, Khan's brother-in-law, told RFE/RL on November 16 that Khan's wife had been in mobile-phone contact with her husband until late on November 15 when the device was apparently shut off.

Police also told RFE/RL that Hassan's car was found outside the Islamabad offices of the CDA, which provides municipal services in Pakistani capital.

Later on November 16, Khan released a video message in which he said he was safe and sound and visiting relatives in Dera Ismail Khan district. He said that he had lost his mobile phone and asked that people not spread rumors that he had been abducted or was missing.

However, nothing in the video proves that it was shot in Dera Ismail Khan district, and Khan did not explain how he traveled so far without his car.

Neither Khan's family in Islamabad nor his relatives in Dera Ismail Khan has issued a statement regarding the video.

Islamabad police told RFE/RL they believed Khan was in Dera Ismail Khan, but did not explain the basis for that conclusion.

Khan's reported disappearance comes days after the body of a senior Pakistani police officer, who was reported missing in Islamabad on October 26, was located in Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan on November 13.

On November 15, Afghan officials handed over the body of Tahir Khan Dawar to Pakistani authorities at the Torkham border crossing with Afghanistan, according to local media reports.

Dawar sent a text message to his wife on October 27 claiming that he was fine and was in the Jehlum district of eastern Pakistan.

With reporting by Dailypakistan.com.pk

Pakistan Says It Recovered Five Of 12 Iranian Guards Abducted Near Border

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif (left) with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi in Islamabad.

Pakistan on November 15 said its security forces safely recovered five of the 12 Iranian guards abducted near the countries' shared border a month ago.

The extremist group Jaish al-Adl had claimed responsibility for the abduction of Iranian security personnel, which included member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

"With concerted efforts of Pakistani law enforcement agencies and armed forces, five abducted Iranian guards have been safely recovered," Foreign Ministry spokesperson Muhammad Faisal said.

The Iranians, including intelligence officers, were abducted near Lulakdan, a village 150 kilometers southeast of Zahedan, the capital of Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan Province.

Faisal said the rescued guards "are in good health, being handed over to Iranian authorities."

He added efforts were being made "to recover the other guards."

Iranian media quoted IRGC Chief General Mohammad Ali Jafari as confirming the return of five of the guards.

Pakistan briefed Tehran about "active efforts" to locate the abducted guards during two visits by Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif to Islamabad in the past month.

Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi blamed the kidnapping on "our common enemies unhappy with the existing close, friendly relations between Pakistan and Iran."

Iran's Sistan-Baluchistan Province has long been a flashpoint, with Pakistan-based Baluchi separatists and militants carrying out regular cross-border raids against Iran.

The province has a large, mainly Sunni Muslim ethnic Baluchi community which straddles the border.

Jaish al-Adl, formed in 2012, is a successor to the Sunni extremist group Jundallah (Soldiers of God), which has carried out a spate of attacks on Iranian security forces in recent years in Sistan-Baluchistan.

Based on reporting by AP and AFP

Netherlands Sends Pakistani Embassy Staff Home After Receiving Threats

Pakistani lawyer Saiful Mulook

The Netherlands says it has recalled staff from its embassy in Pakistan after receiving threats for providing shelter to the lawyer of a Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy.

"Unfortunately, threats have been made against the Netherlands, Dutch diplomats," Foreign Minister Stef Blok told NPO radio on November 12. He said "a large number of staff" returned to the Netherlands.

The lawyer, Saiful Mulook, cited death threats in fleeing to the Netherlands soon after the Pakistani Supreme Court decision on October 31 acquitting Asia Bibi of blasphemy. The Dutch government said it had offered him temporary shelter.

Hard-line Islamists in Pakistan have blocked streets and called for the killing of several people connected with the Bibi case, including the judges who acquitted her.

Last week, the Dutch Embassy in Pakistan said it had temporarily halted issuing visas "due to circumstances beyond our control."

Also last week, the Netherlands said its ambassador, Ardi Stoios-Braken, faced "threats" in Pakistan over "blasphemous depictions" by right-wing legislator Geert Wilders on Twitter.

Wilders has recently posted images of the Prophet Muhammad on the social network -- something which is considered taboo by Muslims.

Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 and spent eight years on death row before being acquitted.

The militant Tehrik-e-Labaik (TLP) party took to the streets after her acquittal and blocked main cities and highways for three days.

The protests ended after the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan agreed not to block a petition to review Bibi's case and ensure she doesn't leave the country until the review is completed.

Pakistani officials have said Bibi was released from prison but is in a secure location while the court reconsiders her case.

Based on reporting by AFP and Reuters

Pakistan Asks Twitter To Take Down 'Fake' Postings Of Bibi Abroad

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry

Pakistan's government has asked Twitter and other social-media networks to take down what it says are "fake" images showing a Christian woman recently acquitted of blasphemy outside the country.

The government said on November 12 that the images are false because Asia Bibi remains in Pakistan at an undisclosed location because of death threats against her from hard-line religious groups.

Some rights activists said the government's efforts to shut down social-media postings have gone beyond allegedly fake images of Bibi, however, and are targeting social justice advocates as well.

Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry said one "fake" posting the government is concerned about claims to show Bibi meeting Pope Francis. The photo is actually of Bibi's daughter from two years ago.

Chaudhry said the images misidentifying Bibi prompted death threats against a lawmaker in one photograph, Fazal Khan from the ruling Tehrik-e-Insaf Party. The lawmaker's constituency is in a deeply conservative region in the country's northwest.

"People can even be killed because of such fake postings," Chaudhry told AP. The pictures were widely circulated on social media in Pakistan.

"We are trying to seek cooperation from Twitter and Facebook against such fake news," Chaudhry said.

Hard-line Islamists held mass protests after Bibi was acquitted of blasphemy charges by the Pakistani Supreme Court on October 21. They have demanded her public execution and have filed a petition to repeal her acquittal.

The government says Bibi has been released from prison, but she will remain in Pakistan until the legal review process is finished. She has been offered asylum by several European countries.

Prime Minister Imran Khan has warned hard-line groups against whipping up sentiment against Bibi and he has defended the Supreme Court judges who acquitted her, who have also received death threats.

Blasphemy is a highly charged issue in Pakistan, where mere allegations of insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad can incite lynchings.

With the government is seeking to shut down what it sees as inflammatory postings on social networks, two Pakistani rights activists said on November 12 that they had been warned by Twitter about content the government found objectionable.

The warnings came a week after Twitter blocked the account of hard-line cleric Khadim Hussain Rizvi because of his death threats against the Supreme Court judges who acquitted Bibi, including calling on the judges' servants to kill them.

Nighat Dad, a Pakistani lawyer and activist, said her tweets were not the same as Rizvi's since they did not advocate violence. She said she believes the government is trying to quash legitimate dissent.

Twitter said it lets users know when it receives a government request to remove their content for violations of law or the company's terms of service.

"In our continuing effort to make our services available to people everywhere, if we receive a valid request from an authorized entity, it may be necessary to withhold access to certain content in a particular country from time to time," the company said.

Gul Bukhari, who was briefly abducted in July from a military cantonment in the eastern city of Lahore, said one of her e-mail warnings from Twitter referred to a tweet that criticized the government's lack of action against Rizvi.

In a reply to Twitter, Bukhari said Rizvi's speeches violated the law because he was inciting violence against the judges.

"In my tweet, I am asking the government to take action against him. In which world is that illegal?" she asked.

Chaudhry told Reuters his office was only "trying to establish close coordination" with Twitter to curb "hate speech and death threats." He did not directly respond to questions about the activists' cases.

With reporting by AP and Reuters

Pakistan Begins Talks With IMF On Three-Year Bailout Package

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan

Pakistan has begun talks with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on a possible bailout package to help the country overcome a deepening economic crisis.

Finance Ministry spokesman Noor Ahmad said on November 7 that Pakistan expected to receive a three-year assistance package from the international lender of last resort.

The talks on what would be the 13th IMF bailout package since the 1980s are scheduled to finish on November 20. Islamabad last received an IMF bailout of $6.6 billion in 2013.

Hours ahead of the IMF delegation's arrival in Islamabad, Finance Minister Asad Umar announced that an immediate balance of payment crisis has been averted with the help of China and Saudi Arabia.

Pakistan was facing a $12 billion financing gap for the current fiscal year. Umar told a press conference late on November 6 that Saudi Arabia had already committed $6 billion and another $6 billion would come from China.

Last month, Saudi Arabia announced it would lend $3 billion to Pakistan's central bank for a year to help maintain reserves at a safe level, and provide another $3 billion through deferred payments on oil purchases.

Chinese leaders pledged to help Pakistan during Prime Minister Imran Khan's visit to Beijing last week. Details of the Chinese assistance are still under negotiation.

Umar said Pakistan's finance secretary and central bank governor will travel to Beijing on November 9 to finalize terms of the assistance.

Khan's government has sought to minimize the amount borrowed from the IMF by getting loans from "friendly" countries.

The conditions the IMF typically attaches to its loans include such unpopular measures as devaluing the country's currency, balancing the budget with spending cuts and tax increases, and curbing imports to tame the trade deficit.

Pakistani officials are concerned tough IMF conditions would hit economic growth in the short term and prevent Khan from fulfilling populist campaign pledges.

Khan's government has pledged to create an "Islamic welfare state" and help build 5 million homes for the poor.

Pakistan's current account deficit widened by 43 percent to $18 billion in the last fiscal year and its budget deficit has ballooned to 6.6 percent of economic output, creating a financial crunch that economists say will require IMF intervention to overcome.

With reporting by dpa, AFP, and Reuters

Government Denies Christian Freed From Death Row Has Left Pakistan

Asia Bibi

Pakistan's Foreign Ministry has denied reports that Asia Bibi, a Christian woman who was acquitted of blasphemy last week, has left the country.

Bibi was freed from prison on November 7, according to her lawyer, Saiful Mulook, and the president of the European Parliament, Antonio Tajani.

"Asia Bibi has left the prison and has been transferred to a safe place!" Tajani tweeted on November 7. "I thank the Pakistani authorities. I look forward meeting her and her family, in the European Parliament as soon as possible."

Mulook was quoted as saying Bibi was being flown out of Pakistan with her immediate family but he did not know where they were going.

But Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal told the media on November 8. "There is no truth in reports of her leaving the country -- it is fake news."

Unidentified security officials said Bibi was released from a prison in Multan, a city in southern Punjab Province, and was flown to an undisclosed location in Islamabad for fear of attacks on her, according to the Associated Press and Reuters.

Bibi, whose real name is Aasiya Noreen, had spent eight years on death row for allegedly insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad before the Supreme Court overturned her conviction on October 31, triggering violent protests by hard-line Islamists calling for her execution.

In a deal with the hard-line Tehrik-e Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) party that ended the protests, the government on November 3 indicated that it would bar Bibi from traveling abroad pending a "review" of the Supreme Court's decision to acquit her.

Bibi, a mother of five, has denied the blasphemy charges against her.

Her husband, Ashiq Masih, has pleaded for asylum from Western countries, saying his family was in great danger in Pakistan. Her lawyer, Mulook, has fled to the Netherlands.

On November 6, Italian officials said they were working to help relocate Bibi to a country where she and her family would be safe from death threats.

"We are working with other Western countries. We must do it discreetly and carefully," Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini told an Italian radio station.

Insulting Islam is punishable by death in Pakistan, and the mere rumor of blasphemy can lead to lynchings by mobs.

With reporting by AFP, AP, Reuters, and the BBC

Italy Working To Find Safe Home In West For Pakistani Christian Woman

Many Pakistanis protested the acquittal of Christian woman Asia Bibi, who had been charged with blasphemy. (file photo)

Italian officials say they are working to help relocate a Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy in Pakistan to a country where she and her family would be safe from death threats.

"We are working with other Western countries. We must do it discreetly and carefully," Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini told an Italian radio station on November 6.

"I want women and children whose lives are at risk to be able to have a secure future, in our country or in other Western countries, so I will do everything humanly possible to guarantee that," he said.

Asia Bibi last week was acquitted of blasphemy charges by the Pakistani Supreme Court, but her case prompted three days of protests by hard-line Islamist groups demanding that she and the judges who ruled in her favor be put to death.

Authorities arrested hundreds during the protests, which produced gridlock in major cities in Pakistan. But in a deal to end the demonstrations, the government agreed to keep Bibi in custody pending an appeal of the court decision.

Salvini, a populist politician known for his hard-line stance against illegal immigration, said Italy does not blame Pakistan's government for Bibi's plight. "The enemy is violence, extremism, and fanaticism," he told the radio station.

"Obviously this goes hand in hand with rejecting illegal immigration, which otherwise risks bringing chaos to Rome or Milan," he said.

Salvini spoke after the Italian branch of Aid to the Church in Need, a Vatican organization which helps persecuted Christians, released a message from Bibi's husband.

"I ask and appeal to the Italian government to help me and my family leave Pakistan because we are in danger," Ashiq Masih was quoted as saying by the organization.

Masih said he has had trouble feeding his family because he fears being attacked if he leaves his place of hiding.

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani -- an Italian- - tweeted that he invited Masih and his family to Brussels or Strasbourg to "discuss how I can concretely facilitate the release" of his wife.

"We have asked the Pakistani authorities to guarantee your safety and of those protecting you," Tajani wrote in a letter to Masih, promising his personal intervention in the affair.

Bibi was sentenced to death in 2011 by a district court in the central province of Punjab for allegedly committing blasphemy in a dispute with Muslim women while working at a farm. Bibi, who sat on Pakistan's death row for eight years, always denied the charges.

Meanwhile, Bibi's lawyer, who fled to The Netherlands earlier this week because of death threats, said on November 6 that he was seeking asylum there.

"I am waiting for an offer from the Dutch government," the Dutch news website NU.nl quoted lawyer Saiful Mulook as saying.

With reporting by AP, dpa, AFP, and Reuters

Husband Of Pakistan's Asia Bibi Pleads For Asylum

A Pakistani protestor holds an image of Christian woman Asia Bibi during a rally to protest the Supreme Court's decision to acquit Bibi of blasphemy.

The husband of a Pakistani Christian woman recently acquitted of blasphemy after eight years on death row has pleaded for asylum from Western countries, saying his family was in great danger in Pakistan.

"I am requesting [U.S.] President Donald Trump to help us to leave [the country], and I am requesting the prime minister of the U.K. help us and as far as possible grant us freedom," Asia Bibi's husband said in a video message, news agencies reported on November 4.

The husband, Ashiq Masih, also called on Canadian leaders for help.

Bibi, a 54-year-old mother of four, was sentenced to death in 2010 for allegedly insulting Islam's Prophet Muhammad -- a charge she has denied.

The case has attracted global attention, and several countries have offered Bibi asylum.

The Supreme Court overturned Bibi’s conviction on October 30, sparking three days of violent, nationwide protests by hard-line Islamists demanding Bibi’s execution.

The demonstrations mostly ended on November 2 after the government agreed to impose a travel ban on Bibi and to allow her case to be reviewed.

Criticism

The government is now facing criticism for making a deal with the radical Tehrik-e Labaik Pakistan party (TLP) and for failing to take action against the leaders of the protests.

However, the Interior Ministry has promised to register cases against “all those miscreants who under the guise of peaceful protests caused destruction to property and harmed unarmed citizens."

Criminal cases have been registered against hundreds of demonstrators and protest organizers, Dawn newspaper reported on November 4.

Senior police officer Nayab Haider said that more than 150 people were arrested on charges of arson, vandalism, and violence during the demonstrations. He said that police were using video clips to identify those involved in assaults, torching property and vehicles, and blocking highways.

A government official estimated that the protesters caused around $1.2 billion in damages.

On November 4 in the southern port city of Karachi, some 2,000 supporters of an Islamic party held a protest march against Bibi’s acquittal but they remained peaceful.

Blasphemy is punishable by death in Pakistan, and the mere rumor of committing the crime can incite lynching.

Approximately 40 people are believed to be on death row or serving a life sentence in Pakistan for blasphemy, according to a 2018 report by the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

With reporting by Dawn, AP, and The News

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