Counting begins in knife-edge Pakistani elections marred by suicide bomb

Women, clad in burqas, stand in line to cast their ballot at a polling station during general election in Peshawar, Pakistan July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Fayaz Aziz

By Gul Yousafzai Jibran Ahmad

QUETTA/PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – A suicide bomber killed at least 29 people near a polling center as Pakistanis voted on Wednesday in a knife-edge general election pitting cricket hero Imran Khan against the party of jailed ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Neither Khan nor Sharif is likely to win a clear majority in the too-close-to-call election, with results likely to be known by around 2 a.m. local time on Thursday (2100 GMT Wednesday).

The Islamic State militant group claimed responsibility for the attack that hospital officials said killed 29 people and wounded 35 in the western city of Quetta. Security sources said the bomber drove his motorcycle into a police vehicle.

About 106 million people were registered to vote in polls which closed at 6 p.m (1300 GMT).

Sharif’s party had called for voting to be extended by an hour, saying people were still lining up and could be turned away without casting ballots. TV channels said election officials denied the request.

About 371,000 soldiers have been stationed at polling stations across the country, nearly five times the number deployed at the last election in 2013.

(GRAPHIC: Pakistan Election – https://tmsnrt.rs/2LaIlGt)

Earlier this month, a suicide bomber killed 149 people at an election rally in the town of Mastung in Baluchistan province. That attack was also claimed by Islamic State militants.

Security officers gather at the site of a blast outside a polling station in Quetta, Pakistan, July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Naseer Ahmed

Security officers gather at the site of a blast outside a polling station in Quetta, Pakistan, July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Naseer Ahmed

Khan has emerged as a slight favorite in national opinion polls, but the divisive race is likely to come down to Punjab, the country’s most populous province, where Sharif’s party has clung to its lead in recent surveys.

The election has been plagued by allegations the powerful armed forces have been trying to tilt the race in Khan’s favor after falling out with the outgoing ruling party of Sharif, who was jailed on corruption charges this month.

“Imran Khan is the only ‎hope to change the destiny of our country. We are here to support him in his fight against corruption,” said Tufail Aziz, 31, after casting his ballot in the north-western city of Peshawar.

ANTI-CORRUPTION CRUSADER

Whichever party wins, it will face a mounting and urgent in-tray, from a brewing economic crisis to worsening relations with on-off ally the United States to deepening cross-country water shortages.

An anti-corruption crusader, Khan has promised an “Islamic welfare state” and cast his populist campaign as a battle to topple a predatory political elite hindering development in the impoverished mostly-Muslim nation of 208 million people, where the illiteracy rate hovers above 40 percent.

“This is the most important election in Pakistan’s history,” Khan, 65, said after casting his vote in the capital, Islamabad.

“I ask everyone today – be a citizen, cherish this country, worry about this country, use your vote.”

Khan has staunchly denied allegations by Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party that he is getting help from the military, which has ruled Pakistan for about half of its history and still sets key security and foreign policy in the nuclear-armed nation. The army has also dismissed allegations of meddling in the election.

People stand in a line as they wait for a polling station to open, during general election in Rawalpindi, Pakistan July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

People stand in a line as they wait for a polling station to open, during general election in Rawalpindi, Pakistan July 25, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

STRUGGLE TO WIN

Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has inched ahead of PML-N in recent national polls, but even if it gets the most votes, it will likely struggle to win a majority of the 272 elected seats in the National Assembly, raising the prospect of weeks of haggling to form a messy coalition government.

Such a delay could further imperil Pakistan’s economy, with a looming currency crisis expected to force the new government to turn to the International Monetary Fund for Pakistan’s second bailout since 2013. PTI has not ruled out seeking assistance from China, Islamabad’s closest ally.

Sharif’s PML-N has sought to turn the vote into a referendum on Pakistan’s democracy and has said it was campaigning to protect the “sanctity of the vote”, a reference to a history of political interference by the military.

“I voted for PML-N because of Nawaz Sharif’s struggle for the rule of constitution and supremacy of the parliament,” said Punjab voter Muhamad Waseem Shahzad, 41, a farmer. “We want to get rid of the system that steals peoples’ mandate.”

The Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which has been overtaken by Khan’s PTI as the main challenger to PML-N, has also alleged intimidation by spy agencies.

Sharif’s PML-N has been touting its delivery of mega infrastructure projects, especially roads and power stations that helped hugely reduce electricity blackouts, as proof the country is on the path to prosperity.

“If we get the opportunity, we will change the destiny of Pakistan,” said Shehbaz Sharif, brother of Nawaz and the PML-N president, as he cast his vote in Lahore. “We will bring an end to unemployment, eradicate poverty and promote education”.

PML-N’s campaign was reinvigorated by the return to Pakistan of Nawaz Sharif, 68, who was earlier this month convicted and sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison over the purchase of upscale London apartments using offshore companies in the mid-1990s. He has denied any wrongdoing.

The election will be only the second civilian transfer of power in Pakistan’s 71-year history.

(Additional reporting by Syed Raza Hassan in Karachi and Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Alex Richardson and Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Police open criminal cases against 17,000 members of Pakistan’s outgoing ruling party

FILE PHOTO: Supporters of the Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) chant march towards the airport to welcome ousted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam, in Lahore, Pakistan July 13, 2018. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza/File Photo

By Mubasher Bukhari

LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) – Police have opened criminal cases against nearly 17,000 members of Pakistan’s outgoing ruling party over breaking election rules, a statement said on Monday, as the country prepares to go to the polls next week.

The latest 16,868 cases, which the police statement said were registered in the eastern province of Punjab over the past four days, come after the party said police had also detained hundreds of members of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in the central city of Lahore.

The statement gave no details of which election rules were suspected of having been broken.

The party’s founder, ousted former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, facing a conviction in absentia on corruption charges, was jailed last week when he returned to the country seeking to revitalize the PML-N ahead of the July 25 vote.

The campaign has been riven by that accusations Pakistan’s powerful military is working behind the scenes to skew the contest in favor of ex-cricket hero Imran Khan.

The military, which has ruled the nuclear-armed country for almost half its history and ended Sharif’s second stint in power in 1999 in a bloodless coup, has repeatedly denied any interference. Khan has also denied colluding with the military.

National polls indicate a close race between the PML-N and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI, or Pakistan Justice Movement) led by Khan, with the Pakistan Peoples Party in third place.

Cases were also registered against 39 members from Khan’s movement, the police statement said.

It said 270 people had been detained, but it did not say which political party they belonged to.

The independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said it was concerned about the legitimacy of the election, saying “the public perception that all parties have not been given equal freedom to run their election campaigns”.

Police detained the members of the PML-N in Lahore last week ahead of a rally by tens of thousands of supporters welcoming home Sharif, who was arrested upon landing.

Three local government leaders of the PML-N said the crackdown involved intimidation and threats by the police, intelligence agencies and a paramilitary force to keep them from attending the rally welcoming Sharif.

They spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity fearing a backlash from authorities.

On Sunday, Pakistani authorities opened a criminal investigation into leaders of PML-N under an anti-terrorism law.

The case relates to a march staged by the PML-N on July 13, when Sharif returned to Pakistan, which defied a ban on holding public rallies.

(Additional reporting by Asif Shahzad in Islamabad; Writing by Idrees Ali; Editing by Alison Williams)

Death toll in Pakistan election rally bombing rises to 149

FILE PHOTO: Army soldiers carry the casket of Siraj Raisani, provincial assembly candidate of Baluchistan Awami Party (BAP), who was killed in Friday's suicide attack during an election campaign meeting, for the funeral in Quetta, Pakistan July 14, 2018. REUTERS/Naseer Ahmed

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – The death toll from a suicide attack on an election rally in Pakistan’s southwestern Baluchistan province on Friday spiked to 149, officials said, putting it among the deadliest attacks in the south Asian nation’s history.

As campaigning steps up for general elections on July 25, bombings across Pakistan have stoked fears of more violence in the country of 208 million, where political rallies can draw tens of thousands of people.

Friday’s attack at a rally for the Baluchistan Awami Party (BAP) outside the town of Mastung was claimed by militant group Islamic State. Among the dead was the party’s provincial candidate, Siraj Raisani.

A video clip showed Raisani beginning his speech just before the attack, greeting crowds seated on the ground under a large tent before the blast hit and the image cut off.

Provincial government officials said they were not told about the rally and so had not provided security to Raisani, beyond the bodyguards in his security detail.

“The death toll of Mastung carnage is now 149,” senior police official Qaim Lashari told Reuters, adding that more than 180 people were wounded and the dead included nine children.

Many of the wounded remain in critical condition at hospitals in Mastung, the provincial capital of Quetta and in the southern city of Karachi. Officials expect the death toll to rise.

Until this week, Pakistan’s election campaign had been relatively peaceful, compared with frequent Pakistani Taliban attacks during the 2013 election, when 170 people were killed, figures from the Pakistan Institute for Peace Studies show.

On Tuesday, a Pakistani Taliban suicide bomber blew himself up at a rally by the Awami National Party (ANP) in the northwestern city of Peshawar, killing 20 people.

Among the dead in Peshawar was ANP candidate Haroon Bilour, whose father, senior ANP leader Bashir Bilour, had himself been killed in a 2012 suicide bombing in the city.

On Friday, another bomb struck the convoy of the religious Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal party (MMA) in the northern town of Bannu, killing four people.

Violence in Pakistan has ebbed since the military began major operations against Taliban militants along the tumultuous border with Afghanistan following a shocking 2014 attack on a Peshawar school that killed 153 people, most of them children.

(Writing by Saad Sayeed; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Baby powder helping fund Islamic State in Afghanistan: report

FILE PHOTO: Afghan National Army troops prepare for an operation against insurgents in Khogyani district of Nangarhar province, Afghanistan November 28, 2017. REUTERS/Parwiz/File Photo

KABUL (Reuters) – Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year from illegal mining of talc, much of which ends up in the United States and Europe, advocacy group Global Witness reported on Tuesday.

About 500,000 tonnes of talc, used in products ranging from paint to baby powder, were exported from Afghanistan in the year to March, according to Afghan mining ministry figures cited in the group’s report.

Almost all went to Pakistan, where much of it is re-exported. Pakistan provides more than a third of U.S. imports of talc and much also ends up in the European Union, it said.

“Unwitting American and European consumers are inadvertently helping fund extremist groups in Afghanistan,” Nick Donovan, Campaign Director at Global Witness, said in a statement, calling for stronger checks on imports.

Illegal mining of gemstones and minerals such as lapis lazuli is a major source of revenue for Taliban insurgents and the report said Islamic State was fighting for control of mines in Nangarhar, the province where it has its stronghold.

Nangarhar, on the border with Pakistan, has large deposits of talc as well as minerals such as chromite and marble, and sits on major smuggling routes used for drugs and other contraband.

The report quoted a senior Islamic State militant commander as saying that wresting control of mining assets from other armed groups in Nangarhar was a priority: “The mines are in the hands of the mafia … At any price we will take the mines.”

Security officials in Afghanistan have long been concerned about the uncontrolled traffic in Nangarhar of commodities like talc and chromite, which the Global Witness report said “may be the least glamorous of conflict minerals”.

It said that while it was difficult to estimate the value of the trade to Islamic State, revenue from mining in Nangarhar could amount “anywhere from the high tens of thousands to the low millions of dollars a year”. Somewhere in the hundreds of thousands was a plausible mid-range estimate, it added.

The sum did not appear very high, it said, but the U.S. military estimated the strength of Islamic State in Nangarhar at somewhere between 750 to 2,000 fighters, meaning the funds would be a significant source of revenue to the movement.

An Afghan mining ministry spokesman said a special committee had already been established to coordinate approaches to the issue with security and intelligence services. The ministry planned a news conference this week to address some of the specific issues raised in the report.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Islamist group youth leader accused of shooting Pakistani minister – police

FILE PHOTO: Pakistan's Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal speaks to media outside the accountability court in Islamabad, Pakistan October 2, 2017. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood/File Photo

By Asif Shahzad

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – The gunman accused of shooting and wounding Pakistan’s interior minister is a youth leader of a hardline religious group that sees its mission as enforcing death for blasphemers and ridding government of secular influence, police said in a report.

Interior Minister Ahsan Iqbal was shot on Sunday as he was leaving a constituency meeting surrounded by supporters in Punjab province.

He is in hospital and out of danger but the attack has shaken the political establishment ahead of a general election expected in July.

The suspected gunman, arrested at the scene, is Abid Hussain, 21, a youth leader of the Islamist Tehreek-e-Labaik party, police said in an interrogation report seen by Reuters on Tuesday.

The party, known as Labaik, has made the emotive issue of blasphemy its rallying cry in a country where for years hardline Islamists have vied for power with civilian politicians and a coup-prone military.

Hussain told police he was inspired by the teachings of founders of the Labaik and joined a party blockade of the capital, Islamabad, in November aimed at forcing out a government minister they accused of blasphemy over a change to an oath-taking law.

According to police, Hussain said he had dreamt Ali Hajveri, an 11th century Muslim preacher revered in South Asia, “ordered me to kill Ahsan Iqbal”.

Labaik denied that Hussain was a member of the party.

“We have nothing to do with him,” spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters.

But a founding member of Labaik, Pir Afzal Qadri, said Iqbal and his Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party had invited trouble by committing blasphemy when they changed an election law in a way some said weakened an oath declaring Mohammad the last true prophet.

“They have done so much wrong,” Qadri said in a video message. “It is their fault, they themselves are responsible for this. These people are inviting attacks.”

‘SEND THEM TO HELL’

Iqbal’s shooting has stoked fears of a repeat of the pre-election Islamist violence that has blighted polls before, including the 2007 assassination of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

It has also compounded unease about blasphemy.

Even accusations of blasphemy can lead to mob killings and those convicted of blasphemy face the death penalty, though no death sentences for it have been carried out.

Many clerics say even to suggest change to the blasphemy law is blasphemy.

In November, Labaik blocked a main road into the capital for several days over the small change to the election law. The government explained the change as a clerical error and reversed it. The minister responsible resigned.

Hussain joined the protests determined to “send any blasphemer to hell”, police said in their report.

Seven people were killed and 200 wounded when police tried to clear the blockade.

Qadri said Iqbal, as interior minister, was responsible for the attack on him as he had ordered the police action.

“It is regrettable that the whole world is making hue and cry just because he got one bullet, and not a single arrest has so far been made in the martyrdom of the seven people,” Qadri said.

Police said Hussain had cited the example of Mumtaz Qadri, a bodyguard of the governor of Punjab who gunned down the man he was meant to protect in 2011 over the governor’s call for reform of the blasphemy law.

Qadri, who was convicted of murder, sentenced to death and executed in 2016, has become a martyr for hardliners, and Labaik emerged out of a movement that lionized him.

Hussain bought a pistol several months ago and later got hold of bullets, police said in the report.

Two days before the shooting, he got a WhatsApp message from a resident of the town where Iqbal was shot, telling him the minister was due.

Hours before the meeting, Hussain washed, put on smart clothes and went early to wait, police said.

“When Ahsan Iqbal came down from the stage and was encircled with party workers, Abid stood up and fired.”

(Additional reporting by Syed Raza Hassan; Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Robert birsel)

Christian family shot dead in southwestern Pakistan

Christian cross-

By Gul Yousafzai

QUETTA, Pakistan (Reuters) – Four members of a Christian family were gunned down in southwestern Pakistan on Monday, police said, in the latest attack on the minority community.

The family was traveling in a rickshaw when armed men on a motorcycle intercepted them and opened fire in Quetta city, the capital of Baluchistan province.

A woman was rushed to hospital. Her father and three cousins were killed.

“It appears to have been a targeted attack,” provincial police official Moazzam Jah Ansari told Reuters. “It was an act of terrorism.”

The attack comes a day after Pakistan’s Christian community celebrated Easter on Sunday. Around 2 percent of Pakistan’s population are Christians.

Minority religious festivals are a security concern in the majority Sunni Muslim country where there have been a number of high casualty attacks on Christians and Shi’ite Muslims.

Baluchistan, a region bordering Iran as well as Afghanistan, is plagued by violence by Sunni Islamist sectarian groups linked to the Taliban, al Qaeda and Islamic State. It also has an indigenous ethnic Baloch insurgency fighting against central government.

In December, a week before Christmas, two suicide bombers stormed a packed Christian church in southwestern Pakistan, killing at least 10 people and wounding up to 56, in an attack claimed by Islamic State.

The family killed on Monday had come to visit relatives in Quetta’s Shahzaman road area, where a large number of the city’s Christian community lives.

Rome’s ancient Colosseum was lit in red for an evening in February in solidarity with persecuted Christians, particularly Asia Bibi, a Catholic woman who has been living on death row in Pakistan since 2010, when she was condemned for allegedly making derogatory remarks about Islam.

(Writing by Saad Sayeed; Editing by Alison Williams)

Iran denies Saudi allegations of harboring bin Laden’s son

FILE PHOTO: FILE PHOTO: A display featuring missiles and a portrait of Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is seen at Baharestan Square in Tehran, Iran September 27, 2017. Nazanin Tabatabaee Yazdi/TIMA via REUTERS

LONDON (Reuters) – Tehran denied on Tuesday allegations made by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that Iran was harboring Osama bin Laden’s son and supporting him as the new leader of al Qaeda.

Decades-old animosity between Sunni Muslim kingdom of Saudi Arabia and revolutionary Shi’ite Iran has deepened in recent years as the two sides wage proxy wars in the Middle East and beyond, including in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.

Iran’s murky and fluid relationship with al Qaeda has contributed to tensions with Riyadh, which previously accused Tehran of backing al Qaeda and sheltering its members.

Prince Mohammed told CBS in an interview that Iran was protecting al Qaeda operatives, including some of bin Laden’s relatives.

“This includes the son of Osama bin Laden, the new leader of al Qaeda. He lives in Iran and works out of Iran. He is supported by Iran,” he said.

Iran’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi called crown prince’s comments a “big lie”.

Hamza bin Laden was one of several bin Ladens who ended up in Iran after the September 11 attacks on New York in 2001. Documents recovered from his father’s compound in Pakistan after he was killed in a U.S. raid in 2011 said Hamza was, at least for a period, held under house arrest Iran. His current whereabouts are not known.

Since Osama bin Laden’s death, al Qaeda has been led by his former deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Nonetheless Hamza has issued a number of messages on behalf of the network in recent years, threatening further violence against the West.

The group has been sidelined significantly by its rival and foe, the militant organization Islamic State.

Iran’s Qasemi said that after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan began in 2001, some al Qaeda fighters had crossed into Iran illegally, but that they had been arrested and extradited to their countries of origin. These included bin Laden family members with Saudi citizenship.

“Bin Laden’s daughter was extradited to the Saudi embassy in Tehran,” Qasemi was quoted as saying by Tasnim news agency.

“Upon consultation with Saudi Arabia, other members of Bin Laden family were deported through the same border they had illegally entered Iran,” he added.

Shi’ite Muslim Iran and strict Sunni militant group al Qaeda are natural enemies on either side of the Muslim world’s great sectarian divide. Yet intelligence veterans say that Iran, in pursuing its own ends, has in the past taken advantage of al Qaeda fighters’ need to shelter or pass through its territory.

In Sunday’s interview Prince Mohammed also accused Iran of having recruited some of the Saudis who took part in the 9/11 attacks on New York, with the aim of creating a “schism between the Middle East and the West, between Saudi Arabia and the United States of America.”

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky)

In blow to minorities, Pakistani court orders citizens to declare religion

A woman adjusts her scarf as she waits for a bus next to a stall with national flags, ahead of Pakistan's Independence Day, in Karachi, Pakistan August 2, 2017. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

By Saad Sayeed

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – A Pakistani court ruled on Friday that all citizens must declare their religion when applying for identity documents, a move human rights advocates say is another blow for the country’s persecuted minority communities.

The ruling will pile further pressure on the Ahmadi community, who are not allowed to call themselves Muslim or use Islamic symbols in their religious practices, a crime punishable under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.

The Islamabad High Court ruled that citizens who disguised their religious affiliation were guilty of betraying the state and ordered that anyone applying for government jobs should declare their faith.

“The Government of Pakistan shall take special measure ensuring availability of correct particulars of all the citizens,” Justice Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui said in the judgment.

“It should not be possible for any citizen to hide his/her real identity and recognition.”

If no appeal is launched, the court’s directives will have to be followed.

The vast majority of Pakistan’s 208 million people are Muslims, with minorities accounting for about 3 percent of the population, according to a 1998 census.

The Ahmadi community has been a target of mob violence and attacks since legislation categorized the sect as non-Muslim in 1974 and have been vilified as blasphemers by leaders of new ultra-religious political party Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan.

The judge “is not only attacking everybody’s religious freedom in Pakistan but he is also focusing on one particular sect, which is the Ahmadis,” said Human Rights Watch representative Saroop Ijaz.

“A judgment like this would enable and incite violence.”

The order was issued as a result of a petition brought forward by Tehreek-e-Labaik in connection with a change in wording to an electoral law. The amendment sought to replace a religious oath with a simple declaration, which Tehreek-e-Labaik said was blasphemy.

The government blamed the change on a clerical error and swiftly restored the original format.

Last year, Tehreek-e-Labaik shut down the nation’s capital for nearly three weeks with protests against the change.

Seven people were killed and nearly 200 wounded in a failed police bid to disperse protesters, leading the government to give way to their demand that a minister accused of blasphemy resign.

Insulting the Prophet Mohammad is punishable by death in Pakistan and even a rumor of blasphemy can spark mob violence.

“All his (the judge’s) specific instructions are about ensuring and finding out who is an Ahmadi,” human rights lawyer Jibran Nasir told Reuters, adding that the order would automatically provide the government with specific lists about who belongs to which minority group.

“Every day they are being institutionally reminded that they are a minority,” he added. “It is a bigoted order.”

Pakistan’s minority Shi’ite Muslims regularly come under attack by Islamist groups. Members of its small Hindu and Christian communities have also sometimes been accused of blasphemy.

(Reporting by Saad Sayeed; Editing by Andrew Roche)

Global watchdog to put Pakistan back on terrorist financing watchlist: sources

A man stands at the entrance of Government Al-Aziz Hospital, previously known as Al-Aziz Hospital, run by the Islamic charity organisation Jamaat-ud-Dawa (JuD) in Muridke near Lahore, Pakistan February 15, 2018. Picture taken February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Mohsin Raza

 

By Kay Johnson and Drazen Jorgic

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – A global money-laundering watchdog has decided to place Pakistan back on its terrorist financing watchlist, a government official and a diplomat said on Friday, in a likely blow to Pakistan’s economy and its strained relations with the United States.

The move is part of a broader U.S. strategy to pressure Pakistan to cut alleged links to Islamist militants unleashing chaos in neighboring Afghanistan and backing attacks in India.

It comes days after reports that Pakistan had been given a three-month reprieve before being placed on the list, which could hamper banking and hurt foreign investment.

The United States has spent the past week lobbying member countries of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to place Pakistan on a so-called grey list of nations that are not doing enough to combat terrorism financing.

Pakistan had launched last-minute efforts to avoid being placed on the list, such as taking over charities linked to a powerful Islamist figure.

But the campaign proved insufficient and the group decided late on Thursday that Pakistan would be put back on the watchlist, a senior Pakistani official and a diplomat with knowledge of the latest FATF discussions told Reuters.

“The decision was taken yesterday. The chair (of FATF) is expected to make a statement some time this afternoon in Paris,” the diplomat said.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokesman declined to confirm or deny the news at a regular news briefing on Friday, saying the FATF would make an announcement on its website.

“Let the things come out, and then we can comment on the U.S.-Pakistan relationship,” spokesman Mohammad Faisal said.

Pakistan was on the list for three years until 2015.

PAINFUL CONSEQUENCES?

Earlier in the week China, Turkey, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) were opposing the U.S.-led move against Pakistan but by late on Thursday, both China and the GCC dropped their opposition, the diplomatic source said.

He added that the financial consequences would not kick in until June, which, in theory, could allow Pakistan time to fix financing issues.

“But the odds of that, particularly in an election year, seem slim,” he added.

Pakistani officials and analysts fear being on the FATF list could endanger Pakistan’s handful of remaining banking links to the outside world, causing real financial pain to the economy just as a general election looms.

Under FATF rules one country’s opposition is not enough to prevent a motion from being successful. Britain, France and Germany backed the U.S. move.

Pakistan has sought to head off its inclusion on the list by amending its anti-terrorism laws and by taking over organizations controlled by Hafiz Saeed, a Pakistan-based Islamist accused by the United States and India of being behind 2008 militant attacks on the Indian city of Mumbai in which 166 people were killed.

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif tweeted that Pakistan had received a three-month reprieve, adding that it was “grateful to friends who helped”.

U.S. President Donald Trump last month ordered big cuts in security aid to Pakistan over what the United States sees as its failure to crack down on militants.

Pakistan rejects accusations that it sponsors Taliban militants fighting U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan and says it is doing all it can to combat militancy.

(Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel)

in a likely blow to Pakistan’s economy and its strained relations with the United States.

The move is part of a broader U.S. strategy to pressure Pakistan to cut alleged links to Islamist militants unleashing chaos in neighboring Afghanistan and backing attacks in India.

It comes days after reports that Pakistan had been given a three-month reprieve before being placed on the list, which could hamper banking and hurt foreign investment.

The United States has spent the past week lobbying member countries of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to place Pakistan on a so-called grey list of nations that are not doing enough to combat terrorism financing.

Pakistan had launched last-minute efforts to avoid being placed on the list, such as taking over charities linked to a powerful Islamist figure.

But the campaign proved insufficient and the group decided late on Thursday that Pakistan would be put back on the watchlist, a senior Pakistani official and a diplomat with knowledge of the latest FATF discussions told Reuters.

“The decision was taken yesterday. The chair (of FATF) is expected to make a statement some time this afternoon in Paris,” the diplomat said.

Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry spokesman declined to confirm or deny the news at a regular news briefing on Friday, saying the FATF would make an announcement on its website.

“Let the things come out, and then we can comment on the U.S.-Pakistan relationship,” spokesman Mohammad Faisal said.

Pakistan was on the list for three years until 2015.

PAINFUL CONSEQUENCES?

Earlier in the week China, Turkey, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) were opposing the U.S.-led move against Pakistan but by late on Thursday, both China and the GCC dropped their opposition, the diplomatic source said.

He added that the financial consequences would not kick in until June, which, in theory, could allow Pakistan time to fix financing issues.

“But the odds of that, particularly in an election year, seem slim,” he added.

Pakistani officials and analysts fear being on the FATF list could endanger Pakistan’s handful of remaining banking links to the outside world, causing real financial pain to the economy just as a general election looms.

Under FATF rules one country’s opposition is not enough to prevent a motion from being successful. Britain, France and Germany backed the U.S. move.

Pakistan has sought to head off its inclusion on the list by amending its anti-terrorism laws and by taking over organizations controlled by Hafiz Saeed, a Pakistan-based Islamist accused by the United States and India of being behind 2008 militant attacks on the Indian city of Mumbai in which 166 people were killed.

On Tuesday, Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif tweeted that Pakistan had received a three-month reprieve, adding that it was “grateful to friends who helped”.

U.S. President Donald Trump last month ordered big cuts in security aid to Pakistan over what the United States sees as its failure to crack down on militants.

Pakistan rejects accusations that it sponsors Taliban militants fighting U.S. forces in neighboring Afghanistan and says it is doing all it can to combat militancy.

(Writing by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel)

Pakistan court convicts 31 over campus lynching of student accused of blasphemy

Policemen keep guard near the central prison where a court convicted 31people over the campus lynching of a university student last year who was falsely accused of blasphemy, and sentenced one of them to death, in Haripur, Pakistan February 7, 2018.

By Jibran Ahmed

PESHAWAR, Pakistan (Reuters) – A Pakistani court on Wednesday convicted 31 people over the campus lynching of a university student who was falsely accused of blasphemy, and sentenced one of them to death, a defense lawyer said.

The killing of student Mashal Khan, 23, last year sparked an outcry and raised fresh questions about the misuse of a harsh blasphemy law, which stipulates the death sentence for insulting Islam or the Prophet Muhammad.

Barrister Ameerullah Chamkani told Reuters one of the 31 accused had been sentenced to death, five were jailed for life and the other 25 were jailed for four years.

The court acquitted 26 others out of a total of 57 people indicted by a court late last year.

Chamkani said one of the convicts, Imran Ali, had been sentenced to death because he had shot Mashal three times.

The accused were students, teachers and some officials of Abdul Wali Khan University named after a secular political leader in northwest Pakistan.

They all pleaded not guilty in the trial conducted at a high-security prison due to threats to defense lawyers and government prosecutors, Chamkani said.

Lawyers for those convicted were not available for comment.

Khan, a Muslim, was known as an intellectually curious student who liked to debate controversial social, political and religious issues.

He was attacked and killed by a mob on the campus on April 13 after a dormitory debate about religion.

Blasphemy is a highly sensitive issue in Pakistan, where insulting Islam’s prophet is punishable by death, though no executions have been carried out for blasphemy.

Even a rumor of blasphemy can spark mob violence and there have been cases of people misusing the law to settle scores.

At least 67 people have been killed over unproven blasphemy allegations since 1990, according to human rights groups.

‘CONTINUE MY STRUGGLE’

In 2011, a bodyguard assassinated the liberal governor of Punjab province, Salman Taseer, after he called for the blasphemy laws to be reformed.

His killer, Mumtaz Qadri, who was executed last year, has been hailed as a martyr by religious hardliners.

A political party founded in Qadri’s honor has made blasphemy its central issue in the run-up to a general election later this year.

The party last year forced the government to retract within a day a change in electoral laws that it deemed blasphemous.

Party supporters also blocked the main road into Islamabad for nearly three weeks last year in a protest against a law minister they accused of blasphemy.

The government eventually gave in, agreeing to an army-brokered deal that included the resignation of the minister.

Khan’s father, Iqbal Khan, expressed satisfaction about the verdicts.

“I appreciate the court decision,” he told reporters in London in remarks broadcast live by Pakistan’s Geo TV.

Asked about the acquittals, the father said: “I will continue my struggle.”

Khan is visiting London to talk at various forums about his son’s case and the blasphemy law.

Khan’s family say they have been threatened since his death and his two sisters have had to drop out of school. Police guard his grave.

(Writing by Asif Shahzad; Editing by Robert Birsel)