The United Nation voiced alarm Tuesday at growing attacks on journalists and activists in Pakistan, often amid cries of blasphemy, urging Islamabad to protect those facing threats and probe any violence.
The UN rights office said it was growing increasingly concerned at numerous instances of incitement to violence, both online and off, particularly against women and minority journalists and activists, as well as physical attacks.
It pointed to the case of journalist Shaheena Shaheen, who was shot dead last Saturday by unidentified men in Balochistan’s Kech district.
And last year, four journalists and bloggers were killed in Pakistan in connection with their reporting, including Arooj Iqbal, a woman who was shot dead in Lahore as she tried to launch her own local newspaper.
“In the vast majority of such cases, those responsible have not been investigated, prosecuted and held to account,” rights office spokesman Rupert Colville told reporters in Geneva.
He pointed out that women journalists in Pakistan last month had warned of a “coordinated campaign” of social media attacks against anyone who was critical of government policies.
He stressed that accusations of blasphemy were “especially worrying”, pointing out that they “can put accused individuals at imminent risk of violence”.
Colville said the rights office had raised its concerns directly with the Pakistani government and had urged it to take “immediate, concrete steps to ensure the protection of journalists and human rights defenders who have been subjected to threats.”
“We also stress the need for prompt, effective, thorough and impartial investigations with a view to ensuring accountability in cases of violence and killings,” he said.
The UN rights office had also called on the Pakistani leadership to “unequivocally condemn incitement to violence against religious minorities”, he said, as well as “what appears to be an increase in the use of blasphemy laws for personal or political score-settling”.
Baloch separatists opened fire and hurled a grenade at the Pakistan Stock Exchange in Karachi Monday, authorities said, killing four people including a policeman.
Three security guards were killed in the melee, while local police chief Ghulam Nabi Memon said all four assailants were shot dead.
“Police have recovered modern automatic weapons and explosive materials from the terrorists,” Karachi police said in a statement.
The city’s police force had earlier said six people died in the firefight but later revised the figure. A Karachi hospital where the bodies were taken confirmed the new death toll.
Pakistan’s military praised the swift response of the city’s security forces, while the Karachi police released a video of one member from a provincial security unit describing the firefight.
“I shot one of them dead…. The second guy saw me and… he took out a grenade. I shot him twice in his hand and his weapon fell down. I then shot him in the head as he tried to pull out the grenade pin,” said Mohammad Rafiq, a member of an elite provincial rapid response team.
The video of the officer was shared widely online, with social media users calling Rafiq a hero.
The Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) claimed responsibility in a message sent to AFP, saying an elite unit of fighters had carried out the assault.
The separatists have launched a string of high-profile attacks across the country in recent years — including in the southern port city.
The BLA is one of several insurgent groups fighting primarily in Pakistan’s southwestern Balochistan province, which has been rocked by separatist, Islamist and sectarian violence for years.
The group has targeted infrastructure projects and Chinese workers in Pakistan multiple times in recent years, including a brazen daylight attack on Bejing’s consulate in Karachi that killed four people in 2018.
In May last year, the BLA attacked a luxury hotel near the Afghan border at Gwadar, where a port development is the flagship project of a multi-billion dollar national infrastructure project funded by China.
Last year, the US State Department designated the BLA as a global terrorist group, making it a crime for anyone in the United States to assist the militants and freezing any US assets they may have.
Following Monday’s attack Pakistani authorities vowed to strike back against any group found responsible for the onslaught, promising to dismantle their networks and destroy their bases.
“An investigation has been launched and very soon we will reach their masterminds,” interior minister Ijaz Ahmad Shah said in a video message posted after the attack.
Business continued as usual at the Karachi stock exchange after the attack.
“Trading is smooth and continuing. PSX benchmark index one of the Best Performer in Asia today so far,” tweeted Mohammed Sohail, a broker at the exchange.
For a while after the attack the bodies of at least two gunmen could be seen in a pool of blood near the exchange’s entrance.
Karachi was once a hotspot for crime and violence, with heavily armed groups linked to politicians frequently gunning down opponents and launching attacks on residential areas.
But the situation has largely stabilised in recent years following operations by security agencies against armed political outfits and Islamist militants.
Militant groups still retain the ability to launch periodic attacks in many rural areas and occasionally in urban centres.
Monday’s attack comes more than a week after a grenade was thrown at a line of people waiting outside a government welfare office in the city, killing one and injuring eight others, according to a statement from municipal authorities.
India told Pakistan on Tuesday to slash its embassy staff in New Delhi by half — saying it would do the same in Islamabad — as a diplomatic spat continued between the nuclear-armed rivals.
The fractious relationship between the neighbours has worsened since New Delhi expelled two Pakistan embassy officials over spying claims in late May.
After that, New Delhi accused Islamabad of torturing two Indian diplomats arrested following an alleged hit-and-run in the Pakistani capital.
The men returned to India on Monday, where they “provided graphic details of the barbaric treatment that they experienced”, the foreign ministry claimed.
“The behaviour of Pakistan and its officials is not in conformity with the Vienna Convention and bilateral agreements on the treatment of diplomatic and consular officials,” the ministry said in a statement.
“Therefore, the government of India has taken the decision to reduce the staff strength in the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi by 50 per cent.”
The ministry said it would also “reciprocally reduce its own presence in Islamabad to the same proportion”.
Pakistan’s foreign ministry said it “completely dismisses” allegations its staff in New Delhi had violated any diplomatic conventions.
“Pakistan also rejects the insinuations of intimidation of Indian High Commission officials in Islamabad,” a Pakistan ministry statement read.
“The Indian government’s smear campaign against Pakistan cannot obfuscate the illegal activities in which the Indian High Commission officials were found involved in,” the statement added — an apparent reference to a June 16 traffic incident in Islamabad that two Indian officials allegedly fled.
The Pakistan statement said it was Islamabad — and not New Delhi — that had ordered the reciprocal 50 per cent reduction to the Indian diplomatic presence in the Pakistan capital.
Both countries said the staffing cuts must be made within seven days.
The Pakistan high commission in New Delhi was allowed up to have up to 106 personnel, but in recent months Islamabad reduced staff levels to about 80, diplomatic sources told AFP.
Tensions were already high after India in August scrapped Muslim-majority region Kashmir’s semi-autonomous status and imposed a major security clampdown.
Kashmir was split between India and Pakistan in 1947 when they gained independence from Britain but is claimed by both.
Indian government forces have also been conducting numerous counter-insurgency operations in Kashmir since a nationwide virus lockdown was imposed in late March, killing dozens of alleged militants.
New Delhi regularly blames Islamabad for arming and training rebels before sending them across the border into Indian-administered Kashmir. Pakistan denies the charges.
The World Health Organization has told Pakistan it should implement “intermittent” lockdowns to counter a surge in coronavirus infections that has come as the country loosens restrictions, officials said.
Since the start of Pakistan’s outbreak in March, Prime Minister Imran Khan opposed a nationwide lockdown of the sort seen elsewhere, arguing the impoverished country could not afford it.
Instead, Pakistan’s four provinces ordered a patchwork of closures, but last week Khan said most of these restrictions would be lifted.
Health officials on Wednesday declared a record number of new cases in the past 24 hours. The country has now confirmed a total of more than 113,000 cases and 2,200 deaths — though with testing still limited, real rates are thought to be much higher.
“As of today, Pakistan does not meet any of the pre-requisite conditions for opening the lockdown”, the WHO said in a letter confirmed by Pakistan officials on Tuesday.
Many people have not adopted behavioural changes such as social distancing and frequent hand-washing, meaning “difficult” decisions will be required including “intermittent lockdowns” in targeted areas, the letter states.
Some 25 percent of tests in Pakistan come back positive for COVID-19, the WHO said, indicating high levels of infection in the general population.
The health body recommended an intermittent lockdown cycle of two weeks on, two weeks off.
Responding to the WHO’s letter, Zafar Mirza, the prime minister’s special advisor for health, said the country had “consciously but gradually” eased lockdowns while enforcing guidelines in shops, mosques and public transport.
“We have to make tough policy choices to strike a balance between lives and livelihoods,” Mirza said Wednesday.
Punjab’s provincial health minister Yasmin Rashid, who received the WHO’s letter, said the provincial government had already given “orders to take strict action against those violating” virus guidelines.
Hospitals across Pakistan say they are at or near capacity, and some are turning COVID-19 patients away.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Monday that 136,000 cases had been reported in the previous 24 hours, “the most in a single day so far”, with the majority of them in South Asia and the Americas.
A Pakistani passenger plane with nearly 100 people on board crashed into a residential area of the southern city of Karachi on Friday.
The Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) plane was close to landing when it came down among houses, sending plumes of smoke into the air that could be seen from some distance away.
Rescue workers and local residents pulled people from the debris, as firefighters tried to put out the flames.
“I heard a big bang and woke up to people calling for the fire brigade,” said Karachi resident Mudassar Ali.
PIA spokesman Abdullah Hafeez said there were 91 passengers and seven crew on board the flight, which lost contact with air traffic control just after 2.30pm (0930 GMT).
“It is too early to comment on the cause of the crash,” he said.
Abdul Sattar Khokhar, of the country’s aviation authority, said the Airbus A320 was travelling from Lahore to Karachi.
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said he was “shocked and saddened” by the crash, tweeting that he was in touch with the state airline’s chief executive.
“Prayers & condolences go to families of the deceased,” said Khan.
Foreign minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said the plane crashed into a residential area minutes before it was due to land.
The disaster comes as Pakistanis across the country are preparing to celebrate the end of Ramadan and the beginning of Eid al-Fitr, with many travelling back to their homes in cities and villages.
The Pakistan military said security forces had been deployed to the area and helicopters were being used to survey the damage and help ongoing rescue operations while offering condolences over the “loss of precious lives” in the incident.
Commercial flights resumed only days ago after planes were grounded during a lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic.
Pakistan has a chequered military and civilian aviation safety record, with frequent plane and helicopter crashes over the years.
In 2016, a Pakistan International Airlines plane burst into flames after one of its two turboprop engines failed while flying from the remote north to Islamabad, killing more than 40 people.
The deadliest air disaster on Pakistani soil was in 2010 when an Airbus A321 operated by private airline Airblue and flying from Karachi crashed into the hills outside Islamabad as it came into land, killing all 152 people on board.
An official report blamed the accident on a confused captain and a hostile cockpit atmosphere.
PIA, one of the world’s leading airlines until the 1970s, now suffers from a sinking reputation due to frequent cancellations, delays and financial troubles. It has been involved in numerous controversies over the years, including the jailing of a drunk pilot in Britain in 2013.
Dozens of Pakistani doctors and nurses have launched a hunger strike demanding adequate protective equipment for frontline staff treating coronavirus patients, the lead organiser of the protest said Saturday.
Health workers have complained for weeks that the country’s hospitals are suffering chronic shortages of safety gear, prompting the arrest of more than 50 doctors who called for more supplies in the city of Quetta earlier this month.
Frontline staff have been left vulnerable, with more than 150 medical workers testing positive for the virus nationwide, according to the Young Doctors’ Association (YDA) in worst-hit Punjab province.
The protesters have kept working in their hospitals while taking turns to demonstrate outside the health authority offices in provincial capital Lahore.
“We do not intend on stopping until the government listens to our demands. They have been consistently refusing to adhere to our demands,” said doctor Salman Haseeb.
Haseeb heads the province’s Grand Health Alliance, which is organising the protest, and he said he had not eaten since April 16.
“We are on the frontline of this virus and if we are not protected then the whole population is at risk,” he told AFP.
The alliance said about 30 doctors and nurses were on hunger strike, with up to 200 medical staff joining them each day for demonstrations.
Punjab’s health worker union are supporting the alliance and also demanding adequate quarantine conditions for medical staff.
Nearly three dozen doctors, nurses and paramedics contracted the virus in one hospital in the city of Multan, while seven members of a doctor’s family were infected in Lahore, it added.
“We are simply demanding justice for our community,” said doctor and YDA chairman Khizer Hayat.
Hospital staff would not escalate their protest by walking off the job, he added.
Provincial health department officials told AFP that hospitals had now been provided with adequate protection gear after an earlier “backlog” was resolved.
Earlier this month the Punjab government announced that frontline workers will be awarded a pay bonus and life insurance.
Almost half of the nearly 12,000 confirmed COVID-19 infections across Pakistan have been recorded in Punjab.
The number of infections in the country is believed to be far higher because of a lack of testing in the impoverished country of 215 million.
The Islamic holy month of Ramadan officially began in Pakistan on Saturday, with concerns that the light restrictions imposed on mosque gatherings will not stop a potentially rapid spread of the virus.
Frontline medical workers across the world have been grappling with short supplies of vital safety equipment since the start of the pandemic.
Pakistan has quarantined 20,000 worshippers and is still searching for tens of thousands more who attended an Islamic gathering in Lahore last month despite the worsening coronavirus pandemic, officials said Sunday.
Authorities said they want to test or quarantine those who congregated at the event held by the Tablighi Jamaat — an Islamic missionary movement — between March 10-12 over fears they are now spreading COVID-19 across Pakistan and overseas.
More than 100,000 people went to the meeting, organisers said, undeterred by government requests for it to be cancelled as the virus hit the country.
In northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, authorities have so far quarantined 5,300 Tablighis or Islamic preachers who attended the Lahore meeting.
“Health officials are conducting tests for coronavirus and some of them have tested positive,” Ajmal Wazir, a spokesperson for the region, told AFP on Sunday.
Wazir said thousands of Tablighis from his province were stranded in other regions because of the closure of major highways across the country.
About 7,000 have been quarantined in the central Punjab city Lahore, while in southern Sindh province up to 8,000 Tablighis have been quarantined, government officials said.
Dozens more have been forced to self-isolate in southwestern Balochistan province.
A Kashmiri villager faked his death and travelled more than a hundred miles in an ambulance with four others in a desperate bid to circumvent India’s virus lockdown and return home, police said Wednesday.
Hakim Din was being treated for a minor head injury at a hospital in Jammu when an ambulance driver suggested the 70-year-old fake his death to get past checkpoints, police said.
Din and three other men wanted to return to Poonch, a far-flung region in Indian-administered Kashmir close to the de facto border with Pakistan.
The region’s Superintendent of Police, Ramesh Angral, said the four men and the driver travelled more than 160 kilometres (100 miles) in the ambulance, passing many checkpoints using a fake death certificate from the hospital.
“The ambulance was stopped at the last checkpoint before they could reach home,” Angral told AFP.
“A policeman there immediately figured out that the man lying covered inside the ambulance could not be dead.”
“Most of the people have returned to their homes but still tens of thousands of people are here. They will return today,” one of the event’s organisers Ehsanullah, who goes by one name, told AFP on Friday.
Pakistan has only recorded 21 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and no deaths, but officials have tested fewer than 500 potential cases in the country of about 215 million, where health care is frequently inadequate.
Many countries are advising against large gatherings in a bid to slow the spread of the highly communicable virus. Some nations — like France and Italy — have banned them altogether.
The federal government has yet to enforce nationwide measures to contain a possible outbreak, leaving provinces to act independently. Organisers of the Tablighi Ijtema were free to ignore government advice to postpone.
“The government asked us to cancel the gathering because of the coronavirus, but our elders and organisers decided that the gathering will proceed as planned,” Ehsanullah said.
The movement was founded by religious scholars more than five decades ago and focuses exclusively on preaching Islam.
It usually sees hundreds of camps and sub-camps set up on a dusty site outside Lahore to accommodate people from across Pakistan, giving the gathering a festival feel.
Schools in three of Pakistan’s four provinces are closed for March and authorities are conducting basic screenings of passengers arriving by air from overseas.
Prime Minister Imran Khan was set to meet with his national security team later Friday to discuss the global coronavirus crisis.
Pakistan is closing one of its two border crossings with Afghanistan for a week to prevent the spread of coronavirus, officials said Sunday.
The announcement comes a day after Pakistan detected two new cases of the virus bringing the total number of infected patients to four.
Officials said the Chaman/Spinboldak crossing point would close from Monday, but the second point at Torkhum in the northwest would remain open.
Pakistan is sandwiched between China and Iran — which are both fighting major outbreaks — sparking fears about the country’s ability to cope with an epidemic of its own.
The country has suspended all flights to Iran and closed land borders.
Pakistan and Afghanistan are divided by the “Durand Line”, a 2,400-kilometre (1,500-mile) frontier with Villages straddling the border and mosques and houses having one door in Pakistan and another in Afghanistan.
The virus has now killed more than 2,900 people and infected over 83,000 worldwide, with an increasing number of new cases being reported each day.