Pakistani Christian woman acquitted of blasphemy ‘secure’, out of jail

Supporters of Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal (MMA), a coalition of religious-political parties, hold flags and chant slogans as they attend a million march rally, after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, in Karachi, Pakistan November 8, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

By Asif Shahzad and Mubasher Bukhari

ISLAMABAD/LAHORE, Pakistan (Reuters) – A Pakistani Christian woman has been freed from prison a week after the Supreme Court overturned her conviction and death sentence for blasphemy against Islam, and she is at a secure location in the country, officials said on Thursday.

Officials dismissed some media reports that the woman, Asia Bibi, had been flown abroad, which would enrage hardline Islamists who have been protesting against her release and calling for her to be banned from leaving.

The release overnight of the mother of five prompted immediate anger from an Islamist party that has threatened to paralyze the country with street protests if her acquittal is not reversed.

Bibi, 53, was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 over allegations she made derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.

She always denied having committed blasphemy.

The case has outraged Christians worldwide, and Pope Francis met Bibi’s family this year, saying he prayed for her. Italy said on Tuesday it would try to help Bibi, who is Catholic, to leave Pakistan.

Pakistan’s foreign ministry denied reports that Bibi had left the country and pointed out that a review of the Supreme Court decision to free her was pending.

“Asia Bibi is completely secure at a safe place in Pakistan,” said ministry spokesman Mohammad Faisal.

“Her writ is in court, when that is decided, Asia Bibi can go anywhere she wants to, she is a free national … if she wants to go abroad, no harm in it.”

In Rome, the Catholic aid agency Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) said Bibi has been able to see her husband in an undisclosed location.

Their daughters were “close by” but had not yet seen their mother as of early afternoon, Pakistan time.

The agency, which arranged a meeting for Bibi’s husband and daughter with Pope Francis at the Vatican this year, said the family was awaiting visas but declined to disclose from which country for security reasons.

Insulting Islam’s Prophet Mohammad carries a mandatory death penalty in Pakistan, which is about 95 percent Muslim and has among the harshest blasphemy laws in the world.

No executions for blasphemy have been carried out in Pakistan but enraged mobs sometimes kill people accused of blasphemy.

Rights groups say the blasphemy law is exploited by hardliners as well as ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.

Christians make up about 2 percent of the population.

‘AGITATED’

Security officials told Reuters early on Thursday that Bibi had been released from a prison in Multan, a city in the south of Punjab province.

She was flown to Islamabad and was in protective custody because of threats to her life, said three officials, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Bibi’s lawyer, who has fled Pakistan and this week sought asylum in the Netherlands, confirmed she was no longer in prison.

“All I can tell you is that she has been released,” lawyer Saif-ul-Mulook told Reuters by phone from the Netherlands, where the government said on Thursday it had offered him temporary asylum.

A spokesman for the hard-line Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) party, which took to the streets after the Supreme Court ruling, said her release violated a deal with the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan to end the protests.

“The TLP activists are agitated as the government has breached the agreement with our party. The rulers have showed their dishonesty,” party spokesman Ejaz Ashrafi told Reuters.

Under the deal, the government said it would not block a petition to the Supreme Court to review Bibi’s acquittal in light of sharia, Islamic religious law, the TLP said.

It also said the government promised to work to ensure Bibi could not leave the country.

If the government allows Bibi to leave, it would likely face more paralyzing protests from the TLP and other Islamist parties.

(Reporting by Asif Shahzad and Saad Sayeed in ISLAMABAD, and Philip Pullella in ROME, Bart Meijer in AMSTERDAM; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Grant McCool, Robert Birsel)

Canada says safety of Pakistani woman in blasphemy case a ‘priority’

OTTAWA (Reuters) – Canada urged Pakistan on Tuesday to ensure the well-being of a Pakistani Christian woman whose life is in danger after having been acquitted in the South Asian country last month of blasphemy charges against Islam, a ruling that sparked mass protests.

The case of Asia Bibi, who spent eight years on death row in Pakistan before being released, has outraged Christians worldwide. Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, has appealed for help to Britain, Canada, Italy and the United States, and so far, Italy has said it would assist her.

“It’s a very important issue, a central priority for our government,” Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland, said of Bibi’s case after meeting her European Union counterpart, Federica Mogherini, in Montreal.

Bibi was convicted of blasphemy in 2010 after neighbors said she made derogatory remarks about Islam when they objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim. She is a Protestant and denies committing blasphemy.

“Canada calls on Pakistan to take all measures necessary to ensure the safety and security of Asia Bibi and her family,” Freeland said. “Canada is prepared to do everything we can” and is “extremely engaged in this issue,” Freeland said.

Islamists shut down roads in major cities in Pakistan during three days of demonstrations against Bibi’s acquittal. They have threatened to escalate the protests if she is permitted to leave the country. The government has indicated it will bar her from traveling abroad.

Bibi’s lawyer, Saiful Mulook, fled to the Netherlands earlier this week because of fears for the safety of his family.

(Reporting by Steve Scherer; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Lawyer of freed Christian woman leaves Pakistan a ‘prime target’

Saiful Mulook, lawyer of Christian woman Asia Bibi, addresses a news conference at the International Press Centre in The Hague, the Netherlands November 5, 2018. REUTERS/Eva Plevier

By Bart H. Meijer

THE HAGUE (Reuters) – The Pakistani lawyer who helped free a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy said on Monday he had been forced to flee to the Netherlands for his life, and has no idea where his client is.

Lawyer Saiful Mulook, who defended Asia Bibi in a case that has led to the assassination of two Pakistani politicians, said local United Nations staff had urged him to leave the country on Saturday following her acquittal last week.

“I was put on a plane against my wishes,” Mulook told reporters in The Hague. “I am not happy to be without her. I would have been much happier if I was in the same place as her. But everybody said I was a prime target.”

Mulook said he did not know whether Bibi had already been released from prison, or where she would want to seek asylum after being acquitted by the Supreme Court on Wednesday.

“Ask the people of the U.N.”, Mulook said. “They are not telling me, for security reasons.”

Bibi was convicted in 2010 for allegedly making derogatory remarks about Islam during an argument with her neighbors, and had been on death row since then.

The court’s decision to overturn the verdict led to violent protests throughout Pakistan by angry mobs calling for the judges in the case to be killed.

Several parties in the Dutch parliament have said they support providing temporary shelter to Bibi if she flees there.

Mulook said Italy had offered asylum to both Bibi and her family and his own family, but that they had not accepted the offer straightaway, as U.N. staff said they would make arrangements.

Islamists have shut down major cities in Pakistan through days of demonstrations against Bibi’s acquittal. They have said they would escalate the protests if she were permitted to leave the country. The government has indicated it will bar her from traveling abroad.

(Reporting by Anthony Deutsch; editing by David Stamp)

Pakistan shuts phone networks as Islamists protest over Christian woman

By Mubasher Bukhari and Saad Sayeed

LAHORE/ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan suspended mobile phone networks in major cities on Friday and many schools were closed as Islamist groups protested for a third day against the acquittal of a Christian woman facing the death penalty for blasphemy.

The Supreme Court on Wednesday overturned the conviction of Asia Bibi, a mother of five, and ordered her freed. She had been living on death row since 2010 after being convicted under Pakistan’s tough blasphemy laws.

The case outraged Christians worldwide and has been a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help Bibi were assassinated.

The Supreme Court decision enraged hardline Islamists, in particular, members of a group called the Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP), who have taken to the streets to call for the death of the judges who made the decision and the ouster of the government.

Authorities, including members of the main military security agency, held negotiations with the leader of the group late on Thursday but they came to no agreement, the TLP leader, Khadim Hussain Rizvi, said.

The spokesman for the military said the armed forces hoped the “matter is resolved without the disruption of peace”.

“Both sides should talk amongst themselves, and we should not reach the stage where this matter comes under the ambit of the armed forces,” he told state-run PTV channel.

On Friday, telephone networks were down in the capital, Islamabad, and the eastern city of Lahore, where pockets of TLP protesters blocked main roads.

“All services have been shut down by the government,” said a customer service representative at one of Pakistan’s main mobile phone companies, while declining to elaborate.

Authorities in Pakistan often shut down mobile phone networks in the hope of distrusting the organization of protests.

Schools across the most populous province of Punjab were closed.

In the commercial hub of Karachi in the south, normally bustling markets were shuttered.

A Reuters photographer saw about 100 protesters using stones, pieces of wood and motor-bikes to create a barricade across one main road.

Bibi’s whereabouts were not known on Friday. Her family has been in hiding this week.

(Reporting by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Pakistan Islamists protest for second day after Christian acquitted of blasphemy

Supporters of Jamiat Talaba Islam (JTI), student wing of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) hold signs as they chant slogans after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, during a protest in Karachi, Pakistan November 1, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

By Syed Raza Hassan

KARACHI, Pakistan (Reuters) – Islamist protesters blocked roads in Pakistan’s major cities for a second day on Thursday, opposing a Supreme Court decision the previous day to acquit a Christian woman on death row for blasphemy allegations, media said.

Knots of protesters from an ultra-Islamist party blocked roughly 10 key roads in the southern city of Karachi and others in eastern Lahore, Geo TV and other channels said. Private schools in both cites were shut, as well as in the capital.

Groups of about 200 protesters from the Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) party sat under large tents, listening to speeches on two blocked roads in Karachi, a Reuters witness said.

In one speech, a TLP speaker exhorted supporters to light new fires if the police managed to douse burning tires and other objects they had already set ablaze.

The demonstrators were protesting against the court’s decision to free Asia Bibi, a mother of four, who had been living on death row since 2010, as the first woman sentenced to death by hanging under Pakistan’s tough blasphemy laws.

Bibi was accused of making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim.

But a three-judge panel set up to hear the appeal, headed by Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, ruled the evidence was insufficient.

The case has divided Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help Bibi were assassinated, and outraged Christians worldwide, with Pope Francis saying he personally prayed for Bibi.

In a televised national broadcast late on Wednesday, Prime Minister Imran Khan warned the protesters the government would act against any prolonged blockade.

“We will not allow any damages. We will not allow traffic to be blocked,” Khan said. “I appeal to you, do not push the state to the extent that it is forced to take action.”

Khan’s broadcast followed comments by a senior leader of the Islamist TLP group, calling for Chief Justice Nisar and the other two judges to be killed.

“They all three deserve to be killed,” TLP co-founder Muhammad Afzal Qadri told a protest in Lahore. “Either their security, their driver, or their cook should kill them.”

He also called for the ouster of Khan’s new government and urged army officers to rise up against powerful military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

Hafiz Saeed, an influential Islamist whom the U.S. accuses of being the mastermind of attacks in Mumbai in 2008 that killed 166, has called for protests after Friday afternoon prayers.

Another Islamist group, the Milli Yakjehti Council, is also meeting on Thursday to discuss Bibi’s case and may launch protests.

The whereabouts of Bibi and her family are unclear, and speculation is growing that she will leave Pakistan with her family, who have been in hiding for much of the past eight years.

(Writnig by Drazen Jorgic; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Pakistani Christian woman’s blasphemy ordeal highlights plight of minorities

FILE PHOTO: The daughters of Pakistani Christian woman Asia Bibi pose with an image of their mother while standing outside their residence in Sheikhupura located in Pakistan's Punjab Province November 13, 2010. REUTERS/Adrees Latif/File Photo

By Asif Shahzad and Kay Johnson

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Until one sweltering day in 2009, Asia Bibi led a simple life with her husband and children in rural Pakistan. Hers was one of only three Christian families in her village but they’d never had much trouble from Muslim neighbors, relatives say.

“She was an innocent, loving and caring ordinary woman,” said Bibi’s brother-in-law, Joseph Nadeem. “She and her husband both were farm workers. They had five kids and a happy life.”

Then, a dispute over a cup of water with fellow field laborers led to Bibi being sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam. She spent eight years on death row before Pakistan’s Supreme Court overturned her conviction this week and ordered her freed.

Bibi’s ordeal has become symbolic of the difficulties that Pakistan’s tiny Christian population, only 2.6 percent of the country of 208 million, faces along with other religious minorities as hard-line Islamist movements grow stronger.

Her family is now in hiding for fear of attacks by Islamists angry at the ruling, and still waiting to be reunited with Bibi

“You know my two youngest daughters were below age of 10 when their mother went away … They don’t remember spending much time with her,” Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, told Reuters by telephone.

The family has four daughters and one son, he said.

“We are thankful to the court that it decided the case considering us human beings instead of any discrimination on the base of faith or religion.”

He said Bibi, who is about 50, has not been released from prison pending arrangements for her safety.

Thousands of members of a hardline Islamist party have blockaded roads for two days in major Pakistani cities to protest against the Supreme Court’s decision, even calling for the assassination of the judges who made the ruling.

“She can’t be safe here,” brother-in-law Nadeem said. “You know what’s going on outside. We want things to settle down before we go ahead for her release.”

Supporters of the religious party Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam - Fazal-ur Rehman (JUI-F) raise their hands as they chant slogans, after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, during a protest rally in Karachi, Pakistan November 1, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Supporters of the religious party Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam – Fazal-ur Rehman (JUI-F) raise their hands as they chant slogans, after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, during a protest rally in Karachi, Pakistan November 1, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

DISCRIMINATION

The rise of Islamist parties such as Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP), which has made “death to blasphemers” its main rallying cry, has many of Pakistan’s religious minorities worried.

Though the TLP gained no National Assembly seats in a general election this year, it won 2.2 million votes nationwide. The party’s fiery rhetoric also pulled much of the political discourse to the right in this deeply conservative country.

Pakistan is about 96 percent Sunni and Shi’ite Muslim, with Christians, Hindus and members the Ahmadi faith making up tiny minorities.

Christians in Pakistan are often targeted in attacks by militants, including a pre-Christmas suicide bomb attack last year on a Methodist church that killed more than 50 people in the southwestern city of Quetta. The attack was claimed by Islamic State’s local affiliate.

Christians are also frequent targets of discrimination and violence. In 2013, a mob burned down more than 125 Christian homes in a neighborhood of Lahore after rumors spread that a Christian resident had insulted the Prophet Mohammad.

Religious minorities are also far more likely to be charged with blasphemy than Muslims.

Despite their tiny percentage of the population, Christians, Hindus and Ahmadis made up half of the 1,549 cases of blasphemy filed over three decades through 2017, according to Peter Jacobs, the Christian head of the Centre for Social Justice, which compiled the numbers.

Pakistan’s constitution guarantees freedom of religion and – as the Supreme Court’s ruling Wednesday stressed – Islam’s holy Koran stresses tolerance and fighting injustice. The ruling said that evidence against Bibi was insufficient to convict her.

Bibi’s family says that for years, they lived side by side with Muslim neighbors in the village of Ikkawali, in the bread-basket province of Punjab.

“You know, the society we live in, we are often discriminated against as Christians but she was living a happy life,” said Nadeem.

‘ENEMY’

That all changed on June 14, 2009, when Bibi offered a cup of water to her Muslim fellow field workers. A woman refused, saying anything from the hand of a Christian was unclean, according to the Supreme Court ruling.

The incident led to harsh words and a police complaint several days later, then the court case that saw Bibi sentenced to death.

“Just sipping water from a mug made the whole village her enemy,” said Nadeem.

With Bibi soon to be free, her family is struggling to make plans. They would prefer to leave the country to be safe, but there are plans in place.

“We haven’t got any contact yet either from Pakistani authorities or anyone from outside,” Nadeem said.

Yet, despite all the family has been through, Bibi’s husband Masih said he would be sad to be forced to leave his homeland.

“We’re also part of Pakistan,” he said.

“This is our country. We love it.”

(Additional reporting by Mubasher Bukhari; Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Protests after Pakistan frees Christian woman sentenced to death over blasphemy

Supporters of religious and political party Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) hold their palms to pray in a protest, after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, in Karachi, Pakistan October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

By Asif Shahzad and Mubasher Bukhari

ISLAMABAD/LAHORE (Reuters) – Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Wednesday freed a Christian woman from a death sentence for blasphemy against Islam and overturned her conviction, sparking angry protests and death threats from an ultra-Islamist party and cheers from human rights advocates.

New Prime Minister Imran Khan issued a warning to the religious right late in the evening that any prolonged blockade of streets would be met with action.

Asia Bibi, a mother of four, had been living on death row since 2010, when she became the first woman to be sentenced to death by hanging under Pakistan’s draconian blasphemy laws, which critics say are too harsh and often misused.

She was condemned for allegedly making derogatory remarks about Islam after neighbors objected to her drinking water from their glass because she was not Muslim. Bibi has always denied committing blasphemy.

The case has outraged Christians worldwide – Pope Francis said he personally prayed for Bibi – and has been a source of division within Pakistan, where two politicians who sought to help Bibi were assassinated.

Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, who headed a special three-judge bench set up for the appeal, cited the Koran in the ruling, writing that “tolerance is the basic principle of Islam” and noting the religion condemns injustice and oppression.

In overturning her conviction, the ruling said the evidence against Bibi was insufficient.

Bibi did not appear in the courtroom and her whereabouts were a closely held secret for fear of attacks on her and her family. Many have speculated they will be forced to leave the country, but there was no confirmation of their plans.

Her lawyer called the court ruling “great news” for Pakistan.

“Asia Bibi has finally been served justice,” lawyer Saiful Mulook told Reuters. “Pakistan’s Supreme Court must be appreciated that it upheld the law of the land and didn’t succumb to any pressure.”

Supporters of the Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan Islamist political party block the Faizabad junction to protest after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, in Islamabad, Pakistan October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

Supporters of the Tehrik-e-Labaik Pakistan Islamist political party block the Faizabad junction to protest after the Supreme Court overturned the conviction of a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against Islam, in Islamabad, Pakistan October 31, 2018. REUTERS/Faisal Mahmood

DEATH THREATS

Supporters of Islamist political party Tehreek-e-Labaik (TLP) immediately condemned Wednesday’s ruling and blocked roads in major cities, pelting police with stones in the eastern city of Lahore.

Street protests and blockades of major roads were spreading by mid-afternoon, paralyzing parts of Islamabad, Lahore and other cities.

One of the TLP’s top leaders called for the death of Nisar, the chief justice, and the two other judges on the panel.

“They all three deserve to be killed. Either their security should kill them, their driver kill them, or their cook kill them,” TLP co-founder Muhammad Afzal Qadri told a protest in Lahore.

“Whoever, who has got any access to them, kill them before the evening.”

He also called for the ouster of Khan’s new government of and for army officers to rise up against powerful military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who he said “should be sacked from the army”.

Khan addressed the nation in a televised speech on Wednesday night, supporting the court ruling and warning the ultra-Islamists not to disrupt the nation.

“We will not allow any damages to occur. We will not allow traffic to be blocked,” Khan said. “I appeal to you, do not push the state to the extent that it is forced to take action.”

The TLP was founded out of a movement supporting a bodyguard who assassinated Punjab provincial governor Salman Taseer for advocating for Bibi in 2011. Federal minister for minorities Shahbaz Bhatti was also killed after calling for her release.

In November, TLP staged a crippling blockade of Islamabad after small changes to a religious oath taken by election candidates, which it said were tantamount to blasphemy. Seven people were killed and more than 200 wounded in clashes with the police and TLP’s supporters only dispersed after striking a deal with the military.

BLASPHEMY LAW CRITICIZED

In February, Bibi’s husband, Ashiq Masih, and one of her daughters met Pope Francis shortly before Rome’s ancient Coliseum was lit in red one evening in solidarity with persecuted Christians, and Bibi in particular.

The pope told Bibi’s daughter: “I think often of your mother and I pray for her.”

Christians make up only about 2 percent of Pakistan’s population and are often discriminated against.

Dozens of Pakistanis – including many minority Christians or members of the Ahmadi faith – have been sentenced to death for blasphemy in the past decade, though no one has been executed.

Rights groups say the blasphemy law is exploited by religious extremists as well as ordinary Pakistanis to settle personal scores.

Additionally, at least 65 people have been murdered over blasphemy allegations since 1990, including a 23-year-old student beaten to death on his university campus last year.

“This is a landmark verdict,” said Omar Waraich, deputy South Asia director for Amnesty International. “The message must go out that the blasphemy laws will no longer be used to persecute the country’s most vulnerable minorities.”

(Writing by Kay Johnson; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson)

Pompeo upbeat on ‘reset’ with Pakistan after meeting new PM Khan

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo waves to the media before his meeting with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry at the State Department in Washington, U.S., August 8, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas/File Photo

By Phil Stewart

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met new Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday, saying he was hopeful of “a reset of relations” long strained over the war in Afghanistan.

Pompeo’s visit, along with the U.S. chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, was the first high-level U.S. mission to the new government. It aimed to smooth over tensions after President Donald Trump took a tough new line towards Pakistan over longstanding accusations it is not doing enough to root out Afghan Taliban fighters on its territory.

Pompeo met with Khan as well as Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and the country’s powerful army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa.

“We talked about their new government, the opportunity to reset the relationship between our two countries across a broad spectrum,” including business ties and ending the war in Afghanistan, Pompeo told reporters before leaving for India.

“And I’m hopeful that the foundation that we laid today will set the conditions for continued success as we start to move forward.”

Khan, a former cricket star who swept to power in the July elections, also struck a positive tone.

“I’m a born optimist. A sportsman always is an optimist. He steps on the field and he thinks he’s going to win,” Khan told reporters.

FILE PHOTO: Pakistan's Prime Minister Imran Khan, speaks to the nation in his first televised address in Islamabad, Pakistan August 19, 2018. Press Information Department (PID)/Handout via REUTERS

FILE PHOTO: Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, speaks to the nation in his first televised address in Islamabad, Pakistan August 19, 2018. Press Information Department (PID)/Handout via REUTERS

AID CUTS

Pompeo expressed confidence in a new beginning in relations with nuclear-armed Pakistan, but conceded: “We’ve still got a long way to go.”

“We made clear to them that – and they agreed – it’s time for us to begin to deliver on our joint commitments,” Pompeo said, without specifically mentioning the Taliban.

The meetings come against a backdrop of tense ties and U.S. military aid cuts over Islamabad’s alleged reluctance to crack down on militants.

Washington has accused Islamabad of turning a blind eye to, or helping, Afghan Taliban and Haqqani network fighters who stage attacks in Afghanistan. Pakistan denies doing so.

Pompeo landed in Islamabad minutes after the plane carrying U.S. Marine General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Ahead of the talks, Dunford said Trump’s South Asia strategy set clear expectations for Pakistan, including help to drive the Taliban to a peace process in neighboring Afghanistan.

“Our bilateral relationship moving forward is very much going to be informed by the degree of cooperation we see from Pakistan in doing that,” he told reporters.

The United States has withheld $800 million in overall assistance this year, cuts Pakistan says are unwarranted as it incurs expenses in fighting militants who threaten U.S. troops in Afghanistan.

Pompeo was also expected to discuss Pakistan’s possible plans to seek a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to ease currency pressures and avert an economic crisis.

In July, Pompeo said there was “no rationale” for the IMF to give money to Pakistan that would then be used to pay off Chinese loans, comments that further rattled Islamabad.

INDIA NEXT

Pompeo is next due to visit India, Pakistan’s neighbor and bitter foe, where he is expected to put pressure on New Delhi over its purchases of Iranian oil and Russian missile systems.

He and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will meet their Indian counterparts in New Delhi on Thursday and are expected to finalize defense pacts that could bring their militaries closer amid growing Chinese influence across Asia.

The talks come as U.S. hostility rises towards India’s traditional allies Iran and Russia, targets of U.S. sanctions. Iran is a big oil supplier to India, and two-thirds of its military equipment is from Russia.

The United States is concerned about India’s planned purchase of S-400 surface-to-air missile systems from Moscow.

An Indian defense ministry official said the country had nearly concluded commercial negotiations with Russia for the systems and intended to proceed with them, to boost defenses against China.

India has said it will not completely halt oil imports from Iran, but will finalize its strategy on crude purchases after this week’s meeting with U.S. officials.

(Additional reporting by Drazen Jorgic in Islamabad and Krishna Das in India; Writing by Drazen Jorgic and Kay Johnson; Editing by Andrew Roche)

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)