Govt focuses on Media, Opposition politicians & Kashmir not Coronavirus

The world over governments are focusing on how to tackle the coronavirus issue and ensure that their populations recover soon. Pakistan deep state, however, continues its obsession with going after opposition politicians and seeking global focus for Kashmir and Iran.

On March 26, 2020, there was a videoconference of G-20 to discuss how to ensure a global response to combat coronavirus. According to Foreign Office spokesperson, “The Pakistan government in its diplomatic outreach on the Covid-19 pandemic had essentially focused on three messages — the need for providing relief in repayment of loans and economic assistance to developing countries so that they could focus on dealing with the pandemic; removal of US sanctions on Iran that were impeding its fight against the Covid-19 pandemic, being the worst-affected country in the Middle East; and lifting of lockdown and communications blockade imposed by Indian occupation forces on Occupied Kashmir.” While we should, as a nation, be sympathetic to our Kashmiri brethren, this is not the time to play politics!

This message was also reiterated through letters and phone calls. “Letters were written to the five permanent members of the UN Security Council and these messages were also underscored during Mr Qureshi’s telephonic conversations with counterparts in Bangladesh, Iran, the Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan, Turkey, Germany, Spain and France over the past few days.”   

On the domestic front, the target remains media and opposition politicians. On March 12, Mir Shakil ur Rahman, Chief Executive Officer of Pakistan’s biggest media house Jang and Geo TV Group was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) on charges of illegal purchase of a piece of land some 34 years ago.

On March 27, 2020, NAB named former petroleum minister and former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi “in a reference for allegedly appointing Sheikh Imranul Haq as the managing director of Pakistan State Oil (PSO) “in sheer violation of rules and regulations”.A statement released by NAB’s Karachi chapter on Friday said that non-bailable arrest warrants have been issued for the former prime minister as well as former petroleum secretary Arshad Mirza, who is also named in the reference.”

As noted by former Chief Minister of Punjab and PML-N president, Shehbaz Sharif “instead of fighting against the coronavirus, NAB-Niazi are busy fighting the media and opposition. On one hand, prisoners are being released and on the other hand, those who served the nation are beig arrested,” Sharif said, adding that it was “not the time for political shows”. “[Governments in] the entire world are united to save their people. In Pakistan, the government’s priority is to send media and opposition members in jail.”

Naya Pakistan waffles on Covid lockdown- Updated

The Covid19 Pandemic has hit every country, including Pakistan. As of March 27, 2020, there were almost 1363 confirmed cases in Pakistan with almost 440 cases in Sindh, 490 in Punjab, 180 in KPK, 133 in Balochistan, 93 in AJK/GB and 27 in Islamabad. There have also been 11 deaths to date.

For weeks the government led by PM Imran Khan did not take the pandemic seriously. On Sunday March 22, Prime Minister Khan seemed unsure he wanted to go for a lockdown. In a televised address he said “Twenty-five percent of Pakistanis are below the poverty line … today if I impose a complete lockdown then … my country’s rickshaw drivers, pushcart vendors, taxi drivers, small shopkeepers, daily wage earners, all of them will be shut in their homes. If Pakistan had the resources that Italy has, that France has, that the US has, that England has, I would fully lock down all of Pakistan today.”

Yet, 24 hours later on Monday March 23, 2020 the country moved to a nation-wide lockdown till. March According to news reports “On Monday, a full lockdown went into effect in the southern city of Karachi, home to more than 20 million people, while Punjab province – home to almost half of Pakistan’s 207 million people – also announced widespread restrictions on public movement. The government in both areas has restricted people to their homes, other than to access essential services such as groceries, pharmacies or medical care, according to a government announcement.”

Further, Educational institutions have been closed till May 31, motorways are closed for transport and all of PIA (Pakistan International Airlines) domestic and special flights have been suspended.

After a meeting of the National Coordination Committee (NCC) over COVID-19, during a press conference on March 27, 2020, the Prime Minister, however, announced that the government would “ensure uninterrupted supply of essential goods.“This is a difficult balance. At one hand, we have coronavirus which can spread, and on the other, we have to ensure that our people do not die of hunger,” he remarked, adding the movement of goods’ transport and the running of food industry would help check the problem. The prime minister also announced the launching of a special youth force namely the “Corona Relief Tigers” to tackle the situation arising out of COVID-19 and said the registration for joining the force would start from March 31.”

Human Rights Organizations & Defenders: Protect the prison populace during Covid

While governments the world over are trying to deal with the pandemic, Covid, human rights defenders are also seeking their help to protect a populace that is normally ignored or forgotten: the prison populace.

On Monday March 23, 2020, Pakistan-based leading human rights organizations and defenders – Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), Human Rights Watch (HRW), Foundation for Fundamental Rights (FFR), Justice Project Pakistan (JPP), AGHS, Public Lawyers Front (PLF), Defence of Human Rights (DHR), Legal Aid Society, Free Legal Aid Society For the Helpless (FLASH), Members of Permanent Faculty, Shaikh Ahmad School of Law, LUMS and Vice Chairman of Pakistan Bar Council, released a joint statement seeking the protection of prison populations of Pakistan.

“We, the undersigned human rights organisations and human rights defenders, request rapid action to ensure that inmates and staff of Pakistani prisons are provided adequate protection as cases of Covid-19 continue to increase across the country. As noted in a recent order issued by the Honourable Chief Justice Athar Minallah of the Islamabad High Court, “the confined space of a prison makes it virtually impossible to implement the policy of social distancing. The prisoners are vulnerable and exposed to suffer irreparably in case of an outbreak. Prisons, which are overcrowded, have high turnover and intolerable living conditions, could potentially become epicentres for outbreak of the deadly virus” The unhygienic and overall poor condition of prisons in this country has been extensively documented. A commission report earlier this year showed that contagious and chronic infections such as HIV, hepatitis and tuberculosis are already rampant within the prison populations. Additionally, prisons across the country are filled well beyond their capacity and of the current inmate population of more than 77,275 people, more than half are still awaiting trial and are in jail for crimes for which they have not yet been convicted. In light of the gravity of risks posed to prisoners and the wider population, the Islamabad High Court ordered, “under-trial prisoners alleged to have committed offences falling within the ambit of the non-prohibitory clause are admitted to bail.” It also noted that elderly prisoners and those who suffer pre-existing health conditions should also be considered for release. In light of the extraordinary duty of care that the government owes to prison inmates and to the population at large to reduce the impact of coronavirus and enable everyone to seek to implement measures for isolation and care within their own homes, we call upon the Federal and Provincial governments to consider the following demands:

1. The governments should urgently release persons who should not be in custody in any case – including those detained for peaceful exercise of their fundamental rights to speech, assembly or any other right granted under the Constitution of Pakistan, 1973 and International human rights instruments.

2. All prisoners, including under-trial and convicted, whose offences fall within the ambit of the non-prohibitory clauses should be released immediately.

3. Pre-trial and under-trial detainees who pose no imminent threat to public security and this particularly includes those whose trials are delayed on account of the coronavirus outbreak, should be released.

4. Detained asylum seekers and migrant children should be freed.

5. In cases where the Provincial Governments are empowered under the Pakistan Prison Rules, 1978 and Section 401 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to suspend sentences, those who have served a significant portion of their sentences and are not considered to pose a threat to public safety should be considered for release.

6. Those in prisons with underlying health conditions or those above the age of 55 who are not considered to pose a threat to public safety, should also be released, since they are particularly vulnerable to the virus.

7. Female inmates who do not fall within the categories above but who have minor children requiring care during this public health emergency, should be accorded suspensions or commutations where there is no reason to believe that their release will imperil public safety.

8. The Federal and Provincial governments must work through the Inspectorate General of Prisons to identify inmates who fall within the above-mentioned categories so that detainees should not have to file individual applications. This will avert a catastrophic burdening of the court system.

9. Prior to release, all persons should be given a health screening and provided the means to return to their homes and abide further health and public safety advisories. The government must demonstrate cognisance of the fact that these are extraordinary circumstances and that people must have the means to survive without employment for some period of time.

Lastly, we would urge that the Federal and all Provincial governments make their plans to reduce the risk of coronavirus within their facilities public. There also needs to be a comprehensive plan in place to protect the staff, prisoners and visitors to detention facilities.”

Human Rights Watchdog warns: Pakistan must protect its most vulnerable during Covid

The Covid19 global health crisis will have a colossal impact on the health and livelihoods of ordinary Pakistanis.

According to The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) “the government take the following rights-based economic measures without delay. The government must invest in providing protective gear to medical staff dealing with the emergency across the country. All COVID-19 testing must be nationalised and made available free of cost. A debt moratorium should be declared for at least six months and the State Bank’s monetary policy reviewed such that discount rates are cut. Small businesses must be given non-collateralised credit support, while enterprises should be given tax breaks conditioned on their retaining staff. In addition to existing beneficiaries, the Ehsaas and Benazir Income Support Programmes must be used to reach daily-wage earners immediately to provide them with enhanced livelihood support. It is time to rethink national priorities such that people, not profits, shape the country’s economic system. The situation demands an immediate increase in allocations for health, low-income housing, and social safety nets in the federal and provincial budgets. HRCP also calls on all citizens to appreciate that Pakistan is facing a crisis, and to take all precautionary measures as advised by the government and medical practitioners.”

HRCP to Govt: Provide relief to daily wage workers impacted by COVID 19

The novel coronavirus (COVID19) has spread to all countries and at the last count Pakistan had over 200 cases. The response of most countries, based on the recommendations of health specialists, is social distancing, close schools, offices, shops and businesses and work from home. While this may be easy for white-collar workers, it is impossible for daily wage workers.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) issued a statement asking the government to protect “the poor and vulnerable, particularly on daily-wage labourers and workers who rely on the ‘gig economy’ to keep their households afloat.” As HRCP noted “It is not charity, but the responsibility of the state, to ensure food security and access to healthcare for all its citizens.”  

As HRCP stated, “Even if saved from illness, low-income groups will still contend with acute food insecurity. The lack of adequate social safety nets, such as paid leave and medical benefits, means that the overwhelming majority of workers and their families are especially vulnerable in this crisis. HRCP is sorely disappointed with the economic policies of the incumbent government, which has failed to deliver for the majority population. It is time to shift priorities, from subsidising rich individuals and institutions in the name of stabilisation and growth, to putting the wellbeing of ordinary citizens at the centre of any policy planning. The Commission demands that immediate cash and food transfers be organised for the poor and for daily-wage earners, in addition to ensuring their access to free medical care in these testing times. HRCP also demands that health workers, who are at the frontlines of this emergency, be provided the protective gear they need to do their jobs safely and effectively.”